An open secret in Sagkeeng Woman who became pregnant at 14 says child's father, a First Nation chief, should acknowledge son, step down

Four decades after she became a teenage mother, a Sagkeeng woman is urging Sagkeeng First Nation Chief Derrick Henderson to confront his past.

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Four decades after she became a teenage mother, a Sagkeeng woman is urging Sagkeeng First Nation Chief Derrick Henderson to confront his past.

A group of women in the community has rallied around her, calling for the chief to step down.

Lillian (Beans) Cook, 57, says she was 14 when she became pregnant with Henderson’s child. Henderson, then 23 and married, was her phys-ed teacher at Sagkeeng’s South Shore Elementary School and had hired her to babysit his son.

Cook is choosing to speak publicly now, she says, because she wants the chief to be accountable, and she wants to let go of the shame she’s carried for 43 years.

Jessica Lee Lillian Cook was 14 when she had her son, Chris. The father is Sagkeeng First Nation Chief Derrick Henderson, she says. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

“It’s time for me to let go of that blame, and it’s time for him to take that blame, for him to take that responsibility,” she says, crying softly.

“You (Henderson) took my life away when I was 14. I want to have a life now. I don’t want to live in shame anymore, or guilt.

Although Cook was a child, their nine-year age gap wasn’t unlawful in 1979, when Canada’s age of consent was 14 and strong sexual exploitation laws didn’t exist. Cook says their relationship started with flirting and progressed to touching and fondling, which sometimes happened at school and started when she was only 12.

“I was always, like, the ugly girl in school, so he made me feel good about myself, and he was my teacher,” Cook says.

“We had a relationship. He would flirt with me, and I was just a young girl. He took advantage of me, of the situation. I fell for him, I had feelings for him.”

They had sexual intercourse twice when she was 14, she recalls. She got pregnant the second time.

Henderson has served multiple terms as chief in the community. Sagkeeng, located on the shores of Winnipeg River about 130 kilometres north of Winnipeg, has about 7,600 band members, 3,350 of whom live on reserve.

Cook went to police and provided a statement in the fall of 2018; no criminal charges against Henderson have ever been laid. In March 2019, upon reviewing the case file from Powerview RCMP, a Manitoba Crown prosecutor decided there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction, so no charges were authorized.

On Feb. 26, 1980, when Cook was 15, she gave birth to her son Chris. She had been transferred to Powerview School after she got pregnant, but left school to work while her grandmother helped raise the baby. Years later, Cook went back to earn her high school equivalency and obtain certification to be a health-care aide.

Sagkeeng Chief Derrick Henderson was a teacher of Cooks when she got pregnant. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Chris died in 2014 at age 34, leaving behind seven children. His obituary, written by Cook’s sisters, lists Henderson as his father.

The Free Press repeatedly sought comment from Henderson, who is now 65, and sent him a detailed account of the allegations, to which he did not respond.

Prior to that, when reached by phone in late March and asked about sexual allegations involving him and Cook, Henderson said: “There is no allegation there, I mean, I buried my son. She was there when I buried him, she was there with me,” he said. “I mean, I’m not going to make a story about it, either. If you write a story, be prepared, right?”

Cook says Henderson denied the baby was his when she told him she was pregnant, and that he left the reserve soon afterward.

“If he didn’t take advantage of me, and if I wouldn’t have got pregnant at the time, I might have had a better life,” she says.

Henderson has never publicly acknowledged he was Chris’s father, but Cook says he sometimes gave her money for the grandkids after he was elected chief.

Cook has, on more than one occasion, offered to arrange for DNA testing to establish paternity.

In 1976, Henderson was hired as a teacher’s aide by the Sagkeeng Education Authority. He was tasked with teaching physical education for Grades 6 and under for the south shore school while he was attending an eight-week university course in physical education. Cook was in Grade 4 at the time.

Henderson went on to work as a teacher and principal in northern Saskatchewan, and later as a school superintendent and education administrator in Alberta. He returned to Sagkeeng in the late 2000s after suffering a spinal injury, and ran for band council. He advocated for transparency and fairness, and his supporters viewed him as a positive choice for a leader. He was appointed acting chief in 2014 and has been re-elected as chief twice. His current term as chief ends next year.

Jessica Lee Lillian Cook holds a photo of herself as a young mother with her son Chris. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

Cook is speaking publicly in the aftermath of two community gatherings last fall during which Henderson was asked to step down as chief. Cook did not attend either meeting and says she didn’t find out about them until afterward, but other women confronted the chief about what happened to her.

Elder Verna Prince, 81, called for a protest and a sacred fire outside the Sagkeeng band office on Oct. 21, 2021. In a recording of the event shared on social media, Prince, a well-respected member of the community, speaks directly to the chief, presenting concerns about his leadership.

“Step down and go for healing for yourself, because there’s a lot of things you did wrong, too, and we all have to heal from that to be a good leader,” Prince said at the time.

Henderson listened in silence and did not respond, as seen on the video, but advised those in attendance to bring their concerns to an upcoming general assembly meeting. At that subsequent meeting, Prince again asked him to step down.

In an interview, she explains, “people know on the reserve” about Henderson’s involvement with Cook.

“The ones that work at the school knew that he was involved with her, because he was a teacher at that time, and she was just 14,” Prince said when asked if her requests for him to step down had anything to do with Cook.

“I feel sad and angry at times, because I know how it is to live when you’ve been abused. You can’t be yourself. That’s why I’m working so hard now to change that, after going through it. I want my people to heal and be honest with each other.”

A core group of five other Sagkeeng women, including Prince’s daughter, mental-health worker Anita Prince, has been supporting Cook’s efforts. At the same protest last fall, Anita stood in front of the chief and spoke passionately about Cook, although she didn’t use Cook’s name.

Jessica Lee Cook went to the police in 2018 but no charges were laid against Henderson. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

“I’ll never let it go, Derrick, of what happened in your past history,” Anita told him, later turning to everyone gathered and adding, “Every one of us knows who we’re talking about…”

In an interview, Anita confirms she was talking about Cook and was referring to what happened to her when she was young.

Anita says she has been hoping the truth would come to light for years. She recalls meeting with a committee of elders to discuss the issue, asking how Henderson had become chief despite his past.

“I started questioning, how can people vote him in, because he already did this?” Anita says, adding she was working for the band at the time was afraid to speak up. She describes Cook’s account as an open secret in the community.

“It’s a silent secret, but people know,” she says.

Now that it’s coming to light, Anita says she hopes the community will be able to heal.

In many ways, sexual abuse has been normalized after residential school and generations of trauma. It’s taken years for Indigenous women to speak out, she says.

“It’s important the truth comes out so real healing can start. Our women are the leaders but were never given that chance. A lot of our women have been sexually abused, and that’s where that power was taken away from them, and if we can start a movement where we can start healing our sexual abuse, our community will heal,” she says.

For now, Cook says she is not safe in Sagkeeng and has had to relocate. She says she is being denied band services such as home repairs and heat, but she says she does not have a political motive for speaking publicly.

“The fact is, I was a child. I feel that he totally took advantage of that, and he robbed me of my innocence,” she says. “He robbed me of my life. And I’ve suffered for that for 40 years.”

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

History

Updated on Saturday, May 7, 2022 10:07 AM CDT: Minor edit for clarification

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