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.

Tshiuetin ‘North Wind’: The Success of the 1st First Nation Ran Train in Canada

Photo credit: Tshiuetin Rail

This week, I wanted to share the intriguing and successful story of Tshiuetin Rail Transportation. This was in fact the first First Nations ran train in our country, setting a great example of Indigenous entrepreneurship for initiatives like the Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban. ‘Tshiuetin’ means North Wind. To the First Nations groups who own it, the Innu Takuaikan Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, the Neskapi Nation of Kawawchikamach, and the Nation Innu Matimekush of Lac Jon, it signifies a fresh wind blowing, which is fitting, as this company has brought a breath of fresh air to the Indigenous community that has taken it on, as well as the surrounding areas (Tshiuetin Rail Transportation Inc., 2009). This particular train runs from Sept-Iles, Quebec, with a 20-minute stop at Emril Junction, Labrador, where the track splits, one track headed to Schefferville, Quebec, and the other going to Wabush, Labrador (Tshiuetin Rail Transportation Inc., 2009). The 10 to 12-hour journey, covering 217 kilometres of swamps, lakes, rivers, and hills, doesn’t pass through any other towns. It is a complete and total form of remote transportation (Wheeler, 2015).

The rail line was sold to the group of three First Nations in 2005, by the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC), for a mere $1.00 – “as is, where is” (DESC, CBC, Monnet, 2017). The rail was abandoned by the IOC because mining moved out of the area, and therefore the train lost much of its use and productivity, in the eyes of the corporate world. However, as many rail advocates know, the benefits of rail for a community can go far beyond simply the monetary value. The two round-trips per week, consisting of two locomotives, four freight cars, three passenger cars, and one dining car, provide community members, primarily the Innu, with access to visit families, healthcare, educational, and business institutions, as well as groceries, supplies, and clothing (DESC, CBC, Monnet, 2017). Many people make the trip on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to get their supplies. It is a very vital service for these people when you consider the fact that a round-trip is $115 for Indigenous people, and $175 for non-Indigenous people, versus the $1200 round-trip flight it would cost one individual to travel between the same locations (DESC, CBC, Monnet, 2017).

The Board of Directors for Tshiuetin have expressed that since the rail began operations, December 1st, 2005, there has been a significant decrease in social problems, a surplus in meaningful jobs and careers, and a sense of responsibility and ownership for the First Nations people (Wheeler, 2015). Since Tshiuetin has employed 40 people, 85% of which are First Nations, it has helped to preserve the cultural and linguistic heritage of those in Indigenous communities that surround the area, and promoted cross-cultural learning as well (Wheeler, 2015). One of the most important thing to the First Nations who own and operate the rail is that they feel as though it has helped them to recover something that belongs to them; and ultimately took a step in the direction of reconciliation (Wheeler, 2015).

In terms of what comes next, the future looks continually bright for Tshiuetin and its stakeholders. By 2015, this company became one of the main employers in the transportation industry in Northern Quebec, which has helped to build enormous credibility, not just for the First Nations who own the rail, but for First Nations business endeavours as a whole (DESC, CBC, Monnet, 2017). More and more jobs and economic development is expected with access to mining jobs and the recent securement of Tshiuetin to transport iron ore, which has helped to expand their business and vision for their company (Wheeler, 2015).

References

Tshiuetin Rail Transportation Inc. (2009). Tshiuetin Rail Transportation. Retrieved from www.tshiuetin.net

Wheeler, M. (February 2015). Schefferville train a vital link to life in Quebec’s north. CBC News. Retrieved from www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/schefferville-train-a-vital-linik-to-life-in-quebec-s-north-1.2956267

DESC Images, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (Producers) & Monnet, C., (Director). (January 017). Tshiuetin: A First Nations-Owned Railway. Canada: CBC News Shot Docs. Retrieved from www.cbc.ca/shortdocs/shorts/tshiuetin

A Timeline of Struggle and Abandonment in Churchill, Manitoba


Photo credit from CBC News

The town of Churchill, Manitoba, is Canada’s only Arctic seaport, and is strategically located on the coast of Hudson Bay, where Canadian National Railway operated what became known as the Hudson Bay Railway. Since 1926, the Port of Churchill has played a critical role in the development of Canada’s North, focusing primarily on the export of grain. In 1996-97, American-based company, Omnitrax, acquired over 1,000 kilometres of CN railway in Manitoba, including the line to Churchill. The port of Churchill supported Canada’s claim to sovereignty in the North, as It is a venture that has continually captured new business in the North from international customers and investors (Port of Churchill, 2012).

However, things took a turn when the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) was dismantled in 2012 by the Conservative government under Stephen Harper’s leadership, in order to ‘promote a free market’ with the privatization of the organization (Macdonald, 2014). CWB monopolized the purchase of wheat and barley, acting as a marketing agency on behalf of Western Canadian farmers, and thus transferring profits back to the farmers. As explained by Jake MacDonald (2014)

“The CWB’s mandate was to pay farmers a base price for their grain, identify markets, negotiate the best price, deliver the goods, issue advance cheques and make final payment after the crop was sold. If the wheat market went up, farmers pocketed the profits. If the market went down, the government absorbed the loss. Nothing was subtracted from the farmer’s share except the cost of marketing and delivery.”

The government approved the purchase of CWB by Global Grain Group, a joint venture between Bunge Canada and SALIC Canada (a subsidiary of the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Company) for $250 million, with the remaining equity of CWB being held by its member farmers (Macdonald, 2014). This resulted in a huge loss in premiums, and buyers of wheat having to cover unexpected costs (such as storage time, interest expense, exchange rates) which the CWB had always covered before, and thus companies used their own portside facilities in other cities, depleting the grain exports out of Churchill. As such, the Port of Churchill was closed and what was left behind was a ghost town. It had huge implication across Western Canada, causing farmers across the prairie region to suffer (H. Gow, personal communication, October 2nd 2017).

In 2013, it was announced by the Federal-Provincial Task Force on the Future of Churchill that since 1997, Ottawa and Manitoba have spent or committed $197 million “to benefit, directly or indirectly, both the privately owned port and rail line leading to it, and the community of Churchill” (Hutchinson, 2016).

Despite this, in 2014, Omnitrax abandoned the plan to haul oil to the port by rail, and in 2015, negotiated, but failed to finalize, a sale of the railway and port to a consortium of Manitoba First Nations (Hutchinson, 2016). Manitoba invested another $800,000 for capital improvements, but in July of 2016, Omnitrax announced a suspension of the summer shipping season, and also entered into a court dispute with the province over outstanding payments (Kavanagh, 2017.

From 2016 until the flooding this past Spring, Omnitrax, in conjunction with Via Rail, were operating a limited passenger service to get people and their groceries/basic resources in and out of Churchill (H. Gow, personal communication, October 2nd 2017). However, with the washouts that occurred this past year, rail cars cannot bring in supplies or transport people in and out of Churchill. This has harmed the tourist economy, and caused the price of scarce goods to skyrocket, as supplies now need to be flown in, which has almost tripled the cost (H. gow, personal communication, October 2nd 2017).. Omnitrax has stated that they need $60 million dollars for repairs, and that they need government assistance to cover these costs (Rabson, 2017). The Canadian government has argued that it is Omnitrax’s responsibility to repair the tracks and restore rail service. The differentiating views have resulted in what is essentially a standoff between the Canadian government and the American company, Omnitrax (Rabson, 2017). The federal government has said they will step in, but this has yet to happen.

As of June 2017, a $20 million-dollar deal to finance the sale of the rail through a loan, was made between Omnitrax and Missinippi Rail LP, a group of different Manitoba First Nations communities, including Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, one of three owners of Keewatin Railway (Kavanagh, 2017). There is speculation that the federal government has pulled their support from this deal, and there is question as to whether or not the province of Manitoba will support the deal as well (Kavanagh, 2017). However, the feds have stated their commitment to help with interim funding to fix the line, and to help facilitate the sale.

In the meantime, over 20 sections are washed out on the 820-kilometre rail link from Churchill to The Pas (H. Gow, personal communication, Octovbr 2nd 2017). An entire community, a community that was once Canada’s only Arctic sea port, has been reduced to a ghost town, with people moving away for lack of jobs, resources, and soaring costs.

We will continue to update you on the Churchill situation as the story continues to unfold, but I want to leave you with a little perspective. There are lessons to be taken from the struggles faced by our friends in Churchill. Lesson one is clear as day; Indigenous bands are capable of running a rail and making viable economic decisions when it comes to transportation. Two examples are Tshieutin Rail in Quebec and Keewatin Rail in Manitoba, both of which have provided an essential service to the communities surrounding them while also providing economic development and job opportunities for their band members. Ultimately, these are two perfectly good operations, and there is no reason to think that the Missanabie Cree cannot do it with Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban, nor is there reason to think that Missinipi Rail cannot accomplish it in Churchill.

The second comfort we can find from Churchill’s struggle is that the people of Algoma – of CAPT, of NEORN – are not alone in advocating for rail. We must stand in solidarity of support the development of rail infrastructure across Canada.

For additional information on this matter, check out Transport Action Canada, who were very helpful in providing resources for the writing of this article.

References

Hutchinson, B. (August 2016). Port in a Storm. National Post. Retrieved from http://nationalpost.com/features/port-in-a-storm-people-in-churchill-believed-only-weather-could-defeat-them-they-were-wrong

Kavanagh, S. (September 2017). Competing groups join forces to buy rail line and Port of Churchill. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/churchill-omnitrax-rail-dumas-spence-ottawa-manitoba-port-1.4275738

Macdonald, J. (November 2014). Why so many farmers miss the Wheat Board. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-magazine/why-so-many-farmers-miss-the-wheat-board/article21810531/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&

Port of Churchill. (August 2012). Port of Churchill. Hudson Bay Port Company. Retrieved from www.portofchurchill.ca

Rabson, M. (September 2017). Omnitrax told: Fix Churchill rail line now or sell it. CTV News. Retrieved from http://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/omnitrax-told-fix-churchill-rail-line-now-or-sell-it-1.3581551