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British Columbia Five years later, not all recommendations from B.C. missing women inquiry fulfilled

Highway 16 cuts across a sparsely populated area of British Columbia. So many Canadian women and girls, most of them indigenous, have vanished or turned up dead near Highway 16 that residents call it the Highway of Tears.


Five years after B.C.'s missing-women inquiry came to a close, the provincial government says it is still working to implement recommendations from the final report.

Wally Oppal, the inquiry's commissioner, submitted his 1,448-page report to the province in November, 2012. It was publicly released the next month and made 65 recommendations.

The government released its "final update" in December, 2014, and said it had taken meaningful action on more than 75 per cent of the recommendations directed at the province. However, B.C.'s Auditor-General slammed the B.C. Liberal government last December for refusing to release regular updates on its progress. It vowed to resume doing so.

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In a written statement, the NDP government's Ministry of Public Safety recently said it plans to release a status update by the end of February. It did not directly answer when asked how many of the recommendations had been implemented.

"While there has been significant progress, our work on implementing the Commission's recommendations continues in 2017/18," the ministry's statement read.

The statement said work on the recommendations to date includes a compensation fund for children of the missing women, improvements to policing, added supports in missing-persons investigations and increased safety along northern highways.

A one-page fact sheet prepared by the Liberal government in April expressed support for the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and said B.C.'s work on the major themes of its inquiry was "substantively complete or well under way." The document did not go into detail.

Mr. Oppal said in an interview that the inquiry's primary contribution was giving a voice to women.

When the report was released, Mr. Oppal urged the province to act immediately on two of its 65 recommendations. One of them was for an enhanced public transit system connecting northern B.C. communities, particularly along Highway 16, which is known as the "Highway of Tears" because many women disappeared while travelling on it over several decades.

A bus system launched only this year, a delay Mr. Oppal described as concerning.

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But he said the government has regularly been in touch with him about the recommendations, even if updates have not been made public.

The second of the two urgent measures was funding to allow facilities that assist sex workers to remain open 24 hours a day. When the report was released, the province committed $750,000 to Vancouver's WISH Drop-In Centre Society, which assists women in sex work.

However, Mebrat Beyene, WISH's executive director, said the funding her group received was never sufficient for it to open for 24 hours. She said WISH went from about five hours a day to 18. Ms. Beyene said her organization would need another $500,000 a year to stay open around the clock.

Ms. Beyene said the inquiry report's recommendations were sound and the province should not still be working through them five years later.

"This is women's lives in the balance. It is unacceptable. It's shocking that it's taken this long," she said in an interview.

Ms. Beyene said her organization – which helps 300 to 350 women each day – is concerned memories of the inquiry, and the deaths that led to it, are fading.

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"Our concern here at WISH is that people are forgetting that this happened and that it can happen again," she said, adding WISH has recently received reports from women of kidnappings, sexual assaults and other extreme violence.

At least five women have gone missing since early 2016 in the Okanagan, in the area of Salmon Arm. The body of one young woman has been found.

Staff-Sergeant Annie Linteau, an RCMP spokesperson, said in a statement she could not disclose information about the cases.

The ministry's statement said the government's work since the inquiry includes the implementation of a real-time intelligence centre in January, 2015, that allows the RCMP and municipal police forces to share information more readily, including in missing-persons cases.

The government said the province's Missing Persons Act – which allows police to have quicker access to personal information in missing-persons cases, among other things – came into effect in June, 2015. It said new provincial police standards for missing-persons investigations have been in effect since September, 2016.

Staff-Sgt. Linteau's statement said the provincial standards for missing-persons cases state investigations should begin without delay, be treated as high-risk until an assessment can be completed, and recognize that Indigenous women and girls are at increased risk of harm.

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The standards also state the case must be assigned to a serious or major crime section if foul play is suspected, and families and the people who reported the person missing must be kept appropriately informed of progress and treated with compassion and respect.

Staff-Sgt. Linteau added that all missing-persons investigations are reviewed by a supervisor to ensure they are receiving the appropriate response and resources.

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