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Sex activist to show other side of Highway of Tears

Jessica Yee has some blunt words for the RCMP's failure to address aboriginal women disappearing on BC's Highway of Tears.

Jessica Yee has some blunt words for the RCMP’s failure to address aboriginal women disappearing on BC’s Highway of Tears.

“It’s total systemic discrimination,” said Yee, who has worked to strengthen sexual education for young women living along Highway 16 in northern BC.

“There was one non-aboriginal victim and the amount of attention paid to her was so much higher,” she said. “Not to say that her life is any less valuable, but it is a process of discrimination.

“As far as the RCMP is concerned, there’s a huge amount of racism, lack of cultural awareness, lack of taking these issues seriously. There’s families having to pound on their door and cry and beg and plead with them to take it seriously.”

Yee, 23, worked on the Highway of Tears Initiative for two years fostering discussion among young women on their sexual rights.

She’s made a 20-minute film, to be presented tonight at the Alpine Bakery, on her experiences.

“What I don’t like is that the media never shows what people are actually doing, I think that’s not fair,” said Yee. “It’s fair to paint it in a horrific light because it is. But you also have to not sensationalize it so it makes the news.”

“If communities are going through all these horrible things, why wouldn’t you talk about all the things people are actually doing about it?”

Yee, creator of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, is not afraid to buck trends.

She’s young, multiracial and embraces sexuality as pleasurable and healthy - Yee’s not your bra-burning, marching-in-the-streets feminist of yore.

A 23-year-old with an impressive resume, she’s raised the eyebrows and the ire of the movement’s old guard.

“(Ageism) is something I struggle with a lot,” she said, speaking from Winnipeg before boarding a flight to Whitehorse.

“Even with older feminists that I’ve worked with and have worked with me, there is a bit of power struggle,” she said.

“We have this huge intergenerational gap that is ever-growing between the younger generation, who aren’t getting into the movement, but it’s also the older generation not story sharing.”

There’s also a larger problem. Women’s issues aren’t centered around the abortion clinic or the workplace like they use to be.

Today, they’re in the hard to reach places that feminists once overlooked; the inner-city, ethnic and aboriginal communities.

“There’s a lack of awareness of why it’s important to do culturally relevant stuff,” said Yee. “Why a one-size-fits-all approach to sexual and reproductive health and education isn’t working.”

For all the trailblazing of the last generation, old stigmas still persevere in the movement.

“We have, in Toronto, the first aboriginal sex worker outreach project ever in Canada,” said Yee. “It’s an amazing project that’s having very good results in Toronto, but it’s very controversial for people to actually be doing something with women as opposed to for them.”

And that’s the kicker.

Since the 1980s, feminism hasn’t been the solid movement it use to be. Women who felt weakened by the leading spokeswomen began a divergent grassroots criticism that continues to this day, loosely called third wave feminism.

The big tent doesn’t work anymore. It’s the little things that matter now.

That’s Yee’s specialty.

As executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Yee has united women from the smallest corners to the biggest cities of North America by helping them address their sexual health issues. By bringing expertise where young women need it, Yee has helped create a distinctive variation of sexual politics.

She spoke yesterday to the Young Women’s Voices project to congratulate and honour them for their recent work producing a multimedia performance show on issues important to young women.

The show, performed last Monday at the Old Fire Hall, was a moving testament to young women’s abilities when given a chance.

“My sense is that you have a group of committed young people that can make things happen,” said Yee. “But I would say it’s not a regularity.”

“Travelling across Canada every week, I find a lot of women wanting opportunity and wanting that ability to create film to discuss the things young women are going through,” she said.

These gaps in sexual health education stem from myriad causes, but Yee focuses on the old taboos from feminism’s last generation.

And it’s not just sex workers and stigmatized diseases like HIV/AIDS that have been ignored.

People have a really hard time connecting violence to sexual education, she said.

“There’s a huge connection, and I have a hard time explaining it to people because I notice that, in a lot violence prevention or domestic-violence fields, people are very reluctant to bridge it to the larger discussion around comprehensive sex education,” said Yee.

Research has proven young women with better sexual education make more informed choices about their sexuality, she said.

“But I feel we’ve come to a standstill in our generation of different agencies tackling different issues and half the time we’ll intersect, but we won’t come full circle when young people need us full circle.

“So, in our organization, we try and work and dialogue about violence at the same time that we dialogue about people’s right to choose, about people’s right to seek out pleasure, and the right to be a feminist at a young age.”

The full-circle approach is evident from Yee’s work on the Highway of Tears.

Highway 16, connecting Prince George and Prince Rupert through the northern BC wilderness, is a symbol of what happens to women forgotten by mainstream feminism.

Eleven women have either been murdered or have mysteriously disappeared on the highway in recent years, according to a 2006 CBC report.

The Highway of Tears came to Yee’s attention in 2006 after a flurry of media interest over the murders.

She contacted the then-co-ordinator of the Highway of Tears Initiative, Lisa Krebs, who found Yee’s skill set valuable to the cause.

“She said, ‘You know what, a lot of the violence is sexualized,’” said Yee. “‘It’s a huge thing. So why don’t come down here and see what we can do.’ And I never looked back.”

The initiative organized workshops to foster communication among women who have either been victims, or known them. It also lobbies for better victim’s services and public transportation alternatives along the highway.

“We just decided to put (the film) together so people could catch a glimpse of what we were doing and the communities are going through versus the negative media that was paid to them,” said Yee.

Those voices, hopeful despite the dangers around them, became the focus of her film, called Highway of Hope.

“It’s a very in-a-positive-light film, which is different from a lot of films made about the Highway of Tears,” said Yee.

It’s 20 minutes long and opens with two women talking about their experiences along the highway.

“The rest of the film goes into what the initiative is doing and the voices of youth,” she said. “It’s them talking about what we did, what these issues means to them, what types of intervention they would like to see, what’s true about their communities, their realities.”

“This is a great film to galvanize and mobilize youth in a positive light in terms of what they’re actually doing,” said Yee.

Highway of Hope will be shown Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Alpine Bakery in partnership with Young Women’s Voices, who will present Rise, a film by Josie O’Brien and Jamie Lea Miller. The showing is free.

Contact James Munson at