Activist Gladys Radek has been a memory keeper of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) for the past two decades.
Like invisible prayer beads, she carries with her the names of women that have been murdered or missing in the country – four thousand names from across Canada, most of which may not exist on official records, RCMP case files or government statistics.
Radek met with families of MMIWG due to her involvement with the National Inquiry Commission appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government in 2016.
The $40 million inquiry commission presented its finding and recommendations in 2019 and then everything went back to stagnation.
“It stopped right outside the government’s door,” she says, appalled by the system’s failure to implement those recommendations.
The pictures of MMIWG from across the province of B.C. are stuck all around her car – the ‘war pony’.
It is both a message of awareness that this is a constant reality in Canada as well as a chant that echoes that these women are not forgotten, nor will be.
Radek has also memorized the timelines of events, including the dates of who went missing from where and when along B.C.’s highways.
Radek remembers an occasion where grandparents of a young missing girl broke down in tears when they saw the picture of their grandchild on this complete stranger’s car.
They said, “we thought no one cared.”
Most families, says Radek, feel that no one cares about the women and girls who have vanished from northwest B.C. and elsewhere owing to the high number of unresolved cases.
Radek shares the frustration and pain of these families as she listens to them.
“Someone has to hear the stories, someone has to keep them alive,” she says of her devotion to hearing family members. That is a crucial part of her advocacy.
“I’ve been an activist since I was born,” says the 66-year-old Radek. But the real journey began 20 years ago when she took one of Vancouver Downtown Eastside’s mall owners and the security guard providers to court in 2001 for their discriminatory policies that forbade a friend and her from entering the mall because of what they looked like – “Aboriginal”.
“I wanted to change their discriminatory policies ,” said Radek.
The BC Human Rights Tribunal ruled in her favour and Radek won a landmark victory in 2005.
Two months later her niece, Tamara Chipman from Terrace, went missing from Prince Rupert.
That dreadful phone call Radek got from her sister, “knocked the breath out of me,” she says.
It has been 16 years since Chipman was first reported missing and there has been no closure for the family.
When Radek meets with families of people who have suffered similar plights, she identifies with a familiar feeling of living with an open wound – sometimes for decades – not knowing what happened to their “baby girl”.
The personal became extremely political after that for Radek who along with her friend and activist Bernie Williams went ahead to conduct many memorial marches to advocate for MMIWG.
Williams played a huge role in Radek’s transformation. “She taught me how to go out there and speak up,” she says of Williams.
Radek carried the debt forward by training the next generation of Indigenous women to speak up.
“Matriarchs in the making,” is the phrase Radek uses for her mentees.
On May 5, three of the women she has been mentoring, gave fiery speeches outside Terrace City Hall before the memorial march on the national awareness day of MMIWG. “My heart was swollen with pride as I watched them speak,” says Radek, who was also present at the scene.
Training future generations of women to take up the cause is also Radek’s way of ensuring that the “good fight” for justice continues even as her own health deteriorates. Grassroots activism, according to Radek, is most important especially in the cause of MMIWG – “because we’re the ones that put the truth out there.”
In the past two decades, Radek has met with thousands of the families of victims, collected their stories, and provided a support system for them when they need it.
“I’ve heard so much trauma. I carry all these stories in my heart.”
On days when it becomes overwhelming, she shuts herself in her house, prays to the creator and plays the music loud. “Music keeps me going,” she says as she shows her massive collection – cassettes, CDs and files within files on her desktop.
Looking back at her life, she would have “never in a million years” guessed that she would be a grassroots activist.
There was always anger in her spirit, she says, owing to the rough start she had in her life. “I was institutionalized for as long as I could remember.”
As a toddler, she was placed by the government in the tuberculosis hospital in Prince Rupert in 1956 for three years, following which she was shuffled between foster homes and eventually got sent to a reform school in Vancouver.
She only remembers a brief time that she spent with her parents in Terrace.
It was only after she graduated from the Native Education College in Vancouver in 1999 that she regained a sense of pride in her Indigenous identity.
Radek’s has a long history with Hwy 16 and she’s walked the length of the highway many a times in honour of MMIWG. She also walked from B.C. to Ottawa in 2008 for the cause.
One of the first walks she remembers is to the Highway of Tears Symposium held at Prince George in 2006.
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs helped her get up there and since then, Radek says that the organization has always backed her as a grassroots activist in her fight for Indigenous women.
The symposium gathered recommendations from the families of victims that day, including Radek’s.
Last month, the provincial government announced it would close two gaps in cell service along Hwy 16. The call for cell service dates back to the symposium.
Although Radek is happy there’s going to be improved cell service along Hwy 16, she isn’t one to mince words when it comes to saying that the governments did not do it for “our women.”
They packaged it and sold it like they were doing this for MMWIG, but the real motive, according to Radek, was to cater to the huge influx of industry that was moving up north.
But that being said, it is also important to tap into the political current and ask for more until the governments step up and do the needful. Their next ask from the government is to provide cellphones for the vulnerable women who use Hwy 16.
“What use is connectivity if they don’t have phones to call for help?”