People often forced to hitchhike along the notorious highway, says tribal council chief
By Bethany Lindsay, Vancouver Sun
Nearly 18 months after Missing Women Commissioner Wally Oppal urged that a public shuttle bus begin running along the notorious Highway of Tears, local mayors and First Nations leaders say they’ve yet to see any action from the B.C. government.
In his November 2012 report, Oppal recommended that the province immediately implement an “enhanced public transit system to provide a safer travel option connecting Northern communities, particularly along Highway 16,” where 18 women have been murdered or gone missing in recent decades.
Carrier Sekani Tribal Council Chief Terry Teegee pointed out that the push for a shuttle bus began in 2006, when the Highway of Tears Symposium recommended one connecting every town and city along the highway.
“We’ve been trying to implement something for quite some time, and even just to look at the feasibility of something, (the provincial government hasn’t) committed to anything like that,” he said.
He added that he regularly sees people hitchhiking between First Nations communities along the highway.
“There are still many, many people hitchhiking. There’s been a downgrade of service from Greyhound, and if people don’t have a ride, they’ll go out and hitchhike.”
Greyhound now runs one bus per day in each direction between Prince George and Prince Rupert. The eastbound bus operates during the day, while the westbound bus runs overnight.
According to Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach, the current bus schedule simply doesn’t meet the needs of people living in small communities.
“A situation that was already quite dire has got worse, and I think that has really heightened people’s awareness of the situation,” he said.
Transportation has become particularly important in recent years, according to Bachrach, because many public services have been regionalized. That means people often need to travel to the nearest city if they require services ranging from health care to employment assistance.
In 2012, mayors from across the province participating in the Union of B.C. Municipalities meeting voted in favour of Bachrach’s resolution urging the province to implement a public transit system.
“There’s really a broad recognition that this is something that needs to happen. It’s achievable, it’s doable, it has multiple benefits,” Bachrach said.
He acknowledged that the province has said it will consult with communities about the shuttle bus, but said he’s yet to see any consultation taking place.
This week, three NDP MLAs — Maurine Karagianis, Jennifer Rice and Carole James — are travelling the length of the highway from Prince Rupert to Prince George, offering rides to hitchhikers and speaking with locals.
“We’ll be pushing the government to finally take action by providing the shuttle bus that is so badly needed to save lives along the highway,” Karagianis said in a release.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said in a written statement that the province is committed to implementing the recommendations from Oppal’s report, but she did not give a timeline for bringing in a Highway 16 shuttle bus.
“Commissioner Oppal recommended safer public transportation options on our northern highways and our government is committed to working with local governments and First Nations to do that,” she said.
She added that the University of Northern B.C. and the RCMP is conducting a joint study that will produce recommendations for hitchhiker safety and identify alternatives to hitchhiking.