GRASSLAND—Every other Thursday, Jhenet Melanio pulls out an empty suitcase, rolls it down a dusty town block to the local Greyhound station and boards a bus for the two-hour ride to Edmonton.
Melanio, 29, moved to the small northern Alberta town of Grassland in 2013 to be closer to her sister. She built a life as the supervisor of a local soup and sandwich shop. With the nearest major food store 30 minutes away, she bused south regularly, filling her bag with groceries for the return trip.
But the trips took on new urgency this April, when she noticed her eye was bulging. “In one month I lost four kilos. I went to the doctor because all my friends said, ‘What happened to you?’ ” she recalled.
A week later, she got a phone call from the doctor at Sherbrooke Medical clinic in northwest Edmonton, who told her she had hyperthyroidism, an endocrine disorder characterized by rapid heart beat and an increased metabolism.
Now, instead of visiting Edmonton once a month, she has a standing appointment every other week for followup tests to monitor the condition. On Friday, she finally secured an appointment with a specialist at the University of Alberta. The result of that meeting will tell her whether she needs to keep coming back for treatment or can return to monthly visits with her family.
But without a Greyhound bus to get her there, everything has been thrown into question.
On Monday, Greyhound Canada announced that it was ending service in Western Canada, from Sudbury west to British Columbia, with the exception of a single U.S.-run route between Vancouver and Seattle. Stuart Kendrick, the company’s senior vice-president, attributed the decision to a 41 per cent drop in ridership since 2010.
But when it closes, those who do ride it say it will leave a critical void for rural Albertans seeking everything from groceries to medical services.
Among the communities who will say goodbye to Greyhound is Grassland, a hamlet 150 kilometres north of Edmonton. It consists of a main street lined with a handful of gas stations and diners, plus a hotel, school and fire station. Located next to Highway 63, it is for many, a blink-and-you’ll-miss it cluster of buildings on the drive between Edmonton and Fort McMurray.
According to data from Statistics Canada, the town is small, and getting smaller: there were 68 people living there in 2016, down about a third from five years before.
For the people who live here the Greyhound station — which also functions as an Esso gas station and restaurant — is a lifeline. Every day about four buses, two headed each way, roll down the main street bringing both people and packages.
Standing inside the Esso station Tuesday was owner Jagdish Masiwal, who said he would especially feel the loss. With every bus that stops, each holding roughly 30 to 35 passengers, about half line up at his counter looking for a quick bite to carry them though the ride. He also relies on freight for restaurant and business supplies forgotten or missed on deliveries.
But he was more concerned about his staff, who rely on the Greyhound to get around.
His restaurant employs six residents, few of whom have access to a vehicle, and, like Melanio bus out of town to get their shopping done.
“Most of the staff go to Edmonton on their day off,” Masiwal said. “There’s no taxi here. They have to ask for a favour.”
Red Arrow, a luxury passenger bus that stops here offers similar service and times, but at about double the rate. From Grassland a one-way Greyhound ticket to Edmonton costs about $45, but with Red Arrow it’s about $72.
“Because my salary is not so big, I don’t take Red Arrow,” Melanio added.
While her sister has since moved to Edmonton, Melanio is on a working visa, and can’t leave.
“It’s so expensive. I don’t know what will happen to me, because I don’t drive,” she said.
Red Arrow also offers few options for local businesses that depend on the service for freight.
At GTS Powersports & RV, a local shop down the street from the station that sells snowmobiles, ATVs and parts, sales manager and local resident Don Kravontka was baffled to learn of the cuts.
“We send thousands of dollars a month of parts to Fort McMurray on the bus,” Kravontka said. “It’s getting brutal to get anything up here. We’re going to have to scramble now.”
Freight services are also a huge part of Greyhound’s operations in Western Canada. Last year alone, it moved 448,552 parcels through Alberta and part of Saskatchewan, according to a Greyhound spokesperson.
The Canada Post office, open only three days a week, offers little recourse for the business, which also depends on quick deliveries not only for sales, but product supplies coming in from out of town.
GTS operations manager Kevin Stephens estimates that about 80 per cent of the company’s deliveries, a quarter of which are sent through Greyhound, go to Fort McMurray, where there’s a high demand for quickly-shipped parts, particularly for snowmobile parts in the winter.
With freight on two buses headed north every day, he can usually ensure next day delivery. But without the long-running national bus service, he’ll have to resort to slower and more expensive deliveries through a courier service, and risk losing out to vendors in Fort McMurray.
“It’s going to be either business there or business from Edmonton, and we’re going to lose out because we’re kind of a middle point,” Stephens said. “The guys want to ride. They don’t want to be waiting two weeks for a broken down machine to be fixed.
“Unless somebody else steps in and fills that void. It will either come down to another bus line if there is, because I don’t think Red Arrow does freight.”
The long-term residents also worry what Greyhound leaving means for the future of their small town, without the network of bus routes stitching rural Alberta together.
Melanio, who was getting ready leave on the Wednesday night bus for yet another doctor’s appointment, said at this point she’d move to Edmonton if she could. Without a driver’s licence or another way to get around, it’s just too hard, she said: “I don’t have a choice.”
Kravontka said when the bus routes go, so will a way of life in small towns.
“All I’ve known is Greyhound. I rode the Greyhounds when I was 10 years old. When I was a little kid. It stopped at every little town along the way. Everybody had a stop, get off to go to the washroom, get a snack and keep going. I can’t believe it’s not going to be here.”
With files from Brennan Doherty.