Posters of missing women hang at a Vancouver shop in 2001. (DeNeen L. Brown/The Washington Post)

OTTAWA — They call it the Highway of Tears, a 450-mile stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway through northern British Columbia where at least 18 young women have disappeared or been murdered since 1969. Half of them were indigenous.

Many of the victims were hitchhiking. Many were teenagers. In several cases, the investigations were said to be perfunctory because the women came from impoverished reserves and had nobody to advocate for them. Many of the cases went cold for decades.

The Highway of Tears is emblematic of a phenomenon that has plagued Canada for decades: violence against indigenous women. The government of Justin Trudeau moved ahead Wednesday on a key election promise, appointing a five-member inquiry commission to study the cases of more than 1,000 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, including the 18 from the Trans-Canada Highway.

The inquiry, with a budget of $41 million, will be headed by Marion Buller, the first indigenous female judge in British Columbia. The other commissioners, three women and a man, include indigenous lawyers and the former head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

Although the inquiry does not have the authority to order police to reopen cold cases and will not determine criminal liability, it can refer information it receives to the authorities and will have the power to investigate police conduct. A frequent complaint by native communities is that police don’t investigate deaths in their communities with the same rigor as crimes against other Canadians and often classify suspicious deaths as suicides or the result of natural causes.

Speaking at a ceremony announcing the makeup of the inquiry at Canada’s Museum of History, Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Aboriginal Affairs, called on the commissioners to investigate the systemic causes of violence, “including racism, sexism and the sustained impact of colonialism.”

“The national inquiry is an important step on our journey of reconciliation with the indigenous people of Canada,” Bennett said.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is an indigenous woman, added that she wanted the inquiry to look at the impact of poverty and marginalization on these communities.

Although many of the cases date back decades, the issue often returns to the news. In summer 2014, Canadians were shocked by the slaying of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, an indigenous girl whose body was found floating in Winnipeg’s Red River. She had been under the supervision of the child-welfare system but had run away from the hotel where she was staying. A 53-year-old drifter with a string of criminal convictions who had apparently associated with the teen was later charged with her murder.

The previous Conservative Party government steadfastly refused to act on demands for an inquiry in the face of mounting political pressure. Former prime minister Stephen Harper insisted last year that most of the cases had been solved and that “the issue has been studied to death.” Bernard Valcourt, Harper’s minister of aboriginal affairs, said that most of the women had in fact been murdered by aboriginal men. “Obviously, there’s a lack of respect for women and girls on reserves,” he said, throwing part of the blame back at native communities.


Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde adjusts a blanket presented to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December. Trudeau's government launched an investigation into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press via AP)

In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police conducted a statistical analysis of 1,181 cases, including 1,017 murders and 164 missing women, and concluded that while indigenous women make up only 4.3 percent of the Canadian population, they accounted for 16 percent of murdered women and 11.3 percent of missing females.

The report also noted that 71 percent of the accused are likely to have consumed intoxicants before the crime and 62 percent of the offenders had a history of family violence.

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