Myths of the Highway of Tears

The scandal of the week at the B.C. legislature is what could be termed “delete-gate.”

The scandal of the week at the B.C. legislature is what could be termed “delete-gate.”

Primarily, it revolves around 36 pages of government emails that the NDP opposition has been trying for a year to get under freedom of information legislation. They relate to a series of meetings between transportation ministry bureaucrats and remote communities along Highway 16, between Prince George and Prince Rupert.

If you want all of the accusations about government secrecy and alleged cover-ups, I invite you to read “Access Denied,” the latest report of the Information and Privacy Commissioner at www.oipc.bc.ca, and transcripts of question period in the legislature this week.

What you won’t find there is much discussion of the actual problem, which is a shortage of safe and practical transportation options in and out of these communities, most of which are federally funded aboriginal reserves far from the region’s only highway.

What we have seen for decades is a dramatic media narrative about one or more serial killers preying on vulnerable women hitchhiking along what is now known worldwide as the Highway of Tears.

The Wikipedia entry for Highway of Tears gives a sense of the credibility of this narrative. It begins with the unsolved murder of Gloria Moody, last seen leaving a bar in Williams Lake in 1969. That’s a long way from Highway 16.

Then there was Monica Jack, killed in 1978. DNA technology resulted in a charge finally being laid last year against a known serial rapist. This was even further away, near Merritt, and she was a 12-year-old riding her bike.

Other cases involve street prostitution in and around Prince George, an urban hub for a large aboriginal population similar to Regina and Winnipeg.

Discussion in Victoria focuses on urban notions of increased transit, in places where existing service may be under-used. Nationally, the narrative is that deep-seated social problems within aboriginal communities would somehow be solved by a lawyer-heavy judicial inquiry that looks only at tragedies involving women.

If you drive Highway 16 today, you will see fading billboards pleading for information on the disappearance of Madison Scott. She was last seen in the early hours of May 28, 2011, after a grad party in the woods outside Vanderhoof. Her truck and tent were still there. Again, nothing to do with hitchhiking, but at least it was near Highway 16.

Here’s something else you won’t often hear in the Highway of Tears melodrama. There is commercial bus service on Highway 16, although Greyhound reduced frequency in 2013 as it struggles with low ridership and high costs.

BC Transit also operates bus service to some remote communities like Kispiox and Gitsegukla, connecting them south to Smithers. But BC Transit requires local governments and riders to cover about half the cost. Indian Act reserves don’t pay.

North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice has noted that what people in remote communities ask for is a way to get back and forth for shopping and medical appointments.

Yes, shopping is an important need, as those who live in remote areas can tell you. And Northern Health already runs a bus service for remote residents who need medical care.

Rice’s observations at least move us toward practical solutions, although most of her effort seems directed towards political blame.

I hope the infamous 36 pages of emails are eventually released, since they were not deleted but rather excluded from release. They may bring the discussion back to the actual public service issue, which is what realistic transportation options exist for these communities.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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