VANCOUVER - Saskatchewan needed innovative ways to continue providing rural bus service instead of gutting it altogether, says an advocate for a British Columbia First Nation that fought for 10 years to get transportation along a route where women have been murdered.
Dawn George, a councillor and health and wellness co-ordinator for the Takla Lake First Nation in north-central B.C., said her province finally started bus service to communities along Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears, by forming partnerships with First Nations.
"There's a lot of challenges that First Nations people need to overcome in the entire country and I believe that it's the people who are in government and have that political position who should also consider First Nation needs."
Communities must be included in the development, implementation and delivery of services and even share in some of the costs to feel empowered, George said.
The Saskatchewan government's decision to stop subsidizing rural bus service across the province will affect the health of many rural citizens — who are sometimes poor — in multiple ways because they will not have access to fresh food, doctors' visits and connection with loved ones, she said.
The government announced in its budget last week that the Saskatchewan Transportation Company will cease operating on May 31 because ridership has declined and the province would have to pump $85 million into the service over the next five years to keep it running.
Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said the lack of public transportation will impact First Nations and non-First Nations, particularly seniors who have no other travel options in rural and remote areas.
"How are they going to take care of their medical needs, their transportation needs, even to just go see family members?"
The Saskatchewan government said in a statement that "fiscal challenges facing the province" forced the closure of the STC after various operating models were considered but required significant capital investment.
"Under multiple governments, various STC routes have been discontinued, and the province of Saskatchewan was the only province to still operate a broad service covering the entire province," the statement said.
It said the province expects private, alternative operators to offer services along routes "where demand warrants," adding two primary corridors are now served by Greyhound Canada.
In British Columbia, First Nations leaders and mayors pushed the government to fund transportation along Highway 16, which stretches between Prince George and Prince Rupert and where 18 women have disappeared or have been murdered since the 1970s.
The B.C. government finally came up with a transportation plan last year, but only after a decade of advocacy and a 2012 report from a missing women inquiry that had commissioner Wally Oppal recommending bus service along the 700-kilometre corridor where people often hitchhike to get around.
Service is being rolled out separately in various communities and started in January with a 30-minute, six-days-a-week shuttle along a small section of the highway, from Moricetown and Smithers.
The province has said further route expansion announcements are planned for the coming months. It's also offering vehicle grants and training for bus drivers between their villages and major communities along the highway.
George, who is currently on an education leave at the University of Northern B.C. and finishing her health sciences degree specializing in aboriginal and rural communities, said she wrote the proposal for a successful grant application for the Takla First Nation to buy a shuttle bus and operate it for two years.
The government has agreed to pay 70 per cent of the $193,000 cost while the First Nation will pitch in the rest, she said, adding the bus is expected to arrive in the community in the next couple of months.
She said the service will include a weekly five-hour trip to Prince George.
"I think it's going to change everything," George said of the long-awaited delivery of bus service that could eventually be available to non-members.
"I look forward to the day when everyone can go to where they need to go and have better outcomes in their health."