Of all the systems and communities I’ve worked in over the years–big or small–none still hold a greater share of real estate in my soul than those in BC’s northwest region. There are a lot of them: Prince Rupert, Port Edward, Terrace Regional, Kitimat, Skeena Regional, Hazeltons Regional and Smithers & District.
Each of these small transit systems is as varied and diverse as the communities they serve. And of these, none is as unique and built on such a diverse partnership as the Hazeltons Regional Transit System.
Located in the northwest interior of B.C., Hazeltons Transit involves one small bus serving a vast area within the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine.
Over the course of a day, that bus connects two tiny towns (the Village of Hazelton and the District of New Hazelton) the unincorporated area of South Hazelton and six small Indigenous communities to each other (the Gitxsan communities of Kispiox, Sik-e-Dakh/Glen Vowell, Gitanmaax and Gitsegukla and the Wet’suwet’en communities of Hagwilget and Moricetown). Two days a week it also connects the local Hazeltons to the larger town of Smithers to the southeast.
While on a rational level I think I should be far more taken with the bigger projects I’ve been involved with–whole system restructurings or sizable implementations–the Hazeltons stay with me and continue to be one of the places I use as a litmus test when it comes to thinking about the implications of transportation policy on the large scale.
I think one reason the Hazeltons stick with me is because the area is one of the most beautiful places you will ever travel on a public transit bus. Its routes cross the Hagwilget Canyon on a one-lane suspension bridge, pass by the totems and long houses of ‘Ksan in the curve of the Skeena River and traverse valleys in the shadow of the spectacular Roche de Boule mountain range.
You meet all kinds of people and pass by forests and rivers that still seem healthy and whole. The one time in B.C. where I have seen a bear while riding a transit bus was in the Hazeltons.
All that said, I think the beauty is only part of it. What really holds me about the Hazeltons is that it strips transit down to its most elemental purpose and form. The system plays a vital role in connecting people and communities–many of whom don’t have a lot or other options–to each other. It connects people to the basics of life in the very basic linear thread of its routes: access to health care and services, food and clothes, the area’s two banks and many band offices, work, school and recreation.
It does what transit should fundamentally do in any community and it does it in its rawest, simplest form when there are not many other transportation options available.
It can be all too easy for those living in far more populous and urban places to cast aside or forget about small and rural towns. Why should I care about the 80 people using the Hazeltons Transit System in a day when I’ve got routes served by double deckers (capacity: 102) passing up others down south?
Why? Because whether big town, or small town or tiny village in an unceded territory, our lives, stories and well-being are connected and are our lives together. And because mobility needs to matter to all of us. For me, I think the Hazeltons have become my own personal heart-and-gut-level reminder of those truths and why we all need to keep working to make that connection happen.
Years ago, one of the Hazeltons transit drivers told me how she bent the “maximum two bags and they must fit on your lap” rule for an older gentleman coming back to Kispiox from Smithers. His special parcel? A new bike for his granddaughter for Christmas.
They strapped it to the rails of the wheelchair lift inside at the back of the bus. You can’t buy new bikes in the Hazeltons, relatively few people have a vehicle: it likely wouldn’t have got there otherwise. All the passengers pitched in to help unload the bike at the end of the line.
And that is community and mobility at its most fundamental. And big town or small, that is transit.
Want to learn more about the people and places of the Skeena and the northwest? Renowned artist (and Hazelton resident) Roy Henry Vickers has teamed up with author and oral historian (and Victoria resident) Robert “Lucky” Budd to create a series of picture books capturing thousand year old tales.
You can find more about this amazing series of books at Harbour Publishing.