By: Rachel Aiello
Sitting in her reclining chair facing out to a busy street below, Gladys Radek says she loves her television, as she gestures towards her large front window.
She gets all the shows she could ever want by just looking outside. Her actual television is tuned to a music station, because at 57, Radek has lived through more dramas, sitcoms and crime shows in reality, than ever available with a cable subscription.
Having only been in town a few months, her Gatineau apartment is modest, the central focus of the room being a pair of big brown eyes radiating from her computer screen. The picture of Radek’s granddaughter Angel, acts as a centerpiece to walls covered in artwork.
An Amnesty International flag hanging, reads: “Human rights for all, no exceptions.” It is a reminder of what has brought the grandmother of five, to the threshold of Parliament Hill, with a megaphone in one hand and a photo of her missing niece Tamara in the other.
Her decision to enter into the “belly of the beast,” as she calls it, couldn’t have come at a better time. With the emergence of the Idle No More movement, light is being shed on Aboriginal rights. Radek has been working to insure that attention is paid to the cause, within the larger conversation. She has attended rallies with fellow activists, donning signs with the faces of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
Radek moved to the Ottawa area on Oct. 2, 2012, from B.C. following a series of personally challenging years that included losing a limb and still finding the strength to organize and complete four cross-country walks for justice. Her intention in the relocation was to further her path of activism. Radek received a particularly chilling phone call on Sept. 21, 2005, informing her that her niece Tamara Chipman, had gone missing. Radek has since become a champion of change, raising awareness about all missing and murdered Aboriginal women and working towards achieving justice and accountability for their families.
Being a human rights defender was stitched into her identity much earlier on in her life. Radek was born a fighter and has the scars to prove it. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis in infancy and grew up in a flawed foster care system. There she was subjected to trauma and abuse, an experience shared by many other women in her home community of Moricetown, B.C.
After moving a to larger city with hopes for a better life, Radek called Vancouver’s downtown eastside home for many years. It was here that as a volunteer, she fought for improved infrastructure for Aboriginal people living in poverty. She witnessed systemic racism at the hands of the staff of Vancouver’s International Village, previously known as Tinseltown, a mall near her home that would not allow people to enter, based on their appearance. After experiencing it firsthand, Radek went after their discriminatory policies in May, 2000. For this, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal awarded her $15,000, for injury to dignity, which at the time was the largest settlement to date.
Radek has survived becoming a victim of circumstance, following a path of self-discovery to learn and protect her identity as a strong Gitxsan-Wet’suwet’en, First Nations woman.
“Gladys does amazing work, she has always been a strong advocate,” says Sean Kirkham, a fellow Vancouver activist. He has seen how Radek’s compassion for a cause has made waves, and how the missing and murdered women have shaken a community to its core.
“I had heard my families talking about missing loved ones, but growing up with that and knowing this was actually happening didn’t really click on me until Tamara went missing,” says Radek.
Chipman’s disappearance is not a unique case. The RCMP have reported around 600 others like her. Based on her own research though, Radek believes the number of Aboriginal women that have gone missing, or whose murders have gone unsolved in Canada, is much higher. Many of these disappearances originate along a stretch of Highway 16, between Prince George and Prince Rupert, B.C, infamously known as the Highway of Tears.
With no news in her niece’s case and little support from authorities, Radek immediately became active and co-founded the Walk4Justice, an initiative aimed at raising awareness while walking alongside the Highway of Tears.
“When you’re walking on the highway you feel the spirits of those women” says Radek, adding that the sapling trees along the side of the road looked to her, more like “little crosses,” symbolizing the sadness and death.
Radek and her supporters have completed four walks to date, with the first being an ambitious cross-country walk from Vancouver to Ottawa in 2008. The trips were not easy for any of the walkers but particularly challenging for Radek. As a left leg amputee, these journeys for justice were as physically exhausting as they were emotionally, but that didn’t stop her.
“The blisters that I got on my leg were always nursed by the other walkers and they were nothing compared to the hole in my brother’s heart, missing Tamara. Yeah I got blisters, but so did everyone else – you get over them,” she says.
It is this kind of attitude and determination that has propelled Radek through the numerous uphill battles in her life. When she lost her leg in a hit and run, motorcycle accident, the day before her eighteenth birthday, it didn’t take her long to accept her loss. “I was ready for the doctors to just put a cast on it, a pipe on it, I didn’t care, I just had to go,” says Radek. She is certainly not one to sit around feeling sorry for herself. “They could take my leg away but they couldn’t take my spirit away,” she says, determinedly.
Since beginning her activism, she has never really had a day off, but is doing the work charitably, relying on others for support. She is constantly corresponding with her contacts in B.C. and continuously uploading new information about missing persons through her online presence. Radek is willing to speak with anyone wanting to listen, in attempts to raise as much awareness as possible. “We can’t be scared to speak our truth,” she says.
A storyteller, whose tone rises and falls with the emotion embedded into every word she shares, Radek is able to recite the names of so many of the missing women and has personal relationships with many of the family members. But her voice is not the only tool she has.
Radek has covered her white GMC van in the faces of the missing and murdered women. Her “War Pony,” she calls it, raises awareness everywhere she goes. “It is quite an experience to be a passenger in the van, and to watch all the folks who are witnessing the War Pony for the first time and trying to decipher and come to terms with what it means,” says Kristin Gilchrist, cofounder of Families of Sisters in Spirit, the organization Gladys is now working with here in Ottawa.
Since arriving, Radek has joined Gilchrist and fellow cofounder, Bridget Tolley, in various demonstrations, vigils, conferences and presentations, including speaking with First Nation students here at Algonquin. Radek is confident that she is in the right place to get the support needed to keep things rolling.
“Being here in Ottawa will help me bring those issues to the fore-front. I’ve already heard the stories from the families, I already have an idea of what needs to be said because those families have been telling me for years what needs to be done,” says Radek.
There isn’t a day that goes by that Radek doesn’t think about these women. But being an emotional support system for others has meant putting her own personal healing on the backburner.
For this, she is extremely grateful for her best friend, confidant and roommate, Alec Clifton, who has been with her since that first phone call. “My brother from another mother,” says Radek, with a laugh.
Clifton has seen her through every step of the way, every morning, waking up with her “happy shorts” on, ready to save the world. Radek would wear the pair of smiley-face Joe Boxer shorts around the house, while having her coffee and doing research. Thinking about the “happy shorts” still makes the pair laugh, and although eventually Radek wore the boxers out, her determination for justice has not faded.
“There would be no awareness if it wasn’t for Gladys and grassroots people like her,” says Clifton.
Radek’s aspirations don’t stop at parliament. She has already raised attention beyond Canada and is currently working on ways to get to the UN to raise awareness about the missing and murdered women on a global platform. “I want to go to Geneva,” says Gladys, smirking intently with the fiery spark in her eye of someone who’s seen half the hardships and heartache.
Anyone you speak to about Radek sings a similar tune. “She has inspired me a lot, I’ve seen her go through her struggles, and I’ve seen her victories,” says her daughter, Sarah. Her allies, friends and family in B.C, were all sad to see her go, especially Radek’s granddaughter Angel, who is having to get used to not having her around. “Gramma, I love you, you rock, super work,” reads a card she sent, proudly displayed by Radek to her friends and family on Facebook.
Although Tamara Chipman and countless other women are still missing, Radek’s dedication is unfaltering. Despite all of the challenges, she is content. “We’ve been through a lot, I am just so grateful for the people that do care and have helped to get me where I am now, my beautiful home here. I don’t have much, but I’m proud of what I have,” she says.
Those around her are equally as proud of what she has accomplished and are confident that Radek will get the results she is working towards. “Gladys was chosen to do this job,” says Claudia Williams, a friend and sister of one of the murdered women. Radek’s tenacity has propelled her though the move and since taking the leap of faith, her activism has been progressing. She is currently planning another Walk4Justice from Nova Scotia to Prince Rupert, with the support of the Assembly of First Nations chiefs.
At an Idle No More rally held at Parliament Hill on Dec. 21, Families of Sisters in Spirit called for a national public inquiry, reinforcing that they will not stop being the voice for these women, and emphasizing the fact that they have not been idle.
“I think I’m going to be a women’s activist until the day I die,” says Radek, as she sinks into her recliner, looking back out the window.