Traveling the Highway of Tears
Bart Plugboer was flying home to British Columbia from a Diaconal Ministries Canada (DMC) meeting when he realized he needed to do something about the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.
As the focus of documentaries, numerous news stories, and a largely unsuccessful police investigation, the matter of missing and murdered Aboriginal women had been on Plugboer’s mind for a long while.
In his role as a DMC developer, Plugboer regularly drives back and forth over Highway 16 to visit a handful of CRC congregations in a remote part of B.C.
This highway spans 720 kilometers from Prince George to Prince Rupert, B.C.; it runs through several small towns and 23 First Nations communities. Because of the region’s poverty and the lack of adequate public transportation, hitchhiking along this highway is common. This has put many women at risk. As a result of the large number of women who have gone missing while traveling along Highway 16, it has become known as the “Highway of Tears.”
“I had a lot of time as I was driving to think about this and about the women who had been murdered or had gone missing, some of them even near where our churches are,” said Plugboer, a member of Houston CRC in Houston, B.C. His church is one of five Christian Reformed congregations located along the Highway of Tears.
He added that his time at that DMC conference reminded him of his ability to do something about this crisis.
“I love my job as a developer and a deacon, and I knew that God wanted me to get involved,” he said.
That was about three years ago. After thinking about the situation for a period, Plugboer came up with an idea, which he took to the local office of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
“I talked to an officer there and asked if they would be interested in working to open a safe room here in our town for women who might be hitchhiking or walking along Highway 16 at night.
“The RCMP agreed and said they would use it for hitchhikers along the Highway of Tears, but they also would use it for domestic violence cases when they needed a room for a mother and her children,” said Plugboer. “That was okay with me, and that was the start of it all.”
Together, they selected a motel, and Houston CRC deacons provided financial backing to keep a room always available for those who need it. “I put a note in the motel room saying, ‘This room was provided by the Houston CRC; please respect it because we paid for your stay to be safe,’” said Plugboer.
In the past year or so, seven people have stayed in the room.
The RCMP reported that some 20 Aboriginal women have disappeared or been killed since the 1980s along the rugged, mountainous areas on or near the Highway of Tears. The most recent of these disappearances was in 2011. It also said that more than 1,200 Aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered across Canada over the past few decades.
In investigating the deaths along Highway 16, police provided a list of women who had been killed or were missing. Circumstances in each case vary, but in many cases the women were young and poor. Only one of these cases was ever solved.
Learning about these reports over the years made Plugboer and his church feel helpless. They wondered what they could do to make a difference.
So they prayed about it. Eventually Plugboer realized the Lord was at work, leading him to play a role.
“I was happy when the RCMP backed the church to open the safe house. It made us feel like we were doing something,” he said.
Plugboer said he is also pleased about other recent developments, for which his church, along with other Christian Reformed congregations and many Aboriginal groups have prayed and lobbied.
For instance, in January a government-funded bus route opened, shuttling people along Highway 16 from Smithers to Moricetown.
“Right now, the bus doesn’t come here. It stops at Smithers,” he said. “But when the bus comes further east, it will go through Houston and will be extended to Burns Lake (about 80 km from Houston) and beyond.”
Another thing the congregation has been supporting is a proposal for Via Rail, a train that travels the route of the Highway of Tears, to provide $5 rides to passengers with little resources. This idea is being discussed.
In addition, people in the area are throwing their support behind what is called the Moose Hide Campaign, a group working in various ways to decrease the level of violence against Aboriginal people and others.
While he didn’t personally know any of the women or girls who were hurt or killed or have gone missing along the Highway of Tears, Plugboer said, “I do know they were children of the same God that we worship and are wonderfully made in his image. That’s all we have to know in order to help them as our sisters and mothers in Christ.”