Highway of Tears: Vanishing Women in British Columbia

An 837-mile stretch of Highway 16 that cuts through the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia has gained infamy as the scene of possibly dozens of disappearances over the past three decades.  Now known as the “Highway of Tears”, this area of Canadian wilderness has raised many questions, and very few answers.  What is happening to these women?  Where did they go?  Why have so many of the missing women received so little attention?  Is there a cover-up involved? Or, is it merely a lack of compassion mixed with racism that has allowed this string of disappearances to endure for thirty years?

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On June 21, 2002, 25-year-old tree planter Nicole Hoar went missing along the Highway 16 route.   Her disappearance made National news, and she has never been found.

Tragic as Nicole’s vanishing is, her story sparked as much outrage as it did sympathy.   Aboriginal people of the region raised their voices in frustration, as Hoar’s disappearance was just one of many over the years.  Many claimed that while the majority of women who’d gone missing from the area were aboriginal, Nicole Hoar’s case made headlines primarily because she was a young white woman.

The most recent victim of the Highway of Tears was 20-year-old Madison Scott.  She disappeared on May 27 of this year at Hogsback Lake.  Her tent and pickup truck were located at the campsite where she’d last been seen, but Madison was nowhere to be found.  Search parties turned up no further clues.

Over the years, the official number of murdered and missing women on the Highway of Tears stands at 18, but Native leaders claim the number is much higher, perhaps closer to 43.  Again, the reason for the discrepancy being largely regarded as the lack of attention from the authorities and media toward the missing women with Inuit background.

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With local officials feeling the heat from the increasingly loud chorus of voices demanding answers, a more comprehensive investigation has been launched, including expanding the scope of the search to other nearby highways in northern B.C.   A major branch of the investigation was formed in 1995, known as Project E-Pana (name of a God in Inuit mythology).  Project E-Pana focuses on the murder of three 15-year old girls found along Highway 16 in 1994;  perhaps victims of a serial killer.  The search soon expanded back to the mid-1960’s.

Inuit leaders and supporters continue to push for further investigation, claiming that there is little political will to get to the heart of what is happening.  They claim that the scope of the investigation needs to be larger, and should include many more victims, including at least on man, and at least one full family.

As a result, many private citizens and organizations are taking matters into their own hands, and have launched their own investigations, including Vancouver-based private investigator Ray Michalko.

Michalko began his investigation in 2006, as he became frustrated with the lack of attention the cases were getting from local police.   He says he spends at least 40 hours per week chasing leads and digging into the individual cases, and passes his tips along to the police.  Michalko told Resources that local officials, “made it quite clear they didn’t want any help from me.”

All of this bureaucracy and belligerence adds weight to the already heavy hearts of those still searching for their loved ones.  A Frontline report called Canada: “Highway of Tears” highlights a collection of work put together by local artists to commemorate the missing women.  A  particularly melancholy note was scribbled next to a painted face mask honoring one of the lost girls.  It says:

I dreamt I held you in my arms, safe and warm
I woke to tears falling silently.
My heart is heavy and burdened
smothered with grief so hard to bear.
Please return to me and let me gently touch your cheek
if only in my dreams.

So, what are the dominant theories of what has happened to all of these people?  One thought is that it could be a local serial killer, familiar with the community.  It has also been pointed out that many of the Aboriginal locals use hitchhiking as a means of traveling from one town to the next.  This raises the possibility that it could be a lone killer who picks up women looking for a ride, or could even be several killers, familiar with the trusting nature of the people in the area.  Highway 16 is a major logging route, and traffic from truck drivers is heavy.  It makes the search and investigation quite difficult, as the responsible party could be hundreds of miles away before a victim is ever reported missing.

The question has also been raised as to whether some of the missing women have fallen victim to Human Trafficking.  According to The Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking,  the estimated global profits from those exploited for forced labor is $31.6 billion.  Often, these modern day slaves are people who have been abducted from areas not far from their homes.  As the victims of the Highway 16 vanishings are mainly women, the human trafficking question becomes more urgent.  The above referenced report states that 43% of the victims of trafficking are used for forced commercial sexual exploitation, and of that number, 98% are women and girls.

Whatever is happening, the sheer number of known disappearances makes it impossible to ignore the strong probability that there is some kind of connection.  With all of the questions, answers are few and far between, and with the most recent missing person’s case happening just over a month ago, the list of victims is ever increasing.

According to the Vancouver Sun, an official Missing Women Inquiry is to be held in October of 2011.  The commissioner in charge of the Inquiry, Wally Opal, has put pressure on B.C. authorities to increase funding for legal fees so that more families can add their missing loved ones to the list of those being  involved in the process.  Originally, the Inquiry was set to begin in June, but was pushed to October due to an apparently more pressing matter involving the decline of sockeye salmon in Fraser River.

Interestingly, while this is a very condensed set of disappearances, there have been scores of unsolved missing persons cases throughout rural forested areas in North America, as chronicled in the book by David Paulides (who touches on the Trail of Tears) titled Missing 411. An audio interview with Paulides can be heard here: David Paulides: Missing 411 Unexplained Disappearances Of Missing People

A petition has been started to encourage the Canadian Federal Government to take a closer look at these crimes. You can sign the petition here:


If you’d like to learn more about the missing women of the Highway of Tears, please visit the following websites and articles.