AFN seeks public inquiry into allegations against Manitoba Hydro workers

A Manitoba chief is calling for compensation for Indigenous women in the north who say they were sexual abused by hydro workers decades ago.

Allegations of sexual assault, racism in new report nearly identical with B.C. findings

The Keeyask generating station, currently under construction, is one of a series of hydroelectric projects along the Nelson River in Manitoba. A report released by a provincial agency says Manitoba Hydro workers sexually abused Indigenous women in a remote northern community after the utility arrived in the area in the 1960s. (Keeyask Hydropower Limited Partnership.)

A Manitoba chief is calling for compensation for Indigenous women in the north who say they were sexual abused by hydro workers decades ago.

Kevin Hart, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, also says there should also be a broader public inquiry into resource development and the treatment of Indigenous women.

"There should be some legal justice for the families and compensation toward the women and the families," Hart told CBC News on Wednesday.

"Part of the mandate that comes forward should be to ensure that there are supports for the women and survivors, as well as the families in this case of this injustice that happened."

The allegations are detailed in a new report from the Clean Environment Commission, an arm's-length provincial agency that met with members of Makeso Sakahikan Inninuwak, also known as Fox Lake Cree Nation, in January.

In 165 pages of testimony from that meeting, community members, elders and band councillors described the effects of 4,000 Manitoba Hydro workers descending on their small community beginning in the 1960s. They spoke of sexual assaults, racism, feeling marginalized and a lack of socioeconomic opportunities.

Hart says he wasn't surprised to read about the allegations made in the report.

"This is something that has been said in First Nations communities for a number of years if not decades," he said.

Allegations echo B.C. findings: Amnesty International

A campaigner for Indigenous rights with Amnesty International says the allegations are not the first of their kind, and demonstrate the serious issues created when temporary workers flood into remote communities. 

Craig Benjamin, who works for Amnesty International and wrote Out of Sight, Out of Mind, a report on similar issues in Northern B.C., said the findings from the Clean Environment Commission were not surprising.

"What's described there is very consistent not only with the report that Amnesty did, but from stories we've heard from Indigenous communities across the North, and also what other reports have documented, including work of Indigenous organizations," he said.

The problems in Manitoba are almost identical to those identified in the report on northern British Columbia, he says.

When hundreds, even thousands, of temporary workers are sent into small, remote communities, it ends up overwhelming their resources, and it creates a situation where there aren't enough police officers to serve the population, he says.

"And then on top of that you add what are now really well-documented problems in work camps of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, cultures of violence, cultures of sexism that in many cases have never been properly dealt with," he said.

However, what is surprising about these allegations is that they're in a government report, Benjamin says.

"We have not seen this kind of information in such an assessment ever before," he said.

'Absolutely heartbroken'

The Manitoba government would "absolutely" offer an apology to the northern communities where the alleged abuses happened, Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said when asked.

"We read that report and were absolutely heartbroken about the years and years of systemic abuse and racism that had occurred in northern Manitoba, and I know many people like myself read that report with tears in my eyes," she said. 

"On behalf of our government, we apologize for what had occurred decades ago."

Indigenous and Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke is planning a trip north to speak with community members, Squires says.

The Clean Environment Commission's report includes testimony from people who grew up in the community describing the racism they encountered in and around Gillam as hydro workers from the south began to move in.

"They just came in and took over. We were pushed aside," Marie Henderson told the hearing.

"It even got to the point where they said we were squatters in our own land, because they wanted the construction to be built."

Shawna Henderson Arthurson says outsiders who came to the community started their own businesses instead of using businesses run by locals.

Others told the hearing that outside workers sexually abused women in the community.

RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Paul Manaigre said the force was made aware of the report Tuesday and is reviewing it.

With files from Information Radio and The Canadian Press