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 on Friday 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 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 in these cases.”
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.”
A tearful Doug Leslie, father of 15-year-old Loren Donn Leslie who was murdered near Vanderhoof in November, said there are families along Highway 16 more unfortunate than his.
“I am luckier than the ones whose loved ones are missing,” Leslie said. “We got our daughter back, as hard as it is, we got our daughter back.”
Sam Moodie said there needs to be more resources for the families of victims in the north. The murder of his sister, Gloria Moodie, 26, in Williams Lake in October, 1969 destroyed his family.
“She was brutally murdered in Williams Lake. They did unimaginable things to her,” Moodie said. “My father had to identify her and he didn’t last long, because he couldn’t handle what he saw.”
Moodie said it took him 27 years to finally accept the loss of his sister.
“Up until then, I could never think of my sister without crying or getting angry,” he said. “My entire family, we tried to drown our pain with alcohol. I lost a couple brothers along the way.”
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council vice-chief Terry Teegee said the scope of the inquiry is simply too vast.
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“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.
Saik’uz First Nation Chief Jackie Thomas said the relationship between the RCMP and aboriginal communities is a long and strained one.
“My brother is RCMP. Luckily he made it through depot in Regina. But it took a few calls to keep him there, because of the racism,” Thomas said. “The biggest problem in the north is systemic racism.”
Thomas said the commission needs to present a practical action plan, which starts with aboriginal communities.
“I have three daughters and one son. I don’t want my family to go through what some of those families have gone through, but if you look at the statistics I’m at a high rate of risk,” Thomas said. “I don’t want empty words. I don’t want to see another book on the shelf. I want some action, not just for my community and my children, but for all the victims.”
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.