Cryssie Jones normally rides the Greyhound bus every other month between her home in Edmonton, Alberta, and North Battleford, the small Saskatchewan town where her parents live. It’s a 250-mile stretch, easily accomplished in a few hours on the road.
The Greyhound rolls right into the center of North Battleford and it only costs her about $100 CAD ($75 USD) round-trip. To fly would cost more and take longer; Jones’s parents live nearly two hours away from the nearest airport, in Saskatoon.
Jones may not have much choice come November. Edmonton and North Battleford are two of the 400 communities in western Canada that will lose their bus service, Greyhound Canada announced on Monday.
Unless the government steps in to subsidize bus service, or other companies step up to fill the void, Canadians are losing a vital link. The only Greyhound Canada route west of Sudbury, in northern Ontario, will be from Vancouver to Seattle—and that will be operated by the US-based Greyhound. The company said two million people would be affected and 415 workers would lose their jobs.
Greyhound is a popular option to get around in Canada, particularly for low-income people, travellers making short-haul trips between cities, and those who live in rural areas. The bus service is also an important lifeline to many Indigenous people, most notably women, who typically live in remote areas and use the service to do basic tasks such as go to doctor’s appointments, visit family, and go to school or work.
A 450-mile stretch of Highway 16 in northern British Columbia is nicknamed the Highway of Tears because so many Indigenous women have been killed while walking and hitchhiking on the road. “As per the MMIW [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women] Interim Report, affordable, reliable transportation is a key issue in keeping Indigenous women safe,” said Tara Williamson, a member of Opaskwayak Cree Nation and a research fellow with the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-focused think tank based in Toronto.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada said in a news release Tuesday that it is “deeply concerned that the cancellation of bus service will significantly affect the safety of Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people in remote and rural communities.”
Advocates have long fought for a shuttle service along the Highway of Tears to help protect Indigenous women; it still only has limited service.
But according to Greyhound Canada, its western routes haven’t been popular enough. The company says ridership across Canada has dropped by 41 percent since 2010; out west, it dropped 8 percent in the past year. Greyhound Canada senior vice-president Stuart Kendrick said in a statement that a “changing and increasingly challenging transportation environment” is behind the cuts. “Simply put, we can no longer operate unsustainable routes.”
The move by Greyhound Canada comes after the company persistently yet unsuccessfully lobbied the Canadian and provincial governments to create what it called a “Connecting Communities” fund to subsidize rural transportation in Canada. Kendrick blamed competition from subsidized transport—such as hospital-chartered bus services—as a key motivator for the route cancellations by contributing to declining Greyhound ridership. On Wednesday, Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democrats, called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reconsider a funding program. The company also blamed low-cost airlines, though those do not currently have extensive operations in Canada.
The cancellations also comes at a time when the parent company of Greyhound—the London, UK-based FirstGroup PLC—is considering selling its operations. (FirstGroup said in a statement to Motherboard that it is currently undergoing a “strategic review” and it will be at least a few months before any action is taken.)
So where does that leave stranded Canadians and Indigenous people?
The federal Transport Canada bureau has faith in the free market, saying that other companies will step in to fill the void left by Greyhound’s western withdrawal. John Stepovy, director of sales and business development for transport operator Pacific Western, told me the company’s Alberta-focused Red Arrow brand of luxury motor coaches and its budget carrier Ebus would consider further expansion. It could also open up western Canada to European-style discount bus lines like FlixBus and Megabus.
Elsewhere, rail and air options are considerably more expensive, and don’t offer nearly the same reach as a bus company can offer. Canada’s passenger-rail service, VIA Rail, has limited routes, leaving many people in remote areas to contend with extensive final-destination connections.
Meanwhile, some have called for the nationalization of an intercity bus service that would connect rural communities throughout the country. That’s not such a weird idea; VIA Rail is owned and subsidized by the federal government. Canada could theoretically create a nationalized bus service with a mandate for intercity and rural travel, funded by federal, provincial, and municipal money. Folding a nationalized bus service into VIA is also an interesting option, but also a very political one that chafes against critics of Canada’s “welfare state.” It would likely take years to materialize—if it ever did.
Concerned bus rider Oliver Kuehn told me in an email he’s nearly out of options to travel from his home in Vancouver to visit his aging, ailing parents in a community north of Kelowna in B.C.’s interior. He’s worried about “treacherous” winter road conditions on the Coquihalla Highway, but feels he’s been painted into a corner.
“I'm considering buying a car just for this,” he said.