Stolen sisters on the highway of tears

Maybe it’s the Native in me but I love camping — camping in the real sense of the word. Drive out well beyond city limits, hike a trail or portage for a couple kilometres, shit in an elevated pit riddled with E.coli — real camping.

As soon as I leave the parking lot, the crowd of canopy and trunk swallow me whole. I’m submerged in an abyss of foliage, rock and creek. Time doesn’t exist in the wilderness — you move according to the elements. Am I prepared? Did I underestimate the wild? I always find out in a matter of hours.

Last summer, I went solo camping for the first time. I was scared but felt called to do it. I’m diligent when accompanied but going alone heightened my level of preparation. You can never fully prepare for the infinite plethora of circumstances that could spawn out of the forest — that’s what makes it fun for me. Taking the unexpected into account has less to do with packing and preparation than it does mental grit and resourcefulness.

Nature tells the truth. I get used to the fictitious sense of security the city offers. I start to believe there is nothing beyond the concrete walls we live in when in reality, our cities are just beehives plotted in the great expanse of Mother Nature. I become ingrained in routine and believe my problems are bigger than they actually are. Camping — where it’s just me, my pack and my judgement — reminds me how small I am. 

How I’m only here for a blip in time and shouldn’t take myself too seriously.

How I’m precious and lucky and insignificant all at once.

There’s a stretch of the Yellowhead highway in Canada that reminds Indigenous women they are not precious or lucky but they are insignificant. It runs from Prince George to Prince Rupert and spans a distance of 725km. 

It’s called the Highway of Tears.

Due to economic marginalization, no transportation was offered to get from one town to the next on the Highway of Tears. Vehicles were a luxury — the unemployment rate in the Indigenous community near double the provincial average. People often had to hitchhike to get groceries, go the doctor’s or meet with members of their families in neighbouring towns. A large portion of those affected by poverty had no other choice but to hitchhike.

The number of women and girls that have gone missing on the Highway of Tears is disputed. The RCMP claims less than 18; Aboriginal organizations say more than 40. What everyone can agree on is that near all victims were Indigenous.

Indigenous females are 3 times more likely to encounter violence than non-Indigenous females. The moment these women walk out their front doors, they are at risk. Regardless of appearance, socio-economic status or family relations, Indigenous women are targets. She comes crying into this world with an invisible bullseye painted on her back. Her mother wears one — and her grandmother too.

The consequences of systemic racism and residential schools ripple into generations of families long after the child has left the classroom. The Indigenous are more susceptible to alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty and mental health issues — the residual effect of coping with the cultural rape they endured. Indigenous women may fall victim to prostitution, placing them in vulnerable and dangerous situations with men who have zero regard for their well-being.

A twelve year old girl was paid $80 for sex by a man named David William Ramsey. Ramsey was a provincial court judge for Prince George; he was an authority, a man of power. He preyed on minors who were homeless and addicted to drugs — these girls were always Indigenous. He became violent with their fragile bodies during and after him getting what he wanted. Ramsey drove them out into the woods, bashed their heads against his dashboard, chased after them when they tried to run away, and drove off with their clothes — stranding them in the middle of nowhere and the night, naked, to figure out how to get home. Ramsey threatened if they told anyone about what he’d done, nobody would believe them.

And nobody did.

Witnesses had seen Ramsey drive off with underage girls and tried to pull him into the spotlight. They only amounted to rumours for the longest time because the girls were too scared to come forward. Even after Ramsey was charged, other members of authority didn’t believe the allegations — not until he pleaded guilty. As if these female minors had something to gain from taking down a provincial judge. 

This is only one example of the horrific injustice Indigenous women experienced by the powers of authority.

Even if the entire justice system wasn’t physically raping Indigenous women, they were consistent in their efforts at ensuring her and her family were abandoned and left to fend for themselves. “Just another native — just another prostitute,” was the collective attitude from the police department when women began to go missing. 

When women felt fear, they didn’t turn to the police — they weren’t trusted. Many (but far from all) Indigenous youth had run-ins with the law, developing a track record with the very same body that was supposed to serve and protect. Instead, they were incarcerated and dismissed, their prior histories putting a wedge between them and their rights for safety.

The media downplayed Indigenous crises when stories would get picked up. Girls were often referred to as “prostitutes”, not sexually-exploited teens. Many of the Indigenous victims were girls, not women — the majority being under the age of 17 — but the media referred to them as “young women”, as in the multiple Ramsey cases. Children are considered innocent victims — this garners increased public concern. Grossly mislabeling these youth as “women” gave the collective wave of approval for their cases to be dismissed, costing many of them their lives. 

In 1995, Melanie Carpenter was kidnapped in Surrey. The police were quick to act and declared the 23-year-old woman missing. Her story quickly gained national coverage and hundreds of volunteers offered their hours as they searched for Melanie — dead or alive. She was found dead and 4000 people attended her funeral with many making donations to cover the costs of the search.

In 1990, a 15-year-old girl named Delphine Nikal was heading home after hanging out with friends. She never returned. When the police were alerted, they considered her a runaway, that she had “just taken off for a little while and she’d be back.” Four months after she was declared missing, the first news article covered her story. It took four months for the media to garner attention from the masses. The police ruled out foul play and the search was all but confined to Delphine’s family and friends. She was never found. Her remains are out there somewhere.

Melanie was white. 

Delphine was Indigenous.

There is a victim hierarchy that determines which missing female is worthy of coverage, support and justice. In McDiarmid’s book “Highway of Tears,” Jessica quotes sociologist Kristin Gilchrist: 

“[Aboriginal women’s] stories are not dramatic or worthy enough to tell… [their] victimization too routine or ordinary and/or irrelevant to white readers.”

The families would have to make the police believe their child was missing. If the law considered the women “high-risk” — involved in prostitution, drug-use and hitchhiking — they all but had it coming. If anything, they deserved it. 

In the case of Indigenous women, it was appropriate to blame the victim. Her race was a poor lifestyle choice. 

Families resort to alcoholism to numb the ache. They become hollow versions of their former selves, the loss of their loved one taking irreplaceable pieces of the living with them. What is worse — finding your daughter face down in a ditch bottomless and bloody, flesh rotting from the cruelty of the elements? Or waking in the middle of the night wondering if she’s still out there somewhere waiting to be rescued, decades later?

This 725km length of asphalt etched into Northern British Columbia bears the secrets of dozens of women and girls who were considered disposable. They had dreams of becoming artists, fashion designers and psychologists. They played harmless pranks on their families and brought home stray animals to tend to. Thanks to institutionalized racism that’s corroded the heart of this country, their voices were silenced forever. For the women and girls still missing, their families may not know where they are — but the Highway of Tears does. They lie somewhere in its shoulders, becoming one with the Earth, long before they were meant to.

As you read this from the comforts of home, snuggled up in your bed as your screen illuminates your face, the bones of these Indigenous females are out there. In the mountains and in the dirt. Right now — in this moment — there are families that still don’t know where their precious loved ones are. The families that were “lucky” enough to find closure battle crippling guilt. Guilt for letting her go out with her friends that night. Guilt for not finding her body. Guilt for prioritizing their own survival after years of spending every moment trying to put the pieces together. As if they could have saved them from their predators. 

But the single predator was never the problem — it was and is the nation that told them and everyone else they were insignificant. It’s the nation that gave its people permission to do with us as it may. 

We are all the same. Humans made of bones and flesh. Of eyes and hair and nails. But we — the Indigenous, the redskins, the squaws — are a subclass. We are inferior. We don’t deserve the attention the majority gets when both encounter identical atrocity. Our families don’t know grief, they don’t know torment. When a loved one is claimed by the Earth, they don’t know what it feels like to carve out a chunk of themselves and lose that too. That’s why it’s okay to pick us off, one by one. To be kidnapped. To be raped. To be tortured. To be murdered. We exist for your target practice pleasures. And when you are finished with us, litter the ditches with our bodies like the garbage that we are.

Delphine Nikal, 15, missing

Ramona Wilson, 16, homicide

Traci Clifton, age unknown, missing

Helen Claire Frost, 17, missing

Roswitha Fuchsbichler, 13, homicide

Doreen Jack, 26, missing

Marnie Blanchard, 18, homicide

Helga Rochon, 45, homicide

Roxanne Thiara, 15, homicide

These are only a handful of names of the dozens of victims. This is not a fictional piece; these are real people with real families who were and are punished by the hand of colonialism. Because they are Indigenous.

There is a Cheyenne proverb that says this — 

“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done, no matter how brave its warriors or strong its weapons.”

First on the land — first to return. 

There’s no place like home.

My breath is heavy from the elevation in terrain. My shoulders ache from lugging my pack. A blister blossoms on the inside of my big toe. Beads of sweat frame my hairline.

I stop and look up at the sky. The still outline of the canopy gives the clouds away. My long sleeve T-shirt clings to me, my skin damp with sweat. The wind wraps its arms around me and I get a chill. 

I close my eyes and inhale. Mother nature inhales with me.

I am home. Home in the forest —  in the mountain —  in the river.

I am one with the wilderness. I am one with the missing and murdered. We are lost and in danger. But we return home to the Earth and it embraces us in our glory.

It accepts us as the savages we are. 

Why can’t you?

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