Where and when will the cycle of crime and punishment end? “Some want an eye for an eye, others just want to forget,” says Garnet Angeconeb, an Ojibway from Sioux Lookout and member of the Ottawa-based Aboriginal Healing Foundation, that is charged with dispensing $350 million that accompanied the federal government’s apology to Natives.
“Those who suffered sexual abuse are the ones who are still drinking, if they haven’t already fallen through the cracks. The anger is so varied. Everyone has their own approach to dealing with this horrible legacy,” he adds. Angeconeb was sexually assaulted at Pelican Lake Indian Residential School between 1966 and 1969, starting when he was 11 years old. “I just wanted to kill the bastard who did this to me,” he says between sips of coffee at the Thunder Bay airport. The 44-year-old explains that Phil Fontaine’s words helped him face his abusive past, but the precise moment he decided to step forward came one summer day when he opened the Toronto Star and read an article about young parishioners being abused. “I was sitting in a cottage outside Ottawa when I read this story and knew right away that it was him. I said ‘Holy sh–, he’s still at it.'”
For Angeconeb and his family, it was the start of a four-year process involving police statements, painfully slow legal judgments and a constant struggle to keep their lives intact. Angeconeb began by phoning his abuser, Leonard Hands (who, by then, was working in Kingston, Ont., as an Anglican priest), and suggested they enter a mediation process that would allow both of them to experience much-needed healing. “I was saying ‘Hey guy, you got a problem, deal with it’,” says Angeconeb. “He advised me to talk to his lawyer and then hung up. So I called him right back to tell him he’d be hearing from me, then slammed down the phone.” The battle lines were drawn. Angeconeb eventually came face-to-face with Hands in April of 1992. At that meeting, Hands brought his bishop and flatly denied all charges, then asked Angeconeb why he was “blackmailing” him and his family. “It was awful,” recalls Angeconeb. “I couldn’t believe that a man of the cloth would lie before his colleague.”
The confrontation proved to be little more than an exercise in frustration, one made doubly tense because Hands and his wife had, by this time, adopted two Native children. “But,” says Angeconeb, “he dug his own grave that day when he said to me, ‘Garnet, I would never have abused a kid as intelligent as you.'” A poor choice of words perhaps, but still a long way from a criminal conviction that would put Hands in jail. First came the lengthy investigation that saw the Ontario Provincial Police gather statements from people claiming to have been sexually abused by Hands – 20 came forward, and Angeconeb was not the first. That dreadful honour went to Brian Brisket, a fellow Native who would become a close friend of Angeconeb’s as a result of their shared ordeal.
As the legal process dragged on, Angeconeb sank in to despair in October of 1995, on a day when a heavy snowstorm blew through northern Ontario. “It was a horrible day. It was really bad,” recalls Angeconeb. He and his wife were on the verge of a separation. Neither spouse could handle the stress of pursuing the lawsuit and the terrible memories and anger it dredged up in Angeconeb. “I finally said goodbye and walked out,” recalls Angeconeb. “I was leaving home. I had had enough and left.” He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he got in his car and started to drive anyway. Fate stopped him in his tracks, exactly 56 kilometres outside his hometown of Sioux Lookout. “I came across a car accident. A head-on collision with three fatalities. One of them was a very good friend of mine,” says Angeconeb. “It was Brian. He was lying on the road…” The memory of that scene swallows Angeconeb in grief and he quietly weeps. After a few moments, he continues in a shaky voice: “I turned around and went home. But that was a real setback for me, because Brian never got to see the end of the legal process that he started.”
Brisket paid the ultimate price, while Angeconeb and the others spent four years seeking justice, only to hear a judge sentence Hands to the same number of years in Manitoba’s Stoney Mountain penitentiary. In light of such sentences, it’s little wonder that many victims who’ve gone the legal route feel cheated – even after they win in court. It’s especially tough for Natives, whose traditions dictate that justice be meted out in the form of shame rather than physical punishment or incarceration, and who are often uncomfortable seeking retribution within a European-based justice system. “There ain’t a hell of a lot that’s right with litigation,” says Dr. Maggie Hodgson, head of the Assembly of First Nations’ alternative dispute resolution team. “At no place does it spell humanity.”