Sally Gibson has been waiting nearly two decades for answers about what became of her niece, a 19-year-old forestry student from a small First Nation in northern British Columbia who vanished along the Highway of Tears.
There’s the official story: Lana Derrick was out with some friends and at some point ended up in a car with two unidentified men, with whom she was last seen at a gas station along Highway 16 near Terrace in the early morning of Oct. 7, 1995.
But that’s just one of the many theories, rumours and guesses Gibson and her relatives have heard over the years, a painful reminder that no one – not the family, not the police – has any idea about what happened.
“We have heard so many different stories and have been told so many different things that we don’t even know,” said Gibson from her home in Gitanyow, the First Nations reserve where Derrick grew up.
“It isn’t like Lana died and we went and buried her and the pain will go away. She totally disappeared. That’s an open wound.”
Derrick’s disappearance brought her family into a community of loss and despair, joining the relatives of at least 18 women and girls who have disappeared or were murdered along Highway 16 and two adjacent highways. They share the yearly walks, the memorial ceremonies and the frustration that the provincial government has yet to act on dozens of recommendations made in a 2006 report.
First Nations groups and municipal officials say the province should have acted years ago to protect vulnerable women in B.C. north, using the blueprint it already has: 33 recommendations to improve transportation, discourage hitchhiking, and prevent violence against aboriginal women and girls.
That report was endorsed by a public inquiry report released in December, 2012, which called for urgent action.
The 2006 report was crafted by several First Nations groups after the Highway of Tears Symposium.
Its first recommendation was a shuttle bus network along more than 700 kilometres of Highway 16 that runs from Prince Rupert to Prince George.
Other recommendations included education for aboriginal youth, improved health and social services in remote communities, counselling and mental health teams made up of aboriginal workers, more comprehensive victims’ services, and, of course, money to pay for it all.
Wendy Kellas, who works on the Highway of Tears issue for Carrier Sekani Family Services, said most of the 2006 recommendations remain relevant, including the need for better services not only for aboriginal women, but also for the families of the murdered and missing.
The proposed shuttle service is needed as much as ever, she said. For First Nations women who can’t afford their own vehicle, there are still few options if they need to travel for groceries, appointments or to visit family.
But there has been little effort to hold consultations, and internal government briefing notes revealed work on the file was stalled for much of the past year. The province said it had to put its work on hold when families of women in the Pickton case launched lawsuits against the federal and provincial governments last year.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton and Transportation Minister Todd Stone have declined repeated requests for interviews.
Anton insists the highway is safe, pointing transportation options including a health shuttle for medical patients and Greyhound bus service, which was dramatically cut last year.
Taylor Bachrach, the mayor of Smithers, said transportation in the north is worse than ever before but he remains hopeful that consultations will begin soon.
Transportation Ministry staff planned to attend a meeting with the Omineca Beetle Action Coalition, of which Bachrach is a member, last Friday, and Bachrach said he expected more such meetings to follow.
“I am keen to give the government the benefit of the doubt. If they’re willing to work on this, I think communities are, too.”