Sean Carleton is a member of the CD collective and writes The Popular Front column on pop culture.
Highway of Tears is an excellent new documentary by filmmaker Matt Smiley that sheds light on the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada with a special focus on the “highway of tears” in British Columbia. Enriched by a series of interviews with family members of missing and murdered women, Highway of Tears is a timely film that shows how state culpability as well as interconnected inequalities caused by colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy continue to shape the lives of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women in particular. Highway of Tears is important because it offers an insightful analysis of the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and calls on viewers to take action to bring about long-overdue social change and justice.
Since 1969, over 40 girls and women, the majority Indigenous, have been murdered or gone missing along a 724-kilometre stretch of highway in northern British Columbia now known as the “highway of tears.” The causes of this problem are complicated, of course, but the film shows how they are fundamentally connected to colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. Highway of Tears explains that the state’s dispossession of Indigenous lands to make way for settlement and capitalist development disrupted Indigenous lifeways and created poor living conditions in many communities. On some northern reserves in BC today, unemployment is as high as 90%. Poverty and the lack of adequate transportation means that many Indigenous peoples have to leave their communities, often resorting to hitchhiking, to find work and to access basic social services in neighbouring communities. Once on the road, negative stereotypes of Indigenous women as easy and promiscuous – which Indigenous scholar Kim Anderson argues abound in settler culture – expose female Indigenous hitchhikers to white heteropatriarchal violence at an alarming rate. Highway of Tears offers a helpful intersectional analysis that connects the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women to issues of systemic poverty, racism, and gender discrimination in a capitalist settler society.
Highway of Tears also shows the various ways in which the state contributes to and is complicit in the cases of murdered and mission Indigenous women. The RCMP, in particular, is singled out. There is a deep distrust of the police among many Indigenous peoples for a host of reasons. Historically, the RCMP, which was originally formed to put down Indigenous resistance in the Prairies, acted as truant officers for residential schools, and officers cracked down on parental and student resistance to the genocidal institutions. More recently, a 2013 report accused some RCMP officers of violently threatening and even raping Indigenous women in BC communities. There have also been complaints that the police are aware of the issues along the highway of tears but are simply not motivated to marshal the necessary resources to properly combat the murder and disappearance of Indigenous girls and women. Indigenous women’s lives are often not valued in the eyes of the law. The film also chronicles government inaction at all levels and focuses on the continued denial of a national inquiry by the Harper government while they prioritize other issues such as trade deals and national celebrations. The film thus identifies a disturbing pattern of state culpability.
Overall, Highway of Tears is an excellent film and a much needed call to action. As an activist documentary the film proposes a number of useful solutions, including police reform, greater transportation services, and better media representation of Indigenous women. Highway of Tears also calls on Canadians to demand a national inquiry and argues that Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples need to forge social movement alliances to effectively combat the root causes of the issue: poverty, racism, and gender discrimination. But time is of the essence. Justice delayed is justice denied.
Sean Carleton (@SeanCarleton) is a member of the CD collective living in Peterborough, Ontario, Anishinaabe Territory.
This article appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Harper Demolition).