It’s been almost seven years since hundreds of people gathered in Prince George to examine the complex socio-economic and cultural underpinnings of life in the north as laid out against the backdrop of murdered and missing women along the region’s highways.
The focus even before the 2006 Highway of Tears symposium – and which sharpened afterward – seized on hitchhiking as an expression of those underpinnings in that the practice placed mostly aboriginal women in vulnerable and dangerous situations.
A report from the symposium produced 33 recommendations. Although a governing body was struck to move those recommendations along, the report mostly passed from public notice until former attorney-general Wally Oppal’s report into the murders by Willy Pickton was released last fall.
Oppal urged the provincial government to review and implement the symposium recommendations and the ministry and governing body are now in the process of doing so.
In advance of the results of that review, here’s a look at what has happened with several of those recommendations concerning hitchhiking.
THE SYMPOSIUM recommended the RCMP develop a system of stopping and gathering information from hitchhikers as well as passing out relevant information for hitchhiker use.
And while police officers have always taken an interest in hitchhikers, they now have a form on which to record names, appearances, clothing worn and items carried by a person.
So now when you pass a hitchhiker there’s a good chance they are already in a police database.
It’s regarded as good police work, heightened by the numbers of murdered and missing women along northern highways who were either known to hitchhike or who were last seen hitchhiking.
What’s more, explains Chief Superintendent Rod Booth, who is in charge of policing in the northern half of B.C., officers also have a list of phone numbers of social services agencies the person might want to contact and personal safety tips to give to the hitchhiker.
A hitchhiker isn’t required to provide personal information but the stop-and-ask policy provided to officers does note it is illegal to solicit a ride.
Booth said the information gathering fits three categories of policing – prevention, education and investigation.
“Be it as a victim or a suspect, it’s good policing practice,” said Booth.
The more formal approach to information gathering about hitchhikers grew out of the 2006 Highway of Tears symposium recommendations concerning the RCMP and was put into place in 2010.
“With this policy, we’ve really made strides forward,” said Booth.
“The information we gather could prove useful if someone goes missing,” he said.
The RCMP have also increased the number of officers dedicated to patrolling on and around Hwy16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George. There are now two additional officers based in Prince Rupert, one in Terrace, and five in Prince George.
That means more contact with hitchhikers, notes Booth.
And officers assigned to detachments or other duties also spend time on highways speaking to hitchhikers as time permits, he added.
One aspect of hitchhiking prevention the RCMP will not take on is that of providing rides to those they encounter on highways.
“Clearly, the role of the police is not to serve as public transportation,” said Booth. “That’s not our role and it won’t be downloaded to the police.”
At the same time, however, depending upon individual circumstances, an officer does have discretion to transport a person to an appropriate location. Those circumstances include time of day, weather conditions and physical condition of the person, said Booth.
“An officer may elect to drive the person to the nearest and safest place,” he said.
THE prime anti-hitchhiking recommendation is to establish a shuttle bus service along Hwy16, suggesting that seven vehicles would be required.
There are a number of existing private and public sector ways to get from Point A to Point B, but nothing as envisaged by the symposium. In addition to regular stops, “these shuttle buses must also stop and pick up every young woman they encounter …,” states the recommendation.
The transportation ministry has promised to gather all those groups together “to build upon past studies into transit options in the region, and to identify transportation options,” states a ministry email. It is anticipated these discussions will be complete by the summer of 2013.
THE PROSPECT OF a shuttle bus service aside, the symposium recommended Greyhound expand what it called a “free ride” program and that Greyhound drivers be required to stop and pick up any hitchhiker who falls within what it calls the “victim profile.”
Although the symposium report never provided a definition of a victim profile it did note the majority of the women who have gone missing are young and are aboriginal.
As it turns out, Greyhound doesn’t offer rides for free.
It does participate in Operation Come Home – a program that will purchase a ticket for runaways between the ages of 16 – 19 so that they can travel home.
Greyhound’s Operation Come Home participation extends throughout its service area which is from B.C. to Ontario. Operation Come Home has to document the runaways and the one free trip is to reunite them with a parent or guardian.
As well, stopping roadside and opening the doors to let on strangers poses serious risks, said Greyhound’s regional transportation manager Grant Odsen.
“There’s huge liability issues if we just stop along the side of the road,” he said, adding Greyhound at this point doesn’t want people riding the bus without a ticket.
“You’ve got to know who’s on the bus,” said Odsen. “You’ve got to be properly ticketed in order to be covered by the insurance.”
At the same time, Odsen said Greyhound, just as is the case with airlines and passenger trains, is in the business of selling tickets.
He said Greyhound will take part in any transportation meeting hosted by the province and will be open to talking about transit options for the area.
The report also recommended that “safe homes” be established at strategic locations along Hwy16, preferably within visual range of the highway.
Provincial child and family development ministry officials say they are reviewing this recommendation along with counterparts from the justice ministry.
The child and family development ministry says there is a 24-7 toll-free child safety phone line for any young people in need of help, and that there are transition shelters for adult and young women 19 years and over in Prince Rupert, Terrace, Smithers, Burns Lake, Vanderhoof and Prince George.
For those under sixteen, the ministry would look to place youth in a supportive resource such as a foster home. And for young women 16 – 18, the first option would be foster care, as well, but in the event that the young women refuse, there are shelters open to accepting women of that age.
There have also been cases where a support worker has stayed with youth in a hotel for the evening as a temporary solution.
One recommendation suggested public sector workers traveling Hwy16 on business be enlisted to act as a “detection network.”
Using cellphones, they’d report the locations of female hitchhikers.
Darryl Walker, the president of the BC Government Service and Employees’ Union (BCGEU), says the union, which was a sponsor of the 2006 symposium, was ready to follow up on the recommendations, including the detection network.
“We have union members on the road, around the clock, every day of the year. Had the government moved this proposal forward, the BCGEU and its members would have done what they could to establish a system to spot and keep track of hitchhikers in the region,” said Walker.
“This would not making hitchhiking safe, but it would provide an extra element of protection,” said Walker.
“We were anticipating that there would be follow up to work with the government … that they would be taking the lead on this one,” he said.
“We expected that we would continue to work with them, but we haven’t really had any contact on this particular issue with the government for sometime now.”