The notorious stretch of highway carves across more than 700 kilometres of northern British Columbia, the main vein running through more than a dozen remote communities in an area roughly the size of France.
Driving along Highway 16, part of the Trans-Canada Highway, the scene is seemingly picturesque; on the horizon, snow-capped peaks pierce the vast sky, flanked by long rows of coniferous trees that seem to go on forever.
But anyone who drives along the highway for a significant time will come across a grim reminder for why this long paved road has one of the darkest histories in Canada: Bright yellow billboards standing like sentries along the highway, urging caution and warning of a killer on the loose.
“Girls don’t hitchhike on the Highway of Tears,” the sign warns above nine blue teardrops and the photos of the bright, smiling faces of three women and girls who are believed to have gone missing or were found murdered around this highway: Delphine Nikal, Tamara Chipman and Cecilia Nikal.
The highway’s moniker is derived from the fact that the RCMP believe at least 18 women, the majority of them Indigenous, have vanished or were found murdered along Highway 16 or the adjacent Highway 97 and Highway 5. Many are believed to have been hitchhiking. Family members and community advocates say the number of women is actually much higher — closer to 40.
Community members say the region has long been scourged by poor infrastructure and government neglect — especially inadequate public transit, which forces some women who lack a vehicle or driver’s licence to hitchhike to access services such as specialized health care, which are often only available in larger centres hours from their home community.
“I think the public thinks that it’s an issue that’s being dealt with but it really isn’t,” said Mary Teegee, a longtime community advocate who was executive producer for the 2015 “Highway of Tears” documentary. “It’s still ongoing.”
Teegee was also a participant in the 2006 Highway of Tears Symposium, which culminated in 33 recommendations to address women and girls going missing or being murdered in the north.
Efforts are underway to meet the symposium’s recommendations, such as establishing a shuttle-bus network between every town and city along the highway and to fill in gaps in wireless coverage — including the recent construction of additional cellular towers.
But more than 15 years after that symposium, advocates say the issues and conditions that put women and girls at risk and let serial killers cover their tracks are still entrenched — poverty, racism and marginalization.
“These murders aren’t just the work of serial killers,” a narrator declares in the 2015 documentary. “But the sad result of systemic and socio-economic issues that have plagued the First Nations communities for generations.”
The Highway of Tears connects Prince George and Prince Rupert through rugged and hilly terrain, with steep peaks and valleys and some areas so remote it’s been described as eerie. You can drive a two-hour stretch without encountering a single soul, community or service centre, and in some sections wireless service is spotty, too. In years past, it meant planning a trip with care if driving at night, because there was no 24-hour gas station.
Over the past decade, the highway has received much media attention, including internationally — but residents of the area say it hasn’t always been that way. The murders date back to the ’70s and meaningful steps to stop them weren’t taken until the mid-2000s, when RCMP formed a dedicated task force and the community-driven symposium put out the list of recommendations.
Teegee, a Gitk’san and Carrier from Takla Lake First Nation, is not just an advocate; she lost at least one family member on the highway. Her cousin Ramona Wilson went missing on June 1, 1994 — her remains were found the following April along the highway, near the Smithers airport.
She was 16 years old.
“She went to meet her friends and just never came home, and for a year having no idea where she was, was just brutal,” Teegee recalled. “She was found murdered along the highway. And there was really nothing by the media (at that time).”
Media attention has increased, as has public awareness, but women are still going missing. Few cases have been solved.
The RCMP have several open missing persons and homicide investigations in the area from the past five years, including Cynthia Martin, missing since December 2018, and Jessica Patrick (Balczer), whose remains were found in 2018.
In 2005, the Mounties started E-PANA, a special task force to solve cases of missing and murdered women and girls in Northern B.C. (Pana is the word for an Inuit god who was said to care for souls in the underworld before they were reincarnated.)
E-PANA has taken on 13 homicide and five missing persons investigations dating from 1969 to 2006. For a file to qualify for the task force, the victims must have been female, involved in either hitchhiking or other high-risk activity, and their body must have been found within roughly a mile of Highways 16, 97 or 5.
Police say they suspect there is more than one serial killer responsible for the murders — in fact, there have already been at least two suspects definitively linked to Highway of Tears cases.
E-PANA investigators connected American serial killer Bobby Jack Fowler to the murder of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen after they discovered his DNA on her body, which was found in 1974. They also believed he was a strong suspect for two other E-PANA homicide cases from that period — Gale Weys and Pamela Darlington — but by the time police declared he was a suspect in 2012, Fowler had already died in prison of lung cancer.
In 2019, Garry Taylor Handlen was convicted of murdering 12-year-old Monica Jack, the youngest known Highway of Tears victim. Her remains were found in a ravine 17 years after she was last seen riding her bike near Nicola Lake in 1978; Handlen remains the only person charged and convicted as a result of E-PANA investigations.
Retired Mountie Wayne Clary was a sergeant in the unsolved homicides unit in the early 2000s and took part in the Robert Pickton investigation. He started working on E-PANA around 2012 and was recently brought back as a reservist to assist with investigations.
He said he believes it’s possible some cases may never be solved, for reasons including the passage of time and lack of witnesses or evidence. But investigators of fresher cases have far more to work with.
“When you compare investigations today to say 30 or 40 years ago, we didn’t have cameras, there was no cellphone towers, none of that. So it’s really kind of difficult to go back,” he said.
The RCMP’s E-PANA webpage, last updated in 2016, said there were 50 dedicated investigators and support staff on the task force. Clary said today it’s down to about 16 or 17 investigators plus support staff, but that’s because much of the heavy lifting has been done.
Soon after the task force’s formation, it brought in officers from other areas to sort through about 700 boxes of material over a year and a half. They now have more than 1,500 persons of interest and/or suspects, and more than 20,000 tips or tasks to follow.
“They’re now part of the unit and not just kind of an add for Project E-PANA … So this unit will never go away. And there will be always people who are investigators to look at files,” Clary said. “We can kind of shrink and expand as required, if we get a hot tip and it needs something, away we go.”
The symposium’s No. 1 recommendation was the shuttle-bus system.
Folks without a car have a long hard time navigating the north and it’s believed this has been putting women at risk. This was exacerbated when Greyhound abandoned its northern routes in 2018, thought the B.C. government stepped in and replaced the northern routes with BC Bus North, a private-public partnership.
While public transit in remote villages and towns is more accessible than it was in 2006, there’s more work to be done, and there are also concerns about protecting ongoing funding for the buses, as well as for the other recommendation.
There is also a deep digital divide that for years has made the area something of a black hole for wireless communication. Many residents in the north don’t have home internet because of its prohibitive cost; other residents describe hours-long stretches of highway where cellphones lose signal, removing a familiar safety net for drivers as well as any hitchhikers. Much has improved, although some gaps still remain; last week, Rogers Communications announced it was continuing to expand wireless coverage by building new cellular towers along the highway, which will provide 252 km of new wireless coverage across Highway 16.
The last recommendation to flow from the symposium was for RCMP to continue to investigate, in consultation with the Indigenous communities, to ascertain the “actual number of missing women.”
Teegee said at that time, there was a strong show of interest from the Mounties, including higher-ups, but that momentum has mostly fizzled. Today she describes their relationship as “stop and go.”
That’s why Teegee is grateful for the commitment to improving access to wireless service along the highway, when it sometimes feels like the Highway of Tears only gets attention when something terrible happens.
“I really do appreciate Rogers coming to the table because I’m sort of at the point where I’m so done with lip service,” Teegee said.
Barbara Ward-Burkitt, executive director of the Prince George Native Friendship Centre and a member of the provincial Minister’s Advisory Council on Indigenous Women, also said Rogers’ move was good news, but should have happened a long time ago.
“When you have to wait 20 years to get cellphone coverage, that’s very telling,” Ward-Burkitt said.
Part of understanding the infrastructure challenges faced by rural and Indigenous communities in northern B.C. is to appreciate the region’s sheer size. The Northern Health Authority provides services to some 300,000 people over 600,000 square kilometres, an area taking in about two-thirds of the entire province. The region includes more than two dozen villages, towns and cities, 55 First Nations communities and at least 10 chartered Métis communities.
According to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, B.C. had the largest number of remote communities of all the provinces as of 2011. An example is the Kwadacha First Nation, 570 kilometres from Prince George (a nearly 12-hour drive). Some other areas, such as the Haida Gwaii islands, are only accessible by ferry or plane.
There are various reasons why people leave their home communities in the north, sometimes turning to hitchhiking to travel. Some of the most common are a lack of educational opportunities, scarce or overpriced housing, poor job prospects and an excessive cost of living.
But when they come to larger centres like Prince George, they face other challenges, including racism, which manifests as discrimination in housing and health care, Ward-Burkitt said.
She told a story of a young woman from a reserve northwest of Prince George that was a fly-in community until about five years ago. She left because there was little to no cellphone and internet access, and the cost of groceries was prohibitively expensive because everything had to be flown in.
She moved to Prince George, where she fell upon some hard times. She was a single mother of five, Ward-Burkitt said, and trying her best to improve her life and that of her children.
One day, someone at school reported that the children were wearing dirty clothes. An inspection of her home was ordered and it was determined that she didn’t have the proper number of bedrooms for every child.
She was told to move into a bigger house, but she couldn’t afford it with her current shelter allowance.
“Also, there wasn’t a whole lot of landlords (in Prince George) that were willing to rent a home to a single Indigenous mom with five children either,” Ward-Burkitt said.
Because her children were deemed to be underhoused, they were taken from her. The woman’s income assistance was reduced to only cover a single person.
As a result, she lost both her kids and her home.
“She just gave up … Imagine if you were in that situation where you had to make those kinds of choices,” Ward-Burkitt said. “And as a result of making choices that you feel are best for your family? You end up being homeless.”
Today Ward-Burkitt sees the woman come into the friendship centre to pick up blankets and access their cellphone program. She was recently evicted from a tent city in Prince George after the city had it removed.
Burkitt-Ward said it’s these kinds of situations that sometimes put women in high-risk situations, such as using drugs to cope, entering sex work to pay the bills, or staying with an abuser because they have nowhere else to go.
It’s a story she can relate to — for 20 years, Ward-Burkitt was in an abusive relationship, which she kept to herself despite helping other women in the same situation.
“In small communities, you’re taking huge risks (by) sharing your story … so you keep that secret. Because if you don’t, and you’re in that kind of a relationship, you pay the price for that. Or you’re worried that your children might.”
And small communities are tight-knit; the person you reveal your problem to, in apparent confidence, might well have a relative at the local health clinic or band office, and so the fear of those kinds of institutions leads to further secrecy.
Ward-Burkitt remembers her mother telling her as a young woman that she should never let her kids go to school with dirt on their faces because she said child welfare would take them away.
The result is many Indigenous women and girls grow up with a distrust of the system that is supposed to protect them, as well as fear: fear of child welfare authorities, fear of the RCMP, fear of the school system.
“From the families that we work with, and the young people, those fears are still there … part of your DNA almost,” Ward-Burkitt said.
But it’s those same fears that sometimes cause women to put their trust in a stranger on the side of the road, rather than appeal to institutions for help.
David Loewen, the former lead of an Indigenous health team with Northern Health who worked in First Nations, pointed to incident earlier this year which he believes is an example of how discrimination and social inequity are ingrained deep in northern B.C., sometimes leading to devastating outcomes.
It was reported that an Indigenous couple arrived to the Kitimat General Hospital while expecting, but were allegedly turned away because the pregnant woman was past her due date and the hospital was not equipped for complicated pregnancies.
They were told to go to Terrace, about 45 minutes away, but there was a delay over a dispute about whether they could afford an ambulance transfer. When they finally made it to hospital, the mother gave birth to a stillborn baby.
He said this is but one example of the complications being pregnant can present to women in isolated northern communities.
“Giving birth should not be a health condition,” Loewen said, noting that some women who get pregnant end up having to move to Prince George for a period of time.
“Sadly, systemic and structural racism is so endemic to this area … And what hits the media is absolutely horrific, but those stories are probably one out of 1,000,” he added.
Teegee hopes those stories will become less frequent in the media and in her community, and perhaps disappear for good.
But she knows the road forward is a long one.
“I think it’s just having the political will and the governments committing to making those changes and not only for Indigenous people … It’s anybody in the north that should be able to just to get their basic human necessities.”
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh