By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – The Manitoba government is asking the RCMP to investigate accusations that hydro development in northern Manitoba decades ago led to sexual abuse of Indigenous women.
The allegations are contained in a report from the province’s arm’s-length Clean Environment Commission, which held hearings earlier this year on the environmental and social effects of energy development from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Much of the development was centered around the community of Gillam and the nearby Fox Lake Cree Nation.
“The arrival of a largely male construction workforce led to the sexual abuse of Indigenous women. People spoke of construction workers getting them inebriated and then taking advantage of them,” the report said.
“Some spoke of instances of institutions intended to protect people, particularly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, brutalizing men, permitting the exploitation of women, and failing to take local complaints seriously, although there were also instances of these complaints being addressed.”
Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires called the allegations disturbing and said she is referring the issue to the RCMP.
“We know that there (is) no statute of limitations on sexual violence,” Squires said Tuesday. “We want to ensure there is a path forward for anybody to come forward and have their complaints, or their allegations, heard and investigated if that is their wish.”
The Mounties will also examine their original handing of complaints, Squires added.
Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen said officials at the Crown utility “take these allegations extremely seriously and we will co-operate fully with RCMP.”
The commission was tasked with a broad examination of social and environmental impacts of the construction of a series of dams along northern Manitoba rivers over the space of four decades.
Some elders told the hearings they remembered thousands of workers coming into the region and creating conflict.
“I’ve seen men — Fox Lake band members — young men my age that I used to hang around with, my brothers-in-law later on, get beaten up. I seen women raped,” Franklin Arthurson told a hearing in January, according to Clean Environment Commission transcripts.
“I seen a woman getting raped and I couldn’t do a damn thing. And all they did was laugh, like it was nothing, it was no big deal,” Marie Henderson told the same hearing.
The arrival of Hydro workforces also led to racial tension, environmental degradation and an end to the traditional way of life for some Indigenous people, the report said.
“Forested areas have been cleared to make way for construction sites and transmission lines. Access to the land became, and remained, limited as Hydro consumed ever greater portions of the landscape.”
The government will discuss the report’s findings with leaders from the communities and try to ensure future development is very different, Squires said.
“We are also acting, in conjunction with Hydro, to work towards mitigating environmental impacts as well as ensuring that future projects are not going to be adding to the systemic challenges that have faced northern Manitoba.”