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BC Liberals continue Harper's indifference to missing and murdered Indigenous women

By: 
Eric Lescarbeau

October 26, 2015

Stephen Harper may be gone but his callous disregard for missing and murdered Indigenous Women lives on through Christy Clark’s BC Liberal government.
 
Since 1969 dozens of women, the majority of them Indigenous, have gone missing or been murdered along the 720km stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert in northern BC, known as the Highway of Tears. Last Wednesday BC’s Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham confirmed that a political staffer in Transportation Minister Todd Stone's office deleted internal records about the Highway of Tears in order to avoid them becoming public. This is a continuation of 10 years of the Liberals refusing to even discuss or acknowledge the issue.
 
Deleted emails
After years of inaction by the Liberals, NDP MLA for the North Coast, Jennifer Rice, filed a freedom of information request for records relating to meetings that were supposed to have taken place in 2014 to discuss safety along highway 16. The government twice requested extensions so they could transcribe written notes before suddely telling Rice that they could find no records. The truth finally came out when Tim Duncan, a former executive assistant in Todd Stone’s office, sent a letter to the privacy commission. In it he revealed that when the FOI request came in he was instructed to delete dozens of related emails with “Highway of Tears” in the title. When he protested, his boss, ministerial assistant George Gretes, grabbed the keyboard and deleted the emails himself. When Duncan later objected to this practice to Liberal Research Director Jen Wizinsky, she dismissed his concerns stating, “It’s like in the West Wing. You do whatever it takes to win.”
 
The privacy commissioner’s investigation revealed that the practice of “triple-deleting” emails, where e-mails are scrubbed from the server before they can be backed up, was widespread among government officials. Rather than denying the practice, Todd Stone claimed that he and the privacy commissioner just had different “interpretations” of the law. One of Christy Clark’s top advisers, deputy chief of staff Michele Cadario, was found to have erased virtually all of her emails.
 
While the arrogant disregard of FOI rules is rightly being condemned, the much more serious racist disregard for the rights of Indigenous women has largely been overlooked.  
 
RCMP implicated in abuse
The RCMP finally launched an investigation into the disappearances in 2005 but it is unlikely that it will ever lead to any kind of justice. In fact, the RCMP are part of the problem. A Human Rights Watch investigation and report on the Highway of Tears in 2013 uncovered allegations of widespread police violence and sexual assault against Indigenous women, including one woman who reported being raped and threatened with death by four RCMP officers. Investigators received reports of sexual assault in 5 out of 10 communities they visited. Other instances included: police pepper spraying and tasering young girls; police using their dog to attack a 12-year-old girl; an officer repeatedly punching a 17-year old girl; male officers strip-searching women; and police using excessive force while arresting women.
 
Women and community service providers also told investigators that women who tried to call police for help had been blamed for their own abuse, shamed over drug and alcohol use, and found themselves at risk for actions taken in self-defence.
 
The investigators also reported being “struck by the level of fear” and said about a dozen young women cancelled interviews because they were too scared of possible repercussions from officers working in their small communities. “You expect that level of fear when you’re in a place like Iraq, in a post-conflict country where security forces are implicated in horrible abuses,” said one researcher.
 
Highway of Tears symposium recommends free transit
In 2006 the Highway of Tears Symposium, involving more than 500 people from 91 Indigenous organizations, community groups and trade unions released a report containing 33 recommendations on how to prevent the deaths and disappearances. The report identified a combination of poverty and lack of transportation infrastructure as the primary factors leading to the murders and disappearances. In particular, many First Nations communities lack basic services and women are often forced to travel into urban centres to shop, see a doctor, etc. Many can’t afford to buy a car so they hitchhike and become vulnerable to predators. So the first and most important recommendation in the report was for a free shuttle bus transportation system to be established between each town and city located along the entire length of highway 16. The report estimated that just 7 buses would be required. 
 
The symposium’s recommendations were revived two years ago during the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton murders and the broader issue of MMIW when commissioner Wally Opal called on the government to implement them, but nothing has been done. Nearly 10 years after the symposium’s report, the Liberal government has yet to even begin consultations on implementing the report’s recommendations and, in true Harper style, they refuse to answer requests for interviews on the subject. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton has repeatedly insisted the highway is safe even though Greyhound bus services were dramatically cut back two years ago. As Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach stated last year, “Transportation in the north is worse than I’ve ever seen it.”
 
Liberals sacrifice Indigenous women for LNG profits
It is no coincidence that this scandal comes at the same time as the Liberals are pushing for an LNG industrial revolution in northern BC. They know that implementing the recommendations of the Highway of Tears Symposium would force them to acknowledge the terrible state of social services and infrastructure in First Nations’ and northern BC communities, and expose the lie that LNG development brings prosperity. 
 
The boom and bust model the Liberals are pursuing exacerbates the conditions that lead to violence against women. Billions are being spent on industrial infrastructure while transportation, housing, healthcare, education and social services for local communities all suffer the double burden of cutbacks and a temporary spike in population. Many towns along the Highway of Tears are already suffering from a shortage of affordable housing, as well as a rise in rents and prices. Mostly male work camps with no ties to the local community also tend to fuel prostitution and violence, and increase the vulnerability of poor and Indigenous women. Increased rates of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence are all typical in boom towns, as can be seen in Fort McMurray in the heart of the sar sands. 
 
With the broad anti-Harper sentiment that swept the Cons from office the time is ripe to demand the LIEberals implement all 33 recommendations of the Highway of Tears Symposium. At the same time we can fight for a model of development like that promoted in the Leap Manifesto that contributes to healthy and safe communities and doesn’t sacrifice the lives of indigenous women for the sake of profit.

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