Since the 1970s, thousands of Indigenous teenaged girls and women along Highway 16 in British Columbia have gone missing and been murdered. The true number isn’t known. In Highway of Tears, Jessica McDiarmid blends heartbreaking stories about the missing and murdered and their families’ struggles to find answers with the many mistakes and prejudices that lead to this human rights crisis. This book will rightly make readers sob and burn with anger.
Many of the chapters of Highway of Tears center on individual cases of teenagers and women. They are horribly similar. Young girls with promise make plans to visit, go to a party, or just go to work by hitchhiking and are never heard from again. Sometimes they just vanish. Other times, their bodies are found months or years later. Most of the time, the missing are labeled as runaways and little investigation was done. Their families advocate for years to try and get media attention and government action for the missing girls and women. Later in the book, McDiarmid talks about multiple commissions and taskforces that reviewed the original work by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In many cases, there is frustratingly little information to go on. Only a few cases are ever solved.
About a third of the way into Highway of Tears, McDiarmid turns her attention to the glaring question of how so many girls and women could have gone missing and never had their cases solved. She discusses the long history of racism against Indigenous people and the systematic way that the British and Canadian governments have stripped them of land, economic opportunity, legal rights, language, culture, and children (by taking them to abusive residential schools or by putting them into the foster system). She reveals the deeply, almost insurmountably antagonistic relationship between the RCMP and Indigenous communities; sometimes the name of the RCMP in the Indigenous languages translates to “war makers” or “those who take us away.” When Mounties are transferred from community to community, they never get a chance to get to know the people they serve or learn to banish deep rooted prejudices about Indigenous people.
It’s only recently, after years of advocacy, that the Canadian government has started to devote resources to the Highway of Tears cases—years, decades too late for justice. In some instances, perpetrators are found to have died in the years since they committed their crimes. The lack of attention paid by the RCMP and the Canadian government is especially galling when McDiarmid mentions the case of Nicole Hoar, a Caucasian woman who went missing on the highway, who received exponentially more attention in the media and from the police. There are good investigators in the RCMP, who care about the missing, that McDiarmid highlights for their efforts to find answers. But it’s hard not to condemn the entire RCMP for years of failure to help Indigenous people.
Highway of Tears tells a history that needs to be widely known. What happened to these girls, women, their families, and their people should never have happened. Indigenous lives matter. All lives matter, of course, but it’s clear that Indigenous lives have been treated as though they don’t, and McDiarmid makes it clear that a lot still needs to change in order to make the region safer: better transportation, better communication, better investigations. Most of all, the racism and prejudice towards Indigenous people has to change. And yet, Highway of Tears ends on a chord (not just a note) of mixed resignation, healing, and hope that things may be different in the future. Some of the families, those who learned what happened to their missing, have found a measure of peace. We can only hope that all the thousands of other mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles will also get the answers to their questions, and be able to heal, too.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.