Fort St. John is situated in northern B.C.’s Peace River region, a landscape that is a beauty to behold. Statistics Canada lists the city’s population at about 20,000, but locals are quick to acknowledge that they live in a place containing two distinct communities: one that’s from here and one that isn’t—a “shadow population” that roughly doubles the resident number, depending on the season. For decades, the city has thrived off oil, gas, coal and hydroelectric development. These projects, which include the controversial and costly Site C dam, draw workers from across the country and around the world to the industrial camps that dot the region.
Jobs offered to the transient workforce pay well, but the high wages fuel demand that strains local services and raises the cost of living. Rents in Fort St. John are higher than any other part of the province except Vancouver. Locals loathe the long wait times at the hospital, a symptom of staff shortages and the influx of people. The city’s income gap between men and women is more than double the national average: men earn almost twice as much. Still, to many, Fort St. John is a success story. Industry fuels the local and broader economy, and the camps—clusters of mobile housing units that shelter mostly male employees—are temporary symbols of a Canadian dream in the making.
But there’s also destruction, both terrestrial and human. Images of the lacerated and crumbling earth around Site C have gone viral, and tied to the ruin, say First Nations women in the area, is a more immediate danger. For years, Fort St. John has been an epicentre of stories involving sexual assault and missing Indigenous women. In 2017, the city had a sexual assault rate of 100.01 incidents per 100,000 people, nearly double the national average of 56.56. The Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society says 15 First Nations women from the area are missing or have been murdered.
A growing number of critics attribute the statistics to the presence of the worker colonies—dubbed “man camps” by activists in a piece of nomenclature that rankles many camp-based workers and the companies that employ them. Yet First Nations leaders, women’s advocates and female residents say the time has come to face up to an unacknowledged truth. There were 20 recorded sexual assaults in Fort St. John in 2017, and all signs suggest that number captures only a fraction of the problem. Of the 11 women who spoke to Maclean’s for this story, detailing a range of sexual assault and harassment, only one took her allegations to police. But the common thread in their accounts was the perpetrators who were in the area to work, some of them lodged in camps.
A little more than a year ago, when the ﬁght to prevent the twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline was in full swing, the looming arrival of work camps—and their links to increases in reported sexual assaults—became a rallying cry for activists and land defenders across the country. Women from B.C. to Manitoba and beyond spoke up about their experiences, encouraged in part by the wave of sexual assault cases arising from #MeToo. Their stories come after last year’s report from a government agency in Manitoba, which detailed explosive allegations of sexual abuse and rape on the part of Manitoba Hydro workers encamped near a northern town in the 1960s. Afterwards, RCMP referred the allegations—including claims implicating some Mounties in the assaults—to external agencies: the Ontario Provincial Police and Manitoba’s policing watchdog. Concern about the camps, however, remains alive today.
Two years ago, a report from the Firelight Group, a consulting organization that works with First Nations and municipalities, raised warnings about the “hyper-masculine” “rigger” culture in remote camps in Western Canada. It noted a correlation between the arrival of the camps and sudden growth in the sex trade; a rise in sexual harassment and workers propositioning women inside and outside the workplace; concerns about men “blowing off steam” after long hours, often with drugs and alcohol; and how it all leads to sexual assault. RCMP data, the report notes, showed a 38 per cent increase in reported sexual assaults in northern B.C.’s Fort St. James area during one industrial project’s ﬁrst year, 2011. “As a society, we have created the conditions where we think it’s acceptable to put a very large group of men in a small location next to a community,” says Ginger Gibson, the lead author of the report and director of the Firelight Group. “The social consequences are sometimes quite negative.”
Gibson and others stress that camp dwellers typically arrive not knowing anyone in the region; they have no connection with the people or place, nor an understanding of the cultural relationship binding the two. Qajaq Robinson, a commissioner for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), says her team has looked more closely at the issue over the course of the inquiry’s mandate, noting that there’s a sense of “freedom from accountability” among transient workers. “How you treat the land,” she says, “reflects how you treat women.”
Connie Greyeyes is standing near the edge of a cliff, smoking a cigarette. The sun has nearly disappeared behind the mountains across the valley, and the only light comes from the truck that has brought Greyeyes to this place. She comes here now and then, stepping over a sign that warns about landslides, to gaze down at Site C, a project she has opposed from the beginning. From here, the site’s lights look like distant stars. Just out of sight, behind another nearby cliff, sits a camp that can house about 1,600 workers.
Greyeyes is a member of Alberta’s Bigstone Cree Nation but was raised in Fort St. John. She has been travelling the region, preparing communities in the event that someone goes missing, which includes instructions for the paperwork they’ll need to maintain. She works with both the Nenan Dane Zaa Deh Zona Family Services Society and the province’s First Nations Health Authority. Though many survivors of sex assault and abuse are reluctant to share their experiences with outsiders, some come forward at her community talks. Such stories became the substance of an Amnesty International report in 2016, which Greyeyes both inspired and helped organize. Victims often keep their experiences to themselves, Greyeyes explains, because women are conditioned to believe the crimes are their fault. “Women are raised to think, ‘Watch out for yourself. Why did you wear that? What were you thinking, going there by yourself?’ ” she says.
She knows from experience. When Greyeyes was in Grade 9, she went to a house party in Fort St. John where, she says, she was sexually assaulted by a group of high-school-aged boys. Now 48, she says she can still recall the faces of three of her assailants clearly. For a long time, she never told anyone, and blamed herself “for not keeping myself safe.” The experience took over her life, helping fuel an alcohol and drug addiction that she overcame in the early 2000s. “I trusted people I shouldn’t have trusted,” says Greyeyes. “I never ever said a word of it.”
An awful pattern ensued. There would be partying at a local hotel; people would trickle in and out—some of them workers passing through town, she now believes. Soon Greyeyes would be one of the last remaining, she says, pressured to do things she didn’t want to do; saying no, but getting more intoxicated because she couldn’t control her addictions, until she ﬁnally passed out. “The next thing you know, you are not clothed, and you have had sexual intercourse with somebody that you don’t know,” she says. “It was not consensual and you know that because you can gather small bits of recollections.”
Greyeyes clearly recalls three instances when she was sexually assaulted, and she believes there were more—including cases of rape—but struggles to remember the precise number because of her substance use during that period. “It’s lost,” she says. “When you experience those kinds of traumas, to protect yourself, it’s gone.” But she knows each incident involved outsiders who were in town for work, adding: “I know who I was there with and I know where I met them—in hotels. People in Fort St. John typically don’t book hotels.”
Greyeyes has plans to expand her work with a visit to northern Manitoba. Construction started on the Keeyask generation project, just west of the town of Gillam, in 2014. Since 2015, there have been an alarming number of reported complaints at the Keeyask worksite and camp, according to documents obtained by Maclean’s through a freedom of information request. More than a dozen involved sexual comments, while more than 20 alleged sexual or physical contact and eight recounted instances of racism. RCMP have investigated nine cases of sexual assault at Keeyask involving nine different victims since 2015, with four men charged. The victims and accused came from communities and cities across Manitoba and as far as Alberta and B.C., according to the Mounties.
Driving through Fort St. John, Greyeyes points out all the stores that sell alcohol, counting ﬁve along a brief stretch of road. She points out the strip clubs, or where former ones used to stand. There is a sign offering discounted haircuts for Site C workers and a casino where camp dwellers are picked up and dropped off by bus. There are few places to shop for women and children, Greyeyes notes, and the result, aesthetically speaking, is a male-dominated environment. (Calls to the mayor, council ofﬁce and RCMP in Fort St. John for this story were not returned.)
Greyeyes knew many of the 15 missing and murdered Indigenous women from Fort St. John. One of them, 28-year-old Abigail Andrews, a waitress at the Frontier Bar and Grill, disappeared on April 7, 2010. When tragedy strikes, the city’s relationship with industry often manifests itself in disturbing rumours involving the transient population. Andrews was known to be pregnant when she disappeared, and is listed on the MMIWG database. Local people say she was dating an outside worker at the time, but he has not been identiﬁed.
Linda Watson met Tony Labrie through an online dating site called Badoo in August 2016. She was a romantic who loved reading and watching romance movies at her home on the Saulteau First Nations, southwest of Fort St. John. Before the internet came into existence, she would become pen pals with people from as far away as Florida, never fearing they might have ill intentions. It wasn’t uncommon for the Watson household to receive phone calls from men on the opposite side of the continent, looking to speak to their teenage daughter.
Watson, a Cree woman, was a cook at the Site C camp when she began communicating with Labrie, a carpenter from Quebec. He was tall and imposing, white with a balding head. He was single, didn’t have kids and spoke little of his family. Still, he came across as polite and proper. And in October of that year, Labrie drove across the country to live with Watson, hoping to ﬁnd work at Site C. He’d told her, falsely, that he had a position waiting for him there, but in the time they lived together he was never able to land one.
The community often relied on Watson to plan and cook for events. She served a term as a councillor. She spent countless hours caring for her lawn and garden, agonizing over every weed and imperfection. Her family jokes that she was the ﬁrst person on the “Rez” to have grass. But when they think about why she’s no longer here, they think about what they could have done differently. “It was common to say, ‘I knew there was something f--ked up about him,’ ” says Tammy Watson, Linda’s younger sister. “But it’s hard when your family member is so happy.”
The Watson women have all worked in industrial camps, and can recount being either sexually assaulted or harassed by men who were not from the region.
Tammy’s 72-year-old mother Marvelene recalls being abused and subjected to racism in the 1960s during the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett dam. When Tammy was growing up, her father would befriend transient workers employed at various projects, ﬁve of whom, she says, abused her. She never told her parents. In one case, when she was ﬁve or six, a man staying at their family home called her into his bed to have a nap. She agreed, and the man gestured for her to touch his penis. “He was hard,” she says. “I had enough nerve to know it was wrong and jumped out of there.” She never told her parents about her experiences.
It’s been more than a decade since Tammy last worked in camps (now 48, she’s a lands manager for Saulteau). Discrimination was ingrained in the work culture, she says, with only men being rewarded for hard work, not women. Once, while working at a camp near Tumbler Ridge, Tammy was drinking with co-workers after her shift and later that evening was met by a man she knew in the hallway outside her room in a dormitory unit. He called her “beautiful” and started groping her body and kissing her neck. “I was so glad you couldn’t just push the door open,” she says. “He tried to push it open but it was locked.” The man stopped, she says, after others came out of their rooms to see what was happening.
Ashley Watson, one of Tammy’s daughters, has been sexually harassed in different camps in northern B.C. In 2015 and 2016, she worked at Site C as a medic and labourer for a bridge-building company called Ruskin Construction. She recalls having to constantly dodge a co-worker who would repeatedly ask her questions about her sex life. Watson was once asked to drive the man to Fort St. John to catch a flight. “He asked me if I would break up with my boyfriend and what kind of things I like to do,” she says. She reported him verbally around February 2016 to a supervisor, who assured her that he would talk to the employee. But the harasser, she says, remained on the job. She recalls all the posters encouraging women to report sexual harassment, but “when you do, nothing happens.” Indigenous female workers would also receive racial taunts, she says: “Crew members would drive past us and say, ‘One little, two little, three little Indians.’ ” Ruskin Construction president Corey Ross said he didn’t know of the incidents that Maclean’s was referring to and refused further comment.
Ashley Watson turned down an apprenticeship with Ruskin after her contract ended. Her experiences drove her away. She’s now 28 and a student at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, studying political science and environmental studies. She wants to dedicate her life to protecting treaty rights.
Kate Watson, Linda’s eldest daughter, spent last summer working at Site C. Before that, she was a heavy-duty mechanic in the oil industry. “I felt very sexualized,” the 28-year-old says of her experience working in resource development in northeast B.C. “I was a piece of meat for some kind of hungry person.”
Kate didn’t trust Labrie, and when he arrived in Saulteau, she moved her 15-year-old sister, Krystina, to Fort St. John to live with her. “My mom had the biggest heart in the world,” Kate says, but she was “blinded by love.” As time went on, Linda wanted out of the relationship, as did her family. She would hide marks of abuse. Labrie had been abusing drugs.
Around 9 a.m. on March 17, 2017, police were called to Linda’s house. There had been arguing throughout the night and Krystina—who was back home preparing to move to Kamloops with her older sister—stayed behind despite her cousin’s suggestion they run for the school bus. Labrie was beating Linda. Amid the chaos, Krystina called police from downstairs. Meanwhile, Labrie found Linda’s hidden rifle. He ﬁrst shot Krystina dead, then Linda, then himself. Saulteau has since opened a safe house and named it in honour of Linda and Krystina.
On a recent afternoon near the shores of Moberly Lake, Tammy and Ashley recalled their stories at their home in Saulteau—the house in which Linda and Krystina were killed. Tammy moved back home to support Kate after their deaths. They had to replace nearly everything. Everything, that is, except the memories. There’s a picture of Krystina, smiling in her basketball uniform, and one with her mother, both of them sharing the same energetic smile. Krystina was her school’s “most outstanding student,” and dared to be herself, to be more than the stereotypes that often fall on Indigenous women.
After the murders, Kate was asked if she wanted the house demolished. She refused. Her mom, she says, considered it her dream home. Kate plans to renovate the deck and bathroom. Her father was a worker from elsewhere, as was Ashley’s. But neither of their dads has been fully in their lives. On one hand, Kate can get behind the beneﬁts of industry. But she’ll never be able to trust the transient population: “They’re strangers—we don’t know these people. It seems to me that every time new people come, new terror and new trauma seem to follow.”
B.C. has thrived off the Peace River region for more than 50 years. After Alberta, the province is the second-largest producer of natural gas in the country, and all of it comes from the northeast. When the massive W.A.C. Bennett dam was completed on the Peace River in 1968, it was considered a landmark achievement, despite the impact it would have on the environment. The year before, its namesake premier, W.A.C. Bennett, was featured on the cover of Time with the words: “The boom no one noticed.” Site C will be the third dam on the same river, and with an $8.8-billion price tag, it’s the most expensive public project in B.C. history.
Still, the province doesn’t know exactly how many people arrive seeking opportunity. Some estimates suggest that the uncounted shadow populations of resource hub towns add as much as 50 per cent to the permanent numbers; residents and local leaders tell Maclean’s the increase can be as great as twofold. In an emailed statement, the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission said that because industrial camps at oil and gas ﬁelds are “regulated by numerous provincial and federal agencies,” there’s no ofﬁcial number for how many are currently active throughout the province.
Whatever the increase, the impact is keenly felt on the ground. Organizations in places like Fort St. John that support victims of violence and sexual assault have waiting lists of women seeking their help. “The level of violence that’s going on that we don’t necessarily know about frightens me,” says Amanda Trotter, the executive director of the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society. The non-proﬁt supports vulnerable women—its outreach service provides free clothing and food, and a housing program offers beds to survivors of violence.
In one unexpected development, Trotter’s society has been accepting more and more male clients, many of whom have arrived in town with no trade qualiﬁcations hoping to ﬁnd a job, or who are newly laid off from jobs in the area. In 2014, the year Site C was approved, the society welcomed 79 male clients. Last year, the number catapulted to 1,905, almost a third of all clients. It holds a “Men’s Day” every Wednesday, directing males toward legal counsel and harm reduction, or offering food, clothing and hygiene and household supplies. The way Trotter sees it, this assistance helps protect the women in those men’s lives. Trotter compares the locale to the infamous “Highway of Tears” that lies to the south between Prince Rupert and Prince George. “Take a drive outside of town,” she says. “It is so easy to disappear here.” Adds Greyeyes: “Where else have you ever heard of a women’s resource centre opening its doors to the very men that may or may not be the ones perpetrating the violence on our women?”
In Nak’azdli Whut’en, a First Nation near Fort St. James in north-central B.C., community nurses have documented increases in the sex trade and trafﬁcking, as well as the spread of STIs. About 60 km from Nak’azdli sits the Mount Milligan mine, where about 300 workers dig for copper and gold at any given time. Liza Sam, a nurse, says there have been instances where men have stopped by Nak’azdli gas stations asking employees “where they can pick up women.” Sam has witnessed ﬁrsthand what appeared to be exchanges for sexual services. “You see work vehicles picking up girls,” she says. In the nearby Lake Babine Nation, along the route of two planned natural gas pipelines, rape kits are stocked at the health station before the camps arrive.
While various reports, including one from Northern Health in 2012, describe an atmosphere of “partying all night,” where workers are “introduced to and enter the drug scene,” times have also changed. A growing number of camps are dry, others incorporate drug and alcohol testing, and many female workers report no problems. “There’s lots of women who work at these camps who are really proud of their work,” says Firelight’s Gibson, adding that she avoids the term “man camps” because it can be polarizing. In modern camps, she explains, “you can put a lot in play to regulate behaviour.”
In a statement to Maclean’s, B.C. Hydro spokesperson David Conway said that companies contracted to work on Site C are required to implement workplace policies that comply with provincial regulations, and all employees must abide by behaviour rules set by the utility. Before construction began in 2015, Conway added, B.C. Hydro developed “mitigation measures” to support women and families, and is also funding additional policing until the project is completed. He said it’s unfair “to suggest there has been an increase in criminal activity” as a result of Site C. Indeed, crime has declined in Fort St. John since 2015, but along with the city’s high sexual assault rate, the rate of physical assaults is more than twice that of the rest of the country.
The federal government has a way of assessing how projects may affect vulnerable populations: through a long-scrutinized tool called a gender-based analysis plus (GBA+). One has been done on the Site C dam, and it was submitted to cabinet in 2014. But since then, no eyes outside Ottawa have seen it. When Maclean’s requested the report, a spokesperson from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which authored the analysis, said it is subject to cabinet conﬁdence.
On a Friday last January, members of the Fox Lake Cree Nation gathered at the Best Western Hotel in Winnipeg to testify before the Clean Environment Commission (CEC), an independent Crown agency in the Manitoba government. For nearly seven hours, as part of an examination of the social and environmental impacts of hydro projects along northern rivers spanning four decades, they spoke about their experiences of racial and sexual abuse at the hands of hydro workers near Gillam in the 1960s. It’s an area that’s been the site of hydroelectric development for more than half a century, with a series of dams, dykes and generating stations built along the Nelson river. And several First Nations. The hearing’s full transcript was made available to the public through the CEC’s website, and the more explosive allegations were widely reported in the Manitoba media.
One woman, Marie Henderson, described herself as a survivor of the dams built in the north. “I saw a woman getting raped,” she testiﬁed, without going into when or where the assault happened. “And I couldn’t do a damn thing. And all [the perpetrators] did was laugh, like it was nothing, it was no big deal.”
Franklin Arthurson testiﬁed that RCMP ofﬁcers had “organized gangbangs” in Gillam. He told the commission: “They would pick up Fox Lake women, take them to jail, and bring all of the hydro guys there to do what they wanted with these young women.” He said he witnessed rape, but didn’t describe the speciﬁc circumstances of these allegations or when they took place. As a young man, Arthurson worked on hydroelectric projects in other northern towns. He moved to Gillam in 1965, when he was 20, and worked for an engineering company, which he says helped “build the hydro town of Gillam.” It was there that he witnessed the “atrocities that the hydro construction workers were bringing on to the Fox Lake people.”
When contacted by Maclean’s, the RCMP in Manitoba said it could not comment because of ongoing investigations into the claims led by the Ontario Provincial Police and the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba. The Mounties referred to their original statement on Aug. 22, 2018, which said, in part: “The allegations within the transcript are troubling and require investigation. The RCMP continues to review the ﬁnal report from the Clean Environment Commission as well as the hearing transcript and is in discussions with the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba.”
Manitoba Hydro was ﬁrst made aware of these abuse allegations in 2012, and similar allegations were detailed in a CEC report from 2014, but failed to gain the same level of media attention. Commenting for a news article, Manitoba’s Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires apologized for “what had occurred decades ago.”
Yet there’s evidence of far more recent events. In October 2015, a Fox Lake member reported “concerns regarding vehicles following young women in Gillam in early morning hours” to a Manitoba Hydro worker interaction subcommittee (WIS) that addresses worker concerns and the impact of transient workers on local infrastructure and services, according to documents obtained by Maclean’s under the province’s freedom of information laws. The utility closed the reported incident after it “sought, but was unable to obtain,” more information, despite listing the occurrence date as “ongoing.” In a statement to Maclean’s, Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said: “After much discussion, in January 2016, all of the parties at the WIS forum, including Fox Lake Cree Nation representatives, agreed that status updates on this incident would no longer be provided at the WIS unless new information emerged. To date, no new information has come forward.”
In another incident reported the same month by a Fox Lake member, a vehicle followed a female employee after she had closed the local Legion. “Occupants tried to persuade her to get into the vehicle,” the report read. Other reported concerns detail instances of sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour and misogynistic and racist remarks made by non-locals. None led to employees being ﬁred.
Resource projects like Keeyask often partner with surrounding First Nations, giving them a stake in the venture. In response to the documents obtained by Maclean’s, Owen said that the utility recognizes the “impact hydroelectric development has had on many Indigenous communities,” but that “much has changed in Manitoba and Canada.” Owen said that all Manitoba Hydro and contractor staff undergo Indigenous “cross-cultural training” as part of their employment at Keeyask. In 2004, Fox Lake and the utility reached an $18.9-million settlement addressing the effects of past developments.
Still, the arrival of the camps and the behaviour of their workers can lead to bitter disagreement between First Nations leaders and the people they’ve been elected to serve—in part due to conﬁdentiality clauses contained in the agreements Indigenous communities have signed with the companies. Stéphane McLachlan, an environment and geography professor at the University of Manitoba who has worked with both the CEC and Wa Ni Ska Tan, a group representing hydro-impacted communities, says the agreements prevent some communities from speaking out about issues of violence, racism and sexual abuse. “This violence is so extreme and so long-lasting,” he says. “Some people said that hydro has had more devastating impacts for Fox Lake than residential schools.”
For many women, recounting stories of sexual assault and harassment is like reopening old wounds. Past traumas live and breathe again with the retelling, and sharing them with a journalist means opening up not only to the public but to the people closest to them—community, family, children. But Indigenous women in northern B.C. also speak of how they’ve gone through life not realizing that violence wasn’t normal.
Tammy Watson shared her experiences with her young daughter quietly sitting beside her, listening to every word. Occasionally, the nine-year-old would jump in and recall how, at times, Linda’s boyfriend scared her. She described moments that made her feel uncomfortable, and how he would do things that she deemed “inappropriate.” Having her there was by design. Her mother’s stories are as much lessons as they are painful memories, part of what it means to be an Indigenous mother in this part of Canada. “It might seem like an odd thing,” Tammy says. “How else can you protect your child?”
Connie Greyeyes, meanwhile, has become a prominent voice in Fort St. John—almost everyone knows her or has heard of her work. When it comes to her life and how much she shares, though, she treads lightly; she’s not sure how much her husband can handle hearing or reading. Her two boys are now 12 and 14. Four years ago, her youngest son ran up to her, saying, “Mom! We Googled you. You’re famous.” The moment surprised her, and she replied, apologetically, “I know it’s not going to be easy being my child.” But her boys march on the streets of Fort St. John alongside their mother at an annual vigil for MMIWG. Greyeyes tells them about her experiences, yet refrains from sharing details unless they ask. She talks to them about their bodies, their sexuality and respect for boundaries. Relationships must be consensual, she’ll say—be they between people or nations.
For a moment, Greyeyes reflects on these lessons. It’s been two hours, and she has to get back to her family. “All I can hope,” she says, “is that when my children read about me, they get a little bit of insight into what my life was like as an Indigenous woman.”
This article appears in print in the June 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “‘How we treat women.’” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.