First Nations woman seeks justice for ′Stolen Sisters′ | The Storytellers | DW | 26.06.2013
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First Nations woman seeks justice for 'Stolen Sisters'

In Canada, an aboriginal woman is seven times more likely to be murdered than a non-aboriginal woman. Gladys Radek, a grandmother of five, is trying to stop the violence - by leading long walks across the country.

Gladys Radek's van, which she describes as her "war pony," raises eyebrows wherever it goes. It is covered in the faces of missing and murdered aboriginal women. A photograph of Radek's niece, Tamara, is taped to the hood.

"She was a beautiful young lady," says Radek, recalling a free-spirited young woman. "The last we heard - according to the police - she was last seen hitchhiking outside of Prince Rupert."

Tamara Lynn Chipman, a mother of a two-year-old boy, was just 22 when she disappeared in 2005 on what's been dubbed "the Highway of Tears" - a long stretch of road in northern British Columbia. Up to 44 indigenous women and girls have disappeared or been murdered along the route since the early 1980s.

Across Canada, that number has risen to over 600 since the early 1970s.

Radek is hoping more and more Canadians become aware of Tamara and the other women on her van as she and other family members walk across the country in an ambitious 7,501-kilometer (4,660 mile) journey that began on Friday. She's been leading walks like this for five years now.

A photo of a murdered girl on Radek's van

Radek says the First Nations community feels police don't take them seriously

The van might seem like a grim mobile photo gallery, but it is a beacon of hope for the families who have lost loved ones - many of whom feel their voices haven't been heard.

It was Amnesty International's 2004 report "Stolen Sisters" that brought the issue to wider attention. It concluded that police had often failed to offer indigenous women an adequate standard of protection. Among other factors, this made them vulnerable to acts of brutality.

The families, says Radek, simply don't trust police to help them - and this isn't only due to a history of mistrust between First Nations people and the authorities due to colonialist policies.

Human Rights Watch researchers recently visited First Nations families linked to the "Highway of Tears." They alleged that the police themselves were involved in a raft of abuse against aboriginal women and girls, including sexual assault and strip searches. Both the Canadian police and their civilian watchdog say they are looking into the allegations.

As a result of this legacy of mistrust, the police are not always the first point of contact for First Nations families - though at the time of Tamara's disappearance, she did face assault charges. Those have now been dropped.

Radek says that Tamara's own family conducted an exhaustive search for her - but turned up nothing. The family did finally go to the police but was disappointed by the lack of intensive search action most Canadians have come to expect when a loved one disappears.

"That will never happen with a First Nations woman - because they don't care," says Radek.

She laments what she sees as a culture of blaming the victim.

"'Well, they were wrong because they were hitchhiking, or they were wrong because they were prostitutes, or they were wrong because they were drug addicts,'" she says. "You know what? That does not cut with me. Something happened in that person's life and someone violent took them away and raped them and did whatever they wanted to them."

'No witnesses'

On her journey through Canada, Radek will be joined by a stalwart fellow walker, 78-year-old "Gramma" Mabel Todd. Age does not deter her.

Gramma Mabel Todd and another participant in Radek's walk

"Gramma" Mabel Todd (left) is one of the family members planning to join Radek on her walk

She says she is motivated to walk because of the pain suffered by all of the victims' families.

But she also experienced the loss of her three-year-old granddaughter, who, according to Todd, was run over three times by a man in a stolen vehicle - before he drove off.

The doctors couldn't save her "because all of her little insides were torn up."

She says the perpetrator ended up with a two-year prison sentence for driving under the influence.

"Cops said 'no witness,'" she recalls.

Protection for the future

Radek will also be accompanied by a number of other relatives like Alayah McIvor, who lost two family members - one of whom was decapitated.

A tough early life, which included years in the foster care system, where Radek says she faced sexual abuse and violence - and the amputation of a leg at 18 - have made her fearless in speaking out.

She says that what is happening goes beyond a human rights issue. She calls it genocide.

"There are so many of us that are going missing - our sisters, our daughters, our mothers. It's the fact, they are getting rid of the Indians," she argues.

It's an extreme perspective, but she is adamant.

Though Radek says this is her last walk, she insists the campaign will continue - to spur the authorities into action, to protect the next generation - including her own children and grandchildren.

"I don't want to see them on my van. That would be devastating."

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