Signs along Hwy16

Hitchhiking study looks to expand information base

Someone is almost always asking UNBC professor Jacqueline Holler for an update on her research study of hitchhiking habits in northern B.C.

Barely a week goes by without someone asking University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) professor Jacqueline Holler for an update on her research study looking into hitchhiking habits in northern B.C. The study, first announced in 2012, is cited in the latest and final status update from the provincial government in response to the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry report, released late last year.

While the pilot phase of research, which involved using the combined resources of UNBC and the RCMP to identify hitchhikers in the region and direct them to fill out an online survey, is complete and being analyzed, in order to push the study further, Holler needs to interview people directly in northern B.C. aboriginal communities – and that takes money.

“There are people we need to hear from that we’re not hearing from,” Holler said in an interview last month. “We’ve got a lot of people who are actually queued up who want to talk to us but we don’t have the money to go out and travel around and talk to them.

“We weren’t able to get the funding we needed to push our study further so all we were able to do was the electronic, online survey,” she said.

That survey produced “amazing information” and the RCMP was particularly supportive, she said, adding that she is travelling to Ottawa this month to meet with RCMP officials and talk about what can be done with the data.

But “we reached the limits of what we can do with the electronic survey,” she said. That’s because the people filling out the online survey weren’t necessarily the same people RCMP members were identifying hitchhiking along Highway 16. RCMP members, when spotting a hitchhiker, would stop and give them a package with information and a link to the online survey.

“We weren’t getting responses from that,” she said. “So we moved to a paper questionnaire that could just be dropped in a mailbox and we didn’t get any of those back. We know we’re getting a segment of the hitchhiking population responding, but we’re not getting enough people.”

The people who filled out the online survey were “likely to have a higher education than an aboriginal northern B.C. resident, they were uniformly people with enough money … We know we’re getting a segment of the hitchhiking population responding, but we’re not getting enough.”

However, Holler is confident she will track down money this year for the next phase of research.

“Sometimes I think the public doesn’t understand how long it takes to create academic research projects and to get them funded and all that kind of thing. It’s a little frustrating because of the urgency of this topic … People want it done – that’s citizens, media, people from government – everybody wants it done, so I know it will get done. But it’s just a matter of my being able to dedicate some really sustained time to finding precisely where that money is because so far our applications have gone denied,” she said.

Money for the first phase of the research was provided by The National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health at UNBC. “They gave us a little grant and we were able to do quite a bit with it,” Holler said.

So far, the project hasn’t been able to gain access to provincial money, grants dedicated to preventing crime and violence against women through the civil forfeiture fund. In a release sent out Dec. 4, the province noted it had committed $3.4 million in civil forfeiture grants to supporting vulnerable women and various projects directly related to recommendations in the missing women inquiry report.

“So we’re going to be looking next year, there’s a new pot of money opening up for preventing violence against women and there’s always ongoing social sciences and humanities research council money that we’re hoping to access,” Holler said. “Because what everyone keeps telling us is they want this work done, but you need to have the funding.”

Holler’s research is just one hitchhiking study taking place at UNBC. Another study, pinpointing hitchhiking hotspots, is about to embark on its second-phase of data collection.

The 1,400-page Missing Women Inquiry Commission report includes 56 recommendations for the provincial government to protect and improve the lives of vulnerable women and girls in B.C. It came after a two-year inquiry that involved 90 days of public hearings and was ordered as a result of the investigation into missing and murdered women primarily on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal conducted the inquiry.

Recommendations include establishing facilities in northern locations for vulnerable women and girls.