Nak'azdli Whut'en First Nation is nestled on the banks of Stuart Lake in north-central British Columbia, surrounded by rolling foothills and tall trees.
It is a relatively remote community, breathtaking in scenery and dependent on economic opportunities in forestry, mining, and pipeline development. It is a community bracing for major change.
Over the next decade, as many as 6,000 new energy industry workers could descend upon the region. The prospect of such a big influx of workers living in nearby “man camps” has aroused fears of increased violence and drug use.
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The influx could more than double the population of about 4,500 in the Fort St. James area, which includes the municipality, rural communities and First Nations. Nak'azdli has just 1,972 members living both on and off reserves. The nearest city, Prince George, is 160 kilometres away.
To get ahead of the documented challenges that accompany an influx of temporary workers from outside the region, the Nak’azdli and Lake Babine First Nations are creating two full-time positions, funded by the B.C. government, to help them prepare.
Nak'azdli Band Councillor Ann Marie Sam says if several industrial project proposals go ahead as planned over the next decade, as many as six new work camps, housing up to 1,000 workers each, could be built within 60 to 100 kilometres of the community.
Among the proposed projects are TransCanada’s: the Coastal GasLink pipeline, the North Montney Mainline pipeline and the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission pipeline. The company is reviewing the Prince Rupert project, however, because Pacific NorthWest LNG announced in July that it would not proceed with a proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal near Port Edward, B.C. due to economy uncertainty.
The Nak’azdli band had also expressed opposition to Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would have run through its territory had it not been rejected by the federal government last year.
The danger of bringing in "man camps"
The “man camps” are precisely what their name implies: work camps housing mostly male employees working on resource development projects.
There were more than four men for every woman working in the forestry, fishing, mining, quarrying, and oil and gas industries in Canada in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.
The federal Liberal government is now reviewing Canada's conservation laws and is expected to tackle this issue. In June, it recommended changes to environmental assessments to require a gender-based analysis of an industrial project's impacts.
When the Prince Rupert Gas Transmission project was under review, community members expressed concern about two camps slated for construction in the traditional territory of the nearby Lake Babine First Nation. The Lake Babine and Nak’azdli nations found common cause, as Nak’azdli’s traditional territory hosts mining and forestry camps already.
The two nations commissioned a joint report, funded by B.C.’s Department of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, with research by the consulting company Firelight Group. Statistics from the study, released in February 2017, indicate that industrial camps are associated with increased rates of sexual assault and violence against Indigenous women, along with addiction, sexually transmitted infections, and family violence.
“The potential for sexual assault, violence, disappearances, (sexually transmitted diseases), increases with the number of trucks on the road,” study author Ginger Gibson told National Observer. “There’s a whole whack of issues that don’t get considered until construction is happening and that’s too late.”
The final report recommends governments and agencies consider legislation, programs and services to address problems associated with industrial camps, and plan for integrated service delivery in advance of resource development projects. It also states a need for governments to allocate new financial and human resources to health, social services, and housing in the region.
Specific recommendations, from provision of addiction counseling to building recreational facilities, are designed to prevent problems and to address them when the do occur.
In an email, a spokesperson for TransCanada wrote that the company regularly engages with Indigenous communities and would continue to do so throughout the life of the proposed Pacific NorthWest LNG project. Although TransCanada says it attended an info session during the research phase of the industrial camp report, it wouldn’t provide further comment on the findings.
The B.C. government didn't respond to requests from National Observer for comment for this article.
'Rigger culture' puts Indigenous women at risk?
The Firelight Group's research included discussions with local community members about the experience of Indigenous women living near construction camps.
“There’s a ‘rigger culture’ that exists, where a lot of people are working together in a hyper masculine context and they’re not really taking care of themselves — they might be drinking and doing drugs, and then they’re blowing off steam,” said Gibson.
“They’re not in their home community and they don’t think about the (local) people as their family or neighbours so they don’t treat people very kindly.”
Following the findings of the study, Nak’azdli leadership is looking at ways to prepare for the next influx of workers. Community members talk about preparing to welcome newcomers to their territory. Industry representatives talk about working with Indigenous groups to provide local cultural competency courses to their employees.
The Nak'azdli Health Centre is assembling rape kits to gather physical evidence after assaults.
Coun. Ann Marie Sam says planning for assaults is an unfortunate necessity.
“When we started developing rape crisis plans the first question for me was, ‘Why do we have to tell our women we can’t protect you and sexual assaults are going to happen? And when they do, we’re going to have a plan for you,'" she said in an interview. "I thought it was so unfair for our community to have to do that."
Community leaders worry that nearby women and children could be a target for workers who parachute into the area.
Sam recalled seeing an unfamiliar woman in town about a year ago when she was out walking with one of her daughters.
“I watched her, wondering who she was. One of the delivery trucks from the (Mount Milligan) mine was coming through town, driving fast, saw her, slams on the breaks, dust on the road and stops beside her. She gets in the truck and I don’t know whose daughter that was — if she was a mother, or whose sister that was. But that really struck me.”
Sam said she wondered if the driver solicited the young woman for sex. “Who do you report that to? I didn’t report it because I didn’t know who she was and I didn’t know what happened to her."
Among risks identified in the Firelight report are increased rates of sexually transmitted infections. The Nak’azdli Health Centre is launching an awareness campaign and promotes STI testing for both workers and community members.
“We want to welcome workers to our town but we also want to let them know that these are the rules of our town,” community health nurse Liza Sam, the councillor’s sister, told National Observer.
“They (workers) don’t have any ownership to our town, so we really want to keep our community intact with less disturbances,” she explained. “If the mine’s gonna be here or other industries, we want them to be the best they can be for community members.”
The proximity of Nak’azdli to the infamous Highway of Tears only adds to the community’s safety concerns.
Since the late 1960s, dozens of women and girls — most of whom are Indigenous — have gone missing or disappeared along Highway 16, an east-west highway spanning northern B.C. that eventually leads through Edmonton and Saskatoon before meeting the TransCanada Highway at Portage la Prairie, Man. The “Highway of Tears” takes in smaller roads in the vicinity too, explains Highway of Tears Walkers co-ordinator Brenda Wilson.
Away from home with 'a lot of money'
Mia is a First Nations woman in Alberta. A former sex trade worker, she said camp workers and sex go hand-in-hand. She worked in Fort McMurray for 10 years during the oilsands boom and was on call "23 hours a day."
Mia's name has been changed to protect her identity.
“I think the guys are maybe lonely," she told National Observer. "They’re away from home, they have a lot of money — disposable income if you will.”
She came from what she describes as an abusive, broken home, and said adversarial circumstances led to the sex industry at age 17. She said she was encouraged to tell clients that she was Spanish or Italian, because Indigenous women were considered trash.
“The men became angry if they knew (you were Indigenous), and your value goes down significantly, so we didn’t reveal that.”
Mia described many dangerous encounters, including one with a client she said threatened to hang her in his apartment in Fort McMurray — a memory that haunts her. Employers know full well what’s going on, she added. But they don’t get involved.
“In that industry, nothing would surprise me. I can see people that may be running the camps turning a blind eye to this kind of thing.”
Mia said local women and girls in Alberta are recruited to the sex industry to service camp workers on a regular basis by pimps and escort agencies, and that locals in communities like Nak’azdli wouldn’t be passed by.
“We already know of cases where our young people have been recruited right off the reserve through the Internet. But if (a camp's) in their own backyards, I would be very concerned,” she explained. “It’s scary. I hope that the communities are looking at ways of preventing and also educating on exploitation.”
The Mount Milligan ore mine has been operating on Nak’azdli territory for the past four years. It’s roughly 60 kilometres from the Nak’azdli town site and has around 300 men working there at any given time.
A representative from Mount Milligan said the work camp mostly hires locally, so they go home every night.
“We do have a camp, but it’s not a big camp,” said company spokeswoman Joanna Miller. “Compared to a construction camp, they bring in a transient group of people — that’s not the case that happens at Milligan. Seventy per cent of (the miners) live in our local communities. For those who don’t live within a regional community the transportation is by bus.”
Mount Milligan works with local Indigenous groups to strengthen relationships by providing cultural competency courses to workers and teaching them local First Nation history. Miller sits on the community sustainability committee, which brings together representatives of nearby municipalities, regional districts, First Nations, educational institutions and economic development organizations.
“We work with the community to deal with concerns regarding social effects. Since I’ve been on that committee we have not had a single issue come forward. I have not had a conversation with an emergency personnel or RCMP in an instance where the mine has been a factor,” she said.
Mount Milligan’s practices align with the co-operation recommended in the Firelight Group report authored by Gibson.
“Everybody has to work jointly to take care of this issue,” Gibson said. “Siting is a big thing — where (communities) can control how often and who can get into your community. Making (workers) immobile at the camps so they’re not able to get into their trucks and be out looking for sexual services, makes a difference.
'Don't let it happen'
Tribes south of the border are familiar with the side effects of industry booms and influxes of workers living in "man camps."
Since the North Dakota Bakken oil boom began in 2008, reports of violence against Indigenous women have increased in the vicinity of the Fort Berthold Reservation, which is home to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations.
In 2013, North Dakota’s Uniform Crime Report showed an annual increase of 7.2 per cent in the total number of reported violent index crimes such as murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults. The report showed an increase of 17 per cent in rapes alone to 243 reported in 2012.
In response to those findings, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem told the Bismarck Tribune in 2013 that 12 of the state’s top oil-producing counties accounted for much of that crime. He also said that the North Dakota legislature increased funding for state law enforcement agencies to put more officers in the field.
Kandi Mossett, 38, has seen the effects of man camps first hand. She is with the Indigenous Environmental Network from North Dakota and is from New Town in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, where more than 1,500 oil wells sprouted when the boom came.
“We definitely didn’t know about the man camps and how that was going to play out,” she told National Observer. “It was something that took over and shocked the community as far as how quickly the violence escalated and how it’s continued to cause problems in our community in this past decade.
“It’s a totally different place to live. It’s gross, the men are everywhere looking at women like they’re meat. We never used to have to lock our doors... but now people are scared for their safety. You make sure you have mace with you when you walk home at night.”
Her advice for the Nak’azdli and Babine First Nations as they deal with the prospect of more industrial camps is: “don’t let it happen.”
Since camps will be built if projects go ahead, she encourages the communities to get their police force involved and on site to monitor them.
The RCMP declined an interview request, but said in an email statement that the police force works with the Province of B.C. before industrial projects are approved to conduct socio-economic impact studies in First Nations and other communities.
Ultimately, industrial development is not something that Nak’azdli wants to abolish. They just want to make sure it will be safe when it comes.