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 on Thursday, the human-rights watchdog details the myriad effects of large-scale energy projects in northeastern B.C.'s Peace River region, including the influx of temporary workers – a "shadow population" of mostly young men whose presence contributes to the vulnerability of indigenous women and strains social services.
"In actively promoting intensive development in the northeast, federal and provincial officials have emphasized [the] 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," says the report, titled Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Gender, Indigenous Rights, and Energy Development in Northeast British Columbia, Canada.
The 78-page report is believed to be the first major study on the issue by an international human-rights organization.
It 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 one related to the approval of the Site C dam; work camps that have 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's report comes two months after the launch of the two-year independent National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Among the catalysts for the federally funded probe was a 2014 RCMP report that found Canada had 1,181 police-reported homicides and long-term missing person cases involving indigenous women and girls between 1980 and 2012.
Speaking about the report in the House of Commons on Thursday, federal Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu said violence, against indigenous or non-indigenous women, is a "serious, serious concern." She noted that the Liberal government is working on a gender-based violence strategy.
Concerns about the link between resource development and violence are not unique to British Columbia. Studies found that "man camps" created during the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota led to increased rates of violent crime against indigenous women and girls.
Amnesty makes 30 recommendations to the province, Ottawa, the RCMP, local governments and private industry. They are aimed at addressing the violence, improving conditions for women working in the resource industry, and ensuring that law enforcement and social-service agencies have the resources they need – including when temporary workers flood into the North at certain times of year.
The organization is urging the national inquiry to identify "specific measures to decrease resource-development-related risks of violence to women and girls in Northern communities." Chantale Courcy, the interim executive director of the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, said in an e-mailed statement that Amnesty's "extensive work" is appreciated. The inquiry team, she said, would not provide further comment "so as to not prejudice the inquiry process."
In statements to The Globe, the B.C. and federal ministries responsible for indigenous affairs mentioned efforts to work toward reconciliation with indigenous people, including as it relates to resource development and ending violence against indigenous women and girls. The B.C. Ministry for Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation noted, for example, that the province held a workshop earlier this year that brought together First Nations communities, government officials and industry stakeholders to discuss how to mitigate the potential impact of work camps.
A spokeswoman for the government of Fort St. John, a city of about 22,000 in northeastern B.C., said city council is working with provincial and regional partners to address what she described as "flawed" population data. Julie Rogers also noted that the city supports social-service agencies through property-tax exemptions, and said staff were offered two days of indigenous cultural training this year.
Connie Greyeyes, 45, who is from the Bigstone Cree First Nation and encouraged Amnesty to undertake its work, said racism is rampant in and around Fort St. John. Ms. Greyeyes, who lives in the city and once worked in the oil industry, said the mere fact that Amnesty researchers descended on the area has heightened tensions.
"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."
The Amnesty report does not single out particular corporations, but it calls on the federal and provincial governments to immediately revoke or suspend all permits and approvals associated with B.C. Hydro's Site C dam. The provincial Crown corporation released a statement on Thursday highlighting the funding it has provided to local social-service agencies during the first year of the dam's construction.
Helen Knott, a social worker in Fort St. John from the Prophet River First Nation who is among the 100 people Amnesty interviewed for the report, said such funding "won't go far." She is urging corporations to make internal changes such as creating a work environment that is more welcoming to women and ensuring employees have access to addiction treatment.
Ms. Knott, 28, is a survivor of violence. She 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.
She said she has long been speaking up about the connection between violence and resource development, and said she will continue to do so. "It's important," Ms. Knott 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."
With a report from Tavia Grant