Nearly 18 months ago, Emma Fillipoff, a chef at a popular Victoria, B.C., restaurant, disappeared without a trace on a chilly Wednesday evening.

Her mother has been scouring the city and Vancouver's Downtown Eastside ever since, trying to find her 26-year-old daughter.

"I have a terrible fear she has had a breakdown and doesn't even know she is missing … and may not even know who she is," says Shelley Fillipoff.

There are more than 20,000 reports of missing Canadians every year, according to the RCMP. The city of Victoria alone sees about 500 cases. Many of those declared missing are found in the first 24 hours.

But Fillipoff is one of the thousands of cases across Canada that remain unsolved.

To help her family and the families of the many Canadians who disappear every year, CBC’s the fifth estate has launched a "Finding Emma" campaign, encouraging Canadians to send in their tips and also their stories of loved ones who have gone missing.

'Lots of Emmas out there'

The young woman was last seen around 8 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2012, speaking with two police officers outside Victoria's Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Earlier in the day, she'd purchased a pre-paid cell phone and a pre-paid credit card from a local 7-Eleven store. The last known photo of her is from a security camera at the store.

Her car was found in the Chateau Victoria parking lot with all her belongings in it, including her passport, laptop, recently borrowed library books, a camera and numerous personal journals.

There are few clues about why Fillipoff might have disappeared, but her mother says her behaviour in the weeks leading up to the disappearance suggested she was suffering from a mental breakdown.

Former roommate Mikaela Buchart says Fillipoff loved life too much to have committed suicide.

"I don't think she would do that," Buchart told CBC’s fifth estate host Mark Kelley. "She saw beauty in the world and I don't think it’s the kind of beauty she would like to leave."

finding emma

Shelley Fillipoff has scoured Victoria and Vancouver for signs of her daughter. She's even offered a $25,000 reward. (CBC)

Friends and family say she was known for her creativity, photography and love of the outdoors.

But if Emma suffered a breakdown, she may be just one of tens of thousands of Canadians struggling with mental illness who end up living on the streets.

"I think the cautionary tale here is that this is someone who — whatever happened to her — has slipped through society's fingers and this is where we hear about the missing," says Mike Arntfield, a former police investigator who now specializes in cold cases as a professor at the University of Western Ontario.

"And Emma, at the end of the day had people who were helping her, but no one was really looking out for her. And now we have one sole advocate — her mother — looking for answers," added Arntfield. "I think the lesson here is there are lots of Emmas out there."

A 'deceitful' illness

More than 200,000 Canadians are homeless, according to 2013 estimates by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network. Anywhere from one-quarter to a half of them struggle with mental illness, says the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

There are many reasons people with a mental illness might disappear. Some simply lose track of time, while others run away, seeking an escape or not wanting to be a burden on others.

"That's the trickery," said Dave Gallson, associate national executive director of Mood Disorders Society of Canada. "Mental illnesses are deceitful. They'll convince the person that is experiencing it that there's no end in sight."

Since Fillipoff disappeared 18 months ago, there have been unconfirmed reports of sightings of her in Vancouver, Tofino and Powell River and as far away as Oregon and Winnipeg.

Her mother has offered a $25,000 reward to help find her daughter.

For more about the Finding Emma project, visit the fifth estate's special website. It contains information and photos about Emma. You can submit tips about her case or send your story about a family member or friend who has gone missing.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story contained a number of errors. It stated that 20,000 adults go missing in Canada every year; in fact, the RCMP says there are 20,000 reports of missing Canadians every year, which might include some repeat incidents.
    Jul 08, 2014 10:14 AM PT
  • There was a misspelling of the name of one of the sources. The correct spelling for Emma Fillipoff's friend is Mikaela Buchart.
    Jul 08, 2014 10:14 AM PT
  • Mike Arntfield was incorrectly identified as a former cold case police investigator. He is a former police investigator who now specializes in cold cases as a professor at the University of Western Ontario.
    Jul 08, 2014 10:14 AM PT