Highway 16 Symposium: Solutions or Re-hash?
Prince George, B.C. – The B.C. Transportation Ministry and the First Nations Health Authority are hosting a symposium in Smithers next week to find solutions to the transportation problems along the Highway 16 corridor between Prince George and Prince Rupert.
The 722 kilometre stretch of highway has gained nation-wide notoriety because of the disappearance or murder of at least 18 women and girls, the majority of whom were aboriginal and vanished while hitchhiking, since 1969. The total number of victims is not known.
Next Tuesday representatives of the 23 First Nations communities along Highway 16 will join municipal and provincial government officials in discussions that “will focus on finding transportation options to address both medical and non-medical travel and support healthy communities”, according to a Transportation Ministry release. Minister Todd Stone says “this symposium will build on the work we’ve done to date as we continue to engage First Nations to find practical, affordable and sustainable solutions for the communities along the Highway 16 corridor.”
Approximately 300 kilometres of Highway 16, from Bednesti to just west of Houston, falls within the riding of Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad, who is also the provincial Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation. Rustad says his ministry will not be involved in the symposium, however. “No, not directly. This is a transportation issue and although my ministry is connected, and has been working with the Ministry of Transportation, Transportation is trying to look at it around Highway 16 and it’s not directly around what my ministry is, which is Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation.”
Asked whether there might not be some intersection of the two ministries on this issue he says “we’ve had involvement with Transportation in terms of contacts and these types of things. We are engaged with Transportation because some of the goals that they want to try to achieve are similar to some of the goals we’re trying to achieve, things we’re working on with missing and murdered women and aboriginal training and other types of initiatives. But the symposium isn’t about that per se, so that’s why our ministry isn’t directly engaged in it.”
Rustad says the Smithers symposium is not focused solely on finding a single solution to the issue of safe transportation along Highway 16. “I wouldn’t call it so much a solution,” he says, “as I would call it a series of things that could potentially benefit the whole corridor. I mean there isn’t one thing that can be done but there are a number of things that could be done that could help improve things for the corridor, and I think that’s what’s being explored.”
“As they go into this the answer, or the options to look at is not going to be one large provincial program but it’s going to have to be a series of things. You are not going to see like a Greyhound bus service, but each community has things that they can look at and so the idea is, what is it that communities are doing, what is it that communities need to do, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike that would help with what they are trying to achieve? And then, what role can the province play, if any, in terms of what some of those ideas are?”
Rustad says safe travel for people, women and girls in particular, along Highway 16 “is part of the discussion. I’m anticipating what will come from this will be a series of ideas, everything from a full-blown B.C. Transit system to a wide range of other things.” He mentioned receiving a letter from someone asking whether Via Rail might be able to play a part in helping transportation through the corridor.
There have been similar symposiums and countless meetings and consultations on the Highway 16 transportation issue since 2006. As well, the 2012 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry held seven meetings in the region and made several recommendations, including one that the province develop and implement an enhanced public transit system to provide safer travel between northern communities, particularly along Highway 16.
However Rustad does not support that. “To be realistic I don’t think it is a viable option to see a full-blown B.C. Transit system, such as you see in the lower mainland, along Highway 16. You’re talking about 800-plus kilometers of highway with communities very spread out. It’s not something that could be effective and I don’t think it could work.”
Asked whether a privately-operated bus service might work Rustad says “Greyhound has service that runs along that highway and I know they are very challenged in terms of what hours they travel and trying to make an economic go of it. I think all options should be looked at at this point but one single comprehensive system probably isn’t what we’re going to need.”
“You look at, for example, First Nations and the busses that they have and the types of things that they need to do may be similar to other communities, but they may also be different. How do you reflect what those different needs are and how do you try to make something work for all the peoples along Highway 16? It’s quite a complex issue.”
He says he has received plenty of input on this matter from First Nations representatives. “I have had meetings with, I think, every nation along Highway 16 on more than one occasion as well as nations that are north and south of the highway. And First Nation needs, a lot of what they talk about is how do we have an opportunity to participate in training? How do we have the opportunity to be able to participate in the work force? Driver’s licences are an issue for us.”
However he says “when you talk to the non-aboriginal community, more of the conversation is around how do seniors get in for doctors appointments for, say, the community of Houston? They have a number of people who travel to Smithers for various services. How can we help facilitate that?”
Asked whether safe transportation is not a key in this whole discussion, Rustad says “there’s no question that groups have approached me, whether its nations or advocacy groups, that talk about safe transportation and are concerned about safety along the highway. I think there’s a number of things that have been done that have improved safety on the highway. I think that the work the highway group has done around signage and awareness, these types of things, have significantly improved.”
“I travel the highway on a regular basis, I don’t see anywhere close to as many people looking for rides along the highway as there used to be. Having said that there’s certainly families that have concerns, there’s been issues along the highway historically and that’s why we’re trying to take steps to improve that safety.”
Given that fact the issue has been discussed repeatedly for several years now without significant result, and that a digesting of information presented and possible decision on corrective measures could be months or even years away, Rustad says “I would be disappointed if we were talking years, I think this forum will present some interesting ideas. They will need a little bit of time to digest the ideas and maybe have a little bit of going back but I’m hopeful that we’ll be seeing some ideas that can come out of this that will be actionable in a short period of time.”