Last week I read an opinion piece published by the National Post entitled “The Link Between Oilsands Development and First Nations Prosperity” and written by two employees of Jason Kenney’s Canadian Energy Centre: Mark Milke, executive director of research, and Lennie Kaplan, chief research analyst.
The article, an opinion piece published by the National Post that I’ve linked to above, is an abbreviated summary of the authors’ more expanded document, “Canada’s oil sands and local First Nations: A snapshot.” In it, the authors describe how economically harmful it is to indigenous peoples to delay or prevent development in the oil and gas industry on reserve land. I imagine this is in response to what is currently unfolding, and has in fact been unfolding for decades, in British Columbia, between the Canadian and B.C. governments, the Wet’suwet’en people, and in this iteration of the contest, a corporation called Coastal Gas Link.
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I am not Indigenous; I am a descendent of European settlers who arrived here in the early 1920s. The observations I make are gathered from what I’ve read, and from what I have personally witnessed. But, I want to affirm that I hold deep respect and admiration for Indigenous Canadians, and am passionate about acting as an ally for them in any way I can. That is why I feel compelled to write a response to Milke and Kramer’s article; I believe it does not provide a complete picture of the issues that they are presumptuous enough to speak on with such a narrow view.
In their article, Milke and Kaplan compare the average annual incomes of a handful of specific reserves in Alberta to the average annual incomes of reserves in other Canadian provinces. And looking at the facts, I have to admit, the premise of the article isn’t exactly wrong. If the numbers they share hold up, then yes, some Alberta First Nations who have allowed for industry growth in their territories do better financially than certain First Nations in other parts of the country. But, there are two things that come to mind as I sit, ruminating on what I’ve read. One, this article is obviously heavily biased, having been written by two representatives of an Alberta government corporation (a shady distinction all its own) created by our diehard oil and gas devotee premier, Jason Kenney. Two, this article only discusses finances, and mentions nothing about the immense social, environmental, and cultural harm these developments cause to indigenous communities.
I want to highlight the very last line of the opinion piece as it was published by the National Post: “The specific lesson is that any stall, disinvestment or policy that hurts oil and gas development will harm Indigenous-Canadians as much as anyone else.” This is not a lesson that anyone of voting age has to learn. I’m confident that we all know how industry works, and how revenue, or the lack of it, affects all of us regardless if we are settlers on this land or indigenous to it. Do Mr.’s Milke and Kaplan think the Wet’suwet’en people are unaware of the economic impact caused by their fight against various levels of government, Coastal Gas Link, and the many Canadians who disagree with their stance? Canada’s Indigenous peoples know more about poverty than any other population in this country, thanks to colonization. So trust me, they know the value of a dollar, and the risks they have undertaken with their resistance.
Let me be frank: there is more at stake here than just money. While it’s likely that few non-Indigenous Canadians have ever spent considerable time on actual reserve land, most of us are aware that reserves struggle to receive aide with many things essential to ensuring a high quality of life for their residents. Reserve lands frequently lack in support when it comes to the most important aspects of everyday life, such as maintaining homes and community infrastructure, access to quality and timely medical care as well as access to much-needed family and social services, availability of educational resources for children and adults, and sadly, even simply having access to clean, potable water. Failure to provide Indigenous Canadians with these pillars of health and well-being has resulted in high levels of domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction, sexual violence against women and children, and youth suicide. Each of these is a serious crisis that devastates numerous lives in ways that reverberate throughout entire First Nations, and each occurs on reserves with distressing frequency.
Now, introduce extractive industry into an already struggling and suffering population, and what happens? According to a report by Northern Health and the Provincial Health Services Authority of British Columbia:
“Adverse impacts to community safety and crime levels as a result of resource development activities have been well-documented in Canada and throughout the world. Increased crime levels, including drug and alcohol related offenses, sexual offenses, and domestic and ‘gang’ violence, have been linked to “boomtown” and other resource development contexts. Unlike population growth in other rural contexts, resource development activities often bring an in-migration of young men with high salaries and little stake in host communities. The influx of money and workforces into communities can influence gang and sex trade activities, and can increase access to illegal substances within communities. Increasing crime levels can also be fueled by the increased consumption of alcohol and drugs, the social isolation of camp environments, “hyper-masculine” camp cultures, and the disconnection of workers from local communities.”
Things are not okay in our First Nations communities. To realize that, we have only to look to the heart of the family — the women.
Let’s start out with what Milke and Kaplan have focused on in their report, and that is the economic benefit of oil and gas development. Exactly who is benefitting? A 2016 report by PetroLMI (Petroleum Labour Market Information) examining the diversification of industry indicates that only about 22% of the Canadian oil and gas workforce is made up of women, and that the number has only risen a scant 1% since 2006. Barely 1% of growth of women in the entire oil and gas industry over a period of ten years. And of the women that do work in the industry, how many work in the lower-paid administrative areas, and are also flown in from other parts of Alberta, or even Canada? This is just my own personal experience, but for two years I worked in remote camps that accommodated workers in oil and gas and not only could I could count the number of female employees these companies had on two hands, I don’t recall seeing any that worked out in the field.
But that isn’t the most troubling facet of this complicated issue. Indigenous women across the globe are constantly in danger, and that is no different in Canada; between 2001 and 2015 it was found that Indigenous women were up to seven times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women in Canada, even though they account for only 4% of the population of the entire country. Because of a multitude of factors, the exact number of Indigenous women and girls who have been found murdered or who have gone missing since the 1970s is impossible to calculate, but estimates go up to as many as 4000. 4000 girls and women, whose lives have likely all been taken through foul play, and whose families will likely never see justice served on behalf of their lost loved ones. That is why No More Stolen Sisters is not just a hashtag, or words on a sign — it is a battle cry.
Indigenous girls and women, already the population most disproportionately affected by gender-based violence in our country, are put at even greater risk when resource development brings what we call “man camps” within reach of their communities. James Anaya, a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, states that “Indigenous women have reported that the influx of workers into Indigenous communities as a result of extractive projects also led to increased incidents of sexual harassment and violence, including rape and assault.”
Most of our oil and gas projects are located in rural, and frequently remote, areas of northern Alberta, deep in the bushes and sometimes in places so difficult to reach that only frozen winter roads allow access. Often, these extractive developments are close to reserve lands, if not directly on them. The immense volume of transient men (the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo reported 36,678 non-permanent residents in 2018) that are brought in as part of a project’s workforce, and who reside in temporary camps near their job sites, overwhelms nearby residents who have no real way to truly safeguard their communities from the specter of harm that accompanies them.
Unfortunately, these men, who have no connection to our province, our land, or our people, bring with them a demand for sex work and absolutely no regard for how they obtain it. Because these workers, some from as far away as the Maritimes, are often contracted through third-party agencies, nobody — not the corporations who own the project, not the foremen, managers, and supervisors who run it, and certainly not the provincial government nor the band council that partnered to give permission for it — takes any responsibility for what these men do sight unseen.
Ruth Hopkins writes in her article, Indigenous Girls and Women are the Most Vulnerable to Sex Trafficking:
“… sex trafficking related to extractive industries often occurs with impunity, because projects usually happen in remote places where the transient men they’ve hired are isolated, lack supervision, and there are little law enforcement or community resources available. Such situations provide sex traffickers with ideal conditions to abuse and exploit women and children.”
A note on sex trafficking: there is a common misconception that the girls and women involved in sex work are all doing that type of work because they chose to. This is absolutely not true. In fact, it is believed that over half of women being prostituted in our country are doing so solely by force, and to survive. These victims may have been kidnapped, forced out of their homes under duress and left with nowhere to go but the street, coerced from places of relative safety into what appears to be the protection of an older male, perhaps even someone they are dating, who intends to traffick them, or lured by the promises of riches that they will never actually see. Once they are completely under the control of the trafficker, these girls — some as young as twelve or thirteen — are forced to engage in sexual acts with strangers under the threat of physical violence, or even death; they are robbed of all bodily autonomy, their freedom, their self-worth, and hope for the future. This is wrong.
Again, Indigenous females account for only 4% of Canada’s population, but at least 50% of sex trafficking victims in our country are Indigenous, and are considered the easiest targets to traffickers because there is far too much evidence that RCMP and localized municipal police just don’t seem to really care. This truth may not be documented by any court or politician, but it is something that all the families of missing Indigenous women and girls know too well — racism and stereotyping puts Indigenous peoples at the bottom of the pile when it comes to priority, especially if the victim is connected to the sex trade, and regardless of whether or not the connection to the sex trade has been made unwillingly. Because of this virulent disregard for, and disinterest in, the safety and care of Indigenous females, they are subjected to the worst and most violent treatment by sex traffickers and by the men who pay to violate them. This cannot continue.
Our First Nations people are our greatest resource. They are the first guardians of earth, and have spent thousands of years living closer than any of us to this planet we call home. I sincerely believe that it is the Indigenous people of this land who are best qualified to navigate our country’s way forward into a sustainable and lasting future. But they will not be able to partner with us in this essential endeavour if their society, their culture, their families, are poisoned at the root, torn apart and degraded, destroyed, and then buried without trace beneath profit and so-called progress.
We must strengthen and empower Indigenous women and girls, for they are the core of their communities, the fire in the hearth that keeps their people warm and well. Before colonialism, women were leaders and decision-makers of many tribes, and guided their nations in all matters for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until European men refused to conduct business with women they considered inferior that their power was irrevocably stripped away.
A community is only as strong as its women, and that is where our work must start. We cannot continue to demand that hostile, uncaring corporations and their unfettered masses of violent and dangerous men be allowed anywhere near, let alone into, Indigenous territories. It is morally and ethically wrong of the majority to open their most vulnerable population up to such horrific fates, and that means that it is up to all of us to stop this, now. No life should ever be sacrificed just to put paychecks in a few men’s pockets. What does it matter if the few profit, while the rest are left to bleed?