Indigenous

'We haven't done enough:' grief along the Highway of Tears 1 year after MMIWG inquiry hearings

One year after the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls made its stop in the northern B.C. community of Smithers, there is another funeral being held.

Community members demand change and justice following death of Jessica Patrick

People gather along Highway 16, also known as the Highway of Tears, on Sept. 20 for the return of 18-year-old Jessica Patrick's remains. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

One year after the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls made its stop in the northern B.C. community of Smithers, there is another funeral being held. Another young woman's life cut short.

Jessica Patrick was laid to rest on Tuesday. Her remains were found outside of town on Sept. 15. She was 18.

The North District Major Crimes Unit of the RCMP is investigating her death. 

"At this point, the cause of death remains under investigation and no further information is available," wrote an RCMP media relations officer when asked about the status of the case.

While the police might not have much to say right now, there is lots of talk in the alpine-themed town and surrounding communities about her death.

The loss of yet another young, Indigenous woman here has renewed energy behind demands for justice and change. People packed into the friendship centre for her memorial last weekend, in the same building where one year ago people came to share their truths and recommendations to the national inquiry.

Patrick had been missing for just over two weeks when her body was found down a steep, wooded slope on Hudson Bay Mountain. One of the places she was last seen was leaving the Mountain View Motel, located at the edge of town on Highway 16.

Participants in the 'Tears 4 Justice' walk complete their journey from Prince Rupert, B.C., to Smithers in September 2017 for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

A year ago dozens of people, including commissioners from the national inquiry and long-time MMIWG advocates, walked right past this motel on the last stretch of their 300 km journey from Prince Rupert to Smithers as part of the annual Tears 4 Justice walk.

The walk was organized as a way to raise awareness about the deaths and disappearances along this highway, known to many as the Highway of Tears. Advocates estimate since 1969 more than 40 women and girls, mostly Indigenous, have gone missing or been murdered along this 700 km stretch of highway.

'We haven't done enough'

Terry Teegee, B.C. Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations, came to Smithers to attend the memorial for Jessica Patrick. He is a cousin of Patrick's mother.

He's experienced this kind of loss in his family before. Teegee's cousin Ramona Wilson was 16 when she went missing from Smithers in 1994. The teen's body was found nearly a year later and nobody was ever charged in relation to her death.

Matilda Wilson holds up a picture of her youngest child, Ramona, who disappeared in 1994. She wants justice for her daughter's unsolved murder. (CBC)

He said being at Patrick's funeral and seeing Ramona's family there, he thought to himself, what's changed?

"We haven't done enough. I just think there's no more excuses. We can't have any more excuses," he said.

Teegee said putting an end to the disappearances and deaths is a huge task because of the multiple underlying factors involved: intergenerational trauma, domestic violence, the child welfare system, racism — the list goes on.

"This isn't new, this is some of the things we've seen in other reports," he said, in reference to previous studies like the Highway of Tears symposium in 2006.

He said he suspects the national inquiry's final report will repeat much of what has been reported before, and will likely further highlight what a daunting task it's going to be to change things.

"And regardless if it's a daunting task, we have to do something about it," he said.  

'She's bringing everybody together'

Losses like Jessica Patrick cut deep in this region, reopening the wounds dozens of families have experienced.

Standing on the edge of the slope on the Hudson Bay Mountain, it is quiet and you can't see the town below through all the trees. There are dozens of flowers marking the path toward where her body was found. There's a laminated photo of the teen and a sign that says "We love you, Jessica. Justice4Jessica."

Dozens of flowers have been placed around the location where Jessica Patrick's body was found on Hudson Bay Mountain just outside of Smithers. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Sadly, this isn't the only loss this community has experienced since the inquiry's three days of public hearings in Smithers last year.

Frances Brown, 53, has been missing from the area since last October when she was separated from the person with whom she was picking mushrooms.

This summer, police and volunteers spent weeks searching for Chantelle Simpson from the nearby village Telkwa, before her body was found in the Skeena River.

In the Dze L K'ant Friendship Centre's front lobby there's free coffee and a wall with posters and pamphlets, including one that describes the services available through the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls support program.

Natu Bearwolf is the MMIWG support worker here. It's a newly created role and she's been spending the past couple months supporting families who have lost loved ones through workshops and community gatherings.

And then, Jessica Patrick went missing.

"It's heartbreaking and awful, but it's also inspiring change and action and love and support," she said.

"She's bringing everybody together in ways that some people just can't. What we're hoping is that we can make positive change for the future, to try to prevent this from happening again."

Jessica Patrick, 18, went missing at the end of August. She leaves behind a one-year-old daughter. (Facebook)

One of the positive changes she said she's hopeful about is the work being done to establish a community safety patrol in Smithers, modelled after the Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg. An effort led by her coworker Mel Bazil.

"I'm hoping people are starting to feel there's something they want to do, not just one day, but for the rest of their lives," he said.

Inquiry bringing attention to cases

With Patrick top of mind, those who have experienced similar losses are adding her name to their calls for justice.

Several of the cases of missing and murdered women and girls from this region remain unsolved.

Marlene Jack gave testimony before the inquiry last year and told her own story of survival that started with her experience in residential school. She also told the inquiry about the loss of her sister Doreen, who went missing with her husband and two children 29 years ago.

The family of four has never been found. No one has been charged in relation to their disappearance.

Ronald and Doreen Jack, both 26, and their two children Russell, 9, and Ryan, 4, were last heard from during the early morning of Aug. 2, 1989. (Marlene Jack)

Jack said for her, the positive outcome from the inquiry was the renewed attention to her sister's case, and the new information that has been brought to the RCMP's attention since she gave her testimony.

"I'm thankful for this inquiry, that they are helping me in any way possible to keep this investigation going. My sister matters… Justice for MMIWG," she wrote in a Facebook message when asked about her thoughts on the inquiry one year later.

Back at the friendship centre, Bearwolf said her focus will continue to be on supporting survivors and family members of the missing and murdered in Smithers, whether it's been weeks or decades since their loss.

"It doesn't matter how much time has passed since a loved one has gone missing in that the community, the families, the friends are still hurting," she said.