Estella Petersen is a member of Cowessess First Nation and a board member with the Indigenous Resource Network.
I know personally about violence against Indigenous women.
I am an Ojibwe woman who grew up poor in an abusive home. I ran away dozens of times, wanting to be anywhere else but there.
At 14, I hitchhiked with a friend from a small town in Manitoba to Calgary. My friend and I had no place to go. She was older than me, and she found ways to take care of us – a place to sleep, something to eat – but I assumed she had to do terrible things to keep us warm and fed. I also realized that it was a matter of time before I did, too.
After a month of living on the streets, the police picked me up. I was actually grateful to get caught. I didn’t want to be on the streets anymore.
I know how other Indigenous women like me get put in positions that are dangerous – only to become a statistic. When you don’t have any money, you find yourself in scary situations because you don’t have any good options. You only have bad ones. There are a lot of people out there who are ready to prey on the vulnerabilities that Indigenous women and girls experience on a daily basis.
I eventually moved to the city, married young, went to college, had children and got divorced. I often worked two or three jobs to support my family and still struggled to make ends meet. One day, I decided to apply to work in the oil sands in Fort McMurray. I didn’t know anyone there but knew it paid well, and I was tired of living paycheque to paycheque.
Today, I am a heavy equipment operator at an oil-sands mine in northern Alberta. I make a good wage – more than twice what I made in the city – that allows me to take care of myself and my family. I will never be stuck on the streets again, and neither will my children or their children, so long as I can find a job. They have choices I never had.
I feel compelled to tell my story now that the House of Commons’ standing committee on the status of women is studying the relationships between resource development and violence against Indigenous women and girls.
One issue being examined is whether the resource sector’s largely transient, male work force presents a risk to women and girls living in Indigenous communities close to large work sites. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls dedicated an entire section to the topic in its final report.
I have lived in work camps before. From personal experience, I can say Indigenous women are safer inside them than out. Men and women are separated. There are strict policies around alcohol and drugs. You have to check in and out. The people going to work for 12-hour shifts and for week-long tours are not the same kind of men that I encountered on the streets.
To address the question of safety, we should be providing employment access for Indigenous women, especially those at risk, in the resource sector. It’s not the women who are working here that go missing.
There are real and immediate issues that need to be addressed to prevent violent crime against Indigenous women. The justice system is built to fail, intervening only after a crime has been committed.
We are often treated in a derogatory manner or ignored altogether. There should be supports for vulnerable people to get out of bad situations and to feel safe approaching the police or government agencies for help. People in custody should be treated respectfully, even if they’ve partaken in illegal activities. You don’t know what drove them to it.
But above all, I think we should be providing Indigenous women with the opportunity to make good choices – to get training, to get a well-paying job and to support their family and feel proud about it.
The resource sector provides that opportunity to tens of thousands of us. Instead of pitting us against the sector, the government should be ensuring that more such jobs are available to people like me.
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