Cancelling the Ontario Northlander: Transit derailed and denied

"It is not a subsidy, it's an investment. Public transportation should not be seen as a subsidy but an investment for the betterment of society."

- Linda Savory Gordon, a member of the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains

Today, Friday, September 28, the whistle on the Ontario Northlander train will no longer sound as it travels a thousand kilometres through northeastern Ontario, wending its way from Toronto to Cochrane to Moosonee. Cancelling this rail passenger and freight service will end the interconnection to the Polar Bear Express in Cochrane, and further isolate the Cree community near James Bay. This part of the rail line was to be divested in spring 2013; Premier McGuinty has expedited its sale to silence its sizeable opposition, including the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains, the Mayor of Cochrane, the Cochrane Ratepayers' Association, the CAW, the NDP, and SunMedia. Ontera Telecommunications will also be sold off, widening the social divide in public transit and Internet and cell phone access for northeastern communities. In southern Ontario, between 2009-2011, GO transit was subsidized by $2.5 billion for commuters to travel to Toronto from the suburbs; in northeastern Ontario, the Ontario Northlander rail service will be cancelled, although it connects municipalities, and in comparison, costs $11 million to maintain per annum, and Ontario highways cost $650 million to maintain.

As New Democrat house leader Gilles Bisson said, "It's unfair for the Liberal government to subsidize public transit in southern Ontario while planning to privatize train service in the north."

I took the second leg of this rail corridor a month ago to visit Cochrane, the Cree Village Eco Lodge in Moose Factory, and continue to research my three-part series about the ONTC sell-off. As I hunkered down on the 60-year-old, barely refurbished GO train, I listened to Neil Young's "Helpless" in endless rotation as the timberline -- tamarack, black spruce, and paper birch -- reflected perfectly in dark streams, flashed by my window, hypnotizing me, a zoetrope of sight mirroring sound. The Polar Bear Express was filled with Cree families, international tourists, mine employees, medical personnel and teachers, dozing, listening to music, hanging out in the dining car, and photographing the scenery from the vintage dome car. A small band of train hobbyists listened to conductor's signals on their walkie-talkies, and tracked railway signs with telescopic cameras.

ONTC dome car. Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

I talked with everyone I could, passenger and rail employee, and watched the red brick and graystone rail stations mark small towns -- Temagami, Cobalt, Swastika, New Liskeard. And as I observed the passing scenery -- farmland, lakes, the Great Clay Belt, and Arctic watershed -- I fell in love with the original national dream of passenger rail reconnecting our country, and upgrading an integrated rail system rather than forcing travellers to take fuel-intensive, short-haul flights or cars. Canada has lost 10,000 km of tracks since 1990 (see the documentary by Dan Nystedt, Derailed: The National Dream) yet our provincial government is cutting rail service, and tearing up track, to destroy our historical legacy, reverse time, and disconnect northeastern municipalities from telecommunications and transit infrastructure; at the same time, the federal government is cutting back funding for, and service on, VIA Rail coast to coast.

Our forefathers, who struggled to build the railway, would be horrified at our generation's negligence of our "tattered ribbon of rail" (Dan Nystedt, Derailed: The National Dream) across the country. During Confederation, rail was built to enable its economic engine, and rail can still reconnect Canada. A National Transit Strategy Bill was proposed by the NDP on September 19, but was blocked by the Conservatives, who assume if you do not have a car, you do not deserve to travel. Internationally, rail systems are being revitalized, interconnected and electrified with commuter hubs; none are being dismantled. ONTC employees joke that the tracks will be torn up to make a snowmobile corridor because $200 licensing fees are so profitable to the provincial government. Nine-hundred and fifty of them will be laid off; in 2002, as part of his election promises to the north, Premier McGuinty had promised multi-modality as part of the Liberals' transit strategy, to create new jobs in the north, and to maintain ONTC passenger rail service. CNR cannot buy this right of way with ONTC rail passenger trains on this line, and transporting freight is more important than moving people, or connecting remote municipalities, to those in provincial power.

As a response to the closure, the Liberal government has said that the Ontario Northlander bus service will replace rail service, but soon, too, that bus service will be privatized. Trains allow people to socialize, unwind, rest and stretch their legs; buses uncomfortably lurch along on milk runs, are dependent on road conditions, and can take up to twice as long as trains to reach their destination. Cars are not a solution. Upon arrival in Moosonee, a Cree elder told me that ferrying cars across the water from Moose Factory to Moosonee is difficult. It is expensive to rent cars to drive to Toronto, and dangerous to drive on Highway 11 and 400 on winter roads. Repeatedly, interviewees said to me bitterly that the south has abandoned the north, and a rail employee told me that "the magnitude of the Ontario Northland Commission divestiture has not been covered by the mainstream media-- an entire branch will be gone."

On my return voyage, a gaggle of young men trooped onto the train, carrying rucksacks and bright yellow construction helmets. Two whistle stops later, they were joined by their female counterpart, and an entire train car was filled with laughing, gossiping 17-year-olds singing their rendition of James Blunt's 'You are Beautiful' as "I saw your face in a crowded train, And I don't know what to do, 'Cause I'll never be with you. You're beautiful."

Ontario Minister of Natural Resources Park Rangers. Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

I found out they were Ontario Minister of Natural Resources Park Rangers, once called "Junior Rangers," who were returning from working in Ontario's parks for eight weeks, clearing trails with sandviks, painting buildings, rehabilitating streams, and becoming certified to handle emergencies and manage forests. The Junior Park Ranger program was started 68 years ago after the Second World War, as a make-work project for returning soldiers to teach them how to take care of the National Park system, and has trained generations of Canadian youth. One Ranger raved about painting the barrier in the water tank of the polar bear in the polar bear rehabilitation centre in Cochrane, another of his life-changing experience being exposed to the Cree culture. He said that since he is not from that background, he learned that "it was still going strongly, and even though they were a visible minority, they were so generous with you." Several Rangers recounted working on Creefest, and learning how to eat and cook wild game -- muskrat, goose and sturgeon -- as a rare species, they were allowed to eat a sturgeon only as guest of the Cree.

Just as I was fact-checking this article, I learned through their Facebook group that this program was renamed as "the Stewardship Youth Rangers," and their funding cut substantially, the day before the Northlander was to be closed. In this "park modernization," the re-jigged program will have no overnight stays, with youth working only in local parks, and the Ministry of Natural Resources will lose 130 jobs, to add to the 950 of the Northlander, for a total of 1,080 jobs lost within two days. This was done suddenly by the Liberals to stop public outcry, just as Katimavik was cut by the Conservative Government in 2012.

By the end of this journey, it occurred to me that this ONTC railway closure by the Liberals seems calculated, just as the Conservative's cutting of funding for Katimavik, the social justice program for youth, and the re-jigging of the Ontario Minister of Natural Resource Junior Rangers program for only local environmental education, is deliberate. The government wants to ensure that these programs, which build the bridge between indigenous communities, and educate youth about protecting the environment for seven generations through the First Nations' understanding, no longer exist. The shutting down of Ontario Northlander rail passenger service, with its historical legacy of connecting municipalities, will no longer enable the Cree, Ontario Minister of Resources, Junior Rangers, mine employees, tourists, and environmentalists, to learn from each other while socializing on the train, and to study, thus to protect the history, environment and culture of northeastern Ontario from resource exploitation.

ONTC station. Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

During my journey, a passenger, a hazardous chemicals inspector for boats, said to me, "No one cries when they say good-bye and you get in a car; they do when you leave on a train." As I boarded the last leg of my journey in Cochrane, travelling southwards to Toronto, a Northlander employee called out to his friend helping me onto the train, "She is going North." I wish I were.

In the third and final part of this series on travelling in northeastern Ontario, and the divestment of the Ontario Northland Commission, I will write about my time at the fabulous Cree Eco Lodge in Moose Factory.

Elizabeth Littlejohn teaches sustainable design, social innovation and new media. The column "Design for Democracy" focuses on sustainable design solutions for a greener future.

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