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.

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.

The Heartbreaking – and Uplifting – History of Passenger Rail in the North


(Photo credit from Lauren Doxtater's First Nations Relationship to Development of Rail

In 1914, just over 100 years ago, passenger train service was completed from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst for the very first time, after over twenty years of building. It became a staple mode of transportation for residents and tourists alike – who utilized the train for a plethora of reasons, including social visits to communities, cultural visits to First Nation traditional territories, to reach employment and education institutions, to access regional healthcare and trap-lines, and to view the spectacular landscapes of the boreal forest and scenery that inspired work done by the Group of Seven artists, as well as Indigenous artists for 1000s of years before them (BDO, 2014, p. 10-11).

In the early 1900s, regional tourism was being heavily promoted in the Algoma region, primarily as a result of the influx of European settlers. Fishing, hunting, and camping became daringly attractive, and train was the only way to gain passage to the remote locations where this was possible. This created a huge boom in the northern economy, and the development of many small communities along the rail corridor, many of which still exist today – and are just as remote and beautiful as they were 100 years ago. This boom continued well into the latter half of the century, especially with the tourist stopover at the Agawa Canyon, and the subsequent development of the Snow Train (Malone, Given, Parson LTD., 6). In addition to those successful tours, the Algoma Central Railway also marketed a ‘Tour of the Line,’ which was a round-trip from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst, ‘Tracks to Trails,’ which was a snowmobile excursion experience, ‘Wilderness by Rail,’ which consisted of partnerships with adventure travel and tour operators, and accommodation in the “Camp Car” at the Agawa Canyon (Malone, Given, Parson LTD., p. 7).

While many people enjoyed the touristic elements of the train, for many remote communities north of Sault Ste. Marie, rail was the only means of getting in and out of town. This was the case in Wawa (until the Trans-Canada highway reached it in 1960), and residents relied entirely on rail service in order to access any regional needs (CAPT, 2013). Today, with no passenger rail service, these issues have again become concerning. Read more about that in our blog on accessibility, found here

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the construction of the rail lines within the Algoma region attracted a huge population of European settlers, who took over the territory that First Nations people had lived on for centuries (CAPT, 2013). The Canadian government capitalized on the glory years of the railway by passing laws that allowed them to expropriate reserve land without consent or consultation of the First Nations peoples, with no compensation, in order to build infrastructure (CAPT, 2013). Not only did this create strife between European settlers and First Nations people, but it also split up many reserves.

The influence that the train had on First Nations people, primarily the Missanabie Cree, cannot be emphasized enough. Not only did they use the train to express and retain elements of their culture – such as to access trap lines and traditional hunting grounds – but there is a much darker side to the intricacies of the Algoma Passenger Train to the Missanabie Cree. Shirley Horn, member of the Missanabie Cree First Nation, recalls that as a child, she and many others would take the train from their home in Missanabie to the Shingwauk Residential School in Sault Ste. Marie (Doxtater, 2016). While this is a painful element of Canadian and First Nations’ history, it is an aspect of our collective history and past that we need to acknowledge through reconciliation (Doxtater, 2016). This, in some small way, can be achieved through government funding of Ontario’s 1st First Nation Train – Mask-wa Oo-Ta-Ban – so that the Missanabie Cree can self-govern this mode of passenger rail on their traditional territory, in a way they had never been privy to since the rail corridor land was stolen from them.

References

BDO Canda LLP. (August, 2014). Algoma Central Railway Passenger Rail Service: Economic Impact Statement. Sault Ste. Marie, On. 12-13.

Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT) and Paat, B. Ed. (2013). 100th Anniversary Guidebook. All Aboard Algoma: Over 100 Years of Passenger Service, Sault Ste. Marie Museum Exhibit.

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

Malone, Given, Parsons LTD. (September, 2007). Algoma Central Railway: Wilderness Tourism by Rail Opportunity Study. 6-7.

“If you know where you come from, you know where you are going”

Last week, I shared with you all my personal experience at the Gathering. This week, I wanted to share with you about one of the amazing lectures I attended in Missanabie. Missanabie Cree’s Community Development Coordinator, Gloria Harris’s, historical teaching of the Missanabie Cree was an amazing way for me to engage with the culture – while also satisfying the history buff that lives within! Learning about how the Missanabie Cree have struggled relentlessly in government negotiations to regain their traditional territory gave me a lot of perspective into the resilience and strength that they as a people have today.

Treaty No. 9 in 1906 skipped over Missanabie Cree First Nation, meaning that the government did not agree to negotiate with them, and in 1925, the Chapleau Game Preserve was created, spanning over two million acres across Missanabie Cree territory. Not only did this leave the First Nations without access to hunt and fish in order to sustain their lifestyle, but also without access to places that had been used for ceremonial purposes and to support the economic and cultural well-being of their people.

Additionally, not only did the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War cause worldwide devastation, but it also created a number of barriers for the Missanabie Cree, as well as other First Nations, in moving their land claims forward, as wars were being fought on more fronts than ever before, and the government was preoccupied with a number of international crises that halted negotiations. Between those difficult years of 1905 to 1945, the Missanabie Cree started to disperse because their land claim, as well as access to their traditional rights to hunt and fish on the Chapleau Game Preserve, were taking too long. They, and their families, needed access to employment, education, and healthcare institutions. This resulted in the community leaving their traditional territory and scattering across much of Canada and the U.S.A.

In 1951, Missanabie Cree was formally recognized as a band, but this did not mark the end of hardship for their people. From 1952 to 1990, residential schools continued to take Indigenous children away from their families, and there have been huge intergenerational impacts on the First Nations since then. Many are still being felt today. I learned that this is one of the reasons that sobriety is so greatly celebrated in First Nations communities, as alcohol has been one of the many impacts of colonization, and alcohol rehabilitation has been a huge catalyst for change in these communities.

Gloria then referenced Crazy Horse, an 18th century Native American soldier, who said,
“Upon suffering, beyond suffering; the Red Nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world. A world filled with broken promises, selfishness, and separations. A world longing for light again. I see a time of seven generations when all the colours of mankind will gather under the sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again.”

They say that Crazy Horse was a mystic, who could see into the future and knew all the ancient teachings. The long and tiresome upward battle that the Missanabie Cree, and many other First Nations, faced from 1992 on could be seen as “the Red Nation” truly rising again – out of the darkness of colonization.

1992 was the year that the first Chief and Council were elected, and they submitted their first Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE), and held their first Annual Gathering. In 1996, Ontario became a signatory in Treaty 9. In 1998, joint studies and legal reviews were conducted, led by Chief Shirley Horn, in order to explore and understand the full depth of what the Missanabie Cree as a people had lost. In 2006, under Chief Glenn Nolan, the Canadian government agreed to a land transfer of 15 square miles, and discussions continued for more land compensation based on the extent of loss under legal review. In 2008, Missanabie Cree turned down a $23 million dollar land settlement. Today, after years of Chief, Council, and the people as a whole passing the torch from generation to generation, the Missanabie Cree people, now under Chief Jason Gauthier, continue to fight for their land and economically develop Missanabie so that its people can return to their traditional territory again. As proudly expressed by Gloria in her teaching, a powerful group of children – the youngest generation of Missanabie Cree people – are rising, and they are educated and aware of their past and present. Gloria referred to them as the rainbow warriors, who will continue to lead their people into peaceful governance and community development in Missanabie.

As said by Craig Macfarlane, the motivational speaker that spoke with us at the Gathering, we need to think, what do we want our legacy to be? How are we going to face adversity? And I think the best answer to that question for the Missanabie community can be summed up by the phrase with which Gloria opened her lecture,

“if you know where you come from, you know where you are going.”

For more information on Gloria, Missanabie, and their traditional culture/teachings, click here

For more information on Craig Macfarlane, click here

An Intern’s Experience at the Gathering in Missanabie

August 12th to 17th, I had both the pleasure and honour of taking part in, and helping out with, the Annual Gathering at Missanabie. To say that I was nervous to go and take part in this cultural experience would be an understatement. But those nerves and doubts about leaving my comfort zone succumbed to my excitement to learn more about the culture of the people that I work with, and for, on a daily basis.

My drive up north allowed me to gain a greater appreciation for the number of small communities and areas that the Algoma passenger train used to serve, the communities that I myself am working tirelessly to help now, with the renewal of train service.

One of my tasks throughout the Gathering included serving the Firekeepers and the Sacred Fire. This gave me the opportunity to learn about a critical element of Cree culture, whereby the spirit realm and the human realm are connected through the Sacred Fire, giving us an intimate connection to those who have passed to the Spirit World. By feeding the fire, we are passing food along to those spirits so that the ancestors who have passed can share a meal with us. So every meal, I prepared one plate for the Firekeeper, who never left the fire’s side in order to ensure that it did not go out for the entire duration of the Gathering, and one plate for the fire, on a piece of birch bark, and sprinkled with tobacco. I would tell the fire my name, and say “Migwetch,” so it would know who has fed it and that we are thankful to bring the community in its entirety together again. As an outsider in many ways, this was a surreal experience for me to see tradition in practice – and even take part in it.

Throughout the first couple days of the Gathering, I got to see the Eagle Staff, which represents the various entities that make up the community. I learned that it is important for Eagle Staffs to spend quality time with other Eagle Staffs so that they can be nurtured; the same way that we nurture ourselves by socializing and engaging with other communities. In my opinion, the most beautiful thing about the Eagle Staff is the sanctity of the eagle itself. Since it flies the highest, it is believed that eagles can speak directly to the Creator, making it and its feathers highly revered.

There were some times when we had a little fun, too. Councillor Sean Pine took me on a little backroading tour of Missanabie so that I could really see the territory for myself, including the old Renabi Gold Mine site, which had driven many Missanabie people from the traditional territory as settlers came to work on the prosperous gold mine following the Second World War. Not only was it a blast to speed through the bush and see all of what nature had to offer, but it was also amazing to think, “wow, one day this will be a community with infrastructure.” The Missanabie Cree people really are making history, and nothing put it into greater perspective than actually seeing that for myself.

My favourite day of the Gathering by far was when I set up a booth with the other businesses and joint ventures that Missanabie has. It was an amazing way to meet the business community that works alongside the Missanabie Cree, while also getting to know the community itself a little better, too. I was so pleased with how open everyone was to hearing about the train initiative and what I have been working on specifically since May. I cannot thank the Missanabie community enough for being so accommodating and engaging with me about the train project. I hope you all realize how much it meant to me to attend and help out with the Gathering, and I encourage you all to stay in touch with the train initiative and continue to let me know what you think so we can work together to build upon this opportunity for the Missanabie Cree people!

Stay tuned for part two of this blog series, where I talk about some of the history and some more of the culture that I learned at the Gathering!