Some peace along the Highway of Tears.
September 25, 2012 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Over the last forty years, many young women – most of them indigenous – have been murdered or gone missing along northern British Columbia's Highway 16, now nationally known as the Highway of Tears. Nobody knows just how many have disappeared: estimates range between a handful and hundreds. Their families have spent decades fighting institutional racism and governmental bureaucracy in a tragic tale that has seen no conclusion. Since 2007, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police have been investigating eighteen of these cases as part of Project E-Pana. Today, the RCMP announced its first major development: the death of Colleen MacMillen, who disappeared in 1974, has been linked to American serial killer Bobby Jack Fowler, who died in an Oregon prison in 2006. Previously on MeFi.
posted by avocet (15 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. I have to agree with the previously link that it's scarier in a way for this to be confirmed the work of multiple killers.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:07 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I drove the full length of this highway back in 1999 and saw more bears than I've seen anywhere else in my life. I assume the RCMP and coroners know enough about that to rule it out for most cases, but for the missing people it does make me wonder.
posted by crapmatic at 1:09 PM on September 25, 2012

Wow. I have to agree with the previously link that it's scarier in a way for this to be confirmed the work of multiple killers.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:07 PM on September 25 [+] [!]

It's a systemic problem. You have a lot of very marginalized people in one area, and no safe way for them to get from one place to the next, over a very lonely stretch of highway.

That is much more serious than a single serial killer, and has much larger repercussions for the people it affects. They've been discussing ways to mitigate this lately, things like an affordable transit system to get people from one town to the next. Money is the limiting factor of course, not just for the individuals, but for the municipalities themselves.

It's a problem of race, gender, and economics. These are some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our society. This should have been dealt with years ago, but as with Pickton and his pig farm, even once the police notice that these women are being preyed on, they're slow to respond. The belated responses often target the criminals, but almost never target the circumstances that create these problems. It's a god damn travesty.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:34 PM on September 25, 2012 [19 favorites]

I drove this road a few years ago. Starting in Houston, there are signs at the outskirts of every town and hamlet warning girls not to hitchhike. It's quite chilling. And on the outskirts of every town and hamlet, notably Moricetown and New Hazelton, there are girls hitchhiking. It was sad and chilling.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:39 PM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

I drove the full length of this highway back in 1999 and saw more bears than I've seen anywhere else in my life. I assume the RCMP and coroners know enough about that to rule it out for most cases, but for the missing people it does make me wonder.
Uh, yeah. It ain't the bears.

It's racism, it's colonialism, it's classism, it's misogyny, it's poverty, it's criminal neglect, it's ignorance.

It ain't the m'rf'n bears.
posted by Catchfire at 1:47 PM on September 25, 2012 [11 favorites]

Prince George and Terrace are pretty goddamn mean towns for some. Black bears are not the problem.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:10 PM on September 25, 2012

It's things like this and Juarez that make me really wish I could believe in supernatural monsters. It would be so much easier to deal with the idea that it was chubacabra, vampires, werewolves, or some other monster you'd see on your favorite crappy CW show.

The reality is much, much worse.
posted by teleri025 at 2:32 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

The sad truth is that it's a poor rural area and the majority of these women were most likely killed by someone they knew. Men in the area know they can get away with abducting and killing women because it'll be blamed on an outsider so they do. The rates of violence against women in poor rural areas and in native American communities simply make this the most statistically likely outcome, by a huge factor.

Disappearances get blamed on a serial killer who's just passing through by the families and community and criminally inclined men feel even more like they can get away with killing a girlfriend or abducting and killing a local girl. I bet there are both men and women in those communities who could finger the killers right now.

The story in Outside magazine about the snowboarder who murdered a young teenage girl is exactly what I'm talking about. A sense that other people have gotten away with it and they can too.
posted by fshgrl at 2:34 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm writing my geography MA thesis on Canadian memorial highway landscapes: the Highway of Heroes and the Highway of Tears. Somehow I completely missed both existing MeFi posts while they were still open. Felt the need to issue a disclaimer though I haven't self-linked – just kept it to news links and articles not yet posted to the blue – but this is a narrative of violence that I've been immersed in for the last while. The interview process has been traumatic, at times. Bearing witness to these stories... no, I am not going to make this post about me or people involved with my project.

I didn't see any bears though, only some really playful sea otters in Prince Rupert.
posted by avocet at 2:52 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bears kill pretty few people, and they don't go out of their way to dump bodies where they can't be found. Also, if they could be said to be gender discriminatory, they tend to kill more men than women, so it's unlikely they're responsible for a string of attacks on female hitchhikers.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:31 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

As I've mentioned before, this is where I grew up, way back when. I've driven or been driven up and down Highway 16 literally thousands of times over the decades.

It's a very odd thing to think about the place in this way, more than 20 years after I moved away. Back in the 1970s, it seemed like the safest damned place in the world to grow up in some ways, and a dangerous frontier in others. My hometown (well, from the time I was 6 years old or so, when we moved there from Ontario), Fort Saint James, had the highest per capita murder rate in North America for a few years running in the early 80s, and articles in major US newspapers appeared about it. This is a town of 4000 people now, and was just slightly smaller back in the day.

It was and remains a place of stunning natural beauty (leaving out the massive clearcuts, usually just set back far enough from the roads that you can't see them). Hunters and fishermen and -women, seekers after wildnerness from all over the world would show up in the summer and autumn, and still do.

But, yeah, even though it was one of those places where nobody locked their doors, much, and where kids felt genuinely safe and parents unconcerned, it was far from bucolic. I remember there being what in a bigger place might be called race riots, with young aboriginal, euro, and Pakistani men -- since the 70s there has been a large group of Pakistani immigrant families there -- chasing each other around with baseball bats and rocks. A Friday or Saturday night without 'the floor show' -- the fightfights and subsequent boot-fuckings that happened in the parking lot of 'the Zoo' after it closed down at 2am and the drunks spilled out looking for trouble and/or parties to go to -- was inconceivable. It was (and still is, to an extent) a rough and ready, hard-drinking, frontier mill town. You could hear gunfire late at night, sometimes, usually from the reservation (which I say without meaning to be racist -- it was simply the way it was), where quality of life, substance abuse and poverty had probably reached its lowest point before or since. There was a bunch of wanna-be biker bad boys who raised hell and started fights and many of whom got permanently banned from town, or made good, or died.

But at the same time, it felt weirdly safe to me growing up there, other than the usual array of high school bullies and stuff to face down, things that every kid everywhere has to deal with. As I said, it certainly was beautiful and quiet, if lonely and isolated, and instilled a love of nature in me. There were no drugs, other than weed and mushrooms, even if there was a lot of booze, and although one or two kids died every year from drinking and driving or passing out in a snowbank, it felt like City Problems were something we were able to ignore, even if we had our own special set of Small Town Problems.

But then just last year, a kid from a well-known family in town was arrested coming out of a spur road -- one that I remember canoodling on in my mom's car with my girlfriend when I was a teenager -- having just murdered a girl and disposed of her body. In the last 5 years or so, the dots were finally starting to be connected about the deaths and disappearances of other girls, stretching all the way back to the 70s, and now it seems like the dark side of the place -- one that my own personal memories tend to minimize, looking back through the rosy lens of nostalgia -- is right at the forefront.

It's a good thing if it helps to bring the bastard or bastards who murdered these girls to justice. It's a good thing if the publicity of it all means that there's a smaller chance of it happening again.

But it does kind of hurt a little, having a place that I loved (or at least that I love in retrospect, even if I didn't care for it so much at the time and burned to get out) recognized and labelled as a Zone of Fear and Death. All the more so because my elderly mom was mayor of that place for more than 16 years, starting right around the times things, for the village as a whole at least, started to get better in the mid 1980s. Her legacy for the village is secure, but it makes me a little sad that during that same time, horrifying things were happening, even if it is good that they are coming to light.

It's not about me, I know. It's just very strange to read about my isolated Northern Canadian childhood home here on Metafilter.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:34 PM on September 25, 2012 [17 favorites]

I have a relative who is a Crown (a criminal prosecutor) in regional BC. She has lots and lots of work.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:56 PM on September 25, 2012

Thanks for posting this, avocet. I hope you'll be able to put your work up on Projects when it's done.

I read a lot about the Highway of Tears after the last MeFi thread. It's not just any old sad story, it's a fascinating topic in the way it brings together so many complex issues. I'm glad to see it getting some respectful attention in the media - that Vancouver Sun series is quite good.

stavros, if it helps, I tend to think this sort of thing stands out more when the general environment improves. I don't know if that's because of the contrast, or if it's a way some people have of angrily reacting to social change, or it's such a difficult problem to fix, or all of the above or what. But I take an interest in true crime stories, and it really seems to me that the worst events come to light in communities that are trying to improve. I hope the towns along Highway 16 can continue their efforts to get better, because they've got reasons to be proud of where they live, and the people there are more than just sensational fodder for tabloids.
posted by harriet vane at 8:25 PM on September 25, 2012

This is what Fort Saint James looks like, by the way. That's my mom waving from down there on the bottom right.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:32 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

KokuRyu writes "I have a relative who is a Crown (a criminal prosecutor) in regional BC. She has lots and lots of work."

Ya, both levels of government have been busy making more thing illegal and making the punishments for existing crimes harsher without actually proportionally increasing funding to either prosecutors or public defenders.
posted by Mitheral at 6:26 PM on September 26, 2012

« Older The Persistence of Vision   |   Living Under Drones Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments