Northern resource development tied to violence against indigenous women: report
The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Nov. 03, 2016
Amnesty International is calling for the national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women to specifically target violence tied to resource development in Northern communities, where transient workers, substance abuse, racism, money and sex collide to endanger indigenous women and girls.
In a report released Thursday, the human-rights watchdog details the myriad impacts of large-scale energy projects in the Peace River region of northeastern B.C., including the influx of temporary workers – a “shadow population” of mostly young men whose presence contributes to the vulnerability of indigenous women and puts a strain on social services.
“Oil and gas extraction, coal mining, and hydroelectric development help fuel the provincial economy and create high-paying jobs that attract workers from across the country,” says the report, titled Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Gender, Indigenous Rights, and Energy Development in Northeast British Columbia, Canada.
“In actively promoting intensive development in the northeast, federal and provincial officials have emphasized these benefits, while largely ignoring serious – and sometimes deadly – unintended consequences for wellness and safety that disproportionately impact the lives of the indigenous peoples who live there, particularly indigenous women and girls.”
The 78-page report, sparked by concerns raised by indigenous leaders and community members, is believed to be the first major study on the issue by an international human-rights organization.
It comes two months after the launch of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, a federally funded probe led by B.C. Judge Marion Buller that is expected to conclude in 2018. Among the catalysts for the independent inquiry was an unprecedented 2014 RCMP report that found that, between 1980 and 2012, there were 1,181 police-reported homicides and long-term missing person cases involving indigenous women and girls across Canada.
The Amnesty report describes a litany of problems, including: temporary workers with disposable incomes who “blow off steam” by abusing drugs and alcohol; women’s shelters that are in a state of “constant crisis” due to a lack of resources; inexperienced and overburdened RCMP officers based far from First Nations communities; women trading sex for drugs, meals and accommodation in an area with high housing and food costs; insufficient or non-existent public transportation, resulting in hitchhiking; unresolved legal challenges, including in relation to the approval of the Site C dam; “bad [work] camps” that host run-down trailers and where women and men share space, with little or no security; and men preying on indigenous women because they perceive them to be an “easy lay.”
Amnesty researchers also found that women face barriers to entering the resource sector that are borne, in part, of a “boys club” mentality that favours “hyper-masculinity.” Women who do find work in the industry may find themselves in dangerous and precarious situations. Some women told Amnesty that their complaints of harassment were ignored by their supervisors. In one case, Amnesty heard of a woman who lost her job after reporting a sexual assault.
The organization is urging the province and the federal government, as well as the RCMP and the private sector, to take action to address the violence, improve conditions for women working in the resource industry, and ensure that law enforcement and social-service agencies have the resources they need – including when temporary workers flood into the North during certain parts of the year. It is asking the governments of Canada and B.C. to “immediately suspend or rescind all approvals and permits related to the construction of the Site C dam.”
Amnesty wants the national inquiry to identify “specific measures to decrease resource development-related risks of violence to women and girls in Northern communities.” It is also calling on the federal government to establish an independent process to review unresolved homicides and missing-person cases in instances where the quality of the investigation has come into question – a mechanism long sought by victims’ families, who were heartbroken to learn the inquiry’s terms of reference made no mention of a civilian review body.
The organization is adamant that at least one federally funded family information liaison unit be stationed in northeast B.C. The units, which will be established across the country, will assist families of missing and murdered indigenous women to interact with police and obtain information about investigations.
The recommendations also suggest that the RCMP develop a “robust indigenous cultural competency program” for officers prior to their deployment to Northern communities, and that private corporations craft employee codes of conduct “to address potentially harmful impacts on host communities.”
Concerns about the link between resource development and violence are not, of course, unique to B.C.
A 2014 study on the impact of the Meadowbank gold mine on Inuit women and families in Baker Lake, Nunavut, found an increase in alcohol consumption, sexually transmitted infections and domestic violence. In the U.S., studies have shown that “man camps” created during the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota have led to increased rates of violent crime against women and girls, particularly indigenous women and girls. These crimes include rape, domestic assault, murder and sex trafficking.
As The Globe and Mail reported earlier this year in a series called The Trafficked, sex traffickers go where the demand is. Because traffickers follow the money, Alberta had been a favoured destination in recent years, with Calgary and Edmonton as hot spots. Secondary routes lead to resource towns, such as Fort McMurray, where young men with cash are far from home.
Connie Greyeyes, a 45-year-old Bigstone Cree First Nation woman who encouraged Amnesty to undertake its work, told The Globe that racism is rampant in and around Fort St. John, B.C., a city of about 22,000 roughly 400 kilometres northeast of Prince George.
Ms. Greyeyes, who lives in Fort St. John and once worked in the oil industry, said the mere fact that Amnesty researchers descended on the area to probe the connection between resource development and social ills has heightened tensions. She said a friend told her to “lay low” when the report is publicized, fearing that Ms. Greyeyes’s participation in the study would put a target on her back.
“My worry is that people take this as a direct attack, or don’t see the merit in what a report like this can accomplish,” said Ms. Greyeyes, who is a survivor of violence, including at the hands of men who passed through the city for work. “Very good things can come out of it. If we can get a couple of people – important people who have an ability to make changes, even within their own companies – then it’s all worth it.”
Amnesty’s report highlights the stories of seven women who died or disappeared in northeastern B.C., including 35-year-old Cynthia Maas, who was originally from Fort St. John and was murdered by a serial killer in Prince George in 2010. Her sister, Judy Maas, told Amnesty that her sibling went to Prince George seeking access to the social services she needed to try to battle addiction and raise her daughter independently, outside of the child-welfare system.
Ms. Maas was among the more than 100 people that Amnesty interviewed between April, 2015, and last month. During the more recent visits, Amnesty found the region was “clearly dealing with the fallout of the economic downturn, including widespread layoffs in the resource sector.” Researchers spoke with survivors of violence, First Nations chiefs, relatives of the missing and murdered, resource-sector employees and social-service providers.
Helen Knott, a social worker in Fort St. John who was interviewed by Amnesty, said she has been speaking out about the connection between resource development and violence against indigenous women for years.
Ms. Knott, 28, told The Globe she has been sexually assaulted four times since she was 13 years old, including once, she believes, by several men on her birthday about five years ago. Ms. Knott does not recall the assault, but said she was physically and emotionally traumatized by it. She said her understanding is that the men were among tens of thousands who pass through the city for resource-sector work.
“It’s scary sometimes,” said Ms. Knott, a Prophet River First Nation woman. “Living here and experiencing [the violence], you know it’s a reality … Having Amnesty here, and having this report [come out], gives it more validity to the outside world.”
She said she hopes corporations will be part of the solution, for example, by making the work environment more welcoming to women and ensuring employees have access to social services, such as addiction treatment. She noted that BC. Hydro, the Crown corporation that is building the Site C dam, has recently provided front-line funding to social-service agencies, including the Salvation Army and two Fort St. John transition houses that offer safe shelter for women and children fleeing abuse. Still, she said, the money “won’t go far.”
Ms. Knott wants to see more effort from local leaders, particularly the mayor and city council, to address the consequences of resource development on the community. “This is a conversation the town also needs to have,” she said. “It seems like it’s not really talked about, maybe because it’s the bread and butter of this region.”
Amanda Trotter, the executive director of the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society, said the national inquiry should “absolutely” gather testimony from people in Fort St. John, which, according to the report, had the highest per-capita crime rate in 2014 among 31 B.C. municipalities of 15,000 people or more.
Ms. Trotter said the local women’s centre has a list of 49 people in the community who are either working in the sex trade or engaged in “transactional sex,” and checks in on them regularly. Many are subject to violence, but few report it to authorities, she said. She cited cases of women having to pay off drug debts by either selling drugs or providing sexual services.
“We are encircled by this [development] but we need a comprehensive social and environmental plan,” she said. “It’s all very well [to be] granting permissions and licences on an individual basis, but what is the impact on this entire area?”
Around the corner from the resource centre, the Salvation Army homeless shelter has seen an increase in female clients. “We’ve had more women in the past year than ever before,” said program director Erin Ferris, who estimates that 60 per cent of the shelter’s female clients are indigenous. More out-of-work men are now heading out of town amid layoffs, she said, leaving some women homeless. It also means the shelter is serving fewer men.
Ms. Knott said all stakeholders, including Fort St. John’s city council as well as corporations with projects in the region, have a role to play in addressing the violence and underlying social issues. “It’s important,” she said, noting that she fears for her young female cousins who live in Fort St. John. “I’m fighting so that other people don’t have to.”
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