Amnesty International calls for more police in Fort St. John, northeast B.C.

Amnesty International is calling on the RCMP to deploy more police officers to northeast B.C. in order to deal with problems caused by resource development, including violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Resource development contributes to crime, putting Indigenous women and girls most at risk, Amnesty says

People in Fort St. John march for Sisters in Spirit, a group for missing and murdered Indigenous women organized by Connie Greyeyes. (Fort St. John Sisters in Spirit/Facebook)

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.

The report titled Out of Sight, Out of Mind provides an overview of the ways in which resource development in B.C.'s Peace River region — including fracking, coal mining and hydroelectric dams — affect vulnerable populations. 
The new report from Amnesty International connects elements of resource development with violence against Indigenous women and girls. (Amnesty International)

"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.

Crime rates in Fort St. John are among the highest in the country. (Amnesty International)

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.

Amnesty International says Fort St. John RCMP need more resources and experienced officers in order to deal with crimes against women and problems stemming from 'shadow populations' of transient resource workers. (Google Maps)

"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.

Part of the Peace River Valley is scheduled to be flooded in order to build the Site C dam in northeastern British Columbia. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

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." 

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.