The Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT) has announced a major fundraising event toward re-starting passenger rail service on the Algoma Central Railway. On April 6th, celebrated Canadian folksinger Ian Tamblyn will perform at Algoma’s Water Tower Inn & Suites in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Money raised will support efforts by Missanabie Cree First Nation to create a new non-profit passenger train to run between the “Soo” and Hearst, Ontario.
Passenger rail service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst first began in 1914 with the Algoma Central Railway (ACR). The train, which has had several operators over its history, remains the only reliable year-round transportation mode for communities, Indigenous peoples, businesses, tourists, and locals along a north-south line that traverses the rugged and remote Canadian Shield.
The current situation of no passenger service on the ACR first began in January 2014. The then-Conservative federal government announced that month it was cutting a $2.2 million annual remote rail subsidy that CN Rail, corporate operator of the train then, said it needed to provide passenger service. CN had a net income of over $12.6 billion in 2015, and Bill Gates is its largest current shareholder.
Public pressure led the Conservatives to re-instate the subsidy for CN until 2015 with the proviso that a new third-party operator would be found, after which the Canadian federal government would guarantee $5.3 million over three years as start-up support. A new third-party did re-start service in Spring 2015 but could not demonstrate the needed solvency to unlock the federal funds. ACR passenger service stopped in July 2015 and has yet to return.
The subsequent attempt to re-launch an ACR passenger train, led by Missanabie Cree FN and local stakeholders, ran into a surprise obstacle in July 2016. The now-Liberal government of Justin Trudeau announced, via Transport Minister Marc Garneau, that they would not honor the previous federal commitment of $5.3 million, claiming the ACR was not “remote”. Garneau’s statement that “most” communities along the ACR have access to paved roads is challenged by those who actually live along the line. Some 400 km of the 476 km route have no road access and existing links that Garneau cites are actually private logging roads that are dangerous for regular travel. To see an image of one such road, visit the post ACR Train Seeks Help.
A petition calling on the Ministry of Transport to re-start the Algoma train, reminding it of its mission to “serve the public interest through promotion of a safe and secure, efficient and environmentally responsible transportation system in Canada”, was recently tabled in the House of Commons by Carol Hughes, the Member of Parliament (NDP) representing Algoma. The petition, which received almost 600 electronic and some 1000 additional paper signatures from across Canada, was rebuffed by Garneau’s ministry. Missanabie Cree and local stakeholders continue to seek other federal sources of support while developing private revenue streams. The April 6th fundraiser represents a grassroots contribution toward the re-started train, to be renamed the “Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban” or “Bear Train”. Previous logos for the ACR included a bear.
The history of ACR also includes a very significant contribution to Canadian art – the iconic Group of Seven travelled along the ACR line between 1918 and 1922. Influenced by the geography of the Algoma District, these painters created what became the distinctly Canadian art movement associated with their name. In 2015, a documentary film that explored the locations and history of the Group of Seven in Algoma was released. Painted Land: In Search of the Group of Seven, sees art historian Michael Burtch, and wilderness photographers & writers, Joanie and Gary McGuffin, travel along the ACR line to find the places the group visited and painted. At the Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto on March 7th of this year, the film won the award for Best Editorial Research.
To this writer, the irony remains that a federal government so publicly-focused on the 150th anniversary of Canada is missing the cultural and economic opportunity to celebrate the very area and transportation system that gave to the world Canada’s first independent art identity. The accounting firm of BDO Canada has estimated the economic activity generated by ACR passenger service to be between $38 and $48 million per year – in terms of one-time federal investment, that is a strong return. Here is one trailer for Painted Land: In Search of the Group of Seven (2015):
The Ian Tamblyn concert on April 6th will also host a silent auction. Information on tickets (including the option to buy online), local accommodations, and how to donate to the auction can be found at the CAPT website link CAPTrains.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)