Reclaiming Canada's Highway of Tears

Published in Indian Country Today in October 2005. 

A killing ground became sacred space, as communities along Highway 16 gathered recently to celebrate the lives and deplore the deaths or disappearances of 32 women and girls — most of whom were Native — during the 1990s. These largely uninvestigated, unsolved crimes took place on a 500-mile stretch of the road, which threads its way through the lush rainforest and glorious mountains of British Columbia, in western Canada. The route eventually became known as the Highway of Tears — more a place of horror than one of beauty.

            Kathy Wesley (Nisga’a Nation), a counselor at Ksan House, a social-services organization and women’s shelter in Terrace, coordinated the event. Called Take Back the Highway, the idea was inspired by Take Back the Night, an international demonstration against sexism and violence that takes place each September.

            In each of many towns along the route, hundreds of men, women and children — Native and non-Native — prayed, sang, danced and marched. “A butterfly suggestion became a tidal wave,” said Grainne Barthe, of Hope Haven Transition House, a women’s shelter in Prince Rupert. The First Nations and Bands represented included Tsimshian, Kitsumkalum, Stellat’en, Cheslatta, Hagwilget, Nak’azdli, Tsay Keh Dene, Lake Babine, Sai’Kuz and Nad’leh.

            Beverley Jacobs, Mohawk, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), appeared on behalf of her organization, which has worked hard over the past few years to bring attention to the issue of rampant violence and discrimination against indigenous women in Canada. “I am honored to know such powerful and strong people,” Jacobs said of the marchers.

            “I saw the sister and niece of Ramona Wilson [who went missing at age 15] holding tightly onto each other,” said Shelby Raymond, spokesperson for Terrace Amnesty International Action Circle, one of many national and local organizations that participated in the event. “I realized this was a deeply needed statement, a moment to control one small section of highway, a moment to say we will remember every precious young woman who disappeared. A community was born on our march.”

            In Hazelton, there was not a dry eye as family members remembered their missing sisters, daughters and mothers, reported Jim McAfee, an alcohol and drug counselor with the Hagwilget Village Health Team. “Lucy Glaim spoke on behalf of the family of Delphine Nikal [who also disappeared while in her mid-teens]. The theme was reiterated that the families are still grieving and that it is healing to have the support of an event such as this,” said McAfee. “The deaths and disappearances affect us all in so many ways.”

            Those who had experienced repression, sexism and violence spoke of feeling empowered. Participant Sherrice Lucier recalled her impressions of the day: “Walking along that path was so symbolic for me. I was taking it back. Words cannot explain what I felt walking with all you courageous women. So I will simply say, ‘thank you.’”

c. Stephanie Woodard.