WHILE THE circumstances of the murders and disappearances of women along northern and interior highways are different, the one theme that’s emerged to tie them together is the need to stop hitchhiking.
For more than a decade, campaigns have been underway to convince people that thumbing rides on remote highways is dangerous, if not deadly.
But with miles between communities and not enough people living in those communities to support any kind of regular transportation system, hitchhiking is still viewed as a way to get around by those who either don’t have their own vehicles or access to secure and safe travel options.
The provincial government has now promised to host a meeting to look at public transit options.
That promise is in response to a recommendation from former attorney general Wally Oppal who conducted an inquiry into murdered and missing women in the lower mainland.
Although Oppal was primarily concerned with the circumstances surrounding the murders committed by Willie Pickton, he did tour the north. From that tour came a recommendation to establish a regional transit system.
In advance of the transit meeting promised by the province, here’s a look at what’s available now.
Kitimat to Terrace
NOW in its seventh year of operation, BC Transit’s service connecting Kitimat with Terrace is being called a success story.
Until mid-2006 there was no transit service connecting Kitimat with Terrace.
That changed when the Northern Health Authority (NHA) introduced Northern Health Connections, a subsidized transportation service so people could more easily obtain medical services in another community.
Instead of putting in its own service between Kitimat and Terrace, it joined BC Transit, the Kitimat-Stikine regional district, and local governments in Kitimat and Terrace in introducing a combined medical/passenger route.
“Oh, yes. There’s no question Northern Health was vital to this. Without Northern Health there’s no way we could have done this,” says Kitimat-Stikine regional district administrator Bob Marcellin.
Latest available financial statistics place the cost of the service at $375,000 a year with Northern Health contributing $160,000 of that cost.
The bus on the run is also equipped to handle wheelchairs as part of the commitment to providing a medical transportation service and it also stops at the hospitals in Kitimat and in Terrace.
What makes this collaborative effort a stand out is that the financial foundation provided by Northern Health allowed BC Transit to also bring in transit service from Kitamaat Village to Kitimat and from Terrace to Kitsumkalum and from Terrace to the Kitselas First Nation residential development at Gitaus, east of Terrace.
Each of the three routes operates three times a day, Monday to Friday, with the last bus running in the late afternoon. There is no service on weekends.
But it’s now possible, for example, to leave Kitimaat Village in the morning, attend classes at Northwest Community College and return in the afternoon. A sheaf of 10 tickets costs $36.
“When we did our service review, when we went to Kitamaat Village, it was clear from the comments, from what we heard, that it is a community lifeline,” said BC Transit regional manager Todd Dupuis of the connection between the village and Kitimat.
UNLIKE the partnership that provides the Terrace-Kitimat combined medical/passenger route, the Northern Health Authority’s Northern Connections health transport service elsewhere is strictly for medical passengers only.
But the health authority regularly fields requests to expand to take other people as well, says Reina Pharness, the health authority official in charge of the program.
“The licensing that we have which is issued by the BC Passenger Transportation Board (BCPTB) requires us to have only passengers with confirmed medical appointments,” she said.
“Greyhound basically owns the monopoly for public transportation in most areas in B.C., and because of that, the BCPTB would never allow us to have the licensing to be able to just pick up anybody.”
Because of this stipulation, there are strict processes in place to make sure it is only people who have medical appointments who take the busses – passengers need to provide confirmation of their appointment, either when they book, when they get on the bus, or after their appointment.
“Most doctors are familiar with the process,” said Pharness, noting that the busses are almost always nearly full.
Mini-buses have daily round trips between Burns Lake and Terrace on Thursdays, and between Prince Rupert and Terrace on Monday and Wednesday. And larger coaches make the trip from Prince Rupert to Prince George, and Prince George to Prince Rupert four times a week. A bus also takes passengers from Prince George to Vancouver. Both types of busses are new and outfitted to be wheelchair accessible, with the larger busses boasting wheelchair accessible washrooms with baby-changing tables.
The cost per trip is subsidized by the health authority and depends on where the passenger is going – it costs $40 round trip from Prince Rupert to Prince George.
“We’ve made it affordable for good reason,” said Pharness.
VIA Rail has eastbound service three days a week and westbound service three days a week connecting Prince George and Prince Rupert.
The train can be late because CN is the “host railway” and VIA runs on its tracks, meaning freight trains take precedent over passenger trains.
But the station at George Little House will be open when your train does get in.
GREYHOUND’S about to cut service for the second time since 2006.
And while it’s providing the only scheduled Hwy16 passenger service, the company is mentioned frequently when the topic of hitchhiking is discussed.
The Nass Valley
THERE MAY be no official transit system connecting the Nass Valley to Terrace, but villages maintain their own buses and have their own schedules.
The Laxgalts’ap (Greenville) Village Government’s bus, for example, can be configured for 24 or 20 people and can make daily runs to Terrace. There’s no charge for elders or for youth and the bus can also be used for weekend trips to specific functions.
“We’ll bring elders to Terrace so they can do their shopping,” explained driver Mark Watts.
The Gitwinksihlkw Village Government has a 24- passenger bus that is used mainly for scheduled events for youth and elders, says village CEO Harry Nyce Jr.
“It’s gone plenty of places, far and wide,” he said, adding it operates more frequently in the spring summer and fall months.
The Gitlaxt’aamiks (New Aiyansh) Village Government has a bus that can make the trip to Terrace two or three times a month depending upon demand.
It is primarily for those on income assistance, but others can ride the 21-passenger bus once there are no more priority passengers.
“It was purchased for low income groups,” said village government communications person Eric Gandison.
The Gingolx (Kincolith) Village Government has two busses – one for 28 passengers and the other for 21. One is used for school trips mainly, and both can be rented by groups. While there is no charge for children’s trips, there is a $50 return fee per person to ride to Terrace.
Perry Azak also operates a driving service for the Nass Valley with a passenger van that fits up to 15. Runs happen about three times weekly. The cost for a trip is $20 each way to and from Terrace.
The Nisga’a Valley Health Authority also operates a free weekday bus connecting all four Nass Valley villages with Terrace for those with medical needs.