On February 19th, 2014 the Russ Ramsay board room at the Sault Ste. Marie Civic Centre was filled with people in support of maintaining passenger rail service along the Algoma Central Railway. The evening’s meeting was the first of three town hall meetings hosted by the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains, (CAPT). This highly anticipated meeting brought together many individuals whose livelihoods and history will be destroyed if this train service is discontinued as anticipated at the end of April.
The meeting began with introductions followed by an explanation of the current situation from Al Errington, a local tourist business owner and CAPT member. He went into detail about how Transport Canada has modified their criteria for remote service and how the ACR no longer meets the Federal Government’s criteria for funding. Al also listed the members of the new committee that has been formed to help find a solution for the passenger railway issue.
The meeting continued with a presentation from Harry Gow, Founder of Transport Action Canada, whose mandate is to develop rail passenger services across Canada. The presentation covered many aspects of VIA rail and similarities were drawn between the current ACR situation and the VIA Rail situation. Mr. Gow was very knowledgeable and supportive of our rail service and he related well to his audience. He closed with a motivational, “Be organized. Stay organized and make a lot of noise!”.
The presentation that followed Harry Gow had a way of emphasizing the historical significance of the railway and really depicted a piece of what will be lost if the ACR passenger service is gone. The presentation was about an upcoming documentary along the ACR and the famous Group of Seven. Michael Burtch, Joanie McGuffin and Garry McGuffin have been working on their film for some time and have been on a “treasure hunt” of sorts in the hopes of photographing every location where the Group of Seven painted. It is an amazing project and the room was quite pleased to watch the trailer for their film. Unfortunately their filming is due to continue into the spring and fall of 2014, long after CN Rail’s new deadline of April 30th.
Linda Savory Gordon followed up with a note of support from the Canadian Federation of Students and read a letter to Lisa Raitt from the famous Canadian artist Robert Bateman. His support for passenger railway in the north was clear and the impact of losing such a historical artistic part of our heritage was emphasized further.
Finally, open discussion began and many stories were shared. Among the speakers was Rex Beatty, President of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, who speaks on behalf of the union representing CN Rail employees across Canada. He expressed his concern and support of maintaining this service and was shocked to find out that this was happening. CN employees will also be affected by this cut and their union was not informed ahead of time as would be expected in a situation like this. His words clarified that this train cancellation will affect all of Algoma, not only the tourist operators or cottage owners.
Cindy Lebrun of Tatnall Camp on Oba Lake also spoke to the group. Her business has been growing steadily and bringing people to our community for some time and if the train were to stop, her entire investment in her future and community would disappear.
It is hard to picture an entire 300 mile section of Canada suddenly closing its doors. Tourism and recreation are seldom promoted in Northwestern Ontario and yet there is a force of will in the north that seemed to be present at this meeting. For an area that is seldom promoted, there are an awful lot of supporters and this railway is a part of so many lives. It is understandable that the world changes as time passes and most communities need to adapt.
The question remains, how can a community adapt when almost half a province is closed to business, history, heritage and family?