Amnesty International calls for more police in Fort St. John, northeast B.C.
Resource development contributes to crime, putting Indigenous women and girls most at risk, Amnesty says
A new report from Amnesty International says police in northeast B.C. are not equipped to deal with the high rates of crime in the region, particularly when it comes to violence against Indigenous women and girls.
The report also calls on RCMP to increase Indigenous cultural knowledge for its officers, and renews Amnesty's demand for the Site C dam project to be stopped.
"There is a downside to the scale of resource development in the northeast and the people who live there," said Craig Benjamin, who helped prepare the report for Amnesty.
"Particularly, Indigenous women and girls are bearing a very heavy burden for hosting these products in their region."
Transient workers and crime
The report argues that resource development leads to an influx of transient workers, which contributes to a rise in crime, drug and alcohol use and violence against women.
Benjamin said many parts of Canada are facing similar problems, but they are particularly pronounced in northeast B.C.
Amnesty offers some statistics to illustrate the scope of the problems:
- In 2014, Fort St. John had the highest per capita crime rate in B.C. among all cities with a population of more than 15,000.
- Fort St. John's RCMP detachment has the highest caseload per officer in the province.
- Over a two-year period in 2011-12, roughly one in five Fort St. John court cases were tied to domestic violence.
- A survey of 300 women in the Fort St. John area found 93 per cent of Indigenous women and 78 per cent of all women had experienced violence.
- RCMP in Fort St. John and Dawson Creek are responsible for wide geographic areas, making it difficult to police remote communities and reserves.
Benjamin said police in the region are under-resourced and the problem is aggravated by the view of northeast B.C. as a "hardship" post.
"The cost of living is high, because of the isolation, the police themselves experience the same problems that all other employers do of retaining people in those posts," he said.
"We see a very large number of police officers who are on their first posting ever, so they're not coming with a lot of experience and they're not staying long enough to build up relationships with the Indigenous communities."
Cultural training needed
That sentiment is echoed by Connie Greyeyes, a Fort St. John community organizer and advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous woman.
She said she's heard from many people upset with the way police in the region handle cases relating to Indigenous communities, particularly when it comes to filing missing persons reports.
"Over and over again, if you talk to any family members, they've been told, 'They'll come back, give them a little time, they're probably partying,'" she said. "That should never be said when somebody is concerned for their family member who is missing."
She said improvements have been made in recent years, but problems still persist.
"I don't think that any of it is done on purpose," she said. "You do what you know."
Greyeyes applauded recommendations from Amnesty that RCMP increase police resources in the region, develop an "Indigenous cultural competency program" for officers headed to the north and increase the number of experienced officers working in the region.
The report also calls on the provincial and federal government to establish a "centre of excellence in northern law enforcement and justice" in northeast B.C. to improve policing, victim service workers and others working in the legal system.
International attention for local problems
Aside from policing, the report is critical of the provincial and federal governments, urging them to give more decision-making power to Indigenous communities when it comes to resource development and to immediately halt construction of the Site C dam.
It also calls on private companies to include more women in their workforce and for local governments to give priority to improving relationships with Indigenous people.
Greyeyes is hopeful that by having Amnesty International shine a light on the issues facing the region, solutions are more likely to be found. She said that since Amnesty began researching northeast B.C., she's seen more attention come from international media and even local leaders.
"I've had members of city council call and talk and say, 'You know, we'd like to help with this,'" she said. "And before, it's never crossed their mind."
Benjamin said that's the type of reaction he's hoping the report will prompt.
"I hope we change the dialogue," he said.
"We hope that we can actually catalyze public demand for real change and how decisions are made."