05/12/2014 06:06 EDT | Updated 07/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Highway Of Tears Safer Today, Minister Insists Amid Criticism

CBS News

VANCOUVER - British Columbia's justice minister insisted Monday that a notorious section of highway in the province's north known as the Highway of Tears is safer today than it has been, though she gave no indication about what more her government intends to do to protect vulnerable women in the region.

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton was forced to respond to criticism that the province has been slow to come up with a plan for the Highway 16 corridor, where at least 17 women have disappeared or been murdered since the 1970s.

A public inquiry report released in December 2012 included an urgent call for safer transportation along a 700-kilometre stretch between Prince Rupert and Prince George.

Anton told the legislature the highway is safe.

"The overarching conclusion (of the public inquiry report) was that northern highways have to be safe," said Anton, who was responding to a question from the Opposition NDP.

"That safety is achieved through transportation, through the bus that runs along the highway, through the local transportation services, through the health bus, through the train — there is transportation."

Anton also said cellular phone service has improved along Highway 16.

Anton did not indicate whether the government has additional plans to respond to the Highway of Tears issue or what those plans might be. Anton declined an interview request.

Nearly everything Anton referred to was in place before the public inquiry report, and Greyhound bus service, which was dramatically cut along Highway 16 early last year, is actually worse.

The Northern Health Connections bus, which offers patients transportation to and from health-care appointments, has been up and running since 2006. Return fares range from $20 to $80, and the service is only open to patients travelling to medical appointments.

The government has noted BC Transit provides $1.5 million a year for several regional transit routes, but the most recent addition funded with that money, a bus line that runs between Smithers and Telkwa, was put in place in 2008.

The province signed a major telecommunications deal with Telus in 2011 that included a commitment to expand cellular service in rural areas, though coverage maps compiled by Telus, Bell and Rogers indicate there are long stretches of Highway 16, particularly between the communities of Prince Rupert and Smithers, that continue to have spotty or non-existent service. The province estimates 70 per cent of the highway has coverage.

The only new measure Anton mentioned in the legislature was $100,000 in funding announced in March for Carrier Sekani Family Services, an organization run by the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council. The group plans to use the money to hold safety workshops along the Highway of Tears that will focus on the risks faced by women in remote and rural communities.

Commissioner Wally Oppal oversaw a public inquiry that examined the Robert Pickton serial killer case, as well as the broader issue of missing and murdered women, and he released a final report in December 2012 that included more than 60 recommendations.

Oppal said the province should immediately commit to improving safe transportation along the highway, and he also endorsed an earlier report, released in 2006 by First Nations leaders, that recommended a Highway of Tears shuttle bus.

The 2006 report recommended a network of seven buses along Highway 16 to transport First Nations women, and that they be required to pick up women they see hitchhiking or walking along the highway.

Oppal declined to wade into the debate about the government's response to his recommendations for the Highway of Tears.

"I want to see something done for the safety of the women up there," Oppal said in a recent interview.

The Liberal government has been under increasing pressure to come up with a plan for the Highway of Tears.

Earlier this year, Transportation Minister Todd Stone responded to that criticism by telling the legislature there had been a "tremendous number" of meetings with local governments and community groups.

However, mayors and other leaders in the region have said they haven't been contacted by the province.

When pressed for specifics, Stone only identified two meetings with local officials that touched on the Highway of Tears issue in the past year and a half, the most recent one last November.

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