Province turns eye to Thompson in hunt for ‘chameleon carriers’

The province will investigate a northern Manitoba bus company passengers have alleged operates vehicles with mechanical defects, such as broken heaters in the middle of winter.

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The province will investigate a northern Manitoba bus company passengers have alleged operates vehicles with mechanical defects, such as broken heaters in the middle of winter.

A mix of provincial departments, including justice and Manitoba Public Insurance, will look into the Thompson-based bus line, Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Doyle Piwniuk said Friday.

Earlier this month, the Free Press reported on employees and passengers who described travelling in frigid buses that had mechanical breakdowns while en route to Thompson or Winnipeg.

The founders are part-owners of two companies: NCN Thompson Bus Ltd. and Thompson Bus & Freight Ltd.

“(It’s) a whole bunch of different issues altogether,” Piwniuk said.

The province proposed legislation last week to crack down on “chameleon carriers,” or motor carrier businesses that close and reopen with new names to avoid addressing safety issues.

If passed, the legislation would allow Manitoba to assign a conditional safety rating to a carrier suspected of being a chameleon. Manitoba could also refuse to give the carrier a safety fitness certificate.

A conditional rating requires companies to get a certified safety compliance officer, submit a safety plan, undergo more frequent government examinations and possibly be subject to a facility audit.

Commercial bus operators with conditional statuses face closure if they don’t make changes.

“We want to make sure that whatever happens from the past follows that same person or that company… into the future,” Piwniuk said.

Situations such as NCN Thompson Bus/Thompson Bus & Freight are why the province has proposed the legislation, according to Piwniuk.

Thompson Bus & Freight incorporated in July 2018 and began operating in the fall around the time when Greyhound ended its Western Canada routes.

In January 2019, Thompson Bus & Freight’s owners began a new company with Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation called NCN Thompson Bus Ltd. The business was incorporated on Jan. 10, 2019, according to Companies Office data.

That month, Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and Thompson Bus announced the restructuring and a new name: NCN Thompson Bus & Freight.

Also that month, passengers reported travelling in frigid NCN Thompson buses. The Free Press quoted one customer saying it was a “nightmare in an icebox.”

NCN Thompson Bus Ltd.’s safety certificate expired in May 2020, according to a Manitoba Infrastructure document. (The public can view information about carriers online through a carrier snapshot, called a C-SNAP.)

As of Friday, NCN Thompson Bus’s government-issued safety rating was conditional. The corporation has no buses and doesn’t meet insurance requirements, according to its C-SNAP.

However, Thompson Bus & Freight Ltd. has a current Manitoba fleet of nine buses and a valid safety certificate until May 31, according to its carrier snapshot.

The company’s safety rating is noted as “satisfactory unaudited,” which is given to new operators.

NCN Thompson Bus & Freight would not respond to questions.

“We would not like to give any information because this is our proprietary information,” Siddharth Varma, NCN Thompson Bus & Freight chief operating officer, said over the phone.

He is part-owner of both Thompson Bus & Freight Ltd. and NCN Thompson Bus Ltd., according to Companies Office data.

Marcel Moody, Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation’s deputy chief, reiterated that information, saying the company is private, but said NCN Thompson Bus is restructuring and looking at getting newer vehicles.

The government has been paying for northern Manitobans to travel to Winnipeg via NCN Thompson buses.

Northern patients requiring health services in Winnipeg receive subsidized bus tickets through Northern Health and Ottawa. Patients pick their bus line, according to Twyla Storey, a communications co-ordinator for Northern Health.

The Free Press obtained a voucher from Indigenous Services Canada, dated Sept. 20, 2022, made out to NCN Thompson Bus Ltd. (Vouchers cover passengers’ rides to Winnipeg.)

At that time, NCN Thompson Bus Ltd.’s safety certificate had expired.

Eric Dusenge, a former bus driver with NCN Thompson, said the buses he drove had “NCN” emblazoned on them this year and last. His pay statement, dated Feb. 10, 2023, is from Thompson Bus & Freight.

Lori Mann, owner of Thompson-based Maple Bus Lines, believes its competitor is a so-called chameleon carrier and disputes allegations Maple’s buses are unheated or unsafe.

On Friday, Maple Bus Lines had a “satisfactory” rating on the province’s carrier snapshot website. Satisfactory means the operator has passed its audit.

Maple’s current Manitoba bus fleet was listed at zero, according to the snapshot; Mann said it was a glitch, and Maple has six buses.

Mann also disputed former employees’ allegations of not being paid (included in the Free Press article last month).

“I (want) it to go through the (Manitoba) Labour Board,” she said.

Around 40 people travel per Maple bus each night of operation, most for medical appointments, according to Mann. The company operates at night to haul freight between cities and to shorten medical patients’ stays in Winnipeg, she said.

Manitoba’s proposed legislation about chameleon carriers comes from a 2019 auditor general report on commercial vehicle safety, according to a provincial spokesperson.

The length of time an operator can stay in conditional status depends on the severity of its issues.

Chameleon carriers have been a problem in Manitoba, and across North America for a little while, said Aaron Dolyniuk, Manitoba Trucking Association executive director.

It’s hard to tell how many are operating in the province, he noted.

“(The proposed legislation) is a move in the right direction,” he said.

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché

Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.

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