On August 3, 2016 the Canadian Government officially announced the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. This would be the first official inquiry to come into existence since the initial cases of missing Indigenous girls began in 1980. For decades, Native women and girls would continue to go missing and be found murdered along a stretch of highway in northwestern British Columbia titled “the Highway of Tears”.
No one knows the total number of victims even to today. Many reports have been conducted in attempt to reach an estimation but numbers conflict depending on who’s report you read. The RCMP has set their number at around 1,200. The actual number is much higher according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada and other advocacy groups, whose estimations reach almost 4000.
Violence against First Nation communities across Canada has been an ongoing problem starting from the early days of colonization. Indigenous people in Canada are far more likely to face violence than any other segment of the population. A 2014 Statistics Canada report found Indigenous people face double the rate of violence of Non-Indigenous people, particularly for Indigenous women and girls. The report stipulates that they are six times more likely to be killed than non-Indigenous women. This violence perpetuated against Indigenous communities has in many cases stemmed from the very institutions put in place to protect them; such as the RCMP whose relationship between the RCMP and First Nations people has always been tumultuous at best.
Numerous insider and media reports over the years document allegations of police violence, sexual assault, racism and general apathy against First Nations people in northwestern B.C. As well, with the history of the RCMP’s role in enforcing federal government policies such as the reserve system and residential schools, it is no wonder that many Native communities do not trust their local police force and why families are hesitant to contact the police when one of their own goes missing.
Outside of institutions, a lack of empathy towards these victims and a tendency towards victim-blaming can be seen from the general public as well. In recent years, the victims along the Highway of Tears have often been described as irresponsible hitchhikers. However, in the past when women began to go missing, the remote and relatively unpopulated region of northern B.C. had no public transportation to get from one community to another. Trains and Greyhound buses which operated between Prince Rupert and Prince George offered limited schedules and were expensive which made both options impractical for those with limited financial means. And without cars of their own hitchhiking was often the only option to get to work or school.
There are other factors of course which have contributed to this crisis, however it all stems back to a lack of humility and care given towards First Nations people. The fact is that much of Canada does not care about the many political and human rights injustices these communities face. We turn a blind eye and a deaf ear on those trying to shout at us that there is a problem and then wonder why it hasn’t gone away. For the families and friends who have lost their loved ones along this lone road, it is a pain that will never go away but one they do try to heal from.
In June of 2016, family members and supporters participated in an event dubbed “the Cleansing the Highway Walk” which marked the ten-year anniversary of the first Highway of Tears walk. This walk takes three weeks to complete and at the end of the walk many family members will tell their stories and those of their loved ones who went missing. As well, every October 4th [the official day marked for honoring the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls] the Native Women’s Resource Centre of Toronto holds their Sisters in Spirit Vigil.
The Executive Director of the centre, Pamela Hart, explained to me why this has become such a sacred tradition. “Nations across Canada gather together every October 4th to remember and honor the lost spirits of our missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and trans – two spirited individuals because there are still unanswered questions, still mysteries and lost souls and remains that need to be found—so we hold this ceremony to help support those in pain and to support the families as they continue to try to heal”.
The vigil is open to anyone who wishes to attend and pay respects to those who have gone missing and their families and friends. As Canadian citizens it our responsibility to acknowledge this crisis and put in the effort to make sure it is not forgotten or cast aside. It is time we listen and learn from our past mistakes. It’s not too late.