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Northern B.C. women risk lives by hitchhiking, probe told

Commissioner Wally Oppal listens to presentations during the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry public forum in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday January 19, 2011.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

Women in northern B.C. put their lives in danger by hitchhiking because they have no other way to travel across the region, the missing women inquiry was told during a hearing in Prince Rupert.

Women are hitching to school every morning from the community of Hazelton because the bus service does not leave early enough to bring them to their classes on time, said a woman who identified herself by her Indian name of Rainbow.

"[The women]have to decide, do I put my life in jeopardy to get an education today," she said on Monday.

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She said she has not taken night classes in Prince Rupert because she does not feel comfortable walking across town after dark. The only way she can go to school is to go before it is dark, she said.

"Transportation is a lot of the reason that women's lives are in jeopardy ... there are no resources out there to help women," she said. "You either walk or you hitchhike to where you are going. It is just not fair."

Commissioner Wally Oppal held the first of seven sessions in northern B.C. on Monday to hear from northerners about women who have gone missing along Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George, a stretch dubbed the Highway of Tears.

The missing women inquiry is focused mostly on reviewing aspects of the police investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton and how police responded to reports of women who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. However, Mr. Oppal was also asked to recommend changes related to the conduct of police investigations into the cases of women who have vanished or been murdered across B.C.

The hearings in the north are informal, without sworn testimony, cross examination or legal representation. Formal hearings are to begin Oct. 11.

Several prominent first nations and women's groups are boycotting the northern hearings. First nations groups have said the government should have appointed a separate inquiry into the Highway of Tears cases. They also said they could not prepare for the hearings without provincial funding.

However, 12 people from Prince Rupert, including two New Democratic MLAs, made presentations to the inquiry.

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The RCMP have identified 18 women who have gone missing along the Highway of Tears. Several were later found dead. First nations say more than 40 women have disappeared, most of them young aboriginal women who were hitching along the highway.

A high-profile symposium on the missing women in northern B.C. was held in 2006. Mr. Oppal was told that most of the recommendations – including regular bus service along Highway 16 – were not implemented. Funding to monitor progress on the symposium recommendations and to carry them out dried up in 2007.

"I wonder if this committee is getting dizzy," said Darlene Wolf, whose sister was murdered in the early 1970s in Alberta. "It feels like we are going in circles."

The inquiry heard tearful presentations from Vickie Hill, the daughter of a woman who went missing and was murdered outside Prince Rupert in 1978, and Molly Dickson, the mother of a woman who disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown eastside earlier this year. Mr. Oppal also heard from a woman who said she was beaten up by a police officer and another who said she was raped by an officer.

Grainne Barthe, a counsellor with the North Coast Transportation Society, urged the government to appoint a separate inquiry into the Highway of Tears. "Is this just government saving money, a two-for-one deal," she said.

Mr. Oppal opened and closed the hearing with an appeal to northerners to make submissions during the sessions this week in northern B.C. "The purpose of the inquiry is to listen to the voices of the community," he said.

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