By Morgan O’Neal
The Highway of Tears (Highway 16 West between Prince Rupert and Prince George) is one desolate stretch of road at the best of times, but it is even more forbidding in the winter. Nevertheless, it can also be exceptionally beautiful in places, especially during the day when the sun manages to break through the clouds, and the rays play for a while on the frozen lakes and creeks. Sometimes late in the day the snow on the mountain peaks glows bright neon pink. But more often than not there is nothing but absolute wilderness for miles, interrupted only by the occasional isolated homestead with smoke trailing from the chimney of house. There are signs warning: “Caution: Moose Next 20 km.”
There are many side-roads off this highway, leading to remote logging sites, lakes and other rural recreational spots. It’s the kind of sparsely populated rural countryside that attracts tourists and sports fishermen from Europe and the U.S., including, apparently, late-night talk show host David Letterman. According to Gordon Elmore, owner of the Trout Creek General Store, located on Highway 16 about 25 kilometres west of Smithers, Letterman bought a fishing licence here one day. The word is that he has purchased some property in the vicinity.
Tamara Chipman, a beautiful young mother with a big smile and a small freckle beneath her left eye went missing at the Prince Rupert end of this highway. She was 22 years old when she was last seen on September 21, 2005, hitchhiking eastbound near the town’s industrial park around 4:30 p.m., heading toward her home in Terrace. But she never arrived at her destination. She never saw her young child again. Since that day neither her bank account nor her credit card has been used. Because she was not reported missing for almost three weeks, the investigation into the case has been difficult from the outset. Those first few days so obviously crucial in terms of evidence and witnesses were lost.
It was Tamara Chipman’s disappearance that prompted a Prince George businessman, Tony Romeyn (concerned that yet another young woman had gone missing along the Highway) to launch a website in order to raise public awareness about the young women who have disappeared or been murdered since 1990. As Romeyn said in an interview, “This is not just a small thing happening. Whether it’s a single predator, it’s difficult to say. But I thought this is something we need to explore further.” When Romeyn read the news story about Tamara Chipman, he immediately checked to see if the term ‘Highway of Tears’ had been taken as a website domain name. When he found it was still available, he registered the name and launched the website (www.highwayoftears.ca/).
Ironically Tamara went missing just four days after the 2005 Take Back the Highway March was held in her hometown of Terrace. About 70 people — native and non-native — marched along the infamous highway to draw attention to the many other young women who had previously been murdered or had disappeared along this dangerous stretch of road. Christine Welsh, who teaches women’s studies at the University of Victoria, was in Terrace at the time making a National Film Board documentary about those young women who had gone missing along Highway 16. She sees “what’s happening on the highway as a manifestation of . . . the violence against women in this country” According to Welsh, a Metis living on Saltspring Island, “It’s the everyday systemic violence.”
Tamara Chipman’s family and friends have been searching that highway and the adjacent logging roads ever since. During the daily ground search that followed upon the official recognition that she was missing, searchers “pretty well covered every side road between Terrace and [Prince] Rupert,” according to Tom Chipman, her father. He has also walked along Highway 16, looking in culverts for any sign of his daughter. “It’s scary looking into a culvert,” said Chipman, who makes his living as a gillnet fisherman. “It’s not a nice thing to go through. “Every day we don’t find a body is a good day.”
Tom Chipman had returned to Terrace from fishing that first week of November, expecting to find a phone message from his daughter, who was close to her dad. “It’s definitely out of character for her,” he had said of her not calling. During the last few weeks of the initial search for Tamara, rumours began swirling around about the case in the community — rumours first that she had been spotted alive and well and then later on that her body had been found. “We had to have the police go on the radio and put an end to these rumours,” said Tom Chipman. The father recalls his daughter, since she was a baby, spent a lot of time on his fishing boat. “She was pretty spunky,” her father said. “She took judo lessons for years, so she knew how to look after herself pretty good.”
According to Amnesty International Canada, Tamara Chipman’s disappearance brought to 33 the number of women gone missing or murdered along this now infamous Highway of Tears — all but one of these women were aboriginal. Shelby Raymond, an Amnesty International representative in Terrace who works at Northwest Community College, said she couldn’t provide an entire list of names of the women that Amnesty claims are missing or murdered. “It’s what’s called a soft statistic,” she said. “Much of it was anecdotal, gathered during the Stolen Sisters report Amnesty released its report Stolen Sisters: Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada, in October of 2004.
This report cited a shocking 1996 federal government statistic that native women between 25 and 44 are five times more likely to die as the result of violence than other women in the same age group. The report also included a figure gathered by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), which estimates that more than 500 native women may have been murdered or gone missing over a 20-year period prior to 2004 — again, the figure was based on anecdotal evidence. NWAC says it is difficult to do a statistical analysis of violence involving native women because some police reports did not record whether the victim was a native woman.
The Amnesty International report also cited nine other cases of violence against native woman, including the murder of Helen Betty Osborne, a 19-year-old Cree student from northern Manitoba who dreamed of becoming a teacher but was abducted by four men and killed on Nov. 12, 1971. It took more than 15 years to bring one of the four men to justice. A judicial inquiry that followed found the police investigation was sloppy and racially biased. The inquiry, for example, found that police had long been aware of white men sexually preying on native women and girls in the town of The Pas but “did not feel that the practice necessitated any particular vigilance.”
Warren Goulding in his 2001 book, Just Another Indian: A Serial Killer and Canada’s Indifference, concluded that some lives seem to be worth more than others. Quoted in the book is Justine English, whose sister Mary Jane Serlion was killed in 1981 in Lethbridge by Saskatoon serial killer John Martin Crawford. “It seems that any time a native is murdered, it isn’t a major case. It’s just another dead Indian,” English said. Crawford was convicted in 1996 of killing three native women and was suspected in the death of at least one and possibly other native women whose murders remain unsolved.
Goulding questioned why Crawford’s trial received such scant attention from the national media, noting it took place at almost the same time as the trial of Paul Bernardo, which transfixed the national media. Bernardo was convicted of killing two teenage white girls, who were innocent, girl-next-door types the media could identify with, Goulding suggests in his book. “The Canadian public’s awareness of this case is virtually non-existent, even in Saskatoon where the crimes occurred,” Goulding wrote of Crawford’s serial killing spree.
Melissa Munn, who teaches criminology at Northwest Community College in Terrace and University of Ottawa, has looked closely at the Highway 16 cases and although she remains uncertain whether a serial killer is responsible, she knows something is very wrong.. “If it’s one person, that’s one thing, but if it’s multiple people — seven or eight killers — that’s much more scary to me,” she says. “I think these cases speak to the vulnerability of first nations girls.” She said hitchhiking is a risky behavior, but it’s also a way of life for many poor native women living in remote communities who can’t afford a vehicle or bus fare to town.
Tamara’s disappearance renewed the grief of the families of the other girls and young women who were Highway 16 victims.”Every time we hear of someone else missing, it just brings us so much sorrow because we know what the families are going through,” said Matilda Wilson of Smithers, whose 15-year-old daughter Ramona went missing 10 years ago.
Police have repeatedly stated that while they cannot rule out the possibility of a serial killer operating along Highway 16, there is no evidence to suggest a link between the murders and mysterious disappearances. But retired RCMP officer Fred Maile, who helped crack the Clifford Olson serial killer case in B.C. by getting Olson to confess to 11 murders, is convinced a serial killer is working along Highway 16. “I am 100-per-cent certain that there’s a serial killer there,” he said in an interview after Tamara’s disappearance. “I went up there twice to look at the cases of Delphine Nikal and Ramona Wilson. We felt the same individual had grabbed them.”
Maile was asked by the Calgary-based Missing Children Society to investigate the cases and found too many similarities. “They were both native, both about the same age and they were hitchhiking in opposite directions,” Maile recalls. “The whole situation smacks of someone driving that highway and living there.”The unusual thing about serial killers, he said, is that they can sometimes go years between murders. “They look for an opportunity,” he explains. “There’s usually not two or three individuals in the same area that do this.” He also points out that a serial killer can appear normal and go undetected. “They don’t stand out as monsters. They blend in with the rest of us. Look at the Green River killer.”The Green River killer, Gary Leon Ridgway, operated for more than 20 years in the Seattle area before he was caught in 2001, when investigators linked his DNA to four murders. On Nov. 5, 2003, the truck painter pleaded guilty to murdering 48 women between 1982 and 1998.
Highway 16 also runs east to Edmonton, where police believe a serial killer might be connected to the bodies of 12 women found around that city over the last 16 years. RCMP have offered a $100,000 reward and released a profile that suggests the killer or killers drive a truck or SUV which is cleaned at unusual hours, may be a hunter, fisherman or camper, is comfortable driving on country roads, and is likely connected to towns south of Edmonton. Edmonton RCMP have admitted investigators have learned from the mistakes made during the investigation of accused B.C. serial killer Robert (Willy) Pickton, who is now on trial in New Westminster. The number of missing women being investigated in that case now stands at 68, plus three unidentified DNA profiles found at the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam.