“When we’re together, there’s so much strength” Conversation with Connie Greyeyes

Connie Greyeyes is a grassroots activist from Fort St. John, a small community in northeastern British Columbia. She volunteers with the Fort St. John Women’s Resource Society, started the Women Warriors support group for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and she is one of the founders of the Fort St. John Sisters in Spirit vigil. Connie is a member of Alberta’s Bigstone Cree First Nation.

Amnesty International caught up with Connie as she was preparing for the Sisters in Spirit vigil scheduled for October 9 in Fort St. John. The vigil is held annually to honour the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and to raise awareness of the issue of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

Connie, you’ve been coming to Ottawa for the October 4th national vigil for missing and murdered Indigenous women for several years.  Can you talk about why it has been important to you to be there?

It was important for me, not only as an advocate but as a family member to attend the national vigil. To tell my cousin’s story and to relate the stories of the missing and murdered women from here in Fort St. John, BC. To tell my friends’ stories and let the people there know that there’s something that’s happening here in Fort St. John that needs to be addressed. It was very significant for me to be asked to attend as a family member and as a friend of many women who are missing and murdered.

One of the things that has been both moving and shocking about the stories that you’ve brought to those vigils is the numbers of women in your life, in your family and in your community who are missing or murdered.

It really is quite shocking when you think of the numbers of women here who were friends and that are missing right now or have been murdered.

I had that banner made a couple of years ago and we started putting the names of the women on there. I took a look at it one day and thought, wow, these aren’t just names, these are women who were in my life.

We’re a small community here and our lives are intertwined. So Shirley’s family knew Stacy’s family. Ramona’s family knew Shirley’s family. It’s not just one family that’s been affected. One woman would go missing and all our families would be affected.  They were either someone who used to babysit us or we used to babysit for them. The traumas were just overlapping each other and so heavy for families to carry.

It’s such a tragedy here. And it started to feel like this community didn’t care about it.

Not all the women went missing while living here. Some went missing or were murdered in other communities. But still, as much as we know that across the country First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls face such terrible levels of violence, is there nonetheless something about Fort St. John, something going on here that makes that threat of violence even worse?

There absolutely is. Fort St. John is a huge industry town. It’s called the ‘Energetic City’ for a reason. There are a huge number of transients who come to work here. And they don’t owe this community anything. Just being involved with the Women’s Resource Centre, the number of women who come in and the amount of violence women have experienced at the hands of complete strangers is astronomical.

It’s very easy to be an unknown in this town. You can commit a crime and no one knows who you are. And I’m really scared because of these other big projects that are coming into the community. The women and children are not going to be protected. And I do believe it’s directly linked to industry, to all of these camps that are set up in and around Fort St. John.

The majority of workers coming into the community I would say 90% are men. And like I say, they don’t owe the community anything. They can come here and behave however they want and then go back to their lives down south or wherever they’re coming from, and they can be anonymous here. And e people who pay for that are the people who are on the streets and the women and children.

You’ve worked in the oil and gas industry. Can you say a little bit about the work you did?

I was a medic for a lot of years on drilling rigs and I can tell you the amount of abuse that you take. Sexual harassment is commonplace. You go into one of the coffee rooms, they call them ‘the dog house’ and there’s pictures of naked women plastered all over. That’s their place to have their breaks. Either you fit in or you get out. You know what I mean?

It’s a thin line that you walk and you really have to protect yourself in these jobs. I remember going out to a job where they had separate quarters for women but being the only woman at the camp, being the only person in there. And that is scary when you think that next door there’s 400 people staying in the trailers next door who are all men. It’s very intimidating.

It’s a really tough industry for a woman to be in. I don’t doubt that there’s a lot of women who do enjoy working in the oil patch and thrive in it.

It’s really good money and in this town you need good money to live here. It’s either feast or famine in this community. You either work in the oil patch or have someone in your family that works in the oil patch and makes a lot of. money, or you’re in poverty.

Can you talk a little bit more about that? For people who don’t have access to those high wage jobs, what are the consequences?

It’s mostly women who face the consequences.

The high rent in Fort St. John – you can rent a townhouse here for more than $2,000. For a single mother to try to come up with that, it’s impossible. The rental places can ask what they want. It can be a dive and they’re still getting $1,500 for it. The food prices. I just went to the grocery store. You think it’s bad in northern communities? I bought three bags of fruit and it was $27 for a bag of apples, oranges and pears. I maybe had seven of each. That’s crazy.

How do single mothers live on that? How do you feed your child and out a roof over your head as a waitress at one of the restaurants? You don’t.  Do you go to places like the Women’s Resource Centre that are already spread so thin and seek help that way? The consequence of having an economy like this is that either you have it made or you’re one of the ones that are unfortunate and lives on the street, or has to rely on foodbanks to get by. That’s the way it is here.

It’s a terrible, terrible way to live for the women here. They put up with a lot from their spouses. The ones that are abusive relationships really don’t have much of an option. You stay, generally, because you can’t afford not to. I’ve had people in my life who have men who I know have said, ‘What’s she going to do? Nothing. She has to take it because I’m the one that makes the money.’

To be put in that position with your children is the most horrific tragedy to have to go through. Not only are you putting up with the abuse yourself, your children are learning that it’s ok to behave this way, it’s ok to behave terribly toward women, it’s ok to abuse them emotionally, physically and monetarily. I’ve heard little kids tell their mothers, ‘Just wait ’til Dad gets back.’ Those are the kinds of things that are being taught to our children in this economy where there is absolutely no forethought to our future.

I can say that without organizations like the Women’s Resource Centre, and the Friendship Centre which had an outreach van, without those organizations really fighting to keep those programs going, I don’t know what would happen.

We’re talking here in the park where you organized the first Sisters in Spirit vigil. I want to ask you about the way in which women in this community are organizing. Is there a movement coming together?

There is you know.

We’re in the same spot where we had our first vigil seven years ago. There were only 9 people then. Last year we had, like, 275 people. We’re getting heard. Unfortunately the powers that be here in Fort St. John haven’t seen fit to attend. Only one councillor has attended. That says a lot about what’s important in this community. Oil and gas. Everything else is an afterthought.

But I do think our youth are starting to pull together. We’ve got youth like Helen Knott who is organizing all kinds of wonderful events in the community to talk about women’s issues, to talk about the youth rising up to make change for themselves, to talk about protecting the land. We have youth like my niece who has beading and sewing groups trying to bring culture back because we know that that’s what’s going to help our children and our women.

When we’re together, there’s so much strength. There’s so much strength and resilience in a room full of women that have had so much tragedy but they can still come together and share a meal and laugh and teach their children. Watching them interact with each other, being able to smile even after finding out that your loved one was murdered. The incredible resilience that happens and takes place, it’s inspiring. How can you not be inspired? How can you not be inspired by women who have been to hell and back over their children? You know, fighting, trying to find justice. How can you not be inspired and want to continue fighting?

We have a Take Back the Night event. We have an event called a Slut Walk here in Fort St. John which is all about stopping the shaming of women for the way that they dress. We have the Sisters in Spirit vigil. I feel like those are starting to gain more notice. I’ve already been contacted by the media a couple of times over this year’s Sisters in Spirit vigil. I have no doubt that the media is starting to know that this is an important issue. These womern were important and are important. The more awareness we can raise, can only do good.

My husband works in the oil industry. When we first met, he was like, ‘Why do you have to do this? It’s causing a stir.’ It made him really uncomfortable. He was scared for me. He said, ‘It’s not safe to do those things.’ And he was right. But if one or two people don’t start to say, hey, this isn’t right, then nothing will change. Now, you know what, he’s so proud of it. He still works in the oil fields. He still works in that crazy industry. But now he’s starting to have those thoughts of, hey, I have to be with my kids more. This industry is going to suck the life out of me if I don’t do something.

I know that it changes people, that all these organizations and events we have in the community change peoples’ perceptions. If it doesn’t change people’s perceptions right away, that’s ok, but if it’s lit something inside them that says, ‘You know, I never really thought of it that way,’ then you’re making a huge difference.

That’s how the vigil happened. My friend Dave Terry, he’s passed on now, he said, look what they’re doing Connie, they’re doing this right across the country. I said, ‘What?’ He said they’re holding these vigils for missing and murdered women. We should do that. We should do that here.

And about a month later he had this kit from the Native Women’s Association. I was like, ‘What’s this?’ And he said, ‘It’s for our vigil. Remember the vigil? We’re going to have one on October 4th.’ And I was in.

The very next spring he passed away. As October slowly started to creep up, I was, I don’t know if I can do this. He was the brains behind it.  But I got a couple of calls from family members asking if we’re doing the vigil again and I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it again.’ I ordered the kit. And the Friendship Centre said, it’s too cold to do it outside, let’s do it at the Friendship Centre and we’ll cook a meal. And it just took off.

I already had relationships with these families because we had all known each other. But you know we forged this friendship that may be based around grief and loss, but those are friendships I will cherish for the rest of my life. Seeing Darlene, Ramona’s mother, the way she is so strong for her kids, She just plugs away and is not going to give up. Seeing Joe the way that he was after they found Rene and the strength that he had for his grandson. Those are the kind of people I aspire to be like. And they’ve taught me so much.

Going to Ottawa and speaking there has been a real honour. And this whole experience for me has been life altering. I know I’m raising my boys to be respectful men who will stand up for what’s right. They’re only 8 and 10 and they’ve spent the majority of their lives coming to rallies for women. And they know what’s right. They know we have to protect our women.

Learn more about Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters campaign.