Via Bus could replace disappearing Greyhound service

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Greyhound bus in Campbell River, B.C. Photo: Stephen Rees/Flickr

This past week Greyhound Canada announced it was shutting down intercity bus service in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The decision is to take effect in a scant three months. It denies citizens of Western Canada basic transport services, making it difficult or even impossible for people with lower incomes to travel.

Reactions of outrage from working-class Canadians who depend on bus service for their livelihood and well-being were met with a firm denial of any responsibility from the Trudeau Liberals, who suggested it was a provincial problem only.

Instead of ducking the question of what to do to ensure safe, affordable, reliable public transportation in Western Canada, the Ottawa Liberals need to recognize that the Greyhound decision will contribute to Canadian economic disintegration.

Moving goods to people in those towns, villages and cities affected by the shutdowns -- 60 localities in B.C. alone -- will be more expensive and difficult.

Following a 1917 Royal Commission, the federal Conservatives nationalized five failing railway companies and created Canadian National Railways, a publicly owned rail service essential to the economic health of Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and other northern Prairie centres. These same cities are affected once again by the Greyhound decision, along with the rest of Western Canada.

CN maintained the link for grain exports to the Pacific, and Atlantic trade routes. Rail service integrated the Canadian market for food, clothing, household and consumer goods, connecting producers and consumers across the country.

Bus service plays a similar role for towns and rural areas as they trade with each other and connect with the outside world.

Recognizing bus transport as integral to community life, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called for subsidization of needed bus services.

As Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir has pointed out, Via Rail passenger service needs to be restored to the southern Prairies. 

The Alberta NDP had been preparing on a trial basis a public supported rural bus service.

The B.C. Passenger Transport Board announced it would fast-track applications from operators to replace Greyhound bus routes.

The provincial conservative governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have looked the other way when asked about restoring transportation services to their citizens.

Ever helpful, McGill economist William Watson suggested in the Financial Post that if small towns could not support profitable bus routes, people should move to cities and let the towns die.

The Greyhound decision puts First Nations communities at risk, leaving walking or hitchhiking as the basic strategy for young residents seeking to go to work in neighbouring localities or simply for travel. The Native Women's Association of Canada said disappearing bus service "will exacerbate the existing epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls."

As the Twitter group "Canadians for Via" has recognized, the government of Canada should step up and create Via Bus to take over Greyhound services. The publicly owned remnant of CN could build a proper intercity bus service on the Prairies and B.C., connecting with existing passenger rail service. The enlarged Crown corporation could develop a coast-to-coast-to-coast passenger rail and bus service, improving equipment and technologies, and upgrading public transit within Canada.

An integrated public service corporation could be a major player in combating climate change, creating well-paid employment, and achieving other social objectives like promoting official languages, serving First Nations communities, and furthering pay and gender equity.

Of course, the federal Liberals would have to deal with the NAFTA injunctions against "state enterprises" even though Canada would be replacing a privately operated monopoly service. 

While the Liberals try and avoid the issues raised by the Greyhound shutdowns, the federal NDP has an issue that it should take seriously: bringing public transport services to rural and urban Western Canada.

As Christo Alvalis has argued, the NDP needs to take a stand in favour of public investment in Crown corporations. The "taxpayer dollars" rhetoric can be left to Andrew Scheer and his Conservatives while the NDP argues for the benefits of public spending on needed public services.

Born on the Prairies as the CCF, it makes sense for the NDP to live up to its historic role as the farmer-labour party, and defend the Western Canadian economy.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Stephen Rees/Flickr

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