When Ramona Wilson went missing more than 21 years ago, hitchhiking along the cold open road of Highway 16 in Northwest British Columba was, for some, the only way to get from town to town for more than 1,600 miles.
Her body was found 10 months later near Smithers, British Columbia.
Since then, many women have shared Ramona’s fate. The infamous stretch of road, more than 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) north of Vancouver, has been known as the Highway of Tears for quite some time.
Canada’s federal police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), has a dedicated unit, Project E-PANA, investigating more than 18 unsolved murders and disappearances of women from communities between Prince George and Prince Rupert between 1969 and 2011.
Earlier this month the provincial government announced a five-point action plan, committing $3 million over the next three years to “enhance transportation safety” between northern communities and prevent vulnerable residents from having to resort to hitchhiking as their only form of transportation.
The funds will provide safe, practical and sustainable transportation for communities along the Highway 16 corridor, British Columbia Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone said.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the challenges along the corridor,” Stone said. “This action plan provides flexibility for communities to determine how to best apply new funding to meet their specific needs.”
There is still skepticism over whether this investment will truly be sustainable. Although the commitment is a step in the right direction, there are many unanswered questions and a lot of work to be done, said Mary Teegee, executive director of Carrier Sekani Family Services and a member of the Highway of Tears Initiative.
“It’s a good start, but when you look at it, it’s only $3 million over three years,” Teegee said. “Some of the pieces are good, but we still have a long way to go, which will be one of the roles of the advisory committee.”
Along with Teegee, several mayors and First Nation leaders from across the northwest have been selected for a new advisory group, which aims to roll out funding after two months of consultation with communities affected by the Highway of Tears.
The provincial government’s commitment comes just weeks after a Northern Transportation Symposium was held in Smithers with representatives from local government and First Nation communities. The symposium was meant to nail down an effective approach to reliable northern transportation, which currently in nonexistent.
But this isn’t the first time a symposium has been held to determine a solution for safe transportation along Highway 16. In 2006 a Highway of Tears Symposium laid out several recommendations to improve inter-community public transit—more specifically, a public shuttle bus service from Prince George to Prince Rupert. But the recommendations were rebuffed by the then Liberal government as impractical.
For family members of Highway of Tears victims, including Ramona Wilson’s sister, Brenda Wilson, the new commitment has been more than 10 years in the making. She said she’s happy to finally see the B.C. government taking the issue seriously.
“It’s good news, but my concern is whether that $3 million will be sufficient over three years,” Wilson said. “It’s a vast area, and I don’t know if they really understand how vast it is. My call to them would be to do a geographical scan in person to understand what they have to work with, because right now, to me [$3 million] doesn’t seem to be sufficient.”
The five-point action plan includes $1.6 million over two years for transit expansion along the Highway 16 corridor, $750,000 for a cost sharing grants program, $500,000 for two years to improve highway infrastructure, and $150,000 for First Nations driver education programs. The provincial government is also looking to collaborate with existing service provides such as the Northern Health Bus and other private service provides.
The decision to commit $3 million to improve safety on Highway 16 comes in the wake of Canada’s newly elected Liberal Government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, launch of a national inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls. Something First Nation leaders have been asking for years.
Although there are still many unanswered questions, including when the government of B.C. expects to begin rolling out funding for the Highway of Tears project, Brenda Wilson said victims like her sister are finally getting the respect they deserve.
“My sister and many of the other young ladies finally have a voice,” Wilson said. “They have made a difference in the lives of many community members between Prince Rupert and Prince George. I’m overjoyed at these announcements. I still have concerns, but I have to have hope that this will go through.”