B.C.'s justice minister said the province's northern highways are "safer now than they were 15 years ago" when pressed in the legislature Tuesday to commit to a shuttle bus along the so-called Highway of Tears.
Answering questions from two New Democrat MLAs who recently completed a two-day trip from Prince Rupert to Prince George, Suzanne Anton said the provincial government spends $4.5 million each year on public transportation options along both Highway 16 and Highway 97.
Of that, Anton said $3 million goes towards the Northern Health Connections bus service.
"It is available to all communities between Prince Rupert and Prince George, between Prince George and Fort Nelson," Anton said. "It's a regular service, it's a shuttle service, if you like, and it's a service that takes people to their medical appointments."
Anton said a further $1.5 million subsidizes B.C. Transit service between Smithers, Telkwa, Hazelton and Kispiox, between Terrace and Kitimat and between Prince Rupert and Port Edward.
"At the same time, there's a private bus service that goes daily back and forth along the highway, and there is a train service that goes three times a week - the train service three times a week, private bus service and individual services in those communities that I mentioned," Anton said.
Anton also made reference to expanded cellphone coverage, personal training and safety workshops through the Carrier-Sekani Tribal Council, the possibility of expanded B.C. Transit service into more communities and "far more ability" for police to deal with issues along the highway.
"There's a number of initiatives of personal safety for the northern British Columbia highways because our highways need to be safe at all times," Anton said. "They are safer now than they were 15 years ago. We must always be vigilant and continue to improve safety at all times on our northern routes."
In response, NDP women's critic Maurine Karagianis suggested Anton travel the Highway of Tears, "because she will then have the personal experience of spending long hours with no cell service, with no individuals, households, any type of contact anywhere in those areas.
"If you are hitchhiking, if you are isolated in that area, you are in danger."
Colleague Jennifer Rice, the NDP MLA for North Coast, said the Northern Health service is "great for health appointments."
"But if I had a counselling appointment, that bus won't take me to see my psychiatrist," Rice continued. "If I had a court date that would determine whether I would keep my children or not, that bus won't get me to court. Whether I could get groceries or not - that bus does not get me to do groceries."
And NDP leader Adrian Dix said Missing Women Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal found "the lack of public transportation along Highway 16 was a significant factor leading to the abduction and murders of young aboriginal women."
Dix accused the governing Liberals of dragging their heels on the issue, noting the report came out in December 2012. "They think that that game of bait-and-switch is appropriate to this issue," Dix said. "It is not appropriate to this issue."