After two exhaustive reports into missing and murdered aboriginal women along B.C.'s "highway of tears" recommended affordable alternatives to hitchhiking, internal provincial government documents show that a solution is nowhere in sight.
That's in part why a B.C. professor's hitchhiking research is getting attention from the RCMP – and why her quest for funding feels anything but academic.
"Everyone seems to be saying, 'We need this done, and we need it done yesterday,'" Dr. Jacqueline Holler, a professor of women's studies and gender studies at the University of Northern British Columbia, said in a recent interview.
The hitchhiking study, undertaken by UNBC researchers with support from the RCMP, was launched in 2012 in response to the Highway of Tears Symposium Recommendations Report. That 2006 report contained recommendations from a gathering held the year before to discuss murders and disappearances along B.C.'s Highway 16, which runs for more than 700 kilometres between Prince George and Prince Rupert and is also known as the "highway of tears."
Between 1989 and 2006, nine young women – all but one of whom was aboriginal – went missing or were found murdered along Highway 16. In 2005, the RCMP launched an investigation into the string of cases and in 2007 broadened it to take in parts of two other highways and 18 cases – 13 homicides and five disappearances – from 1969 and 2006.
The investigation is continuing, with the most recent development in December 2014, when RCMP announced homicide charges against a man for two cases dating back to the 1970s, including one related to the Highway 16 investigation.
The symposium report's 2006 recommendations included a shuttle bus transportation system that "would focus on the pickup and drop-off of young female passengers at all First Nation communities, towns and cities along the entire length of the highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert."
In 2012, transportation was again singled out as a cause for concern, this time in the report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. In that report, which reviewed police investigations into women reported missing from the Downtown Eastside, commissioner Wally Oppal urged the government to act immediately on two measures: funding that would allow drop-in centres for sex trade workers to stay open 24 hours a day and "an enhanced public transit system" for Northern communities, "particularly along Highway 16."
But a confidential "issues note," prepared for Transportation Minister Todd Stone and released through an access to information request, suggests such enhancements may not be quick to arrive. The note, dated Sept. 14, 2014, includes recommended responses for the minister on the issue, including that "there isn't an easy fix for transportation services in the region. The distance between communities presents a significant challenge for people to travel back and forth."
The note included this question, "How much money will you put into transportation improvements on Highway 16?" and the suggested response, "we won't know what these costs will be until we complete our discussions with municipal and First Nations leaders."
The province has taken steps to address safety along Highway 16, including boosting cellphone coverage, funding driver-licensing programs in First Nations communities and launching a website that provides information about transportation services, which include commercial bus service several days a week.
But there is still no shuttle, despite another round of meetings between provincial staff and First Nations and municipal leaders on Highway 16 issues this past summer.
Dr. Holler said she can't completely answer the question of who hitchhikes and why.
Early findings indicate that people hitchhike because they have no car, no money and in some cases are running away from home, Dr. Holler said. Flexibility – the ability to travel at night, or on short notice – is often cited as a factor.
So far, the study, launched with $5,000 in research funding from the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health, has collected information in several ways, including GPS data supplied by courier companies that recorded the times and locations at which they saw hitchhikers on the highway.
Dr. Holler has recently applied for additional funding, including a $30,000 grant through the province's Civil Forfeiture Office for programs related to violence against women. The results of that application should be known by the end of March – in time to hire field workers for the summer.
Editors' Note: A previous version of this story on the "highway of tears" investigation incorrectly said the most recent development came in 2012, when RCMP identified a man – who died in a U.S. jail in 2006 – as responsible for the death of one woman and linked him to the deaths of two others. In fact, the most recent development came in December 2014, when RCMP announced homicide charges against a man for two cases dating back to the 1970s, including one related to the Highway 16 investigation. This version has been corrected.