Context

The Highway of Tears refers to a section of Yellowhead Highway 16, from Prince Rupert on the northwest coast of British Columbia to the central interior city of Prince George, BC. Twenty-three First Nations border Highway 16. The region is characterized by poverty and, until 2017, lacked adequate public transportation, which forced many locals to resort to hitchhiking as a form of transit.

The exact number of women who have disappeared or been murdered along Highway 16 is disputed. The RCMP acknowledges 18 murders and disappearances in its list of Highway of Tears cases, dating from 1969 to 2006 (the RCMP also include women who have disappeared from BC Highways 97 and 5). Ten of these 18 victims are Indigenous women and girls. However, Indigenous groups argue that this number is misleading because it reflects only the disappearances and murders that have happened in the specific geographic areas around these highways and that the real number in Northern British Columbia exceeds 40. According to Human Rights Watch — an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights — British Columbia has the highest rate of unsolved murders of Indigenous women and girls in Canada. (See also Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada).

However, this problem is not unique to British Columbia. Considered a national crisis by many Canadians, the federal government announced in 2015 that it would launch an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. In that year, federal Indigenous Affairs minister, Carolyn Bennett, claimed that the national number of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada is likely over 1,200.

Each reported case of a woman’s disappearance, or confirmation of a recovered body, has a cumulative effect within First Nations communities along the highway and across Canada: one of growing fear, frustration and sorrow.

RCMP Investigations, 1981-2005

In 1981, the RCMP organized a conference to investigate the growing number of unsolved cases of murdered and missing women along Highway 16 and other highways in interior British Columbia. Known as the Highway Murders, these cases involved women who either were found dead near Highway 16 or were last seen in that area, often hitchhiking. Approximately 40 police detectives from British Columbia and Alberta attended the conference. Close investigation of the cases revealed a number of similarities, including reports of suspicious vehicles and the names of persons of interest. While the Highway Murders initiative identified prime suspects in certain cases between 1981 and 2005, women continued to disappear, or were found murdered, along the Highway of Tears in British Columbia.

RCMP Project E-PANA, 2005

In response to some commonalities between the murder cases of three women (Alisha Germaine, Roxanne Thiara and Ramona Wilson), the BC RCMP’s Unsolved Homicide Unit created Project E-PANA in the fall of 2005 to investigate other cases of murdered and missing women and girls in the area along Highway 16. This project was named, in part, after an Inuit word describing the spirit goddess that looks after souls just before they go to heaven or are reincarnated.

The RCMP use three criteria when reviewing the cases of missing and murdered women to determine whether they should be included in the Project E-PANA investigation:

1) The victim was involved in a high-risk activity that would expose them to danger, such as hitchhiking or being involved in street trade (prostitution);

2) The victim was last seen, or their body was discovered, within one mile of British Columbia Highway 16 (in 2007, this was broadened to include Highways 97 and 5;

3) They were female.

In 2005, when E-PANA was first launched, the RCMP identified nine victims who had gone missing or had been found murdered along Highway 16 (from 1989 to 2006): Alisha Germaine, Roxanne Thiara, Ramona Wilson, Aielah Saric-Auger, Tamara Chipman, Nicole Hoar, Lana Derrick, Delphine Nikal and Alberta Williams. All but one of these victims — Nicole Hoar — were Indigenous.

In order to broaden the investigation, the RCMP used the computer software system, ViCLAS (Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System), as well as other databases and missing person records. In addition, the geographic area under investigation increased from 724 km (Prince Rupert, BC to Prince George, BC) to approximately 1,500 km, which included not only Highway 16 to Hinton, AB, but also sections of Highways 97 and 5. This led the RCMP to double the number of Highway of Tears victims from nine to 18, all of whom were murdered or disappeared over a 37-year period (1969 to 2006). The nine additional Highway of Tears victims are: Shelley Bascu, Maureen Mosie, Monica Jack, Monica Ignas, Colleen MacMillen, Pamela Darlington, Gale Weys, Micheline Pare and Gloria Moody.

Victims

From the earliest to the most recent case, the following women are under E-PANA investigation:

Gloria Moody (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Gloria, aged 27, and a mother of two, was last seen leaving a bar in Williams Lake, BC, on 25 October 1969. Her body was found the next day.

Micheline Pare (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Micheline was last seen in July 1970 along the Fort St. John/Hudson's Hope, BC Highway. Her body was found 8 August 1970 near Hudson's Hope. She was 18 years old.

Gale Weys (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Gale, a 19-year-old from Clearwater, BC, was last seen hitchhiking in October 1973, and her remains were found in April 1974. The RCMP suspected Bobby Jack Fowler in her death, but no conclusive evidence existed to convict him.

Pamela Darlington (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Pamela was a 19-year-old Kamloops, BC, resident who was found murdered in a local park in November 1973. The RCMP suspected Bobby Jack Fowler was responsible for her murder, but no conclusive evidence existed to convict him.

Monica Ignas (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Monica was 15 years old when she was last seen walking along Highway 16 in Thornhill near Terrace, BC, in December 1974. Her body was found four months later, a few kilometres east from where she disappeared.

Colleen MacMillen (Status: Murdered and Solved)

Colleen was 16 years old in August 1974 when she left her family home in Lac La Hache, BC, to hitchhike to visit a friend. Her remains were found one month later. Thirty-eight years later, in October 2012, DNA evidence led the RCMP to announce their belief that Bobby Jack Fowler was Colleen’s murderer. Fowler died in an Oregon prison in 2006.

Monica Jack (Status: Murdered and Solved)

Monica was the youngest victim at 12 years old. She disappeared in May 1978 while riding her bike near Merritt, BC. Her remains were found in 1996. As a result of forensic information, Garry Taylor Handlen, a 67-year-old man, was charged in 2014 for her death and that of an 11-year-old girl, Kathryn-Mary Herbert, unrelated to the Highway of Tears investigation. Handlen was denied bail in June 2015 and a publication ban was imposed.

Maureen Mosie (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Maureen was 33 years old when she was last seen hitchhiking near Salmon Arm, BC, on 8 May 1981. Her body was found at the end of a run-off lane leading to Highway 97.

Shelley (Shelly-Anne) Bascu (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Shelley was 16 years old when she disappeared from Hinton, AB. She was last seen by witnesses on 3 May 1983 near Highway 16.

Alberta Williams (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Alberta disappeared in August 1989 at the age of 24. Her body was found several weeks later near Prince Rupert, BC. In 2016, CBC News produced an eight-part podcast about her death entitled Who Killed Alberta Williams?

Delphine Nikal (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Delphine disappeared on 14 June 1990. Aged 16, she was hitchhiking on Highway 16 between Smithers, BC, and her home in Telkwa, BC.

Ramona Wilson (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Aged 16, Ramona was hitchhiking to her friend’s home in Smithers, BC, on 11 June 1994. Her remains were found in April 1995, alongside Highway 16, near the Smithers Airport. Ramona was a member of the Gitanmaxx Band. Her tragic story was part of a 2006 documentary film by Métis filmmaker Christine Welsh, Finding Dawn, about missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada.

Roxanne Thiara (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

At the age of 15, Roxanne disappeared in November 1994 from Prince George, BC. Her body was found near Burns Lake, BC, off Highway 16.

Alisha (Alishia) Germaine (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Living in Prince George, BC, Alisha was 15 years old at the time of her disappearance. Her body was found near an elementary school, close to Highway 16 West, on 9 December 1994.

Lana Derrick (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Lana, a teen from the Gitanyow Band, was 19 years old when she disappeared on 7 October 1995. Last seen at a gas station near Terrace (Thornhill) in BC, she was traveling east on Highway 16 to her home in the Hazelton area. She was enrolled in studies at Northwest Community College in Houston, BC.

Nicole Hoar (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Nicole was from Alberta and working in the Prince George, BC, area as a tree planter. She was last seen hitchhiking from Prince George to Smithers on Highway 16 West. Nicole was 25 years old at the time of her disappearance on 21 June 2002.

Tamara Chipman (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Tamara was 22 years old when she disappeared on 21 September 2005. She was last seen hitchhiking on Highway 16 near the Prince Rupert, BC, industrial park. Tamara’s home community was Moricetown First Nation.

Aielah Saric-Auger (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Aielah was 14 years old and a student at D.P. Todd Secondary School in Prince George, BC, when she went missing. Aielah was last seen by her family on 2 February 2006. Her body was found on 10 February 2006, in a ditch along Highway 16, approximately 15 km east of Prince George.

Cases Outside E-PANA Investigations

Indigenous groups claim that there are more missing and murdered women and girls than Project E-PANA acknowledges. These include, but are not limited to:

Helen Frost (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Helen was a 17-year-old teenager living in Prince George, BC, at the time of her disappearance. On the evening of 13 October 1970, she left her apartment in the 1600 block of Queensway Avenue for a walk and never returned.

Virginia Sampare (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Virginia was one of six children in her family. On 14 October 1971, her cousin, Alvin, saw her for the last time. She was standing near a bridge on Highway 16, outside her First Nation community of Gitsegukla, BC. She was 18 years old.

Cecilia Nikal (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Cecilia was 15 years old when she was last seen in 1989. Her family claims she went missing along Highway 16 in Smithers, BC. However, the police believe she went missing from Vancouver. Therefore, she is not on the RCMP’s Highway of Tears list.

Deena Braem (Status: Murdered and Unsolved)

Deena was 16 years old when she was last seen alive, hitchhiking to her home in the Bouchie Lake area from Quesnel, BC, on 25 September 1999. Her body was found on 10 December 1999, in an area northwest of Quesnel, near Pinnacles Provincial Park.

Bonnie Marie Joseph (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Bonnie was 31 years old when she was last seen in the Vanderhoof, BC, area on 8 September 2007. This Indigenous woman from the Yekooche Band in the Fort St. James area was known to be very independent and was also known to hitchhike frequently between the communities of Fort St. James, Vanderhoof and Prince George, BC.

Madison Scott (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

On 28 May 2011, 20-year-old Madison, also known as “Maddy,” went missing while camping at Hogsback Lake, located approximately 25 km southeast of Vanderhoof, BC. Her pickup truck and tent were found at the campground with no sign of her, despite an extensive ground, water and air search.

Immaculate Basil (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Immaculate, also known as “Mackie,” was last seen walking on a forest service road northwest of Fort St. James, BC, on 13 June 2013. Despite extensive ground searches, she was never found. Immaculate was 26 years old when she disappeared.

Anita Thorne (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Anita is a 49-year-old Prince George resident who has not been seen by family members since the evening of 19 November 2014. Her car was discovered the next day at a Highway 16 rest area approximately 35 km east of Prince George, BC.

Doreen Jack and family (Status: Missing and Unsolved)

Nothing underlines the profound sense of loss and tragedy surrounding the unsolved cases of missing and murdered women and girls along the Highway of Tears more than the case of Doreen Jack, as it was not just she who disappeared on the highway, but her entire family. On the evening of 2 August 1989, Doreen’s husband, Ronald, met a man at a local pub in Prince George, BC, where the man offered him a job at a ranch or logging camp. That night, the family prepared for the trip to the area of Ronald’s new job. Around 1:30 am, Ronald called his mother from a resort located approximately 50 km west of Prince George, BC on the Highway of Tears, informing her that he, Doreen, and their two boys, nine-year-old Russell and four-year-old Ryan, were leaving for about two weeks. That was the last anyone ever heard from the Jack family.

Solved Cases

In 2012, the Project E-PANA investigation unit achieved a breakthrough in the case of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen, who disappeared in 1974. DNA evidence linked American felon Bobby Jack Fowler to her murder. The RCMP also indicated he was a strong suspect in two other Highway of Tears Project E-PANA cases: those of 19-year-olds Gale Weys and Pamela Darlington.

In December 2014, another Highway of Tears case was solved, due in part to advances in forensic science. Garry Taylor Handlen was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in a pair of cases going back nearly 40 years, including that of 12-year-old Monica Jack, who disappeared in 1978.

While no new cases have been added to the RCMP investigation since 2007, the use of forensic evidence has helped investigators to arrest and charge some of the perpetrators, and to keep these cold cases open. The RCMP reports that since the creation of E-PANA, it has collected 750 DNA samples, conducted 2,500 interviews, investigated 1,413 persons of interest and administered 100 polygraphs.

Private Investigations

Police investigators have not been the only ones searching for the person(s) responsible for the abductions and murders of women and girls along the Highway of Tears. Some families of lost loved ones have launched their own investigations with the assistance of those in their community.

Private Investigator Ray Michalko, an ex-RCMP officer, has also been on a personal mission to solve the Highway of Tears cases. Without any compensation or pay, Michalko has made numerous trips to BC’s North–Central Interior to meet with the victims’ families and conduct his own personal investigations.

Controversies

There is still much debate over the exact number of women who have gone missing on or near the Highway of Tears. Many in the Indigenous community claim that this number exceeds 40. Some argue that socio-economic inequalities limit the resources available to fund searches and awareness campaigns. Others contend that systemic racism, as well as lack of knowledge about Indigenous issues, prevents proper investigations into these cases.

Inequalities in Investigations

Some activists argue that institutional racism and sexism has affected the searches for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Although disappearances date back to at least 1969, activists point to the fact that the RCMP did not launch E-PANA until 2005. In addition, the case which has arguably received the most media attention is that of Nicole Hoar, a non-Indigenous woman who disappeared in 2002. While some credit Hoar’s case with initiating investigative efforts into the matter of missing and murdered women, others claim that her case likely received special attention because she is white. A 2012 Human Rights Watch investigation and report titled, Those Who Take Us Away, reveals a deep distrust of the police amongst Indigenous peoples in Northern BC, due to experiences of discrimination and abuse. Those experiences have influenced their perceptions of the Highway of Tears investigations. According to some families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the police had assumed that many of the women were drunk, prostitutes or had consented to sex before their disappearance or murder. As a result, they argue, these women were ignored by police, and essentially blamed for their own murder or disappearance.

Others contend that Hoar’s case received more attention because her family and friends had access to greater financial resources and social connections than did most other families of missing and murdered women. In the case of Hoar, the city of Red Deer — did some very effective fundraising to support the investigation. Similarly, Madison Scott’s family had extensive financial and networking resources, resulting in a large monetary reward for information about her disappearance, multiple billboards along the highway, posters and bumper stickers and a website dedicated to her case. In contrast, most Indigenous families have limited resources compared to non-Indigenous families. The families of missing or murdered women will use every resource and recourse available to them in efforts to find their loved ones or solve their murders. However, poverty, lack of resources and the marginalization of Indigenous families limit family efforts in launching effective public awareness campaigns for their missing or murdered loved ones.

Email Scandal

In October 2015, an email scandal among BC government officials raised doubt about the handling of the investigations. Access Denied, a 65-page report written by Elizabeth Denham, Information and Privacy commissioner of British Columbia, outlines how BC government officials “triple deleted” emails relating to the Highway of Tears, permanently removing them from the government’s computer system. In so doing, Denham argues that these officials breached the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. This scandal only adds to the concerns of activists and Indigenous groups that the Highway of Tears is seemingly irrelevant to certain high-ranking officials.

The 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium

The families of missing and murdered women have been at the forefront in raising public awareness for their lost loved ones. These families initiated a number of Highway of Tears awareness campaigns and walks over the years, culminating in one of the most notable walks, which started in Prince Rupert, BC, and ended in Prince George, BC, on 30 March 2006. The end of that walk signaled the start of a Highway of Tears Symposium attended by the victims’ families and over 500 delegates representing all sectors of society, including the RCMP and various levels of government.

The 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium was a collective and unifying voice from the victims’ families and the community. The symposium report made 33 recommendations in the following areas:

1) Victim Prevention

2) Emergency Planning and Team Response

3) Victim Family Counselling and Support

4) Community Development and Support

Unfortunately, few of these recommendations were implemented. However, the announcement of a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women in 2015 has led some to believe that real change is on the way.

National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Activists had long called for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Elected in October 2015, the federal Liberal government promised to hold a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered women. From December 2015 to February 2016, the government completed a series of Canada-wide meetings with the victims’ families, to determine both the expectations and scope of a national inquiry on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Hopes are high that the national inquiry will result in significant action — action that the families of victims along the Highway of Tears have been working towards for more than a decade.

On 3 August 2016, the federal government launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, naming five commissioners and outlining its terms of reference. It committed $53.86 million over two years to the initiative, with the goal of producing recommendations on concrete actions to address the disproportionately high rate of violence toward ​Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The inquiry set out with a focus on prevention in addition to tackling issues of systemic and societal ​discrimination.

BC Transit Response

After much public pressure, BC Transit started three new bus routes along Highway 16 in 2017. One actively services the areas between Smithers and Moricetown. The other two service the areas between Burns Lake and Smithers, and between Burns Lake and Prince George. Although the 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium recommended a shuttle, it took over a decade to see any change.