How Indigenous women are disappearing in Canada.

A red dress signifies Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
A red dress signifies Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

In this six-part series, Al Jazeera tells the stories of some of the Indigenous women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered along an infamous stretch of highway in British Columbia, Canada.

Warning: This article contains content that some readers may find distressing.

British Columbia, Canada - In 1971, the women’s liberation movement, the campaign for LGBTQ rights and the rise of the American Indian Movement dominated news headlines across North America. It was an era of long hair, bell bottoms and disco music blaring from the speakers of young people growing up on the heels of the 1960s hippy movement.

But life was slow amid the rugged mountains, clear flowing rivers and mile upon mile of wilderness in northern British Columbia - even in the Indigenous communities and occasional towns dotted along the only paved roadway in the area, Highway 16.

The long, winding stretch of highway spans 725km (450 miles) from the port of Prince Rupert on the northwest Pacific Coast to the interior city of Prince George. It runs largely parallel to the Canadian National Railway on which the route was modeled.

[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

It is part of the Trans-Canada Highway, a transcontinental federal-provincial highway system that passes through all 10 provinces of Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. The portion of the highway in northern British Columbia was completed in 1969 and, soon after, Indigenous women and girls started to die or disappear along it.


For 50 years

The railyard along Highway 16 in Prince George, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
The railyard along Highway 16 in Prince George, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

In 1971, Jean Virginia Sampare, or Ginny as her family called her, was a typical 18-year-old; the second-eldest of six siblings. The shy but strong-willed teenager lived in Gitsegukla, a Gitxsan reserve of about 500 people that sits at the confluence of the Kitseguecla and Skeena rivers - and parallel to Highway 16.

On the evening of October 14, 1971, Jean was hanging out with her cousin Alvin near a bridge on Highway 16, just outside Gitsegukla. It was a cool autumn evening, so Alvin rode his bicycle back to his home a few minutes away in the reserve to get his jacket. He told Jean he wouldn’t be long. But when he returned, Jean was gone.

She hasn't been seen for over 50 years.

Her sister Winnie Sampare told the Vancouver Sun in a 2009 interview, “It was just so strange how she disappeared. Everyone looked and they didn’t find anything.”

Jean is one of dozens of women and girls, mostly Indigenous, who have vanished or been found murdered on or near Highway 16, earning it the moniker the Highway of Tears.

[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

Her missing person’s case has never been solved and she is not listed among the missing or murdered women on the Highway of Tear’s Project E-Pana, which is the investigative unit of the RCMP in charge of solving the cases of 18 girls and women who disappeared or were found murdered along the Highway of Tears since the late 1950s.

[Alia Chughtai/Al Jazeera]

She meets most of the criteria required for an unsolved case to be put on the official E-Pana list: she is female and was last seen within a mile of the highway. But foul play must also be confirmed, which police have been unable to do in Jean’s case.

'I worry she was tortured'

Sheridan Martin in Smithers, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Sheridan Martin in Smithers, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Jean’s story and the many others like it were what inspired Cindy Martin, a Gitxsan woman, to become a passionate advocate for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). For years she participated in annual marches to raise awareness about the issue in Vancouver, where she worked in an Indigenous mentoring programme and as a student advocate with Indigenous youth in the school system.

She dreamed of one day opening a counselling centre to help Indigenous families heal from the many consequences of colonialism, including the violence inflicted upon Indigenous women and girls along the Highway of Tears.

Then she too went missing.

It was December 2018 - two days before Christmas - when 50-year-old Cindy left her mother’s house in New Hazelton, where she had been living since recently breaking up with her boyfriend.

She had been helping her mother, 83-year-old Mae Martin, and older sister Faye prepare for the holidays.

“Cindy loved Christmas,” recalls another of her sisters, 58-year-old social worker Sheridan Martin, who has driven an hour and a half from her home in Terrace to a restaurant in Smithers to talk about Cindy.

“She’d make handmade wooden gifts, suncatchers and cards,” she says over a cup of coffee.

Cindy was the baby of the family, Sheridan explains as tears form in her eyes. “So many hearts were broken,” she adds. Then she looks down, lifts her hand to her heart and her tears begin to fall.

The Bulkley River near Quick, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

The district of New Hazelton is located on the Highway of Tears, at the junction of the Skeena River and the Bulkley River, between the towns of Smithers and Terrace. Fewer than 800 people live there, but it sits in a stunning valley between the 3,000-foot ‘walls’ of the Rocher de Boule Mountain Range. It gets its name from the hazel bushes found along the river-carved terraces.

The area has been home to the Gitxsan for thousands of years.

Although Cindy was born in the city of New Westminster, a suburb of Vancouver, her connections to her Gitxsan roots and to her extended family in Hazelton were strong.

“She loved working with youth and helping people. She was always looking at the positive side of life, I never heard her talk negatively,” says Sheridan.

She remembers the last conversation she had with Cindy on the day she disappeared. Sheridan was in Vancouver so they talked over the phone, “She was upbeat, cheerful. She said, ‘I wanna tell you a surprise. I’m going to come stay with Carmen [another of their sisters who lives in Vancouver]’.” At that point, Cindy had been away for seven years.

“I told her I couldn’t wait to see her,” says Sheridan, her hand reaching up to cup her mouth in disbelief. She pauses and takes a deep breath. She feels a pain that pierces deeper with every day her sister is gone, she says.

Sheridan Martin's sister, Cindy, went missing in 2018 [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

On that day, December 23, 2018, Cindy had been shopping and visited family before going home to watch a Christmas movie with her mother.

At around 9 pm Cindy’s mom received a text message from Cindy’s former boyfriend, asking Cindy to get in touch. His uncle had died and he was looking for emotional support.

It was only a few minutes’ drive to the house Cindy had until recently shared with him. But her car - and her mobile phone - were still there, so she asked to borrow her mother’s car. Cindy promised she would call from the landline as soon as she arrived.

Shaking, Sheridan recounts how Cindy had hugged her mother and told her “I’ll be ok,” before she left.

By 10 am the next morning, Cindy still hadn’t called. Her mother tried her mobile phone and her ex-boyfriend’s landline but there was no answer on either of them.

Cindy was not just another statistic, she was a human being, a breathing, alive human being.

Sheridan says her mother felt something was off.

“She was always 100 percent reliable. This was not like her. Mom was frantic,” she recalls.

They sent Cindy’s older brother Roger Martin to look for her at her ex-boyfriend’s house.  But the car she had left her mother’s house in wasn’t there and no one answered the door.

At 9 pm that evening her ex-boyfriend called Cindy’s mom back and said he hadn’t seen her.

“Mom was screaming and hung up the phone,” Sheridan says.

Cindy’s ex-boyfriend called back and offered to go and look for her. At around 9.30 pm he found the car near the Hagwilget suspension bridge - a single-lane bridge high above the deep gorge of the Hagwilget Canyon on the Bulkley River.

Cindy’s mother called the RCMP. When they searched the car, they found the car keys and Cindy’s handbag, overnight bag and laptop. But there was no sign of Cindy.

The Hagwilget Bridge where Cindy Martin's car was found, with the keys locked inside, in Hazelton, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Helicopter, drone and canine searches of the area turned up nothing. The family was devastated. Her missing person’s case is still unresolved. Cindy’s family is offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to her being found.

“I haven’t begun my healing…” says Sheridan, her brows furrowed in anguish.

For a time she believed Cindy was still alive, she explains, gripping her no-longer warm mug and swallowing the last few sips of coffee. Maybe she was a victim of kidnapping and sex trafficking and was still out there fighting for her life, she thought. But as more time passed, those hopes began to fade.

“I worry she was tortured,” she says, crying. “I don’t believe she’s alive anymore … I have dreams of her in the spirit world. She’s laughing … beautiful.” Sheridan smiles, a flicker of hope that briefly co-exists with her tears.

She has lost faith in Canada’s national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG); its final report with Calls to Justice, released in June 2019, has to date produced no action.

“The inquiry is a joke; it was just lip service. Nobody is going to come help us,” she says, gripping tightly onto the side of the wooden table she is sitting at.

“You know, Cindy was not just another statistic, she was a human being, a breathing, alive human being.”

'No one marches when Indians die'

Red dresses hang at the Unist'ot'en Healing Camp in British Columbia. The camp is an intentional re-occupation of traditional Wet'suwet'en territory and also offers access to the land for community members to heal from trauma [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Red dresses hang at the Unist'ot'en Healing Camp in British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Indigenous women and girls have been endangered in this area since long before the arrival of Highway 16.

In her 2016 book Niwhts’ide’ni Hibi’it’en (The Ways of Our Ancestors), Melanie H. Morin documents Wet’suwet’en history and culture and shows how miners seeking to exploit Indigenous territories for gold and minerals often posed a danger to Indigenous women and girls. Rape was common.

“In 1897, drunken miners shooting their guns, blowing tinhorns and ringing the church bell broke down the doors of Gitxsan homes looking for women, though reserves were off-limits to Euro-Canadians,” she writes.

The federal Indian Agent - a representative of the Canadian government on First Nations reserves who enforced the racist Indian Act law from the 1830s to the 1960s - had no control over the situation and was told by Gitxsan leaders that “protection of the law [seemed] to exist only for the Whites and not for them, and if their conduct were such, they would be bundled off to Victoria in irons.”

In the spring of 1899, the women of Hagwilget, a Gitxsan community near Gitsegulka, were given alcohol and raped by miners, “who took their clothes, photographed them and carried their underwear around on sticks”.

The invasion of that community lasted for weeks, leading the Indian Agent and local priest to advise Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en men to accompany their wives and daughters everywhere.

Coastal GasLink Pipeline's Huckleberry work camp near Houston, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

While miners may have posed a danger to Indigenous women back then, concern today is over the oil and gas industry workers in northern British Columbia.

The British Columbia government estimates its Liquified Natural Gas sector may require up to 100,00 workers in construction and operations within the next decade.

The influx of workers brings another threat to Indigenous women and girls: the work or man camps that house the mostly male workers who build the pipeline projects. A 2017 report by the Indigenous research agency the Firelight Group and the Lake Babine Nation and Nak’azdli Whut’en First Nations found a correlation between the presence of man camps and increased rates of sexual assault and violence against Indigenous women.

TC Energy, the company behind the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline, a $6.6bn liquified natural gas pipeline that will run for 670km (416 miles) across northern British Columbia, says it recognises “and takes seriously the concerns about gender and sexualised violence against Indigenous women - a broad social issue that transcends industry”. It added that the CGL employs Indigenous advisors who live and work at the work camps to promote an inclusive workplace. "At Coastal GasLink, we have zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind. That extends to behavior in local communities," the emailed statement read.

The attacks on Native women in their home territories are relentless, says 60-year-old Ojibwe lawyer and activist Joan Jack from her home in Atlin, in northern British Columbia.

“The low-hanging fruit is how we are being raped by man camp workers,” she says over Zoom. “We have been exploited by industry since contact.”

​​Joan’s salt-and-pepper hair is tied in a half-ponytail and her glasses slip halfway down her nose as she speaks from the cluttered home office where she works day and night advocating for Indigenous rights and often volunteers her time pro-bono. She is wearing a red blouse - a colour often used to symbolise the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

This has been happening since Pocahontas.

She is scathingly frank and outspoken about the issue of Indigenous inequality and the violence faced by generations of women.

In 2019 she rode her Harley Davidson 17,000 km (11,000 miles) across Canada and the US with 100 other motorcyclists as part of the Ride for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, which Joan had organised with her friend Charmaine Willier-Larsen.

“This has been happening since Pocahontas with our women being kidnapped. The industrialisation of our lands; the entitlement of white society; and the western paradigm to exploitation links to white men thinking they’re entitled to us as well,” she explains.

Before colonisation, many Indigenous nations, including those in northern British Columbia, were matriarchal societies. Women were appointed as heads of households, they were decision-makers. The family name was passed down through the maternal line. Women were highly respected as knowledge keepers, land caretakers and life-givers. But the domination of patriarchy infiltrated Indigenous societies when colonisers imposed assimilation, Joan explains. Along with the degradation and disrespect that followed came violence towards and suppression of Indigenous female leaders.

As a lawyer, Joan has witnessed up close the lack of justice Indigenous people receive. She says justice is given only to the rich, the powerful and the white. She believes things will change only when the non-Indigenous partner with Indigenous people to demand justice.

“Our political system operates on money and votes,” she explains. “So, we need to invite white women and men to ally with us. When the political system starts seeing we’re organised to vote, you watch how fast we will get the money. No one marches when Indians die, so let’s change that at the grassroots level.”

'Like the Wild West'

A driver checks his truck before proceeding up past the Wet'suwet'en re-occupation camps on a forestry service road near Houston, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
A driver checks his truck near Houston, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Violence against Indigenous women and girls is not unique to Canada - it is happening right across the Americas. Annita Lucchesi is the executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute in California, US, the only Indigenous-run organisation that tracks, researches and documents cases of MMIWG across North and South America.

“Man camps coming to rural areas unleashes a culture of lawlessness much like the Wild West,” she explains during a phone interview.

Annita is a member of the Cheyenne Nation and a survivor of human trafficking and domestic and sexual violence.

The National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center revealed in a 2018 research update that Native American and Alaska Native women face murder rates more than 10 times the national average in some US counties, and more than half have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. It also quoted data from other reports showing that the vast majority (96 percent) of these victims of sexual violence were victimised by non-Native perpetrators.

As of 2017, 5,646 Native women were reported missing in the United States.

Coastal GasLink Pipeline's pipe yard in Houston, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

As Carolyn Smith-Morris wrote in a March 2020 article for Cultural Survival, an international Indigenous rights organisation: “These crimes are particularly likely in remote settings where transient workers - oil workers, for example - live in temporary housing units called ‘man camps’ on and near Tribal lands. Their crimes fall between jurisdictional cracks, leaving victims and their families without recourse.”

She went on to quote US-based journalist Nick Martin, who has reported on the topic: “[These are] Patterns of violent men and extractive industries breezing through land they do not own to take lives that do not belong to them.”

“The workers make a large amount of cash and have nowhere to spend it, they’re away from their families. This leads to violence, trafficking, sex work,” Annita explains.

The team at Sovereign Bodies is working to build an extensive database tracking cases of Indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing near extractive industries.

Two headlights coming

Highway 16 near Hazelton, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
Highway 16 near Hazelton, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Michelle Blackburn, 42, of the Tahltan First Nation, recalls how she was almost among the missing or murdered. She was 15 years old when she was “hunted down” by two men she didn’t know in a car in northwestern British Columbia.

It was 1993 and she lived in Smithers with her family. One early spring evening she was riding around town with friends when she got into a fight with her boyfriend. It was typical teenage shenanigans, she explains. She wanted to be alone to “clear her head” so she asked her friends to drop her off at the local elementary school, where she wanted to sit in the playground as she had many times before. It was after dark. She swung on the swings for a little while but when it started to snow, she decided to head home. It was only six blocks away, a 10-minute walk, but it meant crossing Highway 16, which runs through the middle of the town. Still, the street lamps that lined the residential areas provided enough light for her to see the way and it was a route she had taken many times before.

But what happened on her way home will haunt her for the rest of her life, she says.

Highway 16 leading into Smithers, British Columbia [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

She recalls how, as she was walking through an alleyway behind the only 7/11 in town, “something inside me said ‘turn around’.” She noticed a blue truck pull up behind her then slowly pass her by.

“Then it did this fast u-turn towards me,” Michelle recalls via a phone interview from her home in Kamloops, British Columbia. It startled her.

To this day, she remembers the feeling of terror that pulsated down her spine. A survival instinct kicked in, she says.

“So, I ran and hid on a porch [of a house]. The car circled. Then I got out and ran. I turned to the left and saw two headlights coming. So, I literally dove into a puddle. It was deep. I don’t know what held me down in there, but I think it was the Creator, and then I got up and ran with everything inside of me.”

Michelle stops to take a few deep breaths. The heaviness of the memory is palpable.

When she got home, her mother yelled at her for being out late. But she was just relieved to make it alive, she says.

Her boyfriend, who was waiting at her house for her, asked what had happened. She told him and the two got in his truck to go look for the vehicle that had followed her.

“He heard the urgency in my voice, he believed me,” she says.

They found the vehicle and pursued it for maybe 15 minutes or so before it took off on Highway 16. A little while later, they found it abandoned at a truck stop on the highway, its doors open and music still playing on its radio.

She says she didn’t report it to the police because she was young and “already going through a lot”.

'They were hunting'

A portrait of Ramona Wilson beaded into the earrings of her sister, Brenda Wilson [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]
A portrait of Ramona Wilson beaded into the earrings of her sister, Brenda Wilson [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

But then, just a few months later, her 16-year-old friend, Ramona Wilson, a Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan girl, went missing from Smithers. Her body was found 10 months later in a wooded area near Smithers Airport. Twenty-seven years on, her murder still hasn’t been solved.

“My heart broke when I found out. I was shocked and stunned, it’s something you just can’t fathom,” Michelle says, reminiscing about how she used to share fries with Ramona at the Tasty Free’s fast-food restaurant in Smithers and how the two of them would sneak off to smoke behind the school during their lunch break.

Michelle has carried a heavy load of regret ever since - if she had reported her experience to the police, perhaps, she reflects, Ramona would still be alive. But she also suspects the police wouldn't have done anything if she had. "I just knew my life wouldn't matter," she says.

“We were close, she’s missed. I blocked it out. I mourn her. I cry because I didn’t say anything, but I have so much guilt. They were hunting and I almost got taken.”

She wants to stress that almost 30 years later, Indigenous women and girls still aren’t safe along the highway and in the communities that line it.

“Even for our baby girls that just go to the store around the corner. This isn’t a joke; we always must be aware of our surroundings. And teach our girls self defence and heal the next generation.”

Michelle is fiercely protective of her 10-year-old daughter and doesn’t let her out of sight. “She’s constantly under mommy’s watchful eye. It’s unfortunate because she should be able to live like any other child. But there’s an epidemic against our women,” she says.

Sovereignty as Indigenous Peoples is tied to sovereignty over our bodies.

Annette of the Sovereign Bodies Institute believes Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination are key to addressing the MMIWG crisis.

“Sovereignty as Indigenous Peoples is tied to sovereignty over our bodies - our individual physical bodies, our bodies of land and water, even our celestial bodies and ways we connect to our ancestors and sacred places,” she explains.

“There is no safe, just future for Indigenous women and MMIWG families that do not have Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty - to be ourselves, to heal, to protect and nurture each other, to practice our own justice and peacekeeping systems.”

Source: Al Jazeera