After the Second World War, government officials in the Peace Region faced a challenge. Thousands of men were returning from the front, and government policy was to settle veterans on farms. But in the Peace, good farmland was in short supply.
The solution? Move two Treaty 8 First Nations to new reserves.
For Judy Maas, the decades-old decision to relocate what would become the Blueberry River First Nation is a link in the chain of events that led to her sister’s murder at the hands of serial killer Cody Legebokoff.
Cynthia Maas’s tragic story is included in a new Amnesty International report on resource development and missing and murdered Indigenous women in Northeast B.C.
The study, titled Out of Sight, Out of Mind, is the first time the human rights group’s missing and murdered women campaign has taken a close look at the Peace Region, and how its boom and bust economy impacts Indigenous women and girls.
The study examines the ways in which oil and gas, forestry and other resource extraction intensifies dangerous socioeconomic conditions for First Nations people—in particular women.
For Blueberry River, where Maas and her sister are originally from, the land swap was the start of an at-times painful relationship with oil and gas
While the details of the transaction continue to be disputed, the Indigenous groups that became Blueberry and Doig River First Nations were moved from their original reserves to marginal parcels north of Fort St. John following the war. Along the way, a government official failed to transfer the mineral rights beneath the reserves, leaving the nations out of a massive oil and gas windfall in the 1970s.
After decades of legal battles, the Supreme Court of Canada awarded $147 million in lost incomes to the two First Nations in the late 1990s.
It should have been a victory for the nations. Instead, the huge infusion of money into a community of hunters and trappers brought drugs alcohol, excess and violence.
“Today, you look at it and ask did the money help?” said Judy Maas, who for eight years was tribal chief at the Treaty 8 Tribal Association. “No it didn’t. How could it have helped? We didn’t have the means to make it work the way it should have worked. It disintegrated the family unit, it disintegrated the community spirit and the community unit.”
Judy and her sisters grew up in poverty and in and out of foster care. As the youngest sister, Cynthia’s family called her Cinderella. She spent her entire life with undiagnosed fetal alcohol disorders due to wrangling between the provincial and federal governments over responsibility for First Nations health care.
Shortly after the Montney win, as the court case became known, the community began to struggle with an uptick in drug and alcohol abuse. Cynthia was offered drugs while babysitting for a cousin, and her disorder made her predisposed to addiction. She eventually followed a boyfriend to Edmonton, got trapped in an abusive relationship, became pregnant.
Cynthia came home to Fort St. John for a time to battle her addiction and get ready to be a mother. She attended treatment in Vancouver and Prince George, but ultimately her baby was taken and placed in a foster home.
“The last day she was seen, she was faxing in all of her paper work to…start the process of getting this child back into her care,” Judy Maas said. “She didn’t get the supports she needed to ensure she could be a healthy parent. That alone put the last nail in her coffin.”
Legebokoff was convicted of murdering Cynthia and three other women aged 15-35 in 2014. Her body, beaten with a pick-axe, was discovered in a park in 2010.
For Maas, there’s a direct link between the violence Legebokoff inflicted on her sister and the exploitation of land and resources.
She hopes the focus Amnesty has placed on the issue in Northeast B.C. will inform the government’s inquiry into
missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“This report in no way says that we want all resource extraction and industry to be stopped,” she said. “This is about realizing there are other impacts (of resource development) that we need to take a look at as a society as a whole. We need to stop putting our heads in the sand.”