VICTORIA – The small British Columbia Cheslatta Carrier Nation has a decades-long anguished relationship with Highway 16, or the so-called Highway of Tears.
Five people from the community of less than 350 near Burns Lake in central B.C. have disappeared along the route, including an entire family of four, says Chief Corrina Leween.
At least 18 women went missing or were murdered along Highway 16 and the adjacent Highways 97 and 5 since the 1970s. Most cases remain unsolved, though investigators don’t believe a single killer is responsible.
The sorrow deepened recently with a damning report over deleted Transportation Ministry emails about the highway and its missing.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone has insisted that locals don’t want a bus service, but recently released documents highlight the concerns of local officials and contradict the minister.
The controversy could be swept up in a call by the federal Liberal government for an inquiry into Canada’s murdered and missing women. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the inquiry during the election campaign.
“I would expect that because a number of women have gone missing, and or have been known to have been murdered along Highway 16, that Highway 16 will figure in the national inquiry,” said Stone. “Our government has been on the record for quite some time in supporting a national inquiry.”
B.C.’s Attorney General Suzanne Anton said she also expects an inquiry would focus on the highway.
“I’m not trying to second-guess the federal inquiry, but there probably will be an aspect about the north all across the country,” she said.
An RCMP report last year stated nearly 1,200 aboriginal women were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012.
Highway 16 stretches more than 700 kilometres between Prince George and Prince Rupert. It follows rivers and mountains and connects remote communities. Its route is dark, lonely and blood stained.
“Within (our) community, we have had an entire family that went missing, the Jack family,” said Leween. “One of our elders is missing.”
Casimel Jack, 70, was last seen a decade ago, walking along a road that connects to Highway 16 south of Burns Lake. He was hunting and carrying a rifle when he disappeared Sept. 18, 2005.
Ronald Jack, his wife, Doreen, and their two sons, Russell, 9, and Ryan, 4, vanished Aug. 1, 1989. The last anybody heard from the family was when Ronald called a family member from a Prince George pub to say he and his wife found jobs.
“They just simply disappeared. Mom, dad and the two boys,” Leween said.
She said successive B.C. governments have refused to move on First Nations’ requests to provide a regional transportation network. Leween described government consultations attempts as sophisticated stalling tactics.
“I, as a leader, don’t feel the government is doing enough to addresses the issue,” she said.
Leween rejected Stone’s claim that leaders across the north agree a large-scale transit service won’t work.
“It’s absolutely untrue,” she said. “The bus is desperately needed in our area. I go to Prince George quite often to meetings and I see the young women hitchhiking on that highway. It’s needed.”
Stone said the government is looking to develop shorter transportation connections between communities, but a region-wide transportation service is not workable.
“It’s difficult for many folks to comprehend, myself included, how a scheduled shuttle bus service across an 800 kilometre stretch of highway that’s very sparsely populated would meet the needs of people who live along the highway.”
Stone said his ministry is holding a transportation symposium in Smithers Nov. 24 to discuss practical, affordable and sustainable solutions for communities along Highway 16.
Opposition New Democrat Jennifer Rice, whose North Coast riding includes a section of Highway 16, said she has not been invited to the symposium but plans to attend.
“I’ve been here (in Victoria) two years, and I’ve been asking this question numerous times around improving the transportation and safety along Highway 16, and I’ve been shrugged off and told basically to move on and get a new idea,” she said.
Rice said two years ago when she accidentally locked herself out of her car on a stretch of the highway she felt the chill of being alone in the middle of nowhere.
“I was in a pull out, and I had no cell service and I was the only one there,” she said.
“I had just come back from Victoria and I had been asking questions about the Highway of Tears. Then this happened to me. I felt extremely vulnerable.”