Smithers, B.C., was just in the news for two very different reasons: ranked in the top five mountain towns in the province, and host of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The latter is not on any tourism brochures, but it's not something to ignore either.
Although I admit I am not much of a Charles Dickens fan, over the last few weeks I have found myself pondering the words of his famous opening line in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . .” Let me explain.
Last week those of us who live here in Smithers, B.C., were excited to hear that a popular tourism website called Super, Natural British Columbia had ranked our little alpine-themed village of 6,500 along Highway 16 as one of the top five mountain towns in the entire province! From moose, bears, free outdoor concerts and quality restaurants to adventure tourism in our wilderness backyard, we have a lot going for us in this beautiful part of God’s creation. In many ways, receiving such a coveted title reflects the best of times for our little alpine town.
On a more somber note, however, Smithers was recently in the headlines for another reason. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) made a three-day stop in this same little mountain town earlier this fall. Did the MMIWG commissioners choose Smithers as their only stop in all of B.C. because of its beautiful alpine theme and Top-Five ranking on the mountain-ometer? Before you make that assumption, consider another ugly reality. Highway 16 is also known as the “Highway of Tears,” and Smithers sits right in the middle of it, between Prince George and Prince Rupert. That’s not something that any tourism brochure or website brags about. However, it is also most definitely not something to ignore either. The elephant has been in the room long enough; it is time to acknowledge some ugly realities, even if doing so tarnishes our freshly-minted alpine reputation. These realities remind us of how, in the midst of this mountain beauty, it can also be the worst of times.
In my backyard?
Depending on who you talk to, there are somewhere between 19 and 40 women with links to Highway 16 who have gone missing or been found murdered along this 720-km stretch of highway. Many, but not all, of them are of Indigenous background. By comparison, in 2014 the RCMP listed the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada at about 1,200. Again, depending on who you talk to, the number may actually be as high as 4,000.
While the numbers may vary, what is agreed upon is this: these women were loved; they are missed; they had families and friends who cared for them, and the “system” let them down due to discrimination, prejudice and disregard. The “system” includes the RCMP, the criminal justice system, social services, the media and the general public’s overall lack of empathy and its tendency to still blame the victims of violence. If I really wanted to step on some toes, I would add that Christian churches and Christian schools have also let these people down by pretending it does not matter. As more than one grieved family member has commented, if the murdered and missing women were blue-eyed and blonde-haired, there would have likely been a public outcry much sooner. One cannot help but wonder: what does it take to get a nation’s attention?
Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Namoks (John Ridsdale).
You may disagree with these harsh verdicts and choose to ignore them. What is much, much harder to ignore are the individual gut-wrenching and heart-breaking stories of painful anguish being recorded as part of the commission’s mandate to “find, honour and give life” to the truth of these stories now being told in public hearings.
In our now-famous alpine town, some of these very families gathered for three days of hearings at the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre in downtown Smithers. Interestingly, “Dze L K’ant” translates as “foot of the mountain” in the local Wet’suwet’en language – the same mountain that helped propel us to the top of the mountain-town list now bore silent witness to the courage and resilience of the first inhabitants’ all-too-familiar stories of marginalization, neglect and frustration.
It was to hear these stories firsthand and try to begin to understand this pain that we at Bulkley Valley Christian School (BVCS) decided to send some of our Grade 10 to 12 students to sit in on the final morning of testimony. Upon hearing the testimony of 26-year-old Shari Murdock, whose mother’s remains were found on Robert Pickton’s notorious pig farm in Port Coquitlam, one BVCS student was visibly moved and commented that Murdock’s story felt very real, and questioned why anyone would speculate on the need for a national inquiry in the first place.
Likewise, a Grade 11 student commented that it was hard to comprehend the level of pain and suffering some people are forced to endure in their lifetimes, while yet another student admitted to having to choke back tears due to the intensity of addiction and brokenness within the testimony.
Present in the public hearings was Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Namoks (John Ridsdale), who told Commissioners Marion Buller and Michelle Audette – as well as us guests who heard this testimony – “We’re going to be watching you; we are not going to let you off easy, because we were not let off easy.” Further to this, he warned the commissioners not to let the words of the families simply collect dust on the shelf. By extension, the same warning now applies to my students and to me. Once you are confronted with an inconvenient and ugly truth, it becomes an affront to the One who is the Truth to metaphorically shelve it.
Education and empathy
Hwy 16: "Highway of tears."
While it remains to be seen what the commissioners will recommend to the government of Canada when they issue their final report in 2018, those of us who find ourselves motivated by a desire for justice, mercy and humility can certainly do our part right now, wherever we find ourselves. I encourage you to consider attending some of the public hearings if the MMIWG inquiry comes to a location near you. Even if you are unable to attend these hearings, you can educate yourself on the reality of Canada’s murdered and missing Indigenous women by visiting a local Friendship Centre. You can also get to know those in your community or province who have been affected by this type of violence. Better yet, take along someone you know who chooses to ignore these ugly realities and who prefers to only hold to a “best of times” tale of your city. Who knows – maybe coming face to face with a different, troubling tale of your own city and community will advance the Kingdom of God as you empathize with those who have already experienced far too much marginalization and neglect at the hands of an indifferent dominant society.
“I was extremely happy that the Bulkley Valley Christian School brought in students today,” Chief Namoks noted, echoing this theme. “They could have that connection that these are real human beings who are suffering, and we need to move forward so this never happens again.”
In the healing that Jesus Christ offers to those who have known far too much of only the worst of times, may it be so.
May it be so.