Transportation Issues Affecting Those in Northern Ontario
Date: October 17, 2016
This was an enlightening session for me as, while I live in central Ontario (in what is sometimes referred to as the “near” north) and had heard about some of the types of constraints that exist in northern Ontario in terms of access to transportation, there are a few things that people living in the upper regions of this province experience which I had no knowledge of. Therefore, I thought that some of you in southern Ontario would find these issues of interest as well.
When referring to the north I am talking about everything north of Sudbury and North Bay. So if you are looking at a road map of the province, it’s the communities found on ‘the other side’ from what those of us in southern and central Ontario usually look at. As a result, many of the people at the NOMTS session were representing groups and organizations in Kapuskasing, Dryden, Kenora and other places along or north of highways 11 and 17. Also well represented at the event were those from Friendship Centres and other organizations focused on serving Indigenous populations.
Based on a scan conducted by researchers for the NOMTS, it is estimated that there are over 160 examples of community transportation services in northern Ontario. But many of the organizations that provide these services in the north are not mandated to do so and have to use dollars that should have gone to programming instead. For instance, we heard a story of a program that was set up to address social isolation among seniors where, out of necessity, most of the Coordinator’s time and much of the program budget was being spent on arranging and paying for participant transportation rather than on developing and implementing the programming itself.
There were other stories that clearly demonstrated the variety of challenges faced in some of the more rural and even remote northern communities. Among them were those of students and elders who often have to walk to get to recreation and other activities, or to access daily necessities and services, given the lack of public transportation options. Many times they are carrying heavy backpacks, groceries or hockey bags while dealing with no sidewalks, speeding traffic, roads that are not properly maintained or even plowed in the winter, extreme cold temperatures, high winds and even wild animals. Those who are seen hitch-hiking may also get picked up and taken back home by police who fear for their safety due to these conditions, as well as a lack of lighting at night and other security concerns.
For those on low incomes, accessing health care and other vital services can be a major issue. Not only does it cost a lot of money to travel to a nearby hospital, medical centre, social service agency or court house, but often the scheduling of available public transportation services, coupled with the amount of time and distance required to get there, means that passengers have to access overnight accommodation as well. Examples were given of how it can sometimes take 2 days to travel to a 20-minute medical appointment at a cost of over $200. For many, this is simply unaffordable.
Buses to some communities only travel in and out of town once or twice a week and are often booked days in advance. After that bus is full, another one isn’t put on the route to carry the overflow, so the idea of “just catching the next bus” simply isn’t an option. Never mind if someone has already travelled into town from another community and had to pay for food and shelter while waiting for their connection. There were also stories of people returning home and getting dropped off at 3am when the bus shelter (if there even is one) is closed, there is no available accommodation, and it is a 7-hour wait for the next connection.
Other shocking stories that we heard were about people who were scheduled to attend legal sessions, but the dates/times of those sessions were changed at the last minute so they had no way to get to them, leading to incarceration as a result. Situations like this clearly have a major impact on the health and quality of life of the individual, as well as that of family members, in both the short and long term!
All of these stories and situations show that accessing, arranging and being able to afford transportation in the north is a huge challenge. When public and/or private transportation are unable to meet the needs of local residents, community transportation (CT) attempts to fill the gaps. Yet, as those of us involved with CT know, many of these services are not available to all members of the public given eligibility and funding constraints. Also, volunteer drivers are few and far between in the north considering the lower population densities, the distances between communities and that fact that some volunteers do not even have access to transportation themselves.
For these reasons alone, a strategy for addressing transportation issues in northern Ontario is essential (not to mention the added importance to growth and economic development in the region). If you would like more information on the Northern Ontario Multi-Modal Transportation Strategy (NOMTS), the associated reports, consultations and/or engagement processes conducted to date, please visit: www.nomts.ca. I would also encourage anyone in northern Ontario who has experienced any of these things first hand, and/or who has been involved in a CT initiative more specifically, to feel free to share your transportation stories with us by email at: email@example.com.