Activists call for inquiry into the Highway of Tears


VANCOUVER — From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, Tuesday, Jun. 23, 2009 03:36AM EDT

They set out on a 1,500-kilometre walk to draw attention to women who have gone missing and possibly been murdered along the Northern B.C. highway known as the Highway of Tears.

They did not anticipate they could be placing themselves in danger by heading to a campsite washroom near the highway. But they were shaken by a man who burst out of a women’s washroom as they entered. He dashed to a waiting vehicle. Another man was in the driver’s seat. The car sped off.

“There was no need for those men to be there,” Michael Harris, a spokesman for Walk4Justice, said yesterday in an interview. What would have happened had one woman gone alone to the washroom was left to speculation.

The women did not report the incident to police. But they told Gitxsan chiefs in Hazelton, the next stop on their trek, that their walk to turn a spotlight on those who stalk women had attracted stalkers.

“We were followed into the campsite,” said Bernie Williams, one of the co-founders of the walk.

The walk was to draw attention to the unsolved cases of female hitchhikers, mostly aboriginal women, who have gone missing or been murdered along Highway 16.

The walkers set up their tents in an isolated campground outside Moricetown, a village of less than 1,000 people about 30 kilometres west of Smithers. The walkers were the only campers on the grounds. They felt as if they had been followed by a stalker.

The group arrived in Prince Rupert yesterday afternoon, 25 days after leaving Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre.

Mr. Harris said the trek has been an emotionally charged event. Everyone involved was either related to or a close friend of someone who was murdered or missing. And at every stop, they heard more stories about women who disappeared or were murdered.

“The emotions are really raw,” Mr. Harris said in an interview. “They feel that pain a lot of the time.”

Ms. Williams said the trek was difficult, especially because women continue to go missing.

The group is pressing for a public inquiry into the disappearances and for a more extensive RCMP investigation. They believe authorities have not treated investigations into the disappearances as a priority because many of the women are aboriginal. At a meeting with Gitxsan chiefs in Hazelton last week, several speakers said they felt no one wanted to listen to their stories or pay attention to their issues.

Ms. Williams said in an interview that the group also aims to raise awareness among native people and to urge them to push for greater accountability.

At the meeting with Gitxsan chiefs, Ms. Williams contrasted the massive police investigation sparked by the murder of prominent Vancouver resident Wendy Ladner-Beaudry this spring with the reluctance of police to investigate aboriginal women who go missing.

“Nothing happens,” she said, reflecting her view of the response to violence against aboriginal women.

The group last summer walked 4,442 kilometres to Ottawa from Vancouver. Their message fell on deaf ears, Ms. Williams, 52, told the chiefs, so they decided to walk again. “And we will keep walking [until it is heard],” she said. “We will not go away. We will keep rolling. We will keep raising our voices up.”

Co-founder Gladys Radek told the chiefs that her niece Tamara Chipman went missing on Sept. 21, 2005, after she headed out to hitchhike outside Prince Rupert on Highway 16 to Terrace to see her father. She was 22 and had a 2 ½-year-old child. Searches turned up nothing. “I will not stop searching until I find out where she is,” Ms. Radek said.

As she spent more time searching, she realized a bigger problem existed, she said. She heard that 3,000 women had gone missing or were murdered across Canada and the cases remained unsolved. “The women are out there, the perpetrators are out there too,” she said.

Ms. Radek said 12 children have been left by three of the missing women. “These children, when they grow up, will ask what happened to their mothers. What are you going to say to them? I will say I walked for justice,” Ms. Radek said.

The RCMP did not respond yesterday to a request for an interview. The RCMP have previously said they investigate tips they receive. Three years ago, 35 officers were working as part of a dedicated investigative team.

The B.C. government has refused demands for a public inquiry until the judicial process involving killer Robert Pickton is completed. Mr. Pickton has appealed his conviction in the death of six women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.