It was July 6, 1979, and hitchhiking was commonplace. Residents of the mill town often made the 90-minute trek to Campbell River, and would regularly pick up neighbours needing a lift.
The young man who stopped for the two sisters, though, was a stranger. He drove them towards Gold River, but about seven kilometres before reaching the town, he turned onto a narrow logging road. What kind of horror the sisters endured in Dean Langford’s car that day will never be known.
Early the next morning, two anglers found the sisters’ bodies in a ditch along the remote road, each stabbed nine times in the back, neck, chest and face. The coroner could find no signs of sexual assault.
Lillian Howard, then 28 years old, was working for the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs in Vancouver when she learned that her two aunts — who were more like sisters to her — had been brutally slain.
“It was the most horrible news I ever received in my life,” Howard began, pausing for a long moment to collect herself. “I don’t know how I got through that day. All of that time is a blur. It was just absolutely shocking. And their loss just had such a devastating impact on the family.”
The victims were the daughters of indigenous wood carver Ambrose Howard, who was Lillian’s grandfather. Christine, who had been married, left behind a four-year-old son, Harvey. Helena was in high school.
“Helena was very, very pretty. She was demure and kind of quiet. She was the favourite for sure because she was the baby of the family,” recalled Howard, who works for San’yas, a Provincial Health Services Authority program that teaches indigenous culture to medical staff.
“Christine was really a spunky spirit, and she was really quite flamboyant with our family. We had a lot of fun and she loved to dance,” she added. “Christine was one of my dearest, closest friends. So it was a very deep loss for me when she died.”
The sisters, who had been living with extended family in Sooke, had hitchhiked safely that day to Campbell River, and had only the last bit of the trip to complete so they could surprise their relatives in Gold River with a visit, Howard said.
Based on brief newspaper stories about his trial, a prosecutor said Langford, the 24-year-old Campbell River man who picked them up, “got mad and killed the two girls intentionally,” showing no regret. The defence lawyer argued the “easygoing” man lost his self-control under provocation.
Langford was convicted of the second-degree murder of Helena and of manslaughter in Christine’s death. One month into serving his life sentence, he was killed in a washroom at the Kent prison in Agassiz.
Howard said her relatives have never understood why the murders happened. “This man had no connection to the First Nations community or the town site. It doesn’t make any sense to our family.”
She wants to share these 40-year-old memories with the federal government’s long-awaited Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Inquiry, which will first hear from victims’ relatives over three days beginning May 29 in Whitehorse.
Angered by decades of perceived racism and indifference by authority figures to the plight of so many female aboriginal victims, families and advocates have long demanded a national inquiry to examine the causes of the violence suffered disproportionately by aboriginal women.
When he was elected in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the inquiry a top priority.
He promised it would “identify and examine the systemic causes of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada and to make recommendations for effective action.” It is to sit over two years and $53.8 million in funding was pledged.
But today the inquiry appears in disarray: Relatively few families have signed up to participate and the public hearings after Whitehorse have been postponed with no indication of when, exactly, they will resume.
“We had no idea when the inquiry was going to start (in B.C.). And there were really high levels of frustration over the past year,” said Howard, a member of the Coalition on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which represents groups pursuing justice for these victims.
At age 66, after participating in many other forums, she is prepared to give inquiry organizers the summer to improve its structure and to ensure there is enough support to help families through the difficult process of sharing their stories. She hopes the hearings will start again in the fall.
Others, though, are losing patience and trust in a process they feel is delaying the truth instead of providing answers and healing.
“It looks like it is out of control so far. I’m pretty frustrated and losing hope in this inquiry,” said Lorelei Williams, whose aunt Belinda Williams is missing and cousin Tanya Holyk was murdered.
She is one of nearly 60 relatives, advocates and indigenous leaders from across Canada who signed an open letter Monday to chief commissioner Marion Buller to “loudly raise alarms that the inquiry is in serious trouble” and urge her to “take immediate action to mitigate the damage.”
The letter includes a long list of suggestions the inquiry should follow to regain the trust of the families. “We are deeply concerned with the continued lack of communication that is causing anxiety, frustration, confusion, and disappointment in this long-awaited process,” it said.
Buller called a news conference Friday afternoon to address the letter, saying some people want the commission to go faster and she understands the frustration of those who have been waiting 40 years for answers.
“I understand their anxiety,” said Buller, who, in 1994, was the first indigenous woman appointed a provincial court judge in B.C.
But she said there are others who are telling the commission to be careful and respectful so that it doesn’t cause any more damage or retraumatize people.
“I understand where they are coming from, too, because they don’t want the hurt to continue.”
“There is still a lot of hope out there,” she said. “We still enjoy the support of many family members across Canada, many survivors across Canada. We continue to receive letters, emails, telephone calls of people saying we support what you are doing. We receive some great comments of what we can do better.”
Also this week, the Native Women’s Association of Canada issued a second report card on the inquiry’s progress, giving failing grades in several areas, including meeting deadlines, communications, reaching out to families, promoting reconciliation, and enhancing public awareness about the causes of violence.
Even though it was announced 18 months ago, the inquiry has undergone significant restructuring over the past few weeks and there is more to come.
In an email to Postmedia, spokeswoman Bernée Bolton said the commission has cancelled future “regional advisory meetings” planned for northern B.C., Edmonton, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Halifax, and Saskatoon. These meetings had been held in other parts of the country from January to April to collect advice on issues such as the inquiry’s legal process, but will no longer proceed because families and advocates said the meetings repeated work already done during pre-inquiry information sessions by the federal government.
The commission has decided, instead, to hold planning meetings in various communities over the summer and into the fall, to find venues for the hearings, set up health supports, learn ceremony protocols from elders, and identify people and local groups who want to participate in the inquiry. It will also establish expert panels on indigenous legal traditions and improve its communications system.
“This approach will ensure everything is in place so that families and survivors of violence can share their stories in a safe, no-further-trauma environment that is respectful of all involved,” Bolton said.
The inquiry is to submit an interim report to Ottawa in November, but it’s not clear how that deadline will be met. But Buller said Friday there has been a lot of work done behind the scenes and she still expects to release the commission’s first report in November.
The commission has promised to reassess in June how the public hearings will work, but Bolton did not say exactly when the families would be able to start testifying.
Williams is angered by a suggestion from the inquiry leadership that family members didn’t want the hearings to proceed during the summer because they needed time to hunt and fish. She noted many of the victims and their families are from urban settings.
“I‘m not hunting. I know other family members are not hunting or fishing. When I heard that I thought, ‘Oh my God,’” said Williams, who works at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre.
To get the inquiry back on track, she argued, requires more participation from the victims’ families, who “understand the injustices that happened.” Many families are scared to phone the inquiry to say they want to testify because they don’t know who they will be speaking to or what type of support will be available to them, she said.
The delays in the hearings only exacerbate this fear.
“They don’t feel like reopening these wounds for this national inquiry that isn’t going to do anything,” said Williams, who founded the Butterflies in Spirit dance troupe to honour the victims.
The commission has a list of 294 families from across Canada who have so far registered to speak. Bolton would not say how many the inquiry hopes will participate.
The number appears very low compared to the RCMP’s estimate of about 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada between 1980 and 2012.
Other recent counts — one by an Ontario PhD student and another by the B.C. grassroots organization Walk4Justice — put the number of missing and murdered women in Canada at roughly 4,000 in the past half century. They counted all ethnicities, but it is known that native women represent an inordinate number of victims, despite their smaller population.
Williams said she registered to testify at the inquiry so society will learn more about her missing aunt, Belinda Williams, who was last seen in the late 1970s at age 24. Police did not act on the family’s request to open a missing person’s report, waiting until 2004 to say she had disappeared from Mission about 25 years earlier.
Belinda vanished before Lorelei was born, and yet the young woman feels a strong connection to her aunt because they look eerily alike. “Growing up around my family looking like my missing aunt, it was really weird for me when you look like someone you’ve never met.”
Williams also wants to speak at the hearings to honour her cousin Tanya Holyk, who vanished from the Downtown Eastside in the late 1990s; her missing person’s file was prematurely closed by police, who insisted she had been spotted alive, but Holyk’s remains would eventually be found on the farm of Robert Pickton, the serial killer.
“Tanya was my oldest cousin who I looked up to and adored. … When she went missing it was really hard on me,” Williams said. “I feel it is very important that both their stories are heard at this inquiry because of all the flaws in both their cases.”
Walk4Justice co-founder Gladys Radek is also registered to testify about her niece Tamara Chipman, one of 18 victims on the Highway of Tears list in Northern B.C.
Radek would like a change in the inquiry’s terms of reference to allow the commissioners to find fault — especially with police departments that didn’t do enough to look for the missing and murdered victims. (A provincial missing women’s inquiry held in 2011 and 2012 also did not assign blame in the B.C. cases.)
“There’s a lot of questions about the policing and the way our cases were handled. The people who did this wrong should be held accountable at the end of the day,” she said.
Radek would like to see communications improved, noting that although she is a member of the inquiry’s own family advisory committee, she only found out the hearings were being delayed through the media.
“It should not have taken this long to get the inquiry going,” Radek said. “I think they are dropping the ball again.”
Howard, an elder, is a bit more hopeful. Once the inquiry announces where the public hearings will be held in B.C. — and Howard hopes that information will be released by the fall — it may be easier for local organizations to reach out to indigenous families to get them involved in the process, she said.
“We’ll make the best of it. Women have been wanting this inquiry for many years,” she said.
Although difficult, testifying should be a “healing journey” as the many injustices are written down as part of the public record, she said.
She also hopes the inquiry will address the disproportionate amount of violence faced by aboriginal women — both within and outside their communities.
“It’s not just women in the sex trade. It’s not just a Downtown Eastside issue or a Highway of Tears. We have so many families from everywhere,” she added.
She is preparing herself and her family to handle the “re-traumatization” they will feel when discussing the murders of her aunts 40 years ago. For decades, Howard buried the grief, and only in the last few years has tried to come to terms with their deaths.
She recently raised the topic of the murders with Christine’s sisters, in preparation for testifying at the inquiry. “At first it was really hard for them. There were lots of tears. Once we got over that initial (sadness), then we started remembering the good moments, the lighter moments, the loving moments. And that is the most important thing to do — to hold those memories.
“It is going to be very traumatizing to go back to the actual time (of the murders). But it’s all part of the healing.”