‘How we treat women’

“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 [of man camps] 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.””

Worker camps make it possible to build infrastructure in remote locations in Canada. Is it worth the human cost?

Photograph by Amber Bracken

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. MORE