Some highways have souls; others are merely pavement. The soul of Highway 16, the 720-km-long branch of the Trans-Canada that spans northern British Columbia from Prince George to Prince Rupert, is deeply troubled.
It's a mean road. Logging trucks, as rickety as they are over-laden, roar its length day and night. Convoys of motor homes labour up the long mountain passes, as if to taunt other drivers to acts of stunning recklessness. Further east, toward Prince George, the landscape flattens and the highway stretches mournfully to the horizon; the mind grows dim and the foot heavy.
Small roadside shrines -- a wooden cross and maybe a withered wreath or some plastic flowers -- mark the places where death has visited Highway 16. Sometimes you can still see the skid marks that map someone's final seconds. Drive long enough and you learn to spot these places before you get there: a sharp turn in the distance; a logging road up ahead; a pull-off at the crest of a hill.
These dangers you can see. What you can't see is the highway's terrible secret. Since 1990, six young women have been victims of foul play along Highway 16. Three were eventually found murdered, while three vanished without a trace and are presumed dead. None of the cases has been solved.
The first five victims were Aboriginal. Fifteen-year-old Delphine Nikal disappeared in June 1990 as she hitchhiked east from her hometown of Smithers. Four more Native women in their teens -- Ramona Wilson, 15, Roxanne Thiara, 15, Alishia Germaine, 15 and Lana Derrick, 19 -- met with grief during a 16-month stretch starting in June 1994. While police say there's nothing to link the cases, many in northern B.C. believe a serial killer is at large. (Privately some say they hope it's a serial killer: better one killer than six.)
Like the missing women of Vancouver's Downtown East Side before the arrest of Robert Pickton, the stories of the missing and murdered Aboriginal women of Highway 16 barely register on the public radar. A national campaign launched last spring by the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC) and supported by the United Church hopes to change that. It's called Sisters in Spirit, and it urges the federal government to set up a multi-million-dollar fund to research and document hundreds of missing or murdered Native women. Highway 16 is a prime focus, not only for the cases that are known, but also for suggestions that many more have gone unreported because families don't trust the justice system.
The best-known missing-woman case on Highway 16 is the most recent. On a June afternoon two years ago, friends drove 25-year-old Nicole Hoar to a popular hitchhiking jump-off on the outskirts of Prince George. A summer tree-planter, Nicole told co-workers she was heading 370 km west to Smithers to pay a surprise visit to her sister and attend a music festival during a week off. She spoke to at least one prospective ride -- a man with children who wasn't driving as far as she wanted to go -- before vanishing. She is the lone white woman among the missing women of Highway 16.
Nicole's employer reported her missing six days after she was supposed to have returned to work. Police and volunteers mounted a huge search effort believed to be the largest ever in northern B.C. A dozen RCMP officers and 170 volunteers scoured a 24,000-square-km area between Prince George and Smithers, knocking on doors and covering 8,000 km of roadway, ditches, logging roads, hiking trails and campsites. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft searched from above.
After four days the official search was called off. But the huge outpouring of support for the young woman and her family back in Red Deer, Alta., continued for weeks afterwards. Police sifted through more than 1,400 tips. A reward fund grew to $25,000, then $35,000. Art exhibitions and concerts -- even an attempt to set a speedskating world record by friend and 2002 Olympian Steven Elm -- were held in Nicole's benefit. A Web site, www.findnicolehoar.com, still operates.
Two years later Nicole's disappearance remains unsolved. The intense media coverage has died down, but you still see signs of those terrible, panic- and grief-filled days in the early summer of 2002. Reward posters with pictures of Nicole and details of her disappearance hang in gas stations, diners and general stores up and down Highway 16.
They're a reminder of the highway's sinister side. Highway 16 passes through some breathtaking wilderness, but knowing what has happened here deforms the landscape. As you drive the long, lonely blacktop, your thoughts begin to drift where they shouldn't: Did a killer pull into this rest-stop? Did the victim see the sunlight glinting off that lake? What must she have been thinking?
Dangerous questions for a dangerous road. You begin to understand why they sometimes call this the Highway of Tears. But then you hear Matilda Wilson's story and realize you have no idea what tears really are.
Matty Wilson laughs easily, but her laugh has a way of trailing off into a care-worn sigh. She divides her time between her house in Smithers and working as a cook in logging camps. The first thing I noticed when I walked into her house last summer was a small table near the doorway and some pictures on the wall of a pretty teenaged girl with long, straight dark hair. Ramona.
Matty Wilson is Gitxsan, a residential school survivor, born in Hazelton, B.C., 54 years ago. In 1994, she was a single mother of six living in the Aboriginal neighbourhood along Railway Ave. in Smithers. Her oldest child, Brenda, was 28. Ramona was her youngest, 15 and in Grade 9.
Ramona was very much the baby of the family, says Brenda, doted on by her older siblings and pampered by her mother. Matty loved to brush Ramona's long, thick hair and made sure she always dressed well. The attention seemed to be paying off: Matty's "kind, giggly little girl" did fine at school, was good at sports, worked part-time at a pancake house and, in the late spring of 1994, was hired as a part-time peer counsellor at a community service agency. The job was tailor-made -- she had her sights set on a career as a psychologist.
Matty says she was surprised but not overly concerned when Ramona failed to show up for her first day on the counselling job. It was June and end-of-school parties were everywhere. Kids often stayed out late, thumbed rides from party to party and slept over at friends'.
But Ramona wasn't with her friends. She'd been seen in downtown Smithers at mid-day on June 11, but not since. Some speculated she'd set out to meet her boyfriend in Moricetown, a Wet'su-wet'en village about 35 km west on Highway 16. But no one there had seen her. At first, police leaned to the view that she had run away. When her birth control pills and an uncashed paycheque were found in her room at home, everyone began to suspect something more serious.
For Matty the first few days were a vortex of fear and confusion. Police had "not much to go on," she says. She and her children needed to do something but had no idea what. "We were on our own, stumbling in the dark," says Brenda. Her brothers and a few friends searched in and around town while Matty and Brenda worked the phones.
"I never searched," Brenda says, "because I didn't think I could handle it if I found something."
Once-familiar, friendly streets darkened with suspicion. "For the first month, all I did was look at everybody, wondering," says Matty. Adds Brenda: "I was always aware of how people acted around me, especially if they seemed to be acting nervously."
They searched all that month, then off and on all summer and into the fall. Matty kept in constant touch with the police but it was clear they were making little headway. "They always gave me the same answer: `We'll contact you if there's anything to report'." By November, police were also searching for 15-year-old Roxanne Thiara, who had gone missing from Prince George. A month later 15-year-old Alishia Germaine's body was discovered behind a Prince George school near the highway. Police told Matty they had their hands full.
Matty's files from that time are a glimpse inside a mother's desperation and mounting isolation. Newspaper items about Ramona are clipped, copied and dated. Notes are jotted in the margins and passages underlined, their significance in some cases known only to Matty. Scraps of paper list the phone numbers of social agencies, radio stations and newspapers. Others bear the home phone numbers of the RCMP officers working the case. A copy of an official "Search Management Registration Assignment Form" lists the clothing and gear needed by search-party members. A photocopy of a missing-person poster is well-thumbed, the words "Ramona Lisa Wilson" underlined in thick black marker.
Notes scribbled on yellow Post-Its and on telephone message slips record Matty's efforts to keep the search for her daughter moving forward:
"Mary -- retrace steps from where she was last seen" "Ronda: keep track of rumours" "180 tips in his book. Two detectives on the case" "Saturday search: wrap up by 5 p.m." "Ask Christal about the water tower" "Matty: sell tickets to raise money for Ramona's fund" Money was a problem. Matty didn't have the thousands of dollars needed for reward money. The Gitanmaax First Nation donated $1,000 to start a reward fund, but Matty knew she needed a lot more than that.
Local businesses and industries weren't lining up with offers of help, so Matty decided to raffle off some of her craftwork. First prize was a child's vest; second, a dreamcatcher. Matty and her children set up a table in a local mall and sold tickets at $2 a piece or three for $5. She hoped to raise $9,000 to bring the reward fund to an even $10,000. She came away with $500.
Ramona's birthday in February came and went with no breaks in the case. A psychic tried to help but came up empty. "It was a very, very difficult time for my mother," says Brenda.
Matty continued to believe that a big reward was crucial. With the help of supporters from the local Native friendship centre she organized a fund-raising dance in the parish hall at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, where she worships. Despite her personal anguish she tried to make the event as festive as possible.
Another Smithers fund-raiser that spring was a big success. Merchants, industries and everyday citizens rallied around the town's contribution to a series of events held in memory of Melanie Carpenter, a Surrey, B.C., woman who had been abducted, raped and murdered three months earlier.
The Smithers newspaper, The Interior News, was outraged. The paper had been one of Matty's few steadfast supporters, offering free advertising space and ongoing news coverage. "Why did Matilda not benefit from the generosity of our corporate citizens in her campaign to find her daughter?" the paper asked in an editorial. "It took the brutal rape and murder of an unknown in the Lower Mainland before the community of Smithers was called into action. Was it because Melanie Carpenter was white?"
Bitterness still lingers. Jenny Poirier, a worker at the Friendship Centre and a friend of the Wilson family, helped Matty organize her fund-raiser. Her expression grows fierce as she remembers: "I thought it was really ignorant, not to show Ramona any support, but then to show all that support for someone not from here."
Matty finally got the reward money she needed through the Calgary- based Missing Children's Society of Canada. Posters offering $10,000 for information leading to Ramona's whereabouts were released on April 8, 1995, almost 10 months after she disappeared.
Forty-eight hours later, two boys riding on an all-terrain vehicle near the Smithers airport got stuck in the spring mud. They went into the bush to find a log to pry the vehicle free and stumbled upon human remains underneath a tree. Police brought Matty out to the site off Yellich Road. The remains were badly decomposed but there was no mistaking the long, dark hair. It was Ramona.
Ten years later, only one person knows where Ramona Wilson was killed, when she died and how she died. That person remains at large.
Why she died is a question as troubling as Highway 16 is long.
Matty Wilson's obsession with finding her daughter has become an obsession with finding her daughter's killer. The 10 months Ramona's body lay in the woods made the RCMP's forensic work all but hopeless. Yet Matty continued to press police when she heard rumours or thought of a fresh angle. She still grasps hopefully at every shred of new information.
Investigators have come and gone. "Every time it's like you have to start over," she says. "There have been a few who have been really interested in the case and tried to get as much information as they can, but they say they don't have much to go on."
Matty and her surviving children hold a public memorial on the anniversary of Ramona's disappearance, and sometimes on her birthday too. "We hope that whoever did this will see that we're not going to give up, no matter how long it takes," says Brenda. Joined by friends and supporters, they gather at the place in the woods where Ramona's body was found or at the intersection of Yellich Road and Highway 16. Sometimes they march along the highway and motorists honk to show their support.
"There are times when I think, `Oh, what's the use'," says Brenda. "But then it all comes back and I realize that if we don't do something it could happen again -- and it could be a family member or a friend."
Matty also talks to the media. "It's very painful," she says, "but it's the only way I can keep it going."
When Nicole Hoar vanished two years ago, media interest in the missing and murdered women of Highway 16 suddenly surged. Reporters came calling for reaction from Matty. "I told them I knew what [Nicole's family] must be going through, and I gave my condolences."
Privately, Matty and her children were "devastated" -- they have been every time a young woman has gone missing. "We call each other and cry, because we know how it feels." Matty couldn't help but notice the scale of the search effort and the huge outpouring of support for Nicole. She believes the response was appropriate. She also believes it would have been appropriate in Ramona's case.
Matty's public profile is the exception, not the rule. Most families of missing women have chosen to stay private. Frances Stanley led the First Nations Women's Council in Terrace, 220 km west of Smithers during the 1990s. Now a court worker, Stanley was a driving force behind vigils and potluck dinners organized in support of the missing women, notably Lana Derrick who vanished from Terrace in October 1995. Stanley says cultural traditions run deep and strong in some Aboriginal families: death is a passage, and the private rituals that attend it must be respected. "We are always mindful of our rites of passage, of what we can and can't do," she says. Stanley adds: "It makes it a little difficult to advocate for the missing women."
Some families just want to move on. "There's a fear of revisiting the pain and trauma," says Kathy Wesley-Scott, a member of the Tsimshian First Nation who works as a family violence and sexual abuse counsellor in Terrace. That fear often projects right across the Aboriginal community. "People may have dealt with it individually, but they're not well-organized. There's definitely a sense of resistance to the issue in the community, a sense of helplessness."
That sense only heightens the lingering fear that a serial killer roams Highway 16. Lynne Terbasket hosts a public-affairs program on Terrace's Native-run radio station. She has reported on the missing women and has taken part in searches and vigils. "The fear that someone is out there, targeting Aboriginal women, grows every time another woman goes missing," she says.
RCMP special investigators, aided by FBI criminologists and psychological profilers, have concluded there's little to link the disappearances beyond the fact that most of the victims are Aboriginal and were engaged in risky behaviour, ranging from hitchhiking to running away to prostitution. The files remain open, and despite officers coming and going, the cases are "constantly being reviewed, and new tips are investigated as they come in," says Staff Sgt. Larry Flath of the RCMP's major crimes unit in Prince George, himself new to the job.
Still, many in the Aboriginal population believe the police and the public are jaundiced when it comes to missing Native women. They saw a stark double standard in the response to the disappearance of Nicole Hoar. It didn't help to read comments like these from an RCMP investigator on the case, speaking to a Calgary Sun reporter:
"[Nicole] falls outside the mould of so many other disappearances.... Nicole is a university-educated 25-year-old Caucasian woman who has had not so much as a parking ticket."
"The inequalities are clear," says Frances Stanley. "Virtually nothing has been done for the First Nations women who went missing."
"I don't think the Native women are as important in the eyes of the public," says Terbasket, who views the issue as rooted in systemic racism, plain and simple. "Aboriginal women are at risk from the day they're born. You walk around with all this baggage before you can even talk. You've got economic baggage, social baggage, you've got gender baggage." All these factors merge when an Aboriginal woman walks out to Highway 16 and thumbs a ride to the doctor's or to go shopping or to visit family or friends. Of course it's risky, says Terbasket, "but they have no choice. They live in poverty."
It takes courage to be as public as Matty Wilson is about her loss. Her courage has been hard-earned, one tear at a time. She hasn't always been strong. "My mom has been through some very dark times," says Brenda. Matty flirted with suicide and suffered a mild stroke. For a few years she hid from Ramona's death. "I didn't know where I was," Matty says. She stopped the public memorials because they were more than she could handle. "When my mom finally realized we were all falling apart too," says Brenda, "that we still needed her even though we were grown up, she came around."
Today, Matty focuses on keeping strong. Grief counselling has helped, and so has her faith. She attends St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church regularly. "Even if I don't go, I pray on Sundays," she says.
The annual memorials have resumed. They take every ounce of strength Matty has, sometimes more. "In public she holds up pretty good," says family friend Jenny Poirier. "Behind closed doors..."
"It's hard to talk about it," Matty admits. "But it gives me more strength in the long-run. You have to survive, but it's a hard road and I'm still travelling through it."
I first met Matty on warm Wednesday afternoon. After a long talk we agreed to meet the following morning; she would take me to the place where Ramona's body was discovered.
She was a little worse for wear when I picked her up. She said that talking about Ramona is always harder than she thinks it will be.
We drove into Smithers to pick up her son Tim, "to support me," Matty said. Tim was hanging out with his friend Albert Nikal. Albert is the brother of Delphine Nikal, the first of the Highway 16's missing women.
The two men sat silently in the back seat as we drove out of town toward Yellich Road. Matty's conversation was full of must-have's: Ramona's killer must have known his way; he must have been local; he must have driven a pickup.
We turned onto Yellich Road and drove a couple of kilometres, stopping when we reached an open field past the end of the runway at Smithers Airport. We piled out of the car and walked alongside a wooded area.
Tim and Albert led the way. As they turned to enter the woods, a golden eagle swooped out of some low branches and shrieked. Matty called out to Tim. "Did you see that? I wonder what it's trying to say."
The woods were cool and dark. Matty and I picked our way through the underbrush and caught up with Tim and Albert. They were standing beside a balsam tree. Under its sloping boughs, at the base of the trunk, was a flower pot and some plastic flowers.
Matty showed where Ramona's body lay when it was found, where her head had been, how her sneakers were gone. Then she leaned against the tree trunk and exploded in grief.
She sobbed until she was bent double; the forest echoed with her keening. Then Tim said quietly, "Let's go."
Matty crossed herself, straightened up and began to walk away unsteadily. Somewhere up above, the eagle shrieked again.
Matty said, "I wonder what this is all about." She thought for a moment and answered herself. "Maybe it wants some answers."
Then the eagle was gone. All was silent in the woods, except for the distant hum of traffic out on the Highway of Tears.
Associate editor David Wilson and Matilda Wilson are not related.
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