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Transport capitalism: profits over safety

Kevin Taghabon

July 30, 2018

On July 9, Greyhound Canada announced that it would end all bus services running for all prairie provinces. There will be no service in Northern Ontario beyond Sudbury. This is in addition to cancelling all internal routes in BC (one remains between Vancouver and Seattle, Washington). This will cost over 400 drivers and maintenance workers their jobs, and could cost more Indigenous women their lives.

Various articles have cited Greyhound vice-president Stuart Kendrick's sober-sounding reasoning for the cancellation of these routes. "But simply put, the issue that we have seen is the routes in rural parts of Canada — specifically Western Canada — are just not sustainable anymore." The obvious question that most are not asking is: why is this so? Why does the profit margin of a private charter bus company dictate the ability of 2 million people to travel affordably between communities in Canada? Why does a country this wealthy leave the well-being of its people to the whims of capitalists? And why is “sustainability” defined by corporate profit margins, not people’s lives?

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Greyhound pulled out the rug from these people in the middle of the night. No government was consulted. The alarming decision was denounced by the Native Women's Association of Canada, which said, “lack of safe transportation in and out of communities creates more vulnerability for Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people by encouraging travellers to resort to less safe means of transportation such as hitchhiking or walking unsafe will exacerbate the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls."

The pandemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada is national shame. Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs lamented, “it is already well documented that our citizens have to ride the bus for hours, some longer than 14 hours, in order to see a doctor. How will they get access to adequate health care now?” This represents an example of how universal healthcare is inadequate if the society around it makes healthcare inaccessible. The creation of new hospitals near these rural areas also seems like a distant dream.

The neglect is also highly racialized and gendered. Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the most dangerous provinces in the country for Indigenous women. Forcing them to choose between being stranded, riding with strangers, or spending exorbitant amounts of money to fly or drive is imposed danger. Perhaps Greyhound considered that their sudden decision would almost certainly result in more deaths. Perhaps not.

Justin Trudeau ran on a platform of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, yet there does not seem to be political will for it when push comes to shove. The Liberals seem to be hoping that private providers fill the void.

The NDP's half-hearted bailout response

Greyhound vice-president Kendrick has a track record of urging the government to allow more private carriers to bid on rural bus routes. It should be no surprise that Kendrick takes this position. The deal for Greyhound in the first place was that they would have rights to certain highly profitable routes if they operated in rural areas. This was the compromise, and clearly the market has thoroughly failed people's transport needs..

What is disappointing is the NDP's response: more money for the profit-driven company. Federal leader Jagmeet Singh penned a letter to Trudeau advocating that Greyhound should simply be bailed out with public funds. Yes, Canada's social democratic party suggests that the best way to handle a business failing to provide a crucial social service (for a price) is to give them more money. The NDP's transportation minister Robert Aubin is towing the same party line, as well as Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley. This betrays the NDP's lack of political consistency and principle as well. Kinder Morgan is an easy villain, and an easy bailout to oppose.

We have seen already – repeatedly with Bombardier – that looting public funds to give companies a boost is nothing but welfare for corporations. In 2008, during the height of the recession, automobile giants GM, Chrysler, and Ford (all domestic i.e. American-Canadian automakers) were in the dumps. All three had rested on their laurels for decades and become synonymous with unreliability, bloat, and age. The solution? GM and Chrysler were bailed out, at a cost of $3.5 billion dollars of public funds.

The road to just transition

Another response, which has not been taken up by the meek New Democrat leadership, is to nationalize Greyhound or set up an alternative crown corporation. This would ensure that all communities are not isolated by the next flavour-of-the-month capitalist transport service.

The Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC) was a crown corporation which provided transportation services (buses as well as freight) for 70 years. In 2017 the right-wing Saskatchewan Party under Premier Scott Moe announced it would sell the public asset for parts. Dismantling this service has similarly left many communities isolated in Saskatchewan. The STC serviced 700 communities across the province, dozens of times more service than the private providers which now operate in Saskatchewan.

This idea is not relegated only to Saskatchewan. In 2012 BC's Missing Women Commission recommended that new services should be set up to transport people between communities. One of these now operates at $5 for a three hour trip through BC's infamously dangerous Highway of Tears. Ontario also once operated a public transportation company, TTC’s Gray Coach Lines, but deregulation killed it.

There are solutions to this because buses and roads are nothing new. The limitations are imposed only by the narrow imagination of our governments. The project could be an actual step towards a just transition to an environmentally sustainable economy. The creation of a federal or provincial project to put people to work and refurbish or replace the existing vehicles would be a boon for employment. It would, however, require a concerted effort to alienate capitalists in the name of public service—something that the current government, and even the NDP, is unwilling to do. Pressure must come from below if our society is to make a real, sustainable choice.

Rank and File Radio - Prairie Edition (CKUW 95.5 FM) recently asked Amalgamated Transit Union president Paul Thorp about the sudden cancellations. Thorp said that he and his members, who operate the Greyhound buses, are setting up meetings with the Indigenous communities affected to see if there is an emergency compromise that can be built. Thorp is also trying to lobby Transportation Minister Marc Garneau and Prime Minister Trudeau into continuing the services for a short interim while an alternative is found.

Emily Riddle, who is a Cree woman and a grad student, hits the nail on the head: “The discontinuation of Greyhound services has made it abundantly clear that we should not rely on private companies to deliver vital, sometimes life-saving services. Canadians are familiar with subsidized and nationalized transportation...Why can’t Canada nationalize intercity bus service when they have agreed to nationalize a failing pipeline project?”

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