New billboards for missing and murdered women aim to change narrative of B.C.’s ‘Highway of Tears’

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous women in northern B.C. and an Indigenous social service agency have unveiled four new billboards to honour and remember the women and girls who’ve died or disappeared along a notorious highway that’s been dubbed the Highway of Tears.

The route has been called the Highway of Tears because more than 40 women and girls, mostly Indigenous, have gone missing or been murdered along the 700-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert in northern B.C. since 1969.

For years, billboards on Highway 16 have warned girls not to hitchhike, with the message “Killer on the Loose.”

At a ceremony in Prince George on Tuesday morning, a prototype of the new highway billboard was unveiled as family members of missing and murdered women hugged and wept, passing out tissues.

The families say the new billboards emphasize hope and the resilience of Indigenous families and communities rather than fear and vulnerability and put the onus on all highway travellers to keep the route safe.

“We really want to switch the message and the narrative that has been going on about this place of despair and loss and pain. We want to acknowledge that this is our home. This is beautiful territory, and that we all deserve to be safe and protected,” said Julie Daum, executive director of justice at Carrier Sekani Family Services, which partnered with families to create the billboard.

Matilda Wilson says she draws strength from the message on the billboards. Her daughter, Ramona Wilson, was 16 years old when she disappeared in Smithers in 1994 and was later found murdered. Now, 29 years later, Wilson says she hasn’t given up hope her daughter’s killer will be found.

“Every day, I think of my little baby. She wants me to prevent this from happening again.”

Mary Teegee, Carrier Sekani’s executive director of Child and Family Services, is Ramona’s cousin.

“This is personal for me. We don’t want to be victims anymore. We’re done.”

“We wanted to make sure our young women understood … that it’s not something that they have done. We want to make sure that they understand we are hope, and we are strength.”

The new billboards are scheduled to be set up this month along the route between Prince George and Prince Rupert.

Teegee says her agency has asked the Ministry of Transportation to consider changing the name of Highway 16 to Highway of Hope.

Her group also has plans to erect carved cedar memorial poles along the route to honour the woman and girls who have died.

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

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