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Flowers on My Grave: How an Ojibwa Boy’s Death Helped Break the Silence on Child Abuse

by Ruth Teichroeb

Ruth Teichroeb covered the longest inquest in Manitoba history for the Winnipeg Free Press. When it was over, she still had questions about the suicide of 14-year-old Lester Desjarlais and many others like him. She wondered whether a white, middle-class, college-educated woman was qualified to write a book on the subject, but found she couldn’t just walk away from the pain she had witnessed and the courage of those who had testified. The result is Flowers on My Grave: How an Ojibwa Boy’s Death Helped Break the Silence on Child Abuse.
On the surface, the 1988 suicide of Lester Desjarlais was not unusual – in Manitoba that year, young natives were killing themselves at 10 times the rate of non-aboriginals. But a review of the case by the provincial medical examiner’s office – required under Manitoba law because Desjarlais had died while in the care of a provincial agency – revealed that the young native’s file had disappeared. Suspicion fell on a supervisor from Dakota Ojibway Child and Family Services, a white woman local band leaders had blamed for keeping Lester away from his mother and his community.
At the inquest, however, the supervisor testified – to nods of agreement from a group of native women present – that the band leaders had continually frustrated her attempts to protect children from sexual predators. Clearly there was more to the case than one misguided supervisor, or one bad uncle, and the judge decided to adjourn the inquest and broaden its scope. Like the inquest, Flowers on My Grave attempts not only to examine Lester’s death, but to place it in context.
And what a context. Teichroeb provides a useful overview of Canada’s attempts to eradicate aboriginal culture, which respected women’s participation in government and rejected corporal punishment for children. After more than a century of abuse through the reserve system, residential schools, and the child welfare system, not to mention widespread substance abuse among its victims, governments have now been trying to hand back responsibility to a traumatized native population, without re-enfranchising its women. This has created a drastic imbalance.
The physical and sexual abuse of children is an issue that affects all of Canada, affluent urban neighbourhoods as well as remote native communities. A society that fails to protects its children has no future. How we came to such a pass, and what to do about it now, is everybody’s concern.