I’m really proud of the Cabinet choices Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has picked today. A huge congratulations to Carolyn Bennet on being named the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. In having the good fortune of meeting her a few months ago in Ottawa, I can safely say that her intentions are honest, clear and heartfelt. She’s a wickedly brilliant woman and will continue to do great things for Canada.
It has been a little over a year since we first premiered “Highway of Tears” at the TIFF Human Rights Watch Film Festival in Toronto. I was rather surprised by the response of the film as I didn’t really anticipate the impact it would have on people. I went into the whole filmmaking process with no expectations. It was probably the first time in my life where I dove into something I was passionate about without really thinking through exactly what my expectations were.
When I started my research about the missing and murdered women along Highway 16, I didn’t know their stories would consume my thoughts. I wanted to find out why these murdered and disappearances were happening in Canada and why I hadn’t heard about them before.
Touring with the documentary was an eye opening experience. I never could’ve possibly imagined the impact the screenings would have. I really enjoyed visiting various parts of the country. It was also really hard to hear the countless stories of hardship many Canadians hold inside. Every city and community has stories of loss and grief.
I made “Highway of Tears” out of passion. It was a learning process as an artist to step forward and fight for what I believed in. I went where the stories lead me and I didn’t let any obstacles stop me from achieving my goal.
We’ve now finally made it to the point of getting the film out to a wider audience. I’m extremely happy to have signed a distribution deal with a Canadian company from my hometown of Montreal, Filmoption International. I picked the company because I believe they understood the goals we had for the film. The company is run by two women and they have strong relationships with the educational and international markets, so I knew we would be well represented.
I’m going to head back on the road for a few screenings, but I’m most looking forward to our worldwide launch screenings in Vancouver at the VanCity Theatre on July 26, 2015. We have two screenings (7pm & 9pm) that will have Q&As afterwards. For those of you that don’t live in Vancouver, or can’t make it to our screenings, please take a moment to sign up for our VHX newsletter, as there will be some opportunities to participate in the event in order to make it a memorable night in history.
If you haven’t yet, please support our efforts on this project and buy a discounted pre-order digital copy of the film. By doing so you’re directly supporting our efforts on the film, our public outreach and hopefully the chance to continue telling stories that will touch people and move them to action.
In the coming weeks I will share some of the projects I’ve been developing and planning to shoot over the next year.
Since the late 1960s, at least eighteen young women — many of them from disadvantaged First Nations communities — have disappeared or been found murdered along the 724-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 in northern British Columbia. None of these cold cases were ever solved until 2012, when a special RCMP investigation was able to link DNA from one of the murder victims to deceased US criminal Bobby Jack Fowler; but this single answer has done little to heal the wounds of Aboriginal communities who have seen dozens of their young women vanish along the “Highway of Tears,” victims not only of murderous predators but of the systemic racism of a federal government that keeps them trapped on impoverished reservations and, as critics charge, evinced little interest in apprehending their killers. Narrated by Nathan Fillion, Matt Smiley’s award-winning documentary “Highway of Tears” not only movingly relates the personal stories of the victims, but investigates how the legacy of generational poverty, high unemployment and endemic violence in their communities contributed to their tragic fates — and how contemporary First Nations leaders are striving to cure those ills.
On Saturday November 17, 2012, CBS aired Peter Van Sant’s investigation of the ‘Highway of Tears’ on “48 Hours”. My interest in the show was one of mixed feelings. For one, I had never watched this particular program until I learned that the subject was to be the ‘Highway of Tears’, and, as I am finishing a documentary on the same subject, naturally I was very interested.
After watching a few archived episodes online, I was curious as to how “48 Hours” would tackle the topic. I worried that family members of the victims were going to be exploited for the sake of television ratings and the issue sensationalized.
Finally, I watched the “48 Hours” episode the next day after a lengthy telephone conversation with my producer, Carly Pope. It dawned on me that the episode had very little to do with the Highway of Tears, but rather focused a majority of airtime on Madison Scott and Loren Leslie. Both Madison’s disappearance and Loren’s tragic passing, were not considered part of the official 18 E-Pana investigations, a division of the RCMP task force created in 2005 to review and investigate a series of unsolved murders in proximity to Highways 16, 97 and 5 to determine if a serial killer, or killers, are responsible for murdering young women in the north. Moreover, the Aboriginal stories were left in the dark. Only a short segment was devoted to Ramona Wilson, which consisted of a short interview with her mother, Matilda Wilson at her daughter’s grave site.
We cannot ignore or deny that a strong majority of the unsolved missing and murdered women cases in Canada are predominantly Aboriginal. For women living in remote communities, it is commonplace for them to travel 2 to 3 hours, just to get into a city. Severe socioeconomic issues, generational poverty and systemic racism are prevalent. Many within these communities may not have the resources to afford a car, often too remote to secure a driver’s license and too unsupported to receive proper education on the dangers of hitchhiking.
The many underlying issues of the Highway of Tears were omitted and the focus was on the serial killer: Bobby Jack Fowler, the now-deceased Portland native linked to the 1974 murder of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen. Investigators will likely discover more Fowler victims in the coming months as they continue to track his case and see where he may have traveled during his time in British Columbia and Oregon. But he is not the only problem.
Last October, Greyhound Canada proposed a plan to reduce their services in the north, as the company was losing $14.1 million on its passenger services in B.C. In January, the cuts went through affecting an estimated 130,000 peoples in 11 municipalities, covering 46,000 square kilometers, especially in remote areas like Fort St. James. These budgetary cuts will most certainly guarantee an increase in hitchhiking and subsequently, more missing person investigations – as the many cases of missing persons continue to remain unsolved. If bus routes were most readily available and affordable, maybe missing persons cases, like that of Nicole Hoar in 2002 and others could have been averted.
It is mind numbing to think that Aboriginal women are essentially considered expendable. When a woman goes missing, the theory is “she’s just a runaway,” or a “high-risk” individual. Clearly, this is stereotyping and harsh. People seem to forget, a missing person is still someone’s daughter, mother, sister, or loved one. Regardless of gender, race and socioeconomic status, if we keep recklessly portraying our Native population as subordinate and marginalizing them in our communities, we will find ourselves continuing this horrific cycle of trying to locate bodies and seeking justice for the people responsible for their murders.
Yet, What “48 Hours” did do is bring the Highway of Tears saga to the attention of television viewers in the US and the rest of Canada. Even though I disagree with their content, hopefully their efforts help generate tips that lead to justice for the families of the victims. The MacMillen case gives us hope that RCMP investigators, social workers, community leaders and reporters who have all devoted countless hours to building awareness – have not given up.
What we hope to achieve with our documentary “Highway of Tears” is not only to go deeper into the complex socio cultural issues at hand, but also give a platform where women are the focus. The final version of the film will be a learning experience, not only about the tragic history of the highway, but also provide a contextual background of the First Nation communities and their relationship with the rest of the Canadian population and Government. Hopefully the end result is a more accurate and balanced take on the story.
We must never forget the 18 women on the Highway of Tears list, and realize that it is not just Highway 16 (or 97 and 5), it is not just the north, or even British Columbia for that matter; it is a Canadian issue. Over 500 Aboriginal women have been reported missing or murdered since the 1970s.
The more information shared among the communities, the greater the chances investigators have at finding clues that will them to solve these disappearances and murders. No tip is too small. Someone somewhere knows something. Don’t be afraid to share it.
Every so often a memory of my late good friend and mentor Tony Roman pops into my head. I met Tony as a kid in Montreal, then lost track of him for several years when he moved to Los Angeles. Our paths crossed again when I was 17 and getting into my artistic groove of acting and writing. Tony had a long resume of successes in the Quebec French music scene. He produced Les Baronets, a famous band in the mid-60s with a then singer, René Angélil (Céline Dion’s Husband) and won the hearts of many women with his hit songs as a singer himself. He was a musical icon in Quebec, then moved on to make films, like “Ladies Room” with John Malkovich and “Camping Sauvage” a Quebec box-office hit in 2004.
As 2012 comes to a close in the next few of days, I have a million reasons to be thankful for the support Tony gave me in the early steps of my career. He was a big dreamer and taught me never to give up. The world was an endless supply of possibilities. Whenever an obstacle came his way, he’d do just about anything to tackle it.
Tony and I worked on three scripts together. One day I’ll gather enough courage to dig them out of my computer archives and make something out of them. Tony provided the artistic insanity to our collaborations. I worked structure and did my best to blend in a youthful point of view… no idea was ever discarded. Tony viewed scriptwriting the same way a musician would look at a recording session. There was always a sense of experimentation with scenes, dialogues and far-fetched stories.
I learned that great art takes dedication and hard work. Talent will make you fly high above the clouds and bring it all together in one cohesive manner, but without those countless hours locked away in an office writing, painting, playing music, or doing whatever creative endeavor you choose to do… you won’t get there… it takes patience to succeed.
Tony passed away of cancer in June of 2007 at the age of 64. I’ve since met many artists who have filled the void of a creative mentor, but his belief in my potential early on will never be forgotten.
I’m excited to get started on helping one of my favorite charities organize a big Hollywood bash in April (hopefully) to raise some funds to battle the demons that have managed to break countless hearts around the globe as our family members, friends, loved ones, mentors, acquaintances, neighbors and idols leave our earth prematurely. Hopefully one day we’ll find a cure.
In late April, I made a commitment to myself and a few close friends that I would produce a documentary about the missing and murdered women in northern British Columbia. We started shooting in May and the stories of loss and sorrow began to pour in. I felt like a sponge on certain days. A sponge soaking up all the hardship the families and communities have had to endure following the loss and disappearance of their loved ones. Oftentimes, I found myself wondering how it could be possible to inflict such heinous acts of violence upon another human being?
Now, we find ourselves in another moment in history where communities worldwide are coming together to morn the loss of the victims in Aurora, Colorado, where a gunman opened fire on a innocent group of moviegoers, eager to see “The Dark Knight Rises”. The scary thought is that any one of us could have been in that movie theater.
In my quest to uncover a mystery behind the missing and murdered women in northern Canada, I discovered that there is not one single person to blame. We are all sometimes guilty of not paying enough attention to the early signs of violence within our communities, no matter where we find ourselves in the world.
My heart goes out to the people affected by the shooting last night. It saddens me to think that someone could inflict such pain on people. I feel a great respect and honor was displayed to the victims when the filmmakers of “The Dark Knight Rises” canceled their Paris premiere following the news reports of the shooting. It shows the world that we cannot turn a blind eye from tragedies, no matter what part of the world we live in. We are all interconnected.