Remembering the missing women of northern B.C.
Vancouver isn’t the only place in BC from which women have disappeared. When the Missing Women’s Commission (MWC) set about gathering evidence about the women who have disappeared from the “downtown east side,” it also looked farther afield.
Over the past three decades, as many as 30 young women, most of them Aboriginal, have gone missing in the North, along what’s become known as the “Highway of Tears.” Highway 16 runs northwest from Prince George through 800 km of remote and rugged countryside to the coastal city of Prince Rupert.
Although the MWC wasn’t mandated to explore these northern disappearances, it became apparent that it was important to learn more about them and northern life in order to better understand their possible relationship to the Commission’s broader inquiries. Aboriginal lawyers, who were appointed as Ad Hoc Counsels, were asked to hold regional hearings and to prepare consultation reports. Linda Locke was among them.
The 2009 winner of the QUAA Alumni Achievement Award, a member of the Sto:lo Nation from the Fraser Valley, Locke is well known in northern BC. Based in the town of Hazelton, she was well situated geographically to gather information from smaller communities further along the highway.
“The Commission work had special appeal for me because it provided an opportunity to describe the experiences of people of this area,” Locke says.
Although she followed the objective template of the MWC reports, her approach to collecting the information was somewhat different – broader and more personal. “The family and friends of missing women had waited many years to openly discuss their experiences and the trauma of their losses,” she says.
Locke also set out to describe the land and culture of the northwest, where the disappearance of young women from small communities has profound and far-reaching effects. The Northwest Consultation Report provided context by describing the land, its remoteness, and the ties to tradition through many local tribes and their cultures, an important component of which is a matrilineal heritage.
It is the women of the First Nations who carry and transmit the culture to future generations, and so the disappearance of any young woman has a long-lasting effect on the entire community.
Procedurally, the northwest hearings were less formal and smaller than those in Vancouver, and because they weren’t events open to the general public, the participants had more freedom for discussion. Locke oversaw six sessions that used various formats: focus groups, interviews, and telephone conversations. The questions Locke used to prompt discussion were based on the Commission’s, and not surprisingly, similar discussion points were often raised. Police issues – the RCMP being the police in the area – were frequently mentioned, particularly the lack of immediate and thorough investigation once a young person had been reported missing.
For that reason, the MWC Report recommendations pointed to a need for better community-police relationships, including educating and training police about Aboriginal culture and history.
In Locke’s “territory,” participants went beyond the policing issues to ask some difficult questions about other factors. “What went wrong?” “How did this affect community ties?” “How can this situation be improved?”
People expressed three strong desires: to prevent these tragedies from happening again, to find ways of building stronger communities, and to seek better, more reciprocal, relations with the police. The youth of small, remote communities were seen as being at risk, and so more attention is needed to ensure their safety through awareness and community prevention efforts.
The hearings made it clear that every young woman who disappeared was someone of worth and had family and friends who loved her. The Northwest Consultation Report collected stories, poems, and narratives that illustrate that reality and the experiences of these missing women and their communities.
“We intended to gather the facts and identify issues,” Locke says. “This consultation was a part of the Commission’s work. But we believed it important to be the voice for people, to describe the impact of these tragic events.”
Aboriginal culture observes a deep tradition of rituals for the dead; however, these rituals have not been observed for those young women who have simply vanished. The wounds of loss remain open