On Monday the B.C. government released a new strategy that aims to increase safety on a notorious stretch of northern highway, where numerous Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone announced the $3-million, five-point plan on Monday targeting Highway 16, also known as the Highway of Tears — an 800 km corridor between the coastal town of Prince Rupert and the interior industrial town of Prince George.
A least 18 women, many Indigenous and many hitchhikers, have gone missing or been murdered along the route since the 1970s, according to the RCMP. Locals have said the number is actually much higher.
The province’s funding could result in the creation of a long-sought shuttle bus as well as help connect communities that aren’t currently linked by public transportation.
The government has budgeted $1.6 million over two years to improve existing bus services and $750,000 over three years in community grants for First Nations, municipal governments or non-profits to start their own transportation routes.
There is also funding for new highway webcams, transportation shelters and more driving training and education for First Nations people in the area, and an advisory group has been formed to oversee the plan’s implementation.
The province said in a news release that the funding builds on the $5.2 million that annually goes toward transit services along the highway.
B.C. Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Shane Gottfriedson said he is pleased that the province has “finally moved” on safety improvements that have been recommended for years.
“I am heartened to hear of this important first step to take action on the safety and transportation for our brothers and sisters of the north,” he said in the government’s release.
The strategy comes after nearly a decade of criticism around the province’s approach to the problem and ongoing recommendations urging the government and RCMP to take action to improve safety on the highway.
In 2006, First Nations groups held a symposium on the issue and came up with 33 recommendations for better transportation and general safety.
Six years later, in 2012, that report was endorsed at B.C.’s inquiry into missing and murdered women, which focused on the botched investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton. Commissioner Wally Oppal recommended a shuttle bus along the route.
The bus wasn’t made a reality, because the province’s estimates pegged the cost of a free shuttle service at about $1 million per year.
The province said its new plan for the highway was based on feedback from a forum in Smithers on Nov. 24, where 90 First Nations leaders, community members and local government representatives gathered to talk about transportation options for the highway corridor.
Days before the symposium was held, members of a coalition on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls held a news conference in Vancouver, demanding that the B.C. government act on making the highway safer.
Brenda Wilson, whose sister Ramona’s body was found near Smithers 21 years ago, said there needs to be a long-term safety plan for the Highway of Tears.
“Attempts have been made to do something about the transportation system, and they don’t receive results, ” she said. “But we’re not going to let that happen.”
“The north has a voice, and our voice is getting stronger, and we’re going to ensure that we’re not left out anymore.”
The strategy announcement comes shortly after the federal government officially announced its national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.