Aboriginal human-rights defender Gladys Radek does more than just talk the talk. In 2008, the one-legged grandmother of five led the 4,000-kilometre Walk4Justice from Vancouver to Parliament Hill in Ottawa to press for a public inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered women.
This summer, the Wet’suwet’en Nation–born fighter spearheaded a more modest 1,500-kilometre march from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, this time to keep public consciousness alive regarding the unsolved disappearances and killings of mostly Native women on northern B.C.’s Highway 16, notoriously known as the Highway of Tears.
At 54 years old, Radek isn’t showing signs that she’s about to slow down. Her plan to go back to school this fall was postponed by a lack of funding, but she intends to take up justice studies at the Native Education College in the near future so that she can become a more effective voice for her people.
“I’d like to be a little more well-read,” Radek told the Georgia Straight, giving off the aura of a bright-eyed idealist half her age.
Her voice took on an edge, however, when she recalled hearing that the City of Vancouver wants organizers to put off the annual February 14 march to remember female victims of violence in the Downtown Eastside. The march is scheduled to take place two days after the opening of the 2010 Olympics.
“This day is dedicated to the families of missing and murdered women for 19 years, and I don’t care if the Olympics is coming to town,” she said. “I don’t care if the eyes of the world are on Vancouver. This is our day to commemorate our women, and our families who are still suffering. Why should we move that day to appease the City of Vancouver?”
In 2005, Radek won a major victory before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. The decision came down four years after she and a friend were harassed by security guards at downtown Vancouver’s International Village, also known as Tinseltown, in 2001. She also complained in the suit that this incident was part of the systematic discrimination against aboriginal and disabled people resulting from the practices and policies of the mall and the guards it employed. The tribunal awarded Radek $15,000, at that time the highest-ever payment for damages in a case involving race and disability.
Judith Coulis, now a B.C. Crown prosecutor, served as one of the lawyers for Radek. “It was an initiative by Gladys Radek and a number of people in the Downtown Eastside to stand up and defend their right to be treated respectfully and not just continue to be pushed out of the way by development and gentrification,” Coulis said in a phone interview with the Straight from her Victoria office.
But just weeks after the tribunal handed down its decision, Radek’s niece Tamara Chipman went missing. She was last seen hitchhiking on the Highway of Tears. This devastated the family and led Radek deeper into campaigns for justice for women.
The RCMP hasn’t solved any of the 18 cases of missing or murdered women on the desolate 722-kilometre stretch of highway running from Prince George to Prince Rupert.
Speaking with the Straight, Radek recalled how she met Premier Gordon Campbell at a provincial conference in Prince George in February 2007 and handed him an information package regarding the Highway of Tears. The response she later received wasn’t what she had wished for. “I was e-mailed by his secretary to take them off our e-mail list,” Radek said.