"Highway of Tears" Documentary Review

On International Women’s Day this year I had the opportunity to see a screening of a documentary entitled Highway of Tears at the Rio on Broadway. The 2014 documentary focused on Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, a highway which has become known as “The Highway of Tears,” because for over forty years, women have been going missing along there, and many of them have been found to be murdered. The majority of these women have been Aboriginal.

The documentary covered effects residential schools and their legacy have had, and continue to have, on Aboriginal individuals and communities. Separation from culture, language, and community has had a profoundly negative impact on Aboriginal peoples. Not to mention the fact that growing up in an environment in which abuse and harsh methods of discipline were rampant has left many residential school survivors and their descendants with a trauma that affects their lives as adults, partners, and parents. The film discussed the issue of domestic violence in Aboriginal communities as a legacy of residential schools and also focused on the initiatives being taken by some Aboriginal men to recover a healthy masculinity.  

Highway of Tears also looked at the practice of hitchhiking on Highway 16, pointing out that in communities in which the majority of people are unemployed and there are no public transit services, for many, hitchhiking is one of the only modes of transportation they have access to.

The day after seeing the film I sat down to study in the Harry Potter room in Irving and saw that someone had taped this note to one of the desks (The second comment was mine.):

The documentary got me thinking a lot about white privilege and how that affects the reaction to these missing and murdered Aboriginal women. On some level I understood the first commenter’s sentiment of “I have never seen this.” As a white settler, I have the privilege of not having to live this reality, and we have taken full advantage of this privilege. For example, the media seems to make events like Aboriginal women going missing and being murdered seem isolated. As a child watching the news, I saw the Pickton case unfold, and I had no conception that this crime was part of a broader system of systemic racism towards Aboriginal people. It seemed like just one depraved individual who was preying on the marginalized, those at the edge of society on Vancouver’s downtown eastside. 

The “Highway of Tears” documentary discussed the different reactions of the police, and the public when women went missing. Although women had been going missing since the 1960s, it was not until 2002 when Nicole Hoar went missing along Highway 16 that the phenomenon gained widespread attention. Nicole Hoar was a young white woman.

In the documentary, one of the families of a missing white woman talked about how different their experience with the police had been from the ones the Aboriginal families were describing. They explained that their reports to the police were believed and were immediately taken seriously, while the reports made by Aboriginal family members were often ignored or not taken seriously.

In 2008 the Canadian government made an official apology for the residential schools it had instituted. However, this apology was far from enough to solve the current problems. Although many have been pushing for an official inquiry into the cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently commented that an inquiry “isn’t really high on [his government’s] radar.” To me, this statement serves to show that, despite the apology for the residential schools, Canada really has never changed its attitude towards Aboriginal peoples at all.   


For more information, check out the resources at the official Highway of Tears website.