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Many victims hitchhiked because they lived on or near rural reserve areas with no public transportation. | photo by Jessica Yee

Many victims hitchhiked because they lived on or near rural reserve areas with no public transportation. | photo by Jessica Yee

News

report from British Columbia building a highway of hope

by Jessica Yee | May 13, 2008

Carrier-Sekani Family Services, with offices in Prince George and Burns Lake, British Columbia, is home to the Highway of Tears Initiative, lead by long-time advocate for Native rights, Métis Lisa Krebs.

A 2006 symposium held in response to the communities’ demands for action in response to the numerous deaths connected to this aptly named section of Highway 16 yielded 33 recommendations that address the need for physical human services. The Highway of Tears community forums were born out of the recommendations to engage youth and create sustainable opportunities for healing.

Two of the most powerful elements of Aboriginal culture are our youth and our traditions. Traditions strengthen and root our identity as a people. Children are revered as the most sacred of these beings. As Métis/Cree writer Kim Anderson puts it:

Children are most precious to us because they represent the future. They are not considered possessions of the biological parents; rather they are understood to be gifts on loan from the Creator.

When grappling with one of the most devastating travesties in the history of violence against women in Canada, it is time to arm ourselves with enough youth and tradition to lead the way for healing, reconstruction, and hope.

The Highway of Tears has taken generations of people away from their families forever, leaving many unsolved murders and disappearances in its vicious path. Officially known as Yellowhead Trail 16 in British Columbia, police claim it has taken the lives of 18 women, but the surrounding communities estimate that number is upwards of 30 over the past 35 years. Stretching from Prince Rupert to Prince George, and now going into parts of Alberta, one 724-kilometre road has managed to inflict enormous amounts of pain and caused unimaginable suffering for countless mothers, sisters, brothers, aunties, and friends.

This highway has chosen young Native women as its primary victims. Many of the victims were forced to hitchhike as a means of travel, which is the reality of living on or near rural reserve areas with no public transportation.

To this day, the question still remains, if the majority of those victims were not Aboriginal – if they were white – would we still be seeking justice for our vanished sisters? What is more, would the loss of these precious lives, stolen from our communities, remain in the minds of the general public, and in major news headlines?

Beyond what is not making mainstream media, the spotlight needs to be on what is actually happening to effect positive change, and what we already have in our culture as Native peoples to do so. The Highway of Tears community forums have travelled across British Columbia, bringing messages of empowerment through pride of culture to youth living within these often remote regions. The forums deal with a number of key issues facing our young people, including:

  • Safety
  • Isolation
  • Need for programmes

Community leaders have joined in solidarity to eradicate the destruction being done to our families, and directly involve youth:

  • Freda Ens, a victim services worker, has been involved in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for more than ten years. She shares valiant stories of justice and fortitude from the countless victims of violence she has worked with.
  • Candice George, a Carrier youth activist, brings powerful traditional teachings and advocacy that youth can reclaim as their own through artistic expression.
  • Pearl Pakula, a social worker, has assisted in organizing many of the forums and imparted her gifts of crafting and recreational fun.
  • Jessica Yee, the author of this article, is a forum facilitator, concentrating on healthy sexuality, relationships and rights.

Be Proud 2 Be Native, says a youth's painting.

Poster from an art project lead by Jessica Yee and Pearl Pakula for the Walk Tall! Carrier-Sekani Youth Conference in April, 2008. | photo: Jessica Yee

Together, we have seen fear, confusion, and hurt transform into pride, awareness, and a stronger sense of self. We know that, as Aboriginal peoples, we are often stereotyped; however these forums prove that the positive strides being made far outweigh the negative light we are typically shown in. These are the true stories of growth and hope that need to be told. We have been blessed to witness the incredible force of youth, who simply need an avenue to make their voices heard. We can assure you that they are ready to take on the world, and change it for the better.

As our communities recover what we have lost, we remain strong, knowing that our culture as Aboriginal peoples will see us through. The racism, classism, and oppression we still experience will not deter us from living with pride in our traditions and ensuring that future generations carry them on. We believe that everyone in the community has a connection to one and other, and everyone has an obligation to work for the well-being of all.

Each one of us has a responsibility to the Highway of Tears. It is our youth who are now building a Highway of Hope, every day.

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