09/14/2011 04:34 EDT | Updated 11/14/2011 05:12 EST

B.C. forums call for Highway of Tears Amber Alert

Speakers at a series of forums looking into missing and murdered women in northern B.C. are calling for a special kind of Amber Alert to be used when aboriginal women disappear along the so-called Highway of Tears.

At a forum in Terrace, B.C., on Tuesday, several speakers called for swifter action when a woman goes missing along Highway 16, also known as the Highway of Tears.

"When an aboriginal woman goes missing, the RCMP never stop vehicles along Highway 16 looking for that woman," Karen Whonnock, a member of the Moricetown band, told those gathered at the forum.

She said officials often conduct traffic stops looking for illegal fishing or to check seatbelts but never when women go missing.

"It really states … illegal fish is a higher priority [for traffic stops] than a native life."

Whonnock was one of many at the forum who called for the creation of a new kind of Amber Alert when women disappear along the Highway of Tears.

Kitsumkalum chief councillor Don Roberts said it's a good idea.

"Send an alert out immediately," he said.

'Horrific tragedy'

At least 18 young women have been murdered or gone missing on a 700-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert. None of the cases have been solved.

The forums are an informal part of the B.C. Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, and are being held in seven communities along the Highway of Tears.

The forums are aimed at getting a broader view of how police conduct investigations into missing women.

"A horrific tragedy has taken place in these communities," said inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal. "Any time a woman goes missing, a murder takes place, that strikes at the very heart and soul of these communities."

The inquiry has heard from dozens of grieving relatives at public meetings in band halls and local schools.

For many like Ann Derrick, whose daughter disappeared, the grief is still raw.

"My late husband and I went on the search — looked and looked and looked," she said. "It's hard when there's no answers. It just goes on and on."

Lives at risk

The inquiry also heard this week from speakers who say aboriginal women's lives are being put at risk because their only option of travel is hitchhiking on the remote stretch of highway.

Community members are calling for the creation of a public shuttle between communities and the addition of an emergency phone system along the highway in areas where there is no cellular service.

But Skeena MLA Robin Austin said many in the community still feel saving the lives of young aboriginal women simply isn't a priority.

"I was in the car driving a young aboriginal woman [and] the radio had the news the young boy abducted from his home in Sparwood was delivered home safely," Austin said.

"And this young woman who was with me who was First Nations said, 'Wow, I guess the reason the Amber Alert worked and he's back home safe is because he's white.'"

Future forums will be held in Smithers and Hazelton.

More formal proceedings that begin next month will examine why serial killer Robert Pickton wasn't stopped sooner from murdering women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.