Brett Merchant is dedicating every footfall of a 1,236 km walk across B.C. to young people who were murdered or went missing along Highway 16.
Rather than only walk the stretch of the Yellowhead Highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert — the section known as the Highway of Tears — Merchant decided to start from the B.C.-Alberta border and trek all the way to the highway’s end in Old Massett.
On Wednesday, Oct. 19, Merchant’s walk was delayed at the 85 km sign outside of Prince Rupert due to complications in his knee and ankle. He visited a doctor and will rest for a week before continuing on.
“I don’t want to quit,” said Merchant. “It’s getting sad to come to the end.”
Merchant faces health issues — lupus, early onset of dementia, and diabetes — but that has driven him even more.
“Over time I just wanted to do something because I’m getting older and sicker and I heard of the Highway of Tears,” he said, speaking inside the Prestige Prince Rupert Hotel lobby where he was put up free of charge for a couple nights.
Merchant got the final push he needed after watching a Highway of Tears documentary on Netflix.
“The day I saw that, probably within six weeks I’m on the road,” he said.
Most of Merchant’s nights have been spent in a tent with his dog Kura, a half-Siberian Husky half-wolf. Friends drove the two from their assisted living home in Kimberley to the “Welcome to B.C.” sign near Jasper. On Sept. 1, they started walking.
His sister, Cheryl Magis, was concerned about her brother’s plan but he brought a GPS spot with him so the family can see where he is every day.
“What can you do — he was going if I said ‘no.’ You can’t stop somebody if that’s their dream. You have to let them do it. All we were hoping was that he was safe,” said Magis, speaking by phone from Cranbrook. Magis said she has been impressed with how far he’s been able to go in his condition, and in such a short period of time.
Every place they have walked through has been welcoming and Merchant said it’s been difficult to leave.
He doesn’t reach out to people, they come to him — it’s difficult to miss a man in a fluorescent yellow T-shirt, shorts and a large white half-wolf dog along the highway.
In the Bulkley-Nechako region, 40 people came out on the highway to meet him. An elderly woman showed him a photo of her daughter who had been murdered and he was invited to stay at a resident’s home for the evening. Over his tour he has met with five families whose girls have been murdered, and one family whose son is missing.
Acknowledging and bringing awareness to the Highway of Tears and the families who are suffering from the loss of a loved one is a key component to his mission.
“People just want to be respected as people,” he said.
When Merchant was young, his father owned a shoe store business in Cranbrook. His father used to employ the homeless and vulnerable to do odds and ends at the shop.
“That’s probably where it starts,” Merchant said when asked why he wanted to do the walk.
Merchant expects to catch the ferry to Haida Gwaii on Thursday, Oct. 20 after retracing the steps he lost at the 85 km sign.
“The trip is coming close to an end and it’s making me sad, but the journey will never ever in my whole life end,” he said.