Stone says changes to Highway of Tears coming

The Yellowhead, Highway 16, near Prince George, B.C., is pictured on October 8, 2012.
The Yellowhead, Highway 16, near Prince George, B.C., is pictured on October 8, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

VICTORIA – British Columbia is set to announce transportation service upgrades along the so-called Highway of Tears, but the minister responsible says a region-wide shuttle bus sought by First Nations won’t be part of the plan.

Transportation Minister Todd Stone said he’s considering options such as supporting volunteer-driven vans that link First Nations reserves with communities, improving existing transit schedules and expanding use of a bus that takes people to and from medical appointments.

Eighteen women have been murdered or disappeared along Highway 16 and adjacent routes since the 1970s. The highway stretches about 750 kilometres across the centre of the province from Prince George to Prince Rupert.

“My intentions are to develop and launch a provincial strategy on this that will represent our next steps to enhance transportation services in the corridor, and to do so fairly quickly,” Stone said Thursday.

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He said he expects to announce changes within weeks.

“This is one of the top priorities on my desk at the moment and there has been a lot of valuable discussion, lots of goodwill demonstrated by everyone involved, so my goal is to act as quickly as I possibly can.”

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He said transportation options were discussed earlier this week at meetings in Smithers, with almost 100 people attending, including First Nations, community leaders and government officials.

Stone said he’s reviewing proposals including improvement of existing B.C. Transit schedules between neighbouring communities such as Houston and Smithers and Terrace and Prince Rupert. He’s also considering suggestions to open a health appointment bus in the north to passengers in general.

“Let’s see if we can’t get more butts into the seats,” Stone said.

The minister said he’s on board with expanding a current volunteer transit service that links First Nations communities in the Fort St. James area with neighbouring communities of Vanderhoof and Prince George.

“This community-based van service, I think there’s a winner there,” Stone said. “I think there’s an opportunity to take that best practice and replicate it in other areas through the corridor.”

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Stone said he remains adamant that a regional shuttle bus service favoured by many First Nations is a non-starter. Government documents released recently pegged annual operating costs of a regular shuttle service between Prince George and Prince Rupert at less than $1 million.

“These are all potentially practical, sustainable solutions,” Stone said. “They don’t involve establishing a scheduled shuttle bus from Prince Rupert to Prince George.

Opposition New Democrat Jennifer Rice, who represents the Prince Rupert area, said she’s disappointed that Stone continues to reject a regional shuttle bus.

Rice said she attended the Smithers meeting and spoke with people who have lost family members along the highway. They were disappointed a shuttle bus is being giving short shrift, she said.

“People have been calling for that for quite a long time. We spend more money on twinning highways.”

Rice said she’s awaiting further details of Stone’s plans.

Stone recently said the highway issue could be part of an inquiry the federal government may call into Canada’s murdered and missing women.

An RCMP report last year stated nearly 1,200 aboriginal women were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012.