From the west coast to the Golden Horseshoe surrounding Toronto, there is evidence to suggest serial killers are hunting and disproportionately, Indigenous women and girls are their prey.
And those serial killers likely number far more than the average person imagines.
That’s according to Michael Arntfield, a Western University criminologist and serial killer expert who studies murder patterns for the Murder Accountability Project in the U.S.
“There is very good research on west coast and the north west in the U.S and in Canada which helps explain a lot of patterns seen in lower mainland and B.C and in the Highway of Tears region,” Arntfield said, referring to the 724-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 in northern B.C where 18 – 50 women, mostly Indigenous, have gone missing or been found murdered since the 1960s.
While Canadian data is hard to come by, data generated in the U.S. is helpful in guessing patterns north of the border.
“When we input all the (American) data at murderdata.org and we see both coasts light up. We see the D.C. metro region and the Great Lakes region light up and we see major trucking centres light up,” Arntfield said.
“We don’t know for sure in Canada because no one will give us the data but for sure you would see Edmonton up to Fort McMurray (light up) that’s already well established… certainly Manitoba through to Northern Ontario and down through the Golden Horseshoe and the Greater Toronto area as well.”
It’s something police in Canada are reluctant talk about, but something that many missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls advocates have long theorized.
While serial killers in urban centres can be from an assortment of walks of life, who hunt victims in a variety of settings and circumstances, those who prey in isolated rural areas are often long-haul truckers.
But don’t think that makes them easier to catch, Arntfield says.
“The (FBI’s) Highway Serial Killer Initiative has about 400 to 450 offender profiles of unidentified subjects on its database alone that are involved in the trucking industry for the entire Interstate system (in the US),” Arntfield told APTN InFocus host Melissa Ridgen.
Many of them travel back and forth across the Canada-U.S. border. Given the significant distances and jurisdictions involved, the lack of witnesses and fresh forensic evidence and often the fact that where a victim is found is nowhere near where she went missing, these cases are often tough to solve.
It’s a troubling issue that the trucking industry has come to accept – in the U.S. at least. Truckers Against Trafficking is a group that trains truckers how to be on the lookout for women in danger and also, predators among them. It’s not know how effective those tools are in prevention.
“In Canada we know even less about (serial killers on truck routes) because the data just isn’t available,” Arntfield said. “We’ve tried to build a database in Canada that would allow us very clearly to see and visualize on a screen, coast to coast, who is being targeted, what numbers and how. We’ve faced roadblocks at every turn in this country.”
Lack of political will to have such a database is only part of the problem.
“Murder data in Canada, is owned by StatsCan, and it decides, rather than the experts, who should know what,” he said. “Essentially control the narrative on homicide.”
And too often indigenous women aren’t properly listed as murder victims, he said. Rather they’re categorized as accidental deaths or suicide or death by misadventure. So while StatsCan says the murder rate for indigenous women is six times higher than for non-indigenous women, it’d be even higher if some deaths were properly deemed homicides.
While most murders are found to be committed by those known to the victim, usually someone close to them, Arntfield pointed out that in 2016 there was new overall low in Canada and the U.S. for murder clearance rates.
There are three prevailing hypothesis as to why murders are getting harder to solve.
“The way society has gone and how individualistic and compartmentalized people are, that is the end of the community,” he said. The second theory is that there are more people killing random people which makes the investigation tougher off the hop. And those killers, experts believe, are savvier than in the past.
“They watch TV, the know how to sort of create doubt, create two separate crime scenes, move a body, introduce staging,” Arntfield said.
Third, he believes less qualified people are attracted to policing and move up the ranks to major crimes investigations.
“It’s probably the most frightening, which is cities that are consistently lowering their recruiting standards because they are desperate for people. Police work is not a sought after profession anymore, certainly not in this country.
Some agencies have no credit check, no physical tests, no written tests, essentially, people who would have been screened out of immediately from being considered are now getting in. In two to three years are winding up in specialty units like homicide,” he said.
When asked if data crunchers and criminal analysts have an idea how many serial killers are out there, he said “we estimate that there are 4,000 active in the United States right now” but the lack of homicide data available in Canada makes it impossible to estimate the number of serial killers here. Arntfield says even a fraction of the number they believe are operating in the U.S. would likely be shocking figure to most Canadians.
While Canada is leaps ahead of the U.S. in terms of admitting indigenous women and girls are disproportionately at risk of going missing or being found murdered, he doesn’t believe the national inquiry will do anything to take the issue further
“I guess I’ve wanted to know where are the deliverables? What was the outcome intended to be? Was this an exercise in storytelling and a catharsis – which is valuable. But I was thinking more like this would be a Congressional hearing like in the U.S. where there needs to be changes in legislation and policy that come from it,” Arntfield said.