Neil Godbout: Highway of Tears documentary a call to action

Highway of Tears, the Matt Smiley-directed documentary about the missing and murdered women along Highway 16 and across central and northern B.C., is a beautiful and tragic film, showcasing strength and perseverance, as well as grief and loss.

Highway of Tears is firmly on the side of the victims and their families but never sermonizes. It is hard on the RCMP, politicians, governments and the news media but is never overly unfair. It portrays the victims as human beings, real people who are still loved and missed.

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It could have easily turned into a propaganda film, since Carrier Sekani Family Services providing funding for Smiley’s project and Mary Teegee, Carrier Sekani’s director of child and family services, is listed as an executive producer of the film, and her views are featured through the 75-minute documentary. Instead, Smiley bravely poses difficult questions and spreads responsibility around.

One of those questions Highway of Tears asks, respectfully but pointedly, regards the responsibility of aboriginal men in creating and sustaining a culture of violence toward women within their own communities. The film shows both aboriginal and non-aboriginal male participation in the Moose Hide Campaign, but makes it clear these are only promising, early first steps. All men must do more.

Responsibility is the central theme. The problem of missing and murdered women is a simple problem to identify, but addressing it is complicated. It requires trust and collaboration between groups and organizations with damaged relationships and their own internal strife.

Highway of Tears encourages the establishment of a national inquiry into missing and murdered women but also stresses that local people working together and assuming responsibility can go a long way toward keeping vulnerable women safe. Senior government has a role to play, but the creation and implementation of solutions should be driven from the community level.

The film speaks directly to the racial issues but does not get bogged down by them. While missing and murdered women in the region are disproportionately aboriginal and racism is an underlying factor, the film does not trivialize or sensationalize the issue of race, while insisting that the deaths of white women such as Nicole Hoar are no more but no less a tragedy.

Smiley’s documentary avoids easy answers, but it does point to two areas that must be addressed for these needless deaths to stop.

The first is education. Girls and young women must know of the dangers of risky behaviour such as hitchhiking, but they must also learn of the community resources available when they have been victims of violence. Boys and men must learn that violence toward girls and women is unacceptable and there are community resources to help them as well.

Education also plays into poverty. Better educational opportunities for impoverished and isolated aboriginal communities would give residents the tools they need to raise their standard of living, become self-sufficient and improve their lives and the lives of their families. Financial poverty breeds social and emotional poverty. The lack of employment prospects leaves empty wallets and empty bellies, with hopelessness, fear and anger free to grow.

The options that schools, jobs and personal income give to vulnerable populations is essential to change on the Highway of Tears.

Smiley made his film to continue a conversation and it’s clear he’d like to see that conversation also occur through a national inquiry. But Highway of Tears is also a call to action. Smiley has done a great service by devoting years of his life to produce a haunting film on behalf of a group of women no longer able to speak for themselves.

Now what are we prepared to do?


Neil Godbout is managing editor of the Prince George Citizen.

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