Women voice Site C concerns as impacts stay hidden
As a decision on the controversial hydroelectric dam looms, research into its potential impact on marginalized women remains behind closed doors. Women affected by resource extraction fear what the project might bring.
Yvonne Tupper has been fighting to stop BC Hydro’s Site C hydroelectric dam from flooding the Peace River for more than 30 years. The health worker from Saulteau First Nations has become a public figure through her advocacy to protect Treaty 8 territory, its plants and animals from the megaproject.
In Tupper’s view, this battle is about so much more than land. It’s about culture, and it’s about women — their wellbeing, their children and their right to say no.
“When there is taking of the land — raping of the land without consent — it also affects us Indigenous women. There’s no free, prior and informed consent. There’s no negotiations,” says Tupper. “That’s very violating.”
Resource extraction and its impact on the lives of women, especially those who are Indigenous, is a complicated equation with many parts that move and clash: remote communities, transient workforces, money, racism and violence are only a few. But there’s also a layer of the story that’s locked away, preventing Canadians from seeing the full picture: whatever information government and industry hold about the impact Site C could have on marginalized women is being kept secret.
In 2016, Tupper’s second cousin, Linda Watson, 47, and Watson’s 15-year-old daughter, Krystina Haggard, were murdered in their home in Moberly Lake in an alleged domestic murder-suicide. Tupper says the perpetrator, also found dead in the home, was a non-Indigenous man from Quebec who came to northeast B.C. in hopes of finding industry work.
This story, Tupper says, is one example of a major risk that resource extraction communities with transient workforces pose to Indigenous women. Could it have been prevented?
The federal government has a tool — called Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) — that can be used to identify and mitigate the impacts resource extraction could have on women. GBA+ is designed to measure how gender — in combination with other identity factors such as race, physical location, social class, religion and sexuality — has an impact on the way we experience industries, policies and projects. The problem? It rarely gets used properly.
According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), GBA+ took place for Site C, though neither department will release the documents, citing cabinet secrecy.
“I feel that if this was a feminist government, and really a government committed to transparency, that they would want us all to see the basis on which they made these very serious decisions; whether it’s the Kinder Morgan pipeline or the Site C dam,” says Sheila Malcolmson, NDP MP and critic for Status of Women Canada. “If they made the right decisions they should have nothing to hide.”
It’s hard to know exactly what information is locked inside Site C’s GBA+. But a growing body of qualitative research offers a clue: it highlights the complex connections between resource extraction industries and violence against Indigenous women, indicating that people marginalized based on their race or gender are more likely to bear the negative impacts of industrial projects than reap their benefits. It shows that Indigenous women in communities hosting resource extraction projects are more vulnerable to violence, unemployment, poverty, housing insecurity and becoming disconnected from their cultural practices.
Site C is currently being reviewed, under the direction of B.C.’s recently appointed NDP government. On Nov. 1, the British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC) released its final report in its inquiry into Site C, highlighting the project’s ballooning price and potential for delay. It projected Site C’s cost could climb from its once-projected $8.3 billion to more than $10 billion, and may not be complete until 2020.
Cabinet is expected to make a decision on Site C in coming months.
Why is information about the gendered impacts of Site C, one of Canada’s largest and most contentious economic projects, being kept behind closed doors?
Canada’s ongoing GBA+ promise
Inspired by Tupper and other women protesting resource extraction projects, Malcolmson decided to urge government to answer these questions. For over a year, she has been voicing her concerns about the lack of transparency around Site C’s GBA+ process in the House of Commons.
In February, she asked: “What has the government done since […] the Site C dam approvals to ensure there will not be further federal approvals that do not go through a gender test to ensure our most vulnerable people and environments are protected?”
After various requests, Malcolmson hit a wall — each time, she received vague responses and was reminded that Site C’s GBA+ is inaccessible due to cabinet confidentiality. “It’s a black hole,” she says.
Just this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refreshed the commitment to GBA+, starting with a 2017 federal budget that applies a gender lens, highlighting inequalities such as the high gendered wage gap and a lack of access to childcare, limiting work opportunities for women.
The lack of transparency around GBA+ makes it nearly impossible to hold leaders accountable. According to Canada’s Auditor General, Michael Ferguson, the federal government still doesn’t consistently consider gender when making decisions. Only 25 out of 110 government departments and agencies currently commit to conducting gender-based analysis. It is required in some provinces, including New Brunswick, but others such as British Columbia and Alberta have not yet mandated GBA+. Ontario has mandated an Inclusion Lens, different from GBA+, but used to consider diversity in all policies and programs.
When it comes to resource extraction, some projects have undergone GBA+, though neither government nor industry is currently required to be transparent about the analyses or the processes around them. This was a focus of Amnesty International’s 2016 report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Gender, Indigenous Rights, and Energy Development in Northeast British Columbia, Canada. It advocates for the addition of meaningful GBA+ to Canadian environmental assessment laws. Environmental assessments analyze potential environmental costs and benefits and are currently prerequisites for the approval of any Canadian resource extraction project.
Fifty years of pain
Site C got its name as the third project in a string of viable sites identified by BC Hydro surveyors decades ago. The first, then deemed “Site A,” is the W.A.C. Bennett Dam.
The dam still accounts for one-quarter of BC Hydro’s total power. BC Hydro now acknowledges the deep physical and cultural impacts the project had on Indigenous communities. “It’s a terrible stain on the history of the province,” said Chris O’Riley, BC Hydro’s president.
Though it’s been 50 years since the W.A.C. Bennett Dam flooded Jennifer Poole’s community, she says the pain hasn’t gone away. The 69-year-old elder remembers moving farther and farther away from rising water, spending a long year watching her tin house, community hunting grounds and sacred burial site disappear.
Poole was one of a group of individuals from Indigenous communities — including the Tsay Keh Dene and Kwadacha First Nations — displaced by the construction of the dam in the 1960s.
It marked the beginning of more loss for Poole. She left her husband, fleeing what she describes as escalating abuse. Her young adult daughter settled in Vancouver and was murdered in the city’s Downtown Eastside. Another daughter, also living in Vancouver, she says died of an infection related to drug addiction. And in 2015, her 15-year-old grandson, Denny, disappeared, last seen on a highway near Dawson Creek. His case remains unsolved.
“I just wanted to commit suicide — do everything to myself to try to numb the pain, or get rid of it, or go away,” says Poole.
But slowly and with the support of a counsellor, she says she found a new path. Now, she wants to use her story to make a difference. With Site C’s potential to bring new transient workers and flood many kilometres of land in the Peace River Region, Poole worries she won’t be able to protect the young women and children in her life.
“I always think how it would be if it didn’t flood,” she says of the community she loved. “Now it kind of really hurts to see them want to do it again.”
“If you look over there where the dam is right now, she is crying. Mother earth is crying. You know why? Because everything is falling, everything is breaking,” Poole tells me. “They’re hurting the native people also, the women.”
Site C’s GBA+ left no trail
BC Hydro acknowledges the minimal consultation with Indigenous communities before construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. Today, the protocol looks different. Canada has a complex web of processes for consultation with Indigenous communities and GBA+. For Site C alone, BC Hydro says it has been engaging with Indigenous communities since 2007.
In August, Discourse filed an informal request to Natural Resources Canada asking for Site C’s GBA+. We were told that they won’t release the documents, citing cabinet confidence. We later filed another request to Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Both agencies responded with email statements that said “federal gender-based analyses (GBA+s) were conducted,” but that the actual “analyses are subject to Cabinet Confidence.”
In a statement provided by Natural Resources Canada, we learned the GBA+ for Site C “considered the economic opportunities for both men and women.” It added: “BC Hydro, the proponent for the Site C project, committed to building a diverse and inclusive workforce. Specifically, it committed to having a workforce fully representative of the British Columbia labour market by 2017.”
In the same statement, NRCan claimed the GBA+ covered risks posed to vulnerable groups by these projects, including “strains on child/family services and violence against women.” BC Hydro was also required to illustrate funding for child and family welfare services in its community agreement with Fort St. John.
This money is simple enough to trace: BC Hydro has formed community agreements with Fort St. John, Chetwynd, Hudson’s Hope and Taylor, B.C. In Fort St. John, for example, BC Hydro donated $75,000 to the city’s non-profit organizations, including $20,000 to the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Centre and $20,000 to Community Bridge, an organization that offers women’s and family counselling and other services. BC Hydro also created an $800,000 fund to support non-profits in the Peace Region through a grant model.
BC Hydro declined to be interviewed for this story.
Providers of women’s and children’s services in Fort St. John say that, while the donations might sound impressive, they’re not enough.
Amanda Trotter, executive director of the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Centre, led a gender-based analysis for Fort St. John, published in 2012. Called the Peace Project, it was funded by Status of Women Canada and highlights the complex dynamics making women vulnerable to a lack of employment opportunities, housing and food insecurity and gender-based violence. It was a massive undertaking: the 108-page report took over three years to produce, requiring the consultation of over 300 women through interviews, focus groups and surveys.
The report was published and is publicly available but Trotter isn’t aware of any other GBA+ happening after her report.
“Surely they would have consulted with our clients, surely other agencies in town would have known about it,” she says. “If there was another gender-based analysis that was done at the same time, I would love to have a look at it.”
Trotter’s centre still struggles to find the funding to meet increasing demand.
‘Why doesn’t our voice matter?’
Discourse travelled to the Peace River Regional District in B.C. and the Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Alberta to learn about how resource extraction impacts women and culture.
Debra Trask is a counsellor who works with Indigenous women facing abuse, addiction or other mental health issues in the Peace River area. She has been close to Jennifer Poole for years, and says experiences like hers are no longer shocking.
“I’m 62-years-old, and I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t been raped or beaten,” she says. “Why doesn’t our voice matter? Why doesn’t our relationship with the land matter?”
Before facing the unique pressures of resource extraction industries, Indigenous women and girls already face higher rates of violence than those who aren’t Indigenous, according to Statistics Canada. In 2014, the rate of homicides of Indigenous women was six times higher than that of non-Indigenous women. That same year, Indigenous women were three times as likely to report being victims of spousal violence as non-Indigenous women.
Fort St. John holds at least four unsolved cases of missing Indigenous women, and a larger number of missing and murdered women have other connections to the city. In 2015, Fort St. John’s RCMP detachment had the highest caseload, per officer, in British Columbia.
“I’d always thought in the back of my mind how easy [it is] in this region, to take women and make them disappear, because of all the vast backroads of oil field work,” says Connie Greyeyes, as she sits at her dining room table in her Fort St. John home, which she shares with her husband and two sons.
In 1993, Greyeyes’ cousin was beaten, doused with gasoline and lit on fire by a complete stranger. Now, Greyeyes is dedicated to activism and raising awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women in B.C.’s Peace River Region. She, too, says she has experienced violence: “I’ve been assaulted by people that were here working, and never knew their names, never knew where they were from.”
In interviews with Discourse, many women expressed concerns about the prevalence of predominantly-masculine transient workforces in their communities. They, like Amnesty, worry that the stress and isolation of the work creates a “pressure-cooker environment,” causing workers to take part in excessive partying, drinking, drugs and violent behaviour.
In early 2017, the Firelight Group, funded by the BC Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation (MARR), conducted a study looking at the impacts of camps on Indigenous communities in Northern B.C. It focused on British Columbia’s Lake Babine and Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nations, pinpointing the “systemic and historic factors that lead to patterns of violence being perpetuated in Indigenous communities, primarily on the Indigenous women and children.”
According to the report, industrial camps are popping up often “without considering their cumulative social and cultural effects.” It says camps are male-dominated, and that interactions with women both within camps and in communities can have “highly negative consequences.”
For women who do work in industry or in camps, exposure to these risks can be amplified.
“It’s still tough on us to this day,” says Grace Richards from Conklin, Alberta. Richards, who is Métis, has been working as a heavy machine operator for industry for more than 20 years.
“I’ve been told that I should be home in the kitchen,” Richards says, describing an encounter with a man who had been training her on a new contract, years ago. “He basically told me that if I didn’t start sleeping with him, he wasn’t going to train me anymore. What could I do, who could I go to at the time? I was just green at the time, and I didn’t want to lose my job.”
Throughout her career, Richards says being Métis and a woman has prevented her from benefitting from equal pay and promotion. It’s exhausting, she says.
“How many more years do I have to fight just to make my top dollar?”
Craig Benjamin, Amnesty International’s Campaigner for the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples, says that, while it’s important to note that not all male transient workers commit violence, layers of pressures in industry communities make women vulnerable to violence both by strangers and at home. One key contributor, he says, is housing and food security.
“While resource development brings high-paying jobs for some, it also puts the cost of living outside the reach of those who typically don’t have access to those jobs,” says Benjamin.
Fort St. John is among British Columbia’s most expensive cities for its home rental costs. The income gap between between men and women in Fort St. John is almost double the national average.
“What we heard in Fort St. John, over and over again, were terrible stories about the choices women were forced to make. Stay with an abusive partner or be homeless? Because without access to a partner’s income, there was no way to secure safe housing for a woman and her family,” says Benjamin.
For more stories about women’s experiences in resource extraction communities, click here.
For some women, industry means independence
There are, of course, varying perspectives on these connections. Tracey Lambe and Alicia Teasdale of Waypoints, a women’s and family services centre in Fort McMurray, challenge what some see as a direct link between resource extraction and violence. Their domestic violence and sexual assault program numbers do not mirror boom and bust cycles, they say.
“It’s more complex than that,” Teasdale says, though she notes that stress — financial and emotional — can increase the possibility of violent relationships.
“The most common thing that we see is whatever is reflecting in the population. If there’s a lot of individuals that are between the ages of 25 and 35, then we see a lot of individuals between the ages of 25 and 35,” says Lambe. “Our trends are similar to those across Alberta.”
For some women, projects can provide independence, social mobility and improved quality of life.
According to the Firelight Group’s report, projects with industrial camps can bring up to thousands of jobs to communities. They can also have “spin-off benefits” for locals, including apprenticeships and skills that will be transferable to other types of work.
Jean Corrigan, who lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta, raised her three children as a single mother after her divorce. While parenting and working full-time came with its challenges, it was worth it, Corrigan says.
“Now they’re law-abiding, they’re university educated,” she says. “They were able to excel in their school life because their home life had no drama, had no chaos, had no financial problems.”
Setting a new precedent
Amnesty’s report says the decision on Site C is an opportunity to set a new national precedent for government consultation on major projects.
Their report outlines over 30 recommendations for the federal and B.C. governments, the RCMP and industry. These include suspending and rescinding the Site C dam and all permits related to it, improving the federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and requiring that all reviews and approvals of resource extraction projects be informed by a “comprehensive gender-based analysis.”
While it is still unclear whether the project will move forward, Indigenous women at the centre of these issues feel some of the damage is irreparable. “There‘s always going to be that feeling of hopelessness,” says Connie Greyeyes. “How many generations,” she asks, will it take “to undo the harm that’s been done?”
“Indigenous women in Canada will always be treated as ‘less than,’ and I really believe that,” she says.
But Tupper is optimistic that Indigenous women’s voices are being heard in the discussions about Site C. She feels activism like hers will help push government toward stopping the construction of Site C.
“When I speak out, it gives other women permission to put up their hands and say, ‘Yes. This is wrong, what’s happening to us.’”
This piece was edited by Katie Lewis, with fact-checking and copy editing by Jonathan von Ofenheim. Data visualizations by Caitlin Havlak. Discourse’s executive editor is Rachel Nixon.