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RCMP investigated nine sex-assault allegations in four years at Keeyask

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/1/2019 (565 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

About five months after a report detailing allegations of sexual assault going back decades rocked Manitoba Hydro, the RCMP revealed they have investigated nine cases in the past four years at the Keeyask generating station construction site.

In an email Thursday, RCMP spokesman Robert Cyrenne listed the number of sexual-assault reports police received each year at Keeyask: one in 2015, two in 2016, three in 2017, and three in 2018.

Four men were charged with sexual assault after four investigations. In three other cases, the victims didn’t want to press charges.

In the other two, a third party reported a possible sexual assault, but the alleged victim didn’t want to take part in an investigation or didn’t respond to officers’ questions.

Four northern First Nations who have partnership stakes in Keeyask (725 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg) have repeatedly raised the issue of sexual violence at Manitoba Hydro camps.

As recently as last week, York Factory First Nation, Tataskweyak Cree Nation, War Lake First Nation and Fox Lake Cree Nation put out a news release and supporters rallied on the steps of the Manitoba legislature demanding a provincial inquiry into Hydro’s environmental and social impacts in the North.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said Friday he believes the number of sexual-assault cases reported by the RCMP is "conservative," as not all assaults are reported to authorities.

Grand Chief Garrison Settee

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Grand Chief Garrison Settee

"From our estimation, I think that there’s more; more incidents like this. It’s just that they go unreported because of fear and the shame involved in it, and we understand that," Settee said.

In an interview Jan. 18, Hydro president and chief executive officer Kelvin Shepherd estimated there were five or six sexual-assault investigations at Keeyask in recent years. He also said sexual assault was a societal ill Hydro couldn’t curb on its own.

"I’m not going to defend that any one, any single incident, is acceptable because I don’t agree that it is. But I would also tell you that you’re dealing with a very large workforce," Shepherd said, referring to a group of Keeyask workers that has peaked around 2,400.

"It’s made up of people that represent the general population you could find in Winnipeg or Manitoba or Canada. We have very good policies, we have very good monitoring, we have lots of excellent things we’re doing. But these are incidents that do happen everywhere in our society. And so I don’t accept that it’s something Hydro can just somehow prevent from happening."

Settee took issue with Shepherd’s statement, noting Hydro shouldn’t minimize the problem.

"People are accountable -- should be accountable. We cannot blame society when something is happening within your domain. You are responsible," he said.

However, Settee said the August 2018 release of a Manitoba Clean Environment Commission report, which contained historical allegations of abuse involving Hydro staff and RCMP, seemed to "open the door" for conversation.

CEO of Manitoba Hydro Kelvin Shepherd

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

CEO of Manitoba Hydro Kelvin Shepherd

"I think it’s been a long time coming. The situation and the gravity of these allegations has come to light. And I think for the healing to take place, those discussions need to be had," Settee said.

"Before reconciliation, there’s got to be some cold hard truth -- and I think that’s what’s happening."

U of M prof, northern MP weigh in

University of Manitoba Prof. Peter Kulchyski has studied Hydro’s impact in the North for years, and says he brought up the issue of preventing sexual violence at Keeyask during hearings held in 2013 before the start of construction.

His concerns were met with indifference.

“I spoke at the (Manitoba) Clean Environment Commission hearings and said this is going to happen. We need to take some much stronger affirmative measures and try and do something about it. And, basically, there was a collective shrug. Nobody was interested," Kulchyski said.

University of Manitoba Prof. Peter Kulchyski has studied Hydro’s impact in the North for years, and says he brought up the issue of preventing sexual violence at Keeyask during hearings held in 2013 before the start of construction.

His concerns were met with indifference.

“I spoke at the (Manitoba) Clean Environment Commission hearings and said this is going to happen. We need to take some much stronger affirmative measures and try and do something about it. And, basically, there was a collective shrug. Nobody was interested," Kulchyski said.

"Honestly, I think up until this recent wave of media coverage, they (Manitoba Hydro) haven’t been concerned."

On Thursday, RCMP told the Free Press that nine sexual-assault investigations have been launched at Keeyask since 2015.

Kulchyski said he's heard stories of sexual violence happening at "virtually every construction camp" dating to Grand Rapids in the 1960s.

"There is a sense in which I feel (Hydro is) actively suppressing, rather than actually confronting the problem and trying to figure out ways of dealing with it," he said. "We would all acknowledge that it’s a difficult problem and there are no easy (solutions)… Basically, what they want to do is keep awareness of the problem to a minimum, which is then not helping us confront it.

“The bottom line is the bottom line: they don’t care."

NDP MP Niki Ashton, whose sprawling northern riding includes the Keeyask generating station site, called the number of recent sexual-assault investigations at the plant "shocking."

“There needs to be some ownership, and immediate action needs to be taken by Hydro,” Ashton said Friday. “Women affected, and the First Nations impacted, deserve justice.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caused an outcry last month, when he explained feminist policy analysis is needed for everything, including infrastructure projects.

“There are gender impacts when you bring construction workers into a rural area. There are social impacts, because they’re mostly male construction workers,” Trudeau said at an event in Argentina.

Some have linked his comments to last year’s revelation of historical sexual-assault allegations in a CEC report; far more have criticized Trudeau, saying he was disparaging construction workers.

Trudeau’s office has claimed he was instead calling for more women to enter trades.

-- Jessica Botelho-Urbanski and Dylan Robertson

Hydro has started working with members of Tracia’s Trust (Manitoba's anti-sexual exploitation strategy) and the Keeyask partner nations to develop on-site training, a spokesperson said.

The Crown corporation also twice brought in members of the RCMP to host workshops on drugs, alcohol and sexual exploitation; sponsored performances by motivational musician Robb Nash; and invited members of Winnipeg’s Bear Clan Patrol to try and help find community-based solutions.

"The number (of cases) appears to be on the rise because we talk about sexual assault -- and sexual exploitation -- more openly now, and we have been working very hard to actively encourage people to report it," Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen said by email.

"Second, there was a significant increase in population of workers at Keeyask in 2016-18, in comparison to 2015, as work on the project increased."

Construction of the $8.7-billion Keeyask project is expected to be completed by late 2021 or early 2022.

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu

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