The Highway of Tears is a 720-kilometre (450 mi) corridor of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada, which has been the location of many murders and disappearances beginning in 1970. The phrase was coined in 1998 during a vigil held in Terrace, British Columbia for six missing women. There are a disproportionately high number of Indigenous women on the list of victims. Proposed explanations for the years-long endurance of the crimes and the limited progress in identifying culprits include systemic racism, poverty, drug abuse, widespread domestic violence, disconnection with traditional culture and disruption of the family unit through the foster care system and Canadian Indian residential school system. Poverty in particular leads to low rates of car ownership and mobility, thus hitchhiking is often the only way for many to travel vast distances to see family or go to work, school, or seek medical treatment. Another factor leading to abductions and murders is that the area is largely isolated and remote, with soft soil in many areas and carnivorous scavengers to carry away human remains; these factors precipitate violent attacks as perpetrators feel a sense of impunity, privacy and the ability to easily carry out their crimes and hide evidence.
Accounts vary as to the exact number of victims. According to the RCMP Project E-Pana list the number of victims is less than 18. E-Pana includes a large proportion of victims that are not related to the Highway of Tears. Aboriginal organizations estimate that the number of missing and murdered women ranges above 40. Although E-Pana has led to solved cases in other areas, no E-Pana case along the Highway of Tears has been solved.
Investigation and suspects
To date, a number of people have been convicted in cases related to the Highway of Tears. Three serial killers are among those charged, Brian Peter Arp, Edward Dennis Isaac and Cody Legebokoff.
Although he was not implicated in of any Highway of Tears cases, Bobby Jack Fowler was strongly implicated in a number of cases related to E-Pana, but died in prison before charges could be laid. Garry Taylor Handlen has been charged with two murders in BC, one of them related to E-Pana. Neither Fowler nor Handlen have been charged in the deaths of any of the Highway of Tears victims. It is also possible that Fowler was linked to the Highway of Tears cases because he worked for a now closed Prince George company called Happy's Roofing in 1974. Former Vancouver police geographic profiler Kim Rossmo is on the record having said that in his opinion Fowler is not responsible for any of the crimes along highway 16 between 1989 and 2006.
In 2009, police converged on a property in Isle Pierre, in rural Prince George, to search for the remains of Nicole Hoar, a young tree planter who went missing on Highway 16 on June 21, 2002. The property was once owned by Leland Vincent Switzer, who is currently serving a prison sentence for the second-degree murder of his brother. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) also searched the property for the other missing women from the Highway of Tears; however, no further actions followed the investigation.
RCMP Sgt Wayne Clary said they may never solve all of the cases and that it will be the "people in the communities that are going to solve these crimes." They do have persons of interest in several cases, but not enough evidence to lay charges.
B.C. government email scandal
In an official government report, ministerial assistant George Gretes was accused of being responsible for "triple deleting" all emails relating to the Highway of Tears from the email account of Tim Duncan, former executive assistant to Transportation minister Todd Stone.
On October 22, 2015, Elizabeth Denham, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of British Columbia, published a 65-page report outlining how B.C. government officials had "triple deleted" emails relating to the Highway of Tears.In her report Access Denied, Denham describes the act of "triple deleting" as transferring an email to the "deleted" folder on a computer system, deleting the email from the folder and then overriding the backup that admits the system to retrieve deleted items. By deleting these files, Denham states the government had breached the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Denham became aware of the scandal in May 2015 after she received a letter from Tim Duncan, the former executive assistant to Transportation Minister Todd Stone. Duncan claimed that as he was responding to an FOI (Freedom of Information) application, ministerial assistant George Gretes ordered for Duncan to search his records for any files pertaining to the Highway of Tears and missing women. Once the files were located, Duncan testified that Gretes ordered for them to be deleted. When Duncan hesitated, Gretes allegedly took the keyboard and "triple deleted" all of the emails relating to the Highway of Tears. According to Denham, Gretes originally denied this claim but later admitted to the triple deletion during a second police interview. Denham states that Gretes—who resigned from his job in October 2015—would have then lied under oath. A year earlier in the summer of 2014, a team from the Transportation Ministry toured Highway 16 and conducted numerous meetings with Aboriginal leaders and communities. The significance of this project was to produce safer travel solutions for women living along Highway 16, many of whom had turned to hitchhiking as a way of transportation. In November 2014, the NDP made the FOI request seeking all government files pertaining to missing women, the Highway of Tears and meetings arranged by the ministry: the report Duncan would later respond to. Despite a two-month tour and multiple meetings, the B.C. government claimed the FOI request produced no files relating to the Highway of Tears. According to Denham's report, these records did exist until government officials destroyed them in order to "skirt freedom of information laws". In Access Denied, Denham called upon the RCMP to further investigate the triple deletion of government files. In November 2015, Vancouver lawyer Mark Jetté was appointed as special prosecutor within the RCMP investigation. Jetté will act as the RCMP's independent legal adviser as well as administer an independent assessment of the evidence. He will also pursue any criminal charges that may be found appropriate.
In 2005, the RCMP launched a provincially funded project, E-Pana, which started with a focus on some of the unsolved murders and disappearances of young women along Highway 16. E-Pana sought to discover if there was a single serial killer at work or a multitude of killers operating along the highway. The unit started with 3 cases in 2005, then the unit investigated 9 cases in 2006, but by 2007 its caseload had doubled to 18 and its geographical scope began spanning large parts of the province and not just Highway 16.
The victims involved within the E-Pana investigation followed the criteria of being female, participating in a high-risk lifestyle, known to hitchhike and were last seen or their bodies were discovered within a mile from Highway 16, Highway 97 and Highway 5. In the 2009/2010 year, E-Pana received over $5 million in annual funding but has since declined due to budget cutbacks; receiving only $806,109 for the 2013/2014 year. In 2013, Craig Callens, the RCMP deputy commissioner, warned that further budget reductions from the provincial government would greatly affect the Highway of Tears investigations; however, he didn't say this would affect the E-Pana cases which aren't Highway of Tears. A 2014 freedom-of-information request stated that the task force had dropped from 70 officers to 12 officers since 2010. E-Pana is responsible for linking the homicide of 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen, who was killed in 1974 with the now-deceased American serial killer Bobby Jack Fowler. E-Pana now considers Fowler a suspect in the murders of two other highway victims, Gale Weys and Pamela Darlington, both of whom were killed in the 1970s. In 2014, investigations by E-Pana and the Provincial Unsolved Homicide Unit brought murder charges against Garry Taylor Handlen for the death of 12-year-old Monica Jack in 1978. He was found guilty by jury and sentenced to life in prison in early 2019, thus Monica Jack's murder becomes the first file in Project E-Pana to officially be solved with full court proceedings and sentence. E-Pana is still investigating the remaining unsolved cases although it is unlikely that all will be solved.
Some critics argue that the lack of results arising from this investigation is the result of systemic racism. This was also reported to be an issue in the case of Vancouver's missing women and the Robert Pickton murders. The issue of systemic racism in these cases is explored in Finding Dawn, the 2006 documentary by Christine Welsh whose film includes a section on the Highway of Tears victim Ramona Wilson, including interviews with family and community members. Often overlooked in reports on the Highway of Tears is the fact that over half of the missing women are First Nations.
Activists argue that media coverage of these cases has been limited, claiming that "media assign a lesser value to aboriginal women". Furthermore, despite the fact that these disappearances date back as far as 1969, it was not until 2005 that Project E-Pana was launched, investigating similarities between the cases. Nicole Hoar, a Caucasian woman who disappeared in 2002 received a disproportionate amount of media attention at the time of her disappearance. Hers was the first of the Highway of Tears cases to be covered in The Globe and Mail, Vancouver Sun, and Edmonton Journal. Gladys Radek, a native activist and the aunt of victim Tamara Chipman, "believes that if it weren't for Hoar, the police would have invested less effort in investigating cases, and the media would have done little, if anything, to inform the public about the tragedies along the road."