1933 Calling a spade a spade

Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
by Jessica McDiarmid

Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada [Doubleday Canada], 2020
$21.00 /  9780385687577

Reviewed by David Milward


Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) remains a grave crisis in Canada. The Native Women’s Association of Canada now maintains its own database of cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. A Fact Sheet that summarizes findings from that database indicate that Indigenous women represented 10 percent of all missing women cases from 2000 to 2008 despite being only 3 percent of the overall female population in Canada, and that Indigenous women are three times more likely to be murdered by a stranger than non-Indigenous women.[1]

A book by journalist Jessica McDiarmid, Highway of Tears, is one of several explorations into a critical subject matter. What I will say at the outset is that the book offers a remarkable strength that makes it stand out from other works in the field, but also has what amounts to, in my view, a significant shortcoming.

I will start with its greatest positive. Many studies and reports on the subject, even those that are trying to do right by Indigenous women and girls who cruelly lost their lives, often as a matter of necessity treat their subjects with a certain reductionism. What we know of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls becomes encapsulated in statistics and summaries of police case files. I grant that the studies and reports only have so much time and space to accomplish their objectives. But it is important for all of us not to lose sight that the Indigenous female victims were human beings who had life stories that should have continued but were cut tragically short.

Author and journalist Jessica McDiarmid. Her book Highway of Tears was a national bestseller and a finalist for both the RBC Taylor Prize and the Hubert Evans Prize.

And that is where the greatest strength of McDiarmid’s book lies: in its humanizing of those victims and their families. She describes with painstaking detail the life stories of numerous victims prior to their confirmed deaths or disappearances. We hear of their early childhoods, their home lives during their earliest years, their childhood hopes and dreams, their relationships with friends and relatives, what they were good at, and sometimes how they stumbled and fell into hard times but were trying to pick themselves back up. And the narratives continue by detailing the devastating effects that their confirmed deaths and disappearances have on their families and loved ones. McDiarmid offers a key piece of the narrative that is overdue and needs to be heard. The statistics and case summaries and academic studies are necessary and ongoing, but the true extent of the tragedy and crisis cannot be fully appreciated and understood without the detailed and humanizing narratives that McDiarmid provides.

As for the perceived shortcoming, I estimate that she is more lenient with respect to police handling of MMIWG cases than she needs to be. A great deal of the content describes the investigating officers as striving to solve the cases, but continually hampered by being under-resourced, and lacking the time and supports to investigate the cases properly. I have no doubt that the scenario rings true in many instances, and that there likely were officers who were doing their best in less than ideal circumstances.

The Vancouver Sun, October 13, 2007

But the overall treatment seems to downplay the very real role that police racism has played in the crisis. I readily acknowledge that not all police officers are prejudiced towards Indigenous peoples. In fact, there are often dedicated and exemplary police officers who break MMIWG cases wide open. For example, one of the earliest known cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women was that of Helen Betty Osborne, a young Cree Woman who was studying in The Pas, Manitoba, with the hopes of becoming a teacher. On November 13, 1971, four young Caucasian men named Dwayne Archie Johnston, James Robert Paul Houghton, Lee Scott Colgan and Norman Bernard Manger abducted her, sexually assaulted her, and murdered her by stabbing her over 50 times with a screwdriver. The perpetrators directly told a number of residents of The Pas of their involvement. Nearly everyone in The Pas had heard at least rumours of their involvement. Many knew or had rumours, but never came forward to the police.

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry is careful to conclude that general indifference or not wanting to get involved were more likely for many residents of the Pas than racism. The four men were not charged until RCMP officer Robert Urbanoski revived the investigation in 1983 and obtained new evidence after posting a call for witnesses in a local newspaper. The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry noted with disapproval that the RCMP devoted less energy and dedication to investigating the case after 1972, and that indifference by local residents who knew or who had information was the principal factor in obstructing the investigation.

But there is no denying that overt racism has frequently manifested in cases of MMIWG. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls examined numerous cases of MMIWG across the country, put paid significant attention to cases with respect to Robert Pickton and the downtown eastside of Vancouver.[2] The Human Rights Watch authored a report based on interviews with numerous Indigenous community members in the vicinity of the Highway of Tears in the interior of British Columbia.[3] Both reports document numerous instances where Indigenous families attempted to report a female family member missing, and were dismissed by first contact officers on the basis of stereotypes that the women and girls were likely out partying, or sleeping it off, or caught up in vagrant lifestyles that could be associated with sex work.

Brenda Wilson stands next to a portrait of her daughter Ramona in 2012. photo Jessica McDiarmid

There is a particular instance where Indigenous communities perceived racism and discrimination from RCMP officers stationed in the interior. Nicole Hoar was a 25-year-old Caucasian woman who disappeared after hitchhiking along the Highway of Tears in June of 2022. An RCMP officer who was interviewed for the book maintained that there was no preferential treatment given to Hoar as a possible victim, as they received a greater volume of tips to work with. That may be true. But Indigenous communities in the vicinity of the Highway made their viewpoints known to the Human Rights Watch that they perceived a world of difference between how RCMP officers stationed in the interior responded to reports of missing Indigenous women and girls, and how they responded to the reported disappearance of Nicole Hoar. The latter instance prompted an immediate investigation and large-scale search that had not and would not have happened for the Indigenous victims, at least prior to the establishment of the E-Pana project in 2005. But the book itself makes scant mention of the Human Rights Watch report, or similar instances from the MMIWG Inquiry reports. Sometimes a spade really does need to be called a spade.

In the end, I can recommend the book, as it does provide important and often overlooked parts of the picture. But gaining a more thorough understanding of the crisis in all its dimensions also requires reading other crucial and relevant materials.

[1] Native Women’s Association of Canada, Fact Sheet: Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls (Ottawa: Native Women’s Association of Canada, 2015). <online: https://www.nwac.ca/assets-knowledge-centre/Fact_Sheet_Missing_and_Murdered_Aboriginal_Women_and_Girls.pdf>.

[2] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Ottawa: National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls).

[3] Human Rights Watch, Those Who Take Us Away: Abusive Policing and Failures in Protection of Indigenous Women and Girls in Northern British Columbia (New York City: Human Rights Watch, 2013).


David Milward

David Milward is an Associate Professor of Law with the University of Victoria, and a member of the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation of Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. He assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the authoring of its final report on Indigenous justice issues, and is the author of Aboriginal Justice and the Charter: Realizing a Culturally Sensitive Interpretation of Legal Rights (UBC Press, 2013), which was joint winner of the K.D. Srivastava Prize for Excellence in Scholarly Publishing and was short-listed for Canadian Law & Society Association Book Prize, both for books published in 2013. His most recent book is Reconciliation and Indigenous Justice: A search for ways forward (Fernwood Publishing, 2022). David is also the author of numerous articles on Indigenous justice in leading national and international law journals. Editor’s note: David Milward has reviewed books by Ronald M. Derrickson, Cherie DimalineBilly-Ray BelcourtChrista CoutureDarryl Leroux, and Bob Joseph with Cynthia F. Joseph for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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