By Morgan O’Neal
One can only imagine what might have been different if government authorities had responded with the same rapidity and energy to the investigation into the disappearance of young women along the so-called ‘Highway of Tears’ (Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George) as they did just last month to the complaints from irate motorists whose windshields and paintjobs were chipped by loose gravel and asphalt on the ‘Highway of Flying Rocks’ (Highway 18 to Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island). The government immediately set up a temporary office to deal with insurance claims, sent machinery and workers to sweep the road clean, and dispatched pilot cars to monitor traffic in an effort to protect the precious wheels of two car families. The wife and kids in the Mini-van, the husband close behind in the Sport Utility Vehicle, together guzzling enough gas on one trip to the Mall to keep an entire Inuit village warm for the winter. Meanwhile, young Native women will continue to disappear because people in rural Native communities have no choice but to hitchhike from one place to the other in the absence of adequate public transportation.
It seems bureaucracy can and will respond efficiently and effectively when the mere ’things’ of material property are at issue. But when the lives of marginalized young Native women and their grieving families are at stake the response was nowhere near as quick. Since 1974, there have been at least nine unsolved deaths or disappearances of young women along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert. Highway of Tears victims now include: Ramona Wilson, 15, Lana Derrick, 19, Roxanne Thiara, 15, Alishia Germaine, 15, Alberta Williams, 27, Delphine Nikal, 16, Nicole Hoar, 25, Tamara Chipman, 22 and Monica Ignas, 15.
Meanwhile, on November 16 of last year Paul Russell Deleno Felker was charged by Dawson Creek RCMP with the murder 16 years ago of Cindy Burk, a young First Nations woman raised in Regina. She was last seen alive in mid-July 1990 near Fort St. John hitchhiking on a lonely northern highway. While RCMP believe her case is not linked to the Highway of Tears cases, its similarities to the missing and murdered women along Highway 16 cannot be ignored by the victims’ families. Jim Braem, whose 17 year old daughter Deena Lyn was found in September 1999 close to where she was hitchhiking near Quesnel, admits the news of Felker’s charge gives him hope that the RCMP are actually working on these cold cases, but it doesn’t dull the pessimism that has taken him over.
“If I could give them a grade now, I would give them a big failing grade. We haven’t even talked to someone from the RCMP on this for probably over a year,” Braem said. “It started out really, really good. Of course they are going to tell you they’ve got the best people, but apparently they are all so good they’ve gone on to bigger and better things. They have all left the area. The last one left without us even knowing until well after the fact. We’ve probably had 15 people on it here locally, not counting all the others from all over the RCMP. We were told at one point it was the largest investigation going on in Canada. Now, I have no idea who is even on the case, I really don’t.” Braem’s daughter, like Burk, is not considered one of the Highway of Tears cases and therefore he doesn’t have the social action levers available to those between Prince George and Prince Rupert.
Even with that public platform, Highway of Tears Report implementation officer Lisa Krebs noted that many of the victims’ families are as understandably frustrated as Braem.
It is apparently in response to this frustration that on November 19, 2006 RCMP announced the new computer database that will allow them to make connections beyond the specific cases of deaths and disappearances along the so-called Highway of Tears. RCMP spokesman Sgt. John Ward said police have looked at incorporating all other outstanding homicides from Kamloops northward, but didn’t know how many there were. Eight investigators are now fully dedicated to the Highway of Tears cases. It’s been nearly 33 years since Ignas, the first person on the RCMP list, disappeared. “We have looked at incorporating other homicides from Kamloops, north, all the outstanding files we have,” said provincial RCMP spokesperson Staff Sgt. John Ward. A spokesman for the police said, “The database will make comparisons from file to file, and also to ones in (other jurisdictions) … We are recruiting specialists in each phase of this (new approach) … and we will have eight skilled investigators dedicated to the Highway of Tears cases. This is all they will do. It will be their only job.”
And last year, thanks to news reports from Prince Rupert, a name surfaced that isn’t on the list – Mary Jane Hill from Kincolith. She was 31 when her body was found in 1978 20 miles east of Prince Rupert on Hwy16. “At this time, police suspect foul play but the incident is still under investigation,” a newspaper story at the time stated. Hill’s daughter, Vicki Hill, now 29, was six months old when her mom was found. She wants police to go back and look at the case in light of the other disappearances and deaths. “We’re aware of that and we’re going to wait until the review is completed to see if it fits in,” said police spokesman of the Hill death. Three of the original nine women on the list have since been found dead and police aren’t releasing details as to the circumstances of those deaths. “There’s a reason those names are on the list. If the deaths were for some other reason, they would not be there,” said Ward.
The number of people on the list is therefore wide open to debate and conjecture. Aielah Saric-Auger isn’t on the list. She was 14 and a student at D.P. Todd Secondary School in Prince George when she went missing Feb. 2 of 2006. Her body was found east of Prince George. While not on the RCMP list, the teen is on a list released in June as part of a report prepared by organizers of the Symposium. Also on the symposium list but not on the RCMP one is Cecilia Anne Nikal from the Smithers area. She disappeared in 1989 with the symposium report indicating she was last seen in Smithers. RCMP say she was reported missing in Vancouver.
Some reports have pegged the number of missing at as high as 33, but there has never been a roster of names and circumstances attached to that figure. Ward said people should not get the impression RCMP investigators are focusing all of their resources on their missing list. All of those on the list are from the area between Prince Rupert and Prince George, the stretch of Hwy16 that connects them. That also creates the impression the RCMP is limiting the scope of their investigation, said Ward. “We’re not excluding a whole bunch of other things,” said Ward of work done by investigators.
This news came well after the 2005 Highway of Tears Symposium in Prince George issued a report aiming to prevent more murders and disappearances along this infamous highway. The report included several recommendations to try to cut down on “poverty-related travel” by young aboriginal women. Its suggestions included a call for the RCMP to officially investigate whether as many as 33 people may have gone missing along the 724-kilometre highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert. The report clearly stated that poverty and a lack of opportunities make young aboriginal women more vulnerable, and more prone to hitchhiking.
If the recommendations in the Highway of Tears report turn into actions, these would result in a new shuttle-bus transport service between communities; an expansion of Greyhound’s “free ride” program for people who can’t afford to pay; for police and Greyhound bus drivers to pick up any young women hitchhiking between Prince George and Prince Rupert; for government employees who drive the highway as part of their work to alert authorities about female hitchhikers, and that a network of safe houses be established. We will have to wait and see.
In a first step toward practical application, more than 150 people attended a forum in Smithers, many of them family and friends of the missing or murdered women, to watch the film documentary “Highway of Tears” by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. International audiences have since met the faces crying the highway of tears. “The fact the first documentary on the Highway of Tears was done by a Pakistani Canadian from Toronto who only moved from New York in 2005 is quite appalling,” she told the Prince George Citizen at the time. “It has been covered extensively in print, which is where I got the story, but I scanned the film coverage of it and it has not been done.” Chinoy brought a camera crew to the B.C. Central Interior and began talking to families of the many victims of the rural highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert. She also spoke to police.
Rather than asking the question ‘who is to blame for these monstrous things?’ the film instead asks ‘who are these girls and their families?’ “I didn’t actually know anything about the subject before I went in to do it,” she said. “Because I was neither aboriginal nor Caucasian I didn’t have any prejudices about the story before I arrived there. I wasn’t tainted with common rhetoric. “Many people here in London have absolutely no idea there is even such a thing as an aboriginal Canadian,” she added. “But I wanted the families to be the focus. My film is not overtly political. I wanted to bring these girls back to life, to some extent, and portray the feelings of the families who have to wonder every day, is my child right there in that ditch? And everyone they pass on the street: is this the person who murdered my little girl?”
According to the Citizen, it became clear to Chinoy how close to the surface racism is in the hearts of everyday local people. She was asked on more than one occasion why she thought the missing and murdered girls were worth bothering a film crew about? She heard that most victims were hitchhiking prostitutes and drug addicts so they were asking for a violent death. “Would they say the same thing if 10 or 12 local white girls were raped or murdered or disappeared on the same road?,” she said. “That is the question that needs to be put to Canadian audiences. It broke my heart to learn that a country upheld by the rest of the world as a model for human rights does that to its own citizens. For the most part I don’t see Canadians as racists, I do believe most Canadians believe in the ideals of Canadian culture that project out to the international community, but that is why I felt even more shocked by this treatment of aboriginal people and women in particular.”
Lucy Glaim, a youth justice worker for the Wet’sewet’en Unlocking Aboriginal Justice program based in Smithers, was a primary organizer of the forum at which the film was viewed. Her sister Delphine Nikal and cousin Cecilia Nikal are both among the missing. “There were a lot of suggestions about how to breathe life into the recommendations that came out of the Highway of Tears symposium last spring in Prince George,” Glaim said. According to Lisa Krebs, the co-ordinator recently hired to implement the recommendations, four discussion areas were keyed on: prevention; emergency planning and team response; victims’ family counseling and support, and community development.
The action plan will try to use existing tools as much as possible. For example, Glaim noted that the murder of Ramona Wilson in 1994 resulted in a transit bus being established in Smithers that ran for about a year to minimize the need for young girls (or anyone) to expose themselves to the risks of hitchhiking. It eventually ran out of funding, but Glaim believes many useful lessons came out of that endeavour, and the bus could be reactivated for the Bulkley Valley at least. She pointed out another example: posters that one local regional district made to warn the public against hitchhiking. Those posters could be reproduced in enough quantities that the whole highway could be covered by the same message. “There was an expressed need from the victims’ families for counselling,” Glaim said. “They spoke about unhealthy coping skills resulting in drug and alcohol abuse, even some family members cutting themselves off from other family members, living in denial, that roller-coaster of emotions. (These cases) affect not only the victims and the victims’ immediate families, but now it is affecting the grandchildren, and the whole community.” Other meetings were to be held in affected Highway of Tears communities to develop the action plan around a larger pool of grassroots input.
At least in Western Canada, the ongoing investigations are linked to yet another horror story unfolding in and around Edmonton where (many people conclude) another serial killer is at work targeting young women often of Native origin and sometimes involved in the sex trade in the provincial capitol. Coincidentally, Edmonton is connected to Prince George as the other end of the same infamous Highway down which far too many young women were last seen hitchhiking before they vanished into thin air. RCMP have offered a $100,000 reward and released a profile that suggests the killer or killers in the Highway of Tears murders drive a truck or SUV that is cleaned at unusual hours, may be a hunter, fisherman or camper, is comfortable driving on country roads and is likely connected to towns south of Edmonton.
What is going on here? How can so many young women just drop off the face of the earth? What sort of discrimination is at work that determines on the basis of race and economic status what a human life is worth? In these cases it is all too obvious that before full-scale police resources were applied to the investigations, far too much time had gone by. Contrast this time lag with the instantaneous response to the fact that the automobiles of middle class white people were being damaged by flying asphalt on Highway 18 to Lake Cowichan on Vancouver Island. The government sprang into action and immediately set up a temporary insurance claims office and swept the road clean, dispatching pilot cars to monitor traffic. The problem was front page news for a few days. Perhaps police should scan for connections between SUV insurance claims and gas receipts along Highway 16.