Youth from the 'Na Aksa Gyilak'yoo School in Kitsumkalum, B.C., were given a standing ovation after performing their song about the Highway of Tears before the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on Wednesday.
The inquiry is holding its second set of community hearings this week in Smithers. The town is midway along the 720-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 known as the Highway of Tears, where Indigenous leaders will tell you more than 40 women and girls have been killed or gone missing since 1969.
"We all know someone who is affected by this highway," Grade 12 student Melynee McDames told commissioner Michèle Audette after the performance.
The musical performance was the first youth engagement of its kind at the inquiry hearings, part of an artistic expression panel that included a discussion with Cree/Métis hip-hop artist Travis Hebert of Mob Bounce.
The youth came well prepared with thoughtful statements on the inspiration behind their song, The Highway, and what they hoped to accomplish.
The song was produced in partnership with the non-profit organization N'we Jinan.
Alyson Guno hoped the tune would raise awareness about those who've gone missing or have been murdered.
"Along the Highway of Tears there is a lot of Aboriginal women out there that experience violence every day and that are missing from along the highway," she said.
"The message I'm trying to send through my work is that it's never safe to hitchhike and that hitchhiking is definitely not worth anything in this whole wide universe," said Grade 10 student Annalee Parker.
"I really want to keep as many people safe as possible."
Audette acknowledged she has heard a lot about the highway and, in particular, the need for better transportation along the route during her time in Smithers. She was warm and personable with the youth sharing thoughts with her.
"You're hope. You're representing hope. And I don't know where you got that strength, but it's telling me that it's possible, and it's there and it's so alive," she said.
A combination of hope and fear
Despite their expression of strength, Melynee McDames spoke directly to the fact that most of the women and girls harmed along the highway are Indigenous — and how that often makes her feels afraid, particularly when she thinks about the fact her community and school are close to the highway, and it's a route some of her friends have to take walking home from school.
'Knowing that you have a loved one being transported by a stranger on a highway, let alone the Highway of Tears, is quite scary.' - Melynee McDames, Grade 12 student
"It doesn't take long for something nasty to happen," she said.
"My older sisters used to hitchhike from Kispiox where my family lives, to Terrace, where we also have family. Knowing that you have a loved one being transported by a stranger on a highway, let alone the Highway of Tears, is quite scary."
Maxine Derrick came to the inquiry watch her daughter perform with the group, and said she's impressed with how they're using their voices to get the word out about the highway.
Her 11-year-old is featured in the music video for The Highway, in a fictional scene where she is kidnapped and killed. Derrick said she cries every time she sees the video.
"It's very emotional each time I watch it."
Derrick said she has spoken to her children about the dangers of hitchhiking, but that making the video has made her daughter even more aware of the risks.
"Any time she sees anyone hitchhiking, she yells at them, 'That's not a good idea!'"
When asked what she hopes the inquiry team takes away from the youth's performance and testimony, Derrick said she hopes they realize that the youth are listening and want to take part.
"They are willing to stand with everybody," she said. "Everyone has a voice."
The community hearings in Smithers end Thursday. The inquiry's next stop of this kind will be in Winnipeg, starting Oct. 16.