Highway of Tears documentary screened in Whitehorse

Director Matt Smiley is in Whitehorse this week for 3 screenings of his documentary film, "Highway of Tears." The film tells stories of the women who have been murdered or gone missing along a stretch of highway in northern B.C.
A still from Matt Smiley's documentary, 'Highway of Tears' shows B.C.'s Highway 16 through a rear-view mirror. (Finesse Films)

Filmmaker Matt Smiley was toying with the idea of making a movie in northern British Columbia, just because it's beautiful there.

Then he heard a story that haunted him — the unsolved disappearance years before of a young treeplanter, somewhere along Highway 16. He soon discovered she wasn't the only one to disappear on the so-called Highway of Tears.

"I think from that moment, it definitely changed my life because I got so consumed in trying to figure out why I didn't know about these stories before," Smiley says. "I haven't come up with the answer."

'I got so consumed in trying to figure out why I didn't know about these stories before,' says filmmaker Matt Smiley
Smiley's documentary film, "Highway of Tears," is an effort to keep those women, and their stories, in the public conscience. The film is in Whitehorse for three screenings this week in conjunction with the commemorative exhibit, Walking With Our Sisters

Yukon is just the latest stop for Smiley and his film. Since its release last year, "Highway of Tears" has been screened across the country, winning awards and accolades along the way.

"We've had a lot of success in showings and a lot of demand, which I wasn't necessarily anticipating," Smiley says. "It's spawned more discussions and more dialogue."

"People have responded quite heavily to it, on an emotional level," he says.

Smiley says working on the project opened his eyes to what he calls "a continual nightmare" that is even bigger than B.C.'s Highway of Tears — the ever-growing number of indigenous women who are murdered or disappear every year in Canada.  

Delilah Saunders and Matt Smiley on stage at a Halifax screening of 'Highway of Tears' earlier this week. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)
Before flying to Whitehorse, Smiley attended a screening earlier this week in Halifax with Delilah Saunders, whose sister Loretta Saunders was murdered in 2014. Loretta Saunders was an Inuk university student in Halifax, working on a thesis about missing and murdered indigenous women when she disappeared. The Halifax screening was timed to coincide with the start of the trial of her two accused murderers. On Wednesday, the pair pleaded guilty.

"This is one story of way too many," Smiley says.

Smiley is up-front about his political agenda in presenting the film — he's pushing for a national inquiry, something he thinks is "absolutely necessary".

He says plans are in the works to show the film in Ottawa, to an audience of MPs.

"There are a lot of people shocked by what's happened. But once they see [the film], the can't 'un-hear' what they've learned," he says. "So from that part, I'm happy that I went for it and did this project."

"Highway of Tears" is being screened at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre in Whitehorse, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.