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.

A Festive Journey: Canadian Pacific Holiday Train Stops in Dubreuilville

Photo credit from CP Rail.

Join representatives from the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT) and Missanabie Cree First Nation (MCFN) on November 30th at 6:30pm at Mile 77.98 Park Road, Dubreuilville CP rail stop for a festive holiday celebration organized by CP and the Municipality of Dubreuilville. The CP Holiday Train program spreads holiday cheer across Canada and the U.S.A, inviting attendees to give non-perishable goods or monetary donations to help ease the stress on those who are less fortunate in our communities around the holiday season. There is no fee to attend the event, and there is live music by Colin James and Emma-Lea, with hot beverages provided by Dubreuilville businesses. Pat Dubreuil, owner of the Magpie Relay Resort, is offering those attending the event a discounted room rate. For the discount, call to book at 705-626-0666 and mention that you will be at the holiday train event. More information on this event and the full schedule can be found at the CP website.

The Holiday Train stop happens yearly at the connection in Dubreuilville Franz area between CP Rail and CN Rail, highlighting possible future tourism and events that could happen at Franz as well as in the surrounding area, which would further boost the regional economy. Additionally, since Franz is within the traditional territory of MCFN, who have taken on leadership in the initiative to restore passenger rail service on the CN line from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst, this opens up a number of possibilities for future Indigenous and cross-cultural teaching and tourism. Representatives from CAPT and we from MCFN are taking this opportunity to support rail in our region as well as engaging and communicating with important municipalities along the rail line, Wawa and Dubreuilville, who are valued supporters of the project to reinstate the Algoma Passenger Train as the Bear Train (Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban). We encourage all of our rail supporters to try and make it out to this event, as it is for a great cause, and all donated proceeds stay local.

This CP Holiday Train and food drive program began in 1999, and every year, it visits a span of 171 communities. The program accepts both cash and food donations. CP Rail provides a much needed service for Northern Ontario, primarily for employment purposes between White River and Chapleau, and we can only hope that the Bear Train is once able to offer the same opportunities!

If you have any questions about joining us, or want to see how you can help to renew, restore, and improve rail service in Ontario please visit www.captrains.ca or contact Howie Wilcox at 705-942-9990 wwilcox@shaw.ca, Dorothy Macnaughton 705-759-0733 rmacnaug@bell.net or Linda Savory-Gordon at 705-943-0971 at Linda.Savory-Gordon@algomau.ca. If you have questions specifically regarding the Missanabie Cree’s initiative to run the Bear Train on the CN line from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst, please contact Riley Smith at 705-257-8782 or Riley@BearTrain.ca.

For more background information on CP rail’s Holiday train, check out Rails Western, where you can also find a short documentary.

To check out the accommodations at the Magpie Resort online, click here.

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.