Nearly 10 years ago, Mary Teegee helped organize the Highway of Tears Symposium: a two-day gathering where First Nations, police and government representatives discussed the disappearances and murders of women, most of them aboriginal, along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert.
Its first recommendation, based on reports that many women hitchhiked because they were poor and had few alternatives, was for a shuttle bus that would stop in every community along the nearly 800-kilometre corridor and pick up women who were hitchhiking along the route. Since then, there have been repeated calls for improved transit, including a recommendation in the 2012 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. But the money and services didn't come.
On Monday, Ms. Teegee was one of 10 people named to a new advisory group that will oversee implementation of a $3-million government action plan that includes funds to boost transit in the region.
For Ms. Teegee, who since that two-day symposium in 2006 has organized memorial walks and backed advocacy efforts, including a documentary film to highlight the notorious stretch of highway, the action plan is welcome, but long overdue.
"It's been a long time coming," said Ms. Teegee, who is executive director of child services at Carrier Sekani Family Services, a Prince George agency, and part of the Highway of Tears Initiative, a group that focuses on public safety.
"It is good news, but you have to think about that $3-million over three years is not a lot of money, when you think about the vast geography that we are talking about," Ms. Teegee said.
"There's going to be a lot of work that needs to be done, but at least it's a start."
At least 18 women and girls have vanished or been found murdered along Highway 16 and adjacent highways since the 1970s.
B.C.'s Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone announced the package Monday. A transportation symposium on the topic was held in Smithers in November.
The five-point plan includes $1.6-million for transit expansion, $750,000 for community transportation grant programs, $150,000 for a First Nations driver education program, $500,000 for highway safety measures including shelters and webcams and "collaboration to increase interconnectivity of services."
Details of the transit improvements are to be worked out by the advisory group, Mr. Stone said, with the intention to connect all of the communities along the route. The new funds are available on a cost-shared basis with municipalities. But he ruled out a full-service shuttle bus.
In a conference call with reporters, Mr. Stone said the length of time needed to launch the plan reflected the consultation and planning required to put it together.
Others speculated that external factors could have pushed the government's hand, including the federal Liberal government's plan to go ahead with a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women – a process that is likely to put a spotlight on issues such as community safety – and recent scrutiny of the province over its communication policies related to Highway 16.
"Given the spotlight now, with the national inquiry, there is more of a public outcry," Ms. Teegee said. "If you look at the Ministry of Transportation and the destruction of e-mails – I think there were a lot of things that were occurring.
"But for whatever reason, there was a decision to go ahead with this plan, and I'm glad that we are starting something."
In an October report, B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham found the government had violated B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by deleting files, including some related to Highway 16.
For the First Nations Health Authority, the transportation plan is about more than getting people from one place to another.
"Safe and reliable transport for medical needs can be a challenge in all rural and remote areas," said John Mah vice-president of health benefits with the authority.
"We are encouraged by the action that was taken so quickly after the [Smithers] symposium and by this substantial financial investment. Connecting these networks in the north will support safer public transport, for which the First Nations Health Authority has a vested moral interest," Mr. Mah said.
"It is important we deal with the many issues underlying the missing and murdered women's inquiry and safe transportation is one of these."