More than a decade after First Nations along northern B.C.'s so-called Highway of Tears began pleading for reliable public transportation, two new bus routes have started regular service along Highway 16.
The first of the new B.C. Transit buses set off from Burns Lake early Monday morning, bound for Smithers along a stretch of road notorious for the high numbers of disappearances and murders of Indigenous women in recent decades.
"This has been a long time coming," Burns Lake Mayor Christopher Beach said. "A lot of people have gone missing from our communities — they didn't have a safe way to commute down Highway 16."
The Burns Lake-Smithers bus will run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while a second route between Burns Lake and Prince George will operate every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
'Huge step up,' says mayor
"When you've never had B.C.Transit, that's a huge step up," Beach said. "It'll give you several hours to get medical appointments or do some shopping or make visits with family or whatever you have to do and you'll still be able to come back that same day."
B.C. Transit is the agency responsible for delivering public transportation outside Greater Vancouver.
At least 18 women have either gone missing or been killed along the highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert, according to the RCMP, but Indigenous leaders argue that the true number is closer to 50.
Proposed in 2006
Many of the missing and dead were last seen hitchhiking, and local leaders have been calling on the province to fund public transportation options since 2006, when the Highway of Tears Symposium recommended a shuttle bus connecting every town and First Nations community along the road.
The symposium was held to address safety along the stretch of highway between Prince George and Prince Rupert.
In 2012, former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal, who led an inquiry into missing women in B.C., made a similar recommendation, urging a bus service in his final report.
Tribal Chief Terry Teegee of the Carrier Sekani First Nation said the delay has been frustrating.
"I think rural areas and Indigenous women were just not a priority for the Liberal government. It states how disconnected the government was in terms of connecting with the communities up here in the rural areas," he said.
Teegee — whose own cousin Ramona Wilson went missing from the highway in 1994 — says while the new bus routes aren't going to bring justice to the missing women, he is glad to see actual action.
"It's a start," he said. "[But] there needs to be more committed resources placed for the long term."
Listen to Terry Teegee's interview on CBC's The Early Edition:
First leg opened in early 2017
The first leg of B.C. Transit's plan for Highway 16 finally opened earlier this year — a 30-kilometre route running between Smithers and Moricetown.
The latest bus routes add another 370 kilometres of coverage along the highway. According to Beach, the routes were only possible because B.C. Transit was willing to deviate from the conventional funding formula, which asks municipalities to provide 50 per cent of the share.
"That just wasn't going to work for a community of our size," Beach said.
Instead, B.C. Transit agreed to fund two-thirds of the project, and the towns and First Nations along the routes are chipping in the rest.