Public inquiry demanded in deaths
Racism cited as a reason the murders and disappearances have not received more attention
B.C. needs a public inquiry and a multi-agency police task force to examine the many cases of girls and women who have met violence on B.C. highways, say two community leaders who have been vocal about the so-called Highway of Tears case.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, has repeatedly called for a public inquiry into why girls and women, many of them native, have disappeared from or been found murdered along B.C. highways over the past 40 years.
The provincial government has so far failed to commit to an inquiry. That isn’t good enough, Phillip argues, because the families have waited too long for answers.
“It infuriates me that these things have gone on for so long and there hasn’t been closure and these families have continued to suffer and there has been so much indifference,” Phillip said.
Solicitor-General Kash Heed, who has the power to call such an inquiry and fund a police task force, was not available to speak Tuesday about the case, his staff told The Vancouver Sun.
The newspaper has just completed a four-day series about the Highway of Tears, which has generated much debate.
Phillip and NDP North Coast MLA Gary Coons both believe B.C. should follow the lead of Manitoba, which has formed an inter-agency task force to investigate cases of missing and murdered women in that province.
Coons also pointed to Edmonton, where a $100,000 reward has been offered for information about similar unsolved cases. His requests for a reward here have been rejected by provincial government, he said.
The current RCMP E-Pana investigation is examining only cases of murdered or missing women along three specific B.C. arteries: Highways 16, 97 and 5. Similar cases on other highways in B.C. and Alberta are not included, police say, for funding reasons and to keep the investigation a manageable size.
Coons also argues the provincial government needs to provide funding to enact the 33 recommendations that stemmed from the 2006 Highway of Tears symposium in Prince George.
“We thought with the 33 recommendations that we would finally move forward and here we are, four years later, and people are feeling like it is not getting the priority it should,” he said.
There needs to be, Coons argues, better transportation options between northern communities, an improved public awareness campaign to keep girls and women safe, and more police patrols on Highway 16, especially in the uninhabited 140 km stretch between Prince Rupert and Terrace.
There also needs to be permanent funding for the Highway of Tears coordinator, a position created after the symposium called for better communication between police and the family members.
Funding for the position ended Dec. 1.
Heed’s staff sent an e-mail to The Sun indicating some action has been taken on the recommendations, including: community forums and family meetings; a handful of anti-hitchhiking billboards erected along Highway 16, and police officers are now required to stop to talk to hitchhikers “if duties permit.”
The government has provided $100,000 to implement the report recommendations, and one-time funding of $68,000 for the coordinator’s position.
Phillip argues much more action is necessary in B.C., where there are two high-profile missing women cases: the Highway of Tears and the 64 women who vanished from the Downtown Eastside, 26 of them alleged victims of serial killer Robert (Willie) Pickton.
A recent tally by the Native Women’s Association of Canada indicates there are 520 “known” cases of missing or murdered native women, and that B.C. has the most of any province with 137 victims.
Phillip called for a change in how police investigate these cases, noting that many victims’ families have complained over the years about how their initial missing-person reports were treated poorly by officers.
He hopes to plan a coalition in January, possibly involving NDP MLAs and MPs, civil libertarians, native leaders, women’s advocates and others to push the government for an inquiry.
With the world watching Vancouver during the Olympics in February, Phillip hopes a record number of people will take part in the annual missing women Valentine’s Day march in the Downtown Eastside.
“We wouldn’t have been out marching in the streets demanding public inquiries into the missing and murdered women in the Downtown Eastside for the last 12 or 13 years if we had more effective policing, and I don’t think that will happen until we have fundamental changes,” he said.
Phillip said The Sun’s series on the Highway of Tears case is also a crucial piece of the puzzle, so the unsolved cases are kept alive in people’s minds.
Highway of Tears coordinator Mavis Erickson has also met with B.C.’s solicitor-general and attorney-general to demand an inquiry into the Highway of Tears case, to try to answer questions such as: What’s happened? How did justice fail us? What do we need to fix the problem of women’s safety?
“These cases have been cold for too long and we want the conspiracy of silence to end. And we want to know why the justice system failed so miserably,” said Erickson.
“I just think an inquiry will go a long way for closure for some families, although not all families.”
While some families also back a call for a public inquiry, Brenda Wilson does not. Wilson’s sister Ramona, 15, disappeared in 1994 from Smithers, and her body was not found for a year.
Brenda Wilson believes her sister’s case would benefit from an individual review so that the family’s specific questions are addressed.
These include why police waited so long to search for Ramona after she was reported missing; why the phone company wasn’t asked to trace a tip by a caller who told police where Ramona’s body would be found; and why the town of Smithers didn’t rally behind the Wilson family, instead opting to hold a fundraising dance for Melanie Carpenter, victim of a high-profile kidnapping in the Lower Mainland.
“It broke my heart. I knew we had to fight hard,” Wilson said.
She is somewhat optimistic that, one day, she may find out what happened to her sister, but that won’t be easy either.
“Because we’ll have to deal with it all over again, and to see if there is forgiveness and if we can learn from the process.”
Sally Gibson, the aunt of Lana Derrick, 19, who went missing in 1995 from Thornhill, remains frustrated there are still no arrests in her niece’s case and doesn’t feel these rural files get the kind of attention as those in the Lower Mainland.
“I think it is racism-plus. I don’t know what it is about being up north, but we don’t get the attention that they get down south. It seems like things happen down south and people are all over it. With the Highway of Tears, people didn’t talk about it,” Gibson said.
The wondering and waiting has been horrendous.
“There are people out there who say, ‘Oh, you’ll get over it.’ And you don’t. There’s no answer, no closure, no nothing,” she said, wiping away tears.
“It’s just like an open wound that people poke at once in a while.”
Connie Menton has her own hunches about who killed her niece Alisha (Leah) Germaine in Prince George in 1994, and is curious about why no arrests have been made. She believes people on the street have information about her niece’s case.
“All I can do is put out a plea. Please, if anybody knows anything, help us. We need to close the book on this thing,” Menton said.
“They know but they are too afraid. It was 15 years ago — you’d think there would be a crisis of consciousness to come forward.”
Her niece, and all the others whose lives were cut short, deserve justice, she added.
“I’ll never give up hope. I believe on that highway, somebody is doing something,” Menton said. “They are all girls. They are somebody’s poor innocent. Nobody deserves to die that way.”
Cory Millwater continues to pray for answers regarding her daughter Tamara Chipman, who disappeared from Prince Rupert in 2005, and the other unsolved cases.
“It scares me. I think it’s criminal that this many girls have disappeared and they’ve never figured out who’s doing it. I believe that a lot of them are connected because of the similar scenarios and the places they have disappeared from. There’s just too many of these girls who have gone missing for there not to be a connection,” she said.
“I think that as long as people keep [speaking out] that police will be forced to work on it and hopefully figure out what is going on. I’d like not only our case but all the cases solved… We all need to know.”