The highway of tears is a lonesome road that runs across a lonesome land.
The plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada has increasingly been in the spotlight of late, deservingly so. One relative of a victim quoted in journalist Jessica McDiarmid’s Highway of Tears calls it “Canada’s dirtiest secret.” The statistics are staggering:
Nationwide, Indigenous women accounted for more than 11 per cent of the total number of missing females, despite making up just 4 per cent of Canada’s female population. Similarly, 16 per cent of female homicide victims were Indigenous women. And, while rates of homicide of non-Indigenous women had been steadily declining since 1980, that of Indigenous women remained constant, leading to their representing an ever-higher proportion of women murdered in Canada.
The Highway of Tears is Highway 16, a 725 kilometer-long stretch of road running across a swathe of British Columbia. The disappearances or murders of more than 30 women and girls have been connected to it, the majority of these Indigenous. McDiarmid looks at the highway not only to examine what crimes have transpired on it, but as a lens for examining the violence against Canada’s Indigenous population as a whole:
It is a microcosm of a national tragedy—and travesty… A 2014 Statistics Canada report found Indigenous people face double the rate of violence of non-Indigenous people. Indigenous women and girls in particular … are six times more likely to be killed than non-Indigenous women. They face a rate of serious violence twice as high as that of Indigenous men and nearly triple that of non-Indigenous women. This is partly because they are more likely to confront risk factors such as mental illness, homelessness and poverty, which afflict Indigenous people at vastly disproportionate rates—the ugly, deadly effects of colonialism past and present. But even when controlling for those factors, Indigenous women and girls face more violence than anyone else. Put simply, they are in greater danger solely because they were born Indigenous and female. As one long-time activist put it, “Every time we walk out our doors, it’s high risk.”
The magnitude of this issue can’t be overstated. Canada has started addressing it recently, identifying this disproportional violence against the Indigenous as an “epidemic” and “genocide”. This racism is so deeply ingrained though, as McDiarmid highlights how much existing bias has to be overcome. Occasionally a white woman would go missing along the Highway of Tears, with the press and police devoting markedly more attention to her case than to those of the Indigenous women, adding insult to injury for the families of the missing and murdered. The author identifies a clear “hierarchy of female victims” as perceived by both media and law enforcement.
Sometimes there are even truly horrifying open secrets demonstrating how the Indigenous are further victimized. One judge cruised for Indigenous young women and girls to pay for sex, the very same ones who appeared before him in court. He knew exactly who was vulnerable and could be exploited, and McDiarmid says that rumors long circulated before he was finally arrested. Both the racism and the crimes are endlessly layered and intertwined.
What McDiarmid does so excellently is to tell the stories of these women’s lives before they came to an end somewhere along the highway. In this it felt very similar to Robert Kolker’s excellent Lost Girls, in that both depict the lives and potentials of the murdered women before they fell victim to societal factors that led to their slipping through the cracks and becoming vulnerable. The women here aren’t sex workers, but many did become involved with drugs and seedier circumstances due to a myriad of sad factors, but their families and loved ones were optimistic that they had the time and drive to turn things around. Those chances were taken from them.
Too often, these deaths and disappearances continue to be seen as the result of the victim’s wrongdoing rather than as what they truly are: an ongoing societal failure.
McDiarmid introduces their families, who provide fuller portraits of who these women were, bringing them to life vibrantly. This makes difficult reading though, because the families’ pain is massive and ongoing. She also sketches out some of the historical background around why Indigenous people have faced hardships over time.
As troubling as it is to read, it’s also where McDiarmid creates emphasis through the strength of her writing. Describing parents devastated when their children were taken to residential schools, and who never recovered from the loss even when they were returned, she writes, “Alcohol filled the chasm left by the eastbound train.” These reverberations of pain would be felt through the generations. This is a crucial topic, handled sensitively and affectingly, and as tough as it is, it’s too important to look away from.
Although a minority of the murders had strong suspects or clearer circumstances, there’s no theory offered about who might’ve taken the lives of the rest. I can understand why an author wouldn’t want to speculate, but after working with all of this information, I would’ve liked to hear more of what she thought, to get more analysis in this sense. On the other hand, she relates statistics and key information about this epidemic of violence against Canada’s Indigenous so well that she makes the message incredibly impacting. That couldn’t have been easy to do, considering the sheer volume of information and cases here.
And the women’s lives are strikingly told, preserving and sharing something about who they were and were becoming, quietly emphasizing the heartbreak of this troubling epidemic. 4.25/5
Highway of Tears:
A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
by Jessica McDiarmid
published November 12, 2019 by Atria
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.