SMITHERS, British Columbia — Less than a year after her 15-year-old cousin vanished, Delphine Nikal, 16, was last seen hitchhiking from this isolated northern Canadian town on a spring morning in 1990.
Ramona Wilson, 16, a member of her high school baseball team, left home one Saturday night in June 1994 to attend a dance a few towns away. She never arrived. Her remains were found 10 months later near the local airport.
Tamara Chipman, 22, disappeared in 2005, leaving behind a toddler. “She’s still missing,” Gladys Radek, her aunt, said. “It’ll be 11 years in September.”
Dozens of Canadian women and girls, most of them indigenous, have disappeared or been murdered near Highway 16, a remote ribbon of asphalt that bisects British Columbia and snakes past thick forests, logging towns and impoverished Indian reserves on its way to the Pacific Ocean. So many women and girls have vanished or turned up dead along one stretch of the road that residents call it the Highway of Tears.
A special unit formed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officially linked 18 such cases from 1969 to 2006 to this part of the highway and two connecting arteries. More women have vanished since then, and community activists and relatives of the missing say they believe the total is closer to 50. Almost all the cases remain unsolved.
The Highway of Tears and the disappearances of the indigenous women have become a political scandal in British Columbia. But those cases are just a small fraction of the number who have been murdered or disappeared nationwide. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have officially counted about 1,200 cases over the past three decades, but research by the Native Women’s Association of Canada suggests the total number could be as high as 4,000.
In December, after years of refusal by his conservative predecessor, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a long-awaited national inquiry into the disappearances and murders of indigenous women.
The inquiry, set to cost 40 million Canadian dollars ($31 million), is part of Mr. Trudeau’s promise of a “total renewal” of Canada’s relationship with its indigenous citizens, and it comes at a critical time.
Aboriginal women and girls make up about 4 percent of the total female population of Canada but 16 percent of all female homicides, according to government statistics.
Carolyn Bennett, the minister of indigenous and northern affairs, has spent months traveling across the country to consult with indigenous communities. During her meetings, families and survivors have complained of racism and sexism by the police, who she said treated the deaths of indigenous women “as inevitable, as if their lives mattered less.”
“What’s clear is the uneven application of justice,” Ms. Bennett said.
One reason to doubt the estimate by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, she said, is that the police often immediately deemed the women’s deaths to be suicides, drug overdoses or accidents, over the protests of relatives who suspected foul play. “There was no investigation,” she said, citing one recent case. “The file folder’s empty.”