Hitchhiking study finds higher rates of sexual violence in north

The results of the first comprehensive study of hitchhikers was presented to a conference of women's advocates on Friday.

The study, lead by UNBC associate professor Jacqueline Holler, was presented during a day-long symposium at the university on the subject of gendered violence. The event was organized by the Northern Feminist Institute for Research and Evaluation.

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Holler said that hitchhiking is an established mode of transportation in B.C.'s north. Compared to other rural parts of Canada, hitchhikers in B.C.'s north are more likely to be indigenous and are more likely to face sexual assault.

The study, which began in 2012, was funded by the government of B.C., with assistance by several First Nations. The study involved interviews with hitchhikers, online survey and a count of hitchhikers undertaken by truck drivers along major highways.

Holler said there are distinct characteristics that have resulted in a higher use of hitchhiking by indigenous people in the region.

"Indigenous people are more mobile than non-indigenous people across the board," Holler said.

"But indigenous people also face constrained mobility - less likely to own cars, less likely to have access to transit."

Police reports of sexual assaults were also shown to be significantly higher in Williams Lake, Prince George, Terrace, Prince Rupert, Quesnel and Burns Lake than in towns in southern B.C.

Reported sexual assaults were shown to have declined between 2008 and 2016, according to this data, although Holler said that there is currently no explanation as to why this may have occurred.

Many of those interviewed indicated that they did not report sexual assaults experienced during hitchhiking due to a fear of not being taken seriously or of being blamed for the incident.

Holler said that the research is evidence that regional transit plans should incorporate methods of reducing sexual assault throughout the region. The corridor between Prince George and Prince Rupert - the Highway of Tears - has received a great deal of media attention due to a high number of murdered or missing women along that route. A provincially-funded transit bus was established along the route in 2017. The service runs between Prince George and Smithers.

However, other areas, such as the section of Highway 16 east of Prince George, or Highway 97 have not received the same degree of focus despite documented reports of sexual assault of hitchhikers along those corridors.

Holler noted that the issue of sexual assaults of hitchhikers received no mention in the provincial government's 2015 10-year Transportation Plan.

"There's not one mention of women in that whole work,"Holler said.

Greyhound recently announced it would be discontinuing its operations of all bus routes in B.C.'s north. Local municipal leaders have decried this decision, arguing it would result in more danger for commuters in the region.

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