A haunting road for hitchhikers

Saturday, August 29, 2009 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

A sinuous stretch of British Columbia’s Highway 16, which snakes from Prince Rupert’s rocky coast to Prince George in B.C.’s northern interior, has become synonymous with heartbreak and grisly mysteries.

The lonely, 718-kilometre winding ribbon of road is the only driving route connecting the string of isolated communities nearby. It passes through rugged mountainous and forested terrain, most of it deserted.

Buses on the rural thoroughfare are non-existent, the train often expensive and vulnerable hitchhikers many – even decades after an epidemic of disappearances and murders began, spawning a trail of grainy headshots and missing-person posters plastered on telephone poles across the province, but little in the way of answers or closure.

At least 18 women, almost all aboriginal, have vanished from the now-notorious “highway of tears” and the surrounding area in a series of disappearances and unsolved murders stretching back four decades.

Advocates say the numbers are far higher than the 18 names the RCMP has published.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada claims there are at least 137 missing or murdered aboriginal women across B.C., more than any other province in Canada.

The arterial road began as the 19th-century Yellowhead Pass and Tête Jaune Cache, named after blond-haired Iroquois-Métis trapper Pierre Bostonais.

It was intended to be part of an elongated transport lifeline to the West.

Now the highway is a high-traffic transport artery frequented by massive long-haul trucks carting supplies. Hitching a ride with those trucks, or another driver, is the only way to get around.

That’s how Tamara Chipman was supposed to get home in September, 2005 – on her way back to her two-year-old son and boyfriend in Terrace after visiting her mother’s family in Prince Rupert.

The 22-year-old hasn’t been heard from since.

It was Ms. Chipman’s disappearances that sent her aunt Gladys Radek to scour the Internet to connect with the families of other women disappeared or killed on the “highway of tears.”

She helped organize protests and walks across the country to raise awareness of decades-old cases she says most of Canada seemed to have forgotten.

“[This week’s search is] the first movement I’ve heard of for a couple of years of any investigation being solved,” she said. “There’s hundreds of other family members there who don’t have closure. … The years are crawling by.”

In the years since, family members and advocates have been calling on authorities to push for a breakthrough in unsolved cases long gone cold.

Talks are ongoing to make truck stops safer, and towns along the highway have started putting up looming, darkly-worded billboards warning would-be hitchhikers of the dangers of the road.

But it’s common knowledge truck drivers will pick up hitchhikers, and when there’s no other way to get from place to place, people like Nicole Hoar, whose 2002 disappearance police are investigating at an Isle Pierre property near the highway, stick out their thumbs despite the risks.

“There’s no transportation, there’s no way to get from one village to an urban setting, and so if you don’t have a vehicle or don’t have access to a vehicle and don’t have someone to give you a ride … people hitchhike,” said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Vancouver-based Battered Women’s Support Services, who has done extensive advocacy work on missing women’s cases.

She says that the RCMP have lost a lot of credibility in the region because of perceived lack of progress on old cases.

“They’ve appeared to be doing nothing for a mighty long time.”

What about a bus? Ms. MacDougall laughs. It would be nice, she says, but there have been no plans forthcoming to set up a bus service linking the communities and making hitching rides with strangers unnecessary.

“Yes, what about some actual transit, you know? … Let’s think about that for a second. Public transportation in a rural setting would be fantastic.”

This isn’t a new story: Some of the outstanding cases date back to the 1960s. Ms. Radek remembers growing up in Terrace and hearing about disappearances on the news as a child.

“Its been happening for a lot of years. It hasn’t been talked about, but it has been happening,” she said. “I was raised up there and I remember them talking about these women that disappeared. … There’s a hell of a lot of ghosts in their closets up there.”

Ms. Radek said she’s glad the investigation is going forward and hopes it will bring the Hoar family closure. But there has been too little action for too long, she says: Ms. Chipman’s son Jayden is approaching six years old, and has little memory of his mother.

“What are we going to tell him when he gets older, when he starts asking questions about his mom? ‘Oh, the police didn’t care to look into your case any further?’ “We don’t know if she was murdered, we don’t know if she had an accident, we don’t know if she’s still alive. We don’t know anything. So what are we supposed to tell that child?”

******

Highway of tears

At least 18 women and perhaps many more, have disappeared from or near a lonely 718-kilometre stretch of B.C. road.

THE DEAD WOMEN

Gloria Moody of Williams Lake, B. C. / found in 1969

Micheline Pare of Hudson Hope, B. C. / found in 1970

Gale Weys of Clearwater, B. C. / found in 1973

Pamela Darlington of Kamloops, B. C. / found in 1973

Monica Ignas of Terrace, B. C. / found in 1974

Colleen MacMillen of Mile House, B. C. / found in 1974

Monica Jack of Merritt, B. C. / found in 1978

Maureen Mosie of Kamloops, B. C. / found in 1981

Alberta Williams of Prince Rupert, B. C. / found in 1989

Ramona Wilson of Smithers, B. C. / found in 1994

Roxanne Thiara of Burns Lake, B. C. / found in 1994

Alishia Germaine of Prince George, B. C. / found in 1994

Aielah Saric Auger of Prince George, B. C. / found in 2006

THE MISSING WOMEN

Shellyann Bascu of Hinton, Alta. / disappeared in 1983

Delphine Nikal of Smithers, B. C. / disappeared in 1990

Lana Derrick of Terrace, B. C. / disappeared in 1995

Nicole Hoar of Red Deer, Alta. / disappeared in 2002

Tamara Chipman of Prince Rupert, B. C. / disappeared in 2005

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

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