Todd Stone, the B.C. Minister of Transportation, wants to hear from residents who live along the Highway 16 corridor in the north. His ministry is hosting a symposium in Smithers, B.C., on Nov. 24 to ask First Nations communities to help him find solutions to the well-documented challenges of keeping women and girls safe along what is known as the Highway of Tears.
The reasons for this round of consultation are inexplicable.
Mr. Stone already has a shelf full of reports and documents – internal and public – to guide him, much of it based on extensive consultation over the past decade.
He could start by looking at the findings of his ministry's 2006 Transportation Symposium. The resulting report is dedicated to nine young women and teenaged girls who disappeared or were found murdered along the highway. Most were aboriginal and most were last seen hitchhiking along Highway 16. The total number of victims is unknown but at least 18 women and girls have vanished in the region since 1969.
Nine years ago, the transportation ministry was urged to provide a free shuttle-bus system to connect nearby communities so that vulnerable women would have an alternative to hitchhiking.
Mr. Stone could also find some answers in the 2012 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry report. The inquiry held seven meetings in the region. The commission heard a "generalized frustration about the government's lack of action to address the factors that contribute to the vulnerability of girls and young women along Highway 16: poverty and lack of transportation. We were told that the government continually conducts studies and surveys, but nothing is ever done with the information."
In its final report tabled three years ago, the commission called for urgent action by the B.C. government "to develop and implement an enhanced public-transit system to provide a safer travel option connecting the Northern communities, particularly along Highway 16."
While most British Columbians have access to public transit, the ministry seems confounded by the challenges of serving this remote region. There are 23 First Nations communities living along that 724-kilometre stretch of highway struggling to access recreation, medical treatment or other services.
In the summer of 2014, the ministry launched another round of consultation. From that, Mr. Stone concluded that public transportation was not a practical solution.
"We knew this couldn't be true because my colleagues and I drove that highway, met with community members along that highway and were told first-hand the very opposite of what the minister has said," NDP MLA Maurine Karagianis told the legislature last week. The NDP filed a Freedom of Information request, which took a year to extract from the government. "Guess what? We were correct. The FOI shows that the people in the northwest actually did tell this government that they wanted public transportation."
Terry Teegee, chief of the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council, also questioned the ministry's claims about what the community wants. He said the message from First Nations in the region has been consistent: They believe a reliable, safe transportation system is an essential service. But the ministry insisted the region no longer considered public transit a priority. His organization asked for the consultation report but got nothing back.
Mr. Stone's ministry deserves the skepticism. The province's independent privacy commissioner has asked the RCMP to investigate how his ministry responded to information requests on the Highway of Tears by deleting documents.
Why is it so hard to accept that the community along Highway 16 wants access to some form of public transit? The only reasonable conclusion is that the stakeholders in the region haven't said what Mr. Stone wants to hear.
The government has estimated the cost of running a free shuttle service at $1-million a year. Coming from a government that has cooked up a $3-billion plan for the George Massey tunnel replacement in Metro Vancouver without bothering to produce a business plan, it is disgraceful that the province is applying such rigorous penny-pinching while young women are at risk.