VICTORIA — Community leaders along British Columbia's notorious Highway of Tears meet this week to debate the highly charged issue of improving safety along the route that cuts across the centre of the province.
Eighteen women have been murdered or disappeared along Highway 16 and adjacent routes since the 1970s.
First Nations' leaders and the Opposition New Democrats say government roadblocks in the form of endless meetings over transportation solutions that go nowhere must come down to improving safety.
Up to 100 people are expected to be in Smithers to review locally developed transportation options along the 750-kilometre highway corridor, but Transportation Minister Todd Stone won't attend and said he would leave the discussion up to local officials.
Stone describes the Tuesday meeting as information gathering and non-political.
North Coast New Democrat MLA Jennifer Rice, who represents the Prince Rupert area, wanted to go to the meeting, but said she wasn't invited.
"I understand the chief administrative officers (from communities) are invited because those are the practical people. Minister Stone is always talking about practical solutions, and I guess those are the practical people who implement practical things."
Representatives from 23 First Nations along the corridor, municipal governments and the B.C. government will attend the day-long meeting.
A government statement said the gathering will review previous community transportation reports, including a 2006 report that called for bus service between communities and the 2012 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry that recommended enhanced transportation in the area.
Regional politician Bill Miller said many agree that Highway 16 is too geographically challenged for a region-wide bus service, but there's concern about government stalling.
"Sometimes it seems like we've just been put on a treadmill," said Miller, an elected member of the Bulkley-Nechako Regional District. "We have some cost-effective and efficient solutions."
He said a more workable system would link neighbours like Vanderhoof, Fort St. James and Fraser Lake and would ease safety concerns for those who have to travel the route.
"The underlying issue is vulnerability of women in general, First Nations women in specific."
But he said local governments need the province to help communities get the locally driven transportation system.
"We're going to send some people to the symposium in Smithers and hopefully get them to understand that this is a significant issue."
Stone said he agrees with some locals that a shuttle-bus service along the entire route isn't practical. But the NDP said that recently released documents contradict Stone and highlight the concerns of local officials who say a bus service should be considered.
"A lot of people are feeling this is past due and this is time to take action," said Rice.
Among the more than 600 pages of recently released government documents are bus service estimates, pegging costs of a six-day-a-week, Prince Rupert to Prince George bus at less than $1 million annually.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong said last week he expects to deliver a quarterly financial update that includes improved financial forecasts, fuelling speculation the government has some money for targeted initiatives.
Stone recently acknowledged the highway issue could be swept up in a call by the federal Liberal government for an inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing women.
An RCMP report last year stated nearly 1,200 aboriginal women were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press