North·In Depth

Report documents 'degrading' treatment of Indigenous women at Yukon and B.C. mines

A new report documenting the experiences of Indigenous women and women of colour at mining camps in Yukon and northern B.C., suggests women are often assigned low-paying, menial jobs at mines because of their gender — and it's those very roles that often compromise their personal safety. 

73 per cent of women interviewed experienced harassment, discrimination and violence at mining camps

The abandoned Wolverine mine is seen near Watson Lake in southeast Yukon. A new report documenting the experiences of Indigenous women and women of colour at mining camps in Yukon and Northern B.C. suggests women are often assigned low-paying, menial jobs because of their gender — and it's those very roles that often compromise their personal safety.  (Yukon Zinc)

She had a ritual that involved loading and reloading a shotgun in front of a group of men.

The message seemed clear enough: Stay away.

"I would sleep with it right next to my bed, sometimes right in the bed next to me, and I'd have my bear spray right there, too," said the unidentified woman who is quoted in a new report documenting the experiences of Indigenous women and women of colour at mining camps in Yukon and Northern B.C. 

The report, titled "Never Until Now," was commissioned by the non-profit Liard Aboriginal Women's Society. It suggests that women are often assigned low-paying, menial jobs at mines because of their gender — and it's those very roles that often compromise their personal safety. 

"The study demonstrates the mining industry's colonial ethic of exploitation by revealing the degrading ways that Indigenous and racialized women mine workers are treated, both in the workplace and in their camp living conditions," the report reads.

"This discrimination thwarts dignified working conditions and jeopardizes women's personal safety and longevity of work security."

The report is largely based on interviews with 22 women — roughly half of whom belong to Yukon First Nations — between October 2020 and March 2021.

Workplaces include hard rock, exploration, placer, reclamation and field monitoring camps located in five mining districts: Watson Lake, Mayo, Dawson City and Whitehorse in Yukon, as well as Northern B.C.

One participant compared working at an isolated mining camp for an extended period to Alcatraz — the former U.S. federal prison located on an island just off the coast of California near San Francisco.

"That's what we called it because you got to go get across the river and get back in order to get out, and then we have to shut off all the lights at like 11 o'clock," the woman told the report's authors.

'They want change'

Ann Maje Raider, the executive director of the Liard Aboriginal Women's Society, told CBC that women have experienced problems at mines for decades, but this is the first time these issues have been compiled in a report.

Ann Maje Raider, executive director of the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society, said Indigenous and racialized women need to guide policymaking at mines. (Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society)

"Something needs to be done," she said.

"That's the reason the women trusted us to interview them, because they said they want change, and they don't want to see other women coming behind them to suffer the same things they have."

The report states that 73 per cent of respondents have experienced sexual and racial harassment, discrimination and violence.

Nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed said there was either no avenue for lodging complaints or the process was "unclear, unknown or they did not feel safe to report." 

Fifty-five per cent of participants said they don't feel safe at camp.

Spokespeople with the Yukon government and the Yukon Chamber of Mines didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Women cite poor working conditions, lack of overtime 

Participants reported economic insecurity in Yukon's mining sector, part and parcel of limited job opportunities, according to the report, which states that many respondents worked as cooks and housekeepers.

More than half of respondents say they never received promotions. A minority of participants said they worked as environmental monitors and as heavy equipment operators — examples of higher paying jobs.

Nearly all respondents reported working at least 60-hour weeks, with only 27 per cent of participants reporting they received overtime pay. Thirty-six per cent of respondents said their pay was commensurate with the number of hours they worked. 

"Participants reported poor working conditions, such as women's concentration in overworked, underpaid job ghettos, high rates of harassment and discrimination, and fear or experience of rape," the report states. 

While the majority of respondents indicated work in the sector improved financial security, 32 per cent said the industry didn't provide financial security, mainly because of low pay drawn out over long hours.

"Indigenous and racialized women isolated in a masculine working environment are undervalued and have limited opportunity for advancement, scholarship and training," the report states. 

It said that less than five per cent of workers at half of the surveyed mines identified as women.

Next steps

The report includes several recommendations, such as including Indigenous women in the creation of policies, legislation and strategies that seek to keep women safe and uphold their social and economic rights.

"Women would feel safer if, you know, they had a couple of elders out there so that the people on our land would know the power of our language, our culture and the way that we operate," said Carla Boss, an Indigenous woman from Lower Post, B.C., who helped interview some of the women.

The report also calls for the creation of support groups for women at mine camps.

Such groups could provide recourse to women in potentially dangerous situations and "identify improved management responses with clear timelines and procedures to report, investigate and respond to complaints of harassment, discrimination and violence." 

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