British Columbia

'We don't want to lose another one': first leg of Highway of Tears transit run begins Monday

The Wet'suwet'en village of Moricetown is contributing over $10,000 a year for a daily bus service to Smithers, 30 kilometers along B.C.'s so-called Highway of Tears.

Band hopes twice-daily bus will reduce hitchhiking and increase employment

A billboard beside the so-called Highway of Tears near Moricetown, B.C. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

Every morning at 5 a.m., Joshua Antonio Alfred stands on the side of Highway 16, hitchhiking to work.

"I need to pay my bills, I need money," Alfred said in an interview. "There's no work in Moricetown."

Alfred lives in the Wet'suwet'en village of Moricetown in northwest British Columbia. The only job he's been able to find is at a convenience store in Smithers, 30 kilometres away.

He has no car and can't afford to live in Smithers.

Sometimes when he has early-morning shifts he spends the night in a Smithers shelter so he won't have to hitchhike.

"You know, you need money," he said.

Joshua Alfred says people often ask him why he hitchhikes. "I'm a big guy and I'm not really afraid of anything," he says, but adds "a lot of people go missing." (Joshua Antonio Alfred)

He's looking forward to Monday when he'll have a new option: a twice-daily bus run, the first leg in the provincial government's Highway 16 Transportation Action Plan.

The plan was announced last summer to improve public transit along B.C.'s so-called Highway of Tears.

It's a response to calls for safer travel options along the highway, where a number of women and girls, many Indigenous, have gone missing or have been murdered while hitchhiking.

The provincial government have committed $4 million for the first three years of the plan. Another $1 million will come from the federal government.

The money covers the price of buying the buses and about two-thirds of the estimated operating costs. The rest will come from local governments.

So far, Prince George has committed $50,000 to the plan while Smithers is contributing $11,000 annually. Moricetown has put in about $10,000.

'We really need this'

The plan's goal is to connect every community along Highway 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert with public transit.

"We really need this," said Lucy Gagnon, executive director of the Moricetown Band.

"Three of our community members are missing and presumed murdered ... We don't want to lose another one."

Moricetown does have bus service to Smithers, but it only runs twice a week and the route begins further northwest, in Kispiox.

By the time it arrives in Moricetown, it's usually full.

"Then they just start hitchhiking," Gagnon said, adding many are young women.

"Killer on the Loose!' is the warning on a prominent billboard beside Highway 16 in northern B.C., where numerous young women have died or disappeared. (CBC )

A recent band survey in Moricetown, which has a population of about 800, found there was more than 40 unemployed people who could get work if they had a way to reliably get to Smithers.

That's why they're willing to pay around $10,000 annually to support the service.

"We'll make it happen," Gagnon said.

Costs a challenge​

One of the challenges of providing transit along Highway 16 is the distance between communities and sparse population. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Mary Teegee, who has called for better public transportation along Highway 16, worries First Nations communities will struggle to come up with ongoing funds needed for the plan.

"The situation with First Nations communities on the reserves — unemployment rate, poverty, lack of housing — all these issues come to mind when we're looking at cost-sharing," Teegee said.  

Lucy Gagnon says without reliable bus service people in Moricetown either hitchhike for work, or give up. (Bob Wall)

The city of Prince Rupert will not be providing funding. Instead, the city partnered with the North Coast Transition Society which allows vulnerable people to call or text for an affordable ride out of town. 

John Rustad, minister for Aboriginal relations, said his party is committed to making the plan work.

"If there are challenges... we'll be engaged and try and work through," Rustad said.

With files from George Baker and Carolina de Ryk.


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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.