When Freda Ens was nine years old, her mother – drunken, broke and broken – sold her to a man in a Prince Rupert bar. The price for one neglected and suffering girl child? One bottle of beer.
The man who ‘rescued’ Freda, took her home with him to Masset in the Queen Charlotte Islands – to a childhood of poverty, sexual abuse and virtual slavery.
From such adverse origins, she grew up to a triumph over racism and victimization; to become a powerful force within the criminal justice system. Freda Rosa Ens is now the executive director for the Vancouver Police and Native Liaison Society.
“I came to a place where I could let it destroy me or I could go on and fight,” she said. “I made a choice that I was going to come out the other end.”
Rejected by her mother, infant Freda arrived in Haida Gwai to be greeted with horror and more rejection. Malnourished and covered with sores, wrapped in a hotel towel, she frightened her purchaser’s wife, who feared she might die. Her ‘rescuer’ gave her away, to a woman who regarded her more as chattel than child. Freda grew up as the oldest of 10, with six sisters and three brothers. Drummed into her daily life was the idea that her destiny was to a domestic, a mere maid to the natural daughters of the family, who were Haida princesses.
“Don’t get me wrong. I was really very close to my sisters and brothers. And we’re still very close. But, growing up, I was never allowed to defend myself, like if I got into fights with my sisters or my brothers or my cousins or whatever.”
Yet even before Freda reached an age where she could be capable of defending herself, a nightmare ride of constant abuse began. She was but a diapered toddler when her ‘father’ sexually abused her for the first of countless times. She suffered beating, verbal bullying and the mental and emotional anguish of being involved by the adults in their life. Rape and sexual assault were her constant lot at the hands of three men: a cousin, her father and the man who paid for her, whom she now knew as ‘grandfather’.
“For years I was angry and bitter toward my adopted mom because of what I had gone through. I was very young when my mom and my grandfather caught my dad molesting not only myself, but also my cousins. She never did anything. And for years I blamed my mom until later I found out she had tried to get help.”
“She’d gone to the minister, the nurses, the doctors we had, but was always told it was a family problem and had to be solved within the family. And so, having ten kids in a remote reserve – what are you going to do? I can honestly say, at that time, she did the best she could. The police were not interested in child abuse in those years.”
With what might seem surprising empathy, Freda speaks with a deep and sincere compassion for her tormentors.
“As much as I despise what happened to me and what I went through, I had to stop and realize that, when you look at our communities and our native people, many of them are the product of residential schools. My dad went to a residential school. He was a victim; my mom was a victim. The same thing with my uncles and cousins.”
“So the whole thing, as it happened, was a continuation of what they had gone through. I guess, in a way, it was them getting their power back by victimizing kids in the same way they were victimized.”
Freda ran away from home, at 14, to live with a foster family in Seattle for two years. She then went to bible school in South Dakota. But the sexual abuse she suffered had left its mark. On tour with the school choir and billeted in the homes of strangers, she would wake up screaming, “Help me. Help me!”
Nightmares were only a part of the scarring that marked her. “I knew as I got older that it affected my life, that it was hurting my relationships. I would get just so far in a relationship. Then I’d start thinking that the man was going to find out about my dirty little secrets and not want me. So then I would get cold. I would just push, push away.”
But a man came along who did appear to want Freda. She lived with him for two years and married at 21. He was white, five years older.
“My husband seemed to be the knight in shining armour at that time; I knew he was going to rescue me. But as time went on I became ‘damaged goods’.”
He would sneer at her, “Look at you! Who else is going to want you?” She had two children with him but the marriage was bad and getting worse.
“Look at you,” her husband would shout. “You’re crazy. You’re really crazy! Your dad may have given you away when we got married but he only gave part of you away. He’d already taken your virginity!”
Finally, at 30, with her son and daughter in her hands, Freda left the marriage. She joined her sister in Vancouver; lived on welfare; graduated from the Native Family and Community Counseling program with an Outstanding Achievement Award.
Her volunteer work with the Native Education Centre and the Justice Institute was instrumental in getting her recommended for a job as victim assistance worker with the Police/Native Liaison Society. Thirty months later, the director’s job became vacant.
“I felt strongly that anybody who did the job had to believe in the people, in the work we were doing. I didn’t want to see somebody coming in whose heart wouldn’t be in the work, who’d just regard it as a stepping stone to another job,” Freda said.
“Just because you have credentials coming out your ears, degrees and everything, it doesn’t mean that you can work with the people. I watched and realized that there were practicum students and volunteers coming in to the society who were nothing more than professional students. They had degrees but just couldn’t fit in. They just could not work with our people. And clients were very quick to pick up on it, very quick.”
“I thought I would just throw my hat into the ring and see what happened,” she said. “I was shocked at the number of applications from highly educated people. Doctors, psychologists, lawyers, you name it.”
There is still a distinct catch of surprise in her voice. “I was shocked that they chose me.”
Nightmares end when father jailed
Along the way, Freda laid charges against one of the men who had abused her.
“I want it to be really clear: my whole court thing charging my dad, was not revenge. My grandfather had died but my father was living in Vancouver and there were still other children at risk. He was babysitting at the Carnegie Centre for mothers who wanted to have an evening out; also for my brother. And kids were getting abused by him.”
The man was convicted and sentenced to nine years; he spent six years in jail.
“There were 12 victims in the family. Four of us testified against him. But the most important thing was the sense of validation I got from the court case; the recognition that what had been done to me was really a crime. After he went to jail all my nightmares stopped.”
As head of the Police and Native Liaison Society, her achievements are recognized. Justice system worker Romola Trebilcock said, “Freda Ens is a remarkable Aboriginal woman who has triumphed over poverty, abuse and adversity to become a powerful voice in the criminal justice system, advocating tirelessly on behalf of the disenfranchised, marginalized and powerless, affirming in their work and presence the dignity and strength of the human spirit.”
The accolade Freda cherishes most is the one offered by her daughter Juanita, then 10 years old. “Look at you, Mom. Look at where you’ve been and where you are now. When life gave you lemons, you didn’t just make lemonade, you made a lemon meringue pie.”