If you’ve ever driven along the 800km stretch of highway 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert, you’ve probably noticed the large billboards with photos and details of several missing women.
You may even be aware that this particular stretch of highway is known far and wide as the Highway of Tears, and that in the past 40 years, as many as 45 women (most of whom are indigenous) have gone missing while travelling along this road. The most recent (known) case occured in 2011, and an attempted abduction occured along the highway on Christmas Eve, 2012.
Like many Canadians, I had been unaware my entire life that this horror was unfolding, just as I was unaware that there have been almost 3000 cases of murdered and missing (mostly indigenous) women in this country within the last 4 decades. (The RCMP maintains that this number is closer to 600, which is still horribly shocking).
I have been haunted by the knowledge of these tragedies since I met Gladys Radek and Bernie Williams (organizers of the walk4justice) six years ago. As of this writing I am currently staying in Unist’ot’en Wet’suwet’en territory, close to where Gladys Radek’s neice went missing,(I came to assist the Unist’ot’en with their resistance to oil and gas pipelines) and I find myself probing deeper into this issue, wanting desperately to see justice happen, to be part of creating a society where women are honoured as they should be, where nightmares such as this no long happen.
Why is this happening? What can we do to stop it? Those are the questions I have, the questions I hope you have as well.
In the course of asking these questions I’ve come to understand that the dominant culture (Canadian society) is a culture of deep-seated systemic racism. The lives of indigenous women are simply not as valued in the dominant society as other people. One might even say that these women are considered by many to be disposable. How else to explain thousands of women going missing and murdered without any real action being taken, without the alarm being raised that something has gone horribly wrong?
According to Canadian government statistics, Indigenous women are five times to seven times more likely than other women to die as the result of violence.
It’s crucial to point out that this violence is, and has always been, a key aspect of colonialism. The colonial occupation of Turtle Island has been a violent and abusive occupation since Columbus landed in Hispanolia. Indeed, in study after study, indigenous women have identified colonialism and genocidal policies as being the main root causes of the violence they enounter.
These policies continue to be enforced by the various apparatus of the state, from the ‘child protection services’ that seperate children from their families, to the police who fail in their duty to protect.
Not only have the police failed to take effective action to protect indigenous women from violence, they’ve been accused of being active participants in that violence.
A report issued in February 2013 by Human Rights Watch focused on the actions of the RCMP along the Highway of Tears documents numerous instances of police abuse, including young girls pepper-sprayed and Tasered, a 12-year old girl attacked by a police dog, a 17-year old punched repeatedly by an officer who had been called to help her, women strip-searched by male officers, women injured due to excessive force used during arrest, and a July 2012 incident where police officers took a woman outside of town, raped her, and then threatened to kill her if she told anyone.
Aside from the direct violence by the state, we must also acknowledge that the Indian Act, the residential school system and other genocidal policies serve to fragment families and communities and isolate and diminish the role of women. The prevasive stereotypes of the dominant culture deny the dignity and worth of Indigenous women and allow some men to feel justified in their use of violence towards women.
Again, we know there is a problem, but what are we going to do about it?
We’ve a long history of studies, commissions and inquiries that have produced dozens and dozens of recommendations which we’ve failed miserably to follow through on.
The first official study that examined this issue was the 1993 Statistics Canada survey on violence against women.
The 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal People resulted in 440 recommendations, few again of which have been implemented.
In March 2010, the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women undertook a study on violence against Aboriginal Women. The response to this study was so weak that it’s doubtful that many Canadians have ever heard of it.
If those studies haven’t provided enough recommendations for you, there are also recommedations available to be followed up on from the National Aboriginal Women’s Summit of 2007.
There’s the October, 2004 report “Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence against Indigenous Women in Canada”, released by a coalition called National Coalition for our Stolen Sisters.
There’s the 2007 “Summary of the Policy Forum in Ottawa on Aboriginal Women and Violence: Building Safe and Healthy Families and Communities” by the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for the Status of Women.
There’s the 2007 “Strategic Framework to End Violence Against Aboriginal Women” by the Ontario Native Women’s Association.
The list goes on. Do we really need another inquiry?
In regards to the specific issue of missing and murdered women along the Highway of Tears, the BC Union of Indian Chiefs organized a symposium in 2006, which resulted in a series of recommendations for the RCMP, provincial government and federal government.
Presently only a few recommedations from the symposium have been implemented, quite predictably given the systemic disregard for the lives of these women.
The first recommendation of this report read: That a shuttle bus transportation system be established between each town and city located along the entire length of Highway 16, defined as the “The Highway of Tears”.
The rationale behind this recommedation is that many of the women who disappeared had been hitchhiking between the various communities along the highway, and that there were no other transportation options that they could afford.
This recommedation, a much needed and seemingly simple service to provide, has yet to been implemented, despite numerous pleas from family members of victims, community organizations, and even the mayors of the munipalities along the highway.
As recently as September 2012, the mayor of Smithers brought to the Union of British Columbia Municipalities conference a resolution that UCBM petition the provincial government to follow through on the recommendation and implement the shuttle service.
No public statement on this issue had been made by the provincial government until the provincial Missing Women Inquiry that took place in Vancouver in 2012. Although it was not part of his formal recmmendations, Missing Women Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal requested that the provincial government follow up on the recommendations of the 2006 symposium.
Justice Minister and Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond was reported in the media as saying that “Transportation Minister Mary Polak is “developing a targeted consultation plan to identify safer transportation options with northern communities.” and that a report is due this coming summer.
Bond also said that “the Highway of Tears governing body is currently reviewing the symposium’s original recommendations to assess which have been implemented, which are no longer relevant and which remain outstanding for consideration.
“Once this review is complete, [Justice] ministry staff will carefully consider any outstanding recommendations,” Bond said. (Prince George Citizen)
Given this rate of action, it will be another year at least (if at all) before we see the government putting these buses on the road. According to the symposium report, spring, summer and fall are the main seasons that women are on the highway hitchhiking. Even if this summer’s report promises immediate action, several months will no doubt pass as beurocratic project planning takes it glacial time to unfold, and the prime hitchhiking seasons will have passed.
This level of inaction is not surprising given what we know about the systemic disregard for the safety of indigenous women. Which brings us back around to why? Why are the lives of these women regarded as being of such little value?
The creation of a free safe transportation system for women travelling along Highway 16 is simply one action among many that needs to be taken to address the issue of violence against women in our society. We also need to be confronting racism and sexism whereever it occurs. We need to be raising our sons to respect women. We need to be honouring the role of women, modeling respect for women and supporting women in all their efforts. There are a plethora of ways that we need to be acknowledging and confronting the patriarchy, misogyny and white supremacy of the dominant society, and this is a generational project which we will be involved in until we die, at which time our children will carry it forward.
I started to write this article to express my opinion of the need for a shuttle service on the Highway of Tears, and find myself reflecting on my own attitudes and opinions and behaviour.
I understand that the work of confronting this violence begins in our hearts and minds, and spirals out to the people around us, in our families and communities.
I need to keep asking myself and others how we can turn this situation around, and return to a time when women were respected and honoured and protected.
I understand that colonialism doesn’t just play out in government policies but weaves itself deeply through the fabric of our society, in our language, our attitudes, our politics and our priorities.
There are absolutely no aspect of our lives, I believe, that we can approach without giving thought to how it relates to this on-going colonization and violence. There is simply too much work that needs to happen to decolonize our relationships with each other and the earth to be focused on anything else.
In the meantime, I urge you to contact your MLA and have them fight for the implentation of the recommendations from the 2006 Highway of Tears symposium, and the 2012 Missing Women Inquiry. Tell them you support a free shuttle service for women along the Highway of Tears.
I would also urge you to consider how, in the face of systemic racism and widespread inaction by all levels of government, that we the people may create the programs and projects that are so desperately needed to protect our sisters. How hard would it be for us to create a grassroots safe transportation network? What would you be willing to do to make it happen?