Highway of tears film initiative

Determining whether a serial killer (or killers) was responsible for the deaths of young women traveling along the highways.

One hundred people attended a screening of the documentary Highway of Tears at the Beacon Theatre on June 8.

The film, which tells the stories of young women who’ve gone missing along Hwy. 16 over the past several decades, was written and directed by Matt Smiley, a Montreal-born actor and writer. Produced by actress Carly Pope (Elysium, 24, Republic of Doyle), it premiered in March 2014 at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) Human Rights Watch Film Festival before being released to the public earlier this year.

Although the documentary has already been shown in several communities along Hwy. 16, one of the organizations that supported it financially – Carrier Sekani Family Services (CSFS) – felt Burns Lake residents should have an opportunity to see it in their home town.

“We all felt that it was important for the communities along Hwy. 16 to have the opportunity to see the film,” said Wendy Kellas, youth services manager for CSFS. “It has been shown in many of the larger urban centres, but with six of our Carrier nations in Burns Lake, this screening was very important. We had a lot of interest from community members, so we were happy to be able to work with John Illes at the Beacon Theatre to bring it to Burns Lake.”

Carrier Sekani Family Services is the host agency for the Highway of Tears Initiative, a program that is in part designed to help the families of women who’ve gone missing along Hwy. 16 and prevent others from suffering the same fate. According to Kellas, CSFS worked closely with Smiley and Pope “on the details of the film” and is “very proud of the final product.

“There have been many different TV shows and short documentaries made regarding the Highway of Tears, but this was the first that put the families and the victims at the forefront,” she noted. “Not only were the victims stories told, they were told with the utmost respect, and let audiences know who these girls and women really were and what they meant to their loved ones.”

Between 1989 and 2006, nine young women – eight of them aboriginal – went missing or were found murdered along the 724-kilometre length of Hwy. 16 now referred to as the “Highway of Tears.” The body of one of the victims – 15-year-old Roxanne Thiara – was recovered a few miles east of Burns Lake in 1994.

In the fall of 2005, the RCMP established an investigation into the highway murders. Dubbed Project E-PANA (“Pana” being the Inuit word for a spirit goddess that looks after souls before they enter heaven or are reincarnated), the initiative was tasked with determining whether a serial killer (or killers) was responsible for the deaths of young women traveling along the province’s major highways.

The task force took ownership of nine cases in 2006. By 2007, it had expanded its investigation to include 18 cases.

Kellas said that the Highway of Tears Initiative works closely with North District RCMP and the E-PANA investigation team. While progress has been made over the years – one of E-PANA’s 18 was solved in 2012 – there is still much work to be done.

“Over the past few years, this relationship has improved and the RCMP are working more closely with the families of the victims,” she said. “Though improvements have been made, there is still a long way to go. Due to budget cuts, the RCMP made major cuts to the E-PANA team of investigators, which obviously has frustrated family members. In spite of the cutback we are still in regular communication with the lead investigators.”

Like Project E-PANA, the Highway of Tears initiative has also faced financial challenges. Despite receiving only “piecemeal pots of funding” since 2006, Kellas says the organization and its supporters have managed to continue their work.

Some significant achievements have been made along the way, too. Seven community forums have been held to identify services needed in communities along the Highway of Tears, three billboards have been erected to help make people aware of the dangers of hitchhiking, and community safety training workshops have been offered. The initiative even has its own website, www.highwayoftears.ca.

“Carrier Sekani Family Services has always been able to continue the work through the dedication of the staff,” Kellas noted. “Much time is spent doing the work off the side of their desks… CSFS has provided and will continue to provide ongoing advocacy and support for victims’ families.

“We hope that communities are educating their children and youth about how to stay safe and how to look out for each other. We really want to focus on prevention of both victims and of perpetrators. There are many safety tips that we can provide, but we also need to look at the reasons that violence is so prevalent and why women continue to go missing. If we can instill a culture of non-violence in all communities, then violence will no longer be tolerated.”

Burns Lake, according to Kellas, has a history of supporting the Highway of Tears initiative. Last week’s local screening of Smiley’s documentary generated $616.50 in donations. The money, she said, will be used to support the families of women who’ve gone missing.

Although the exact number of women who have gone missing along this lonely stretch of road is a matter of conjecture, many people in the region believe it could exceed 30.

RCMP investigators are confident that the disappearances and murders are not the work of a single individual. They encourage anyone with relevant information to call the E-PANA Tip Line at 1-877-543-4822.