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They Deserved Better – Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women from the Highway of Tears

By: Ryley Lopushinsky

The definition of ‘highway’ provided by the Oxford Dictionary is, “a main road for traveling long distances, especially one connecting and going through cities and towns”. The scenery in Northern British Columbia; Canada is something unforgettable. It is breathtaking and a must-see destination. The mountain ranges extend forever, and the forests are plentiful. Unfortunately, try and imagine travelling along this highway to come across a sign that says, “Welcome to the Highway of Tears”. That is what you will find along highway 16 between Prince Rupert, British Columbia and Prince George, British Columbia.

Dating back to 1969 indigenous women have been known to go missing, or been murdered on this highway. Originally it was believed to have started in 1989. There were nine women who went missing or were found murdered on this highway between 1989-2006. The National police service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), began investigating and by 2007 had increased the numbers and changed the starting year. The RCMP expanded their search, going from nine women to 18 between 1989, to 1969. Most of these women were under the age of 18 however, their ages ranged from 14-27. The police say there are currently 18 cases however, people who live in the area believe the number exceeds 30 women missing or murdered, which is a drastic difference from the police numbers. If there are an additional 12 or more cases, who is looking for them?

Indigenous people face extreme discrimination, and it has shown throughout the years. No one should have to face the barriers indigenous people face. The RCMP have drastically dropped the ball on these cases. Many people believe it is because there is lack of evidence, or lack of resources. However, if this had happened to a series of white persons there would have been no “lack of resources” and there would have been more effort in finding evidence. This is, and has been, discrimination and a violation of basic human rights.

An investigation was conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) a global organization who investigate human rights issues in all corners of the world. They are independent from all governments and have over 450 people of 70 different nationalities. HRW took a focus on the Highway of Tears and published their findings in 2013. HRW interviewed families of the victims from the Highway of Tears. Many families spoke out about the discrimination they had received from the police.

One woman spoke out after her sister was murdered in the 1960’s. She told the HRW that the police simply assumed her sister was drunk and went out and ‘asked for it’. Not only was this discriminatory towards her as an indigenous woman, it was extremely sexist as well. This is an on-going theme in society. Women are constantly being told to “cover up” or “wear different clothes”. Why are women to blame for the negative actions of others?

Another woman spoke out about her sister going missing and the police simply brushed it off as her “needing a break” from her family. When her family informed the RCMP this had been out of character for her, the police did not believe them. Instead, they changed the story, telling the family the victim could be in Vancouver (a 16-hour drive south) when in fact, she had been found murdered in their hometown.

A real look into the extreme discrimination against indigenous women gone missing came in 2002. A white woman named Nicole Hoar went missing. Community members and even former police officers agreed that since she was white, the media cared enough to cover her disappearance. RCMP also supplied extra resources to investigate her case. While being interviewed, an ex-police officer told the HRW that he had worked in the indigenous communities and said, “if they’re [indigenous], no one cares”. Nicole’s family stands with the indigenous families. The indigenous families know this brought discrimination, but they also know it helped spread the message that this was not an isolated incident. Unfortunately, just like a lot of the other women, Nicole has never been found.

After Nicole, there seemed to be a silence in the cases for two years. The indigenous communities were glad, but still needed help getting others involved in finding those who were missing and getting justice. In every community along the stretch of highway they held the “Take Back the Highway” walk. People from the communities joined in walking along the highway in hopes of raising awareness. Four days after the walk, another woman went missing in Prince Rupert. She was also never found. Four months after, at the other end of the Highway of Tears, Prince George, a 14-year-old indigenous girl went missing. She was found murdered a week later. And to no surprise, the murderer was never found.

Some justice (if you can call it that) was found for one of the families of a women who was found murdered, Colleen MacMillen. In 2012, six years after the RCMP began an investigation called E-PANA, the RCMP found DNA evidences that linked the murder to a man named Bobby Jack Fowler. Fowler was an American citizen who had died in an Oregon prison in 2006. There is belief that he is related to two other Highway of Tears cases, a person of interest in seven, but excluded in the eighth. Unfortunately, since it took the RCMP so long to actually investigate these cases, it will be difficult to confirm his involvement since he is deceased.

The area where these women have gone missing or found murdered is secluded as it is in a rainforest. There are mountains in every direction, dense forests, windy highways, and aggressive rivers. There is no adequate form of transportation between the little cities that exist up there. Getting between cities like Prince Rupert to Terrace or from Terrace to Hazelton or Hazelton to Smithers, unless you have a car and can drive, is significantly difficult. People often choose to hitchhike, which can be extremely dangerous. In most of these cases the women were believed to be hitchhiking. For a while there was a theory that a semi-truck driver who had a route along this highway was to blame. However, the RCMP did not seem to believe or investigate this possibility. Instead, a lot of people blame these women for what happened to them. It is not their fault someone decided to murder or abduct them.

The police are at fault here. They failed these women and their families. Maybe it was lack of resources. Except this was proven not the case when it came to Nicole Hoar. So maybe it was lack of evidence, police cannot do much unless they have clues. But they could have expended more resources to continue searching for the many missing. If this had happened in a bigger area not so secluded area to more white women, there would be answers. These families do all they can to raise awareness, and they deserve better.

A lot of these women are still missing. All of their families still have no answers and no justice. The term ‘Highway of Tears’ was derived from frustration, fear and sorrow. Thankfully, there has not been any recent activity on the Highway of Tears.

A list of victims can be found here: Many still not found, and all cases still unsolved. Their memory deserves to be remembered by as many people as possible. To the families of these women, I give my deepest apologies and pray that this never happens to another family.

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