Simcoe or Bust: Transportation in Rural Canada

Steve Sloot, as a youngster, getting around Simcoe and other parts of rural Ontario

Early 20th century American novelist Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “you can never go home again.”  He was talking about the change in yourself and your birthplace through the passage of time and never being able to recapture what you’d romanticized in your mind as you age.

Today I intended to write about going back to the place I grew up as an adult and how it’s changed and seems smaller.  I was going to write how I judge it and feel wisps of nostalgia, how I see younger versions of myself everywhere.  I wanted to write about the people I used to know in personalized historical scenarios, scenarios that formed me and challenged me.

But I’m not going to write about that at all.

This blog posting is about the bus.

I am sixth or seventh generation Simcoe, Ontario (it could be earlier, but my mother hasn’t gotten around to tracing further back into our genealogical heritage on this bit of soil).  Simcoe is a farming town between deep in southwestern Ontario not too far from Lake Erie.  As kids we would listen to more news from Erie, Pennsylvania than we did from Toronto.  The town hasn’t changed in size much in my three decades.  It’s a hub for the surrounding smaller towns of Delhi, Waterford, Port Dover, and all the hamlets dotted in between.  Simcoe is home to NHL defenseman Rob Clark and The Band’s famed rocker Rick Danko.  It’s a steady place full of tobacco farmers who have weathered the decline of smokers (either through death or smartening up).  There are some 15,000 Simconians who call this place home.

And not one goddamn bus that comes here.

That’s right.  None.  Not a train either.  Greyhound boasts 3,100 locations across North America, but has somehow skipped over Simcoe, Ontario.  I know this because I have been victim to the lack of public transportation more than once in my life.  I’ve rented cars and taken expensive airport shuttles; I’ve begged rides and coordinated carpools.  Getting to Simcoe, Ontario, requires driving yourself or driving yourself nuts finding affordable transportation.  So hire a van or set of mules, procure a chopper or you stick out your thumb and hope that small town Canada doesn’t let you down on lonely highway #24.  But no bus or train will bring you here.

When I tell this to Europeans they don’t believe me.  My friends from Asian countries scoff at the possibility.

As Canadians know, this is how most of us get around the rural parts of the country. Unless it's winter (September to July), then we just stay inside and watch hockey.

South Americans I’ve met don’t trust my account either: “there must be a bus or van or something that takes people…maybe you just don’t know about it?”  Oh, I know.  I know very well.  I’ve never owned a car of my own and have relied on friends and family to cart me around every time I come to visit.  My mother, never having a licence in her life (my Dad always did the driving before he died fifteen years ago), relies on my mid-80s grandfather or a lift to get groceries from her home in the even more rural hamlet of Port Ryerse.  What is wrong with rural Canada?  Is it the same everywhere?

You’re damn right.

Simcoe is not alone.  It’s not even Simcoe’s fault.  In my university days there was a 15-passenger van that drove from Brantford to Simcoe twice a day for about $15 one-way.  Not bad.  But it was almost always empty.  Just before it shut down I remember the driver, a very chatty man in his fifties, telling me, “there just aren’t enough people who use the service.”  There you had it.  Not economically viable.  Not really environmental either, having a half-empty van driving up and down highway #24.  The train had folded decades before, even the tracks removed and a bike-path put in its place.  But a bike path won’t get you from A to B in the dead of an Ontario winter.  And I’m a (self-described) hardcore cyclist!

I was told a story once about Henry Ford.  I’m not sure it’s true.  Supposedly once he got enough capital from his car company he bought the Detroit trolley and shut it down.  Thus, more people had to buy cars.  A great business move, but also a dick move.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of Canadian communities that are not reachable by public transit.  Newfoundland outports, wee communities nestled along the southern coast, are dying because it’s too expensive to keep those ferries running for the villages of 80 people, like Grey River, a small community I visited a decade ago that had no roads and was only accessible by boat.  People were waiting for the government buy-out to leave.  It was cheaper to give them money to leave than it was to keep that diesel boat cruising up and down all year round.

In Saskatchewan there used to be a grain elevator every mile.  Now you’ll be lucky to have one every hundred along the highway.  Towns there are dying.  My time in Eastend would have been nearly impossible if I didn’t have that big white van supplied to me by the organization I worked for, Katimavik.  We would go and visit the ghost towns around Eastend – creepy places with abandoned schools and restaurants.  Simcoe is probably not in any great peril of dying any time soon like Grey River, Newfoundland or a Dollard, Saskatchewan.  Public transportation once flooded rural Canada, but now it’s dried up in the worst public transit drought we’ve ever had.

Wolfe wrote about the changing of a place and never being able to revisit that which is gone.  In Simcoe “you can never go home again” because you simply can’t get there.

2 thoughts on “Simcoe or Bust: Transportation in Rural Canada

  1. Steve there is now a bus of sorts that travels around Simcoe as well as to a few of the outer towns. You can check it out at Ride Norfolk… somewhat of an improvement over those growing up days in Simcoe.

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