The Significance of the Winter Solstice to the Missanabie Cree First Nation

This week, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Missanabie Cree First Nation (MCFN)’s Elder/Youth Coordinator, Jackie Fletcher. She was kind enough to share some of the information regarding Missanabie Cree’s relationship to the winter solstice, where our days will finally become longer again. This topic sparked my interest because the solstice was fast approaching (taking place on Dec 21st), and while I have read many different histories and accounts of Anishnaabe and Navajo cultures and the way that they perceive and acknowledge the solstice, I didn’t have a whole lot on the First Nation that I work for. I wanted to learn more, especially since, while astrology and natural occurrences are important in different capacities to all Indigenous groups, different Indigenous cultures have unique ways of celebrating and acknowledging the new year. So, I reached out to Jackie, as she has been coordinating a special two-day celebration of the winter solstice at the Wawa Motor Inn, which is the closest accommodation to the traditional homeland as possible. This is an opportunity for the community to come together to honour the natural occurrence and phenomenon the way that their ancestors did.

The event, Jackie explains, will consist of a number of activities, including a feast, sparklers, candles, and cake to honour the solstice. Some of the other activities allow for community members to get really creative, by crafting winter arts and writing and singing songs about winter. She describes it as a way for the community to escape from the commercialization, anxiety, loneliness, and depression that many feel around Christmastime – especially those with First Nations background who may not always feel as though they can fully relate to Christmas, a very Eurocentric holiday.

Community members will have the chance to bond with friends and family and prepare themselves mentally for the new year, creating vision boards for their future hopes and dreams, and burning in the fire what they wish to let go of. Traditionally, the solstice signifies a symbol of new beginnings, much like the ‘New Year’ does for many of us. This is the perfect way to illustrate what Jackie is doing with this event for MCFN. She described how it is a way to bring back their old traditions and incorporate them into the modern day, which promotes healing and the decolonization of many elements of settler culture that have been forced upon First Nations peoples, such as Christmas. It allows for the First Nation to make Christmas and winter celebrations their own, letting go of resentment, and transitioning the commercialization of Christmas into a natural experience that has deep historical roots, a practiced and sacred tradition, for MCFN.

It is a pilot program, with hopes of continuing for future solstices, and equinoxes as well. I wish Jackie, and all those travelling to Wawa for the event, safe travels, and the happiest of holidays. I hope this event goes well for the MCFN community so it can continue in future years. And, as Jackie said, hopefully next year they can be taking the train down to the event!

For more information on MCFN-led initiatives, or for how to contact Jackie or any other MCFN employee, visit us at our website. For more information on the train initiative specifically, check out our Facebook page.

When your car breaks down on Highway 17


(Photo from User P199 at Wikimedia Commons)

On November 30th, Linda Savory-Gordon from CAPT and I set out from Sault Ste. Marie for Wawa and Dubreuilville to attend meetings and to check out the CP Holiday Train event. We were excited to spend some time engaging with the municipalities and stakeholders in that area, and also show our support for CP rail and the potential connections that could be made at Franz with the CN line, upon reinstating the Algoma Passenger Train (Bear Train).

Somewhere around Batchewana Bay, we both began to notice a strange sound coming out of my car. It sounded a lot like flapping. We stopped and checked it out – and indeed, there was a piece of the underbelly of my car that was hanging a little loose. Since we still had service, we called an auto shop in Wawa to take a look when we got there. Otherwise, the damage seemed pretty surface and so we kept on, uneasy, but without many other options.

Things took quite the turn just 60km outside of Wawa, when the lug nuts on my left driver’s side tire snapped off and my wheel sunk into the fender of my car. Smoke clouded the air and sparks spewed out from the underbelly. We came to a stop, luckily still in the right lane, and took a look at the damage.

Now this would be a stressful and scary experience for any driver anywhere. But let’s consider some of the key points of this experience that, ironically, make it extremely relevant to my work here for the Missanabie Cree First Nation (MCFN) in renewing rail service in the north.

First and foremost, I had no cell service. I was wandering around, in shock, on hills and in the woods trying to get enough bars to call 911. When I did, the operator could hardly hear me, and it took twice as long to explain what had happened than it would if I had been in the city. Secondly, I had no real indication of where I was. I knew that we had passed Orphan Lake in Lake Superior Provincial Park, but aside from that, without any cellular data or signs nearby, it was nearly impossible to give the operator some kind of a landmark so that an OPP Officer could locate us.

Thirdly, once the reality of what had happened set in, I went into complete shock, shivering, shaking, and barely able to speak. If I had not been with Linda, or anyone, I am not sure how I would have been able to calm down or form words to any of the passersby who stopped, concerned. This shock and isolation would have been furthered by the inability to contact anyone from home on my phone. I ended up getting through to my dad and to my partner, but both had a very difficult time hearing me and in fact it only increased their worry – as they felt helpless to my situation.

Let us also consider the physical nature that we Northerners face, particularly on remote highways. Often times in poor weather conditions, like a white out, it is almost impossible to see ahead of you, thus putting you and anyone in front of you – whether they are stopped or not – in serious danger. If the weather was as we often do get it this time of year – freezing rain or blustery snowfalls – it would be extremely difficult and dangerous to be wandering outside of the car trying to find service or help.

Lucky for us, it was a pretty straight stretch of the highway, so as long as everyone was paying attention, and made a conscious effort to go around my car, we were likely to remain unharmed. Also in our fortune was the fact that the weather, while cold, was pretty clear, which lowered the chances of us or the car being hit while we waited for an officer and tow.

That brings me to the next major issue that anyone facing car troubles on a remote highway will face. After I finally got through to the operator, it took half an hour for him to get there. That was half an hour of my car on the highway across the lane at risk of further damage or of causing an accident. Once he arrived, and put his lights on behind me, I felt much more secure. After that though, it took another 45 minutes before a tow truck arrived. By this point, my teeth were chattering and I was literally shaking from head to toe. Nothing brought me more relief than hopping into the cab of the tow truck and heading towards Wawa, which was another 45 minutes after he arrived, as it was extremely difficult to get my damaged and fragile car onto the flatbed.

I got some really interesting insights from our tow truck driver on our drive in. Aside from telling us that he had never seen a car with the strange damage that mine had, he told us that, in high season in this area, he received 5 to 6 calls per day, most from tourists and students. Now, let’s take a minute to consider what that means for this demographic. Generally, students do not have a ton of disposable income to be spending on car repairs. Having to traverse this particular highway to attend school or to visit family is a huge stressor. The fact that there is no alternative route deters, and will continue to deter, students from up north attending post-secondary school in Sault Ste. Marie.

In terms of tourists, there are other stark realities that we as northerners need to address. To put it into perspective, I know that when I travel abroad or even to another part of Canada, I avoid driving at all costs. I don’t know the roads, I don’t know the area, I may not have cellular data or calling capabilities, and nothing about renting a vehicle or having to drive sounds even remotely appealing to me while I am travelling or on vacation. I would much rather rideshare or take a bus, train, or fly from location to location. Not only because it lowers my stress level, but it also allows me to really take in the local culture and landscapes. It also gives me a chance to gather my bearings. Whether it be through taking a much-needed nap or catching up on work from my laptop. As a tourist or traveller, these stolen moments are extremely important in getting the full experience of a country and optimizing your time.

Now, imagine tourists coming to visit our beautiful, remote landscapes, and realizing that one of their only options is to drive… to drive in a region they are unfamiliar with, potentially in a country they have never been to, in an area so remote that you could end up stranded with no municipality within an hour and a half driving distance in either direction? What I am saying is, how do we drive tourism to our region when we cannot even offer the methods of transportation to get to these destinations?

Maybe for some of you this sounds redundant, or difficult to relate to. I had trouble putting this all into words, but I really did think it was important to share, and hope that you all see – whether you support rail renewal or not – that we have inherent issues with our transportation and broadband systems in Northern Ontario, and my passion and dedication to help change this has only grown stronger.

I hope I have portrayed to you that this experience really impacted the way that I see my job and the work that MCFN is doing with stakeholders and municipalities to renew rail in the north. You really don’t realize how valuable something it is until you are in a situation where you need it. That is exactly what happened to me. I can’t stop thinking about how much worse it could have been, but I can tell you one thing for certain. After my experience, I would never opt to take my car up north for an overnight trip if passenger rail was an option.

Passenger rail service would change the fact of the north. It would lower the sheer number of accidents and tows and road construction needed. It would promote relaxing and leisurely tourism into the wooded wilderness. It would allow me to get to three meetings and one event successfully – and in fact, I would have been able to work on my laptop on the way over – without having to drop cash on car repairs.

Share your stories with me. E-mail Riley@BearTrain.ca.

Efforts to Rebuild and Restore Searchmont Historical Station


Photo from
This week, I wanted to do something a little different to showcase some of the different ways that the Bear Train could work in conjunction with other organizations to increase tourism and preserve the history in the Algoma region. Below is an interview between myself and Nathan Brown, who is the Lead Director for the Searchmont Historical Society, in efforts to restore and renew the station.

R: Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
N: I am Nathan Brown. Originally born in England, I have always been around trains, from my first layout, and this continued on when I moved to Canada. Trains have always been a fascination, and have always had my interest. Prior to taking on the station project, I had picked up a book, authored by Ron Brown – “The train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Ron has done various books on ghost stations, railways through ontario, and even backroads of Ontario. After reading that book, it brought me on the path where I am today, working on the Searchmont Station.

R: Tell me about the history of the station.
N: Searchmont Station (named after T.C. Search) was built in 1902, long before most of the other stations on the Algoma Central Railway. This station was to be named Goulais Station, but it was changed to honour T.C. Search, treasurer of the Lake Superior Pulp and Paper Company. The station at the time, boasted a circular waiting room – other wise know then as the ‘smoking room.’ The waiting room was one of a kind, which was later adapted by Canadian Pacific Railway into their stations as the Witches Hat. The station had living quarters for the station master and their family, as well as a freight shed. In 1929, the circular waiting room burned down – leaving only the main portion and freight shed. This would once again change in the late 40’s when a modern (for its time), update was done. This would see the station quarters upgraded, and the freight shed brought down, leaving just the middle portion of the station. Additionally, this would mean that the woman’s waiting room become the freight shed, and a common waiting room was created.

Today, the station is run down, and has been destroyed inside as a result of vandalism in 2008, as well as on going broken windows due to extreme weather conditions.

R: What efforts have been made so far to restore the station?
An effort to secure land for the station was top concern. The Searchmont Historical Society would receive a donation of part of the land from the Algoma Central Corporation, and a deal was struck with the railway to purchase the other property, which would make a complete station property as it was when first built. Some partnerships have been created with Tulloch Engineering, Home Depot, the ACC, and Great Lakes Honda, as well as other groups in the Soo who want to be a part of this initiative to maintain an aspect of Northern Ontario’s history. Drawings have been and are being worked on by David Ellis, and once we in a position with funds, work will begin.

R: In terms of funding and planning, what are the next steps for this initiative?
N: Next, now we have a working date, is to get funding in place, get incorporated, and get our paper work, which will be going in very shortly, to become an official charitable group. Once some technical details are worked out, we can start moving forward with on-site storage, and buildings, so we have a secure location to hold items, and equipment. Land will be cleared likely in early 2018 as we work towards our official start date.

R: What can the public do to help?
N: We really need donations in the form of funds or material items. Either would be greatly appreciated. We will be able to provide gift receipts as well shortly. Funding will come from only a few sources… and the public is half of that. We appeal to anyone, if you can, donate, or buy items in our gift shop, that will hopefully have a store front in 2018. We do have a couple of fundraisers that will be planned for 2018, and we hope these will bring in a lot of revenue. Any support is welcome. We are seeking sponsors, and partners who would like to have the station back up and running, saving part of our railway heritage.

R: How does the Bear Train fit into the picture for this project?
N: Once the Bear Train begins its run, we anticipate people utilizing Searchmont Station to catch the train heading north. The ability of the Bear Train, operated by the Missanabie Cree First Nation, to have special runs of the train, such as the snow train or theatre events, will help bring people to Searchmont, in addition to helping them access their property and land. With renewed train service, it will open up more doors to not only the station, but the town, and the ski hill as well. I really think it will help to boost historical and event tourism in the North and for the Searchmont region as well.

R: What are some of the potential events and fundraising opportunities you have looked into?
N: We hope to have some events in 2018, like a fundraiser dinner, as well as a few other events that are currently in the early planning stages. Once the station is up and running, the station will feature seasonal lodgings, rental of not only the circular waiting room, but the outside for events like picture taking, weddings, etc. There is even the possibility of movie productions. The station will offer a learning centre to house some of the history of the area, as well as its relation to the railway.

R: Anything else you’d like to share?
N: We need everyone’s help. Railways are what opened Canada, to one and all, which is all the more reason to save what we have left and keep it for future generations. Learn about stations, railway history, and how much of an impact railways have always had. The station will be rebuilt, back to how it was in 1902, to preserve that element of our history. Better to save and help now before its gone. Once it is gone, its gone forever.

Financial donations can be done in person at our temporary location, and at our storefront in 2018 – amounts over $25.00 will be provided a receipt for tax purposes.
For material donations, please email us @ info@searchmontstation.com

Please visit us on Facebook or at our website for more information on how you can help.

You can also check out our Gift Shop.


Above is a rebuild concept done by Ellis David Designs.

Keewatin Railway: A Successful Case of First Nations’ in Rail Business


Photo credit from Keewatin Rail Company

Last month, I shared with all of you the story behind Canada’s 1st First Nation run train, Tshiuetin Rail. This week, the narrative of Indigenous rail development continues with Keewatin Railway Company (KRC), the second First Nations owned and operated train in our country. In 2003, as a result of the mine closure near Leaf Rapids, Manitoba, Hudson Bay Railway Company (HBR), owned by Omnitrax, an American-based company, announced its intention to abandon this rail line (Keewatin Railway Company, 2017). And thus, a plan was hatched between Tataskweyak Cree First Nation, Mathias Colomb Indian Band, and War Lake First Nation to solve the problem, and ensure connectivity in Manitoba for remote communities (Keewatin Railway Company, 2017). They began to seek commitment from various levels of government, and were extremely successful in doing so. They received $4.9 million grant dollars from the government of Canada, and $1.25 million from the government of Manitoba (Government of Canada, 2006). The three First Nations contributed $500,000, as a combined total, and thus the purchase of the line was made possible. Additionally, the federal government gave KRC $3.2 million dollars in start-up fees and investments, which covered the purchase of locomotives, rail equipment, transitional services, office equipment, and infrastructure rehabilitation on the rail line (Government of Canada, 2006). Much of this funding came directly from the Regional and Remote Rail Serviced Contribution Program, administered by Transport Canada.

As a result, on March 31st, 2006, KRC completed the purchase of Sherridon rail line from HBR. Experienced rail personnel were hired to train First Nations members for physical labour, management positions, and jobs and careers in administration. This has opened up a slew of opportunities for these First Nations communities. KRC now operates two round-trips per week, crossing 400-kilometres of remote wilderness, fourteen stations, a nine-hour trip in total, between the Pas and Pukatawagan (VIA Rail, 2017). However, passenger service is only one piece to their puzzle. KRC has also developed a freight service along the short-line, as well as nation-wide rail maintenance service (Keewatin Rail Company, 2017). Their ability to have expanded the rail service beyond the capabilities of its original service created a sustainable rail business, which is highlighted by the fact that, despite having old and battered rail cars, KRC managed to shave off 5-hours of average run time since taking over (Keewatin Rail Company, 2017). They have also kept up, maintained, and improved safety standards. With a strong emphasis on arctic tourism, and providing accessible and affordable transportation for people who take the train every week to do grocery and supplies shopping, as well as attend business meetings and appointments in the city, there is a diverse and viable ridership that is continually growing.

This particular rail is extremely important to the Cree First Nations who run it, as it highlights their complex and longstanding history with the rail. As the train was a part of colonization, bringing white settlers and their industrialization, it has now come full circle with the First Nations becoming the owners of the rail. KRC stated that it was extremely difficult for them to get a line of credit. Much like Tshiuetin, they found it difficult to build their credibility as a result of stereotypes and prejudice against Indigenous people (Keewatin Rail Company, 2017). However, their success has provided both respective areas with a much needed service and further developed business and rail skills to set them up for future successes. KRC has given quotes on the damaged rail in Churchill, and Mathias Colomb First Nations is one of the parties interested in purchasing it. KRC has also offered us at Missanabie Cree mentorship and guidance in our mission to restore the Algoma Passenger train.

References

Government of Canada. (May 2006). Manitoba Railway Line Transferred to First Nations Company. Government of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/news/archive/2006/05/manitoba-railway-line-transferred-first-nations-company.html?=undefined&wbdisable=true

Keewatin Railway Company. (2017). Passenger, Freight, Maintenance. Retrieved from www.krcrail.ca

Via Rail. (2017). The Pas – Pukatawagan Train. Retrieved from http://www.viarail.ca/en/explore-our-destinations/trains/prairies-and-northern-manitoba/the-pas-pukatawagan/description