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A stretch of the Highway of Tears runs through a community east of Prince Rubert, British Columbia, March 21, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A bus service that links communities along a notorious stretch of highway in northern British Columbia known as the Highway of Tears will carry passengers by the end of the year, the province's Transportation Minister said Wednesday.

Eighteen women have been murdered or have disappeared along Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert and adjacent routes since the 1970s.

First Nations, social-service agencies and women's groups have been calling for a shuttle bus service in the area for several years to provide regular transportation for people who live in communities along the 750-kilometre route.

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The highway cuts through the centre of the province and follows rivers and mountains, passing through numerous small communities, including Houston, Smithers and Burns Lake. The route also provides the main transportation link to and from remote First Nations villages located off the main highway.

Most cases of murdered and missing women remain unsolved, though investigators don't believe a single killer is responsible.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone says agreements between 16 communities along the highway will allow BC Transit to operate a scheduled bus service between Prince George and Prince Rupert.

"Absolutely, this initiative is all about safety," he said.

He said the communities, the province and BC Transit must still develop service schedules and provide extra buses for the route.

Mr. Stone said plans for the Highway 16 area also include offering bus driver training programs for First Nations to provide transportation service from their remote villages to other major communities along the highway.

Chief Corrina Leween of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation said the bus service helps many living in towns on or near the highway, but it offers little comfort to those off the main road.

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"The work they are doing for the core group on the corridor is good, but for us it really doesn't work because we're off the beaten trail," she said.

Ms. Leween said the main Cheslatta community of about 300 people is located about 25 kilometres south of Burns Lake and getting to the highway requires a ferry trip and travel on a dirt road.

Five Cheslatta people, including a family of four and a male elder, have disappeared from the area over the years, she said.

New Democrat Maurine Karagianis, the Opposition's critic for women, said area residents and local politicians have called for improved transportation services for years, but the government has been stalling while many people hitchhike for rides with strangers.

"I say get on with it," she said.

First Nations advocate Mary Teegee said a decade ago, dozens of people walked from Prince Rupert to Prince George to call for better transportation service along the highway.

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"It has been 10 years since of the Highway of Tears recommendations report came out and we are finally making progress," she said in a statement. "I view transportation as a human-rights issue in the north and we are working toward making sure everyone has access."

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