Health Canada is sending rape kits to reserves in northern Ontario amid complaints from indigenous leaders that they lack the resources to properly investigate cases of sexual assault — a widespread problem in indigenous communities.
Only about 60 per cent of northern Ontario communities have the kits — a vital forensic tool for investigating assaults — despite Health Canada assurances to the contrary, said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.
Fiddler said Health Minister Jane Philpott, Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu were first made aware of his concerns in a Dec. 5 meeting about rampant sexual abuse in indigenous communities.
After issuing a statement saying the reserves were properly equipped, Health Canada surveyed 19 nursing stations and then dispatched the rape kits Friday after The Canadian Press began asking about Fiddler’s complaints.
"It is disheartening and disappointing to find out that they finally did this inventory," he said.
Sexual assault examination kits are used by medical personnel when examining victims in order to properly collect and deliver DNA evidence to a forensic laboratory, where testing can establish proof of the assault and the assailant’s identity.
The shortage of such kits has meant victims have had to be sent to hospitals in outlying areas such as Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay, Nishnawbe Aski police Chief Terry Armstrong said in an interview.
Timely investigation is critical in order to properly gather and preserve evidence of sexual assault, he added, warning that a shortage of kits could discourage victims from coming forward.
Armstrong, whose experience includes three decades spent policing in the North, said the prevalence of sexual abuse in Canadian indigenous communities is linked to residential schools, where children were emotionally, physically and sexually abused in church−run, government−funded institutions.
"(Now) you’ve got the abused becoming abusers," Armstrong said. "It is multi−generational."
Fiddler, who has drawn a direct link between abuse and the indigenous suicide crisis in northern Ontario, said response protocols need to be developed because girls as young as 11 and 12 are coming forward as victims.
Communities across Canada lack the resources to properly investigate sexual abuse, said NDP Ontario MP Charlie Angus — a problem that he said helps to fuel a cycle of violence against indigenous women.
"It starts in the reserves and ends up on the streets and until we start to put the resources there to support women and children who are at risk of sexual violence, the story of murdered and missing is going to go on and on," Angus said.
He took particular issue with the fact it appears to have taken a month for the federal government to take action.
"It was brought to the attention of three ministers of the Crown who have a directly responsibility for the health of indigenous women. They didn’t do anything."
In a statement earlier this week, Philpott’s office acknowledged the concerns that were raised during a meeting in December. The statement said Philpott instructed her team and department to explore the matter in order to better understand the concerns and the steps necessary to address them.