VANCOUVER — Parents of young women who were either slain or went missing along the remote British Columbia highway from Prince George to Prince Rupert shed a lot of tears during a day-long meeting with police on the status of the investigation, participants said.
Family members heard about no pending arrests or cases that were about to be solved, said Matilda Wilson, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed 15 years ago.
But they walked out of last weekend’s session feeling that investigators are working on the cases, she said.
“It was pretty intense,” Wilson said in an interview. “It does not matter how many years since they (the young women) disappeared. Some family members could barely talk about their loved ones. They did a lot of crying. Investigators finally know how we really feel.”
The RCMP have been repeatedly criticized for not responding to reports of missing women, most from native reserves, along Highway 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert.
Wilson, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation, said police waited two weeks before beginning a search for her daughter Ramona after she disappeared in June of 1994.
“They did not take it seriously,” she said.
Ramona’s body was discovered 10 months later adjacent to a muddy road midway between Prince George and Prince Rupert.
An RCMP investigation dubbed Project E-PANA is looking into the disappearance or homicide of 18 young women since 1969 along a 50-kilometre stretch of road dubbed the “highway of tears.”
RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Annie Linteau, who was at the meeting on Saturday with the families, said investigators have completed a review of incidents since 1969 and are now following up leads in the cases.
“We have done an extensive review of all the files to see if anything had been missed or other leads could be pursued,” she said in an interview. Investigators have also considered whether new technology in DNA testing could turn up fresh leads.
“We are now moving more into the investigative phase, where we pursue whatever has been identified through the review,” she said.
The RCMP are still waiting for the results of a forensic examination and analysis of material taken in late August from a two-hectare property about 50 kilometres west of Prince George, Linteau said.
Police have previously said their search of the site was related to the disappearance of 25-year-old Nicole Hoar, who went missing in 2002.
About 25 people from nine families met with police in Prince George. They were told that the budget for E-PANA was doubled this year to $6 million, from $3 million last year.
“Investigators are confident and feel we are progressing in relation to these files,” Linteau said.
On Monday, Wilson said much of the meeting was taken up with family members talking about the young women who were killed or disappeared.
While they have previously been critical of the police, they were encouraged by what they heard, she said.
However, Wilson was disappointed that the information sessions with the RCMP are held only once a year; the families need more time together, she said.
Mavis Erickson, the highway of tears co-ordinator for Carrier Sekani Family Services, was also at the meeting.
She said the families would like to see an aggressive government campaign within native communities to stop violence against women and to discourage hitchhiking along isolated roads.
In a recent meeting with Solicitor General Kash Heed and Attorney General Mike de Jong, she called for a hard-hitting sign and poster campaign similar to those used by the government to discourage young boys from joining gangs. She also asked the government to expand a campaign to stop violence against women to native reserves.