(Photo credit from CAPT).
Many people talk about all the amazing summer activities that we have the option to do in Northern Ontario, especially on Lake Superior and surrounding area. But what about all the winter adventure opportunities that are privy to us? Laying right outside our frosted doorsteps? Here are some of the exciting winter experiences that the Bear Train would help you to access to really get a taste of a Northern winter… which, for many living in the North, is also part of the regional culture!
Aurora Borealis – AKA, The Northern Lights
First, I want to start with what I think is the most amazing thing about calling Northern Ontario home. I mean really, can you believe that we are blessed enough to live in a region where we have the ability to view the northern Lights when they are active? We are actually in a dark and remote enough area that you can see the lights right from within Sault Ste. Marie! But a much better viewing would be possible from somewhere further north, like Hawk-Junction or Wawa. So, bundle up and check it out! Remember – the more secluded the area, the more colourful hues of blue, green, and purple the display will be! While the phenomenon is never guaranteed to be spotted – no matter how much planning you do – this guide by the Huffington Post will help you to determine how to increase your odds of catching the Northern Lights this year.
Trout, Walleye, Pike, Perch, Steelheads… Oh My! – Ice Fishing
Some people take fishing VERY seriously. Others see it as a fun hobby. But no matter how you perceive ice fishing – if you are heading out on the frozen lake for a relaxing day spent with family and friends, or a competitive fishing derby (a full list of 2018 derbies, compiled by Tourism Northern Ontario, can be found here), or even to have some much needed ‘me time,’ Northern Ontario’s lakes are where it’s at! We have the thick ice to accommodate ice fishing activities safely, and the surreal natural landscapes to make the view, and whole experience, that much more worthwhile.
Into the Wild – Snowmobiling
People come from near and far to snowmobile the rugged Canadian shield, shredding up powdery snow in pristine forests across Northern Ontario. Whether you are a newbie looking to get some experience, or a seasoned winter snowmobiling adventurer, there are endless landscapes to discover – and rediscover – in the Algoma Region. No matter where your preferred starting point is, be it Hearst, Dubreuilville, Wawa, Searchmont, Sault Ste. Marie, Hawk-Junction, somewhere in between, or even deeper into the Northern region, there are remote but very well groomed trails for you to explore. The municipalities in the north truly pride themselves on sledding trails, and they are sure not to disappoint.
Shredding Powder – Skiing and Snowboarding
No matter if your interest lies with downhill snowboarding or skiing (you’ve got to love that adrenaline rush) or in coasting across sublime landscapes, Algoma region has all kinds of you are crazy for downhill ski/snowboarding or more into coasting across landscapes, Algoma region has no shortage of frosty options! Searchmont Ski Resort isn’t too far from Sault Ste. Marie or Wawa, and is in a stunning location to really take in all of the natural Northern beauty. Cross country skiing is accessible from a slew of different locations – depending on how far you are willing to venture out of your comfort zone – so get out there and check out what the North has to offer!
Icy Expeditions – Ice Climbing
Did you know that you can even do an extreme sport like ice climbing in the Algoma region? That’s right! Expert guides at Superior Exploration can help you plan it, if you want to indulge in this adrenaline fuelling adventure! It may sound intimidating, but Superior Explorations offers all kinds of training courses and guided tours for all skill sets. Try something new this year! The most exciting part about it is that it is so dependent on the weather that every year, the options for ice climbing and the nature of the various climbs change, making it all the more mysterious and exhilarating. This really is the ultimate way to experience a Northern Ontario winter.
Also, keep in mind that there are a number of lodges and tourist outfitters who are open all year-round, who offer a warm place to stay, guided tours, access to materials and equipment, restaurants, and stores, depending on where you choose to stay. You can check out this list compiled by Algoma Country to pick the perfect place for your winter getaway.
Above is a map, compiled by CAPT which highlights the key known trails for various activities. Snowflakes indicate prime snowmobiling points, ski poles are the ski hubs, and the blue arrows indicate ice climbing locations. The ice climbing locations in particular can vary from year to year.
While many of these activities are still doable with the train, passenger service from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst would make it much easier to reach the most remote wilderness locations, especially with its capabilities to carry sleds and other hiking/fishing equipment. While we encourage you to get out into the great white North and explore what our amazing region has to offer in terms of natural beauty and eco-tourism, don’t forget to support the Bear Train, which would help tourist outfitters and lodges along the line in terms of access and packages, while also driving international visitors to our region, and so that we can help you enhance your Northern winter adventure! For more information, please visit our Facebook page.
All references are hyperlinked throughout this document. Please click to explore these amazing options in more depth.
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.
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.
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
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).
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
(Photo from ATTN News)
While November 11th is an integral day for our nation to take the time to remember the sacrifices made by so many brave men and women fighting for peace and prosperity, November 8th is important to our Indigenous counterparts, who take this day to specifically remember those Indigenous people who sacrificed their livelihood, their culture, and, for many, their lives, in order to serve Canada. It is important to acknowledge those Indigenous veterans who returned home and “fell through the cracks,” primarily in the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean War (Berthiaume, November 2016). In other words, they were shuffled from department to department, with bureaucracies in disagreement over who should be taking initiative to support and provide benefits to Indigenous veterans. Many faced crises in identity – both emotionally and officially on paper – as they missed out on elements of their culture, and therefore would lose out on the housing, educational, and other band provisions (Berthiaume, November 2016). However, the Canadian government was reluctant to give to them what they gave to non-Indigenous veterans, leaving them largely unsupported. With nowhere to turn, having been abandoned by their bands and by the Canadian government, many ended up homeless, hungry, or addicted to various substances. In 2000, the federal government offered an official apology and offered a compensation of $20,000 per veteran (Government of Canada, March 2017).
In addition to acknowledging these issues in the spirit of reconciliation, it is also a time to remember those who did not come back from the war at all. It is estimated that, between the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean War, more than 12,000 Indigenous people joined the Canadian military. More than 500 were killed, and countless more were injured (Government of Canada, March 2017). The Veterans Affairs Department has stated that more Indigenous people served overseas in those global conflicts than any other ethnic group in Canada, as a percentage of their total population (Government of Canada, March 2017).
Indigenous soldiers were most valued for the skills they brought to the military, such as patience, bravery, stealth, and marksmanship, traits that were well-taught and passed down for thousands of years from hunting lifestyles (Government of Canada, March 2017). The First World War saw a number of Indigenous veterans become elite snipers, and the Second World War, with more modern technology, saw Indigenous soldiers serving as brave airmen and code talkers. Code talkers are an interesting concept because of the way they utilized the traditional language to contribute to the war effort. For example, Cree soldiers would interact on the radio, and then translate to the intended recipients on each end so that the enemy could not intercept the messages, thus keeping all operations as secretive as possible (Government of Canada, 2017).
Another often overlooked wartime effort that Indigenous people contributed to was on the home front. They donated money, food, and clothing, as many Canadians did, but they also graciously granted the use of portions of their reserve land to allow for the construction of new airports, rifle ranges, and fence installations, primarily in Ontario, Manitoba, and British Colombia (Government of Canada, March 2017). These are huge sacrifices that should not be overlooked when studying our history as a Canadian nation.
This spirit of resilience has outlasted the years, as there are currently more than 2,500 Indigenous people serving in the Canadian military (Government of Canada, March 2017).
Every year on November 8th, in various parts of the country, commemorations and ceremonies occur to honour specifically those Indigenous people who have served. While it is not yet an official day recognized by the government, it has been growing in size and scope since the first ceremony was inaugurated by Winnipeg’s city council in 1994 (Government of Canada, March 2017). Below is a photo of the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument, located in Ottawa, which was unveiled on National Aboriginal Day in 2001.
(Photo from Government of Canada)
The artwork was done by Lloyd Pinay, and the monument was funded by the National Aboriginal Veterans Association and generous donations from Canadian citizens (Government of Canada, August 2017). This monument is significant in its symbolism because it features four men and women from different Indigenous groups across the nation, as well as a bronze eagle, a wolf, a bear, a bison, and a caribou, all of which are powerful animals that represent spiritual guides to many Indigenous cultures (Government of Canada, August 2017).
Berthiaume, L. (November, 2016). National Aboriginal Veterans Day remembers thousands of Indigenous who served. The Canadian Press. Retrieved from http://www.metronews.ca/news/canada/2016/11/08/growing-debate-around-remembrance-of-canada-s-aboriginal-veterans.html
Government of Canada. (March 2017). Indigenous Veterans. Veterans Affairs Canada. Retrieved from http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/historical-sheets/aboriginal-veterans
Government of Canada. (August 2017). National Aboriginal Veterans Monument. Veterans Affairs Canada. Retrieved from http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrace/memorials/national-inventory-canadian-memorials/details/7972#photo1
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.
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
(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.
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.