In recent years Canada has become something of a prestige go-to-destination in these economically straitened times for many people in Ireland seeking a better life overseas. For a whole generation of Irish people Canada has become the new “America” – though one markedly more familiar in its cultural and social attitudes than its southern neighbour.
Yet there is another side to Canada, a far darker and more troublesome one. Der Spiegel International shines a light on it:
“The view from our van could be straight out of a tourism brochure. There are snow-covered peaks, forests painted in fall colors, and next to the road flows a mountain stream where fishermen are catching salmon.
As we travel deeper into this idyllic landscape, the mood of our driver, Gladys Radek, becomes darker. She plays the Patsy Cline song “If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child),” over and over again. It is a ballad about longing for a childhood like the one Gladys never had.
Gladys was born 56 years ago on the reserve for the Gitxsan indigenous people in British Columbia, but she never gets homesick as she drives along Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears.”
“There are too many ghosts,” she says.
The ghosts are the women who have been disappearing without a trace along the 700-kilometer-long (435-mile-long) stretch of highway. Official police statistics list 18 women in all, 17 of whom are First Nation, as much of the indigenous population in Canada is called. Amnesty International assumes, however, that there are considerably more. Not a single case has been solved.
It is a three-day trip from Prince Rupert to Vancouver, where we meet with the private detective Ray Michalko. He was once a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Mounties. Six years ago, the Mounties formed a special commission to look into the Highway 16 cases. They invested $11 million (Canadian) to investigate the murders, but without success.
Michalko is not surprised. “They put 50 people in front of computers and hoped that a serial killer would jump out at them,” he says. Data was collected and profiles were created. The only thing that is not being done, Michalko says, is real detective work.
He couldn’t stand by and watch anymore, he says. That’s why he drives along Highway 16 now, knocking on doors and asking questions. Michalko doubts that the special commission wants to achieve serious results. Each real result would only produce uncomfortable questions.
On the route from Prince Rupert to Prince George we pass Moricetown, the reserve where Gladys grew up. Her mother still lives here in one of the prefabricated houses that one can pick up at any home improvement store. The whole reserve is filled with them. The muddy street that connects them is littered with garbage — TVs, wrecked cars and empty beer cans.
When Gladys’ sister Peggy opens the door, a musty smell drifts our way. Peggy, Gladys explains to us later, has spent two years in prison for assaulting a man who was trying to rape her. Her mother is sitting silently on a sofa filled with holes, gazing absent-mindedly. Her hair falls in oily strands from her head, and her blind eye peers eerily around the room.
“It is unbearable, how our people are forced to live,” Gladys says, when we turn back onto Highway 16 an hour later.
It is almost a miracle that she escaped this misery. Her parents were almost always drunk. When her younger brother starved to death, they were in a bar. Gladys was five then. That’s when she was taken away from her parents.
Her foster parents didn’t provide her with a childhood she would have wanted either. Her foster father started raping her when she was eight. When she was 13, she had the courage to report him to the reserve police. They shrugged their shoulders in response. After that, she packed her bags and ran away.
Gladys could easily have become one of the missing on the Highway of Tears. But she survived, moved to Vancouver, and raised five children. Now she is working as a spokeswoman for an organization for “Missing and Murdered Women.” Her group estimates that there are 500 missing and murdered women in Canada.
“Someone has to give a voice to the many families who don’t know what happened to their loved ones,” she says. The worst, she says, is the feeling of being alone in your pain.”