Hitchhiking in northern B.C. is “different”

UNBC professor talks about a “pervasive culture of sexual assault” in northern B.C.

“Hitchhikers told us that the north is different; people who hitchhike in the south [of B.C.] wouldn’t hitchhike in the north.”

That was the message that Jacqueline Holler, associate professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), shared in Burns Lake last month during a series of workshops about the dangers of hitchhiking.

Hosted in partnership with the RCMP, the workshops were held at Wet’suwet’en First Nation, Burns Lake Band, Lake Babine Nation, Tachet Indian Reserve and at the Southside Health and Wellness Centre between June 20-23, 2017.

Holler is the principal investigator in a UNBC study about hitchhiking in northern B.C. With the help of five research assistants, she conducted face-to-face interviews with hitchhikers in different parts of B.C. and an online survey. The study also includes an analysis of data generated by RCMP contact with hitchhikers, and of how hitchhiking has been portrayed by the media, especially in northern B.C.

“The data have all been collected, so I am now sharing results and writing them up for publication in scholarly journals,” she explained.

During her presentations in the Burns Lake area, Holler talked about a “pervasive culture of sexual assault” in northern B.C. that is “not talked about enough,” and that aboriginal women are the most vulnerable.

Holler said there’s a disproportional rate of sexual assault in northern B.C., with some northern communities having rates of sexual assault sometimes 10 times higher compared to the Lower Mainland. According to data from a 20-month investigation by The Globe and Mail, the average rate of sexual assaults reported in Burns Lake in the past five years is 4.82 per 1000 inhabitants, while in Vancouver the rate is 0.78.

However, Holler said hitchhikers don’t often tell the police when they’ve been sexually assaulted. She also said that a lack of cellphone service in some parts of northern B.C. increases the risk of assault. In addition, many hitchhikers interviewed said they’ve experienced more racism up north.

The study indicates that the main reasons for hitchhiking include running away from home or “bad situations,” as well as searching for adventure, not having a car and the lack of low-cost public transportation.

Holler said the new bus system along Hwy. 16 is a step in the right direction.

“We asked people, ‘If a low-cost bus were available, would you use it?’ And they all said ‘yes.’ They also said, ’It better be cheap; it has to be free or next to free.’”

The new Hwy. 16 bus system, which started on June 19, 2017, charges $5 per segment.

“We’ll have to see if $5 is cheap enough for people,” said Holler. “So far the response I’ve been hearing is, ‘That’s pretty good, but they better not increase it.’”

On the first week of the new bus system, 31 people used it between Burns Lake and Prince George and 12 people used the service between Burns Lake and Smithers.

“Please recognize that it does take time for people to start using a new service, and our goal right now is to continue to raise awareness of the new services from Burns Lake to increase ridership,” said Jonathon Dyck, a spokesperson for B.C. Transit. “In fact, our experience in other places is it can take months to start gaining a consistent ridership base.”

The buses can hold up to 20 people.

Holler stressed that people should never hitchhike alone, and that hitchhikers should never use any substances before or while hitchhiking.

“But our message is clear… don’t hitchhike,” she said.