A group of women drum following the showing of the Highway of Tears documentary.

A group of women drum following the showing of the Highway of Tears documentary.

Prince Rupert showing of Highway of Tears documentary raises concerns regarding lack of action

A documentary delving into the cases of missing and murdered women along the Highway of Tears was screened in Prince Rupert last week.

A documentary delving into the cases of missing and murdered women along the Highway of Tears was screened in Prince Rupert last week.

Hundreds of people attended the screening of “Highway of Tears” at the Cineplex Theatre on May 20 and afterward shared their stories and frustrations with the lack of closure in many of the cases spanning over five decades.

Matt Smiley, who directed and helped produce “Highway of Tears”, said the documentary’s creation spawned out of passion about four years ago.

“I found out about Nicole Hoar … and started to research her case. I had no intentions of doing a documentary, but when I was researching her case I saw the term “Highway of Tears”; I started looking and saw all of these other names popping up,” he said.

“I really wanted to find out why this was happening.”

Narrated by Canadian actor Nathan Fillion and produced by Carly Pope, a Vancouver producer and actress, “Highway of Tears” looks into the many cases of missing and murdered women along the 724 kilometre stretch of Highway 16.

The documentary also considers the effects of generational poverty, residential schools, systemic violence and high unemployment rates in First Nation reserves and how these factors have tied in with the women in the Highway of Tears cases.

Smiley has spent the last three months touring with the film and said he hopes viewers leave with a heightened consciousness.

“The more that we talk about it, the more that there’s awareness, then hopefully these cases won’t be forgotten and will be solved,” said Smiley.

There’s a long list of women who have gone missing or were murdered on Highway 16 and while some discoveries were made over the years, a significant number of the cases remain unsolved.

In 2005, the RCMP Project E-PANA investigation was launched amid growing concerns with the number of women and girls who vanished or were found dead along Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George and adjacent Highways 97 and 5, a majority of whom were Aboriginal.

The purpose of E-PANA was to determine if a serial killer, or killers, are responsible for the deaths and disappearances of 18 women and girls identified by investigators, all last seen within a couple kilometres of the three highways between 1969 and 2006.

None of the cases included had been solved until E-PANA, a special division of the RCMP, was able to link the DNA of American drifter Bobby Jack Fowler with the 1974 murder of Colleen MacMillen, last seen in Lac La Hache before hitchhiking to a friend’s when she was 16. RCMP also believe Fowler is linked to the 1973 murders of 19-year-old Gale West and Pamela Darlington, also 19.

While not included in the official Highway of Tears collection of cases, Smiley included the disappearance of Vanderhoof’s Madison Scott and murder of Loren Donn Leslie from Prince George in his documentary; Scott’s whereabouts remains a mystery, with Prince George serial killer Cody Alan Legebokoff being found guilty of killing Leslie, who was 15 at the time of her death, in 2014.

Following the Prince Rupert showing of “Highway of Tears”, Smiley, North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice and anti-violence activist Doug Leslie, the father of Loren Donn Leslie, answered questions and spoke about the film with viewers.

For some in the audience, the film was particularly hard to watch as they had family members or friends on the screen.

A family member of Cicilia Anne Nikal, last seen in Smithers near Highway 16 in 1989, and Delphine Nikal, who disappeared in 1990 while hitchhiking from Smithers to Telkwa, said hitchhiking was common among young women in the area who often had no other means of transportation.

The woman said she also grew up on the same block as Ramona Wilson, who went missing in 1994 while hitchhiking to a friend’s house in Smithers. The following year, her remains were found near the Smithers Airport.

“It just tears my heart out that (the investigation) just stopped and has never been solved,” said the family member.

“I want to know why.”

Darlene Wolfe also knew three of the women who lost their lives on the Highway of Tears, and acknowledged Nicole Hoar for increasing awareness on the disappearances and killings along Highway 16.

“The eyes of the non-natives were opened (to the) problem on our highway. We need to thank Nicole, and send condolences and comfort to her family,” Wolfe said, adding the same should be done to the families of all of the Highway of Tears victims.

“We pray all the time that the government will open their eyes and start doing something.”

Rice said the reason she has pushed for the implementation of a shuttle service for communities between Prince Rupert and Prince George, a recommendation made in the Missing Women’s Commission report, is because it’s an “affordable and doable” way to keep girls and women safe on the highway. Since being elected, Rice has spoken in the legislature on the subject 17 times and is frustrated with the lack of response from the provincial government.

Smiley said he was taken aback when “Highway of Tears” was screened for members of parliament and senators in Ottawa earlier this month and no one from the Conservative Party attended.

“I thought that was a little disconcerting,” he said.

Smiley launched a campaign on Change.org petitioning the federal government to implement a federal act to end violence against Aboriginal women in Canada

“In about a week, we have over 2,300 signatures so far. I can see people are really starting to engage, and that’s important,” Smiley said last Wednesday.

Two women included in the Highway of Tears cases were last seen in Prince Rupert: Tamara Chipman, 22, was last seen on Sept. 21, 2006 hitchhiking along Highway 16 outside of Prince Rupert, and Alberta Williams, 24, who disappeared in August, 1989. Her body was found outside of Prince Rupert several weeks later. Both are unsolved.

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