“Many of the girls who vanished were not hitchhiking, nor were they sex workers, nor were they doing anything much different than many other young people. But to many of the people living in predominantly white communities, it seemed as though disappearing off the face of the earth was something that happened to other people. And it was, because this is a country where Ramona Wilson was six times more likely to be murdered than me.”
In June 1994, sixteen-year-old Ramona Wilson disappeared from Smithers in a remote part of British Columbia. It was graduation weekend in the small town of about five thousand, and it was several days before her friends and family realized she was gone. It would be nearly a year before someone stumbled upon her remains in the woods near the airport. In that time, two more Indigenous teenage girls were found murdered along the highway that strung together the small communities they called home. Wilson was neither the first nor the last young Indigenous woman to disappear from the area, but for white journalist Jessica McDiarmid, whose focus on human rights abuses and social justice would eventually bring her home to northern British Columbia to tell this story, Wilson’s was the first face on a missing poster that she remembered. For decades, women and girls disappeared along this remote stretch of road, until it earned the Highway of Tears moniker. McDiarmid’s account centres the stories of the missing, and those they left behind, examining the cultural tension between settlers and Indigenous peoples, and between the Indigenous peoples and the colonial police forces charged with both policing those communities and investigating the disappearances and murders that plagued them.
I grew up in Prince George, a city in central British Columbia that marks the eastern end of the stretch of Highway 16 most commonly known as the Highway of Tears. Author Jessica McDiarmid was raised in Smithers, a small, alpine-style village about halfway between Prince George and Prince Rupert, the city that marks the highway’s western terminus at the Pacific Ocean. On the far side of Prince George, the highway carries on eastward, through Jasper and the Rocky Mountains, and on to Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. Some definitions of the Highway of Tears extend to encompass that eastern stretch as well, but the heart of McDiarmid’s story lies on that “lonesome road that runs across a lonesome land” from Prince George to Prince Rupert. This book traversed familiar territory, bringing to life young women who were posters on telephone poles, and faces on the news throughout my childhood.
McDiarmid focuses largely on the missing and murdered Indigenous women who define the typical victim of the Highway of Tears. However, one significant case also covered is that of the white tree planter Nicole Hoar, who disappeared from a gas station at the western edge of Prince George while trying to hitch a ride to Smithers in June 2002. McDiarmid’s account of Hoar’s case highlights the discrepancy in resources, and the importance of the connections of the missing person’s family. Hoar’s case garnered national and international attention precisely because she did not fit the typical victim profile. Her family was well enough off to be able to travel in from out of the province, and spend months searching for her, and advocating her case to the police and media. Her sister worked in communications, and her father’s employer, the Hudson’s Bay Company, helped put up a reward for information about her disappearance. McDiarmid profiles the Hoar case in the middle of the book, and by that point the contrast with the investigations and resources available to the other, Indigenous families is appallingly, starkly clear. Nevertheless, Hoar’s case remains unsolved.
Highway of Tears centres on the missing and murdered indigenous women of this particular British Columbia corridor, but as McDiarmid highlights, the issue is by no means restricted to that region. In the latter part of the book McDiarmid profiles Walk4Justice, a project that collected 3000 names of missing women in a cross country trek from British Columbia to Ottawa in 2008. When the walkers arrived in Ottawa after an eighty-three day journey, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declined to meet with them. The issue is not just British Columbia’s shame, but as advocate Gladys Radek put it, “Canada’s dirtiest secret.”
Highway of Tears is a true crime narrative, but one that does its best to focus on the lives of the victims, and the perspectives of their families, as well as the cultural forces that both placed them in danger, and left their cases largely unsolved. McDiarmid’s familiarity with the region is evident, and her sympathy for the families clear as she synthesizes the stories of so many missing women, from Virginia Sampare who disappeared in 1971 to Mackie Basil who went missing in 2013. Highway of Tears makes for a harrowing read, but one that is essential if we are to understand the complex factors that continue to endanger Indigenous women and girls to this day.
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