Connie Greyeyes travels to Ottawa every year, bringing public attention to the missing and murdered aboriginal women in the Peace region of northern British Columbia. And each year, when Greyeyes unfurls a banner on Parliament Hill, the list of victims’ names grows longer.
“This drew our attention,” says Jackie Hansen, an Amnesty International staff member. “We thought, ‘what’s going on?’”
Amnesty has long declared the high level of violence experienced by aboriginal women in Canada a “human rights crisis.” Last year, a national report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found 1,186 aboriginal women had gone missing or been murdered in the past ten years.
Inspired by Greyeyes’ protest, Hansen and two other Amnesty employees embarked on a fact-finding mission to the Peace region in May. The team is particularly interested in the role of mega-projects because, as Hansen points out, anecdotal data indicates the impact of large scale resource development can be correlated with high incidents of violence.
“When a mine goes in, women bear the brunt,” she says.
Hansen also observes resource development projects bring in a transient, rootless population. Service providers in urban centres are hard-pressed to meet expanding needs. A prime example is Fort St. John, a major town in the Peace region. Its population of 20,000 tax-paying residents are hard pressed to accommodate upwards of 50,000 additional people, the majority of whom do not contribute to the tax base and will eventually return home elsewhere.
People working in labour camps outside these centres have their own seasonal rhythms and adjustments, Hansen says. “In the spring ‘break up,’ “there are higher incidents of violence,” she observes. “These are tense times as workers are re-adjusting.”
“Life in the oil patch for a predominantly male workforce has a gendered impact. You add in the layer of Indigenous communities. It’s a tinderbox.”
The locals know when workers have left Fort St. John and driven to the camps because the side of the highway is strewn with empty energy drinks. When workers complete their shift and head back to town, Hansen says a different debris litters the roadside—empty beer bottles.
“The work involves long hours, difficult shifts and there are injuries,” she says. “Life in the patch is hard and it has an impact.”
Hansen believes there are bridges to be built among the communities straining under the impact of resource development projects.
“When large projects go in, such as the (proposed) Site C dam, there is not only an environmental impact, but there is a social impact too,” Hansen says. “We have to look at the big picture and find solutions.”
“There has got to be corporate accountability,” she also believes, “and land rights must be respected.”
Amnesty has identified domestic violence as another critical issue for Aboriginal women, as well as discrimination, marginalization, and poverty. Findings of a previous report posted on Amnesty’s “Stolen Sisters campaign” website indicate many factors work together to compound the risks to Indigenous women. These factors “encourage some men to target Indigenous women for acts of racist and misogynist violence,” the report states, “and in denying Indigenous women equal access to services such as shelters that are required for their safety.”
“We were moved by the family members (of the victims) that drove many hours to share their stories,” Hansen says of their visit to BC’s north. “The memory of these deaths is alive in their communities.”
The Amnesty team plans to return to the Peace region once more and will publish a report at the end of the year.
“This is a human rights crisis and it is across Canada,” Hansen says. “One layer is the pattern of violence found linked to these projects.”
Connie Greyeyes, originally from the Bigstone Cree Nation in Alberta, is a volunteer activist in her home town of Fort St. John. She organizes the local Sisters in Spirit vigil, an annual event held in towns and cities across Canada to raise awareness about missing and murdered indigenous women. Greyeyes also volunteers at the Women’s Resource Society and recently initiated a support group called Women Warriors.
Fort St. John owes its existence to resource extraction, Greyeyes states. “We’ve got to hold companies responsible,” she also says. The impact of resource development—including the proposed Site C dam—is significant, she believes.
“You can’t go on stretching our services.” By way of example, Greyeyes points to hospital emergency room waits of up to seven hours.
“It’s hard for people to speak up against these projects. More good people need to speak up.”
Policies in connection to the missing and murdered women investigations need to change and the RCMP must be more sensitive, Greyeyes asserts.
“There is a mandatory 48 hours after reporting. And a missing family member in the aboriginal community is not considered a priority. Well, they are a priority to us.”
“Because someone has an alcohol or drug problem doesn’t make them less important to find,” Greyeyes also says.
About 70 reports about violence against aboriginal women have been completed in various regions across Canada, Greyeyes notes. This includes the “Highway of Tears” investigation in BC—based on disappearances along the northern Highway 16—and the inquiry into victims of Vancouver’s impoverished downtown eastside neighbourhood. Greyeyes say a national inquiry could make important connections using these reports.
“The inquiry needs to be run by Indigenous people with the families of victims in mind,” she says. “They are so vulnerable and there has been so little concern.”
Ultimately education is the key, Greyeyes believes. “I don’t see real reconciliation until there is an understanding, The system is set up to make us fail. We are so resilient though. We are still here.”
As for the potential BC Hydro Site C dam project, she says, “It’s important to use our voices so the government and community has a response that will protect us.” The thousands of workers and their families who arrive to the area will have an impact, she also says, and their employer must recognize this. “City council should be protecting our community.”
Greyeyes appreciates the work Amnesty is doing to raise awareness about the violence aboriginal women face and to acknowledge the painful loss felt by affected families.
“I would say to the non-indigenous community, how would you feel if this was your loved one? We are asking for kindness, compassion and respect. We need a better understanding of how we are feeling and we need to push for an inquiry.”
Janet Nicol is a BC teacher and writer.
For more information: amnesty.ca/our-work/campaigns/no-more-stolen-sisters and www.nwac.ca/sisters-spirit