'No one is going to believe you'

When the RCMP abuses Indigenous women and girls.

The view from Gladys Radek's home in Terrace, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
The view from Gladys Radek's home in Terrace, British Columbia [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: The following article contains content, including descriptions of sexual violence, that some readers may find disturbing.

British Columbia, Canada - On a crisp February morning, on the edge of the city of Terrace, plumes of smoke rise from the chimneys of a row of tiny steel-roofed homes.

From Gladys Radek’s kitchen window, the view is of towering mountains skirted by a thick forest. A trickle of sunlight pierces the low-lying clouds as if to tease winter with its warmth.

Gladys grips a cup of hot coffee and looks outside. “I get to see this every day,” she gestures to the window and smiles.

Her one-bedroom home is about 20 feet long and 10 feet wide (about 6 metres by 3 metres). It is run-down and cluttered, but to her, it is a place of peace in a life that has been anything but tranquil.

Indigenous artwork adorns her walls. One - a striking painting depicting Highway 16 and an Indigenous woman crying blood-red tears - was painted by Wade Raw Eater, a Vancouver-based artist and former partner of Georgina Papin, a Cree woman who was murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton sometime after she disappeared in 1999.

Indigenous music plays on a continual loop - a steady beat of drums and melodic singing. Gladys keeps it on 24/7 so as to be saturated by the sounds of her culture. It helps to keep her driven, she says. And she must stay driven considering the mission she has taken on - lives depend upon it.

For almost two decades, Gladys has lobbied governments and organised rallies and other events to bring attention to the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).

The 65-year-old is a member of the Wet’suwet’en Nation located about an hour’s drive north of Terrace. Not only is she a leading advocate for MMIWG, but she is also a mother, a grandmother and a survivor.

“I managed to live to tell about it,” she says, explaining that she relies on prayer to help her through the various abuses and hardships she has endured.

“There’s a Creator up there who has answered my prayers ... but my story is by far not unique because it’s happened to so many of us.”

'A house of evil'

Smudge burns in Gladys Radek's home [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Smudge burns in Gladys Radek's home [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

When Gladys was five, she and her three siblings were taken from their mother - victims of what is now known as the Sixties Scoop. During this mass removal of Indigenous children from their families by the child welfare system, thousands of Indigenous children from across Canada were “scooped” up and placed into mostly white families where they were displaced from their culture and often abused.

After living with a non-Indigenous family, who Gladys says treated her well, for a couple of years, she was sent to live in Terrace with relatives.

It was a house of evil, she says, stopping to take a drag of her cigarette as her pet and best friend, a border collie called Tess, walks to her side at the kitchen table. Gladys pets Tess and continues.

“There were lots of beatings. I was raped every weekend.”

Her foster parents were residential school survivors. The notoriously abusive state and Church-run schools often inflicted severe physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse on the Indigenous children who were forced to attend them.

Gladys says her foster parents never recovered.

“A lot of our people were damaged by residential schools. So, they took it out on us,” she says, describing a perpetual cycle of addiction and violence.

When Gladys was a teenager, she started running away - eventually ending up in a reform school for girls in Vancouver, more than 1,500km (932 miles) south of Terrace.

“I was labelled incorrigible,” she chuckles and shakes her head in disapproval. “I hated it there, so I ran away.”

When she was 16, she found solace on the streets of Vancouver’s notorious east side. Soon she was drinking and gave up hope for a better life.

“I just didn’t care any more. At that point, I didn’t give a s*** what happened to me. I was so angry,” she says.

'Don't bother reporting this'

Community organiser Gladys Radek [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Community organiser Gladys Radek [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

With her indifference came a fearlessness and she says she would often hitchhike to get around.

She knew to play it cool when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) flagged her down, because she was a young runaway and they could be on the lookout for her. But she had also heard rumours about police officers hurting Indigenous girls - offering to let runaways go in exchange for sexual favours.

It happened to Gladys - twice.

The first time was just outside the city of Chilliwack in British Columbia’s southern interior. Gladys was trying to make her way to Calgary, in the neighbouring province of Alberta, to visit friends. It was a 1,000km (621 mile) journey and Gladys was walking along the highway when, at about 11.30pm, a police car pulled up beside her. The officer began questioning her.

“He told me I looked like a girl that was wanted. He mentioned my name and I denied it,” Gladys recalls, explaining that she had a fake ID.

The officer told her to get in the back seat of his cruiser, that she was not supposed to be hitchhiking. He drove down the highway. Gladys thought he was taking her to jail.

But then he pulled off onto a side road.

“He turned around and got into the back of the car and he raped me … we’re talking about an 80-pound [36kg] girl; I wasn’t even a woman yet. There was nothing I could do,” she says.

There is a look of sadness in her eyes and then anger - but the emotions quickly fade. Talking about the trauma she has endured is routine and she says it “toughened her up”, but she has cried many tears of healing over the years.

“He had his way with me and just left me there. He told me ‘don’t bother reporting this because I’m a police officer and no one is going to believe you anyway’.”

About a year later, Gladys was hitchhiking along Highway 16, near Prince George in northern British Columbia. She was on her way to visit her mother in the port town of Prince Rupert several hundred kilometres west.

It was winter, dark outside, and she was 16 and alone.

An RCMP officer pulled his cruiser over and told her it was too cold to be hitchhiking. He offered to take her back to Prince George where he would find her a warm place to stay.

“Of course, we went down one of those nasty roads - a logging road - and he raped me,” she says. “Then I was expecting to be taken to a shelter or a room after, but I ended up staying in a jail cell that night. He took me to jail.”

She says she was released early the next morning and hitchhiked to Prince Rupert.

There was nowhere she could turn for help and no one she could tell, she says.

“That’s like me going to my abuser asking for help - it’s not going to happen. They’re the cops. It was the same with residential schools. All those preachers and nuns that were abusing our girls and boys - they were their own entity and they were going to take advantage and abuse as long as they can.”

Souls in the underworld

The Bulkley River near Quick, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
The Bulkley River near Quick, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

A 2013 Human Rights Watch report, titled Those Who Take Us Away, highlighted abusive policing and failures to protect Indigenous women and girls in northern British Columbia. Among the disturbing allegations of abuse by RCMP officers documented in the report were that of rape and sexual assault.

Indigenous women are hesitant to trust the RCMP due to their violent experiences with law enforcement, Gladys explains, and there has been criticism of how law enforcement have handled the cases of Indigenous women and girls going missing or being murdered along Highway 16, or the Highway of Tears as it is commonly called.

Sgt. Ron Palta, left, and Wayne Clary, of Project E-PANA in Prince George, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

When questioned about RCMP officers sexually assaulting Indigenous women and girls, representatives from the E-PANA investigative unit, established to investigate a series of unsolved murders and disappearances along the Highway of Tears, said they take the allegations seriously.

“Well, we have reports on E-PANA like that [rapes by RCMP officers],” says constable Wayne Clary, a veteran homicide investigator with the RCMP. “We look at them. I’m dealing with a gentleman right now that’s talking about a retired policeman. We’ve got DNA from police officers.”

The E-PANA unit was created in 2005. "Pana" is an Inuit word for the God who cared for souls in the underworld. The purpose of the task force is “to determine if a serial killer, or killers, is responsible for murdering young women travelling along major highways in BC [British Columbia]”.

There are 18 women on the E-PANA investigation list - 13 homicides and five missing people’s investigations dating back to 1969. Despite Indigenous Peoples making up just 5.9 percent of the population in British Columbia, as of 2016, 10 of the women and girls on the E-PANA list are Indigenous.

[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

Wayne and E-PANA Team Commander Sergeant Ron Palta flew to Prince George from E-PANA headquarters in Surrey, British Columbia, to meet Al Jazeera for an interview. They explained that on more than one occasion they have taken DNA samples from RCMP officers to compare with the DNA found at crime scenes. Police do not get special treatment if there are suspicions about them, they say.

“We would get DNA samples for crime scene purposes. There’s the odd time when we’re concerned and will approach a police officer to provide DNA,” explains Wayne.

Ron says they understand the fears victims - particularly those from marginalised and racialised communities - may feel reporting crimes committed by police officers.

“We encourage them to come forward and to give us their story. It absolutely will be investigated. How dare we ignore any piece of information? We’ve seen it through the history of Canada, and in other cases of people committing murder when they’re in positions where they’re supposed to be taking care of society,” he says, adding: “Find someone you trust. We want to know if this happened then these people need to be brought to justice. We don’t want that within our organisation or within our ranks.”

A ray of light

A view from Highway 16 near Witset, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
A view from Highway 16 near Witset, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

One former RCMP police officer-turned-private investigator poured his heart and soul into trying to solve the Highway of Tears cases.

Before he died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 69, Ray Michalko, the author of Obstruction of Justice, had dedicated years of his life to helping the families of MMIWG in northern British Columbia.

One of the things that particularly concerned him were the ways victims were portrayed by the RCMP - as drug addicts, prostitutes and runaways, even when they had called family members to tell them their whereabouts before they went missing.

He felt the RCMP was often indifferent to the families of the victims and described their efforts to “stonewall, discredit, and intimidate” him during the 10 years he spent investigating the cases. This culminated in the force threatening to charge him with obstruction of justice if he continued.

For Claudia Williams, whose sister Alberta Williams was found dead near the Highway of Tears on September 25, 1989, the grey-haired investigator was her ray of light during the dark years that followed her sister’s death.

“I phoned Ray anytime,” Claudia says in a phone interview from her home in Vancouver.

“Ray was an investigator, but more of a really good friend. He took the time and cared - he kept his word.”

Alberta’s murder is still unsolved. The loss of her sister was devastating to Claudia and knowing the killer has not faced justice torments her.

But Ray helped her persevere.

“Ray gave me more comfort and hope. He made the time and he handled things more compassionately than other police organisations.”

She remembers the last time she saw him. He called to ask her to meet up for coffee in Vancouver. Like countless times before, he picked her up from her home and the two conversed for hours; some of that time was spent discussing updates in Alberta’s case, some was just two friends talking about their lives and hobbies, punctuated by laughter.

That day when Ray dropped her back off at home, he presented her with a gift.

“He gave me a big smile and said 'I have something for you' … I think he knew it was the last time I’d see him. He went to his trunk and got his book; it was wrapped all nice. ‘This is for you,’ he said, and he signed it. I said, ‘thank you!’”

A week later, Ray died. Claudia says she cried when she heard.

There will never be anyone like him, she explains.

“I care for that book so much. I thank him all the time - he gave me his business card and I keep it ...” she pauses, her voice breaking. “I miss you, Ray, you put so much effort into helping us. It’s an example of how it should be done.”

'I got a voice'

Gladys Radek on Highway 16 in Terrace, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Gladys Radek on Highway 16 in Terrace, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Gladys went on to have three children and struggled on and off with an addiction to alcohol until 2001.

That is when she went back to school and earned her high school diploma with honours. Not long after, she moved back to Terrace after laying criminal charges against one of her childhood abusers.

“When I graduated, I got a voice. Felt confident. My identity came back on who I was. I wanted my voice back. I figured one way to start was by addressing my abusers.”

One of her greatest supporters during the two-year trial was her niece, Tamara Chipman.

“She’d come over every morning before court, with her big Rottweiler dog, a big smile on her face and encourage me. She always had a smile on her face,” Gladys says.

When Gladys moved back to Vancouver following the sentencing of her abuser, Tamara was sad. But Gladys invited her to stay with her anytime and to call whenever she needed to.

Then in 2005, Tamara disappeared.

Heartbroken

Gladys Radek survived sexual violence and the Sixties Scoop but the disappearance of her niece left her heartbroken [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Gladys Radek survived sexual violence and the Sixties Scoop but the disappearance of her niece left her heartbroken [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Tamara, a Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy, was 22 when she was last seen hitchhiking on the outskirts of Prince Rupert on September 21, 2005.

A few weeks later, Gladys found out about Tamara’s disappearance when her sister-in-law called to say the story would be on the evening news. Gladys says she was heartbroken.

[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

She made missing posters and plastered them around Vancouver’s east side where she lived. She joined the search. Eventually, she moved back to Terrace. She has not stopped looking ever since - or raising awareness about Tamara and the other missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

She honours Tamara by remembering her light and laughter. “She was funny, liked fast cars and the outdoors. I think about her all the time,” she says.

Tamara is one of the 18 women and girls on the official E-PANA list. The criteria for E-PANA investigations are that the victim was female and engaged in one or more “high-risk” behaviours, such as hitchhiking or prostitution, that they went missing or their body was found near Highway 16 (the Highway of Tears) from Prince Rupert to Hinton, Highway 97 from Merritt to Fort Nelson, or Highways 5 and 24 connecting Valemount and 100 Mile House, and that the evidence suggests a stranger attack.

[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

There are dozens of women and girls who have gone missing or been found murdered on these highways who do not meet these criteria and the crisis is one that spans provincial and federal borders.

In Canada, Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than non-Indigenous women and girls. In the United States, Indigenous women and girls are 10 times more likely.

Standing behind Indigenous women and girls

Community organiser Gladys Radek at a memorial totem pole honouring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls along Highway 16 in Terrace, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
A memorial totem pole honours MMIWG along Highway 16 in Terrace, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Two years after Tamara vanished Gladys started the Walk 4 Justice, walking from British Columbia to Ottawa. She covered 4,556km (2,831 miles) in three months.

She has completed the walk several times, despite having lost her right leg below the knee after a motorcycle accident when she was in her early 20s.

She has advocated for survivors, volunteering countless hours and sharing her own testimony with the National Inquiry into MMIWG. But after all these years, and with more women turning up dead, Gladys’s outlook is sombre.

“Nothing’s changed. The women are still disappearing,” she says, slapping her hand on her knee and biting her lip.

But that doesn’t stop her. Still, she perseveres.

The tenacity of grassroots activists and the loved ones of those missing or murdered is what encourages her to keep fighting.

“I see in our young women and girls, their resilience. And they’re p***** off because they want change. I know I’m not getting any younger - I’m running out of gas,” she laughs, her eyes alight with conviction.

“I’m still going to persevere and stand behind our young women and girls. Because if people understand where we are coming from and take the time to build a relationship after 500 years of colonial abuse. If they take the time to understand how precious our women and girls are and how we’re needed to continue our society ... then I have hope.”

Source: Al Jazeera