Celebrated Missionary in Quebec Abused Innu Girls, Inquiry Hears
By Allan Woods
November 29, 2017
|In the predominately Innu community of La Romaine, Que., Alexis Joveneau was celebrated, respected, and considered by many to be “Jesus in person,” as one witness recounted. (SCREEN IMAGE FROM NFB FILM 'GOUT DE LA FARINE') |
For most of his adult life and for decades after his death Father Alexis Joveneau was regarded as a religious superstar in Quebec.
But the national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women has heard from several witnesses who said they were sexually abused over several years by the priest.
In the predominately Innu community of La Romaine, Que., Joveneau was celebrated, respected, and considered by many to be “Jesus in person,” as one witness recounted. He left a much different impression on his victims.
“He mistreated us. He abused us,” said Noelle Mark, 57, who described being touched inappropriately by Joveneau between the ages of about nine and 15.
She was one of two women Wednesday who described going to church for confession and being forced to sit on the priest’s knee and endure his inappropriate touches, rather than kneeling.
“He would stick his tongue in my ear. I remember that for a long time,” Mark said. “I hated that smell—his breath. I smell it now.”
The Belgian-born priest was ordained in 1951 and requested he be sent to Canada with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an international religious order. He arrived in Quebec’s rugged north coast of the St. Lawrence River and spent nearly four decades living and working among the Innu people until his sudden death in 1992.
It was noted upon his death that Joveneau was fluent in Innu-aimun, the Innu language, and dedicated much of his time to safeguarding the language and translating educational and religious books for Innu readers.
The National Film Board produced a 1977 film, Le gout de la farine, which featured the priest talking about the struggles of the Innu of Quebec to maintain their culture and language and battle social problems such as alcoholism.
Most of the obituaries marveled that Father Joveneau had been adopted by the Quebec Innu and would be buried in their cemetery.
Simone Bellefleur said she wanted nothing to do with him and still has trouble entering churches because she associates such buildings with painful memories.
Bellefleur said she endured the same treatment in the confessional and at the priest’s home, where she was often asked to come and wash dishes. Other times, it happened in the company of other girls, she said.
“Often we were together as a group and he would take us each one after the other. I must have been around 15 years old,” Bellefleur said.
Mark said Joveneau would stroke her back in the confessional “all the way to my buttocks.”
“I did not know. I thought that was normal to be touched. No one told me about this type of thing.”
She mentioned the priest’s actions to one of her nine brothers, but he refused to believe her.
“He said I was working for the devil,” Mark said.
She asked the wife of her older brother, who explained that the priest’s actions were inappropriate.
“I started to be afraid. I felt broken. I was torn inside. It really affected me in how I did at school.”
Bellefleur said she was left with a lasting anger and frustration.
“What frustrates me and angers me today is that I am a mother and I always wanted to be violent towards my daughter because I had lived things and I’ve never forgotten those things,” she said.
Mark said she discussed the process of making a complaint against Joveneau with a man who worked at a local nursing station. She said nobody knew how to file a complaint or to whom they should report his activities.
The inquiry heard that there was no permanent police force in La Romaine when the abuse allegedly occurred, in the 1960s and 1970s.
People also feared repercussions if they made accusations against Joveneau.
“The priest was very important. He held an important place,” Mark said.
Both Mark and Bellefleur struggled to tell their stories, fighting back tears, taking long pauses and relying on the support of friends and family.
In a statement released Wednesday, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate said the order was granted official status at the inquiry on Monday in order to help investigate the allegations.
“The Oblates are deeply concerned and distressed after the testimony heard at the inquiry and wish that all the light be shed on these incidents,” the statement said, adding that the order condemns all forms of physical and psychological violence.
A lawyer for the national inquiry urged other women who have suffered abuse or mistreatment at the hands of Joveneau or others in any community to get in contact.
Commissioner Michele Audette, who is herself Innu, said other Indigenous women were already sending emails, messages and making calls with other allegations of abuse or violence.
“Through your testimony you have already had an effect,” she said.