Rail Travel and Tourism Opportunities in the North

From Sault Ste. Marie-Bawating, a historical landmark for Anishnabe (Ojibwa) and Missanabie (Cree) First Nations, French voyageurs, and English settlers alike, to Hearst, with deep-routed Francophone and First Nations’ roots, and every stop in between, Northern Ontario has a number of wilderness landscapes and cultural wonders to explore, made all the more accessible by train (Algoma Country, 2017). Whether you are looking for an exhilarating adventure, a little art history, or just to relax on the Northern Ontario shores – renewed rail service from the Sault to Hearst under Missanabie Cree First Nation leadership can satisfy the needs of all travel desires.

If you are passionate about the environment and protecting fragile ecosystems, train travel is the most environmentally responsible option for pursuing travel and tourism opportunities. With lower C02 emissions than air, car, and bus travel, as well as the preservation of natural reserves – as there is no need to further develop road networks with train use – rail service is a much greener option that driving in a car (UIC & CER, 2015, p. 45). Although trains do emit pollutants, the equivalent number of cars that it would take to transport the same number of people would increase that number by four times, as displayed below;

(Chart found at Blue&Green Tomorrow)

– And in fact, recent data is suggesting that cars may have a worse environmental impact than planes do! For more information on that, check out this article.

But in addition to getting to and from your destination in the greenest manner possible, tour operators along the rail corridor also offer a number of eco-friendly tourism opportunities, including canoeing, kayaking, ice-climbing, and paddling (CAPT, 2017). There are also activities you can pursue on your own, such as hiking, bird-watching, photography, and tenting. Eco-tourism and travel is a great way to immerse yourself in nature while also respecting the beautiful natural environment around you.

Adrenaline junkies, outdoorspeople, those who live and breathe the outdoors – yeah, this one is for you. Trekking, hiking, fishing, canoeing, and paddling are just scratching the surface of the adventurous opportunities that the North has to offer (Tourism Sault Ste. Marie, 2017). Winter opportunists, don’t fret. There’s always snow in the North to fulfill your snowmobiling, ice climbing, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing desires! Along the rail corridor, we have a number of tour operators who are eager to help you embark on your next bold undertaking – or even take part in it with you!

(Photo credit from Algoma Country)

As one of the oldest settlements in North America, Sault Ste. Marie-Bawating has a lot to offer our history, art, and culture buffs. Visiting the rapids on Whitefish Island will teach you all about how the Anishinabe (Ojibwa) who lived by the river based their livelihood off of fish and trade for thousands of years before colonization (Tourism Sault Ste. Marie, 2017). From there, Mask-Wa Oo-Ta-Ban will give you the opportunity to hop aboard and take a walk in the Group of Seven’s footsteps, exploring the diverse landscapes where they lived and painted (CAPT, 2017). Immerse yourself in the rich cultures and history of a Cree First Nation by checking out the Constance Lake First Nation Annual Pow Wow near Hearst (CLFN, 2010). Regardless of what your interest in Northern Ontario culture is, Mask-Wa Oo-Ta-Ban, the Bear Train, will not leave you short on options for learning a little (or a lot!) about what has shaped the peoples of this land, while also getting your creative juices flowing in the process.

(Photo credit from Algoma Country)

So folks, there you have it, all the ways that passenger train service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst can boost tourism in Northern Ontario. For more information, email riley@beartrain.ca, or visit our Facebook page here!

Algoma Country and the Algoma Kinniwabi Travel Association. (2017). Hearst. Retrieved from https://www.algomacountry.com/cities-towns/hearst/

Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT). (2017). Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains: Protecting and Enhancing Algoma’s Passenger Rail. Retrieved from captrains.ca

Constance Lake First Nation (CLFN). (2010). Constance Lake First Nation. Retrieved from www.clfn.on.ca

Tourism Sault Ste. Marie. (2017). The Sault. Retrieved from http://www.saulttourism.com/the-sault/

UIC, The International Railway Association & CER, The Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies. (September, 2015). Rail Transport and Environment: Facts and Figures. 45. Retrieved from http://www.cer.be/sites/default/files/publication/Facts%20and%20figures%202014.pdf

Top 5 Benefits of Renewed Rail Service to the Algoma Economy

(Photo credit: Algoma Country – Check them out here!)

There is no question that rail service promotes and fosters economic development along rail corridors. Up in the North, cultural and economic integration is essential to creating a stronger and more viable regional community. Here are some of the key ways that renewed rail service would benefit our Northern communities and their economies;

1) Supporting First Nations development
The train has provided First Nation peoples access to their remote communities, traditional territories, hunting and trapping grounds, and other culturally significant areas. Renewed service would restore that access, as well as create partnerships between Missaanabie Cree First Nation and other stakeholders along the rail line for ecotourism, forest management, and other resource based undertakings and businesses, thus providing a number of job opportunities (CAPT, 2017). Providing access to the Missanabie Cree traditional territories will help community members to access regional healthcare and education at an affordable cost and develop Indigenous tourism products and destinations. The Bear Train is an economic development initiative that could be a step towards reconciliation that respects First Nation people. This would create a new relationship between First Nations and rail which aims to be the opposite of the colonizing way in which the rail was first built on stolen lands taken with no treaties or agreements between the government and First Nations peoples (Doxtater, 2016).

2) Fuel for local businesses
The economic benefits are huge for local businesses throughout all communities along the rail corridor. To put it simply, having passenger rail to access businesses, properties, and recreational activities in the North (via rail) means more money will be spent and kept locally. The more money is kept local, the greater benefit it has on the economy. Rail-in tourism is one of the most lucrative types of tourism.

Here is an example:

Do you see what happened here? This is called induced impact. The successive use of the train results in spending that trickles down into the economy, which increases employment, income, and the availability of goods and services (BDO Canada, 2014, p. 25). And the best part? It all stays local; within Northern Ontario, supporting initiatives and businesses that are close to home. According to a 2017 report by BDO, economic impact from these types of transactions will range from $38-$48 million going back into the economy upon renewal of train services (2014, p. 26).

3) Job Development
In addition to supporting local businesses and tourism projects, including First Nations development and sustainability, resuming train service will indirectly create two types of employment opportunities, as assessed by BDO Canada;

• Renew traditional jobs that were lost with the cancellation of the train (Approximately 220 direct and indirect jobs)
• Create new jobs as new tourism opportunities and modern communication and events initiatives emerge (2014, p. 29).

These employment opportunities are not only train-related. As explained with induced impact, the influx of revenue and customers at hunting, fishing, and wilderness lodges, and in shops, restaurants, hotels, and adventure companies will create a demand for more employees in a diverse and growing sector. The creation of jobs will drastically relieve pressure off of the unemployment rate, which provincially is sitting at 8.1%, having inched up 1% from 2015. The Algoma region is a distressed area for employment and economic opportunity, particularly for Indigenous people, whose rates of employment are significantly and unjustly higher than the rest of the population (BDO Canada, 2014, p. 6).

4) Supporting tourism industry
Tourism is an essential part of Northern Ontario life, especially given the ACR used to provide access to the Canadian art history landscape where the Group of Seven painted many of their best-known works while living in boxcars and tourist along the ACR line (CAPT, 2017). Aside from that, the train provided a vital link to properties and communities along the rail line that are otherwise entirely or almost entirely inaccessible. These include fishing, hunting, and wilderness lodges. These businesses have suffered with the loss of rail service. Dean Anderson, manager of the Catalina Motel in Sault Ste. Marie since 1998, used to sell train tickets and rooms as part of a tourism package. He ended up with a huge influx of people coming through to ride the train and pursue all-season, including winter recreational activities through the Catalina Motel and the ACR’s partnership (D. Anderson, personal communication, May 18, 2017). He stated that his business is down between $30,000 and $35,000 the last two seasons from December to March compared to when the passenger train ran. He also stated that, if you include the years when the Snow Train was operating, this number approaches an alarming $40,000 (personal communication, May 18, 2017). Cancelling the rail meant immediate detriment to tour operators, who struggled to meet payroll, recover investments, maintain customer relations, and continue to struggle to sustain their livelihood and operations on a regular basis.
Saving the rail will support local touristic opportunities, for people and businesses that we have come to know and love over the years. It also has the extraordinary capability to highlight the Algoma region’s importance in the shaping of Canada as a nation – primarily with its spotlight as being one of three nodes for Group of Seven tourism in Ontario, in addition to Toronto and Ottawa.

5) Building the events industry
In recent years, we have seen the events industry evolve dramatically, demanding engaging and innovative ways to interact with guests. People love to feel an emotional connection, a sense of unity, and a demonstration of ethical values at events and in adventures that they embark on. With a history as rich as Northern Ontario’s, and unique Francophone and First Nations cultures, the rail corridor is a hotspot for all things natural and beautiful in Canada. For example, the Group of Seven/Glenn Gould events organized by the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT) sold out every year from 2008 – 2014, when the train services were cancelled. This events-based industry connects business across Northern Ontario, and is estimated to bring in $17,667 per two-day event (BDO Canada, 2014, p. 27). Not to mention, along the Algoma rail corridor it brought in visitors from across Ontario, other provinces as far as British Columbia, and even US states including Michigan and Wisconsin (CAPT, 2017). Ultimately, building on the events industry through the use of rail is an innovative way to draw in adventurists and recreationalists who have a passion for art, history and the Northern wilderness – all of which invests money back into the Northern economy and will keep our businesses thriving.

So, what does all this mean? It means that the resumption of the passenger train under Missanabie Cree leadership will create opportunities and build development in the North for the North. While these impacts are largely economic, they ultimately impact cultural and historical awareness and education, while also constructing positive relationships from city-to-city, business-to-business, and stakeholder-to-stakeholder. For more information on how you can help us with this initiative, e-mail riley@beartrain.ca or visit us on Facebook


BDO Canada LLP. (August, 2014). Algoma Centra Railway Passenger Rail Service: Economic Impact Assessment. Sault Ste. Marie, On. 6, 25-29.

Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT). (2017). Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains: Protecting and Enhancing Algoma’s Passenger Rail. Retrieved from captrains.ca

Doxtater, L. (January 2016). First Nations Relationship to Development of Rail: A Literature Review. Retrieved from the NORDIK Institute.