Highway of Tears 'cleansing walk' begins in Prince Rupert

Ten years ago, a group of families walked from Prince Rupert to Prince George to raise awareness about the Highway of Tears.

Ten years after the Highway of Tears Symposium, families walk to raise awareness and improve safety

"We want the families to know that we care and that they’re supported,” said Brenda Wilson, second from the right. (Kiefer Collison)

Ten years ago, a group of families walked from Prince Rupert to Prince George to raise awareness about the Highway of Tears.

Now, Brenda Wilson is walking that same 700 kilometre stretch of Highway 16, drawing attention to the cases of missing and murdered loved ones and holding community safety forums along the way.

Families and supporters will be joining her over the next three weeks, "cleansing the highway" as they go.  

"We need to have plans in our communities so that we can keep our children safe, we can keep our community members safe," Wilson said before her departure from Prince Rupert. 

"Because if we don't have those plans in place, we don't know who we're supposed to turn to, and that is lost time. If someone should go missing, we need to react on it instantly, not take 72 hours, which is such a myth. We don't have to wait 72 hours. We need to do this right away."

Dozens of women and girls have been killed or gone missing along the Highway of Tears, according to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report. Most of those women and girls were Indigenous. 

Wilson has made it her job to make the communities along the highway safer. Her co-ordinator position is a direct result of the Highway of Tears Symposium, held in Prince George in 2006. The two-day event produced 33 recommendations that focused on prevention, support and emergency planning. 

Mary Teegee is the executive director of Carrier Sekani Family Services, the host agency for the Highway of Tears Initiative. She said they've been doing their best to implement the recommendations with limited funding, which means establishing community supports, doing workshops with first responders and more. 

"We've been doing that work, but it would really be wonderful if we had long-term funding ... to have enough staff to work for the whole north," said Teegee.

As of right now, Brenda Wilson is the only official staff member, but other people, like youth workers, work off the side of their desk to help, said Teegee. 

'We can no longer be silenced'

16-year-old Ramona Wilson went missing near Smithers, B.C. in 1994. Her body was found one year later. (CBC)
It's been 22 years since Brenda Wilson's sister
Ramona went missing from Smithers. She was 16 years old. 

On April 9, 1995, Ramona's body was discovered in a wooded area by the Smithers airport. Her case, like so many along the highway, is unsolved.

Brenda and the other walkers will stop in Smithers on June 11, the anniversary of Ramona's disappearance. She said a lot has changed in the last 22 years. 

"There's way better technology than what was in place when Ramona went missing," she said, adding distributing information about a missing loved one has become much easier with the internet. 

A display at the family gathering for young women who were murdered or went missing along northern B.C.'s Highway of Tears. (Terry Teegee/Facebook)
"And some of the things with the government have changed. They're starting to recognize the work that needs to be done in a lot of our communities between Prince George and Prince Rupert. This is Northern British Columbia. We need to be in the forefront. We can no longer be silenced. We need to be a part of British Columbia."

The highway walk is scheduled to end in Prince George on June 21, which is National Aboriginal Day. 

With files from Daybreak North, George Baker, Andrew Kurjata