VANCOUVER, British Columbia (WOMENSENEWS)--In her youth, Gladys Radek frequently hitchhiked along the remote highway where her niece disappeared two years ago.
Now 52, she recalls the dangers of catching rides with strangers in Canada's rural north.
In the early 1970s, Radek was raped by a truck driver who picked her up on Highway 16, a 450-mile stretch of road in northern British Columbia.
"He was a tiny guy, but he was muscular," Radek said of her assailant. "All of a sudden he said, 'I'm going to stop and pull over for a bit.'" Then he pulled her into the back of the truck.
After the attack, Radek managed to find her way home. But several women who traveled Highway 16, including Radek's niece, Tamara Chipman, have not.
At least nine young women--eight of them Aboriginals--were murdered or have vanished along the highway between the towns of Prince Rupert and Prince George since 1989, although the exact toll is widely debated. At least four were hitchhiking the last time they were seen. Some speculate more than 30 women have disappeared over the past 35 years on the road, locally known as the Highway of Tears.
Last month, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police added to their probe the disappearances and murders of nine more women, dating to 1969. This brings the total to 18, and expands their investigation to other parts of British Columbia and the neighboring province of Alberta.
"The scale and scope of the review makes it one of the larger ongoing projects in B.C.," the police said in a statement, but gave few details. They said they have not yet determined whether a serial killer may be at large.
As people along the highway corridor react to the string of disappearances, concerns have largely focused on the lack of safe travel options for women in the region, but a coordinated public transportation system is still little more than an idea.
Prevention Efforts Urged
Besides a Greyhound bus passing through once or twice a day, no public transportation is available along Highway 16. As the investigation widens, victims' families and communities along the highway are urging something be done about that.
Tony Romeyn, a former police volunteer in Prince George who operates a Web site for the victims' families, said hitchhiking remains one of the main modes of transportation for Aboriginal women in outlying communities and impoverished, isolated reservations.
"They're almost like caught in a Catch-22, right? What do they do?" Romeyn said. "Some come from impoverished families so they can't afford even the cost of a vehicle."
In March 2006, the provincial government sponsored a community symposium in Prince George, after the last known victim, Aielah Saric Auger, 14, was found murdered.
Participants--government officials, police, victims' families, Aboriginal groups and nonprofit organizations--established 33 recommendations aimed at improving the safety of the region's Aboriginal women.
Their list included a shuttle bus system that would provide transportation between reservations and the towns, emergency telephone booths on parts of the highway without cellular phone service and programs to educate Aboriginal parents on the need to keep track of their children's travel plans.
So far, progress has been made on about half the recommendations. Billboards have gone up along the highway to deter hitchhiking. The government's Highway of Tears Initiative, spurred by the symposium, has held workshops to educate people of the dangers, funded partly by a $52,000 government contribution.
Shuttle Service Hasn't Budged
But a key recommendation--the shuttle bus system--is far from rolling.
Lisa Krebs, the sole coordinator of the nongovernmental Highway of Tears Initiative, said talks with government and community leaders have not yet determined how much a shuttle system would cost, how it would be staffed, where it would run, when it could operate, how it would be funded. "It could be industry financed," she said. "We're not expecting the province to entirely fund this initiative."
Krebs said it is a huge undertaking for one person to coordinate the implementation of all the symposium recommendations, and added that political apathy and bureaucratic shuffle within the government have impeded her work.
The executive director of the province's Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Mark Tatchell, said there is no lack of political will on its part, noting the government contributes more than $5.2 million annually to address safety in the region surrounding Highway 16, including outreach programs and halfway houses for women and children in crises of all kinds.
Tatchell said the government would consider providing funding for a shuttle bus system when a thorough plan is established. "Nobody's arguing that a shuttle bus isn't a good idea," he said.
Vancouver private investigator Ray Michalko, who has been voluntarily working on the Highway of Tears case for two years, doubts there is only one person responsible for the missing and murdered women, given the number of victims and the length of time between them.
He added that he has received an overwhelming number of calls from abused women in the northern region who have not notified authorities but share their stories with him, hoping it will help his independent investigation.
Aboriginal women, aged 25 to 44, are five times more likely than other Canadian women of the same age to die as a result of violence, according to a 2004 Amnesty International report, "Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada."
Radek said systemic racism is in large part to blame because abused Aboriginal women often do not report attacks because they feel authorities don't take them seriously. She said that was why she never told police about the truck driver who raped her. In turn, perpetrators can act with impunity.
Before that rape, Radek said she had been repeatedly sexually abused while growing up in foster care. Like many Aboriginals of her generation, she was separated from her family to attend Canada's now defunct, notoriously discriminatory residential school system for First Nations people and was raised by different foster families. Radek said her painful childhood made her vulnerable to more violence.
The incident along Highway 16 did not deter Radek from hitchhiking again, nor did she warn the young women in her family against it.
"I was abused, and I just had the devil-may-care attitude," she said. "I didn't give a shit what happened to me."
But her niece's disappearance was a devastating blow. Radek has since become an activist for victims of the Highway of Tears.
Chipman, 22, the daughter of Radek's brother, was last seen hitchhiking on Highway 16 on Sept. 21, 2005.
Radek said she thinks the family will at some point understand what happened to her niece. "I do believe, in my heart, that we will find out in the end."
Wency Leung is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, Canada.
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For more information:
Highway of Tears:
Amnesty International, "Stolen Sisters:A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada":
AI, "Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women From Sexual Violence in the USA":
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