09/13/2011 02:31 EDT | Updated 11/13/2011 05:12 EST

Powerful testimony heard at missing women forums

More emotional testimony is expected at a series of forums into missing and murdered women in northern B.C.

At the first of seven forums in Prince Rupert on Monday, aboriginal women tearfully told stories of their mothers and daughters who have vanished in the area.

Molly Dickson spoke about her 28-year-old daughter Angelene, who was last seen in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in May. She asked for more support from police in northern B.C. communities when women go missing in the south.

"I feel that this community needs all the support from the RCMP, which I haven't got from them," Dickson said. "She's been missing too long and getting mixed messages from her on her whereabouts and we are love her dearly and just want her home safe."

She noted it's difficult for her to contact North Vancouver police who are working the case.

"It's not like my daughter to not contact me," she said as she began to sob. "She's a young lady that keeps in contact with her grandma, her aunties, her brother, her son, as well as myself, and it's been too long. I'm asking for help to get this out."

Hitchhiking puts lives at risk

The inquiry also heard from several speakers that aboriginal women's lives are being put at risk because their only option of travel is hitchhiking.

Women tearfully confirmed they've had harrowing experiences travelling Highway 16, where a number of their friends and relatives have vanished over the years.

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.

Some groups say 32 women have gone missing along the highway since the late 1960s, while aboriginal groups often peg that number at 43.

None of the cases have been solved.

MLA Gary Coons said poverty and a lack of public transportation leads to risky behaviour such as hitchhiking -- and that plays a major role in making women in the north vulnerable.

He told the inquiry the majority of victims were between the ages of 14 and 25 and most were young aboriginal women who had asked strangers for a ride.

He acknowledged little has been done in the way of fulfilling a series of recommendations made at a 2006 symposium into the tragedies, including the creation of a public shuttle between communities or the addition of an emergency phone system in areas where there's no cellphone coverage.

'How can we stop this from taking place?'

The northern B.C. forums are part of the informal 'study commission' arm of the B.C. Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.

The forums are aimed at getting a broader view of how police conduct investigations into missing women, said Commissioner Wally Oppal.

"We needed to come here in order to connect with the community ... to find out how this community has been hurt, how your hearts have ached, your hearts have broken," he said.

"How can we stop this from taking place? How can the police use your wisdom and your experience?"

Oppal has contended with vocal frustration from various non-profit advocacy groups in recent months as they learned the province wouldn't extend them legal funding to participate in the more formal proceedings. Without resources, several have withdrawn entirely.

But Oppal told those gathered their perspective is vital, and asked people to put their cynicism towards the efforts on hold.

Further forums will take place in Terrace, Kitwanga, 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.