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Woman says Northlander driver held up bus after confusing sweetgrass for cannabis

Crystal Kimewon says Ontario Northland has apologized to her for the incident that delayed a Sudbury to Toronto bus for an hour on the side of Highway 69
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Crystal Kimewon was stopped unexpectedly on the Ontario Northland for what she believes was the scent of sweetgrass.

A bus passenger travelling between Sudbury and Toronto said Ontario Northland has apologized to her after the driver stopped the bus on the side of Highway 69 for about an hour when she says he confused the odour of sweetgrass for that of cannabis.

Crystal Kimewon was travelling on an Ontario Northland bus between Sudbury and Toronto on April 25 when she said she and approximately 25 other passengers were stopped unexpectedly for close to an hour when the driver suspected someone was smoking cannabis on the bus.

Even after finding no evidence or any passenger admitting to the act, Kimewon said the driver continued to hold the bus and passengers on the side of Highway 69 at Pointe au Baril for close to an hour. 

Both Ontario Northland and the West Parry Sound OPP, who were initially dispatched to handle the incident but later called off, confirm that the incident occurred. 

Originally from Wiikwemkoong Unceded First Nation, Kimewon told Sudbury.com she has been travelling regularly on the Northlander bus between Sudbury and Toronto, her current home, where she works as a community advocate and traditional and modern tattoo artist.

Kimewon said she had fallen asleep just after leaving Sudbury and was awoken to the driver’s voice on the intercom. She said he announced that he “wasn’t moving the bus until whoever was smoking weed fessed up, because he was going to start kicking people off.”

She said others told her the driver did a walk through the bus and didn’t find anyone smoking, nor did anyone say they saw anyone smoking.

So the driver, said Kimewon, simply parked on the side of Highway 69 at Pointe Au Baril refusing to move. 

“He said he was just fine to sit there until someone spoke up,” Kimewon said, adding he repeatedly announced he had no reason to move as he was “getting paid either way.”

The longer they were parked, the more passengers began to ask to get off the bus, requests the driver refused repeatedly, Kimewon said. 

“He said again, ‘this bus is not moving. I get paid by the hour. I still get paid if we show up late’,” she said.

She said the passengers started to become angry and frustrated, and several began to phoning Ontario Northland’s customer service line, though it was closed on a Sunday. Their main concern was catching their connecting bus routes, Kimewon said.

“People are agitated and tension is building in the bus,” Kimewon said.

After more than 20 minutes, Kimewon had to use the bus washroom and as she passed the other passengers, she made eye contact with an Indigenous man. She said he looked at her intentionally, showing her that he held a braid of sweetgrass. He looked concerned, she said. 

It dawned on Kinewon that the driver could be smelling the sweetgrass, reasoning that someone unfamiliar with the odour could mistake it for cannabis. 

When she exited the bathroom and again looked to the man, Kimewon said he again gave her what she described as a “pleading” look and again showed her the sweetgrass braid. She believes the man was worried that if he admitted to having sweetgrass he would have been kicked off the bus.

The sweetgrass was slightly burned at the edges, so she asked if he had burned it on the bus, but he shook his head; he had simply removed it from his bag. Sweetgrass is a sacred medicine in Indigenous cultures and is commonly carried in a bundle or braid. The end of the braid is lit and then extinguished to allow it to smolder. The resulting smoke is used for smudging.

Thinking the odour could be the source of the smell the driver was concerned about, Kimewon she took the sweetgrass from the man and brought it to the driver.

She admits she, like the other passengers, was tired and angry by this time, and she raised her voice after showing the driving the sweetgrass braid and asking if perhaps that was what he had smelled. She added that she did lean over the plastic barricade meant for pandemic protocol and held the sweetgrass near the drivers nose.

Kimewon said he denied the sweetgrass was what he smelled and demanded she sit down, but she refused and continued to try to argue with him. 

The driver ignored her, Kimewon said, and phoned the West Parry Sound OPP detachment just after 7 p.m.

OPP communications co-ordinator Const. Joe Scali confirmed the call had taken place, saying the driver was concerned about a passenger who had become “aggressive in conversation.” 

“No physical aggression at all,” Scali said.

While waiting for the OPP, the driver refused to let any of the passengers off the bus despite their protestations until the police arrived. 

By this point about 30 minutes had elapsed. The driver then made another phone call, which to Kimewon sounded like he was speaking with a superior.

After that call, the driver asked her to step off the bus with him and “have a conversation.” 

By this time she said other passengers were also suggesting to the driver that what he was smelling might be the sweetgrass.

On the roadside, she lit and smudged the sweetgrass. It seems the driver may have had a change of opinion at this point, as Kimewon said he assured her sacred medicines were allowed on Ontario Northland busses.

They both re-entered the bus, the driver made another call, and then got the bus moving again.

OPP confirmed to Sudbury.com a call from the driver was received to cancel the call for service as they were “no longer needed,” said Scali.

Kate Bondett, a communications person with Ontario Northland, declined an interview, but sent a brief statement regarding the incident. 

“Ontario Northland can confirm one of our passenger buses was delayed due to a suspected safety concern. Following protocol, the driver called the OPP to investigate. After consulting with the OPP, the driver continued with the trip.”

Bondett explained that bus drivers have a responsibility to ensure their passengers are safe.

“If a driver feels there is a safety risk while on route, protocol is that they pull over to the side of the road and contact the police,” Bondett said. “In this instance, after receiving confirmation from authorities that there was no risk to passenger safety, the driver carried on with the trip, delaying arrival at Yorkdale by approximately one hour.” 

Kimewon said an Ontario Northland representative did call her to apologize on behalf of the driver and assure her that a full investigation would take place. Kimewon said the representative also told her they had received several calls about the incident, likely from other passengers.

The incident, though, has soured Kimewon on the service provided by Ontario Northland.

“I don't want to travel Ontario Northland anymore,” she said. “They apologized on behalf of this man, but that’s not enough for me. He needs to be held accountable for all he put us through.”

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com. She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.