Jessica McDiarmid grew up in Northwest British Columbia on the doorstep of what has since been named the Highway of Tears; a corridor of road that has come to symbolize a crisis happening in Canada, the U.S., and beyond. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, McDiarmid heard the stories of indigenous girls and women going missing, but their cases often received little attention. As a journalist, she focused on human rights, becoming even more keenly aware of the racist and unjust reactions to these crimes by the police and the general public.
In her new book Highway of Tears, McDiarmid sheds light on these issues while placing the Canadian crisis in the context of an international betrayal of indigenous women. She draws attention to individual stories of victims in order to personalize these cases against faceless statistics. While exploring the devastating effect these tragedies have on victims’ families and communities, McDiarmid also highlights the unwavering determination of indigenous communities to fight for justice and the return of their missing girls and women.
Highway of Tears proves yet again that our marginalized communities are over-policed and under-protected, and it is as captivating as it is thought-provoking.
Refinery29 spoke with McDiarmid about her book and the necessity of personalizing the crisis of missing and murdered indigineous women in order to bring about actionable change.
How did you come to hear about the Highway of Tears, and why did you decide to investigate it?
“I grew up in Smithers in Northwest British Columbia, which is in the middle of the Highway of Tears, so girls going missing — and sometimes being found murdered — was just a fact of life, even though it was hardly spoken about. One interviewee in the book poignantly described the crisis as ‘a sad undercurrent in [our indigenous] communities.’ When I grew up and left to become a journalist, my career was always driven by the idea that people need to know when there are injustices occurring in the world in order to be able to respond; if they don't know these events are occurring, then there's no chance they can seek to fix them.
“During my adolescence I moved all over the world, yet what was happening in my hometown or ‘backyard’ played out over and over in the back of my mind. It was an issue I wanted to write about for over 13 years but lacked the resources, time, and ability to do the topic justice. By the time I was at a point in my life and career where I felt able, the issue still hadn't been covered properly so I decided to bite the bullet and delve into it.”
When we hear about the phenomenon of ‘missing and murdered indigenous women and girls,’ what does that really mean?
“The problem with ‘MMIWG’ (as they are now referred to) is that it’s an acronym which takes away from the humanity of the issue. When we see these huge numbers, such as 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada, it minimizes the fact that every single one of those individual numbers is a devastating loss to the world, their families, and communities. So, what I wanted to do with this book was personalize those stories.
“The sporadic media coverage of this phenomenon, and the Highway of Tears specifically, over the years has been insufficient and unspecific. I really wanted to shed light on the individual stories and pain, but also the communities’ resilience and incredible determination to keep searching for answers for their loved ones (over decades, in some cases) and to keep fighting for justice for all.”
What is the Highway of Tears, exactly?
“The Highway of Tears was first defined by the families of indigenous victims in the late ‘90s. It’s a stretch of Highway 16 from Prince Rupert to Prince George, where many indigenous girls and young women have been going missing for decades.
“Since 1989, there have been well over a dozen girls and women who have gone missing and many more prior to that year. When I started off with what I thought was a complete list of victims, I kept having to add to these statistics. In my final year of writing, three more women went missing and still haven't been found. So it’s fair to say that there are definitely many more cases we don’t hear about.”
Why are indigenous women in Canada at a greater risk for violence?
“Indigenous people in Canada historically and to the present day have been extremely marginalized by the processes of colonization. In Canadian law until recently, indigenous people were not considered human beings. To put this into context, tens of thousands of children were forcibly taken away from their families and made to live in boarding schools where they endured horrific abuse, often being used for science experiments; the last of those schools closed in 1996.
“It is a fact that indigenous people in Canada are far more likely to face violence than any other group. Indigenous women are six times more likely to be murdered than white women. As mentioned, a lot of this stems from risk factors which resulted from colonialism: factors such as mental illness, homelessness, poverty, marginalization. But studies have been conducted where they removed the risk factors to try to determine whether race alone was the cause and found that it was. Researchers found that even if you suffer no risk factors at all, except the fact that you are an indigenous female, you are more likely to face violence and to be murdered than your compatriots.”
How is the reaction to a missing indigenous woman different from when a white woman goes missing in terms of media attention?
“What we've seen with the Highway of Tears cases is that when an indigenous girl goes missing there is a muted response from the police, the public, and lots of victim-blaming. People will make excuses, they’ll say she shouldn’t have been hitchhiking, or partying, or alone. There was also often the assumption that these girls had just run away from home and were on a bender somewhere.
“This kind of attitude is still so prevalent and has such an enormous impact on the willingness of people to search for these girls and solve these cases. When you contrast these responses to the reaction when, for example, Nicole Hoar, a young white woman, was hitchhiking and went missing in 2002, the disparities are blinding. In Nicole’s case, it was all over international news and resulted in one of the largest searches in the history of British Columbia. The police searched [around 5,000 miles] of road; they had investigators traveling all over the country to pursue leads.
“Nicole's family quickly became aware of the difference of responses and went to great lengths to draw attention to the other missing girls’ cases. But it really highlighted the inherent racism in these contrasting responses. These attitudes haven’t changed; in 2011 a white woman went missing in a highway area and immediately there was an enormous reward for finding her, billboards were erected, and it was on the national news. Yet, two indigenous women went missing in 2007 and 2013, and even the people who live on the Highway of Tears seem to be unaware of their cases.”
What do you see as the best way of moving forward from this? How can we change attitudes and educate people when it comes to these cases?
“The reports have been done. There was a report done in 2006 which included a symposium of family, government, and police. They came up with 33 tangible, doable recommendations, most of which have not been implemented. A national enquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women was just completed; again, it includes loads of recommendations. Undoubtedly, the changes that are needed have been identified and many of them are very basic.
“For the Highway of Tears, specifically: we need transportation, cell phones, and community-support services so that these women don't have to hitchhike to see a doctor if they do not own a car. There are these very simple things that could be implemented easily. Ultimately, what it all comes down to is that we have to make it happen. There has to be the political will. If there's the political will, it will happen. It will get done, but the public has to care. I didn't learn any of this in school; we need to do the work to reeducate ourselves. We need to examine our own biases, our own stereotypes, our own racism that we have inside ourselves, and we need to be engaged in political change. But until it's considered a big deal when an indigenous girl goes missing, it's not going to change.”