November 05, 2015 - 6:00 AM
VICTORIA - Newly released documents reveal northern British Columbia residents have deep concerns about transportation services along the so-called Highway of Tears despite government statements about improved safety, Opposition New Democrats say.
Maurine Karagianis, the NDP critic for women, said Tuesday a year-old freedom of information request reveals residents want better public transportation on Highway 16, which runs more than 700 kilometres, between Prince George to Prince Rupert.
At least 18 women and girls, many of them aboriginal, have been murdered or disappeared along Highway 16 and the adjacent routes, Highway 5 and Highway 97, since 1969.
Karagianis said Transportation Minister Todd Stone has said public consultations in the area determined improved transportation along the corridor was not deemed practical by area residents.
"The minister has continued to tell us for a year there wasn't a big desire for a bus, that it wasn't a practical solution," said Karagianis. "Certainly, looking at the FOI documents on the consultation that we have recently read, that is not true."
Thirty-six pages of documents posted on the government's Open Information website include reports about meetings that covered topics including missing women, hitchhiking and bus service.
The meetings were held last year with 12 First Nations, 13 municipalities and 70 leaders in the area.
Some of the documents are in the form of briefing notes to high-level ministry bureaucrats. One briefing note said communities view naming Highway 16 as the Highway of Tears "as negative."
Another note from a meeting in Smithers states, "missing women must be part of the conversation as that is the only reason the Ministry of Transportation is in the room."
Jennifer Rice, the New Democrat member for Prince Rupert, told the legislature Tuesday that the documents show that the government has been denying that First Nations women and local residents have concerns about lack of safe transportation alternatives on the highway.
Stone said the highway is safer than it was 15 years ago. He pointed to government efforts to improve cellular service in the area and the introduction of a health bus that helps take people living in rural areas to medical appointments.
"The important thing here, I think, for people on Highway 16, is that we continue to focus on how we can make this corridor safer, and that's the work I'm pouring myself into. That's the work my officials are putting their shoulders into," said Stone.
He said the government has released 600 pages of information on Highway 16 since 2012.
The government has come under fire recently after a Transportation Ministry employee deleted potentially sensitive emails about the Highways of Tears investigation. A whistleblower later complained and that set off an investigation by B.C.'s privacy commissioner.
Last's month's report by Commissioner Elizabeth Denham highlighted a failure by the government to keep adequate email records or document searches and the wilful destruction of records in response to a freedom-of-information request.
Her report, Access Denied, said high-ranking officials in the premier's office were found to have no email records during freedom-of-information requests and attempts to obtain Premier Christy Clark's email records also found nothing on her email account.
Clark has since directed ministers and government staff to save the emails they send until the completion of a review of Denham's report.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2015