Columns

Wheels

Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan investigates bus travel as one of Canada's last surviving democratic spaces.

Few experiences provide such an indelible first impression of urban character as arriving in a city by bus. In contrast to the no-name sameness of airports, the bus station gives the incoming traveller a taste of the city that never fades. In Montreal, one enters the station at the end of a corridor and marches past departing passengers who line up indoors and step onto the platforms, at which buses are parked in symmetrical slantwise bays, only when boarding is announced. The traveller grasps that he is in a city of Cartesian imagination and frigid weather, where passengers wait indoors. The first steps out of the station confront him with student life and street life, a public library and a French-language university. This tells him much of what he needs to know about Montreal.

In the mild climate of Vancouver, by contrast, one arrives outside, next to the western end point of the national rail network, then proceeds through the post­–First World War lobby of Pacific Central Station. The British-tinged residues of post-colonial history are counterbalanced when the traveller leaves the station: the SkyTrain overhead to the left and the condo blocks that rise through the mist exemplify Douglas Coupland’s “city of glass”; Chinatown, off to the right, signals the importance of Asian culture. Cities such as Ottawa and Calgary are similarly epitomized by their bus stations: the compact, bilingual Ottawa station is tucked away, with civil service discretion, on a side street on the edge of downtown; the Calgary station is modern, spacious and suburban, like the city it serves.

If the traveller shares the preconception that Toronto is an unfriendly city, the bus station, by far the country’s most dysfunctional, will do nothing to refute this belief. The arrival and departure terminals are on different blocks; the unused arrival terminal is locked up and abandoned. Squads of buses idle under the departure terminal’s low roof, choking waiting passengers with fumes. In the evenings the queues flow from the entrance to the back wall; halting, honking buses nudge through the lineups to reach their bays, causing people to grab their luggage and scurry out of the way. The traveller knows that she is in a city where, since the war against the car has not yet begun, bus passengers are treated with disdain. Leaving the station, she steps out onto Bay Street, the country’s financial centre, where the sidewalks are barren of people at all hours of the night and day.

The names of these hubs change as one crosses the country. In Quebec and Ontario the traveller arrives at the “terminal,” a cognate of the French terminus; Albertans use the American word “depot”; in British Columbia, in most cases, the English “station” persists. In spite of these differences, in most parts of Canada bus travel is one of our divided society’s last surviving democratic spaces. In contrast to our unreliable rail system, buses—particularly long-distance buses—have a reputation for arriving on time. This convenience means that the passenger sitting next to you may live in a rooming house or a penthouse, may be of any age or ethnicity.

In my twenties, when I rode Voyageur Colonial buses back and forth between Ottawa and Montreal on a regular basis, I sat next to doctors and federal deputy ministers as well as students, grandmothers and the unemployed. This forced coexistence softens our class prejudices, which are much stronger than anyone wants to admit.

On my most recent bus trip across Ontario, I sat next to a pony-tailed gent who introduced himself as a trucker and a biker and let slip that he had fathered eleven children with half a dozen women. Five hours of conversation with this man undercut my knee-jerk sense of superiority to him; by the end of the journey, I was in awe of the discipline that had enabled him to bring up his children as a single dad, and to save and invest his wages in astute ways that had left him in rock-solid financial shape. In some parts of the country, alas, encounters such as these don’t happen because bus travel has never caught on: in Saskatchewan, few passengers take the bus between Saskatoon and Regina, and buses survive only because they are run by a Crown corporation originally founded under Tommy Douglas. Even so, it is rare in Canada to encounter the attitude I found to be pervasive during my years in the United States: that middle-class white people shouldn’t travel by bus for fear of meeting people who are racially different than themselves.

The bus not only connects us within regions, like the buses that I now take from Guelph to Toronto or Kitchener–Waterloo; it also gives people of modest means the chance to see the country. I owe my initial explorations of cities such as Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria to the $99 cross-country fare offered by Greyhound in the 1980s. As long as you continued in a straight line, the ticket would take you from coast to coast, and you could get off whenever you felt like it. In recent years the travails of globalization have eroded this latitude for freewheeling travel. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Greyhound Canada began demanding passengers’ names when tickets were purchased. (I expressed my opposition to this unwarranted intrusion by giving my name as “Adam Loebsanin,” an anagram of Osama bin Laden.) The policy was later discontinued, but one must now give a return date when buying a round-trip ticket, a requirement that cuts into the individual’s freedom to wander between cities as the mood takes him. Complaints about Greyhound service, which used to be answered by efficient Canadian customer service representatives, are now fielded by abrasive agents in Texas who think that Ontario is a city. But I don’t let these frustrations deter me. Even though Greyhound is moving to online ticket sales and departures that are booked up in advance, for the moment you can still hop on a bus on impulse, without a reservation, and discover people and places you didn’t know before. Anyone who disdains bus travel misses out on one of the best educations this country offers.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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