Highway of Tears documentary sheds light on the murdered and missing

Award-winning film made its Terrace premiere this week before touring several other northwest B.C. communities along Highway 16

Debbie Moore

A central theme of the documentary Highway of Tears, which made its Terrace premiere last week before touring several other communities along Highway 16, is the importance of community discussion as a way to engage and empower those affected by violence. The importance of talking through violence, talking as a means of drawing attention to an issue, talking so no one ever, ever forgets.

And for the nearly 250 people who attended the screening at the REM Lee Theatre March 17 – community leaders, including Skeena Bulkley MP Nathan Cullen, Terrace mayor Carol Leclerc and members of Terrace city council, representatives from all of the nearby First Nations communities, including an entire bus from Gitanyow, and family members of some of the local victims – that message was underscored during the long and emotional question and answer period that took place after the showing. The documentary acting as a catalyst, allowing those in the community to share their stories of loss, grief, and the generational impacts the residential school system has had on First Nations culture – turning the theatre’s auditorium into a modern day town hall on a complex, important issue.

Through lingering, intentional shots, stirring music, and raw interviews with victims and well-known community leaders, the film seeks to provide broad understanding, context, and a focussed action plan to remedy the plight of missing and murdered women along the stretch of British Columbia highway between Prince Rupert and Prince George known as the Highway of Tears.

Its director is Matt Smiley, a Canadian expat living in Los Angeles with family ties to Williams Lake and Montreal, who produced the film with Canadian actress Carly Pope. The documentary and its intended international audience benefits from Smiley’s perch as an outsider – an outsider who later turns activist.

Smiley’s initial intention, after hearing about the disappearance of tree-planter Nicole Hoar on a camping trip near Prince George, was to write a fictional script, but “the more I started to research the case, I realized there were all of these other girls,” he said, speaking before the screening. “And the more I started to talk to the families, I realized there was no way I could do a fictional piece on this subject because there was so much unrest with regards to the story – especially for certain cases where the women have gone missing and haven’t been found, there’s this big sense of void through the entire family and, even in other cases where their loved one is found, it’s something that never goes away.”

In trying to understand and explain the historical context and deep-seated social issues of the area, and gaining the trust of and giving a voice to those affected by the violent acts that have taken place along the highway, Smiley’s role grew from first-time documentary filmmaker to someone immersed in the community. He’s taken on the role of an unofficial advocate and facilitator of discussion – he said he’s realized, through the Q&A sessions like the one at the Terrace screening, that part of his charge is simply showing people that it’s OK to talk about these issues. Giving people that platform, however difficult, takes away some of the weight of those who have been affected by the unsolved murders and disappearances.

“That’s something I definitely don’t take lightly. As much as this is really close to my heart now … my primary objective is just to be a filmmaker, and move on and do other stories,” he said. “I was never really expecting to be grabbed so hard.”

The screenings are important, he said, because “the issue deserves a moment of pause” and people leave the theatre with intention.

“It would be much easier to have just done it and let it go – but I think in order to actually spark some dialogue towards change, you need to have people really pay attention, get moved, not be distracted, get a feeling and then talk about it,” he said. “Seeing how it brings people together for a mutual understanding was really powerful and again something that wasn’t really intended or anticipated.”

The term Highway of Tears has been part of the northwest B.C. lexicon for longer than the national and international lens has focused on this part of the world – and the tragedy of missing women, specifically aboriginal women, in Canada. This documentary – with screenings planned across North America and Europe – will only narrow that focus, and with the federal elections coming up this fall, Smiley’s hope is that the issue of missing and murdered women will strike through party lines and become an election issue. “The action needed is a political one, but the issue of violence and murder should be pretty equal on all levels,” he said. “If I have to talk about it to get some sort of policy to change, then I’m going to do it.”

The film will be back for a screening in Prince Rupert next month.

With files from Josh Massey.