When Gladys Radek walks the Highway of Tears, she says she can feel the spirits of women who are missing or have been murdered walking beside her.
Dozens have vanished or been killed along the notorious stretch of Highway 16 in central B.C.. On Thursday, Radek will honour the 12th anniversary of the disappearance of her niece, Tamara Lynn Chipman, by walking the route once again.
“You can feel the pain of the families when they’re walking with you,” she said. “It’s really, really hard to describe.”
The annual journey, made by Radek and others who have lost loved ones, will span five days this year and cover 350 kilometres between Prince Rupert and Smithers. Vehicles will accompany the walkers who will cover sections of the route in a relay fashion.
Commissioners of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls are set to join the walk on Sept. 25 before community hearings are held from Sept. 26 to 28 in Smithers. This is the second set of hearings held to date by the inquiry, after it visited Whitehorse in May.
Since then, the inquiry’s executive director, Michele Moreau, and one of its commissioners, Marilyn Poitras, have quit and the Native Women’s Association of Ontario has pulled its support. The inquiry has faced growing calls for resignations and a restart.
Asked whether commissioners feel added pressure to ensure these hearings are successful, Chief Commissioner Marion Buller said they feel that obligation regardless.
“They have to be (successful), not only for our purposes, but more so for the families who come forward and share their stories with us. It’s the success from their perspective that’s the most important aspect for us,” she said.
“We’re always under scrutiny. Always. And we always will be,” she added. “I’m always open to constructive, informed criticism, as are the other commissioners. It’s part of our work.”
The federal government launched the inquiry last year to examine the systemic issues behind the high number of Indigenous women who have been killed or disappeared over the last four decades in Canada. It is expected to take two years and cost almost $54 million.
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Buller said the commission will ask for more money and time but it is still conducting an internal analysis before making the request.
About 25 people, including family members and survivors of violence, are expected to testify publicly or privately at the Dze L K’Ant Friendship Centre next week. A statement-taker will be available for anyone who wishes to speak, with no pre-registration needed, said Buller.
Radek will testify about Chipman, who disappeared while hitchhiking in Prince Rupert on Sept. 21, 2005. The 22-year-old was a beautiful, charming free spirit who had a young son, she recalled.
Critics of the inquiry don’t understand how much ground it has to cover, said Radek, who sits on its national family advisory circle.
“It’s not as simple as two years of work. These people, these commissioners and the staff that they have working right now, they are uncovering the stones that should have been turned a long time ago,” she said.
People living along the Highway of Tears had to wait years for the provincial government to carry out a key recommendation of the B.C. inquiry into missing and murdered women, said Terry Tegee, tribal chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council.
The recommendation — reliable public transit along the route — was finally implemented earlier this year. But the experience has led Teegee to call for the federal inquiry to have more teeth. Like the missing inquiry in B.C., the recommendations from the national inquiry will be non-binding.
Teegee also said he’s concerned that people in small communities that still lack transit won’t be able to participate in the Smithers hearings.
Buller said staff have visited nearby towns in recent weeks to reach out to families and it is able to help cover travel costs including mileage and meals, she said.
The hearings will be the first of nine this fall, with other stops in Winnipeg, Halifax, Edmonton, Yellowknife, Saskatoon, Sask., Maliotenam, Que., Thunder Bay, Ont., and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press