Snatched away

The Indigenous women taken on the Highway of Tears.

Jennie was 19 and walking home from school when she was attacked [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Jennie was 19 and walking home from school when she was attacked [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

In this six-part series, Al Jazeera tells the stories of some of the Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered along an infamous stretch of highway in British Columbia, Canada. 

Warning: This article recounts scenes of sexual assault that some readers may find distressing or triggering.

British Columbia, Canada - Jennie* jumps out of bed gasping for air. She can hear the sound of twigs crunching and her own desperate screams. Sometimes she kicks and punches. The commotion wakes her husband, who tries to comfort her, to let her know she is safe.

She never knows when the nightmares will come. But when they do, they overwhelm her.

“I tried to get away, tried to scream, to do anything,” the 29-year-old explains as she recounts the events of 10 years ago that play out - over and over again - when she sleeps. “But I was just in shock.”

Never to be seen again

Highway 16 near Terrace, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Highway 16 near Terrace, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Before that crisp fall day in November 2010, Jennie says she led a relatively normal life.

She is Gitxsan First Nation, from Kitwanga, meaning People of the Place of Rabbits, in northwest British Columbia.

It is a spectacular landscape of colossal jagged mountains, thick forests and freshwater rivers 241km (150 miles) from the North Pacific Ocean.

Kitwanga village lies on the northern bank of the Skeena River, a bustling salmon migration route. It is 3km (2 miles) from a national historic park called Battle Hill; a knoll in a valley that was once a fortress occupied by a warrior chief named Nekt.

According to legend, the fortress was man-made, built to repel outside raiders, and was the scene of epic tribal battles during which it was defended by rolling large logs covered in spikes down upon the attacking forces.

But no one was around to defend Jennie that day.

She was attacked just outside Kitwanga village along Highway 37, which is one of only two routes from British Columbia to the Yukon Territory and the State of Alaska to the north. It is just a few kilometres off Highway 16 - a villainous stretch of road where dozens of mostly Indigenous women and girls have disappeared or been found murdered since the 1950s, earning it the moniker Highway of Tears.

As a child, Jennie lived more than an hour’s drive west of Kitwanga in the city of Terrace, British Columbia. But when she was 11, her mother inherited her grandfather’s home in Kitwanga and the family moved there.

She loved the opportunity it allowed her to learn about her culture, language and traditional dance. But even then, she knew of the dangers that lurked nearby. She had heard of Indigenous girls being snatched away along the Highway of Tears, never to be seen again.

But she had never imagined she could be one of them.

Leaving a trace

A side road just off Highway 16 near Hazelton, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
A side road just off Highway 16 near Hazelton, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

That November afternoon, Jennie missed the school bus so she began walking home from her school in the centre of Kitwanga, as she had done several times before.

She remembers it being a chilly but bright, sunny day. As she approached an area the locals call Snake Hill - a steep, rounded hill on the highway that takes about 15 minutes to climb - a white pick-up truck appeared from the top of the hill. It slowed down as it approached her and the two white men inside began to catcall. She ignored them and kept walking.

“They were yelling, saying that I was being disrespectful by not acknowledging them. Like I should be grateful that they wanted to give me a ride. They told me they should teach me a lesson.” She looks down; her hands are trembling.

A gas station along Highway 16 in Kitwanga, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

The men, who she estimates to have been between 25 and 35 years of age, pulled off into a side road, got out and began walking towards her.

Sensing danger, she dropped her checkered black and white backpack filled with school books and ran.

“I tried to throw it [the backpack] onto the road because lots of people knew my bag and that I walked that way,” she says, explaining that she wanted to leave some kind of evidence in case she was murdered.

“They tackled me down the side of the hill,” she says, referring to the muddy, tree-filled embankment.

Her whole body begins to shake and she gasps for air. “They started ripping my clothes off and I just remember the mud being cold…Both of them raped me.”

It is this that plagues her nightmares.

'It was like I just drifted'

[Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
[Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Sitting in her living room, surrounded by craft supplies, books and the cages that house the guinea pigs, lizards and small snakes she cares for, Jennie takes a moment to catch her breath. She is crying but determined to keep talking.

“One of them would hold me down, while the other raped me. One of them kept his hand on my neck, it was hard to breathe at times. I remember the bite marks I had on my arms and stomach. They were disgusting … and then it was like I just drifted.”

The sun was still out when the two men left her naked in the mud - beaten, cold and disoriented.

“I was frozen after they left, I didn’t know what to do.”

Eventually, she stood up, gathered her clothes, dressed and retrieved her backpack from the road.

But she didn’t want to go home.

Jennie’s mother is a survivor of the residential school system in which Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and often endured spiritual, verbal, emotional, physical and sexual violence. She didn’t think her mother could handle knowing what had happened to her, so she went to a friend’s house, where she took a long shower.

“I just wanted to wash them off me,” she says, running her hands down her arms as though doing the same now.

Then Jennie’s friend found a ride to take her to the hospital in Hazelton. Once there, she says she was met by nurses who rolled their eyes at her account of the rape. No one examined her.

“They seemed like they didn’t believe me. They didn’t even look at me,” she says.

The hospital called in the RCMP. Jennie told the male officer what had happened.

“The officer listened but didn’t take any notes. He kept saying that it didn’t sound right, didn’t seem believable. He said typically you’re hurt by someone you know. He kept repeating that. At that point I’m crying, hyperventilating, because they think I’m crazy. I just walked out because it was too much, too hard.”

Historic RCMP photo in a station in Prince George, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

When asked about this, Corporal Madonna Saunderson, the RCMP’s media relations representative for British Columbia’s North District, told Al Jazeera via email that the New Hazelton detachment was unable to locate a file relating to the offence described but that “the RCMP has standard investigative procedures in place for Sexual Assaults, including police attendance, statements, photographs if injured, a sex assault kit done by medical staff at a hospital or clinic, a referral to Victim Services if wanted, to name but a few.”

“Hospitals also have a protocol and are very cooperative with the investigation, assuming the victim is willing and consents to a medical examination. At small hospitals or clinics there can be a delay for an available medical doctor to conduct the examination but [it] is done if the victim consents,” she added.

'It hurts'

Jennie shows the medication she takes to help with her anxiety and depression [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Jennie shows the medication she takes to help with her anxiety and depression [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Many families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Canada claim their loved ones’ cases are not taken seriously or properly investigated by the police. This despite the fact that Indigenous women in Canada are 3.5 times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be victims of violence - a result of underlying factors such as poverty, historical marginalisation, racism, and the legacies of colonialism.

A graphic showing the photos, names, and ages of the 18 women and girls who are on the official RCMP list.
[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

The head of the RCMP apologised to the families of MMIWG in 2018 during Canada’s national inquiry into the crisis.

“I’m sorry that for too many of you, the RCMP was not the police service that it needed to be during this terrible time in your life,” RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told a packed room of families and survivors in Regina, Saskatchewan in June 2018. “It is very clear to me that the RCMP could have done better and I promise to you we will do better.”

But for as long as the RCMP has existed, there have been conflicts with Indigenous people. It was the RCMP that enforced the federal government’s Indian Act of 1876, forcing First Nations onto reservations and only allowing them to leave with the consent of a federal Indian agent. And it was the RCMP that imprisoned parents who refused to send their children to residential schools where abuse was rife.

Today, the conflict takes on a different form - but it remains all the same.

According to a report by Canada’s Globe and Mail, more than one-third of the people shot to death by RCMP officers over a 10-year period, from 2007 to 2017, were Indigenous. Canada’s prison watchdog, meanwhile, found that more than 30 percent of inmates in Canadian prisons are Indigenous. This is despite the fact that just 4.9 percent of the population of Canada identifies as Indigenous.

“We’re not high on their [the RCMP’s] priority list as Indigenous women, and it hurts,” says Jennie, who worries for the future of her two young daughters.

The two men who brutally raped her were never caught and, 10 years later, she is still afraid to travel alone, even if it is just to the corner store. She lives in a near-constant state of fear, she says.

She doesn’t know where the men came from, but she knows they weren’t from Kitwanga.

'Man camps'

A train carrying pipe sits next to Highway 16 outside of Houston, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
A train carrying pipe sits next to Highway 16 outside of Houston, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

As the energy industry has boomed in northern British Columbia, it has brought with it an influx of mostly male industry workers. Many of these workers come from outside the area and are housed in labour camps - temporary, dormitory-style accommodation that can sometimes house thousands of people - commonly referred to as ‘man camps’.

These workers are helping to build the multi-billion dollar Coastal GasLink (CGL) natural gas pipeline through northern British Columbia.

“The man camps that have been created have increased the violence towards Indigenous women. And it’s frustrating because the government will forcibly remove Indigenous Peoples from their traditional territories for the industry projects [like the Wet’suwet’en] but will not direct resources to protect Indigenous women and girls,” laments Jennie.

The construction phase of the 670km (416 mile) pipeline is expected to last until 2023.

Studies have shown that an increase in the population of rural areas like those along the Highway of Tears can lead to increases in physical and sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, sexual assault of minors, and sex trafficking.

A 2017 report released by the Indigenous research and policy consulting company Firelight Group and the Lake Babine Nation and Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nation found a correlation between the presence of man camps and increased rates of sexual assault and violence against Indigenous women, along with higher rates of addiction, sexually transmitted infections, and family violence in the areas in the vicinity of the camps.

Coastal GasLink Pipeline's pipe yard in Houston, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

In its final report, released in June 2019, the National Inquiry into MMIWG called on resource industries and regulators to consider the safety and security of Indigenous women and girls at all stages of project planning and development.

TC Energy, the company behind the CGL pipeline project, declined a request to be interviewed for this series but did email a statement saying it recognises “and takes seriously the concerns about gender and sexualized violence against Indigenous women - a broad social issue that transcends industry”.

Suzanne Wilton, communications manager at TC Energy, wrote: “Having been engaged with Indigenous and local communities for the past number of years as this project was developed, we are aware of the Highway of Tears and the tragic stories associated with it - and which pre-date the establishment of Coastal GasLink’s workforce accommodation sites.”

Wilton added that CGL employs Indigenous advisers who live and work at the accommodation sites to promote an inclusive workplace.

Sex trafficking

Women's shoes left on the sidewalk outside British Columbia's Oil and Gas Commission in Prince George. Industrial activity has been linked to increased rates of violence against women [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Women's shoes left on the sidewalk outside British Columbia's Oil and Gas Commission in Prince George. Industrial activity has been linked to increased rates of violence against women [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

The problem extends south of the border, into the US.

For well over a decade, Indigenous tribes in North Dakota have witnessed the violence that extractive industries can bring. Following the North Dakota Bakken oil boom, after the discovery of an oil field in 2006, reports of violence against Indigenous women in and near the Fort Berthold Reservation - home to approximately 6,000 people from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation - have steadily increased.

In 2013, North Dakota’s Uniform Crime Report showed an annual increase of 7.2 percent in the total number of reported violent index crimes such as murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults. The report showed an increase of 17 percent in rapes alone.

Highway 35 passes between Coastal GasLink Pipeline's right of way near Highway 16 and Burns Lake, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Last February, seven men were arrested in Minnesota in a human trafficking sting operation by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), the Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking (TRUST) task force and the Itasca County Sheriff's Office. Two of the men were pipeline workers helping to build Enbridge’s Line 3 project, which transports tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin.

During the permitting process for this pipeline, state regulators had said: “The addition of a temporary, cash-rich workforce increases the likelihood that sex trafficking or sexual abuse will occur."

In a January statement, Enbridge wrote that it “absolutely rejects” the suggestion that sexual exploitation would increase along the pipeline construction route. "Enbridge will not tolerate this exploitation by anyone associated with our company or its projects," the company said.

'Founded on gendered violence'

Red dresses, representing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, hang at the Unist'ot'en Healing Camp near Houston, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Red dresses, representing MMIWG, hang at the Unist'ot'en Healing Camp near Houston, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Michele Audette, a former commissioner for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), says industry has a lot to answer for. She is Inuu from the northeastern portion of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula and relays a story about the caribou central to the Innu way of life.

“For us, the man, the woman and caribou are one,” Michele explains from her home in Montreal. “There is a story that says when there’s no caribou there will be no Innu people. We have less caribou; the caribou are sick. We were sick…now we’re coming back and we hear that some herds are coming back.”

But industry had a hand in breaking that cycle of life, she adds. “Our connection, reciprocity with the land, all of that was taken away. It’s like raping us and industry is part of that.”

She believes industry must implement strict protocols for workers, such as providing training about Indigenous peoples and culture and firing workers who step out of line.

“It only takes one rotten apple for our women to get hurt.”

A logging truck in Smithers, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Julie Kaye, an assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of Saskatchewan and author of Responding to Human Trafficking-Dispossession, Colonial Violence, and Resistance among Indigenous and Racialized Women, says perpetrators prey on Indigenous women and girls because of embedded colonial mindsets.

“So often we want to look at individual perpetrators. But look at the context in which he was able to become who he is,” Kaye tells Al Jazeera.

“Canada is founded on colonial gendered violence. It targets the land, the taking of the land. The land here was seen as empty. Empty of life itself and people. And [colonisers believed] that the land is for extraction.”

The violence within man camps operates within that mindset, she explains.

“Man camps, they’re going to be violent spaces. Canadian laws, systems are designed around protecting [the interests of] whiteness. We need to point to the fact that genocide is the way our governments and courts function. So how are Indigenous women supposed to safely exist within their lands?”

Tired of being afraid

A red dress in a window in Prince George, British Columbia. The red dress has become a symbol for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
A red dress in a window in Prince George, British Columbia. The red dress has become a symbol for MMIWG [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Back near the Highway of Tears, Jennie preps supper and waits for her two young daughters to get home from school.

“It’s amazing, magical being a mom,” she says. “But it’s terrifying. I’m not naïve to think nothing will happen to them.”

Her husband gets there first and embraces her in a long hug.

She feels lighter; it feels good to talk about the rape, she says, instead of letting it churn in her stomach like a dark, nauseating mass.

She takes out a couple of prescription pill bottles, explaining that they are for anxiety and depression. She hopes that in the future, she won’t have to rely on them to get through the day.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it after that. I didn’t want to live,” she says. Her chihuahua tugs at her leg, she picks him up and he licks her face incessantly.

With tearful gratitude, she smiles and says she is determined to heal - she is tired of being afraid.

*Name changed to protect her anonymity

Source: Al Jazeera