British Columbia

Suicide, substance abuse and grief in focus as MMIWG hearings open in B.C.

On the first day of MMIWG hearings in Smithers, B.C., speakers opened up about thoughts of suicide, alcoholism and the other struggles they faced after losing family members along the Highway of Tears.

Speakers share stories of struggle after losing family members along B.C.'s Highway of Tears

Wet'suwet'en First Nation Chief Vivian Tom wipes away tears while testifying about her late daughter Destiny Rae Tom. Her daughter's body was found outside a home on the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation in 2013. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

On the first day of National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls hearings in Smithers, B.C., speakers opened up about thoughts of suicide, alcoholism and other struggles they faced after losing family members along the Highway of Tears.

In her opening remarks, chief commissioner Marion Buller noted the significance of bringing the hearings to Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George.

Chief commissioner Marion Buller speaks before the start of hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Smithers, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"This is a location, a very important location, because it's part of the national tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls," she said. "Here, we will listen to families and survivors of violence."

RCMP have identified 18 victims linked to the Highway of Tears dating back to 1969, but the commission is casting a wider net by including testimony from people whose lost family members are not included in the official count.

That includes Vicki Hill, who was just six months old in 1978 when her mother, Mary Jane Hill, was found dead outside Prince Rupert.

Vicki Hill holds a photo of her late mother Mary Jane Hill while testifying during hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Smithers, B.C. Her mother was found dead along Highway 16 near Prince Rupert in 1978 at the age of 31. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Hill was first to testify, speaking about her frustrations in trying to learn more about her mother's death and in dealing with the lack of cooperation she received from officials.

A coroner's inquest determined the cause of death was bronchitis and bronchopneumonia, but the inquest report also ruled it a homicide — though no one has ever been charged. Hill believes her mother was left to die.

Megan Printz, right, rests her head on her mom Lorna Brown's shoulder while listening to Chief Vivian Tom testify about her late daughter Destiny Rae Tom, who was killed in 2013, during hearings at the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Smithers, B.C. They were attending to represent Printz's cousin and Brown's niece Tamara Chipman, who went missing in 2005 after being last seen hitchhiking on the Highway of Tears. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"How does it make you feel that the RCMP does not recognize your mother as a victim of the Highway of Tears?" she was asked.

"Anger," she replied softly. "Frustration."

She was asked what effect not having her mother around has had on her.

"She gave me life," she said. "She gave me birth. Now, I have to live without her. She wasn't there for my son's grad, she won't be there when I get married." 

"She won't be there for any special occasion, period. And that's not fair."

'How else are you supposed to deal with it?'

Hill also testified about her history with alcohol abuse.

"The pain that I carry, that's what I used to kill the pain," she said. "I'm not ashamed to tell you. How else are you supposed to deal with it when nobody's going to listen?"

Holding an eagle feather, Vicki Hill pauses to collect herself while testifying about her late mother Mary Jane Hill. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

She said the one thing that has helped her move forward was the desire to care for her own children.

"I have a chance to make a difference in my kid's life," she said.

"I swear, if it wasn't for my kids, I don't know where I would be."

'It just broke my heart'

That sentiment was echoed by Chief Vivian Tom of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation, whose daughter Destiny was killed in 2013.

Tom said she had thoughts of suicide after Destiny's death, but the need to care for her then-three-year-old granddaughter helped her move forward.

Wet'suwet'en First Nation Chief Vivian Tom, front, is comforted by Gladys Radek while testifying about her late daughter Destiny Rae Tom. Her daughter's body was found outside a home on the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation in 2013. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

She also said her granddaughter began speaking about suicide after Destiny's death.

"She figured death, suicide, meant she could be with her mom," Tom said.

"It just broke my heart."

Wet'suwet'en chief Vivian Tom and commissioner Michèle Audette outside the Dze L K'ant Friendship Centre Hall in Smithers after Tom delivered her testimony. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Tom said she told her granddaughter that Destiny fought for every breath she had, and connected the granddaughter with counselling, adding that today the young girl wants to grow up to be an RCMP officer so she can help people.

Message of forgiveness

Tom's testimony also contained a message of forgiveness. Last year, her granddaughter's father plead guilty to and was convicted of manslaughter in Destiny's death.

"I don't put him down or anything, I don't call him down, because that's her dad, and when she grows up I don't want it to affect her self-worth as a person, as a human being," Tom told CBC.

"If I reacted in violence it would be just the same thing. It was violence killed my daughter."

The stories of those testifying are being contextualized with cultural and family histories, and commissioners are hearing stories of residential schools, foster care, sexual assault and trauma surrounding the missing and murdered.

Roughly 25 families have signed up to testify publicly, with others delivering their stories in private. The hearings will wrap with a family sharing circle Thursday night.
 

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.