SPY HILL, Sask. — Tributes are pouring in from across Canada for residents of a small Saskatchewan town who sprang to action on Christmas Day to help stranded passengers on a frozen train.
“God bless all of the people that helped out yesterday. It was a really wonderful thing for us,” said Robbie Hancock, a musician who was on the Via Rail train with almost 100 other passengers when it suffered a mechanical problem and pulled up in the tiny community of Spy Hill early Monday.
Hancock and his partner, Carrie-Ann Leippi — who are based in Victoria and perform together as Weathervane — were on the train from Vancouver to Toronto as part of a Via Rail program where they get free fare, food and lodging in return for signing and playing for passengers.
Hancock has made the cross-Canada trip with the program six times, but it was Leippi’s first. The trip was extra special because she was going to meet Hancock’s parents for the first time.
But they woke up early Christmas morning and told they would have to get off the train because it had no heat.
The train pulled onto a siding in Spy Hill, a community in eastern Saskatchewan near the Manitoba boundary with a population of less than 300, where the temperature was -43 C with the wind chill.
“When we came out, there was all the townspeople that were already there that were coming up in trucks and helping us take all of our luggage and everything off the train and into the Lions Club hall there,” said Hancock, speaking from a taxi on the way to Winnipeg’s airport on Tuesday where he and Leippi would board a plane for Toronto.
“Thanks to all the farmers in the community there and all the firemen, of course, that came out in Spy Hill,”he said. “They got everybody from the train into the hall very quickly and they had already started making breakfast for us.”
The passengers were soon eating pancakes and drinking coffee prepared by Via cooks and local volunteers. Toys were brought in for the kids. Hancock and Leippi volunteered to entertain and the townspeople quickly set up microphones.
A large family had planned to use the hall that day, but they moved their party to the curling rink. Hamburgers and salads were served for lunch, and everyone sang Christmas carols.
“From a setback into something special. What a story — Canadians always find a way to help each other out,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Tuesday, along with a link to a news story about the stranded train and actions of the people in Spy Hill.
Many other Canadians also lauded the little town online for their Christmas spirit.
Via Rail said Tuesday that all 98 passengers were bused to Winnipeg later Monday, and that they were on their way to their final destinations by bus or plane.
There’s no details on the malfunction, but company spokeswoman Mariam Diaby said Monday that it was due to “extreme cold weather.”
Via Rail said since the train that stopped in Spy Hill needs to be repaired, the Toronto-to-Vancouver train scheduled to leave Tuesday night is cancelled, and there won’t be another one going that way until Saturday.
Hancock said even though he’s seen a lot of small-town hospitality on his cross-Canada trips, Spy Hill was a cut above.
“I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, especially through the Prairies, but I was a bit surprised in how amazing and generous they were,” Hancock said.
—by Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton
The Canadian Press