Mary Jane Hill wasn’t there to witness the birth of her grandchildren or to see them graduate from high school. She won’t be there when her daughter needs her most, when she’s in pain, or on her wedding day.
These are the losses Vicki Hill says she’s suffered as a result of the death of her mother, whose naked body was found along British Columbia’s Highway of Tears in 1978.
“She won’t be there for any special occasion, period, and that’s not fair,” Hill told the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women on Tuesday.
“She didn’t deserve this whatsoever. She had children to look after. She had siblings. … This is all tough, and now I’m the one who has to deal with it.”
Hill was the first family member to testify publicly to the inquiry in Smithers, B.C., after a hearing began Tuesday. She spoke softly and slowly, and her 15-year-old daughter, Zoey Hill-Harris, comforted her as tears rolled down her face.
Hill was only six months old when her mother died and has no memories of her, she said.
She read from a coroner’s inquest report that concluded her 31-year-old mother died of bronchitis and pneumonia as a result of manslaughter. There was semen on her body and her clothes were discovered in an alley in Prince Rupert, 33 kilometres from where she was found dead, Hill said.
Dozens of women have died or gone missing along the stretch of Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George, which has become known as the Highway of Tears.
Hill said she wasn’t only speaking for herself, but for all the families who have lost loved ones.
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “Things have got to change, no matter what.”
Hill said she became a heavy drinker for a while to numb the pain, but she always made sure her children were taken care of, and had food, clothes and a roof over their heads.
“I’m not ashamed to tell you,” she said. “How else are you supposed to deal with it when nobody’s going to listen?”
She has since worked through her alcohol issue and said if it wasn’t for her kids, she might have gone “down that same road,” meaning that she would have died.
“They’re the reasons why I’m here. That’s all I have is them and nobody’s going to take that away from me, nobody. I fought hard and long for this.
“I’ve always said to my kids I love them, all the time, all the time, before they go to bed, before they walk out the door, before they hang up that phone.”
Hill called on the commissioners to listen to families and bring them justice, adding she’d like to see improved cellphone service and transportation along the Highway of Tears. There is no cell service between Prince Rupert and Terrace, or in nearby Moricetown, she said, and she’s never seen phone booths or emergency telephones, either.
A British Columbia inquiry into missing and murdered women recommended bus service along the route, but it took years for the service to arrive, and some buses have to be caught in the middle of the night, she said.
The national inquiry has been plagued by controversy, with commissioner Marilyn Poitras resigning this summer and complaints from families about delays and poor communications.
Buller told the room of family members and observers at the start of the hearing that she was humbled and honoured to participate in a walk on Monday along the Highway of Tears to honour the dead and missing.
“They were real people, real people who were gone from us, gone from all of Canada, but remain in our hearts,” she said.
More than 40 people have signed up to speak, publicly or privately, at the hearing in Smithers, which runs through Thursday.
The inquiry is set to visit nine communities this fall, including Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Ont., and Maliotenam, Que.