British Columbia

Totem pole to be raised on B.C.'s Highway of Tears to honour missing, murdered Indigenous women

The pole, being raised Friday near Terrace, B.C., honours the many women who have gone missing along a stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert since 1969. Carver Mike Dangeli hopes it provides a sense of healing.

Pole being raised Friday near Terrace, B.C.

Mike Dangeli puts the finishing touches on a pole carved to commemorate lives lost along the Highway of Tears between Prince Rupert and Prince George, B.C. (Arlene Roberts)

A memorial totem pole honouring murdered and missing Indigenous women will be raised Friday outside Terrace, B.C., along the infamous Highway of Tears.

The raising will mark the end of a long journey for Gladys Radek, who for nearly a decade held an annual 350-kilometre walk along the highway to bring attention to those who have been lost. That includes her niece Tamara Lynn Chipman, who disappeared almost 15 years ago to this day.

"This was her home, in Terrace," Radek told CBC Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. "That's what I'll be thinking about. This one's for you, my girl."

The RCMP have acknowledged that 18 girls and women, many Indigenous, have gone missing or been murdered along the stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert and nearby routes since 1969. 

Indigenous leaders say the number is closer to 50.

A small delegation of family members and First Nation representatives is expected to gather for the raising, taking place at a highway pullout in Kitsumkalum Tsimishian territory.

"It's a beautiful spot on the highway," Radek said. "This is going to make people realize there are missing and murdered women up here, and there are families up here mourning their losses."

Layers of meaning

Carver Mike Dangeli said he hopes the totem pole provides a sense of healing.

"Many of the families ... have no sense of real closure," he said. "So we're hoping that this becomes a space where it's a commemoration, it's a memorial."

Dangeli worked alongside his father and brother under a tent in the family's Terrace backyard to create the 7.3-metre pole, which has layers of meaning. 

The main figure is of a young woman in face paint and red dress. At the top is a matriarch figure and at the base, bearing the weight of the totem, is an orca to recognize the pole will be on Kitsumkalum Orca Clan territory. 

"It is a watch person in the metaphorical sense that our ancestors and our people will watch out and create a safe and sacred space," Dangneli said. "We're hoping the whole highway becomes a safe and sacred space."

The pole is also being raised the same week that a coalition of academics and researchers released an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling on him to act on the 231 "calls for justice" contained in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released last year.

Radek, a longtime advocate for the inquiry, said she has been disappointed by the lack of action from the government so far.

"Everything is in their hands now," she said. "Those recommendations were made with good thought to how we can protect our women and girls."

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With files from Matt Allen and CBC Daybreak North