By Elaine Della-Mattia, Sault Star
MISSANABIE – It’s been about 18 years since Jason Gauthier last rode the rails between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.
The chief of the Missanabie Cree First Nation and spokesperson for the North Superior Regional Chiefs Forum lived in Kapuskasing as a young man and would often catch a ride to Hearst before riding down to the Sault on the ACR passenger train.
The train travels through Gauthier’s traditional territory within Oba, Hawk Junction and the Missanabie area. History shows that the creation of the Chapleau Game Preserve resulted in the Missanabie Cree people leaving the area in search of economic opportunities to support their families.
In 2010, the Missanabie Cree First Nation signed an agreement with the Ontario government, ultimately transferring 15 square miles of Crown land in the Missanabie area to the First Nations.
Gauthier has become interested in the trains and their significance again since earlier this year when CN first announced it was cancelling the passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. While it was the federal government that cut the $2.2 million in funding, it was CN that made the decision that it would not continue operating the passenger train without it. Since then, the train service, as a result of lobbying efforts by various stakeholders, has a one-year reprieve and Gauthier has joined the stakeholder group to help save the train.
He also has another purpose: while communities and stakeholders gather together to save the train, the regional chiefs group wants to build relationships between municipalities and property owners.
“We see this as a good opportunity to create good relationships within our own region. We see a lot of opportunities here,” he said.
The regional chiefs may have other funding opportunities available to them that companies like CN would not be able to access because the train travels through traditional First Nations property and many Natives continue to use it today to hunt.
As a progressive chief for his people, Gauthier wants to better understand the different perspectives of the importance of the train and how the land is utilized by the various users. Sustainability is key.
“I think it’s important to learn how they operate and what they do and think in our traditional territory,” he said. “This is more about opportunity and a new way of thinking and something we should all seize.”
Gauthier said he’s always looking for collective thought and regional partnerships and believes the train serves as more than a means of travel.
But it will take work.
And it will mean thinking differently, outside the box.
Sure, trains are a better option to travel and protect the environment and increasing train use needs to be better explored but there are other opportunities that can increase tourism and the economy that can also be explored, he said.
Gauthier doesn’t know why something like this hasn’t been done sooner. He shrugs and looks out the window.
“I guess we’ve reached a certain level of desperation now," he said. "Communities and camp owners are concerned about their livelihood and have asked for support from the First Nations. We’re all in support of continuing the passenger train.”
While communities such as Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst were the first to organize and get involved in saving the train service that connects the two communities, it’s the vast land in between that’s of vital importance to First Nations.
“The land use and jurisdiction is shared in the First Nations and our historical territory borders these communities,” he said.
It’s time for a new generation of thinking, an opportunity to use the train issue and develop a regional plan that will benefit all its users.
“Missanabie Cree has a long history with the rail line and its fundamentally important to the region as a train service and economically,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to sit down with other people involved and focus on common goals and we can all participate in a conversation and that’s the most important aspect of any committee.”
Gauthier doesn’t know what the final outcome of the lobby efforts will be, but he realizes he has a responsibility to participate and try to save the train. Riding the train again for the passenger train’s 100th anniversary celebration is only a start, he said.
Peter McLardy, of Clean North and member of CAPT, said that economically and ecologically, public transportation in general is the way of the future, but that theory has not yet been adapted in Canada as it has in other countries, including the United States, and throughout Europe.
“If you look at the rest of the world and see how railways are being built and improved and then you look at Canada, and railways are being torn down here,” McLardy said. “There’s a problem with the entire industry.”
McLardy buys into the same theory as outfitter Al Errington -- that the Canadian government needs to change its thinking and ensure that the tracks and operations are owned and operated by different people.
“The problem with the industry is that the lines are owned privately and the owners don’t see the need for investment,” he said. “The rail beds are the key to all of this.”
McLardy said Canadians are still hooked on their cars and that thinking, too, needs to be changed in order to move forward.
“Trains are comfortable. They are relaxing and when you travel you get a chance to look out the window and see something that you can’t when you’re behind a wheel driving,” he said. “They’re a lot less hassle.”
The passenger train also serves a purpose for foresters.
Just ask retired forester Al Gordon about the importance of monitoring the different vegetation types, quality and size throughout the North Temperate Forest Area, south of the Boreal Forest.
Travelling on the passenger train allows him to observe the rugged mixed forest types between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.
To nature lovers, the trip includes views of coniferous forests, small and larger inland lakes and even swampy creeks with the opportunity to see wildlife like bears and moose.
Gordon, whose research centred on spruce genetics and tree breeding, said the train ride from Sault Ste. Marie tells the story of the forests and vegetation to foresters.
While the 18th-century forest was dominated by white pine and some red pine, the harvesting of the white pine has only left small patches of the species in the area.
Different tree species can be quickly spotted at different times on the ride north, including sugar maples, red maples and even the odd yellow birch tree, Gordon said.
Various patches of forest also appear to have an abundance of white birch, indicating the temporary growth that typically comes after fires, he says looking out the train window.
“Our forests change as nature affects it,” Gordon said. “White pines had been cut so thoroughly that the little stragglers that were left at the time of the cuts have now reproduced . . . but they're not nearly as big as they once were.”
Gordon said that decades ago there was no thought about forest regeneration, but travelling by train through the north shows, to the trained eye, what had been done in the past and how it has affected today's forests.
“Bad forestry in the past as resulted in the loss of species and you can see it when you travel like this,” Gordon said.
It's the trees, terrain and waterways that are the attraction that keeps Jerry Nowak coming back year after year.
The Milwaukee, Wisc., resident has been returning to the train ride since the mid-1990s to kayak down the Montreal River.
“The train dropped me and my kayak off last week and I came out 35 miles away today,” he said.
“Years ago when I came here with some family members we were told that we could cross the bridge and paddle the 35-mile distance and once I did it once, I was hooked,” he said.
Nowak's personal kayaking diary shows he's completed the trip at least seven times since 2001, each time noting a little something about nature, the water or the weather.
“If this train stops running, this will be missed,” he said. “I always look forward to this trip. I've kayaked in other areas along Lake Superior and the North Shore but there's something about riding the train and paddling here. . . it's in my blood and I can't get away from it.”