Highway of Tears documentary: Q&A with director Matthew Smiley

A new documentary, Highway of Tears, calls attention to the indigenous women who have been reported missing and murdered along Highway 16 in the last four decades.

Director says 'all need to be accountable' and take action on missing and murdered indigenous women

​Matilda Wilson (C) and her daughter, Brenda Wilson (far R) pray prior to speaking at the 18​th annual​ Ramona Wilson memorial walk in Smithers​ on June 11, 2012​. Ramona's remains were found in 1995 just past the Smithers airport on Highway 16, Wilson's murder along with many others is still unsolved. ​ (Finesse Films)

It's a stretch of highway in Northern B.C. that's infamously dubbed the Highway of Tears. In the last four decades there have been 18 documented cases of women who have been murdered, or gone missing, along Highway 16. Ten of those women are indigenous.

A documentary called Highway of Tears debuted at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014 in the spring. TIFF called it a “hard-hitting documentary” that chronicles the murdered and missing, and shows “how the systemic racism that defined their lives also contributed to their deaths.”

Matthew Smiley is an actor, writer, artist, and filmmaker and a driving force behind this documentary. CBC Aboriginal wanted to know what drove this Montreal-born, L.A.-based producer and director to take on this project.

Q: How did you get involved in this documentary in the first place?

Matthew Smiley, director of Highway of Tears, says that working on this documentary has turned him into an activist. (Finesse Films)

A: ​I got involved with my initial research after taking a family trip to Prince George with my sister, brother-in-law and my newborn niece. We were all sitting around the campfire about an hour outside of the city and I was commenting on how beautiful the area was. I had mentioned that it would be amazing to shoot a film up in the north, due to the sheer beauty of the landscape.

For whatever reason, my brother-in-law, Jeff, mentioned the tragic story of Nicole Hoar, who was a young treeplanter that went missing along Highway 16 just out of Prince George. When I returned home to Los Angeles, I started researching her case, which lead me to the Highway of Tears.

Q: Before you got involved, what did you know about Highway of Tears and missing and murdered indigenous women?

I had no knowledge of the Highway of Tears. I was shocked that I hadn't heard of the countless women and girls that have been reported missing over the years. From there, my conversation with community leaders and various families of the victims lead me to take a crew up north to seek out the root causes of these cases.

Midway through the editing process, over 400 [missing and murdered indigenous] women were estimated to be missing and or murdered across Canada. By the time we premiered the film, the number was over 600 in March of 2014, then the numbers increased to 900 and now over 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. We cannot turn a blind eye to this.

Q: Of all the people you met and interviewed in the making of this doc, which one will you never forget?

​I now carry many sad stories, but they fuel me to find answers and are the root of why I will continue to push this issue to the best of my abilities so that we (as Canadians) can come together (regardless of race or socio-economic backgrounds) and protect our women. ​

​But, if there was one person who believed in me from the very beginning of this process, it was ​Barb Ward-Burkitt​, the executive director ​of the ​Prince George Native Friendship Centre She was one of the first women that opened not only her heart to me, but her blessing to tell the story.

​Q: How has working on this film changed your perspective on indigenous Canada? How has it changes you?

I was not an activist prior to making this film. It has certainly turned me into one. I want to see change.- Matthew Siley, director of Highway of Tears

I learned more about my country in the last two years, then  I ever did growing up in Montreal. The history of the indigenous population is one that has certainly been tarnished in the field of education and the media.

While I've travelled to some of the poorest communities in Canada, I've found a culture that is so beautiful and pure. It's not just the women that are being violated and killed, but traditions that we should do our best to keep.

I was not an activist prior to making this film. It has certainly turned me into one. I want to see change. ​

A: What kind of response are you hoping for from audiences?

​Not everyone is going to walk away from the film wanting to take action and push for a national inquiry, but the one thing I truly hope, is that people walk away having learned about the root causes of the violence against the women along Highway 16 and how those tragic stories affect us all. It is not just the families, but entire communities that grieve the loss of their daughters and mothers. We all need to be accountable.

Highway of Tears closes the Zonta Film Festival in Waterloo, Ontario, Thursday Nov. 20, 8:30 p.m. ET. There will be a Q&A with activist Gladys Radek and Matt Smiley after the film.  It will be released across Canada in 2015.

This online interview has been edited for length.