The first time rookie MLA Jennifer Rice picked up hitchhikers, it was along the Highway of Tears, the northern B.C. route known for it heavy toll of missing and murdered women and girls. Another woman had just gone missing, and Ms. Rice couldn't pass by the mother standing at the side of the road with her young daughter. Today, she cannot forget their conversation.
"She was First Nations and had a feast to attend, someone had passed," Ms. Rice recalled. "She looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I had no other choice.' That's always resonated with me."
Next week, Ms. Rice, the NDP MLA for the North Coast who frequently travels the northern road to her Prince Rupert home, will bring a small group of MLAs on a driving tour of the 720-kilometre stretch between her hometown and Prince George.
Ms. Rice wants the province to provide transit along the route – following one of the recommendations of the public inquiry on missing women that was tabled more than two years ago.
Her travelling companions, NDP MLAs Carole James and Maurine Karagianis, both come from urban ridings where public transit is a given. They'll be stopping in the communities along the route – Smithers, Hazelton, Terrace and Burns Lake – to talk to residents about the need for safe transportation. They'll pause at billboards along the route that warn against hitchhiking. And they'll pick up hitchhikers.
Ms. James, the MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill, knows the route well – her husband lives in Burns Lake and she is in the community frequently. For Ms. Karagianis, of Esquimalt-Royal Roads, it's a chance to understand the transportation challenges of these isolated northern communities. She believes the government has an obligation to make changes. Women have disappeared along the route for decades, although RCMP did not launch a task force until 2005. That investigation has focused on 18 cases – 13 homicides and five missing women.
"I want to go up and see it myself, and then come back and make this call for justice, for protecting women," Ms. Karagianis said. The MLAs will take videos and blog about their experiences. "The federal and provincial governments talk about doing something about the missing and murdered women, and yet this step would be so easy and so affordable."
For Ms. Rice, it's a chance to build support for an issue she has raised since she was elected last May. "I have asked in the House three times now: 'Where is the bus?' I always think of that mother."
Ms. Rice first came to B.C. 13 years ago from Ontario. Her father drove with her, dropping her off in Prince Rupert where she was attending college. They had never heard of the Highway of Tears, but it was on that stretch of highway that he began to worry about his daughter. "He blurted out, 'Where am I taking you? There is nothing here but trees, rocks and rivers.'"
Ms. Rice has her own pickup truck, but even still, the remote highway can be an anxious drive. She stopped once to let her dog stretch, and accidentally locked her keys inside. She was 35 kilometres from the nearest town, with no cellphone service. The only person around was a man who was rooting through garbage cans, who refused to communicate with her. "I really felt vulnerable," she said. A passerby finally helped her break into her pickup.
The provincial government says it is still working with local communities to review potential transit services.