'Dangers are out there': Highway of Tears researcher says STC closure puts more hitchhikers at risk

The shutdown of the provincial bus service is forcing some former riders to resort to hitchhiking.

Opposition NDP says increased reports of people hitchhiking in province

David Fineday is travelling by hitchhiking on Saskatchewan's Highway 11. (CBC)

David Fineday says it's a good day for a hike but he'd rather be on the bus.

At 7:30 a.m. CST, the 30-year-old was carrying a duffel bag as he walked northbound on the shoulder of Highway 11. Traffic was heavy and fast, but few drivers did little more than glance at Fineday.

"I'm going back home," he said.

Home is the Ahtahkakoop First Nation, Sask., about 60 kilometres east of Prince Albert. The trip by thumb from Saskatoon could take anywhere from three hours to all day.

He used to bus, until this spring.

"It was the bus till that STC got shut down, now I'm forced to hike," he said.

Fineday says he doesn't mind hitchhiking. He's done it before and on the stretches between rides he says that he's happy for the exercise.

After the STC was shut down, private companies applied to provide passenger service in the province. Six have been approved by the Highway Traffic Board so far. Only one is providing service off the beaten path of Highway 11. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Not everyone is dealing as well with the loss of their government wheels.

Leonard Finlayson is 67 and lives in Prince Albert. The one-time fishing guide and trapper used to rely on STC to get back to La Ronge to visit his grandchildren.

Now, it's travelling by thumb.

"I go between P.A. and La Ronge," he said.

"Now that it's shut down, I have to hitchhike."

Finlayson says he broke his ankle last spring and it never quite set right, which makes the hiking between the hitches a challenge.

'There are dangers out there': Highway of Tears researcher

University of Northern British Columbia professor Dr. Jacqueline Holler has been researching hitchhiking along B.C.'s Highway of Tears, where a number of women have gone missing or been murdered.

She said there are similarities between northern regions in B.C. and Saskatchewan, including the large Indigenous population, small communities and similar social issues.

Dr. Holler agreed with claims that the closure of STC could put lives at risk.

"There are dangers out there, particularly in northern, rural, remote settings," said Dr. Holler.

"So I think it's not exaggerated to say, if you take away bus service and you put people out on the highway hitchhiking, you could see some really devastating impacts."

UNBC professor Jacqueline Holler (centre) has been researching hitchhiking along the Highway of Tears.

Hitchhiking the only way for some

Dr. Holler's research asked hitchhikers about their reasons for hitching a ride and their experiences doing so.

She said there was a misconception that hitchhiking was a choice and not a necessity.

"People need to get to access services, whether those be health services or social services," said Dr. Holler.

"And those, in B.C.'s north for example, are concentrated in very few larger communities so people have to get to those services."

Medical shuttle would help, says researcher

Dr. Holler hopes the provincial government is analyzing transportation in a way that considers social inclusion and the needs of rural and remote communities.

She said Saskatchewan should consider a medical shuttle like the one that operates in northern B.C. to take patients to appointments in larger centres.

"Whether you live in a city or whether you live in a rural area, transportation is really an important part of living in a society," said Dr. Holler.

"And so, if the STC isn't going to be the preferred model for Saskatchewan then I hope they are going to engage in a thorough transportation analysis and see what needs they can meet with particular — let's say niche — forms of transportation."

Province says gaps to be filled by private companies

The provincial government said private companies would provide passenger services on some former STC routes. 

"There are already several private companies that have received approval from the Highway Traffic Board to operate passenger services in the province, including one which is currently operating between Regina and Saskatoon," it said.

According to the province, there are plans to begin offering service between Saskatoon and Prince Albert in the near future and several other companies are waiting for approval from the Highway Traffic Board. It expects others to apply to cover other routes in the future.

"There are also programs available through the Ministry of Social Services that support individuals with the costs of transportation," said the province.

The government noted that STC only served 253 of the 500 communities in the province.

NDP MLA for Regina Lakeview Carla Beck says there are increased reports of hitchhiking since the closure of STC, which she says shows that private companies are not filling the gaps. (CBC News)

NDP says provincial approach not working

NDP MLA for Regina Lakeview Carla Beck said her party is hearing increased reports of people hitchhiking in the province. 

She said the reports showed that putting transportation in the hands of private companies was not working. 

"There appears to be no plan that was put in place prior to this decision, the buses just stopped, and now people are being left to pick up the pieces on their own," said Beck. 

"And unfortunately that means we have seniors on the side of our highways in the heat trying to hitchhike to go visit their grandkids."

With files from CBC's Jill Morgan and Alec Salloum