Gladys Radek calls it her “war pony.”
It’s a 2012 Dodge van plastered with the faces of young women – most of them Indigenous – who have gone missing on British Columbia’s Highway 16, the notorious Highway of Tears. The road winds its way through the verdant Coast Mountains, linking Prince Rupert with Prince George in the interior.
Radek’s niece, Tamara Chipman, disappeared while hitchhiking on the highway in September 2005.
Her smiling face is now among those on Radek’s van because her disappearance has never been solved and her body never found.
“I do it in the hopes that someone might see them and remember something,” said Radek, who has campaigned relentlessly on Tamara’s behalf, and for all of those women, missing and murdered, on the Highway of Tears.
“There’s not a parking lot I can go to where people will not ask questions about my van,” Radek added. “That’s why I do it: to make sure people see their faces.”
Tamara, a member of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, was 22 years old and the mother of a two-year-old son, Jaden, when she went missing. Tall and slim, outgoing and confident, Tamara had a big personality that she paired with colourful wigs.
“She wasn’t one to take much crap from anybody,” Tom Chipman said of his spirited daughter. “She was pretty spunky.”
In November 2005, a recently arrived RCMP staff sergeant was assigned to the missing person case: Eric Stubbs was then a 12-year veteran of the national police service. He had just moved to Terrace from an RCMP detachment on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and he would develop a close relationship with the Chipman family, particularly with Tamara’s father, Tom.
Stubbs would leave Terrace six years later and go on to a distinguished career in the RCMP, becoming assistant commissioner in charge of criminal operations in B.C. Earlier this month, he began work as Ottawa’s new police chief.
Police officers are a product of the sum of their experiences: the successful busts and the frustrated investigations; the triumphs and the traumas of a job that can be both physically and psychologically demanding. For Stubbs, the Chipman case stands as a painful chapter in his career: a family left with no answers.
In 2011, when he left Terrace for a senior position in Prince George, Stubbs was asked by the Terrace Standard if he had any regrets about his six years in the city.
“One thing of significance is not being able to resolve the Tamara Chipman file,” Stubbs told the newspaper. “I worked very closely with her parents…and I very much wanted to bring a resolution for them about Tamara.”
Stubbs spoke about the Chipman case again on his first day as Ottawa’s new police chief. He said the case still bothers him.
“We’re human. We invest ourselves emotionally and physically into a lot of the files, some more than others,” he said. “When you spend three, four, five, six years, the investment is high. You want to succeed. You want to deliver for the family.
“And we weren’t able to do that.”
This is Tamara Chipman’s story – a story that speaks to one family’s determination, one officer’s decency, and the profound sense of injustice harboured by so many Indigenous people in Canada.
Tamara Chipman was last seen hitchhiking on the outskirts of Prince Rupert, near the port city’s industrial park, on the afternoon of Sept. 21, 2005.
Tamara was born in Prince Rupert and, as a young girl, she spent a lot of time on her father’s fishing boat and in her grandfather’s machine shop. She liked taekwando and water-skiing.
When her parents separated, Tamara’s mother, Cory Millwater, continued living in Prince Rupert while her father moved to Terrace. As a result, Tamara often shuttled between loved ones in two cities 140 kilometres apart on Highway 16.
She disappeared from the roadside less than a week after a public rally was held in Prince Rupert to “take back the highway” from those preying on women.
Tamara had a lot going on in her life at the time of her disappearance. She was involved in a custody battle for her young son, Gladys Radek said, and faced three criminal charges for assault that were still before the courts.
Meanwhile, Radek had come to depend on Tamara during a difficult time in her own life. She moved to Terrace in 2000 to pursue criminal charges against a man who had abused her while she was in the child welfare system. (She would eventually win a conviction against him, but the man would not be sentenced to jail time.)
“Tamara was spending a lot of time at my place because she had a place just a few blocks away from me: She was my moral support,” said Radek. “She was warm, she was funny, and she gave great hugs.”
When Tamara first disappeared, no one knew she was gone. Her family in Terrace thought she was in Prince Rupert and vice-versa. It wasn’t until early November that Tamara’s father realized she had lost contact with everyone.
A commercial fisherman, Tom Chipman had returned to Terrace from a fishing expedition, expecting to find a message from his daughter, who always called faithfully. Instead, there was only silence. He called family members and all of the friends he could think of, but no one had heard from Tamara. Chipman discovered his daughter’s rent was unpaid and her bank account untouched.
He reported Tamara’s disappearance to the RCMP. On Nov. 15, 2005, the RCMP announced a joint investigation would be launched between the Terrace and Prince Rupert detachments.
Staff Sgt. Eric Stubbs was one of those assigned to the case.
Born and raised in Red Deer, Alta., Eric Stubbs joined the RCMP in 1993 when he was just 22 years old. As a boy, he idolized a neighbour who worked as an RCMP officer. That fascination stayed with Stubbs as he matured and began to think about his own future.
“Seeing what he did, helping people, and how much he enjoyed his career, that was just something that was very appealing to me,” Stubbs said.
He spent most of his formative policing years in northern British Columbia, including the RCMP’s Mackenzie detachment about 150-km north of Prince George. By 2003, he had been promoted to sergeant and was on the move to the RCMP’s detachment on Haida Gwaii. From there, Stubbs transferred to Terrace.
He learned in those places that listening and talking were the most effective tools available to any police officer. “I worked in some challenging areas and a real mantra for me was communication,” Stubbs said. “You can be strong, you can be tough, you can have whatever tools you have around your waist to get out of a situation, but communicating is your best weapon…If you can communicate, you can build relationships and be successful.”
Stubbs became the principal liaison between the RCMP and the Chipman family, and the lead spokesperson for the police investigation. He was one of six officers assigned to the case.
The RCMP issued a public appeal for information about Tamara’s activities leading up to her disappearance in 2005. At a Nov. 23 press conference, Chipman’s aunt, Lorna Brown, pleaded with anyone who saw Tamara to come forward.
“This is a girl who’s loved,” she told reporters.
The RMCP conducted a ground search. When it proved unsuccessful, Tamara’s father organized his own. Volunteers searched in ditches on both sides of Highway 16 from Prince Rupert to Terrace. “Every day we don’t find a body is good day,” Tom Chipman said at the time.
Searchers combed every side road leading from Highway 16 between the two cities. With the help of friends, fishermen and local firefighters, Chipman searched for his daughter every day until Christmas along northern B.C.’s vast web of logging roads and backcountry trails.
“We’re grasping at straws for where to look next,” Chipman told the Terrace Standard in mid-December. “It’s endless where you can look. But where do you stop?”
Meanwhile, the RCMP pursued tips about Tamara being sighted in Vancouver, Terrace, Prince Rupert and Prince George.
“We’ve looked into them and haven’t come up with any positive result,” Stubbs told reporters.
Tamara’s ex-boyfriend, the father of her son, took a lie detector test in December 2005 to prove he had nothing to do with her disappearance; he was working in Terrace when she went missing.
In early January 2006, with tips about Chipman down to a trickle and search efforts frustrated by cold and snow, the family posted a $3,000 reward for information leading to her discovery.
“The reward is another opportunity to the public not to forget about Tamara,” Stubbs said at the time.
Stubbs and Tom Chipman forged a close relationship during those trying days. “Him and I got along really well,” Chipman said in a recent interview. “He took things more personally than most officers would.”
Stubbs would update him on the investigation regularly, he said, often over coffee or lunch, and offer his emotional support.
“That was the only officer that was ever like that with me,” Chipman said. “I considered him kind of a friend…He was the only one who went out of his way to come and see me personally.”
Gladys Radek began her crusade on behalf of Tamara Chipman and the other missing and murdered women of Highway 16 in March 2006. It was one month after the body of another Indigenous girl, 14-year-old Aielah Saric-Auger, had been found in a ditch beside the highway, near Prince George.
Radek joined a march from Prince Rupert to Prince George to take part in a symposium on the Highway of Tears. Its 36-page report listed nine known female victims of the highway – all but one of them Indigenous – and another 24 women who had disappeared under similar circumstances during the previous three decades.
“Each reported case of a young woman’s disappearance, or confirmation of a recovered body, has a cumulative effect within First Nations communities along the highway: one of growing fear, frustration and sorrow,” the report said.
The symposium made 33 recommendations, including one that called for a shuttle bus system for young female passengers travelling the route. Relatives and activists said young Indigenous women were paying with their lives for endemic poverty.
Later that same year, an RCMP task force dubbed E-PANA took ownership of nine investigations related to the Highway of Tears, including that of Tamara Chipman. One year later, the number of cases being investigated by the task force doubled to 18. It included 13 homicides and five missing persons cases dating back to 1969. More than 50 officers were assigned to the task force.
The RCMP built a searchable database from more than 700 boxes of material, but progress was painfully slow.
In 2008, Radek organized a march from Vancouver to Ottawa, Walk4Justice, to demand an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women. “It’s time Canada started to open its eyes, and see the inaction, and see that something must be done,” she said after arriving on Parliament Hill following a three-month journey.
The walks became an annual event. In 2013, Radek and a small cohort from Walk4Justice trekked from Sydney, N.S. to Prince Rupert to renew the call for a national inquiry. Radek made the journey despite walking with a prosthetic lower left leg – the result of a motorcycle accident as a teenager.
Radek stopped walking only after the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) began its work in September 2016. The inquiry was tasked with understanding why Indigenous women died violently at a rate six times greater than non-Indigenous women.
In June 2018, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki appeared before the inquiry and apologized to victims’ families for the failings of the police service. “I’m sorry that for too many of you, the RCMP was not the police service that it needed to be during this terrible time in your life,” she told the MMIWG.
Tom Chipman believes his daughter’s case – and the spirited campaign of his sister and relatives – ultimately brought the issue the attention it deserved. “Her case opened everybody’s eyes to what was going on,” Chipman said. “The awareness is out there now that was never out there before. This had been going on for decades and nobody cared.”
Stubbs agrees. “That file started the Highway of Tears, started the movement,” he said. “That was it. That was the last straw for the Indigenous communities in northern B.C. You always want to look for something positive out of a tragedy. And out of that tragedy came that movement.”
In January 2019, 71-year-old Garry Handlen was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of 12-year-old Monica Jack based on a confession elicited during an elaborate RCMP sting operation. Monica was last seen riding her bicycle along Highway 16, near Merritt, B.C., in May 1978.
Handlen’s is the only conviction ever registered by the RCMP’s Highway of Tears task force during its 16 years of work. Tamara’s disappearance has never been solved.
“I wanted answers so bad,” said Tom Chipman, who still lives in Terrace but now works as a long-haul trucker. “Unfortunately, it just never did work out for us: We still haven’t found Tamara’s body.”
Stubbs said the RCMP put in a tremendous amount of work on the Chipman case. “I’m proud of the investigators that put in hours and hours and hours on that file, but it’s at where it’s at.”
RCMP investigators say the Highway of Tears cases were particularly difficult to solve since the victims and perpetrators were often strangers, and since so much evidence was lost to time or to the elements.
In September 2012, for instance, E-PANA investigators announced DNA evidence linked U.S. serial killer suspect Bobby Fowler to one of the missing, 16-year-old Colleen MacMillen. They said he was also a “strong suspect” in two other Highway of Tears cases, but by then Fowler had been dead for six years. (He died of lung cancer in Oregon State Penitentiary.)
Chipman stayed in touch with the RCMP’s Eric Stubbs throughout the officer’s six years in Terrace and his next three as police chief in Prince George. They drifted apart after Stubbs moved to Ottawa as the RCMP’s director general of national criminal operations in 2014.
Chipman has nothing but good things to say about Stubbs. “He’s a good man,” said Chipman, “and the best police officer I ever met.”
Tamara’s son, Jaden, 19, recently graduated from high school, and is now working at a tire shop in Terrace. “More than anything, I wish Tamara could be here to see her son,” said Chipman. “It’s really sad she didn’t get to be a part of his life.”
Meanwhile, Gladys Radek continues to fight for the murdered and missing. She’s bitterly disappointed that so few of the MMIWG’s “calls for justice” have been implemented, and that Indigenous women are still at risk because of poverty, racism and desperation.
For Radek, the Highway of Tears remains an open wound. Although not as frequently, women continue to disappear along the blighted roadway. In 2018, Cindy Martin, a member of Gitxsan First Nation, went missing in New Hazelton, a village on Highway 16. That same year, the remains of another Indigenous woman, 18-year-old Jessica Patrick-Balczer of Lake Babine First Nation, were found 12 days after she disappeared from a motel on Highway 16.
Radek insists more would have been done to protect young women – and find answers to their disappearances – had those missing been white.
“The truth is,” she said, “there is no justice in the justice system for First Nations people.”