Highway of Tears
Written and directed by Matthew Smiley
The Highway of Tears refers to a section of Highway 16 in British Columbia where 18 official and at least 40 unconfirmed women have gone missing or been found murdered. The majority of them have been indigenous women, and the area itself reflects a dark history of abuses and systematic racism. It is 724 km stretch of road with countless gravel roads in different states of disrepair shooting off of it like small tributaries. Without a car this area is treacherous, and few of the towns along the huge stretch of country have doctors, schools or opportunities for employment. There is barely any transit for those without cars (and with high levels of poverty, many don’t have them), leading many to resort to hitchhiking.
Statistics lay the backdrop to Matthew Smiley’s Highway of Tears. There are 582 reported missing indigenous women in Canada, some towns along Highway 61 have a 92% unemployment rate, an indigenous woman is 4x more likely to be murdered in Canada than a non-indigenous woman. For audiences already familiar with the issues of violence native women face already, not all these numbers will be surprising – and it unfortunately numbers often conceal as much as they reveal, they can be dehumanizing or misleading. With his film, Smiley brings a humanizing approach, allowing his subjects to tell their own story. We are brought into the homes, the lives and the living conditions of the many indigenous communities in Northern British Columbia.
While it is no longer unusual to have documentaries serve as vehicles for political messages, few are told quite as thoroughly or beautifully as this. Smiley not only gives a cohesive narrative, but establishes a strong sense of context that has contributed to the neglect and violence that has unfortunately plagued this area of Canada (it’s important to note that while the film focuses on the Highway of Tears violence against indigenous women is a Canada-wide issue). To say his argument is persuasive is not accurate, he portrays a situation that is a clear human rights issue. When people start talking about lack of money or resources to “fix” the problem, it becomes apparent that the government has long valued capital over human lives.
Racism within Canada is rarely discussed or acknowledged, and the government has been guilty of nothing short of genocide. The centuries of abuse, mistreatment and erasure are not so far behind us and it is clear that while many still live in the shadows of the residential school systems very little is being done to help rebuild a broken nation. In the various communities where Smiley brings his camera, nearly everyone he interviews has a family or a friend who went missing or went murdered. The incredible sense of loss is palpable – change is the only answer.
One of the great assets of the film is that it offers tangible solutions. The film features a wide variety of passionate activists who are doing their part to effect change, but government support is still very much needed. Some solutions are simple, such as establishing a reliable transit system in the area. While this does little to relieve the tension of poverty or abuse, it at least offers to women an opportunity to reach cities without resorting to hitchhiking.
One of the main points of argument is to create a proper inquest into the murdered and missing women, though unfortunately that has been shut down by the current conservative government. Marc Garneau of the Canadian liberal party has been a huge supporter of the film and managed to screen the film at Parliament Hill on May 12th, though unfortunately not a single Conservative MP was in attendance. While it’s great to see key members in the Liberal party pushing for an inquest, as well as the NDP, the film acknowledges that a National Inquiry would only be the first step. In spite of a public inquiry in British Columbia in 2013, few changes (if any) were made in it’s wake – the film takes time to explore the limitations and the faults in this first attempt to find solutions.
While easier said than done, the need for change lies in the hands of a citizenship that needs to be more engaged in the actions of their government. Canadian politeness is often more of a fault than an asset in this regard, and difficult conversations are often displaced for easy ones. Smiley’s film and the work of men and women within the Native Community working hard to bring awareness are already doing great work, but it’s important to understand that as a society we undervalue and silences voices of indigenous people. It’s time for Canadians to start listening.
Highway of Tears is currently be screened across Canada, be sure to check out their website in order to see if it’s coming to your area and other ways you can lend them support.