The Current

MMIW: Trust a barrier with Indigenous girls and RCMP, says advocate

Community leaders involved in the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women hope the national inquiry will have an impact prompting the changes desperately needed to move forward. Many question if the necessary action will really happen.
Indigenous leaders have raised concerns about the scope of the national public inquiry on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. A final report with recommendations is more than two years away. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
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It was just over a month ago — Sept. 1 — that Ottawa officially began its inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

Already the Native Women's Association of Canada is critical of what it calls a lack of progress. 

Indigenous leaders have raised concerns about the scope of the inquiry. A final report with recommendations is more than two years away. 

A decade ago, Rena Zatorski spearheaded the Highway of Tears symposium in Prince George. 

She tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti during our public forum how the meeting came about.

"As a newly-elected council member, I had felt that being a leader was about being an activist and proactive."

The Current's virtual reality documentary follows the story of 16-year-old Ramona Wilson who disappeared along the Highway of Tears. Her mother Matilda Wilson continues to search for answers.

Zatorski says that after having her first child, a baby girl. and hearing the story of 14-year-old Aielah Saric-Auger, it really hit home that something had to be done.

"[Aielah Saric-Auger] was picked up downtown Prince George and murdered — and essentially thrown away like garbage on the side of the highway."

Zatorski put out a press release stating the intent of a symposium and the calls didn't stop. There were over 500 people in attendance during that meeting and 92 different organizations represented — not just from First Nations communities. 

In the end, 33 recommendations were made and although Zatorski says there was a lot of movement put towards them, she says "these issues are really systemic issues."

"The money that is needed to implement [the recommendations] I think is substantial. And when you're not getting, I think a commitment, it makes things more difficult," says Zatorski.

Mary Teegee, director of child & family services at Carrier Sekani, finds it disheartening to know the number one recommendation to provide shuttle service between Prince Rupert and Prince George - "a simple thing to do" - took 10 years to get started.

Teegee tells Tremonti the systemic barriers within the RCMP were present during the symposium a decade ago and is still an issue today.

"There has to be that level of trust so if [Indigenous girls] are going to be reporting, they're going to feel safe, who is protecting them? There really isn't that that feeling I believe still."

RCMP continue to investigate the deaths and disappearances of 18 young women along the Highway of Tears, a 720 km stretch of northern B.C. (Contributed/RCMP)

"It is an ongoing job for everybody with the RCMP and that should be a priority for them when it comes to dealing with First Nations communities," says Teegee.

Wayne Clary with the RCMP's Project E-Pana — a unit launched in 2005 to investigate the disappearances and murders of 18 young women on the Highway of Tears — tells Tremonti how important it is that communities are involved and keep talking about this issue.

"It's the communities that are going to solve these crimes," Clary tells Tremonti.

"We have turned over every stone we can to a large degree. We're still carrying on - but crimes of this nature - it's the people out there in the public that are going to help us to lead us where we need to go."

Clary says this past summer, Brenda Wilson, mother of Ramona Wilson who disappeared in 1994, had a Highway 16 walk to bring awareness to the disappearance of so many women and girls along the Highway of Tears. Clary credits this event to a spike in tips from the general public that the RCMP are following up on.

"The very fact that families can share their stories, and continue to share their stories, matters for investigations."

There are many family members who have criticized the RCMP for not acting fast enough to investigate  the disappearance of their loved ones didn't happen fast enough. It's something Clary finds upsetting and refers to as "the old days.

"I'd like to say going forward that it will never happen again and nor should it," says Clary.

"Victims families deserve that kind of attention and it's the right thing to do."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath, Josh Bloch and Kathleen Goldhar.