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‘Man camps’ may be a threat to Yukon Indigenous women and girls, say advocates

Local advocates say the findings from the MMIWG report on resource extraction and violence against women apply here too

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) final report was released June 3. Its findings — including a formal declaration of genocide — included conclusions around the relationship between resource extraction-linked “man camps” and the danger of sexual and domestic violence for Indigenous women and girls living in adjacent Indigenous communities.

The report’s statements on man camps does not specifically mention the territory, but the Yukon has similar conditions to other regions in northern British Columbia and Ontario, such as remote resource extraction and isolated Indigenous populations, which begs an important question: Have mining and resource extraction, the man camps associated with them and culture which surrounds them damaged Indigenous women and girls in the territory the way the report found they have in the provinces, and do they continue to do so now?

Yes, say both a First Nations and women’s issues expert in the territory. They have and they do.

“In the development of the Yukon, we have had a wave of exploration, a wave of mining, a wave of highway builders. Throughout those waves, Indigenous women were abused,” says Marilyn Jensen, member of Carcross/Tagish First Nation, and founder and leader of the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers.

“We were not safe when that highway was built,” she says. “Elders have told me, if you went out by yourself (as a woman) you were going to get raped. It was as straightforward as that.”

Jensen says her work teaching First Nation governance with Yukon College has allowed her to interview First Nations Elders and women across the territory, many of who speak about the sexual and domestic violence surrounding resource extraction and temporary work projects, including the Alaska Highway, which spawned what they refer to as “the highway kids.”

These were children were the product of sexual unions — consensual or non-consensual — between non-Indigenous highway workers and First Nations women. When the highway was built the men went, leaving these children to grow up without a father, further damaging the community, she says.

These kinds of pregnancies and abuses happened where the military was involved in the territory as well, she notes.

Jensen says her “mother’s generation and grandmother’s generation were just not safe,” much of the time, and that even now, as an Indigenous woman, she often feels she has to be on alert. Indigenous women are viewed as being “lesser than” other people, she says.

“People say ‘it’s just an Indian woman, who cares?’” she says. “It’s a kick in the stomach.”

According to the MMIWG report, “the National Inquiry heard testimony and examined evidence that suggested resource extraction projects can exacerbate the problem of violence against Indigenous women and girls. Expert Witnesses told the National Inquiry that resource extraction can drive violence against Indigenous women and girls in several ways, including issues related to transient workers, harassment and assault in the workplace, rotational shift work, substance abuse/addictions, and economic insecurity. They argued that resource extraction can lead to increased violence against Indigenous women at the hands of non-Indigenous men, as well as increased violence within First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. “

These findings are “definitely” applicable to the Yukon and Yukon First Nations as well, says Aja Mason, co-director for the Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre in Whitehorse.

There are two main prongs to the issues surrounding man camps, Mason says. Firstly the “fly in and fly out ethos” which surrounds remote resource extraction means that workers, mainly men, come into remote areas about which they know relatively little and in which they are not invested in as community members.

“There’s no buy-in as a community, no sense of ‘this is my home,’” she says. This means that nearby communities are “the place you go to drive to work, the place you go to buy your fifteen pack, get your blow, to get laid.”

A 2017 report by the Firelight Group entitled “Indigenous Communities and Industrial Camps: Promoting Healthy Communities in Settings of Industrial Change,” produced in co-operation with Lake Babine Nation and Nak’azdli Whut’en, found similar results, citing “an increased influx of alcohol and drugs coming into Indigenous communities as a result of higher disposable incomes of workers in industrial camps. Workers with time off may choose to party, drink, and socialize with community members, while under the influence.”

During an exclusive interview on June 12, chief commissioner of the MMIWG inquiry, Marion Buller, told the News she wasn’t aware of problems associated with man camps in the Yukon, the caveat being that that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening at all.

“I didn’t hear from all of the witnesses here,” she said. “I don’t remember that, but it doesn’t mean it’s not an issue.

“When we were looking at man camps, we were looking at these massive camps, for lack of a better word, that would have hundreds of people rotating through. I don’t know if the size of the camps makes a difference, but it doesn’t make it better either.”

The MMIWG report cites a document by Amnesty International on the subject which found that, “a highly stressful environment, physical isolation, and the drug and alcohol abuse at some camps all create an environment that can be unsafe for women.”

Secondly, the rotational work cycle often employed in mining camps disrupts normal social and familial patterns. Many remote communities already suffer from social and economic difficulties, including higher than average rates of domestic violence and lower economic potential, and the added stressors of mining camps — remote work, often in dry environments, away from their families — puts additional pressures on already strained social relations, Mason says.

The Yukon “already has a very high level of acceptance towards sexualized and domestic violence,” Mason says. That, coupled with the already difficult situations in some remote communities — the Yukon Bureau of Statistics notes that 33.5 per cent of the population of the territory makes $30,000 a year or less according to the 2016 census, with much of that poverty centred in the communities — creating a “melting pot” effect, further exacerbating already difficult situations for women, she says.

Mason says one way to mitigate these potential negative consequences is for resource extraction companies to run proactive training within an emphasis on Indigenous women in their camps, and for the government to mandate that education as part of the negotiations for allowing that resource extraction in the first place.

“Money talks,” she says.

The Firelight report agrees, finding, “The focus of environmental assessment must change to ensure communities, and in particular women and children, do not shoulder the burden of impacts of industrial camps. This means that all parties need to consider social, cultural, and environmental issues in industrial camp review and siting. Ministries and agencies need to plan service delivery in the north, specifically to manage the issues raised in this work, and connect and adequately fund service delivery to already vulnerable populations.”

Women are also less likely to report sexual or domestic violence in these small communities, she notes, because of the closeness of those communities. The perpetrators “may be their brothers, uncles, friends and loved ones,” which create social barriers to reporting, she adds.

As to why the relationship between resource extraction in the Yukon and dangers to Indigenous women wasn’t presented in the MMIWG report, Mason says that might come down to the numbers. With a population of less than 40,000, the Yukon is statistically more difficult to work with, as “the ability to extrapolate from small samples is extremely weak” creating a “black box effect” in which it’s difficult to tell what is really happening in these small, under-the-radar communities, she says.

Research and interviews conducted starting in 2014 by the University of Vienna involving around 100 Yukon mine workers and their family members on the health and lifestyle impacts of mine camps found that most of the people working here had good coping skills. That research was turned into the Mobile Workers Guide, which was published in 2017 and is designed to offer help and tips to camp workers and their families for maintaining healthy lifestyles and partnerships. The guide was part of a social science research program being run out of Yukon College in partnership with Lakehead University and is endorsed by the Yukon Chamber of Mines.

Samson Hartland, executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines, told the News that the chamber needed to “circle back” and speak with Yukon First Nations to determine if they have concerns about the camps within the territory.

The MMIWG final report findings on man camps, as well as the Firelight report, are based both on research and interviews conducted within the affected communities and by affected community members. Although neither of them specifically mention the Yukon, Jensen says she says the research is still applicable here.

Beyond the physical and emotional dangers which may be posed by man camps, the philosophy of much of resource extraction and the culture which surrounds it — that the land is something to be used and exploited — is inherently “hurtful” to First Nations people, who “liken the land to mother earth,” Jensen says.

“Women are life givers, Mother Earth provides life for us,” she says.

“Everything is alive, connected and important… you can’t be abusive to the earth without being abusive to us.”

With files from Julien Gignac and Ashley Joannou

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