Western Canada Is Still Struggling to Replace Cancelled Greyhound Service

Here’s what that means for remote First Nations communities who rely on buses for medical travel.

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Nov 1 2018, 4:15pm

Photo by Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

Last night marked the last of Greyhound bus service in western Canada, save for one well-travelled route between Vancouver and Seattle. Greyhound, a Texas-based company has cited a 41 percent reduction in ridership since 2010 as the reason they have decided to pull their operations out of nearly half the country. Earlier this year, both the federal and BC governments refused to step in to save Greyhound when they announced they were losing $35,000 per day on their passenger business in rural and remote areas. This is the first time in 90 years Alberta and Saskatchewan have been without Greyhound and the first time in 60 years for Manitoba.

For remote and rural communities and folks to which car ownership is inaccessible, the Greyhound has been a lifeline to the outside world. Without reliable inter-city transportation many people will be forced to hitchhike or forgo travel, whether it is for pleasure, work, or to access services entirely. The long stretches of road between Prince George and communities further north have earned a reputation as a dangerous place for hitchhikers, with limited cell service and a legacy of murdered and missing Indigenous women.

On Wednesday, at the last hour, Transportation Minister Marc Garneau announced the Liberals will provide two-year transitional funding to fill the gaps caused by Greyhound’s reduction in service. But it remains unclear how much funding the federal government will commit to this initiative, where the money will go, or whether the government will provide funding after this two year interim period if private companies cease servicing particular routes.

In order for a private bus company to operate, they must receive approval from a provincial regulatory body as per Canada’s Motor Vehicle Transport Act and this process has been fast-tracked in many provinces in anticipation of Greyhound’s shutdown. When Greyhound announced it would be pulling out of northern British Columbia earlier in 2018, the BC Ministry of Transportation said they would operate bus service on most of the cancelled routes as an interim measure.

John Di Nino, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, told CBC in a statement that Garneau's "11th-hour" announcement has left thousands of people stranded. "The government reneged on its promise to find funding and solutions to deal with this crisis," he said. "This is a travesty for rural and First Nations communities who depend on this service, and we hold the government responsible."

Garneau noted that private “market forces” have stepped in to provide service on 87 percent of the Greyhound routes. The October 31st news release from Transport Canada also states “federal, provincial and territorial governments will continue collaborating to explore innovative, longer-term solutions to address the transportation needs of Canadians” but it's unclear what these longer-term solutions will be.

While I am glad the federal government finally took action to provide interim funding, should we rely on “market forces” to provide these services? We need a more robust strategy than two-year interim funding or interim measures.

Federal, provincial and territorial governments will continue collaborating to explore innovative, longer-term solutions to address the transportation needs of Canadians, focusing on emerging technologies, alternative service delivery models and more flexible regulations for bus service providers.

For many rural and remote people, travelling to urban centres via Greyhound or other bus services is the only way they can receive life-saving health care. When Greyhound started business in western Canada, over 50 percent of people lived in rural areas and this has significantly decreased for the general population, which is likely part of the reason they have reduced ridership.

First Nations people are more likely to live in remote or rural locations (and no the answer to the policy problems here is not that we all move to the city) and we have a different health care system that presents challenges, to put it mildly. This means that the Greyhound service cut will disproportionately affect First Nations people. On Monday I asked Marc Garneau’s office if there had been any dialogue between the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Indigenous Services regarding medical transportation for First Nations. So far, I haven’t received a response.

In the Yukon, Liard First Nation has started their own bus company to ensure they had accessible transportation from Watson Lake to Whitehorse, citing medical travel as a major reason this service was necessary. While I congratulate Liard First Nation on their new business, we must consider that it is not always possible for First Nation communities to start their own bus fleet to ensure they have access to basic services. Minister Marc Garneau announced the federal government will also be providing funding for Indigenous-owned transportation companies through the Aboriginal Entrepreneurship Program, but it remains unclear how much funding will be allocated.

Medical travel for status First Nations people is covered by the Non-Insured Health Benefits Program administered by Indigenous Services Canada in all western provinces, other than British Columbia where First Nations administer their own benefits through the First Nations Health Authority. Regardless of which province First Nations people reside in, they must apply for pre-approval with their medical provider to the Ministry who determined eligibility based on the most cost effective mode of travel, taking the client's medical condition into consideration.

I find myself again writing about deaths of my people that are completely preventable with sound policy that reflects our right to receive services in line with our inherent and Treaty rights. This month, Abraham Donkey, a 58-year-old Cree man from the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation died on a 10 hour Greyhound bus ride to Winnipeg where he was supposed to receive medical care following heart surgery. Donkey’s niece insisted that he should have been on a flight, rather than a bus ride, given his condition but a flight was not approved through either Non-Insured Health Benefits or Manitoba’s Northern Patient Transport Program. Donkey’s family has called for a “formal investigation with some accountability” and I hope this occurs because as we can see, this is a problem for multiple provincial and federal Ministries to solve.

Even with this week’s announcement of interim federal funding, I remain concerned that we will still see a reduction in service for many communities in western Canada. I am left wondering if First Nations people will have to forgo treatment because they will be denied travel coverage due to the necessity and therefore increased costs of flights in absence of bus service. I am thinking of Abraham Donkey and his family and how unjust it is for First Nations to carry the burden of proving we are worthy of medical care through the current First Nations healthcare framework and the reduction in bus service in western Canada only exacerbates this problem.

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