Canada: There are warnings, but not all hear

VANCOUVER SUN
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Lori Culbert
p. A8

Hitchhiking, once considered a normal means of transportation, is
blamed for many disappearances

NEAR STELLAKO, B.C. he slight figure has pulled the hood of her white
sweater over her head, for some feeble protection from the cold
late-November wind, and nearly blends anonymously into the snowy
background of this barren stretch of Highway 16.

Liza Nooski, 19, trudges along the tarmac where it turns due north to
curve around the west end of Fraser Lake, the bottom of her pants
covered in the brown sludge that lines the road after sanding trucks
cover the previous night’s snowfall.

A Vancouver Sun reporter and photographer pull over to offer Nooski a
ride. It’s nippy outside. She’s happy to accept.

Earlier that morning, Nooski tells us, she hitchhiked more than 20 km
from her home on the Nadleh Whut’En reserve on the east end of the
lake to the town of Fraser Lake, situated between Vanderhoof and Burns
Lake on Highway 16.

She lucked out this day, as her cousin picked her up and drove her to
town, where Nooski took her 15-year-old sister out for a meal during
the high school lunch break.

Then, to kill some time before her sister got off school, Nooski
decided to walk the 4.5 km to Stellako, a nearby native community,
where she can save money on taxes by buying minutes for her cellphone
at the native-run store.

Nooski is a polite, soft-spoken young woman, who admits to hitchhiking
from time to time. There’s no public transit from her reserve to
Fraser Lake. She has no money to buy a car.

Some local communities have shuttle bus services, such as from Stony
Creek into Vanderhoof. But there are none in the area where Nooski
lives, she says.

She is careful, she insists, to only get into vehicles with people she
knows or who do not look dangerous. She doesn’t feel nervous, she
tells us.

“Usually I take care of myself on the highway. I usually don’t get in
unless it’s my friend or my cousin [who is driving],” she says. “If it’s
a guy I don’t know, I don’t usually get in the car.”

Nooski has read in the newspaper about the so-called Highway of Tears
investigation, a police probe looking into the disappearances or
deaths of 18 girls and women along major B.C. arteries, including
Highway 16. She has also seen posters about the case in her community.

Nooski says her friends have changed the way they thumb rides because
of the high-profile case, but she is worried her younger sister’s
friends still feel invincible while hitchhiking to Vanderhoof or
Prince George.

“They’ve seen the posters up, but they don’t really listen. I tried to
tell them,” Nooski says.

Improved bus service is one of the more than 30 recommendations made
in a 2006 report following the first symposium held in Prince George
for relatives of the girls and women on the Highway of Tears list.

It is the first recommendation in the report, and it reads: “That a
shuttle bus transportation system be established between each town and
city located along the entire length of Highway 16, defined as ‘ The
Highway of Tears.’ “

“I’m frustrated because I don’t feel like any of those recommendations
have been followed up on,” said Grainne Barthe, with the North Coast
Transition Society in Prince Rupert.

She said it is common in northern communities to try to catch rides
to rural towns, as there are few other ways to get around.

There is semi-regular bus service from Prince Rupert to Terrace, but
nothing to places like Kitimat or Hazelton. The bus will also take you
to Smithers, but won’t stop to drop you off at Moricetown along the
way, Barthe said.

“I don’t get the feeling that anything is safer for women today. I
think one of the biggest problems for the north is that we are
disregarded by the Lower Mainland,” said Barthe, who is originally
from Montreal.

“I’ve never heard any government official or RCMP say there is a
killer on the loose. You can create some safety just by saying that
because right now, it is so abstract.”

Another key recommendation from the symposium was to erect billboards
along the highway to increase public awareness of the case, as part of
a “victim prevention program.”

While driving along Highway 16 last month, The Vancouver Sun passed
four of these billboards in communities like Gitwangak, Thornhill and
Moricetown.

Two of them read “Hitchhiking: Is it worth the risk?” There is an
eerie image of a teenaged girl hitchhiking on a road lined with tomb
stones, as two mournful ghosts hug her legs and cry on her shoulder. A
caption says, “Ain’t worth the risk, sister.”

The billboards indicate they are often sponsored by local governments
and reserves, and occasionally by businesses and the provincial
government.

Prince Rupert city council approved putting up a billboard, but no
action has yet been taken there. Prince George tried to erect a sign,
but ran into trouble because the city doesn’t own the land along the
highway.

Many people in the north, including Highway of Tears coordinator Mavis
Erickson, hate the tone of the billboards, arguing they suggest the
victim is at fault for agreeing to get into a vehicle.

“I resent that as first nations women they kind of consented to their
own death, that they somehow consented to what happened,” Erickson
said with exasperation during a recent interview in Prince George.

“The media and RCMP portrayal, throughout the years, referred to the
women and girls as high-risk so immediately people think they were
doing something they shouldn’t have done, and somehow they deserved
it.”

The reality is, Erickson argued, that the majority of the victims are
teenagers and if you miss your school bus in a town like Smithers,
there aren’t a lot of other ways to get home if your family can’t come
to pick you up.

“They are not women, they are girls. They are missing girls. They are
school children,” she added.

Erickson is a Harvard-educated lawyer who last spring took over the
position of Highway of Tears coordinator. The job was created after
families at the symposium demanded better communication with police
and other authorities.

Erickson has met with the solicitor-general to try to secure funding
to get some of the recommendations implemented, she said, but right
now her office is run on a “shoestring budget” on a year-to-year
contract that expired Dec. 1.

Carrier Sekani Family Services in Prince George, where her office is
located, has provided some bridge financing as she tries to line up
future funding, she said last week.

The previous coordinator held youth forums and produced safety tool
kits for the communities. Erickson argues one of the greatest needs is
to increase safety and security for women.

If the Lower Mainland can have campaigns to keep boys out of gangs,
she asked, why can’t there be something similar in the north to remind
girls and women to stay safe on the highways? That could include
poster campaigns to tell girls, for example, to travel in pairs after
dark or to pre-arrange a driver.

“The province and Canada has a long way to go to improve safety and
security for first nations women. We need an educational campaign and
transportation,” Erickson said.

There is also a need for following up on another recommendation:
placing emergency phone booths in well-lit rest areas along the
highway, she added, as there is no cellphone service during the long
treks between communities.

Craig Benjamin, of Amnesty International Canada, asks whether police
need to be more forthcoming about their investigation, and if they
need to warn the community about any other risk that links these 18
victims together. “I really wonder when police have their 18 names and
they’re not taking the effort to be really clear about the numbers,”
he said, “are they aware of the consequences of that uncertainty?”

Barthe took part in organizing “Take Back the Highway” rallies in the
north a few years ago, as a twist on the ” Take Back the Night” events
that call for more safety for women. They had Tshirts made up for the
Prince Rupert demonstration that said: ” There’s a killer on the
road.”

Quoting reports done by advocacy organizations like Amnesty
International Canada, Barthe’s organization argues the number of
missing and murdered womenwho belong on the Highway of Tears list is
double the existing number.
“There are women who are missing who are not counted. My question is: Why not?”

Others in the north reference the Native Women’s Association of
Canada, which in a recent report said there are 520 “known” cases of
native women going missing or being murdered. B.C. leads all provinces
by a wide margin, with 137 cases.

Police say their list was composed based on criteria the cases need to
meet, and a geographical boundary that does not include all of B.C.
Police argue there is no proof a serial killer is on B.C. highways.

But even the 2006 symposium report acknowledges the total number of
victims is constantly questioned. ” There is much community
speculation and debate on the exact number of women that have
disappeared along Highway 16 over a longer 35-year period; many are
saying the number of missing women, combined with the number of
confirmed murdered women, exceeds 30,” the report says. Some family
members of those on the Highway of Tears list argue they don’t see
significant improvements for women in the north since their loved ones
went missing or were murdered.

Sally Gibson, the aunt of Lana Derrick, who disappeared near Thornhill
in 1995, said the symposium brought some improvements — such as
police keeping in better contact with families — but she doesn’t
think it is any safer today for young women to travel between
communities.

” If girls want to get somewhere and if they have no money or vehicle,
then hitchhiking is often their method of transportation… Everyone
believes it will never happen to me,” Gibson said.

“If we pick up hitchhikers we give them heck all the way to wherever
they are going. They get a lecture the whole way.”

Cory Millwater, whose daughter Tamara Chipman vanished on Highway 16
just outside Prince Rupert on Sept. 21, 2005, believes schools could
do a better job of talking to students about safety on the highways
and hitchhiking — especially for rebellious teens.

“Somehow these young girls — maybe in the schools they have to be
made to understand how dangerous it is,” Millwater said.

One day not long ago, Millwater picked up a hitchhiker she thought was
about 12 or 13 years old, and told her about the devastation of losing
her daughter.

Millwater dropped the girl off in nearby Port Edward, and then later
that day saw the same girl hitchhiking again. “I hitchhiked across
Canada when I was 16, and I never believed anything would happen to
me. When you’re young, you think you’re invincible,” Millwater said,
tears welling in her eyes.

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