Commissioner Wally Oppal listens to the stories of those affected by the disappearances of aboriginal women on Highway 16.

Commissioner Wally Oppal listens to the stories of those affected by the disappearances of aboriginal women on Highway 16.

Feature Story: Old Wounds reopened as missing women inquiry begins

There were tears, anger, frustration and a great deal of cynicism when the public inquiry into BC’s missing Aboriginal women held its first public meeting in Prince Rupert on Monday.

There were tears, anger, frustration and a great deal of cynicism when the public inquiry into BC’s missing Aboriginal women held its first public meeting in Prince Rupert on Monday.

The inquiry is being headed by former BC attorney general Wally Oppal, and is asking the public for  input on ways to deal with a problem that has been plaguing the Yellowhead Highway and Vancouver’s downtown east side for decades; an epidemic of disappearances that for a long time was largely ignored by authorities.

Prince Rupert is the first stop on the inquiry’s tour that will take it all over the north of BC including two full days in Prince George. The inquiry grew out of another public investigation into how the serial killer Robert Pickton had managed to kill women from Vancouver’s infamous downtown east side for so many years while remaining undetected. Commissioner Oppal, who was put in charge of that investigation, had asked for its scope to be expanded from just women from Vancouver to include the women who have – and still do — disappear along the Highway of Tears. The Provincial government agreed.

“It is my utmost hope that this work well help bring us positive change, that it will provide concrete recommendations, will help and assist ongoing recommendations, and that these horrific crimes can be resolved and prevented. Then the community can heal and it can live in peace. We deserve to live in peace,” said Commissioner  Oppal in his opening statement..

Once all the meeting have been held, Oppal will write a report on the subject with policy recommendations to the Provincial government for how to address the problem.

 

DASHED HOPES TURN TO CYNICISM

 

The level of faith in the inquiry’s ability to make a difference in a problem that has plagued northern  communities for decades was underwhelming to say the least. Some speakers were furious to the point of tears over what they see as chronic ineffectiveness on the part of authorities – both the government and the police – when trying to address such an important and painful problem. Other speakers practically pleaded to commissioner Oppal not to let his report to the government be ignored and its recommendations left to languish in bureaucratic purgatory.

“My greatest fear always is that after all the hearings we have, are we actually going to be heard? Are we really going to be heard? One we put it down are you going to take it back [to the government] and will policy actually be made out of it, or will it be pushed aside again,” asked  Lax Kw’alaams’ hereditary chief, Murray Smith during his speech to the inquiry.

Scepticism over whether or not the government will actually act upon the conclusions of the public inquiry are not without reason.

In 2006 another attempt to address the disappearances along Highway 16 was made in the form of The Highway of Tears Symposium: An invitation only gathering in Prince George that produced a report with a number of recommendations to government, communities and the police. Even though the symposium was run by First Nations and Aboriginal community organizations, many at the inquiry considered it to have been poorly handled since very few people from Prince Rupert were invited to participate.

On top of that, after five years, the impression is that the recommendations that the symposium did make have been largely not acted upon. Recommendations for a shuttle between communities, safe houses, and emergency phones along the highway have not been acted upon. The City of Prince Rupert received money for an anti-hitchhiking billboard over two years ago and still none has been built.

Commissioner Oppal recognized that the people gathered at the college had reason to be skeptical, but promised that this time it would be different.

“I know that sometimes members of the public get jaundice about investigations, inquiries and reports. They say ‘what’s the use, we’ve had many of these before?’ I can tell you that this is a serious inquiry and we want to hear what you have to say,” said Oppal.

Whether or not the recommendations to come out of the inquiry are acted upon will be largely the decision of the Provincial Government. Provincial Aboriginal Relations critic Scott Fraser says that the provincial government can not afford to ignore the recommendations.

“I think its essential that they [take the recommendations seriously]…The first thing that has to happen before this will have any credibility as a real inquiry or any effect,the government  needs to follow the recommendations of  the commissioner,” says Fraser.

 

SCARED OF NOT BEING HEARD

From the moment the four hour long meeting at Northwest Community College began, criticism was hurled from all sides at the commission for how the inquiry was being handled. Hereditary Chief Murray Smith said during his speech that the requirement that speakers register with the inquiry had most likely intimidated many First Nations people into not participating out of fear that if they had not registered beforehand they would not get to speak. Another prominent native elder from Prince Rupert, Leonard Alexcee, had apparently not decided to come for that reason.

“A lot of our people are afraid to speak; They’re afraid of ridicule. This hallway should be packed with our people, but they live in such fear of not being heard that they’re not even making the effort to come here,” said Smith as he gestured towards the hallway filled with only the occasional student walking to and from class.

After the criticism was raised, Oppal explained that the commission had decided to go with registration in order to keep track of who wanted to speak, but that they were not turning away anyone who did. In fact, the small number of people who showed up at the meeting without prior  notice were given time to speak.

Out of the 60 to 70 people who attended, most were representatives from different organizations from  Prince Rupert, including the RCMP, Transition House, the Aboriginal Education Council and more. Less than half were residents, far less than what Smith says it should have been considering the impact this issue has had on Prince Rupert’s aboriginal population

But, the small First Nations turnout wasn’t the only notable absence from the meeting. Neither of the elected First Nations chiefs from Prince Rupert, Garry Reece and Harold Leighton, were in attendance. Nor was Prince Rupert’s mayor Jack Mussallem, or any representative of the city council While he did not say so during the meeting itself, afterward commissioner Oppal said he was disappointed that even the mayor had not come.

“What I am cornered to see that your the mayor is not here. It’s their community, it’s important for them to be here to help represent it,” he said.

One of the Commission’s lawyers, Linda Locke admitted that perhaps the meeting in Prince Rupert had not been as well advertised as it should have been

 

STORIES OF PAIN AND LOSS

 

Underneath the talk of funding, attendance, recommendations, inquires and reports, there are people whose lives have been turned upside down after they or a loved one  was made a victim on Highway 16 or in Vancouver’s downtown east side. Some of those people were at the college standing in front of strangers  sometimes with shaking voices, sometimes in tears, sometimes holding the hand of a loved one and they explained the suffering that had been inflicted upon them.

Vicki Hill’s mother disappeared while travelling in 1978 when she was  just six months old. Her mother, Mary Jane Hill, was eventually found dead along Highway 16, how her mother came to be there has never been solved. Three decades later, Vicki now has two children of her own that will never know their grandmother.

“My mother will never see my kids graduation, she won’t see me get married. I won’t know her face . . . But as a mother I do what I can for my kids. I talk to them, I tell them how I feel, I try to be strong, but it’s not easy,” Hill told the inquiry as she fought back tears.

“I want justice. Not only for my mom, but for the rest of the women  and their families.”

Janice Brown says that she was a troubled teenager and had been fighting addiction since she was 19 years old. Four years ago, she found out firsthand about the dangers Aboriginal women face while hitchhiking in Northern BC while she was on the Haida Gwaii.

“I got picked up by this guy, today I still don’t know who it was. They left me for dead and I was found nine hours later, and I was only 20 minutes out of town,” says Brown as she begins to cry.

Brown says she told the local police what had happened and believes it was never looked into and says that the police never got back to her about the attack despite it being such a small town.

Molly Dickson’s daughter didn’t disappear along the highway, Her daughter left her now seven-year-old child behind and moved down to North Vancouver then just seemed to drop off the face of the earth. Dickson says gets mixed messages on where her 28 year old daughter is.

“I have lots of support from my family, but we just pray that she’ll return safe,” says Dickson.

Dickson told the Inquiry that the Prince Rupert RCMP did not go out of their way to much to help her find her daughter. When she went there originally she says she was told that she would need to call the North Vancouver RCMP, but that they wouldn’t find out who she should call there or let them use their phone.

The first time Dickson called the RCMP in Vancouver, she was forced to use a phone card. But now she checks in regularly with the investigators handling her daughter’s file using the phone at the Salvation Army.

Bonita Wilson says she was only trying to hitchhike to from Prince Rupert to Port Edward when she was picked up by a man in a pickup truck who slammed her head into the dashboard. She told the inquiry her voice shaking with anger how she had to fight off her attacker and how he had even pulled a knife and held it to her throat.

“I seriously thought to myself: is this the way I’m going to die,” explains Wilson.

Wilson says that the justice system let her down because testifying in court against the man she says attacked her, but he was never convicted and is currently living as a free man in another part of BC.

Darlene Wolfe had a sister who was savagely beaten to death in Alberta, and says that the RCMP were not willing to investigate the murder because her sister had problems with addiction.

“We had to have a closed casket. The police said they wouldn’t do anything more because she was a drunk indian,” says Wolfe.

 

ANGER AT THE SYSTEM

 

One thing that was made perfectly clear by those who came up to share their stories and thoughts on the missing women issue, is that they have little-to-no trust in the government’s ability to address this problem, and that they had even less trust in the RCMP.

During the course of the meeting, the RCMP was accused of ignoring or making  only the most token of efforts while investigating cases about  missing women. Some of the speakers  made accusations of police brutality,  complicity in rape by a police officer, and admitted to a general mistrust of police brought on by years of negative interactions between themselves and officers.

The only person to come to the police’s defence was Marlene Swift, a social worker who has worked with the RCMP’s Victim’s Support Services for the last 13 years. Swift has been involved in the problem of missing women for much of her career, her first case with Victim Services was a friend whose daughter had disappeared in Vancouver; a case that remains open to this day.

She says that the RCMP  officers she works with are caring professionals and that the force has been taking steps such as cultural sensitivity training and has been working hard to address the problem of hitchhiking and runaways. That being said, building trust between the police and First Nations people will take time.

 

CHANGE NEEDED

 

There were many suggestions made to the to commissioner Oppal on ways to address problem of missing women in the North. After the success of finding three-year-old from Sparwood, Kienan Hebert, it was suggested that a Amber Alert system for missing women be created.

MLA Gary Coons says that he believes hat the  biggest contributor to the problem is poverty.

There was also calls for more funding for education and job programs, that public transport between communities be set up,  that the government put more emphasis on treating addiction among First Nations people and that funding be given to more local community groups meant to help aboriginal women.

Commissioner Oppal says that he will be taking all these ideas into account when he writes his report after all the hearing are finished.