Updated: Apr 3
Written By Benjamin Gribben and Jacob Carr.
Video by Agnieszka Pajor, Benjamin Gribben and Gordon Loverin.
This is a topic that should never be taken lightly. It effect us all on a national level, as well as local. For a long time this issue has been swept under the rug, but no more. Since the early eighties, woman across the nation have been going missing along a now notorious B.C. Highway that we know today as the Highway of Tears. Even to this day some of these women, have not been found. Families have been torn apart, because of this issue that has been plaguing our country. While most of us are conditioned to believe the core of the issue is racism against aboriginal women, the problem is much more complex and interwoven with bias than most are willing to confront.
First, to understand the gravity that these very grave events, we must first understand the facts. While most think that it started in the early eighties, in reality it began in the early seventies and perhaps earlier. The first woman to fall victim to these tragic events was reported missing in the year 1970, and now the count of missing women is over 40. Not much is open to public record but what we do know is: one night Traci Clifton had an argument with her mother and began walking down Highway 16 (The Highway of Tears) and was never been seen again. This story is too common. Too many vulnerable women have hitchhiked alone on Highway 16 only to run the gauntlet of predators in our midst. It wasn't until 1974 that the first victim was physically reported and found. Over the years the number of deaths compounded -- reaching a breaking point in 1980.
Over the years a number of monsters masquerading as people have been caught killing women in this area, and even more have been suspected but without evidence could not be charged with lesser charges like manslaughter. An expansive list of serial killers and kidnappers alike keep popping up on the Wikipedia page. While the names and cases provided on-line has not been verified by the writers, it would seem the individuals named had one thing in common -- they specifically targeted young vulnerable women. Woman that were at-risk and in low income circumstances.
It seemed that for decades these unspeakable murders went unsolved and many were turning a blind-eye to its realities. It wasn't until the Aboriginal Women’s Groups got involved, taking a firm stance that something had to be done about their Stolen Sisters, did action actually occur. Even the Canadian Government needed a push to get involved.
In 2005, the E-Pana project was established. Their overall goal, was to unearth all the murders on Highway 16 that were continuously going unsolved. In the beginning they started with a robust budget of $5M dollars, as well as a task force of 70 officers strong. Quickly they got down to business. However, due to cutbacks on their funding, the first $5M soon dropped to just over $800,000. The task force that was made up of 70 gradually dwindled down to only 12. Nonetheless, this did not detour them from their mission. Finally after years of hard work, they were able to link one of the murders of Bobby Jack Fowler.
Unfortunately by this time he was already pronounced deceased yet the charges stuck. Then again in 2014, yet another breakthrough was made. This time it was Garry Taylor Handlen who was charged and convicted to serve a life sentence for the murder of a 12 year old girl in 1978. Due to their success, to this day the E-Pana project is still investigating the unsolved murders.
The official time that they stated these horrible acts took place between 1980 and 2012 but as we know it now, it started in the earlier 70’s. In 2010 the Canadian Government formed a database to estimate the number of deaths within that time. The sheer numbers were more than anyone ever wanted to imagine. What they found was that the death toll reached more than 1,000 aboriginal and non-aboriginal woman most living in vulnerable situations had been murdered or were reported missing. Due to the numbers, which continue to grow ever year, the issue could no longer be ignored.
In 2012 the federal government established the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman of Canada Act, (MMIWC). Since that time, women, men and families alike have been banding together to raise awareness of these tragic events.
Over the years, many different events have been created to honour these murder and missing women. The first started on Valentine's Day in 1991, in Vancouver. Families and friends of the deceased women grouped together to march the street, honoring their Stolen Sisters. In 2016, an official day was set aside on Valentine's in honour of this act. Today, over 22 communities across Canada take part in this march. This event is now known as the Women’s Memorial March.
In 2002, another group was started calling themselves The Sister's In Spirit Vigils. This one’s main focus is to raise awareness of these issues, which includes consistent research and education about the ongoing violence against aboriginal women and girls. Unfortunately in 2010 their funding was cut completely. Even though this was never confirmed, critics were drawn to believe that they did this to, "Silence The Native Women's Association of Canada". This was a heavy blow to the organization however they did not falter, they flourished and set aside a day every year to honour the murdered and missing women. This event is now celebrated annually October 4th.
Here in the Yukon, this event is highly attended. In the morning, of the 4th of October young, old, men, woman and families alike meet in front of RCMP Headquarters to begin the march. The Walk For Our Sisters began at noon, with participants walking to the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Center. Over 100 people came to show their respect. The emotions were high as they proceeded through the streets of Whitehorse. As a sign of respect, the Mounties were there to direct traffic, shuffling the public to safety as the march continued on there way.
Finally, after 15 minutes of walking, holding up their signs, with their heads held high, they arrived at the Sacred Fire. The spirits were high, as people from different races came together to honour these women. After conversing and talking about the pressing issues among themselves, everyone gathered around the fire in prayer. Many wise words were spoken. Hearts were healed as everyone joined hands. After some much needed uplifting words from our Elders, the crowd then made their way to the edge of the Yukon River where they ceremoniously released feathers into the water. Each feather became a symbol for all of our mothers, aunties, cousins and sisters who we lost on the treacherous BC Highway 16, here at home and across the nation. Each feather released in river brought a modicum of closure. Many didn't realize, that in doing what they did, every one of them was making history. With this act of community, began the healing process for an unspeakable damage that had been done.
Next October 4th they will march again, hopefully you will consider walking with our sisters as well.