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BC's Highway of Tears Email Scandal Raises Doubts for Families of Murdered Women

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been asked to step in after a BC government worker “failed to tell the truth," under oath, about deleting Highway of Tears records.

by chantelle bellrichard
Oct 24 2015, 8:45pm

Image via VICE Canada

Delete, delete, delete.

On May 18th, a former staffer in the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation sent a letter of complaint to the BC Information and Privacy Commissioner. He was concerned about how a freedom of information request was handled. He hand-signed the letter in blue pen.

Emails had been deleted, instead of being reported, Tim Duncan alleged.

It turns out that request was related to missing women and government meetings about Highway 16. More specifically, the 450-mile stretch of Highway 16 that connects Prince George to Prince Rupert -— commonly referred to as the Highway of Tears. People who live in the region will tell you more than 30 women and girls, mostly indigenous, have gone missing or been murdered there.

The information request that came through Tim Duncan's department ultimately resulted in "no responsive records." But Duncan says when he searched his computer, there were over a dozen emails that could have been relevant.

He says he called over a coworker, a man named George Gretes, to report the emails. And then, Duncan alleges Gretes took control of his computer, deleted the emails, and said:

"It's done, now you don't have to worry about it anymore."

After months of investigation, BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham released her findings this week in a report titled Access Denied: Records Retention and Disposal Practices of the Government of British Columbia.

"It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of the problems that my office discovered in the course of this investigation and the resulting effect on the integrity of the access to information process in our province," Denham wrote.

Recommendations have been made and now the RCMP has been asked to step in after Gretes "failed to tell the truth," under oath, about deleting Highway of Tears emails. Gretes has disputed Duncan's version of what happened, but the truth-telling part goes beyond who hit delete on that one particular day.

The Access Denied report goes into detail about how government staff have been expunging email records through a three-step process of deletion that includes manually overriding a backup that can recover deleted files.

Variations of the term "triple delete" appear 58 times in Denham's report. There are actually three freedom of information requests reviewed in the investigation and they all involve emails and record keeping/destruction in some way.

Related: Life and Death Along Canada's Highway of Tears

Responding to the report yesterday, BC Premier Christy Clark called for government ministries and political staff to stop deleting their sent emails and also committed to making the changes recommended in Denham's report.

"For me, the most important thing is the public has an expectation that their government is transparent and we're going to make sure that we act on all those recommendations, so it is," said Clark.

Brenda Wilson has been watching the week's events unfold from Prince George, where she lives and works as the Highway of Tears Initiative Coordinator. Brenda's sister Ramona was found murdered along the highway in 1995. No one has been charged in her death.

"To me as a family member it just shows why a lot of the things that were promised in the past have not been fulfilled," she said.

"When they can't find a solution they just push it under the rug. It's not important enough for them to try to make it work."

One of the solutions communities along the Highway of Tears have been demanding, for years, is better transportation along the route with a shuttle bus.

It was the number one recommendation made in the 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendations Report and is seen as a way to prevent women and girls from being victimized.

The freedom of information request detailed in Tim Duncan's complaint and Denham's subsequent report is directly connected to this issue. The request was written as follows:

"Pursuant to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, I request all government records that make reference to the issue of missing women along Highway 16/the Highway of Tears and specifically including records related to meetings held by the ministry on this issue. The time frame for my request is May 15 to November 19, 2014."

Last summer the ministry did meet with communities and First Nations leaders along the route to discuss transportation challenges and possible solutions.

According to the report, It seems the "no responsive records" result came down to the ministry interpretation of the request - making a distinction that the meetings were about transportation options, not missing women.

"I don't know how they could say that when that's what it all evolved around, the missing women," said Wilson, who is also an advocate for missing and murdered women.

"That's why the whole transportation issue came about was because of the missing women along Highway 16. I don't know how they could say stuff like that when it's not the truth."

Denham was also critical about how the ministry interpreted the request and that it appeared the ministry "fully understood" what meetings the applicant was referring to.

Wilson says she'll be watching to see how the government and RCMP handle the situation moving forward.

"I hope that there's accountability for the actions that happened. You know, that they rectify the issue so that we can go on to mend our thoughts of a good government, a clean government that we can count on," she said.

"All we want is to be able to work together and to keep our communities safe … We just want to keep everybody safe."

Follow Chantelle Bellrichard on Twitter: @pieglue

Watch the VICE Canada documentary, Searchers: Highway of Tears, here

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