Chief hopes Senate committee sees link between resource development, violence

WINNIPEG — The chief of a Manitoba First Nation says he hopes a Senate committee will seriously listen to how resource development is linked to allegations of physical and sexual violence in his community.

York Factory Chief Leroy Constant said more people have come forward to talk about violence and racism linked to hydroelectric projects over many decades.

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"Hydro development has had very real impacts on our people. It's brought discrimination, harassment, racial violence and sexual violence to our Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people," he said Thursday.

Members of Amnesty International visited the community and others affected by hydroelectric development this week to hear the stories.

Different groups including some First Nations are to appear before the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources in Winnipeg Friday.

The committee is studying proposed federal legislation that would change how resource development projects are reviewed.

Amnesty International and some Indigenous leaders are calling for the process to include a requirement for gender-based assessments.

Leaders from York Factory and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents northern First Nations, said they reached out to the committee to ask to testify but received no response.

Jackie Hansen, with Amnesty International, said it is important that Indigenous voices affected by Manitoba's hydroelectric industry be heard.

"Governments have known about these harmful links and they have failed to do anything about them."

A report released last year by the province's Clean Environment Commission — an arm's-length review agency — outlined discrimination and sexual abuse at Manitoba Hydro work sites in the 1960s and 1970s.

The report said the arrival of a largely male construction workforce led to the sexual abuse of Indigenous women. Some alleged their complaints to RCMP were ignored. The report also said there was racial tension, environmental degradation and an end to the traditional way of life for some Indigenous people.

Another report released in 2017 that looked specifically at the Keeyask station's workplace culture found discrimination and harassment targeting Indigenous employees.

One employee said they were being sexually harassed but were too afraid to do anything because of retaliation.

"We heard from women who were sexually assaulted and, after the workplace investigation took place, the men were moved out of camp but there was no police investigation or medical support for the young women," said Evelyn Beardy, a band councillor with York Factory.

"Women feel that it is their word against their perpetrators and that employers are siding with the accused."

The four First Nations which are part of the Keeyask Hydroelectric Limited Partnership have repeatedly raised concerns about sexual violence at hydro development sites. Some have called for a provincial inquiry into Crown-owned Manitoba Hydro.

Beardy added it's important that people realize these issues aren't just in the past, they are still happening now.

RCMP said in January that officers have conducted nine sexual assault investigations since 2015 at the Keeyask Generating Station and four resulted in charges.

Three other individuals declined to press charges and in two cases the alleged victims declined to participate in the investigation.

Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, manager of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison Unit for northern First Nations, said if Indigenous women aren't consulted or considered during these major resource projects there will continue to be devastating consequences.

"By applying a gender lens to different aspects of a story you can consider obvious voices but also voices that are often missing," she said.

"Manitoba Hydro and the provincial government have failed to include the voices of Indigenous women in resource development projects."

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