When Wally Oppal finished the report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry he titled it “Forsaken.”
Given what little has happened in the nearly two years since then, with only a handful of his 65 recommendations followed, it might better have been called “Ignored and Forgotten.”
Governments are making a habit of taking the reports of commissions, making serious sounds about their findings, then falling back into the routine of doing nothing.
It happened with the salmon inquiry headed by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Bruce Cohen, much to the dismay of First Nations living along the Fraser River, and more disturbingly it has happened to Mr. Oppal’s inquiry too.
Justice Cohen’s commission dealt with an important subject – the health of sockeye stocks in the Fraser – and by failing to implement the recommendations of that report, the federal government puts at risk a resource of immense importance to First Nations.
But Mr. Oppal’s commission dealt with something far more harrowing – the safety of aboriginal women – and by failing to act on his findings, the provincial government has put lives at risk.
In the legislature recently, B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton dared to suggest that the government has actually done something significant since Mr. Oppal called on the province to reduce the vulnerability of aboriginal women living along the “highway of tears.”
In response to criticisms that her government had failed to respond to concerns about the safety of women along the highway corridor, where 17 women have disappeared or been murdered since the 1970s, Ms. Anton implied that things have gotten better.
“The overarching conclusion [of Mr. Oppal’s report] was that northern highways have to be safe,” she told the House. “That safety is achieved through transportation, through the bus that runs along the highway, through the local transportation services, through the health bus, through the train.”
Unfortunately for young native women who live in the many small, scattered communities along the “highway of tears,” the transportation that the government thinks makes travel safe now was all there when Mr. Oppal did his report.
The problem Mr. Oppal highlighted, and which has been brought up repeatedly, is that women are hitchhiking because they are too poor to travel any other way.
Poverty, not a lack of trains, planes and Greyhound buses, is the problem that is putting young native women at high risk on the “highway of tears.”
“Aboriginal women are falling through the cracks of our public safety net,” wrote Mr. Oppal, who in his final report described poverty as “a persistent and widespread social condition” in the North.
“This has profound effects for everyone … but particularly for youth. Jobs are scarce, which means that many young people leave their homes and communities; and those who stay have few resources to travel to areas of work, education and leisure,” he wrote.
The same message was delivered in a 2006 report by the Highway of Tears Symposium, a native conference in the region.
“The first and most significant contributing factor for many of the Aboriginal women being on the highway is poverty,” states the symposium report. “Young Aboriginal women are placing themselves at risk by hitchhiking because they simply have no other transportation options. They have very little money, and vehicles are considered a luxury item that many families cannot afford.”
The symposium’s No. 1 recommendation was that the government establish a shuttle bus transportation system between towns along the “highway of tears.” It never happened.
Mr. Oppal endorsed the symposium and called on the government to implement its findings, as well as his own. Again, nothing.
So young women continue to hitchhike along the highway because their poverty gives them little choice and because the government, despite repeated reports, can’t find the will to start a shuttle bus service.