A teenage girl pressured by family members to drop sexual assault charges against her cousin told an NWT court she “feels like nothing, like dirt.”
In an impact statement read by Crown prosecutor Jacqueline Halliburn in Supreme Court on Monday, the girl said: “Family won’t even look at me or talk to me. They shut me out … because I wouldn’t let the charges drop.”
The statement continued: “I used to spend a lot of time with my family, but I feel I lost that. It’s been really hard – all because I wouldn’t drop the charges.
“I had to give up on having friends because I did not want to go out with them at all. I feel very isolated.”
The girl said she has trouble sleeping and has nightmares when she does.
She has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She lost wages at work and had to turn down jobs because of having to be at court proceedings to testify.
Underlining the devastating impact of sexual assault on people’s lives, the girl said she ultimately abandoned plans to go to post-secondary school in Alberta.
“I don’t feel comfortable hugging anyone any more because of what happened. It feels like a window is closing in when I hug someone and I can’t breathe. I feel like I can’t trust anyone,” the statement read.
“He ruined my life … it’s hard to find motivation to do what I wanted to do because it would involve people, and I’m afraid of people. So what can I do?”
Mother struggles to help daughter
The identities of the girl and her family are protected. She lives in a small NWT community.
Her mother, in a separate statement, said the sexual assault had a dramatically negative impact on her once-joyful daughter. The mother likened the girl to a hermit in her room following the attack.
The lack of professional resources in their small community left the mother wondering how she can help her daughter.
“I am not a counsellor. I don’t want to push her, but this is not normal,” the mother said. “Our home is now always locked. As soon as [my daughter] comes home, she locks the door.
“This is not how we lived before all this happened. [She] will only go out if she is in my company.”
The testimony came as the Status of Women Council of the NWT released a report calling for an urgent increase in collaboration between service providers that help women facing violence.
“It’s amazing how much you’re on your own,” another woman told the report’s authors.
Warning: Below this point, this report contains details of a sexual assault as heard in court that readers may find disturbing.
The court heard the girl was at her home at the time of the attack, in 2017, looking after a younger relative while other family members were away.
Her male cousin, who was of a similar age, came over to keep her company. She had known her cousin for a long time but the two were not especially close.
Justice Louise Charbonneau described how the girl sat on the couch and the cousin began to tickle her. She tickled him back, “something they used to do when they were younger,” Charbonneau said.
The cousin then got on top of her and, pushing a hand under her clothing, sexually assaulted her.
The girl told the court she had tried to push him away.
“She tried to get him to stop by telling him she had a boyfriend, even though that was not true,” said Charbonneau, summarizing.
“She told him she did not want to do this. She used the words, ‘stop,’ ‘I don’t want to do this,’ and ‘please.’
“He did not respond.”
The assault lasted for about 10 minutes.
She told her mother what had happened immediately upon her return and the accused was arrested a short while later.
After several delays, including an occasion on which the accused failed to appear at trial and another on which he assaulted his brother – for which he was charged and pleaded guilty – the cousin eventually faced trial.
When the accused saw the Crown’s case against him, he changed his plea to guilty.
“I find it very sad that some family members have ostracized [the girl], as this was not her fault,” said Charbonneau.
“She was the victim in all this. The fact that family members, instead of trying to support her … would shun her and pressure her to drop the charges is profoundly disturbing and shameful.”
Charbonneau said the accused’s guilty plea made plain that this “was not a false complaint.”
The cousin’s parents are residential school survivors. His father was violent toward his mother, resulting in the end of the relationship.
When asked if he had anything to say, the accused apologized. He also cannot be named under the terms of a publication ban designed to protect the girl’s identity.
“I sincerely and truly hope [the accused] understands the magnitude of the harm he has caused,” said the judge, who sided with the Crown’s recommendation of an 18-month sentence with three years’ probation.
Defence lawyer Jay Bran had asked for a sentence of 12 to 14 months.
The sentence includes counselling as directed by a probation officer, provision of a sample to the national DNA databank, entry in the federal sex offenders’ registry for 20 years, and no contact or communication with the girl while on probation.
He is also not to have contact with his brother unless he obtains consent to do so.