The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was in Smithers last week as part of its cross-country series of hearings.
Chief commissioner Marion Buller noted some themes in the needs listed by family members who spoke of their lost loved ones at the hearings.
“We also heard great recommendations for safe transportation up here in this part of British Columbia, for safe housing, and also for transition houses for women and children. We also heard about the need for responsive policing … We also heard recommendations for improved counselling and support services for families who have lost loved ones,” Buller told those gathered for the second day of hearings last Wednesday.
(See page 5 for an update on efforts to keep Greyhound bus service, and page 10 for an update on BC Transit Highway 16 service.)
Smithers was the second of nine places so far announced as communities the inquiry is visiting across Canada, and the first since it delayed hearings to change how it prepared families ahead of time. The first was held May 30 to June 1 in Whitehorse. Since then more preparation, including from legal and mental health workers, has been added to visits prior to the hearings.
Buller, commissioner Michèle Audette and others involved in the inquiry participated in a walk into Smithers Monday evening which started the week prior in Prince Rupert. That was followed by the lighting of the sacred fire that burned through the three days of hearings, a water ceremony and a brushing off ceremony for families of the murdered and missing women.
Start now and for the long-term: Cullen
Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen sat through some of the testimony from family members.
“For me, watching these families get up and talk about such horrible things is incredible. I don’t know where they find the reserve, the strength for that,” said Cullen.
He added it was a great opportunity for those families to be heard, but that there is generations of work to be done.
“They’ve heard some of the politicians and the media sounding like this is the mission accomplished kind of: we’re having the inquiry and that’s it. That’s not going to be enough,” said Cullen.
“It took generations to make this mess, where so many people are vulnerable and exposed to incredible risk: Justice, the system of economics, cultural, policing — I mean, this didn’t come from nowhere. It’s all the way back to residential schools and colonialism. So to look for solutions, it makes sense that it’s going to take an equal effort.
“You can’t just simply say ‘there’s a bus that occasionally runs, so that should be it.’ You heard from kids today (Wednesday) that a better education system, better policing — which I think is improving, better prospects for work, those all come into play. Anyone looking for a quick fix is not understanding the problem.”
Changes in policing have been made for the better, according to the MP, and other changes can start to be made before the inquiry comes out with its final report. A preliminary report is due in November.
“If we’re hearing those recommendations consistently, you don’t have to be a genius to realize that that’s going to come out probably in eventual recommendations. This government needs to work on these things now, not wait for two years from now when the report is finally drafted,” said Cullen
“Kicking things beyond the next election or making it part of the election, that’s where you start to run real risks where nothing will change.”
He listed cell towers all along Highway 16 and improving bus service as examples to start on now. The MP also said while there has also been progress with social services and child welfare agencies, they need to do a better job of understanding the history better to avoid taking children away from parents as much as possible.
But the big factor that Cullen saw as common among most victims was poverty.
“You’ve got communities around here with 80-90 per cent unemployment, and it gets into things like forestry policy, export policy; it gets into the way that we manage ourselves and give people opportunity and a sense of hope,” said Cullen.
“I think somebody standing out on the highway is a desperate act. You stand out there in the middle of February and say you’re doing this by choice — it’s pretty ignorant. So having more opportunities, especially for young kids coming up, to have a decent life is the ultimate goal for me.
Have we been successful at that? No, not at all. We’ve had an uncaring government at times, big changes in industry — these are all factors but it can come off as excuses if you’re a 16-year-old, 18-year-old kid and you’re three generations in without a job. You just want to go to work.”
Keeping an eye on results
Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Namox (John Ridsdale) told the commissioners directly that he would be keeping an eye on them and their work with the inquiry.
“We want to make sure that nothing changes and nothing deviates from the directions that they were given. We also want to make sure that the recommendations that the people are giving them are actually followed,” said Namox.
“We have a worry [about] all the trauma that has been gone through and all the statements that have been made in the last three days — not only of the families but those who heard those words too are hurting because we’re all human, we all have that ability to care. I was extremely happy that the [Bulkley Valley] Christian School brought in students today. They could have that connection that these are human beings that are suffering, and we need to move forward so this never happens again.”
He said everyone needs to hold the inquiry and government accountable for results.
“This can’t be just ‘we’re going to ask you some questions, we’re going to bring you through the hurt and the pain again,’ and then the report sits on a shelf,” said Namox.
He agreed that patience was needed to see those results come to fruition, but added that patience was part of his job as hereditary chief.
RCMP at inquiry
Namox also encouraged all people to see all other people as they are.
The issue of a uniformed Smithers RCMP officer at the hearings was brought up. The inquiry let the families decide whether a uniformed officer should be in the hearings or not. Namox was dismayed by some of what he heard directed at police, especially one officer he has adopted into his Wet’suwet’en father clan.
“She was here as a human being, but she also wanted them to know there is a willingness. RCMP have to be trained as well,” said Namox.
“There were two reasons the chiefs asked her to keep her uniform on: the RCMP has to learn more, they do not have all the answers; and there has to be some changes within the RCMP for that openness of communication. The trust is going to be built. It will take time but if we don’t do something, then nothing happens. And we as Wet’suwet’en are trailblazers at every level.”
Namox added that everyone has a role to play.
“Everybody has actions that can be taken: for safety the way you conduct yourself, or witness things. It was said [Wednesday] that someone had witnessed violence and they were too afraid to call. So don’t be silent, and don’t be idle. Action will get results,” he said.
This is one action of many: chief commissioner
Chief commissioner Buller said it was too early for her to know how many recommendations would be made after the inquiry. Commissioner Audette placed the responsibility with the federal government that ordered the inquiry.
“Recommendations for me, the mandate that we have is for the government to apply, not the commissioners. The commissioners have the mandate to collect the truth, to proposed recommendations to make sure it won’t happen again. But we’re committed to until the end is if there are small things that we can do, or big things like sending a letter to a provincial government because the groups were requesting something, that we did it,” said Audette.
Both commissioners said the inquiry will not by itself solve the wide variety of issues that lead to women and girls being murdered or disappearing. Audette said she needs to explain to everyone involved what the inquiry can and can’t do.
“We also have to remind ourselves and the society … this inquiry is an action among many actions to eradicate violence here in Canada against women and Indigenous women. The national inquiry itself is not THE solution, there are many beautiful initiatives that exist that we also want to hear [about to share],” said Audette.
She also explained how directly accessible commissioners are with family members to tell them how the inquiry can or cannot help.
“We’re not lying to families to say, ‘hey, we’ll change your life.’ That would be very disrespectful,” said Audette.
But she also stressed the power of the inquiry.
“We have the power to request documents, to request an institution or a person to come and have that dialogue with us or to answer our questions — the famous hard questions. And that I’m anxious to do,” said Audette.
Stories from the families
The inquiry heard from 27 families at the public hearings in Smithers, plus 12 more in private.
The stories were of loss and hope, injustice and resilience. They weighed heavy on the heart for anyone who sat through the three days inside the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre. Boxes of tissues with paper bags set out to collect the tears were used throughout the stories of mothers, sisters and daughters lost.
The community hearings started on Tuesday morning. Chief Timberwolf welcomed the commissioners onto the territory and Molly Wickham sang the Wet’suwet’en women’s water song. She said she sang it to start the hearings off on a positive note.
“[I wanted] to offer that strength and medicine, I believe our songs are powerful and can help us through hard times and to celebrate,” she said. “I thought it was important to share a song from this territory that we are on.”
The first person to share her story to the panel was Vicki Hall. Hall is from Prince Rupert and was only six months old when her mother was murdered in 1978. She lived with her grandparents but said she suffered abuse and left the house at age 13. Her mother, Mary Jane Hill, was only 31 when she died. Her body was discovered naked outside of Prince Rupert along Highway 16, while her clothes were found in an alleyway in the city.
The case remains unsolved and Hill told the commissioners that she doesn’t know if there was ever a suspect. She went on to say that she’s had trouble finding information and that the local RCMP have not been helpful in giving her answers. The only thing she has ever gotten is a 90 page copy of a coroner’s inquest.
Hill has asked the RCMP to see her mother’s case but was told the images were too disturbing.
“But why can’t I have them? Who else has seen them?” she questioned.
Protect E-PANA investigators (a task force dedicated to the unsolved murders along the Highway of Tears) spoke with her while doing their investigation but told her her mother does not fit the criteria to be on their list. She told the commissioners that was frustrating and makes her feel angry. Hill explained that she has had many personal problems to overcome including turning to alcohol to numb the pain.
She hopes the outcome of the inquiry will help get better transit along Highway 16, improved cell service from Terrace to Prince Rupert, more signage warning of the dangers of hitch hiking and justice for mother and all the other missing and murdered women. But nothing will bring back her mom.
“She won’t be there for me when I need her the most and that isn’t fair. She didn’t deserve this whatsoever, she had children to look after and siblings. She wasn’t there when her grandchildren were born. It’s so tough and now I have to deal with it,” she said.
Hill added that she isn’t just speaking up for her mom but for all the families victimized by the Highway of Tears.
“I can feel the hurt. I am not afraid. I have my rights too and things need to change no matter what,” she said.
The session resumed after a break with Chief Vivian Tom from Burns Lake. She spoke about losing her daughter in 2013 and what led up to her murder.
Tom’s daughter Destiny was only 21 when her abusive boyfriend killed her. Tom told the commission her and her husband thought about suicide or turning to alcohol to end their pain but decided that raising Destiny’s baby was more important. Tom said the toughest part of losing her daughter was seeing her body in the mud and snow under a tarp and the police not letting her go under the crime scene tape to hug her daughter one last time. Tom said there weren’t enough resources to help her daughter get clean and get away from her baby’s father, despite him being charged twice after assaulting her.
Because of time constraints the next two sessions ran simultaneously in two different places. One of Doreen Jack’s family members, a victim of the Highway of Tears, spoke in one room of the Northwest Community College beside the hall, and the family of Tamara Chipman’s, a missing Prince Rupert woman, continued in the friendship hall.
Several members of Chipman’s family gathered together in front of the commission. Her father spoke first about when she first went missing in 2005, often breaking down. He said the RCMP were helpful when filing the missing persons report, something he’s heard otherwise from other families of missing women. Tamara had her own car and her father wasn’t sure why she was last seen hitchhiking near Prince Rupert.
Her aunt Lorna Brown blames social services for taking away her son when he was only six months old and treating her unfairly, the result being a spiral into a different lifestyle.
“They judged her but I saw how much she loved him and how it tore her apart not to have him,” she said. “If only they had given him back to her sooner, I think she would still be here with us today.”