Several school buses in Chisasibi that serve both the James Bay Eeyou and Waapinichikush Elementary schools have been repeatedly out of service over the winter.
Facebook pages for the schools and community discussion groups document the problem. Community members and bus drivers share information online about whether the buses are running on a particular day. Three buses have been repeatedly unavailable since February.
Mark Wadden, the Cree School Board’s Community Education Administrator in Chisasibi, said that the bus absences affect the school’s attendance records on the days they are out of service. Wadden said he has yet to hear any complaints from parents, though he was aware of posts on social media.
Wadden asks parents for “their understanding and patience in this time,” explaining that it is difficult getting parts as inter-community travel is prohibited. “People are frustrated for things to get back to normal,” he allowed.
There is limited seating on the buses because of pandemic restrictions across the province that force children to be spaced apart, Wadden added, saying that parents who have the means are encouraged to drive their children to school.
The buses are owned and operated by Gingras-Shecapio, which is in turn owned by Quebec-City-based Groupe Swiftrans. That company owns over 375 vehicles and runs bus services across Quebec, along with some in Ontario.
Gingras-Shecapio won the school board bus contract in 2014, underbidding other bidders by $200,000. The contact came with a commitment to provide 22 new vehicles as well as eight vehicles for emergencies. Gingras-Shecapio offered service to all Cree communities except Whapmagoostui.
Mistissini’s William Phillip Shecapio is the company’s vice-president. He said harsh winter conditions pose many mechanical problems in the fleet’s newer vehicles, which rely on the diesel exhaust fluid used to reduce air pollution. The fluid can freeze in very cold weather.
“The buses we have are 2020 models, the most updated ones, and everything is all computerized,” Shecapio explained. “Nowadays when you change or replace a part, you have to configure the computer in that vehicle.”
Shecapio said that with the cold weather and the pandemic, bringing in mechanics from other communities and finding rental space to do mechanical work have been extra challenges. He said it is also difficult to find workers.
“We’re really working hard for the needs of the community. My team in Chisasibi, they’re working very hard,” Shecapio reiterated. He said that the buses were dealt with and should be back in service.
Wadden said that Gingras-Shecapio continues to provide a good service for the community, even with all the extra challenges.