'Highway of Tears': Unsolved Murders of Indigenous Women in Canada

PHOTO: A sign for Highway 16 points to Edmonton and Jasper in the Alberta province of Canada.

Highway 16 in Canada has become known as the "Highway of Tears" because dozens of women have disappeared along its route. Many of them have been killed, most of them First Nation indigenous peoples. The police have shown little interest in solving the crimes.

The view from our van could be straight out of a tourism brochure. There are snow-covered peaks, forests painted in fall colors, and next to the road flows a mountain stream where fishermen are catching salmon.

As we travel deeper into this idyllic landscape, the mood of our driver, Gladys Radek, becomes darker. She plays the Patsy Cline song "If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child)," over and over again. It is a ballad about longing for a childhood like the one Gladys never had.

Gladys was born 56 years ago on the reserve for the Gitxsan indigenous people in British Columbia, but she never gets homesick as she drives along Highway 16, the "Highway of Tears."

"There are too many ghosts," she says.

The ghosts are the women who have been disappearing without a trace along the 700-kilometer-long (435-mile-long) stretch of highway. Official police statistics list 18 women in all, 17 of whom are First Nation, as much of the indigenous population in Canada is called. Amnesty International assumes, however, that there are considerably more. Not a single case has been solved.

Locked up By Day, Abused at Night

That doesn't surprise Radek. It speaks to her own personal experience. The life of a native woman like her doesn't count for much here in northern Canada, some 200 kilometers from the border with Alaska. To her, it's clear what must have happened: The women were picked up on the stretch between the reserves, the gold mines and the logging camps, raped, killed and dumped along the side of the road.

We arrive in Prince Rupert, where the Highway of Tears reaches the Gulf of Alaska. Unemployed indigenous people hang around in dingy coffee shops. Almost all of the fish-processing plants that once employed many in the town have shut down. There was too much competition from Japan.

Radek is uncomfortable. She doesn't like this place. When she was a small child, her foster father spent the summer fishing in the harbor. Radek spent her days locked below deck on the boat, until he came for her in the evening.

It was here, at the entrance to town on Highway 16, that her niece Tamara disappeared five years ago. She was 18 years old. A ghost.

Vicky Hill's Mother Disappeared in 1978

Vicki Hill, 35, has spent her entire life in Prince Rupert. She brings a folder with photos and newspaper clippings to our meeting in a greasy Chinese restaurant on Main Street. They are all that remains of her mother, who disappeared on the highway on March 26, 1978, when Hill was only six months old.

The photo in one of the articles shows a beautiful young First Nation woman in a neat summer dress. Three days after she disappeared from town, her body was found 30 kilometers away. She was lying naked in a bush a few hundred meters from the highway.

Her death certificate lists "pneumonia" as the cause of death. But the last line of the document contradicts this finding. It states it was a "homicide." Still, there was no investigation. The body was buried at the cemetery in Prince Rupert, where it was never marked by a gravestone.

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