Claudia Williams arrived in Smithers, B.C., Tuesday night, on the eve of her public testimony before the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
It was also her birthday. Her son and daughter-in-law sat with gift bags, waiting to surprise her at the airport as she flew in from Vancouver. Her grandson Luke, aside his brother, jumped up and down with excitement as they spotted her walking toward the terminal.
“I can smell her!” Luke shouted.
It was a warm, loving reunion as Williams stepped into the Smithers Regional Airport. Then, moments later, a very different kind of reunion took place. Just a few metres away was Garry Kerr, the former RCMP lead investigator on her sister Alberta’s homicide case. The man who she asked to sit beside her when she gives her testimony before the commissioners on Wednesday afternoon.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Williams and Kerr last saw each other in person.
“I’m so glad to be here with you,” said Kerr.
“I’m so happy you’re here, oh my God, I don’t even know how to describe it,” Williams replied, while her grandsons buzzed around her taking turns giving her hugs.
A lot has changed between Williams and Kerr over the years. As Kerr recalls it, the last time he saw Claudia in person was in the Prince Rupert police station in 1989. He said she came in with her parents, wanting to talk about the status of the investigation into Alberta’s death.
“I wouldn’t say it was a particularly great meeting,” he said.
Alberta Williams was 24 years old when she disappeared after a night out in Prince Rupert with her sister Claudia and some friends. A month later, on Sept. 25, 1989, her body was found 37 kilometres outside of town, near the Tyee Overpass. Nobody has ever been charged in her death.
Alberta’s story was the focus of an eight-part CBC podcast Who Killed Alberta Williams?, prompted by an unexpected tip from Kerr in an email to CBC News.
“I can still remember getting the call there was a missing person. I remember getting the call that she may have been — some remains had been found,” said Kerr.
“You know, it brings back a lot of memories. Not all good. And yeah, it’s just hard to believe that almost 30 years later I’m standing here, talking to you in Smithers and going to the commission tomorrow.”
‘It’s been a lot of years’
Kerr said he planned to participate in the inquiry in whatever way he could, but said he was touched when Claudia asked him to sit with her during her testimony in Smithers.
“So yeah, it’s pretty humbling to be asked when she could have had anyone she wanted. And she wanted the policeman from almost 30 years ago.”
While people milled about the terminal, pulling suitcases off the carousel and clearing out into the parking lot, Kerr and Williams stood chatting. Claudia introduced him to her family, her grandsons already playing with the toys she had handed to them when she got off the plane.
“I am so grateful, you don’t even know how much it means to me,” Williams told Kerr before leaving.
“It means a lot to me too,” he said. “It’s been a lot of years and it’s for Alberta and for the family and for myself too, it’s a chance to have Alberta’s story told. And it needs to be told.”
The national inquiry team is in Smithers for three days of community hearings this week. It’s the second stop of its kind since the inquiry began over a year ago. Williams and Kerr are scheduled to testify Wednesday afternoon.