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Highway of Tears: Forgotten Women

Ramona Wilson Annual Walk Conference
2012 Ramona Wilson Annual Walk Conference

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.

 E-Pana tip line: 1-877-543-4822


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LOUIS VUITTON JOURNEYS AWARD

As I continue the editing journey on my documentary “She Has a Name: Highway of Tears”, I find myself watching many short films and documentaries by other filmmakers around the world. I love watching what other artists are creating and discover new cultures through art, whether it be painting, music or film. What I love about silent films, is that the written word is not needed. We all see images that the filmmakers have chosen for us and for the most part, those images affect us, whether it be in a positive light, or a negative one.

Matt Smiley with Louis Wilson (Ramona Wilson's brother)
Matt Smiley with Louis Wilson (Ramona Wilson’s brother) on Highway 16 in Smithers for the Annual Ramona Wilson walk.

This film, “Closer to me” by Singapore filmmaker, Pang Yoong Hui was beautiful to watch. It felt like a dream and we all know that sometimes dreams cannot be explained. As I spent a greater part of my day watching footage of families speaking about their loved ones going missing or being murdered, I felt this short film captured the essence of their emotions.

We’ve all lost someone in our lives that we’ve been close to. It’s part of life. From what I can remember, in those first moments of discovery, time seems to almost come to a halt. It is an unexplainable feeling, a form a adrenalin that kicks in before a wave of emotion hits us.

For this reason, I thought it would be nice to share Pang Yoong Hui’s film “Closer to me” with you. I find it wonderful that LVMH and Louis Vuitton go to great lengths to support artists in all fields. They are one of the biggest patrons in the world of arts. I’m looking forward to seeing which talented filmmakers win the Journeys Award in 38 days.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend.

Matt

CLOSER TO ME
Directed by: Pang Yoong Hui (Singapore) “Louis Vuitton: Journeys Award”