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Research highlights alarming rates of sexual abuse among Indigenous Canadian children

May 31, 2023

A study led by Simon Fraser University criminology researchers has found that rates of child sexual abuse (CSA) among Indigenous Canadians surveyed were three to five times higher than global estimates, while those with parents or family members who attended residential schools are at significantly greater risk of experiencing CSA.

Content warning: mention of residential schools and sexual abuse. Resources for residential school survivors can be found here. Resources for sexual assault survivors and their loved ones can be found here.

SFU researchers Maaike Helmus and Ashley Kyne, whose research is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that according to the surveyed experiences of 282 Indigenous Canadians across the country, CSA was reported by 35 per cent of males, 50 per cent of females, and 57 per cent of transgender and gender non-conforming participants. 

The rates are drastically higher than global meta-analytic estimates which report that 7.6 per cent of boys and 18 per cent of girls on average experience sexual abuse as children. 

Their recommendations include the need for more trauma-informed services to address the lasting harms of colonization, in line with recommendations from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

“Child sexual abuse is a public health concern globally, but socioeconomic factors place some children at higher risk than others; our findings show that sexual abuse amongst Indigenous Canadian children is a significant public health crisis that requires immediate attention and considered action,” says Helmus, an assistant professor in SFU’s School of Criminology. 

“The long-lasting consequences of colonization have placed Indigenous Canadian children at greater risk of exploitation, with layers of marginalization such as gender and social class further exacerbating the risk.”

The researchers note that the nature of CSA can vary widely, as can impacts on survivors based on their age and resilience factors, with long-lasting effects leading to extensive and diverse complications. Long-term damages to victims may include physical health complications (such as chronic pain, high blood pressure and obesity), involvement in high-risk sexual behaviour, mental health complications (particularly, self-harm), and struggles with unemployment. 

Consequently, victims of CSA may also be at higher risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. 

The research further discovered that Indigenous Canadian children whose parents or extended family members attended residential schools are at a considerably greater risk of experiencing sexual abuse. 

According to Helmus and Kyne, there are many reasons this could be the case. For example, one explanation is because of the abused-abuser hypothesis, whereby Indigenous Canadians who formerly attended residential schools and experienced mistreatment as children themselves become more likely to abuse consequent generations, particularly within their own family, further perpetuating the intergenerational trauma generated by the residential school system. 

Other reasons could include residential schools interfering with the development of healthy parenting skills, which could leave subsequent generations more vulnerable to abuse by other individuals in the community, especially given increases in foster care placement of Indigenous children. 

While their study focused on the experiences of Indigenous Canadian children, the researchers say comparable patterns are likely to be found in the United States, Australia and New Zealand given the similar, lasting consequences of colonization in those nations. Although further research is needed, Helmus and Kyne suspect that the public health and criminal justice issues caused by colonization are similar across the four former British colonies. 

View their full research here