Tuesday Train #266

I acknowledge the land I live on is the traditional territory of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. I also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit.

Above is a land acknowledgement, this is the wording we use in my day job as a planner for our public meetings in the City of Toronto, I also live in the City, so the wording I believe is appropriate to acknowledge the land I live on and post from.

This Thursday, September 30th, 2021 is the first “National Day for Truth and Reconciliation“, a new federal statutory holiday intended to honour the lost children and Survivors of residential schools, as a part of our collective acknowledgement of centuries of wrongs committed against the Indigenous Peoples of these lands since colonization by European people. Sadly, not all provinces have decided to make it a holiday in 2021, so across the country it will be a patchwork of people getting the day and acknowledging. I know my employer has encouraged us to take time to reflect, and participate in events being organized surrounding reconciliation, but we are not closing.

What does this have to do with trains? Well, the Railways are just one of many things which has been used for good and bad in relationships with Indigenous peoples. When the railways were built, whole communities were displaced; traditional ways of life and hunting grounds were disrupted; and, the railways were used to take children away to Residential Schools, some never to return. Others would use the railway in an attempt to return home dying along the way (see the well known story of Chanie Wenjack, who died at 12 years old trying to follow the tracks home from a Residential School).

The famous graffiti on the Garden River First Nation outside of Sault Ste Marie making a point about whose land the Canadian Pacific Railway passed through.

So, to bring it back to railways, I’ve been thinking of this for a while, and we were recently in Northern Ontario for a week, somewhere that the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples are much more obvious than in Toronto where I live. The bridge above is outside of Sault Ste Marie over the Garden River in the Garden River Indian Reserve No.14. The Graffiti on the bridge is a visual reminder of the relationship I am talking about, the Railways bisect lands on reservations and on traditional lands without regard for the relationship when the railways were built. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when the railways were built, the “Indians” were a nuisance to be moved out of the way, not a partner and not a group to be worked with.

Good bridges build strong bonds, another railway bridge with a history of both linking and splitting a community is the James Street Swing Bridge in Thunder Bay. This bridge carries both rail and vehicle traffic from Thunder Bay (Fort William) and the Fort William First Nation. In 1906, the Grand Trunk (predecessor of Canadian National) entered into an agreement to maintain the bridge in perpetuity for traffic. After a fire in 2013, the railroad blocked the bridge to all vehicle traffic, effectively cutting off the Fort William First Nation from the direct route to Thunder Bay, and vice versa. This is the very epitome of a bridge being used to be bad neighbours. After a several year long legal fight, the railway was required to make the necessary repairs, and the bridge reopened in late 2019, once again providing a more direct link between the communities.

A bridge which for a long time made bad neighbours between the railway and the Thunder Bay First Nation, and a CN Locomotive showing their “Aboriginal Affairs” logo.

Its somewhat ironic to me that 2013 is also when CN started its Aboriginal Affairs program to try and improve relations between the Railway and the Indigenous communities it passes through. Since then hopefully they have made real steps to build bridges, instead of closing them.

One of my friends from our time volunteering at the Toronto Railway Museum is currently working on his Ph.D studies in History, specifically researching the impacts of the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario (now Ontario Northland Railways) on the indigenous communities of Northern Ontario. He wrote a piece last year on the blockades that occurred in support of the Wet’suwet’en anti-pipeline on their lands protests. The trains on these lines are still a bridge between communities, a land bridge, as the train is the only reliable year round connection on land between Moosonee/Moose Factory on the shores of James Bay, and the south. It serves numerous isolated communities along the way, and brings in supplies that then travel even further north on the winter ice roads to places like Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat that have no year round road or rail connection.

The Ontario Northland “Polar Bear” arriving into Cochrane from Moosonee on September 16, 2021.

What can we do? We can acknowledge the past wrongs, we can ask our elected representatives to follow through on the promises they make, and we can pause to remember those whose lives and cultures were taken from them this Thursday, and every September 30th. It may not be much, but it is something we can all do to try and rebuild the relationship between communities and build better bridges.

Edit – Sept 30/2021: On September 30th, the Canadian Pacific Railway has unveiled a locomotive repainted Orange and a partnership with the Orange Shirt Society. The CPR has a complicated history with Indigenous issues, hopefully this is a stepping stone for them in taking steps forward in addressing the past and making Reconciliation a reality

5 thoughts on “Tuesday Train #266

  1. Thank you, Stephen, for writing this. The railways were indeed a part of displacing aboriginal people in Canada and continue to affect them in ways both good and bad – probably mostly bad.

    I’m thinking about the blockades of 2020 and the frankly quite racist comments that some railfans made about the blockades. Many spoke out against those comments, rightly so, and we need to continue to do so. Aboriginal people have legitimate issues and we need to talk about them and help solve them.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion.

    • Thanks all for the comments. I won’t lie, I was “nervous” about posting this, not because I don’t have strength of conviction in what I am saying and it being fair, but because of the very kinds of reactions to the blockades you mention Steve. We won’t ever get better and improve our relationships if we don’t step back and try to look fairly at the situations created in our world and try to find ways to better ourselves.


    • I agree with you both. I feel like I can divide my life as a railfan into periods before and after those blockades and not because of the blockades themselves but how easily so many people made fundamentally wrong, absolutely racist, terrible comments, memes, and like comments. I remember posts in forums where the post was scary enough and how it felt to have that feeling amplified when group administrators just left those posts there. The same admin’s that would remove a post for showing a train in the wrong province left in place this horrific language and, in doing so, only served to validate and endorse it.

      I’ll say it again: how proud I am of you for this post Stephen. It’s compassionate and open. Rereading it again I’m proud that we’re friends and of your expression here. It feels so good to have this as example of the good in our community. It takes real courage to say what you’ve said and search for words to describe our want to be a part of something more productive, something that we can look back on and be proud of.


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