WITSET (NEWS 1130) – Communities along B.C.’s Highway of Tears will soon be able to phone loved ones or 911 if they find themselves in trouble.
Construction of a new Rogers cell tower is underway near the Witset First Nation.
“[It’s] really good news to see that they can create services where it’s desperately needed on the Highway 16,” explains Terry Teegee, Regional Chief of the B.C. Association of First Nations.
Dozens of Indigenous women and girl have gone missing or have been murdered along the stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert. The hope of building this new tower is that people will be able to reach help in times of need.
According to the province, Witset is the only First Nation without cellular service along the highway. The new tower is expected to service this stretch between New Hazelton and Smithers.
“I think it is a good step [toward making the highway safer],” Teegee tells NEWS 1130. “You know, that was one of the recommendations, to have better service, out of the Highway of Tears Recommendation Report. It was not only creating a shuttle service but having more places to access phones and communications. So this definitely fits that criteria in regards to cellular service for this area that doesn’t have any cellular service.”
Minister of Citizens’ Service Jinny Sims says for those living in the lower mainland, cell service is mostly taken for granted.
“For years and for decades, we’ve heard of the tragedies of the Highway of Tears between Prince George and Prince Rupert and the tragedy, the loss in regards to Indigenous women and girls,” she says.
Sims says she’s heard a number of tragic stories from locals in the Witset First Nation area.
“The lengths they had to get to to get help. Whether that help is for healthcare, whether it is when there’s been an overdose, or whether a senior needs assistance,” she explains.
“70 per cent of our rural communities are underserved, and that’s a big concern because the digital divide also means an economic divide, but it also means when there are fires, when there are floods, people don’t have access to emergency response that is needed in those kind of times,” Sims adds.
Teegee believes the addition of this tower will make a difference, and adds it’s been talked about for years.
“We talked about the geographical separation between communities, the isolation of the small communities in between big urban centres, and I think this will definitely make the highway a lot safer so there can be better communications between those that are traveling along the highway.”
While he applauds this step, Teegee adds there are other things that need to be done to increase the safety of those traveling the Highway of Tears.
For one, he points out bus service needs to be addressed, with Greyhound expected to pull service in B.C. by the end of the month.
“[It] doesn’t help matters but the commitment from the provincial government to implement not only a shuttle system but to take over the service is an interim replacement of the Greyhound service,” he says, adding there needs to be a better understanding of how to service the region.
Teegee would have liked to see the tower built sooner. The construction of the tower isn’t only a benefit to increased safety, but also to the local economy.
“I think it’s very important that many people are connected along remote areas, and it speaks to now a days, you need internet and serviceable areas to start building your economies. This can be part of that discussion.”
He says we’re living in a “digital world,” and everyone needs to be connected.
Sims agrees that a new tower will come with benefits for those who travel the area for work.
“…a lack of having cellular activity not only has social impacts but it also has impacts on economic growth in the region,” she says.
Construction on the tower began in September, and is expected to be completed in the coming months.
According to the province, up to six local jobs will be created during construction.
“When operational, the cell tower will enable voice, data and text service via high-speed wireless and internet coverage on 4G and LTE networks for Rogers and Fido customers,” the province says.
Customers who are with other carriers will also be able to dial 911.
Rogers is the parent company of NEWS 1130.
-With files from Estefania Duran