Aboriginal women whose mothers and daughters vanished in B.C. tearfully told stories of loss to the provincial inquiry into missing and murdered women in Prince Rupert on Monday.
The women are among the first participants in a series of seven forums being held in northern B.C. to assist with a component of the broader inquiry.
At least 18 young women have been murdered or gone missing on a 700-kilometre stretch of Highway 16, also known as the Highway of Tears, between Prince George and Prince Rupert. None of the cases have been solved.
Vicki Hill was only six months old when her mother's body was found east of the city in 1978, and she's spent her life piecing together what happened.
She joined several participants who say they don't trust the RCMP to help in missing women's cases and also asked why more efforts haven't been made to make the so-called Highway of Tears more safe.
Commissioner Wally Oppal said the inquiry is "serious" about wanting advice from participants, and called the perspective of people living in northern B.C. "vital."
The northern B.C. forums are part of the informal 'study commission' arm of the B.C. Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which is seeking possible changes to ongoing investigations of missing women and suspected multiple slayings. The commission held similar community forums in Vancouver earlier this year.
"We felt we needed to gather information particularly in the north on the Highway of Tears where so many young women have gone missing and some have been murdered," said Melina Buckley, the lawyer for the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.
"What are the particular vulnerabilities of women have gone missing and some of the challenges family members maybe faced in dealing with the police?"
The public forums run from Sept. 12 to 15 in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Kitwanga, Hazelton and Smithers.
Lack of funding raises concerns
The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry was appointed by the provincial government last year to inquire into the conduct of police investigations of women reported missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside between January 23, 1997 and February 5, 2002.
Under its terms of reference, the commission cannot inquire into ongoing investigations of missing or murdered women, such as the Highway of Tears cases.
However, the commission’s terms of reference also allow it to gather information and make recommendations on the conduct of investigations of missing women and suspected multiple murders throughout the province.
The provincial government has faced criticism from First Nations communities and advocacy groups over its handling of the inquiry.
The inquiry is set to begin formal hearings in Vancouver on Oct. 11, examining police conduct and other aspects of the investigation of convicted serial murderer Robert Pickton.
Four groups — the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of B.C.and WISH, a drop-in centre for sex workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside — have all said they can't afford to take part in the Pickton inquiry without financial help from the government.
The government has said funding the groups would be too expensive.
Several other groups have also complained their concerns are not being taken seriously because their presentations have been relegated to the less formal study commission sessions.