By Michelle Oleman
The Highway of Tears Symposium was a two-day event focusing on how the First Nations girls went missing, the hitch-hiking dilemma and finding strategies to improve conditions along highway 16, otherwise known as the Yellowhead highway which leads to Alaska and stretches through all of Northern B.C.
To date, there have been 38 young women reported missing along this corridor. 9 have been found. All but one victim was of aboriginal descent, and all 9 were found dead. Driving conditions along this route are perfectly fine; it is the focus of some 250-300 participants at this two day event to find solutions to keeping our young people safe along this long and lonely road, which at night becomes very dark very quickly.
In the words of the chairman for the event, Dan George: “Regardless of what kind of activity a woman has been engaging in it never justifies for her to be murdered.”
His opening statement reflects back to the missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, B.C., where “First Nations feel as though they are part of a group that is being targeted by violent criminals.” He carefully adds that we are here to find meaningful solutions to the problems that face us. Mary Teegee, co-chair, states that this is a symposium of hope, love, and fellowship.
“We need to come up with a practical action plan honoring the ones we have lost and the courageous families that are here to speak,” she says. The entire room is eager to get on with business, the business of saving lives. Mary’s closing words are simple:”We have strengths; in numbers, in our traditions, in our culture, and in knowledge.”
Families speak wisdom
Families of the nine murder victims found along this highway corridor speak to the issues that face the people of the Pacific Northwest. The question put to them here is, “What could have helped you?”
Matilda Wilson, whose daughter Ramona Wilson was a 16-year-old high school student when she went missing in 1993, is the person who began the walk from Terrace B.C. along the highway to Prince George and who also inspired the Symposium. Her pain is still evident as she explains that her daughter had left nearby Telqua for what amounts to a 10 minute drive to Smithers B.C., after a phone call home the family never heard from or saw her until 10 months later.
Ramona was found dead, asphyxiated, the police described it to the family as sexually motivated, 12 years later this murder remains unsolved. She demands one minute of silence, for all of those who are missing loved ones, and all those who have gone missing, not only in this part of the country, but all over the world.
Brenda Wilson, Ramona’s sister, drives an idea home. She says: “In our communities, there is nothing (in terms of victim response), you have to make people believe that your child is lost!” She speaks to the lack of response from authorities once the initial report has been made. “If you’re looking for answers, the only way to make our communities safe is to make them aware.”
One prime example of this sense of unawareness is the Nikal family, who in 1989 reported Cecilia Anne Nikal missing, but her cousin Roberta Cecilia Nikal was found murdered. The family didn’t even know that Roberta was missing. Not much long after that a third member of the family went missing, Delphine Nikal.
In answer to the question “What could have helped us?” Lucy Nikal speaks to the lack of victim support workers to accompany responding officers, and a response team to help speed up the search.
“What can we do now?” she asks; community support being the only answer. Of course other things help to support this outcome, such as community healing and grief counseling. “Grief manifests, the outcomes are devastating!! We end up with depression, drug addiction, and ultimately violence!” she shouts.
Another touching account comes from the Chipman family. Tommy Chipman, father of Tamara Chipman, whose is still missing, explains that “Pain goes very deep, it’s an on-going thing that is happening and it is not a coincidence.”
People have got to watch out for each other and know where your loved ones are while they are in transit is one concern that surfaces time and again throughout the symposium. Tamara’s mother, sobbing simply says “Just when you think you can’t cry anymore tears, they just keep coming.”
Many issues surface during the conference and presentations, the main question being “Why are our girls hitchhiking to begin with?” and “What can we do to prevent this?”
Some simple answers to the first part of this question are lack of transportation, lack of cash, and lack of knowledge of the dangers that arise from the act of hitchhiking. An activity that at one time posed little threat to anybody choosing to engage in it.
Increased population, distances between communities, increased traffic, and lack of community knowledge and response have all contributed to the increasing dangers of hitchhiking. Contrary to popular belief, it is close to impossible for families to monitor and “control” every action that our young people take up.
Some simple answers to the latter part of this question are that we should have some specialized help, more resources for the R.C.M.P., set up for immediate response to missing persons reports, and to listen to the families when the first cry is heard. All of these are addressed to the justice system and the ministries involved in aiding the families.
Jack Hoar, father of Nicole Hoar, the only known Caucasian girl to go missing along this corridor explains: “Healing is a forever thing, our daughter had tree planted in this community for many years, and we were lucky to get the response when we needed it.”
He explains that what is needed here is for victim services to step up formal healing such as psychologists, and social workers to help the families heal once the official search has ended.
In light of victim rights verses perpetrators rights, we need to formally appeal and have these response and search efforts extended so that we may find more missing persons while they are still living. “A protocol for missing persons has been developed recently, and we need to take steps to bring this to fruition,” Mr. Hoar continues.
National sources lend support
Beverly Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, points to issues of facts versus fiction. “We need to gather the stories, study the trends and find out why women are treated like garbage. We cannot have this any more.”
The Sisters in Spirit Initiative looks at studying sexualized and racialized violence, and is led by the families of the missing and murdered aboriginal women, through the NWAC organization.
“Who is ultimately responsible? We are all responsible,” she explains. From police forces and ministries keeping these cases low profile, and the media largely misrepresenting the facts and the statistics of such cases, to communities not bringing awareness to their members Jacobs is absolutely correct in this statement.
John Les, BC Solicitor General expresses frustration that no perpetrators have been found, and that we must try to move forward in order to prevent future tragedies from happening. Solutions need to come from the community level; Les is here to listen to the families and the communities. His ministry donates $25,000 seed money toward developing community support and bridging the gaps between the ministries, the justice system and the communities.
Representatives from the police and RCMP task forces explain that in the academy each officer learns that “No greater responsibility has been put to you (officers) than the responsibility to investigate for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
They are establishing new ways to solving these cases, the first step is to collect all inventory files and forward them to Vancouver, then they will move on to starting a review. A team of eight skilled cold-case investigators will examine and work on finding the perpetrator(s). Chief Superintendent Bent states: “No one wants to find the persons responsible more than the police.”
Indeed we need to see a united commitment, from ministries, police, communities, and national organizations in order to learn what has happened to our missing loved ones in order to see justice done.
Stan Hagan, of the Ministry of Children and Families promises that: “We will work in partnership with communities to lend a hand in anything we can do in order to create the best place for children to grow up.”
This ministry donates $20,000 toward the symposium itself, and further $25,000 seed money toward developing solutions.
Plans for Further Action
Day two of the symposium consists largely of action planning, brainstorming on community response and support systems. The attendees break out into 4 main groups, each searching out a means to an end. Four goals are: 1. Emergency Readiness Team, 2. Counseling and Support Strategy, 3. Community Development Strategy, and 4. Prevention.
A full report is forthcoming once the facilitators have compiled and referenced the information.
Some highlights from the facilitator recaps include that many people feel that we need to embrace our traditional forms of counseling and healing. We also need to learn how to use resources that are already in existence, teach our children when they are young about all of the dangers in our society, and to identify our own safe homes in each community all along the highway.
Specific recommendations coming out of the groups include establishing a Red Amber Alert; installing a hitchhiker tracking system which involves cameras at known pick up spots for hikers, youth mentoring and team response liaison where teens feel more responsive to other teens, and encouraging people to phone in to the tip lines when they see some suspicious activity. One very interesting suggestion involves ringing of church bells to immediately alert a community that somebody has gone missing.
In the solemn words of Sitting Bull, “Let us put our hearts and our minds together to see what we can do for our children.” Chief Stewart Phillip reminds us of the gravity of the situation. This symposium provides an opportunity for this type of work to develop and to continue into the future, which Rena Zortowski, head co-coordinator of the entire event promises a 2nd annual symposium to address this matter. These young women, in their tragic passing have left a legacy. A legacy to remind us to keep our loved ones near and dear, and to help us fight the good fight that too often remains forgotten, “you have all taken personal responsibility,” Chief Phillip puts out to us. One final challenge falls from his lips, “RCMP, hear the pain, the anger, and recognize.”
This symposium is a first step toward healing, to understanding, and to providing safety for our children that they so richly deserve. We need to stand up and let these predators know that we will not fall silently, and that our children and women will be missed, and that we will seek justice. It is also a nation-wide wake up call to all people in all communities. Hitchhiking is not a dilemma which only tiny rural Northwestern BC communities face, missing and murdered women, though prominent in First Nations communities across the nation, happen in every corner of the globe.