Having grown up in Smithers, B.C., Jessica McDiarmid can recall staring at the dual “missing” poster for Ramona Wilson and Delphine Nikal.
“I remember that just being everywhere,” she said in a phone interview from Lillooet. “I can picture the bulletin board in the grocery store where it hung.”
Smithers sits along a 725-kilometre stretch of road between Prince George and Prince Rupert known as the Highway of Tears. It’s estimated that over 40 women and girls have either gone missing or been murdered around the highway since 1969, and many of those cases are still unsolved. Many of these women and girls were Indigenous.
Delphine Nikal went missing in June 1990 and was never found. Ramona Wilson went missing in June 1994, and her body was found by the Smithers airport 10 months later.
These deaths and disappearances were part of life along the highway, McDiarmid says. She remembers the posters, the fears of a serial killer, and the conversations on hitchhiking from when she was young.
“My best friend growing up was a First Nations girl, and I remember telling her, ‘Oh, no, no, you can’t [hitchhike] because the bad guy will get you,” she said.
“And then it actually was true, except that it wasn't one bad guy: it was all of society that made her far more of a target and far more likely to have all sorts of things happen to her than me, just by virtue of our race. And that's unconscionable to me, still.”
This week, Doubleday Canada released McDiarmid’s book Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Based on five years’ worth of reporting, research, and writing, it introduces readers to the Indigenous girls and women who disappeared along the highway and investigates why so few of these cases have been solved.
McDiarmid recalled that people suspected a serial killer was preying on Indigenous girls when she was younger, but she learned through her research that something far different and, in her view, much more disturbing was happening: because of society’s indifference to these deaths and disappearances, justice was rarely found and more Indigenous girls and women were allowed to disappear.
Much of the blame in the past for the lack of action on these death and disappearances has been directed at the RCMP, and McDiarmid’s book contains many of those criticisms. Problems such as the RCMP’s slow responses to missing-persons reports, a lack of resources dedicated to these cases, outright acts of racism and abuse, and an overall lack of trust between the RCMP and Indigenous communities showed up frequently in her research.
Since police work has so rarely led to justice and answers in these cases, McDiarmid says those responsible may have felt emboldened.
“A part of the reason that there's so many missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is a failure to investigate and prosecute these cases,” she said, “so perpetrators will probably have something of a sense of impunity. They know that the chances of getting away with it are good.”
However, she also argues that what police take action on reflects what society wants them to take action on—and public reaction towards the Highway of Tears was muted for a long time.
“The level of public engagement [on an issue] has an enormous impact on political will, and that includes police forces,” she said. “So things like the amount of resources devoted to a case is highly influenced by how much people are paying attention [and] how much the media is paying attention.”
Additionally, she found that many of the investigators who worked on these cases sincerely wanted to see them solved.
“They did really care. They were the ones on the ground really trying to solve it, and they didn't get what they needed. They didn't have the resources, they didn't have the expertise, they didn't have the time, and so that stays with them.”
McDiarmid also believes that the initial lack of media attention to the cases played an important role in this public indifference. She brings up the example of Nicole Hoar, a white woman who went missing along the highway in 2002. Not only did Hoar receive much more press coverage than the Indigenous girls and women who disappeared before her, but the coverage around her disappearance didn’t contain any of the victim-blaming language that was used to describe them.
“It really struck me when I was talking with her [Nicole’s] sister that the family really noticed that,” she said. “They struggled with it because they felt really guilty about it, that she got so much more coverage. And she had been doing what would be deemed a high-risk activity: she was hitchhiking.”
McDiarmid’s book also introduces readers to the families who lost loved ones and strived to draw attention to an issue that many turned their backs on.
“The families have always been the most important part of it,” she said. “My aim was always to honour their loved ones and to honour them and their work.”
She got the chance to meet many of these families while working on her book. Though she entered into their lives as a journalist, she developed close friendships with many of them.
In one memorable part, McDiarmid walks along the entirety of the highway with Brenda Wilson, the sister of Ramona Wilson, and Angeline Chalifoux, whose niece Aielah Saric-Auger was also found dead alongside the highway. Their journey was part of the 2016 Cleansing the Highway walk, which marked the 10th anniversary of both the first awareness-raising walk across the highway and the 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium that produced a set of recommendations to address the issue.
“It was such an incredible experience, and it was such an incredible honour for them to let me come,” she said. “You bond a lot when you walk for three weeks along the highway.”
Getting to know these families also taught McDiarmid more about colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and residential schools in a way that one could only learn about through witnessing their modern-day effects first-hand.
“I had read reports and I had heard the words, but emotionally, I didn't get it,” she said. “And I still don't, to the full extent—like, I'm going to be learning about this for the rest of my life. But I was surprised by just how so many forces over centuries have created this, and just how heinous they are.
“I saw these things playing out in the lives and stories that these people that I'd come to know and really care about, and then I just sort of [went], ‘Whoa, that's what intergenerational trauma is.’”
She added that those who don’t have direct experience with these forces can sometimes struggle to fully grasp them.
“Many [people] don’t really understand them in a human sense,” she said. “It's almost sort of distant. They don't emotionally react to them.”
Things have changed in recent years surrounding the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. After many years of calls for a national inquiry, the federal government finally announced one in 2016. Smithers was the second city the inquiry visited, and McDiarmid’s book briefly documents some of the testimonies that happened there.
Although McDiarmid is glad that more people are paying attention now, she believes that Canada has a lot left to do.
“We have to acknowledge what has happened,” she said. “We have to acknowledge the inequality and the injustice in our society. We have to acknowledge our part of it, and we have to work to change it. That's not easy, but I think we all really need to do that. And that's our duty as people living on the traditional lands of others.”