Unless you are sleeping, distracted by wildlife or on your phone, it is impossible to miss the sign along one stretch of Highway 16 that reads: “Girls don’t hitchhike along the Highway of Tears.” It is bright yellow and bears the faces of three women, beside what used to read “Killer on the Loose.” This sign, strategically placed just before you enter the Indigenous community of Witset, has stood for as long as I can remember. The bright colour draws your attention, the words leave chills and the faces and names of three women – Delphine, Jamaia, Cecilia – create a sense of real threat. It also brings to mind the dozens of other Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Stolen Sisters, from along the Highway of Tears.
The Highway of Tears is the name given to a stretch of roughly 720 kilometers of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert in Northern B.C. Along this remote highway, officially 18 women have gone missing over the past 40 years, but unofficial numbers may be closer to 40. I grew up in Smithers, situated about halfway along this infamous stretch of road. Living here, the term “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” is a familiar one. Just this past September, a young Indigenous woman went missing from Smithers. Her remains were found, but her death is still under investigation. She was 21 – my age. This past June 15th, there was a walk to commemorate Ramona Wilson, whose remains were found just off of Highway 16 in a wooded area 25 years ago. To hear of Indigenous women going missing or being found murdered is always heartbreaking and tragically, far too familiar. So familiar, in fact, that in 2015 a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was launched after much public pressure and advocacy by Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists who rightly saw the prevalence of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls as a societal and criminal issue.
On June third, the findings of the MMIWG Inquiry were published and gained Canada’s attention. Altogether, the report is 1,200 pages long and contains 231 Calls to Justice directed towards all levels of government, industries, services and institutions. There is also a section addressed to all Canadians.
Unfortunately, an important but distracting side debate has dominated the national conversation in the days following the release of the report. You may have found yourself weighing in on this discussion as well. Instead of focusing on the Calls to Justice, the findings of the report or most importantly, the families and friends of those who suddenly and tragically lost their loved ones to violence, there has been an outcry over the Inquiry’s use of the term “genocide” to describe Canada’s history and contemporary treatment of Indigenous people. “Is this too extreme?” We asked ourselves – are we really guilty of committing something that brings to mind images and stories from the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia, Rohingya, and many other atrocities?
No matter how much we question the findings, no matter how many times we look up the definition of genocide and compare it to what has taken place in Canada, the fact of the matter remains: we – our nation, us Canadians – have been found guilty. As Canadians in general, and as members of Christ’s kingdom in particular, we need to focus on the Calls to Justice themselves, so that societal change can happen. Rather than argue about the definition of the word and whether we agree with the application of it or not, consider instead the pain, sorrow and marginalization that far too many Indigenous people in general still feel in this country.
To act justly
As I looked over the 231 Calls to Justice outlined in the Final Report, I wondered what the role myself and all Christians play in addressing the findings. Unlike the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action there is no section explicitly saying “churches – Christians – this is what you are responsible for and this is what we call on you to do;” rather, this report calls on all Canadians, regardless of their faith, to take action in the name of justice for the missing and murdered.
As I read the Calls to Action, the words and message of Micah 6:8 came to mind, specifically where it reads “and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly.” We have been instructed to act justly, and that is exactly what is at the heart of this report. Further, as Christians we have also been directed to love our neighbours, to protect the vulnerable, the weak and the marginalized. If anything, this Report tells us something we should already know: Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA people are some of the most vulnerable people in our entire nation. Perhaps a place to start is to consider what we would want done if the missing and murdered were our daughters, our sisters, our mothers, our loved ones. It is hard to believe in such a situation that we would appreciate inaction, indifference and arguments over the use of the term “genocide.”
I cannot help but think that if we are a people who follow a Lord who identified with and befriended the lost and lonely, we must take it upon ourselves to apply the Calls to Action to our lives and situations because if we don’t, we will have missed an opportunity to “do justice.” This is one very practical way to show Canada – and perhaps the world – that the Christian faith matters in an increasingly secular age.
As Christians, we have a duty to pursue justice in Christ’s name so that we may bring about the Kingdom of God. May we be found faithful in doing so – real lives are at stake.
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