Kicked Off The Bus

The Sask. Party just killed the Indigenous public transit system

City Hall | by Paul Dechene

When Brad Wall’s government closed the Saskatchewan Transportation Company — they didn’t privatize it, they just shut the doors — they did it with the resentful haste of a fallen patriarch pawning the family silverware. Oh sure, like silverware, it’s nice to have a subsidized bus system in the province, but do we really need it? If you absolutely have to get around the province or deliver a package to some small town, there are options.

And besides, the private sector will step in and fill the void left by STC’s closure, right? That’s what the private sector does: provide luxury items.

And yet, for many in Saskatchewan, STC wasn’t a luxury item. It was a vital form of affordable transportation.

For many Aboriginals who live in remote communities, STC was their only public transit, and STC’s closure will hit them the hardest.

Maybe the private sector will pick up the slack at some point in the future but that’s far from certain.

To gain more insight into how STC’s closure will impact First Nation and Métis communities, I spoke with Heather Bear, vice chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and a member of the Ochapowace First Nation, and to Doyle Vermette, the provincial NDP’s critic for Northern Saskatchewan and the STC, and the associate critic for First Nations and Métis relations.

(These interviews have been edited for space.)

HEATHER BEAR: For First Nations who live in remote areas, access to services is one of the biggest barriers we have in terms of our people getting the help they need. Access to services is one of the determinants to health. STC has provided a service that, quite simply, you take it for granted until it’s gone. I don’t think the province really looked at all the implications of the social aspects, the negative impact on people getting resources that they need.

Here’s an example: not too long ago I had some young girls who were in a crisis situation and the bus was the only mode of transportation to get those girls to a safe place quickly. Without that service — we’re looking at high-risk communities who are vulnerable — what are they going to do now? What are their options? Get on that road or highway and hitchhike, and be more in harm’s way?

DOYLE VERMETTE: You have so many remote northern communities that are isolated, and to have access to STC to where they can go to a main area and have somebody pick them up, how are they going to travel, whether they’re going for medical help or to visit family or going to their home community?

You want to talk about living in poverty? Well, we’re up here. They don’t have vehicles to just say, “Oh well, we’ll just catch a ride.” Many of the families don’t have vehicles. STC was the only way they could travel. To me, it’s about safety and what cost you want to put on a life. Should something happen to some of our citizens because of that, whether it’s from hitchhiking or what, I guess the government will have to live with that. People may want to hold them accountable.

Was there any consultation with aboriginal communities before the government decided to close STC?

HB: Other than the rumblings you hear, I’d say, no. We never have that, especially when we know we have unfinished business with First Nations communities. We have good years and we have bad years, but I’ll tell you, for First Nations people, every year is a bad year for us. We are experts at risk management. We deal with inadequate funding from year to year to year. So, we’re no stranger to this.

DV: Well, we’ve seen the way this government does not consult with Aboriginal groups. Their track record is terrible. It is with many Saskatchewan residents, but when we look at First Nations, Métis, from what I’m hearing and what I see, and from the people who talk to me, they’re not feeling consulted, whether it’s our elders or our leaders. They’re feeling very frustrated.

Why should urban Saskatchewan subsidize the public transit needs of remote communities?

HB: Bottom line, we have to set the record straight that First Nations people pay taxes. We are taxpayers in this country and at the end of the day, when you look at our treaty relations with the Crown and what we agreed to share, we haven’t received our share of benefits. All we’ve received is poverty.

The wealth of this land, there’s an ocean of vast resources, the blood and bones of our ancestors are in the wealth of this land. How have we benefited? We’re the most poverty-stricken population in Canada.

DV: This is a public service, the communities and Saskatchewan residents, and that’s where the government should’ve gone to the Saskatchewan people to ask them. The Saskatchewan people are okay with subsidizing public transportation, and that’s how they see it — as a public service.

When you look at Saskatoon and Regina, the public transit there is subsidized, I believe, yet the residents are okay with that and they’ll cover that. Here, we’re talking $13 to 17 million [for STC]. The government can put it a different way, but the whole province takes care of that.

What impacts will the STC closure have beyond just downloading the cost of travel onto individual residents?

DV: Who’s going to pay? We’ve asked about studies about added costs going to other ministries, whether it’s health or social service or even justice. Inmates actually travel from the bigger centres — Saskatoon, Regina, Prince Albert — once they’re released. You used to put them on buses to go back to their communities. Now who’s going to be responsible to make sure they get back? Or are they going to stay in the cities?

These are things that have been raised to government. Are [they] even aware of the added cost? The government hasn’t done much research or looking into it and we’ve got that from them in committee and question period. They just don’t have any numbers or they haven’t looked into it.

It goes back to we’ll all be paying at the end.

Sad thing is, this government doesn’t even get it. They just don’t get it. ❧


Sidebar

It Came From Question Period

From the May 5 question period, here’s an excerpt of an exchange between the NDP’s Buckley Belanger and the Saskatchewan Party’s Joe Hargrave, the minister responsible for the STC. It has been edited slightly for space.

Mr. Belanger: The Sask. Party has no mandate to scrap STC. Their sell-off is going to have the biggest impact on the most vulnerable people in the North. STC is a crucial service for so many, and, Mr. Speaker, the shameful crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in this country have made the need for safe public transportation — especially for First Nations communities — even more clear.

In British Columbia, the provincial government is working to expand bus service along the notorious Highway of Tears. But in Saskatchewan, that Sask. Party is moving in the totally opposite direction. How can the minister spin numbers and pay no attention to the impact that the sell-off of STC will have on the North and on indigenous women and children and girls travelling on the remote highways in Saskatchewan?

Hon. Mr. Hargrave: Again I’ll remind this member opposite, Mr. Speaker, that it’s not a sell-off. This is a wind-down of STC, Mr. Speaker. So just to be clear, Mr. Speaker. Again, Mr. Speaker, it was a very difficult decision, especially, Mr. Speaker, as it affects the hard-working 224 employees at STC. And we do want to thank them for their service, Mr. Speaker.

As far as the North goes, Mr. Speaker, I should note that I’m very happy that this government provides $4.1 million, Mr. Speaker, for northern medical transportation program, Mr. Speaker, which had a total last year of 4,946 transportation, Mr. Speaker. Of that number, Mr. Speaker, 356 were by plane; 1,410 were by ambulance; 3,146 was by taxi, Mr. Speaker; and 34 were by bus, Mr. Speaker, for a total of 4,946.