Greyhound’s iconic buses with a racing pooch on the side have hauled 351 million passengers in Canada since their debut in British Columbia on Nov. 30, 1929.
On Oct. 31, they will disappear from most of the Canadian landscape. Service is being eliminated west of Sudbury, Ont., with the exception of only the Vancouver-Seattle route.
The shutdown leaves Alberta and Saskatchewan without a Greyhound for the first time in nearly 90 years, and Manitoba almost 60.
A number of factors have contributed to the carrier’s demise, not the least of which is a dramatic demographic shift: When the company began operations, nearly 50 per cent of Canadians lived in the rural communities that Greyhound routes served. Today, fewer than 20 per cent do.
A murder aboard one of its buses in Manitoba in 2008 has contributed to a 50 per cent erosion in business there and in Saskatchewan since. A rise in ridesharing, increased competition from regional bus lines and the emergence of ultra low-cost air carriers exacerbated its troubles, the company said when it announced its decision.
The loss will be felt most across the Prairies, which are sparsely populated and full of connect-the-dot whistle stops along the Trans-Canada Highway.
“I could never imagine a time where this could happen," Peter Hamel, Greyhound’s regional vice-president for Western Canada, said. He has worked for the company for 30 years. “It will be a very sad day when we go dark.”
While Greyhound is slowly being replaced by a mix of new services – owned by Indigenous community members and local startups, and subsidized by provincial governments – the result will likely be much more fragmented than before.
Farmers use the Greyhound bus to have parts delivered for broken tractors. Businesses use it procure supplies. Seniors use it to go to medical appointments in bigger cities. Students use it to travel home. People of modest income count it as their only means of transportation.
“There are a lot of good people this affects through no fault of their own,” Mr. Hamel said.
The only way to get around
Friday, Oct. 5, 2018: Medicine Hat, Alta.
At quarter past three in the morning on the Friday before Thanksgiving, Greyhound No. 6093 rolls through deserted streets and into the downtown bus depot.
There is an organic food store and café next door, and a pawn shop two buildings down. Everything is shrouded in darkness. A dozen passengers headed east wait beneath the glare of florescent lights.
Greyhound No. 6093, blue and sleek with a trailer full of freight in back, has little more than three weeks left, at least here on the Prairies.
Four of these buses used to stop each day in this city 300 kilometres southeast of Calgary, two going in each direction. Now, there is only one travelling east, and one heading west.
Outside the bus depot in Medicine Hat, Dean Bodnar sits at the wheel of his cab.
“I feel kind of sad for Greyhound,” he says.
As a teenager, he rode the bus from Vancouver to the stampede in Williams Lake, B.C. Now, he is first in line if anyone needs a drive around town.
Sleepy passengers step off Greyhound No. 6093 for a short break. Some stretch their legs. Others smoke cigarettes.
More cabs arrive. Drivers park one behind the next along the curb.
Kris O’Cheek climbs down from the bus and clutches a coffee. He is a research assistant at the University of Victoria, and is headed from British Columbia to Winnipeg. He takes the 40-hour trip once a year to visit his relatives.
His seatmates seem like good family people, he says.
He laments the impending loss of Greyhound’s service.
“We need buses,” Mr. O’Cheek says.
Baggage and freight is loaded as he speaks. By now, just one taxi is waiting. The others left empty.
Don Garden, the only driver that remains, rolls down his window.
He came to Medicine Hat from Brandon 30 years ago to work in the oil fields. Eventually, he took to driving a cab.
“I can’t believe Greyhound is doing this,” he says. “For a lot of people, it is the only way to get around.”
He says the depot in Medicine Hat bustled back in the day. Now, he waits in vain for a fare.
Finally, the bus rumbles out of its bay with its diesel engines rattling, and heads up the dark, lonely streets.
Mr. Garden watches it, a sliver of moon overhead.
“I am sorry to see it go,” he says.
In minutes, it will be on Trans-Canada Highway headed east.
For bus passengers on the Prairies, there is almost nothing, yet so much to see. Cattle ranches that stretch beyond the horizon. Wavy hills. Herds of pronghorn antelope. Tundra swans.
There is a subtle beauty, like a canvas that keeps exposing itself. Beside the highway in Medicine Hat, the Saamis Tepee, built for the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympics, rises 20 stories. It sits on top of one of the richest and most important archeological sites on the Northern Plains.
Slowing business down
1 p.m., Maple Creek, Sask.
Nola Sanderson has owned Kelli Dee Floral since 2001. She had flowers shipped to her by suppliers on Greyhound for 15 years.
Once, she says, an order worth $1,000 arrived frozen. Florists elsewhere chipped in to provide her with inventory, but she says Greyhound declined responsibility.
“They made it impossible for me to use them,” Ms. Sanderson says. “They drove me to find other methods of transportation with their poor service. I pretty much phased them out.”
Finding an alternative proved tricky. A year ago, Saskatchewan’s government-run bus company, Saskatchewan Transportation Company, shut down after 51 years.
She used them, too.
Now, she relies on couriers.
“You adapt,” Ms. Sanderson says.
She understands Greyhound’s decision, announced in July, is a financial one.
“Business is business,” Ms. Sanderson says.
She says she won’t miss Greyhound when it is gone, but later softens a bit.
“There is a certain romance to it, and it is also very practical,” she says. “It is a necessary service for some people.”
The town of 2,200 people has no depot. The last station in Maple Creek, which is an hour east of Medicine Hat, closed a year ago. Passengers are picked up and dropped off on a residential street.
The bus headed east arrives at 4:30 a.m. Headed west, it arrives at 12:10 p.m. Today, it is an hour late.
Eleanor Bowie enters the flower shop. She lives on a cattle ranch outside of town, and once rode the buses regularly. She liked to crochet as she watched the countryside out the window.
She fears the end of Greyhound’s service will have an impact on residents at the nearby Nekaneet First Nation. The poor and seniors will find it more difficult to access medical and social services.
The Salvation Army provides Greyhound vouchers to hard-put clients across the country.
“There are people who cannot afford to purchase a vehicle,” she says. “It is like another tax on the poor.”
Residents are disappointed.
Irene Ahmer lives on a farm and is a frequent bus passenger.
“It is just frustrating,” she says. “It seems our whole world is gone. It has changed too fast for my liking.”
Linking families across the plains
Saturday, Oct. 6, 8 a.m., Moose Jaw, Sask.
It is nearly a three-hour drive from Maple Creek to Moose Jaw, the little city with tunnels beneath it where Al Capone was said to smuggle liquor.
The landscape along the way is fascinating, and so are the small towns.
Fertilizer factories and potash mines loom over the landscape. Long lines of rail cars covered in graffiti trundle along beside the highway. Sun reflects off grain bins. A hawk sits atop a bale of hay keeping an eye out for mice.
Elon Musk worked on a farm in Waldeck after coming to Canada in the 1980s. Snow-white tundra swans line the shoreline on Reed Lake near Morse, named after the inventor of the telegraph. Piles of salt sit atop the flats at Chaplin, site of the largest deposit of sodium sulphate in the world. Caronport was built around the runways of a Second World War pilot training base.
In Moose Jaw, Ricky Lerat sells Greyhound tickets, gas and coffee at Smitty’s Petro-Canada on the Trans-Canada Highway.
He is a blur as he prepares for the arrival of the bus heading from Winnipeg to Vancouver. He understands how important the bus is to rural communities.
Last Christmas morning, he made telephone calls to customers to alert them that parcels full of presents had arrived just in time.
“I know Western Canadians are going to hurt from this,” he says. “Maybe people won’t be affected in bigger cities, but it is going to be hard on the Prairies.”
The bus arrives at 8:10 a.m., a few minutes late.
Sharon Wesequate steps off and puffs a cigarette. She is from the Piapot Cree Nation in southwest Saskatchewan, but lives in Regina. Hers is among the many Aboriginal communities that will be badly affected.
She is on the way to Medicine Hat for a reunion with her brother. The ticket costs $71 each way, a senior fare.
“I told him I don’t know when I am going to see him after this,” Ms. Wesequate says. “I planned this trip for two weeks. What am I going to do when there are no buses?"
“I’ve been sitting on the bus thinking about it.”
Ms. Wesequate climbs back aboard. The bus leaves. Chantal Sharpe is left behind. She puts down her backpack and sips a coffee. Her hands shiver from the cold.
She is from Ontario, and has been on the road a long time. She had hoped to travel to Kenora but did not have enough money for the fare.
She muses about visiting a sister in British Columbia instead.
“It is a beautiful country and I have met some beautiful people,” she says. But, “I am worried about being stuck somewhere in the middle.”
At 11:30 a.m., Crystal Froese waves to customers as she enters Chrysalis Coffee Roasters. She is in the middle of her first term as a councillor in Moose Jaw. She was born and raised here.
The old bus depot is around the corner from where she sits. The Salvation Army is a block away. There is a mission and a detox centre nearby.
“The federal government wants to give grants to cities for buses, but they forget about rural communities,” Ms. Froese says. “I think they are not paying attention to this issue. Maybe it is because it doesn’t touch the middle class.
“A lot of people are going to be cut off from their independence. Transportation is essential.”
On the Trans-Canada Highway outside of town, Ms. Sharpe is hitch-hiking.
2:30 p.m., Whitewood, Sask.
Fabrice Robitaille is headed to Quebec from Vancouver Island, and a bit cranky as he stretches in another Petro-Canada parking lot.
He has to do the trip in legs, from Vancouver to Creston, B.C., and then from Medicine Hat to Montreal, with a ride from a buddy in between.
His friend dropped him off in Medicine Hat at 2:45 a.m. A Greyhound mechanical issue left him stranded for more than five hours.
“I think it is a good thing they are closing down,” Mr. Robitaille, who plants trees for a living, says. “It is a pretty bad company. It has been terrible so far.”
He climbs back aboard. The doors shut behind him.
Another 2,675 kilometres and he will be home.
4:30 p.m., Virden, Man.
The bus depot in this oil town of 3,200 in southwestern Manitoba closed five years ago. When nobody else took an interest in running one, Bobby Heaman did.
She owned a vacant building she thought was suited for it. She set up a station and hired staff.
“It is not something you get rich from, but it is very needed,” she says. “I decided I would do it to provide a service to the community.”
She lost money all but one year, and in May was forced to move the depot into the rear of her fabric and gift shop across from the Chicken Chef restaurant and Red Apple department store.
“Most people who weren’t making money would quit, but we have lost too many businesses in the last two years,” she says. “I feel it is a necessity. That is why I am here.”
She has no hard feelings about Greyhound’s decision. Over the last few years, the company has supplied her with a debit machine and everything else necessary to print tickets and waybills for freight. It upgraded her office computer system for free.
“It all comes down to the bottom line and dollars,” she says.
Until recently, she had accepted catalogue orders for Sears Canada Inc.
“Another icon is disappearing from our country,” Ms. Heaman says.
Only one passenger has purchased a ticket for bus headed East. It is supposed to arrive at 3:30 p.m., but is more than six hours late.
She calls the lone traveller to let him know.
Homecomings and goodbyes
Sunday, Oct. 7, 1:48 p.m., Medicine Hat, Alta.
At a time when many Canadians are seated for Thanksgiving dinner, the Greyhound heading west rumbles through the quiet streets and pulls into the downtown depot.
It is closed on weekends, so the doors are locked. Outside, a dozen riders wait to board. Soon, they are waiting along with a dozen or more passengers who step off for a quick break.
Ryan Williams has ridden from Toronto to here. He is a stand-up comedian and is going all the way to Vancouver. He takes Greyhounds to gigs in small communities across Canada.
“It is a service that was always there,” Mr. Williams, who is 28 and from Kelowna originally, says. “This is unfortunate. The question of what is going to replace it is a concern.”
He is returning from vying for a $25,000 prize at Sirius XM’s Canada top comic competition. He was one of eight finalists, but didn’t win.
“That’s why I am taking the bus,” he deadpans.
It is a joke. He says he lost his wallet in Toronto, and had no identification suitable for flying and couldn’t rent a car. So he left the driving to Greyhound.
“By the time I get home, I will I have lots of new material,” he says.
Across the street, Pat Brigham sits in his car. He is a retiree and has dropped off a family member who lives with an intellectual disability, and waits to make sure he boards the bus before it leaves.
“I know the world is changing, but for some of these rural communities it is going to be hard,” Mr. Brigham says. “I remember when Greyhound was the only method of transportation.”