Years after losing loved ones, MMIWG families call for justice along B.C.’s Highway of Tears

Vigil one of many held on Oct. 4 to honour the missing and murdered

MMIWG

A Jessica Patrick poster at a vigil in Smithers, B.C., a young woman who went missing and was found murdered near the Highway of Tears in 2018. Photo: Lee Wilson APTN


Vehicles drove by showing support for a Sunday vigil held by supporters and family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in northern B.C.

They held up pictures and names of lost loved ones, bringing awareness to the national issue.

The vigil took place in Smithers on Highway 16, also known as the Highway of Tears due to the high number of people who went missing over decades on the route between Prince George and Prince Rupert.

Sisters in Spirit vigils took place across the country on Oct. 4, a day for honouring the murdered and missing.

Jacquie Bowes has been raising awareness since her cousin Jessica Patrick was murdered in 2018.

Patrick, an 18-year-old Lake Babine First Nation member, went missing from Smithers in August of 2018.

She was found murdered two weeks later on a remote road near the town.

“Before Jessica went missing, we were aware of what was happening on Highway 16, but since then, Jessica went missing. We took it upon ourselves to create noise and bring out the awareness because everyone thinks it won’t happen to them, but it does impact everybody,” shared Bowes, one of the co-organizers for the event in Smithers.

Bowes felt there were systemic issues in play that caused delays for the search for her cousin.

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She calls for change for MMIWG families.

“Why because everybody deserves justice, not just based on the colour of your skin, everybody deserves it,” said Bowes.

There have been no charges laid in the murder of Jessica Patrick.

At the vigil, Mathew Jefferson held up a poster of his aunt Frances Brown who went missing off Highway 16 in 2017.

From 2018 to 2019, he walked across Canada to bring awareness to the issue of MMIWG.

Brown still has not been found.

His walk was about breaking down barriers and pushing the conversation forward.

“When I first started people were blissfully ignorant, they didn’t want to know. Now with media and all of these activists all across Canada it’s impossible to look away now,” shared Jefferson.

Jefferson stated that on his cross-country walk, people were eager to show support and share space.

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Kayla Mitchell holds up a “Who Murdered Ramona” poster. Ramona Wilson was found murdered near Smithers in 1994 at the age of 16. Photo: Lee Wilson/APTN

At the vigil, vehicles passed and continued to honk; others waved in acknowledgement as they passed on the highway.

Chants from the crowd called for justice: “Justice for Jessica” and then calls for “Justice for Ramona.”

Kayla Mitchell, a co-event organizer, was not born yet when her family member Ramona Wilson went missing at the age of 16 near Smithers in 1994.

Wilson was found murdered a year later near the airport, which is located a short drive from the town along Highway 16.

Wilson’s case remains unsolved to this day.

“There is a lot of violence that Indigenous women endure. I do see a lot of community members stepping up and having our voices heard. But it’s really at the community level; it’s community based it’s not at the higher-ups, ”said Mitchell.

In 2018, Canada held a National Inquiry into MMIWG, and from that 231 calls to justice were released.

Families are still calling for those changes from the inquiry to take place.

In an email to APTN News, the office of Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett addressed the need to deal with the violence.

“Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately impacted by all forms of violence. This is unacceptable and needs to change. Our government has made the safety and security of First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls, LGBTQ+ and Two-Spirit people a priority, and we are working to strengthen existing policies and programs and support future actions to increase their safety,” said the statement.

They are developing a national action plan as a response to the inquiry. It was supposed to be delivered on June 3, 2020, the one-year anniversary of the final report.

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A Sisters in Spirit vigil gathers with signs along Highway 16. Photo: Lee Wilson/APTN

But the government missed that deadline.

“As was made clear in the 2019 Final Report of the National Inquiry, all governments –federal, provincial, territorial, municipal, and Indigenous- are called to work to address the issues highlighted in the Calls for Justice. Together, we must co-develop a National Action Plan that will set a clear roadmap to end the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ and Two-Spirit people.”

According to Kayla Mitchell, sharing the names and the stories of MMIWG will keep pressure on the government to make these changes take place.

“With election time coming up we really want to call upon our leaders, decision-makers to really make a change and consider our Indigenous women’s lives,” said Mitchell.

This change is important to her because Ramona Wilson was young when taken.

“We still have no justice around who took her life, and she lost her voice at such a young age. I have got three younger sisters, and I don’t want them a part of the statistics.”

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Supporters and family members rallied for justice years after losing loved ones along the highway. Photo: Lee Wilson/APTN

Mathew Jefferson shared that finding common ground will be key.

He believes it will take a shift in group mentality to find a solution to this national issue.

“It’s all of us, you know. The changes we need to make is that mindset, it’s not us and them, said Jefferson. “We are all going missing and just open hearts. Just acknowledge it, see it and be a part of the change.”

He believes the work is not complete until people no longer have to hold up posters and pictures of lost loved ones searching for answers.

“This is the problem, so what I would like to see is no one out here. No one having to be out here for these reasons.”

Video Journalist / Kitimat Village, B.C.

Lee is a video journalist with APTN News, who shoots, reports and edits stories out of northern British Columbia. As a member of the Haisla Nation, Lee is proud to call Kitimat Village home again after living on Vancouver Island for 18 years. He has a passion for storytelling and looks forward to sharing stories through the lens of First Nations people.