If you read one book this month, make it Highway of Tears
Jessica McDiarmid's essential book documents decades of horrifying indifference toward Indigenous women and girls in Canada
When you talk about Canada's Highway of Tears, you have to use qualifiers. Since 1969, at least 18 women and girls have gone missing or been murdered along Highway 16, a 450-mile stretch of remote, mountainous two-lane road that links Prince Rupert, a port just below the Alaskan panhandle, to Prince George, the largest city in northern British Columbia. "Since 1969," because we don't really know when the first girl went missing; "at least 18," because that's the official number of linked cold cases tallied by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's special investigative unit, E-Pana. First Nations groups put the number much higher, closer to 50 unsolved murders, in which the vast majority of the victims are Indigenous.
For years, the missing and murdered women and girls of the Highway of Tears received little attention. Local newspapers could take days, and sometimes weeks or months, to mention the victims — precious time when fresh tips from the public might have potentially helped catch the killers. Promising leads were never followed up on; key pieces of evidence were misplaced. While the RCMP has maintained that race never influenced their investigations, the victims' families recall a predominant attitude of "just another Native" tainting efforts to find their loved ones. Canadian journalist Jessica McDiarmid's new investigative book, Highway of Tears, out now, seeks to right decades of indifference by putting the female victims front and center at last. The result is urgent and eye-opening, and one of only a few book-length efforts to understand the epidemic. Its conclusions are uncomfortable at best, and damning at worst; it is easily one of the most essential works of nonfiction of the year.
The rise in the popularity of the true crime genre explains at least some of the renewed attention given to the Highway 16 cases, including the 2016 CBC podcast Who Killed Alberta Williams?, about a 24-year-old who was found dead near Prince Rupert in 1989. Additionally, years of relentless advocacy and the signal boost afforded by social media have brought greater global awareness to the murders. But even as women continue to vanish along the highway, interest can feel too little and too late; earlier this year, the indifference was actually characterized as genocidal. McDiarmid, while not Indigenous herself, grew up near Highway 16 and recalls seeing the region's missing women posters throughout her childhood: "Not nearly enough people gave a damn when these girls and women went missing," she writes. "We did not protect them. We failed them."
McDiarmid reroutes blame from the victims, where it has historically been directed, to the government. "All the girls were routinely lumped together as 'high risk' and hitchhikers, including by the police," writes McDiarmid, who strikingly notes that one RCMP spokesman differentiated Highway 16's Indigenous victims from the disappearance of Nicole Hoar, who is white, by pointing out "lifestyle differences" like that "two of the [earlier victims] were known prostitutes. Four were Native or part Native." "As if," comments McDiarmid, "race were a poor lifestyle choice made by the teenagers." Additionally, "the widespread propensity to refer to marginalized teenagers who are victims as 'women' perhaps belies, however unintentionally, the deep-seated tendency in our society to judge victims rather than perpetrators, to find reasons not to care." Some of McDiarmid's most striking passages are when she details contemporaneous disappearances of white children, whose cases by contrast received nationwide outpourings of support.
McDiarmid further stresses that calling the Highway 16 victims "high risk" is not only sweepingly incorrect (for example, 19-year-old college student Lana Derrick, who vanished in 1995, was simply visiting her mother for Thanksgiving), it also fails to hold accountable a system that creates such risks in the first place. McDiarmid links the epidemic of missing and murdered women and girls to over a century of colonialist policies that have economically and socially devastated Native populations, including the residential school system, where many of the parents of the Highway 16 victims were horrifically abused during their own childhoods. The resulting cycles of economic insecurity, sexual and physical abuse, emotional trauma, and drug addiction have yet to be addressed in any substantial way by social services. Additionally, regional poverty has exacerbated the vulnerability of the Indigenous people. Many women hitchhike in the first place because they can't afford cars, and there is little in the way of public transportation to otherwise get around.
The Highway of Tears, as a product of such specific circumstances, might seem like a distant and tragic curiosity to some Americans, and McDiarmid never quite links her nation's indifference toward the Native victims to the attitude shared across the border. But the tragedies along Highway 16 are a symptom not just of Canadian history, but of European colonization of the Americas at large. In 2016 alone, ThinkProgress notes "there were 5,712 reports of missing or murdered Native women and girls across the [United States]," "four in five ... American Indian or Alaska Native women experience violence in their lifetimes," and "over half of Native women have been victims of sexual violence." The border only really divides nuances in policy, not overarching racist attitudes; while it was a B.C. study that found that "perpetrators ... [may] believe that they will not risk detention or prosecution since society is less concerned with the welfare of Indigenous than that of non-Indigenous children and youth," such an observation clearly does not pertain to Canadian offenders alone. It was an American drifter who was likely behind the deaths of Gale Weys, 19; Colleen MacMillen, 16; and Pamela Darlington, 19, all near Highway 16, in the 1970s.
McDiarmid, of course, can't possibly cover all the stories of those who have vanished or been killed along Highway 16. Her work is additionally impeded by the fact that many of the investigations are ongoing; police aren't able to tell her their full working theories, at risk of threatening the cases.
Still, even with such scale, scope, and bureaucratic mechanisms working against it, Highway of Tears manages to feel encompassing, giving touching and sensitive portraits of the girls whose lives were cut short. You feel, almost, as if McDiarmid knew the victims herself. This intimacy makes it not an easy, or particularly fun, book to read. It is often frustrating; no bad guy gets caught at the end. But Highway of Tears is also searingly necessary — even if, by its own admission, it is far too late.
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