Cree bus service catching on in unexpected way

Numbers collected for 2018 show the parcel rather than passenger service is in demand.

Improvements on the way including movie streaming service and new coach

The Maheux-Cree bus service was created in 2016 as a way to give passengers in some of the most northern Cree communities an affordable way to get around the territory. (CBC)

A bus service launched as a way to link people in northern Quebec Cree communities to the south is proving more popular as a way to get goods shipped north. 

The Maheux-Cree bus service was created in 2016, as a way to give passengers in some of the most northern Cree communities of Chisasibi, Wemindji, Eastmain and Waskaganish a way to get around the territory affordably and get to southern hubs such as Val d'Or and Amos for shopping and appointments. 

The numbers collected by the Chisasibi Business Development Group from 2018 show that it's the parcel service offered on the bus that has caught on with the local population.

Last year, the parcel service brought in about $112,000, up from $88,000 the year before. 

"We were surprised. We didn't think the parcel service was going to be that popular," said Linda Neacappo-Rodrique, chief operating officer with the Chisasibi Business Development Group Inc., which partnered with Autobus Maheux on the project. 

Neacappo-Rodrique says people like the parcel service because it's more accessible and cheaper than shipping goods via Canada Post or a courier service. 

Numbers of passengers down

The statistics from last year also show a drop in the number of passengers who used the bus, down 7.2 percent from 2017, to an average of seven passengers per trip.

Jimmy Fireman is the president of the Chisasibi Business Development Group, which is a partner in the bus service along with Maheux Bus lines. (Susan Bell / CBC )

According to Jimmy Fireman, president of the Chisasibi Business Development Group, it's still a vital service that must continue. 

"It's a less costly service for transport and a lot of people have asked for it to be continued," he said.

Before the bus line went in, the Cree communities were linked either by private vehicle or by a Cree-owned airline.

A round-trip drive from Chisasibi to Val d'Or for example, could cost several hundred dollars in gas for a total distance of almost 2,000 kilometres. 

For the last two years, the service has run on subsidies from the Cree Nation and Quebec governments and Fireman says they will likely need to continue to rely on them for another few years. 

Improvements planned

Both Fireman and Neacappo-Rodrique say improvements are in the works to try and attract more passengers and make the bus service more self sufficient. 

At the end of May, movies will start being streamed on the trip between Chisasibi and Val d'Or. And by the end of the Fall, the current coach will be replaced with a new one. 

They are also looking into the possibility of building bus shelters where the access roads for the communities meet the James Bay Highway, on average about an hour away from the communities.

We didn't think service was going to be that popular.Linda  Neacappo-Rodrique ,  Chisasibi Business Development Group Inc.

It's an idea brought up by users of the service, according to Neacappo-Rodrique.

"Some of our customers from the other communities [say] that the shelters would be nice," she said. "Especially if it's raining."

Fireman says the idea has already been brought up at the regional level and there is interest from the other chiefs. 

There are also discussions about community shuttles to the bus stops.