'If she was white, she would still be here'

Canada's murdered women and girls.

Brenda Wilson's sister, Ramona, was last seen alive on June 11, 1994 [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Brenda Wilson's sister, Ramona, was last seen alive on June 11, 1994 [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

In this six-part series, Al Jazeera tells the stories of some of the Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered along an infamous stretch of highway in British Columbia, Canada.

Warning: The following article contains content that may be disturbing to some readers.

British Columbia, Canada - Brenda Wilson has dedicated the past 27 years of her life to supporting the families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). It is emotionally draining, but it has become her life’s purpose.

It all started when her younger sister was found dead. Ramona Wilson was Gitxsan First Nation and just 16 years old.

She went missing in Smithers, northern British Columbia, on June 11, 1994, after telling her mother that she was going out with a friend and might attend some local graduation parties that evening.

The next day, when her family discovered that she hadn’t shown up to meet her friend and her boyfriend called looking for her, they felt something was terribly wrong. They went to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), but the RCMP didn’t seem to share their concern.

“The RCMP didn’t help, I don’t recall them searching,” says Brenda, on a frigidly cold and dreary day in Prince George, the largest city in northern British Columbia.

“We put up posters and had lots of friends and family out searching,” she recalls.

But Brenda didn’t join the search. She didn’t want to find her sister’s body, she explains.

“I kept thinking she was kidnapped, held captive, she could be beaten. Was she hungry or cold? I was praying she was ok.”

'She was my baby'

Brenda Wilson's sister, Ramona, was 16 when she disappeared [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Brenda Wilson's sister, Ramona, was 16 when she disappeared [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Brenda is dressed from head to toe in red, a colour that represents MMIWG, and wears a black mask with a red handprint. She has brought several framed photos of her sister to the local hotel where we are meeting. They show a fair-skinned young girl with dark, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones and long black hair.

“The night before we found her, I had a dream,” she nods, as her finger slowly traces circles on the large, wooden table in the hotel boardroom. “I knew,” she says.

Ramona had been missing for 10 months, but that night, in Brenda’s dream, Ramona’s voice “kept saying, ‘they found me’.”

The next day, Brenda was visiting a relative when she got the call. “I hate the phone and cell phones now,” she says, taking a deep breath and quietly studying a picture of her sister.

Two teenagers had discovered Ramona’s body in a wooded area near Smither’s airport and just a few metres away from Highway 16, a notorious stretch of road that has become known as the Highway of Tears because of the high number of mostly Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been found murdered along it.

Yellow rope and nylon cables were found beside her. The trousers and sweatshirt she had been wearing were nearby, but her white and pink high top sneakers were never located.

In the time between Ramona going missing and her body being found, the bodies of two other girls were discovered near Highway 16. Roxane Thiara and Alishia Germaine were both 15 years old. Six months after Ramona was found, 19-year-old Lana Derrick, a forestry college student visiting her mother in Terrace, vanished. According to the RCMP, she was last seen at a gas station on Highway 16. She has never been found. All three were Indigenous.

[Alia Chughtai/al Jazeera]

Ramona’s family identified her by her clothes after the police informed them that her remains were so badly decomposed that she was unrecognisable. The RCMP believes she was most probably killed soon after she went missing.

“My mom, aunty and cousin went into the room,” says Brenda, explaining that the police had her clothes laid out on brown paper. Brenda also went into the room, as dozens of other family members waited outside the police station. “I could smell the earth on her clothes. The colours were faded. But they were hers,” she says.

Ramona was the youngest of six children. Brenda was the oldest. Brenda recalls how, when their mother, Matilda, was pregnant, she had prayed for a sister.

“She was my baby. When Ramona was born, I was so happy. Finally, a sister. She was fair skinned with dark, curly hair. The cutest thing ever,” she remembers.

Brenda watched her sister grow into a beautiful young woman who loved nature, her Gitxsan culture and prayer. Not long before she died, she had modelled a handmade traditional white dress at a fashion show Brenda had organised at the local Native Friendship Center.

Ramona’s death was devastating to all who knew and loved her, Brenda says. As is the fact that her murder remains unsolved.

“There are no hardcore facts she was hitchhiking that night - I don’t really know what happened. She had only hitchhiked a couple of times before,” Brenda says.

'We won't give up'

Just off Highway 16 near where Ramona Wilson's body was found [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Just off Highway 16 near where Ramona Wilson's body was found [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

She mourned deeply for her sister but soon decided she needed to take action - for Ramona and the other MMIWG. “Ramona was calling to me. Many family members needed someone to be out there. I was a really shy person, but when I started this work I didn’t feel so alone. To guide family members through the process we as a family had already gone through. They’ve told me, ‘you give us hope.’”

Brenda participated in an unprecedented meeting held in Prince George in 2006 to address the growing crisis of the MMIWG in northern British Columbia. The Highway of Tears Symposium was attended by family members, supporters, governments, police and organisations to raise public awareness and create a call for action. It produced 33 recommendations to tackle the crisis; however, little has been done to implement them since.

[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

And, in the almost three decades since Ramona was killed, violence against Indigenous women and girls hasn’t slowed. Despite making up just four percent of the population, Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than any other women in Canada, and 16 times more likely than white women.

For years, Brenda and other grassroots activists pushed for a national inquiry into MMIWG. Finally, at the end of 2015, it began. For three years, Brenda toiled through the emotional turmoil of giving her own testimony to the inquiry and supporting other families and survivors through theirs.

Her mother Matilda also shared her testimony, telling the inquiry’s commissioners: “Not a day goes by when I’m not wondering how long she had lived before she died ... I could have easily went down and been in the gutter forever and never come back out, but I have faith and hope.”

“I want the National Inquiry to know that what you’ve done here is so big ... we fought for this for so many years ... we wish to make it known that we won’t give up for the missing now and for the murdered.”

A red dress, signifying Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, hangs just off Highway 16 near Witset, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

In 2019, the inquiry team, which had held dozens of community meetings across Canada and gathered testimony from more than 2,000 people, released its final report, which cited colonialism, discrimination and genocide as responsible for the high rates of violence against Indigenous women and girls.

“The significant, persistent and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human rights and Indigenous rights violations and abuses — perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state, designed to displace Indigenous Peoples from their land, social structures and governance and to eradicate their existence as Nations, communities, families and individuals — is the cause of the disappearances, murders and violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people, and is genocide,” the report stated.

The report issued 231 Calls for Justice aimed at all levels of government, Indigenous governments, institutions, industry and citizens.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to the stage in an emotional ceremony marking the report’s release in Gatineau, Quebec and promised to do all he could to develop a National Action Plan.

But a year later when the detailed National Action Plan was due, the federal government stalled, blaming COVID-19 for the delay.

More than two years later, a National Action Plan still has not been released.

The federal Office of the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations turned down a request to be interviewed for this series, but did send an email stating the plan is a “priority” and the responsibility of all levels of government, including provincial and Indigenous governments, but that it is “making progress on the development of the federal component of the plan.”

“Actions to address this tragedy must be broad in order to address the socio-economic root causes including loss of culture and languages, poverty and lack of access to housing, and the need for community safety, food security, employment, education, health care, infrastructure, and the many threads that tie the fabric of society together,” the email stated.

It went on to highlight some of the actions the government has taken to address systemic issues that contribute to the crisis of MMIWG, including launching family information liaison units, enacting reforms to the child and family services system and investing in housing, shelters and essential programmes to end gender-based violence.

“In Budget 2021, our government proposed to invest an additional $2.2 billion over five years, and $160.9 million ongoing, to respond to this national tragedy. This investment includes support for Indigenous partners to ensure monitoring mechanisms are in place to measure progress and to keep the government accountable, now and in the future,” read the statement.

But the former head commissioner of the National Inquiry, Marion Buller, told Canada’s CBC News on the one-year anniversary of the report’s release that she didn’t accept the justifications for the delay in acting on it.

Highway 16 near Kitwanga, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

“They’ve just left us, all Canadians, in a void of information here,” she said. “I simply don’t buy it, it’s not an excuse. The government has said, ‘yes, we’ve given money.’ Well our report is more about power sharing and partnerships and I don’t see that fundamental paradigm shift in relationships happening at all.”

“I’m not saying it’s an easy job, but it’s something that has to be done and it has to be done in a timely way.”

Buller’s colleague, former National Inquiry commissioner Michelle Audette, told Al Jazeera via Zoom from her home in Montreal that the responsibility to heed the Calls for Justice lies beyond the federal government.

“It’s not only the federal government. It’s the provinces, the private sectors, mining and industry sectors, health care. It’s the institution that was supposed to take care of a human being. So, it’s everyone who needs to grab those Calls for Justice and say ‘Oh my God! I have the responsibility to honour them and make them come alive.”

'A recipe for homicide'

Highway 16 near Witset, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Highway 16 near Witset, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

One group that has been working to investigate the murders and disappearances along Highway 16 is the RCMP’s E-PANA unit. Established in 2005 with the purpose of determining “if a serial killer, or killers, is responsible for murdering young women traveling along major highways in BC (British Columbia)”, it has 18 cases on its official list, dating back to 1969. Despite Indigenous people making up just 5.9 percent of the population of British Columbia, 10 of the women and girls on the list are Indigenous.

There are dozens of other Indigenous women and girls who have disappeared or been found murdered in the vicinity of Highway 16, whose cases have not made it onto the list because they do not meet the strict criteria established.

[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

The task force, which has determined that a single serial killer is not responsible for all of the cases, had a breakthrough in 2012, when investigators said they believed a deceased American convict named Bobby Jack Fowler was responsible for murdering as many as three of the women and girls. The RCMP said investigators had uncovered DNA evidence linking Fowler, who in 2006 died of lung cancer in an Oregon prison, where he was serving a 16-year sentence for rape, kidnapping and attempted rape, to the murder of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen who was murdered in 1974. The RCMP believe he may also have been involved in the deaths of Gale Ways and Pamela Darlington, who were both 19 and disappeared in 1973.

At the height of E-PANA’s investigation, there were around 70 people working on the task force. It has now been scaled down to six investigators. Among them are RCMP Reserve Constable Wayne Clary and E-PANA Team Commander Sergeant Ron Palta, who flew to Prince George from E-PANA headquarters in Surrey, British Columbia, for an interview.

Sgt. Ron Palta, left, and Wayne Clary, of Project E-PANA [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

One factor that makes the Highway of Tears so dangerous is its remoteness, Wayne explains.

“Well, it’s wilderness,” he says, leaning back on a chair in a boardroom at an RCMP building near downtown Prince George. “My personal belief is they’re (the victims) missing and they’re in the wilderness somewhere. I’m hoping they’ll be recovered. It’s rugged here in British Columbia … From personal experience, animal activity happens quickly. The remains get scattered.”

“It’s unforgiving territory,” adds Ron, who is sitting next to him. “It’s vast and unpopulated. It makes murders difficult to solve.”

The two have more than half a century’s policing experience between them, including work on homicide investigations. Both worked on the infamous Robert Pickton case which was the largest serial killer investigation in Canadian history. The DNA remains of 33 women were found in the soil on Pickton’s pig farm just outside Vancouver. At least 10 of the victims were Indigenous women. Pickton confessed to murdering 49 women to an undercover police officer he shared a cell with after his arrest in 2002, but just 26 murder charges were subsequently laid against him.

Pickton was found guilty on six counts of second-degree murder in December 2007 and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years.

He was purported to have sought out prostituted and other vulnerable women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area fraught with poverty, crime and homelessness.

In 2012, a provincial government inquiry into the case pointed to “blatant failures” by the police, including prejudice towards prostituted and Indigenous women.

Although one killer is behind bars, Wayne says violence against women in Vancouver is unrelenting. He recently headed an undercover project to investigate perpetrators of violence against women in East Vancouver and says what he found was shocking.

“We couldn’t keep up, we were overwhelmed by these men hitting on the many homeless, severely drug-addicted sex trade workers, some with mental health issues,” he explains. “We found about a dozen vehicles where the windows were blacked out, door handles removed, trap doors in the back, twist tie cuffs - it was unreal. It was quite an eye-opener for all of us.”

Most of the women targeted were Indigenous, he says.

There are other reasons why Indigenous women and girls are targeted, says Ron. “Societal factors - we’d have to have our head in the sand to not acknowledge that.”

The E-PANA task force focuses on three highways in northern British Columbia - Highway 16, Highway 97 and Highway 5. Ron points out that “there are transportation issues too, leaving the vulnerable activity of hitchhiking. Here you have long spots of roads that are isolated and long distances that people need to hitchhike to and from. And marginalised people …”

[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

That, he adds, is a killer’s “recipe for homicide”.

Wayne acknowledges other determinants, beyond geography, that keep Indigenous women and girls oppressed and susceptible to violence. He doesn’t hold back when it comes to pointing out racism.

“Along Highway 16, we have vulnerable women because of what the Canadian government did to Indigenous Peoples and their history,” he says, pointing to how the state- and Church-run residential schools that Indigenous parents were forced, under threat of arrest, to send their children to and at which abuse was rife, “tore out a generation” and “weakened a family structure” leading to “economic issues, substance abuse issues, family cohesion issues, isolation”.

As far as the impact of industry and the labour camps that house industrial workers on the safety of Indigenous women and girls, Wayne references his own experience of witnessing the behaviour of some men at a labour camp at a natural gas plant operation in Kitimat, about three hours west of Prince George.

“Oh yeah, they’re (industry) bringing up thousands of workers. You get transient workers up here; they make big money - I’m not saying they’re bad people but the more people you get together the more bad people you’re going to get. It’s just the way it is.”

Ron agrees. “How dare we ignore anything in this? We look at who's around (including industry workers). If there’s a large group of men around, they need to be investigated for the murder of a vulnerable woman, and we absolutely look at that. We have looked at that,” he says.

They are confident they know the identities of some of the killers already, but say they lack the proof needed to convict them.

“It gets tricky because in some cases we are confident about who’s responsible and we’ve told the families. We need evidence though - we have a burden of proof. And in some cases, the person is deceased,” Wayne explains.

Neither sees their task force ending any time soon.

“There’s a lot of bad men preying on vulnerable women. The assaults, murders and beatings - we’re not talking domestic - it’s stranger to stranger. Unfortunately, it’s not unusual, it’s a bad part of our society. I’ve been a policeman for a long time, and I don’t see it stopping in the near future. It’s terrible,” Wayne says.

E-PANA still gets about 20 tips every month and each is followed up on, he adds.

A big focus of the unit is to build and maintain relationships with the families of the victims.

“We want it to be meaningful. Some families we speak with on a weekly basis, but ultimately what these families want on these unresolved cases is they want them to be resolved. We get along well with most family members; they want to know that people care. That’s important, because we do,” Wayne explains.

“We’re there to listen, to communicate that we’re committed, and the cases aren’t forgotten,” adds Ron.

Brenda says that although it has taken some time, she has built a good relationship with the investigators on the E-PANA unit.

“They’re good, compassionate. But I know the relationship between the RCMP and families, there’s no trust there still. So, I liaison with families and the RCMP to build trust, to feel safe, be trauma informed, and not to feel intimidated,” she explains.

'I'm going to walk proud'

Red dresses hang at the Unist'ot'en Healing Camp near Houston, British Columbia, on Monday, February 8, 2021. The camp is an intentional re-occupation of traditional Wet'suwet'en territory and also offers access to the land for community members to heal from trauma [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Red dresses hang at the Unist'ot'en Healing Camp near Houston, British Columbia, on Monday, February 8, 2021. The camp is an intentional re-occupation of traditional Wet'suwet'en territory and also offers access to the land for community members to heal from trauma [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Another advocate is not optimistic about police, government or industry efforts to curb the violence against Indigenous women and girls.

“It’s getting worse. Nothing has changed for our people. And industry, resource extraction helped make it worse,” says Connie Grey Eyes, the Northern Case Manager for the MMIWG advocacy branch of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, a group that works with residential school survivors.

Speaking via Zoom from her home in Fort St. John, about 430km (267 miles) north of Prince George, Connie explains that she once worked as a field paramedic in the oil industry in northern Alberta, a province that neighbours British Columbia, and witnessed a toxic work culture where male industry workers degrading women was the norm.

“Industry is so misinformed and disrespectful about Indigenous Peoples, and it’s the responsibility of industry to ensure workers are respectful. And it’s racism. We are treated as second class citizens,” she says.

“It wasn’t until the final report of the National Inquiry that it started getting out. It was out of sight, out of mind. Then people started putting two and two together,” she says of the role of industry in the MMIWG crisis.

For Connie, the crisis is deeply personal. In 1993, her 36-year-old cousin Joyce Cardinal, who had an intellectual disability, was attacked after getting lost while walking home alone. She was severely beaten, doused with gasoline and set on fire. She suffered burns to more than 70 percent of her body and died from her injuries a month after the attack.

Every year, near the anniversary of when Ramona went missing, Brenda organises a memorial walk for her. Family members and others walk the approximately 7km (4 miles) along the Highway of Tears to where Ramona’s body was found. It saddens her, she says, to know that so many Indigenous women are still without justice.

“I believe if she (Ramona) was white she’d still be here,” she says, adding that to her, racism is “just normal, an everyday thing”.

“It’s a part of life for me,” she reflects. “But it’s not something I want our future generations to live. I’m not going to be silent. I’m going to walk proud … We don’t need to be treated like this. We have the right to be here [and] to be safe.”

Source: Al Jazeera