Whitehorse women run a tight transit system

Corinne Sears and Judy Peach hope Whitehorse Transit drivers are still breaking the rules. The two women worked for the Yukon Women’s Mini-bus…

Corinne Sears and Judy Peach hope Whitehorse Transit drivers are still breaking the rules.

The two women worked for the Yukon Women’s Mini-bus Society in the early ‘80s, and attended a poster unveiling commemorating their work in conjunction with Women’s History Month on Thursday.

“I hope the bus drivers out there are still getting away with the things we did,” said Sears with a laugh.

“I hope management is still a bit loose,” added Peach, giving Whitehorse Transit manager Dave Muir a glance.

“The drivers today are much like the drivers before,” said Muir.

“It’s still a personal system.”

When she was driving, Sears never passed anyone that was walking without stopping to see if they wanted a ride.

“We never left anyone out in the cold — we just didn’t do it,” said Peach.

And young children walking home from school in the winter got rides right to the door.

“Before there were designated bus stops, we’d slip off on side streets and drop them off,” said Sears.

The women even roused their regulars.

“We’d wake up passengers and get them to work,” said Sears.

And if one of these regulars wasn’t at their usual stop, the mini-bus drivers would wait for them.

“The passengers loved us, and we loved them,” said Sears.

In the early ‘70s, Whitehorse didn’t have a transit system.

It was still “a hard-living, hard-drinking frontier town, where men carried rifles and cases of beer in their pickup trucks and women either drank hard, or stayed home,” wrote mini-bus society founder Joyce Hayden in Whitehorse Transit, A Brief Look Back.

City council didn’t support the idea of a transit system, because “everyone had cars and it was too costly.”

This meant men drove to work, leaving the women stranded at home for most of the cold, dark winter months.

It led to severe depression, or cabin fever, wrote Hayden.

And not everyone had cars, she added.

So in 1973, the newly formed Yukon Status of Women Council took action.

It started lobbying council to set up public transit.

But the mayor “didn’t want a bunch of women telling him what to do,” wrote Hayden.

His attitude reflected the sexism pervading Canada and the North, she wrote.

Spurred to action by the mayor’s bigoted response, the women formed the mini-bus society in 1975, developed a proposal and sent it to various federal departments.

Transportation Canada responded with an $80,000 transportation grant.

That money didn’t buy a lot of buses, or cover most of the administrative costs, but the women weren’t discouraged.

“Fortunately the original members, many new volunteers, the managers, and the drivers, most of whom were women, were totally committed to the project and determined to make it work,” wrote Hayden.

That year, a fleet of bright green, boxy Fleury buses hit the city’s streets.

With funky brown, diamond-patterned linoleum on the floor and green vinyl seats circling the walls, the Fleury on display at the Whitehorse Transportation Museum looks like an artifact from a hip 1970s road trip.

“It’s the best job I ever had,” said Sears.

“I loved it. I didn’t even know what I was getting paid until two weeks into it, when I got my first paycheque  — that’s how good it was.”

Sears worked morning shift, waking at 4:30 a.m. to open up the office, get the buses warmed up and “breathe in all those diesel fumes.”

“Many times we were told what we dreamed was impossible — how could women drive buses at 40 below?” wrote society member Joanne Linzey, in an e-mail read at the poster unveiling.

But that’s when it was most important for those buses to be running, said Sears.

The society ran like a family.

When Peach’s daughter started skipping school, she told the other drivers to keep an eye out for her.

“And if I saw her walking down the hill, I’d let Judy know,” said Sears.

Peach rerouted a bus at one point to drive a bleeding passenger to the hospital. And another time she picked up a regular who was weeping.

She’d just learned she was dying of cancer and confided in Peach.

We were like psychiatrists, said Sears.

“It really was that personal.”

It was also a no-nonsense organization.

Sears “dropped” one of her colleagues, after learning he was a sex offender.

“I drove him right between the eyes,” she said.

“We took care of each other.”

In August of 1977, a review committee reported the mini-bus system was “extremely effective” and recommended city council set up an independent Transit Commission.

The society, which never intended to run a long-term operation, agreed.

In 1978, the commission took over the transit system. The commission was later abolished and transit was taken over directly by council.

It became more departmentalized, said Peach.

“It was not personalized anymore.

“It was like separating our feelings for our passengers from us.”

The elderly toting groceries are no longer driven to the door, and set stops fazed out the old system of flagging down the bus.

But buses still wait at stops for people, said Muir.

“It’s a small-town mentality,” he said, mentioning that one-third of the drivers are still women.

“I still miss it terribly,” said Peach, thinking about her old route.

“I do too,” said Sears.

“When I stopped driving I felt like part of my life was over.”