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Amnesty International extends missing women probe

When Amnesty International's Craig Benjamin began researching missing and murdered women in Fort St. John earlier this year, he knew it was a big problem. He didn't know how big.
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Connie Greyeyes (centre) along with other First Nations activists from the Peace travelled to a missing and murdered women vigil on Parliament Hill Oct. 4. The presence of so many women from the Peace Region at previous rallies initially set off the investigation by Amnesty International.

When Amnesty International's Craig Benjamin began researching missing and murdered women in Fort St. John earlier this year, he knew it was a big problem.

He didn't know how big.

"When we started really meeting people from a wide range range of organizations, First Nations community members and government, it became clear there was really an enormous story to be told," said Benjamin, an Ottawa-based campaigner with the human rights group.   

So enormous that Amnesty is expanding its mission in the Peace Region. Benjamin returned to the Peace last week as part of that mission. The goal is to better understand how natural resource development impacts the safety of women and children. First Nations groups, non-profits and the local RCMP will be among the interviewees.

Amnesty initially planned to wrap up its investigation in May.

On Oct. 4, First Nations activists from the Peace travelled to a missing and murdered women vigil on Parliament Hill. The presence of so many women from the Peace Region at previous rallies initially set off the investigation, Benjamin said. 

"I think there's a public consensus that indigenous women face a greatly elevated threat of violence in their lives," he said.

"We thought it would be useful to focus on a particular community and look in greater depth at the issues and reflect back to the public what people on the front lines are saying needs to happen."

A 2014 RCMP report found that 1,181 aboriginal women had gone missing (164) or been killed (1,017) since 1980. As of April 2015, there were 174 open missing persons cases involving aboriginal women across the country.

Regional numbers are difficult to come by, though most believe more than a dozen women from the Peace have gone missing or been killed in that timeframe.

While the issue is usually associated with Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Benjamin said there is much to learn about violence against indigenous women in resource communities. 

"If you look at the Oppal Commission, it was focused on the Downtown Eastside," he said, referring to the Missing Women Commission, which delivered its report in 2012.

"It had some content examining the Highway of Tears. But it didn't extend its reach farther north than that.

"One reason for (studying Fort St. John) was to raise awareness of how easy it is to neglect the experience of people in the more northern regions."

While it's too soon to say what recommendations the Amnesty report will make to government and social services, housing has come up in every discussion.

"People who don't have access to the great wages of the oil patch find it very difficult to find affordable accommodation," he said.

"When we look at the risk factors for violence against women, lack of access to safe and affordable housing is a key one. It pushes women into risky situations, or deters women from leaving abusive situations."

Amnesty expects to release its full report in the next six months.

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