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Shedding new light on the Highway of Tears

The first and only survey of hitchhikers in North America seeks to reveal new information on the people who have gone missing or from or been murdered along the Highway of Tears—and how such tragedies can be prevented going forward.

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A groundbreaking study from the University of Northern British Columbia is exploring the experiences of hitchhikers on a notoriously dangerous stretch of British Columbia highway. But the study needs more funding to expand its work in hopes of learning more about why people hitchhike and how to keep them safe when they do.

It’s been over 45 years since the first woman disappeared from northern B.C.’s Highway 16, better known as the Highway of Tears. The 724-kilometre stretch of road between Prince George and Prince Rupert is where more than 20 mostly-indigenous women and girls were last seen before their disappearance or murder.

Many of the women were assumed to be hitchhiking on the highway before they disappeared. It served as inspiration in 2011 for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to ask University of Northern British Columbia professors Jacqueline Holler and Roy Rea to develop and distribute a survey asking hitchhikers about their experiences on Highway 16. It’s the only survey of hitchhikers in North America.

Despite a provincial inquiry on missing and murdered women and a symposium on the Highway of Tears cases in particular, Holler says no one interviewed hitchhikers.

Four years later, the researchers have 80 completed surveys on hitchhikers’ experiences and their reasons for asking for rides in cars with strangers.

“Poverty was the uniting issue,” says Holler, a professor of history, women’s studies, and gender studies at the northern university. Most respondents, she adds, don’t own cars.

In northern B.C., there are few transportation options available for those who can’t drive or don’t have access to cars, despite a recommendation for a shuttle service on the highway made during the Highway of Tears Symposium in 2006. In 2012, commissioner Wally Oppal supported the idea in his final report on the Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry.

Survey respondents shared a range of positive and negative hitchhiking experiences. However, respondents of all genders talked about the real threat of sexual exploitation on the road. Adolescent men in particular reported attempts or incidences of sexual exploitation, while it was a reported threat and reality for women and girls of all ages.

Holler wants to expand the study to include in-person interviews with 100 respondents from communities along the highway, especially indigenous communities. About 30 people have already reached out to her via email to indicate their interest in speaking out about their experiences.

But they need more funding to continue. The $5,000 Holler and Rea received from the university’s National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health for the survey has run out. They need another $30,000 to fund four research assistants and travel to rural communities for interviews. They’ll find out at the end of March whether they’ve been approved for a grant from the provincial government’s Civil Forfeiture Proceeds.

Although they tried and failed to get the same grant last year, Holler feels confident: “One of the [grant’s] thematic areas this year is preventing exploitation and trafficking of vulnerable girls and women. I hope that the application has made clear enough the link between this work and sexual exploitation.”

Even if they don’t get the grant, Holler is committed to continuing the work. She’s received strong verbal support from governments and individuals working to end the sexual exploitation and gendered violence routinely exerted on vulnerable citizens. “This research is clearly in the public interest,” she says.

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