Between the sentences during Brenda Wilson’s presentation to Smithers town council at their regular meeting on Oct. 25, the council chambers were quiet enough that the only sound to be heard was the ticking of the clock. Some looked visibly uncomfortable, and one councillor was almost brought to tears; in the end, Wilson left with a promise that council would do their best to try to attend the next Ramona’s Walk, provided there was enough advance notice.
Wilson attended council to ask why nobody from the local municipal government had attended the missing women inquiry when commissioner Wally Oppal came to town in mid September, as well as Ramona’s Walk, held annually on June 11, the date of Ramona’s disappearance.
Wilson began her presentation by painting a picture of her family’s early life, when her, sister Ramona and their brothers grew up happily, despite not being the most advantaged family in town. When Ramona disappeared 17 years ago, Brenda said her family was hurt not only by the loss of one of their own, but by the seeming reluctance of the authorities to respond.
“We had a problem 17 years ago and we needed help. I always had to ask myself, why didn’t these people believe us? Why did we have to convince the town of Smithers that my sister was missing and that we needed help finding her?,” she asked.
Wilson also mentioned the frustration of seeing an unbalanced reaction to girls going missing from here, and from elsewhere in the province. Four years before Ramona’s disappearance, Delphine Nikal had also disappeared while hitchhiking from Smithers to Telkwa.
“These children were missing from Smithers, but nothing was done about it. No eyebrows were raised, there was no concern for these two girls. Yeah, they were from low income families, so they were considered not as important. But at the same time, when a young rich girl from Surrey was abducted, our community of Smithers jumped to the occasion, and put up a benefit dance for her, while at the same time our family was at the SuperValu mall, trying to raise money for a reward,” she said.
Wilson said she noticed that at both events this year, nobody from council was in attendance.
“I ask on behalf of the Wilson family and the other families that have missing or murdered loved ones, I want to ask the town council how we can work together to bring safety and awareness in our community of Smithers,” she said.
Several councillors responded to Wilson at the end of her presentation. Charlie Northrup pointed out that in the case of Oppal’s stop in Smithers, there was short notice on the date, he was away on holidays, and he had already attended 106 meetings this year.
“I understand that he has his agenda, but I also took offence that he criticized town councilors for not attending without any respect to the agenda and the time that we take,” said Northrup. “Sometimes when people like Mr. Oppal come through the community on their agenda and their timeline, we’re not always available, or we’re attending other meetings, and I think that has to be understood.”
Councillor Lorne Benson choked back tears as he spoke, saying he hoped much is gained from Oppal’s commission inquiry.
“The community’s fortunate that you’re here to speak to this issue,” he said. “It’s just a shameful thing that this is occuring.”
Mayor Cress Farrow pointed out that council needs more lead time to make sure someone can represent council at events. When asked by Wilson how much time is enough, he said two months is ideal, but at least a month. He also pointed out that officially corresponding with the town will get the event on the agenda at a council meeting.
After the Oct. 25 meeting, Farrow said the short notice on the inquiry’s Smithers date made it too late for anyone to attend, particularly because of a clash with a previously booked appearance at the Council of Forest Industries convention in Prince George.
“Unfortunately for council, we received notice at a very late date that Wally Oppal would be in town for the hearings, and a number of us had already been booked for several months to be out of town at an event that is also very important to our town. Had we known in time then we could have made arrangements so at least one or two representatives of council would have been happy to attend the hearing,” he said.