Hitchhiking on the Highway of Tears

When the Canadian National Railway line was built from Jasper to Prince Rupert in about 1912, the designers arbitrarily plunked down a station in the wilderness every six to eight miles. Then the government let out homesteads along the line, all within an hour’s wagon ride of a station. I assume this process was repeated all the way across the Prairie Provinces. It created a great transportation system based on wagon and rail travel. Rail had a monopoly, so the company made money.

But it created a string of pockets of civilization along Highway 16 that is now a nightmare for modern public transportation. None of these communities has enough population to provide a consistent ridership for a commercial operation. As Greyhound has recently informed us.

I grew up in one of those little communities: Palling B. C., eight miles from the nearest town. There weren’t enough students to afford a teacher, so we rode the school bus every day. High school was in Burns Lake, and if I wanted to stay in town for a basketball practice or social event, my only option was to hitchhike home. If the social occasion was a dance and I couldn’t find a ride, I was hitching in the wee hours on a deserted highway.

But I was a boy, I was well known in the community and I had all the advantages. I only once refused to get in a car: a couple of obviously drunk twenty-something strangers who hadn’t shaved recently. They just laughed and drove on.

Now transpose this situation closer to Prince George, which has the full gamut of social misery: prostitution, drugs, homelessness, you name it. But still, a string of communities outside the city with iffy transportation. How many times does a young woman run into a problem at a dance or party that would be solved by a dependable ride home? The first rule of parenting teenagers is, “Call us. No matter what time of night, if you want to come home and you don’t have a safe ride, call.” Someone without that backup is triply vulnerable. When the possible danger of a problem on the road is balanced against a certain danger here and now, priorities have a way of shifting.

Another example; I once had a student teacher of First Nations ancestry. He would have made a marvelous teacher. He had the art of storytelling imbued in his soul, and the kids loved to listen to him. However, one Sunday night I received a phone call. “Gordon, I’m sorry, but I’m stuck in Fort St. James and I can’t get a ride. I won’t be able to make it to school tomorrow.”

After this happened a couple more times, he dropped out of the program. A terrible loss to the community, and basically because of transportation problems.

The “Highway of Tears” is mainly a media image and rather inaccurate, since victims come from as far off Highway 16 as Hudson’s Hope and Merritt. The problem is endemic in all of northern B. C., and the root causes stem from all the usual social ills, statistics bolstered by the large First Nations population in the area. I was personally acquainted with two of the Prince George-area victims, one of whom was a former student turned prostitute, the other killed in a domestic dispute, so transportation had little to do with either death. But this term is nonetheless accurate in the sense that a lack of public transportation exacerbates all the other factors.

Canada has special problems because of its vast territory with the mass of the population strung along the US border. Telecommunications, mail, and transportation cost more. Fact of life. In every case, it is useful for the mass of city dwellers to remember that those huge, sparsely populated areas still provide the resources for most of our national income, and that someone has to live out there to harvest those resources.

So while it may not seem to be in our direct interest to spend more tax money on those scattered communities, in the long run it’s to everyone’s advantage. If our governments have to provide transit, so be it, despite the small number of voters involved. Surely you don’t think that the $2.95 you pay to ride the Canada Line covers the total cost of the service. Likewise, a small, public or private-with-public-support bus line linking all those isolated communities with regular runs might be a far more efficient way to solve the problem than huge Greyhound buses trying to make money on once-a-day runs.

The hidden social benefits might even make it profitable.

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