British Columbia

Work camp for new B.C. energy project raises safety concerns for Indigenous women and girls

Groups advocating on behalf of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) say they worry a major fossil fuel project in Squamish, B.C., presents risks to the safety of women in the community.

House of Commons committee cites lack of research on local impact of resource-extraction companies

A traditional Squamish headpiece is pictured during a ceremony breaking ground on the Squamish-led Senakw housing development near the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Groups advocating on behalf of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) say they worry a major fossil fuel project in Squamish, B.C., presents risks to the safety of women in the community.

They're asking the province  to exercise its "due diligence to protect Indigenous women and girls."

Major construction on Fortis B.C.'s Eagle Mountain-Woodfibre LNG high-pressure gas pipeline project is expected to start in 2023. The companies proposed a temporary work camp for about 600 workers this year to house the workforce, given the local housing crunch.

The project would supply 50 kilometres of new gas pipeline between Coquitlam and Woodfibre LNG in Squamish.

Sue Brown, a lawyer and director of legal advocacy at Justice for Girls, says there has been very little research by governments and corporations on how these camps impact local Indigenous communities.

"Much of the evidence that has been collected has been done by the communities themselves," Brown told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition.

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Karen Vecchio, the chair of the House of Commons standing committee on the status of women, says there is a lack of research on the impact of resource-extraction companies on Indigenous women and girls.

She says the committee is working on its third study looking at MMIWG and the resource sector and will be publishing a report with its findings and recommendations for the federal government by the end of the year.

"We recognize that there are gaps, and that is one of the reasons for doing this study. One of the biggest things that we need to be applying on these projects are impact statements from the communities."

In 2019, a national inquiry into MMIWG called on resource industries and regulators to consider the safety and security of Indigenous women and girls and the connection between work camps and sexual violence.

Vecchio says communities with resource extraction companies are often isolated and remote with no available resources.

"They do not have the infrastructure for hundreds and sometimes up to 1,000 people coming into the community."

Increased rates of sexual assault

A study in 2017 by the Firelight Group in northern B.C. looked at sexual assault rates in communities like Fort St. John, where resource extractive industries were present and found an increase of 26 per cent in the first year of operation.

Brown said another study by Northern Health found a 22 per cent increase in sexually transmitted infections in communities in the north where resource extractive industries were present.

"The information that's been collected here and abroad is that there is absolutely no doubt that there is a link between sexual exploitation, sexual violence, physical violence and these camps."

Following consultations with the Squamish First Nation, Woodfibre LNG says it's submitted a proposal to the province for a floatel instead of a work camp — floating housing that would be located seven kilometres away from Squamish near the project site on the far side of Howe Sound.

"The choice of floatel was made at the request of the community and is supported by the Squamish Nation. We are currently in the approval process with the B.C. government," said Rebecca Scott, the director of communications for Woodfibre LNG. 

She says the floatel will only be accessible by boat and was chosen for its minimal impact on the Squamish community and Sea to Sky corridor.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Fortis B.C. said a community engagement in 2019 showed that temporary accommodations were the preferred option for housing the workforce required for the Eagle Mountain Gas Pipeline project.

"The full-service lodge will meet all the needs of our workforce, providing food, basic medical, and exercise and recreation facilities. This will reduce the impact on housing availability and on local services," said Zaneta Ewashko, the communications adviser for Fortis.

She says everyone at the work site will receive mandatory Indigenous cultural awareness training and must follow a worker's code of conduct that outlines topics including drug and alcohol use and respectful after-hours behaviour.


Christina Jung is a digital reporter for CBC. Got a story idea? Email or tweet @CBC_Cjung

With files from The Early Edition