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 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.
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 hearings were held May 30 to June 1 in Whitehorse.
Buller, commissioner Michèle Audette and others involved in the inquiry participated in a walk into Smithers Monday evening that 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.
Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Namox (John Ridsdale) told the commissioners he would be keeping an eye on them and their work with the inquiry.
“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,” Namox said.
He agreed that patience was needed to see those results, but added that patience was part of his job as hereditary chief.
Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen heard 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,” Cullen said.
He added it was a great opportunity for those families to be heard, but there are 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,” Cullen said.
“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.”
Cullen listed cellphone towers all along Highway 16 and improving bus service as examples to start on now. The MP also said while there has 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.
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.
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 Hall told the commissioners she doesn’t know if there was ever a suspect. She went on to say that she had trouble finding information and that 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.
Hall 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 asked.
Investigators with Project E-PANA (a task force dedicated to the unsolved murders along the Highway of Tears) spoke with Hall during their investigation but said her mother does not fit the criteria to be on their list. Hall told the commissioners that was frustrating and makes her feel angry.
Hall said 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 hitchhiking and justice for her 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,” she said. “I have my rights too and things need to change no matter what.”