Warning: This news story contains details of a sexual nature
A woman who has accused a well-known Mi’kmaw cultural educator from Nova Scotia of committing an indecent act in front of her testified in court that she feared for her safety when the alleged incident happened.
Trevor Sanipass, 46, is accused of masturbating in front of a woman after they had harvested birch bark in Colchester County, N.S., in July 2019.
Sanipass’s trial began in provincial court in Truro, N.S on April 25 before Judge Elizabeth Buckle.
Originally from the Eskasoni First Nation, N.S., Sanipass currently lives in Halifax Regional Municipality where he has worked as a probation officer.
As a Mi’kmaw cultural educator, Sanipass conducted cultural workshops and served as the Indigenous liaison officer for the Nova Scotia Department of Justice. He has also won arm-wrestling competitions at the international level.
If found guilty, Sanipass could face up to two years in prison.
Accused initially contacted complainant through Twitter
The woman, who cannot be identified under a publication ban, testified that she only knew Sanipass through online social media before the alleged offence took place on July 7, 2019.
The complainant testified that five days before the alleged offence, Sanipass had contacted her directly through the social media website, Twitter. She said he asked her to teach him how and where to properly harvest birch bark using traditional Mi’kmaw protocols.
During that online conversation, the woman told the court that Sanipass had sent her two photos. One photo contained a shadow on the wall of what looked like the accused exposing himself to her. The second photo was of him exposing himself.
The woman testified that she brushed off the incident in their online conversation because they also talked about other topics such as their respective careers and their traditional culture. She said she deleted the photos from her computer.
Following their online conversation, she said she agreed to meet with Sanipass outside of a hotel in Truro, N.S. on July 7, 2019. She explained they made plans to harvest birch bark in Colchester Country before attending a powwow at a nearby First Nation community that afternoon.
She testified that Sanipass picked her up in his car behind the hotel and they eventually drove down a dirt road to search for a birch tree in the woods. She said when they found one, she explained to him the traditional protocol in harvesting the bark from the birch tree such as offering tobacco and saying a prayer to the Creator before removing the bark.
She said she took several pictures of Sanipass harvesting the birch bark.
“I took a photo of Trevor just about to cut into the tree because I figured, like, he would want some memories of his first harvest,” the woman explained to the court. “It’s a very empowering moment to be able to harvest your first tree,” she said.
Complainant feared for her safety
She said afterwards, they both hiked back to his car and placed their birch bark inside the vehicle. She said Sanipass then told her that he needed to change into his powwow regalia. She said she walked to the front of the vehicle to give him privacy while he changed his clothes.
She said the accused then walked to the front passenger side of the car when she said he exposed himself and began to masturbate in front of her. She said he asked her several times to look at him while he masturbated. She said he also repeatedly asked her to have sex with him and perform oral sex on him. She said she repeatedly refused.
The woman said she began to fear for her safety during the alleged incident.
I remembered thinking, like, if I kept saying no, was he going to do something to me?” she recalled. “Like, if I just had said yes, maybe we would be able to get back into the car and I would get back to my family safely,” she said in court.
“I didn’t expect during harvesting that this was going to happen. When it’s harvest time for me, that’s my work,” the woman explained. “It’s very important to me and that was my safe place.”
“Trevor was a respected knowledge-keeper in Mi’kma’ki so I thought I was safe with him,” she said. “I didn’t know I would be down some dirt road where he would be masturbating and asking me, telling me to have sex with him.”
The woman said Sanipass eventually stopped and they both got into his car and drove to the powwow. During the drive, the woman said Sanipass kept asking her if he could take off his clothes and drive naked.
She said once they arrived at the powwow, she placed her birch bark underneath her parked car because she wasn’t sure she wanted to keep it because of what happened. By the end of the day, she said she decided to leave the birch bark on the ground.
“I offered it back to Mother Earth and I asked for forgiveness for taking, particularly, the bark and not using it,” she said.
Woman confronted accused a year later
A year later, the woman said she tried to harvest birch bark but couldn’t because of what happened.
“It used to be so powerful and meaningful and being connected with Mother Earth and the ancestors this way,” the woman said. “I’ve always gotten so much strength from that and I take pride in my work.”
“All I could think about was that moment that I harvested with Trevor and that feeling of not being safe and feeling shame,” she explained to the court.
In October 2020, the woman said she sent Sanipass a series of text messages in which she confronted him about what happened the previous year. Not long after that, she contacted the RCMP to make a complaint.
The woman said Sanipass’s alleged behaviour that day both insulted and offended her.
The trial was adjourned until Oct. 14 for cross-examination. However, Judge Buckle said she would work with the crown attorney and Sanipass’s defence lawyer to try to schedule an earlier date.