'No free, prior and informed consent': Rape culture in boom and bust towns
Six Indigenous women share their own stories of violence in communities impacted by resource extraction.
Colonialism, resource extraction and intergenerational violence against Indigenous women are connected in complex ways across Canada. A growing body of research suggests Indigenous women are more likely to bear the negative economic and social impacts of resource extraction while being excluded from its benefits.
"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,” says Yvonne Tupper, a health worker from Saulteau First Nations in British Columbia.
Before facing the unique pressures of resource extraction industries, Indigenous women 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 the rates 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, a community steeped in industry, 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.
In investigating these issues, Discourse travelled to B.C.’s Peace River Regional District and Wood Buffalo in Alberta. Below, six women share their stories of violence in resource-extraction communities that have experienced boom and bust.
This story is part of a larger investigation into the gendered impacts of resource extraction projects in British Columbia and Alberta.
[Content warning: this page contains descriptions of sexual assault and other violence]
Debra Trask, 62, identifies herself as a mixed-blood woman from the United States and an adopted member of the Desjarlais family of West Moberly First Nation. She has been living in British Columbia’s Peace River Region for more than 20 years. As a trauma counsellor who works with Indigenous women facing abuse, addiction or other mental health issues in the Peace River Region, she uses modern counselling methods in tandem with traditional Indigenous healing practices.
“Women are lost,” says Trask, who says that most of the women in her family have experienced sexual assault or harassment.
“It seems like everywhere we’ve been, there were no healthy men for our daughters. And it just kept going and going and going.”
“For our population here, the amount of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and boys is astounding, and I believe that is directly linked to the resource industry because there are so many people from other places,” Trask says. “Why doesn't our voice matter? Why doesn't our relationship with the land matter?”
“That's genocide. There's no other word for it. They kill our mother [earth], they kill us. It's that simple.”
“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 over 20 years. Throughout her career, Richards feels being a woman has prevented her from equal pay and promotion. It’s exhausting, she says, both physically and emotionally. “I’m kind of giving up on doing the job that I’m doing.”
“I’ve been told that I should be home in the kitchen,” she 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.”
In 1993, Connie 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.
“I'd always thought in the back of my mind how easy in this region, to take women and make them disappear because of all the vast back-roads of oil field work,” says Greyeyes. “How easy it is for people who are not from here to be invisible.”
She, too, has experienced violence: “I've been assaulted by people that were here, working and never knew their names, never knew where they were from.”
“There's always going to be that feeling of hopelessness. How many generations that our elders tell us that it's going to take to undo the harm that's been done? Seven generations. I know that in my lifetime and my son's lifetime and my grandchildren's lifetime that that's not going to happen,” Greyeyes says. “Women, Indigenous women in Canada will always be treated as less than, and I really believe that.”
But she does think there is a solution: don’t let people be anonymous. “The solution is meaningfully talking to their workers about their behaviors and what is expected when they go into a community; holding them accountable for their actions.”
Jennifer Poole is a 69-year-old Cree elder. She, along with her family and community, were displaced from the land they lived on by the flooding to create the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in the 1960s. Jennifer has lost people, too — one daughter to murder, another daughter to drugs and two sons to drowning. Her teenage grandson has been missing since 2015. With Site C’s potential to bring new transient workers and flood more land in the Peace River Region, Jennifer worries she won’t be able to protect the young women and children in her life.
“We’ve got food to eat. We’ve got cattle to feed us. We’ve got a few buffalo around, we’ve got a few moose' around,” she says. “When that’s all gone, what do we have?”
“I've learned that the earth is our mother. What they're doing with that dam right now, they're hurting our mother," says Poole. “If you look over there where the dam is right now, she is crying. You know why? Because everything is falling, everything is breaking. She's falling apart.”
“Mother Earth is crying and she's saying, ‘Please stop.’ But all everybody wants to do is hurt her. They're hurting the native people also, the women.”
“We try to be strong because we have to be,” says Poole. “A long time ago we were the warriors.”
Yvonne Tupper is a health worker, single parent and self-described “land-defender” from Saulteau First Nations. She has lived in Chetwynd for 30 years. She feels both Indigenous women and the land are at stake for Site C, and adds that colonialism, rape culture and resource extraction are closely linked.
“I remember sitting there and they were talking like Site C was going to go through,” she says. “They already decided before they even walked through those doors. To me that's not consent. That's a predator.”
Tupper, herself, says she has experienced sexual assault by a worker in her community. She has not reported the experience.
“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. There is like, ‘we're going to do this, we're going do this this way,’” Tupper says. “Then, in turn, for northeast B.C. we have the highest murdered and missing women per capita in Canada and that's very frightening.”
Joanne Richards is Métis and has lived in Conklin, Alberta her whole life. Conklin is a small hamlet, with approximately 300 locals and over 20 work camps. She and her family have had to adjust to the many changes industry brought to their land.
“All of a sudden, all this industry was just dropped on you, like this big, heavy change,” she says. “I would have liked it if it happened slower so that we could get used to it before it came in.”
Richards has been looking for work for three years and lives in a small trailer. She relies on the local food bank and her water gets trucked in and kept in a big container she keeps outside.
“These camps were dropped in, and you couldn’t go hunting in your backyard any more, because there was no wildlife,” Richards adds. “You had to watch walking down the road because a lot of the vehicles were going really fast. As a matter of fact, a few locals were hit on the road.”
“It opened up some doors education-wise, employment-wise. But it also opened up alcohol, drug abuse, rapes, sexual abuse among the women and physical abuse for the boys,” she says.
“Conklin is living like a third-world country, surrounded by a bunch of money-making oil companies,” Joanne told me, adding that she and her family have seen Conklin’s infrastructure develop to accommodate its large shadow population.