Families call for Highway of Tears inquiry

Brenda Wilson, sister of Ramona Wilson, addresses the hearing. - Arthur Williams  photo
Brenda Wilson, sister of Ramona Wilson, addresses the hearing.
— image credit: Arthur Williams photo

Family members of women missing or murdered along the Highway of Tears called on Missing Women Commission of Inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal for a separate inquiry.

Oppal was in Prince George in late January for an informal, pre-inquiry public forum. Family members and Aboriginal leaders said disappearances and murders of women in the North took place under very different circumstances than the women missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and convicted serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims.

Brenda Wilson said she the murder of her sister, Ramona Wilson, in 1994 should be grouped with Pickton’s victims.

“The majority of the girls that went missing on the Highway of Tears are, in fact, girls — not grown women,” Wilson said.

“They have answers. They have a killer behind bars. We have no answers.”

Ramona was 16-years-old when she went missing from Smithers on June 11, 1994. She told her mother she was going to a friend’s house in Smithers, then tried to find a ride to a nearby reservation to visit friends there, Wilson said. When Ramona didn’t come home, her family started looking for her at all her friends’ homes, school and her part-time jobs.

“We contacted the police and they weren’t very helpful at that time,” Wilson said. “

Why did they not send out an amber alert? Why did they not start an investigation right away? Our human rights have been violated.”

Ramona’s body was found 10 months later near the Smithers Airport.

Rural aboriginal communities lack the community resources and infrastructure of major centres like Vancouver, she added.

“We do not have the required transportation to keep our community members safe. Please come and see our communities, see what we have to live with,” Wilson said.

“Then you’ll understand why there are so many girls missing.”

Carrier Sekani Tribal Council vice-chief Terry Teegee said with so many aboriginal girls and young women missing or murdered, the scope of the inquiry is simply too vast.

“I recommend having two inquiries simply to dedicate enough time to all the families,” Teegee said.

“Whether it’s the downtown eastside or Highway of Tears, it’s obvious the system is broken.”

Teegee said there are three women from his community alone whose deaths are covered in the scope of the inquiry: Ramona Wilson, Norma George — murdered in 1992 — and Jackie Murdock, whose fingerprints and DNA were found on Pickton’s farm.

“I recommend you look at the root causes: the situation in our communities. Our communities that have a lack of services. Our communities that have a lack of infrastructure,” Teegee said.

Oppal said as commissioner it’s not up to him to set the mandate or determine if there should be two inquiries. That authority rests with the provincial government, he said.

“There has been strong recommendations here for the Highway of Tears to be a second inquiry. If a second inquiry occurs, that has to come from government,” Oppal said.

“(But) while some people have called this the Pickton inquiry, the mandate is not restricted to that. We are to embark upon changes in how police conduct investigations. We’ve been remiss in Canada and we’ve accepted what police tell us.”

It will be up to voters and the public to ensure that governments and police follow through with the recommendations the inquiry eventually makes, Oppal said.

Formal hearings in the inquiry are expected to begin in June.

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