“No one knows who the first Indigenous girl or woman to vanish along [Highway 16] was, or when it happened. Nor does anyone know how many have gone missing or been murdered since,” writes Jessica McDiarmid in the introduction to “Highway of Tears” (Atria).
McDiarmid’s book illustrates how racism and indifference have contributed to society’s ongoing failure to provide justice to the women who have been victimized along the 725-kilometer stretch of road between Prince Rupert and Prince George in northwestern British Columbia.
But the decades-long problem extends beyond indifference; in some instances, public servants charged with protecting the victims—including a judge and select police officers—have been implicated in harming Indigenous women, which helps explain why violence against them oftentimes goes unreported.
In the following Failure Interview, McDiarmid—who grew up in a town along Highway 16—highlights the issues addressed in “Highway of Tears,” and how she hopes the book draws attention to a problem that extends to Indigenous communities elsewhere in Canada and the United States.
Where did you grow up, and how did it inform your work on “Highway of Tears”?
I grew up in Smithers, which is about halfway along what is now known as the Highway of Tears. I remember when two local girls—Delfine Nikal and Ramona Wilson—went missing, as they were just a little bit older than I was. You would see their [“Missing”] posters, and you would see posters of girls from other communities along the highway.
Yet there was no public outcry. One local leader [has] described it to me as a sad undercurrent in all of the communities along the highway, happening again and again. It just seemed unconscionable to me that we weren’t really doing anything about it.
How did you assess the scope of this problem?
When I initially set out to write the book, Canada’s national police force already had a task force that looked at some of the Highway of Tears cases and other unsolved cases from across the province. I had gone in thinking that it was a complete list of those who were missing or murdered along the Highway of Tears. But when I talked to people [about a victim] I’d hear another name and then another and another. And I’m still hearing about cases that I didn’t know about.
In the book you highlight the heartbreaking stories of a number of victims and their families, but the story of how provincial court judge David William Ramsay victimized women he was charged with protecting is beyond the pale.
That happened in plain view. A judge who was presiding over vulnerable people’s lives—and also involved in their lives through a halfway house for battered women and an organization to help youth—was one of the perpetrators. From what I can tell from my research, people on the streets knew about him and organizations that worked with them knew about him. And in later investigations, some of his victims implicated nine police officers.
People who are middle or upper class might say: ‘Why don’t people go to the police to get the help they need?’ This is one example why they don’t. There is no trust in authority, and for good reasons: your race, economic background, and social status [may influence] whether authorities will be there to help you or whether they might hurt you.
How often does a case like the ones you discuss in the book get solved?
None of the cases in the book have been solved, and it’s unlikely they will. The police will tell you that the rate for solving homicides of Indigenous women and non-Indigenous women—the solve rate—is almost the same. But the rate of unsolved cases on the Highway of Tears is grossly disproportionate when you look at the population. And there are other clusters of unsolved cases across Canada.
Has the rise of social media helped families raise awareness about their missing loved ones?
It has given families more options and more power. Prior to the Internet and social media, whether you could spread information about your missing loved one really depended on whether the traditional media would care and do a story. It also depended on your own resources. Now with social media families can quickly reach a lot more people without needing buy-in from the media.
The other thing is that social media has been a great tool for organizing events and reaching other people who are working on this issue. The first Highway of Tears Walk, where families walked hundreds of kilometers along the highway to raise awareness, that coalesced because of Facebook. There was one woman who was going to do it and she put it on Facebook and members of almost all of the families of missing and murdered women on that stretch of road showed up and did it together, which was incredible. Without social media that never would have happened.
What role does hitchhiking play in your story? In the United States hitchhiking is seen a thing of the past.
Not as big of a role as people had understood. For a long time it has been: the Highway of Tears (where people who were hitchhiking disappear). That trickled into a victim-blaming kind of approach: You shouldn’t be hitchhiking [because] of course something bad will happen when you’re hitchhiking. Yet of all of the girls and women in the book, only three of them were last seen hitchhiking. Most of them were probably not hitchhiking.
The other thing is you don’t necessarily have a choice in that part of the world. It’s quite remote and there is very little public transport. So if you don’t have a car and you need to go to the dentist or to a funeral, hitchhiking is often the only way to do that.
The very last interview I did for the book was in Prince George, which is at one end of the highway, a four hour drive from where I was living. It was winter and it was cold and dark and snowing and leaving Prince George I saw this tiny figure on the side of the highway. I could tell it was an elderly woman so I stopped. [It turns out] she was in her mid-seventies and she was from a reserve two hours away. She had come to Prince George to see a medical specialist, but her appointment was delayed, so she missed the bus home. So she either would have had to go to a shelter for the night or hitchhike home. [I gave her a ride] and she was wonderful; we had a great chat and I learned a lot, but I was also thinking, ‘How is this still happening?’
What do you hope that “Highway of Tears” accomplishes?
To build awareness—not just about missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women—but about all of the related issues that make Indigenous people vulnerable to begin with. Centuries of government policy have literally tried to wipe out Indigenous people and their cultures, languages, and communities. Colonialism is still alive and well and hurting people today.
In both Canada and the United States, everybody needs to recognize the extent of this problem and they need to push for change, because if the public cares then politicians, police officers, and agencies will care. It’s up to every one of us to push, and it will have an effect. When something is a big public issue, authorities respond.
What kind of feedback have you received from readers and victims’ families?
When the book came out the response was overwhelmingly positive, from the families and from First Nations communities, and that’s the people whose view I care the most about. And [victims’] families have been a big part of things ever since. The book was a finalist for the 2020 RBC Taylor Prize, and two of the aunts of victims came with me [to the ceremony in Toronto] and helped me with my first-ever public speech.
On a larger scale, I have been thrilled at the reception. The people who I hear from “get it.” They read the book carefully and they write and say it has changed the way they think and will change the way they behave. That’s everything I ever wanted and I’m really appreciative that people will spend thirty dollars on a book and a bunch of hours reading it when it’s not a happy, easy read. It has kind of restored my faith in humanity.