At this meeting, community members clearly outnumbered attending RCMP members and Commission staff, and perhaps for this reason, people seemed to feel more open with the Commission and brought forward some very personal information. One woman explained how her sick child and the failures of the medical system left her hitchhiking and desperate for transportation. Another witness explained how “high risk” youth had to be pulled off the highway on a regular basis. It was eye opening.
Again, however, a parked RCMP ghost car greeted all attendees out front, and a uniformed and plain clothes officer were in the front row throughout the hearing. Another plain clothes officer was identified during the hearing as one of the missing women investigators. The vast majority of community members sat along the back rows, silently listening. I don’t understand the strategy of the Commission on this point of high visibility police presence at these meetings if they’re interested in hearing the unvarnished truth from marginalized populations, but I’ll leave it at that. I should note that one participant did say she wished there were more police present in case a predator was at the hearings.
The absolute best witness was, hands down, a woman named Frances, from Moricetown (about half an hour up the road by car, where no study commission meeting was scheduled). While all of the witnesses who spoke today and in Kitsumkalum have had important messages for the Commission, I say “best” because this witnesses’ evidence is exactly what the Commission needs to hear more of – first hand experiences with hitchhiking and violence along the highway.
Frances had to hitchhike to get to this meeting about why women were hitchhiking along Highway 16, and how to make them less vulnerable. She bared her soul in front of the Commission and the police. As best as I could transcribe, here was some of what she had to say:
My name is Frances [last name deleted], from Moricetown, living in the Hazelton area for about twenty years now. I’m a single parent of two. Separated from my ex. My experience on the Highway of Tears started when I was 18. I started hitchhiking, ran away from home, with a girlfriend I thought was a friend of mine. We had goals to travel across Canada. The bad experience started when we hit Prince George.
We stayed about three days over there, underage, sneak into the bar. Stayed there a couple days. Nobody knew we ran away, except our parents. For a whole two weeks I got my mother worrying about me. Wondering where I was. I grew up in a good home. My parents got up to go to church every day.
[. . .]
Once we got a ride from PG with my girlfriend, he [the driver] went the long way to Vancouver, not the short way, the long way. Once we hit Chilliwack, he offered us to stay with him in a small dirty cabin not too far from the freeway. We accepted, it was getting dark. We thought that old guy was nice to give us a place to sleep. We were just about to sleep, when that guy came out of his room, he offered $50 for either of us to go sleep with him. My girlfriend sleeping beside me on a hide away [bed] was scared, said “let’s get out of here, he’s going to come after us. We’ll go make a fast run, don’t stop.”
We didn’t know where we were, but the freeway was right there. The old guy came after us. We hid in the bush, but we didn’t come until until we didn’t see that guy and more. I’d say we were the luckiest to be alive and come home. To this day, I’m still hitchhiking.
I’m staying in Moricetown, I had no ride coming back here [to the hearing]. I had to walk all the way back to the highway without sticking out my thumb to get home.
People see me on the road, they think that I’m stupid or crazy, but if I ask you for a ride to Smithers, would I give you a ride, would you give me a ride? No. If I had gas money? Some would.
The hitchhiking situation ain’t going to stop, it’s going to continue. This last year, my 15 year old daughter ran away on me, it’s me all over again. She was gone for a whole week, not too far from here. Kilingwa [apologies for spelling], was where she was. A friend who she thought was a friend, was going to get her drunk, have a party. She didn’t want to participate, so they punched her, kicked her, deserted her in Kilingwa.
I tell my story to my kids, hoping that they’ll learn, from my bad experience. Who knows? I’m the one still hitchhiking on this highway.
I can only hope the Commission was inspired enough by Frances’ testimony, and relative success in a community where the key meeting organizer had significant pre-existing relationships she leveraged to benefit the Commission, to ask themselves what they can do to increase the odds that women and men in Frances’ position will come forward and share their experiences and insights.
Unfortunately, I understand that Frances’ evidence, and that of the others who spoke today will not be made available in transcripts, and the audio recordings made by the Commission are only to assist them in their note taking; they won’t be posted.