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Years of abuse in Nunavut group home went ignored, lawsuit alleges

WARNING: This story discusses the physical and sexual abuse of children.

On a dusty plot of land in the western Arctic community of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, sits a slightly out-of-place modern looking building full of government offices. 

Though Paul has lived his entire 50 or so years in the remote community of 1,500, he’s never been inside.

“It’s the only building I haven’t stepped foot in,” he told CBC News. “I won’t.”

Decades ago, long before the shiny new government building, this was the site of the Cambridge Bay group foster home, a place at the heart of a disturbing civil lawsuit between nine former residents of the home and the governments of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut and the Attorney General of Canada.

Modern office building on dirt.
A territorial government office now sits in the place where children once lived in a group foster home. (Getty Images)

Paul — not his real name — is one of eight plaintiffs who allege they were sexually assaulted and beaten for years while in the care of the couple who ran the home in the 1970s and ’80s. The couple, Walter and Annie Pokiak, are now dead. A separate plaintiff says she was later assaulted by a fellow resident while the home was operated by another couple.

Together they are suing the government of the Northwest Territories, which was responsible for the administration of the home, and the federal government who funded it, for $11 million in damages.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. 

The case was first filed in 2018 in the Nunavut Court or Justice. The plaintiffs, two men and seven women, lived in the home for various amounts of time from 1975 to 1993. 

Five years after filing the case, they’re still waiting for a resolution. 

Complaints ignored

Paul said he lived in the home for “about five or six years” around 1980 and suffered both sexual and physical abuse at the hands of the Pokiaks.

CBC spoke with five plaintiffs for this story and is using a pseudonym for Paul. That’s because a court order prohibits anyone from publishing the name of the plaintiffs, who were minors at the time of the alleged events.

Paul described how he was swept up into foster care while walking outside after midnight. At the time, he said, his parents were working at the DEW Line site and had left the two children in the care of siblings.

“There was this social worker vehicle, it was a van. [The social worker] put me in the back of one of the vehicles. I was about 11 or 12 years of age.”

Kids play hockey on a pond in front of a satellite dish.
Kids play hockey in from of the North Warning System, formerly the DEW Line site, in Cambridge Bay. (Jane George/CBC)

Paul said he remembers multiple occasions where he and the other residents made disclosures about the abuse to RCMP and local social workers. He even remembers a police officer coming to the home and interviewing the kids staying there. 

Paul was shocked to learn in 2023 that neither of the Pokiaks had any criminal charges related to their time running the group home. Walter Pokiak had been charged twice with assaulting his wife, but not until the 1990s.

In court documents, two other plaintiffs say they went to police but that “no action was taken … and the abuse continued.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Steven Cooper, says racism is at play in the way the young complainants were ignored. 

“They didn’t believe the young Indigenous complainants,” he said.

“If a non-Indigenous child had come forward with the types of complaints that we say some of our plaintiffs came forward with, they wouldn’t have been ignored as they were here.” 

Denial of abuse

The government of the Northwest Territories denies there was any abuse at the home. It filed a crossclaim saying that if it loses the case, the Attorney General of Canada, who it says was responsible for the welfare of Inuit children at the time, should be the one to pay any damages to the plaintiffs.

In its defence, the federal government is pointing the finger at the territorial government, saying it alone had jurisdiction over child welfare services in the region.

Sun over ice, snow.
A road runs along the edge of the community of about 1,700. (Karen McColl/CBC)

The plaintiffs, however, pin the blame on both governments. 

“We allege the federal government was carrying out its responsibilities by employing territorial government resources,” said Cooper.

In its statement of defence, the Attorney General of Canada said because the alleged abuse took place decades ago, any evidence that police were aware of it is gone.

“The RCMP has a policy of retaining certain documents for 20 years, and if these documents existed they have been destroyed,” court documents say. 

‘All I’m asking … is an apology’

All the plaintiffs CBC spoke with said they are disappointed and frustrated by the speed at which the lawsuit is moving. 

It’s been five years since the lawsuit was first filed. Emails obtained by CBC from Cooper to the plaintiffs show one of the nine plaintiffs has been offered a settlement by the territorial and federal governments. 

Cooper refused to comment on whether a settlement had been reached, but shared in the plaintiffs’ concerns.

“What’s frustrating, frankly, is the delay. Please get back to us faster. Please resolve these matters … I do believe we are being caught between the two levels of government,” he said.

“Governments exacerbate the problem when they don’t deal with the claims in a timely fashion. They victimize the plaintiffs … This group of abused victims all are entitled to settlement and they’re entitled to settlement now.”

Steam rising from boxy houses in winter light.
Steam rises from homes in Cambridge Bay. (Karen McColl/CBC)

The N.W.T. government refuses to comment on the case or any settlements that may have been reached. The federal government emailed a statement noting that “Canada, the provinces, territories and other administrators, must take appropriate steps to resolve litigation in order to bring a meaningful resolution to this painful legacy” of mistreating Indigenous children. 

Meanwhile, Paul doesn’t know what he will do with any money he may receive but said more than anything he wants to be able to put the lawsuit behind him.

“I have to drive by that building everyday. I have forgiven them, those people that did wrong to us but all I’m asking from the government is an apology.”


Support is available. If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.

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