Life and Death Along Canada's Highway of Tears

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The red flowers have worn off.

Still, seven stones are embedded in the dreamcatcher hanging in the back window of Brenda Wilson's car. In the center is a high school photo of her little sister Ramona trimmed into a circle. Long dark hair pulled to one side. A familiar blue backdrop. It's the Gitxsan teen's last school photo.

"I just always keep it with me," said Brenda. "It was actually on my sister's casket when she was buried."

Ramona was just 16 when she disappeared. It was the summer of 1994. Somehow, she never made it to the graduation parties she was going to that night. Ten months went by before her body was found in a wooded area near the local airport. For 21 years Ramona's family has been advocating for her, but her murder remains unsolved.

Justice is difficult to find on the 450 mile stretch of Highway 16 that winds through central British Columbia, connecting Prince Rupert and Prince George. In 1994 alone, three teenage girls were killed along this route: Ramona Wilson, Roxanne Thiara, and Alishia Germaine. No one was ever charged.

This is the Highway of Tears.

Families and communities have walked the highway's entire length, and then some, demanding justice. Brenda says Ramona's dreamcatcher is in her car for an upcoming walk.

"We don't want people to forget who she was as an individual person."

Brenda Wilson says the stones in the dreamcatcher represent Ramona, her siblings and mother/VICE Canada

Brenda Wilson says the stones in the dreamcatcher represent Ramona, her siblings and mother/VICE Canada

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) report released in 2014 revealed that British Columbia had the highest number of unsolved cases of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls in the country: 76.

Many of those disappearances and deaths occurred around the highway.

The numbers have changed, but the RCMP's latest report doesn't give a provincial breakdown.

In the absence of convictions, families are often the ones serving time. Organizing vigils, walks and rallies, contributing to conferences, research and prevention programs. They're leading calls to stop the violence, demanding the government support them in holding a national inquiry.

A collective grief is echoing across the country, as the toll climbs. According to the RCMP, 1,107 Aboriginal women were murdered and another 164 went missing between the years 1980 and 2012.

Related: Harper Rejects Call For Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

"You are in Highway of Tears Country," is the headline on a pocket-sized flyer at the Carrier Sekani Family Services office in Prince George. It's not actually clear how many women and girls are unaccounted for in the region.

More than 30, says the flyer. More than 40, suggests a Human Rights Watch report.

Too many.

The Family Services office is located in Prince George, the province's so-called gateway to the north. Brenda Wilson works there under the title Highway of Tears Initiative Coordinator. Part of her job involves visiting communities along the highway, hosting workshops, and supporting victim's families.

"You know, I accept the fact that my sister is no longer here on this Earth," said Brenda. "But I also accept the fact that I am here, not to take her place, but I'm here as her voice. To let people know what happened to her and to bring awareness to the issues."

Concrete solutions are out there; they've been on the books for nearly a decade.

Watch the VICE Canada documentary, Searchers: Highway of Tears, here

"I think it's very, very, very slow," Mary Teegee says about the implementation of 33 recommendations to come out of the Highway of Tears Symposium that followed the death of 14-year-old Aielah Saric Auger. She was dumped on the side of the highway just west of Prince George in the winter of 2006.

Teegee is an executive director at Carrier Sekani Family Services and was also Ramona Wilson's cousin. She runs through some of the work they've been able to accomplish. But, she says government funding is an ongoing issue.

"We've always maintained that work regardless of the funding because it's something that we believe in. It's something that our communities want us to do. But it's very difficult when there isn't the resources to keep going," said Teegee.

By the time the Highway of Tears Symposium launched, an RCMP task force called E-PANA had been put together to investigate whether a serial killer (or killers) was responsible for the deaths and disappearances along the highway. E-PANA's caseload would eventually double to 18 cases and was expanded to include other highways in the province.

Breakthroughs have come in a few cases. Still, most of the Highway of Tears cases remain unsolved.

Aielah Auger's murder was the last, and most recent case added to the E-PANA task force.

Like so many families, her mom became an outspoken advocate for missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. "Justice is what I want," Audrey Auger was quoted as saying in 2006.

She died on the same highway, in a car accident in 2013. Aielah's murder is still unsolved.

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Claudia Williams has been waiting for someone to solve her sister's murder since 1989.

"It goes through my mind every day," she says, recounting her last moments with her younger sister Alberta. It was a summer night. The sisters had been working in a cannery in Prince Rupert.

Payday came and they decided to go to a cabaret with a group of friends.

After the place closed Claudia says people were milling about trying to figure out where to go next. Claudia got caught up in a conversation with her boyfriend - and says Alberta, 24, was calling for her: 'Claudia! Claudia! Come on, we're going to a party!'

"I looked at her and said, 'Just a minute.'"

Moments later Alberta was gone. A month later her body was found. And 26 years later, no one has been charged. Her contact with the police is virtually non existent. Shortly after speaking to VICE News, the RCMP phoned her for the first time in years. (The RCMP declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Much of Claudia's faith is placed in a former cop faith is placed in a former cop, Ray Michalko, who has been investigating a number of Highway of Tears cases for years. He's studied the victims, traversed hundreds of miles, rummaged through the bush, and run down leads, all on his own time and seemingly at his own expense.

"People are going missing. Kids are going missing. Women are going missing. It doesn't matter who they are or what their race is or anything," he said. "It shouldn't matter. Especially in Canada. But, you know, there's a lot of people who'd tell you it does."

**

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When you get to the second floor of the Carrier Sekani Family Services office there's a piece of art on the wall. Tears fall from a woman's face onto the silhouette of a person below.

"I think that in general our communities have a lot of grief. We have a lot of grief and we have a lot of healing to do."

Mary Teegee isn't just talking about the women and girls that are gone.

She's talking about things like colonization, residential schools and loss of land. Things that have undoubtedly contributed to the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.

"I think that's why when we look at something like the [Highway of Tears] recommendations report, there's 33 recommendations, and it's just one step in for us to get to that place where you know, our communities are getting stronger."

Ramona Wilson's family has spent 21 years keeping her story alive - more years than Ramona got to live on this Earth.

Brenda Wilson has made it her job to protect those who are still living.

"You know it's really painful to every day to talk about your loved one, but you know it has to be done," Brenda said.

"What motivates me and what keeps me going ... to do interviews, to do presentations… I want my sister's murder to be solved and also, I want there to be safety in our communities."

Follow Chantelle Bellrichard on Twitter: @pieglue

Watch another segment in VICE Canada's Searchers series, Misty Potts, here: