Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gabrielle Roy's Birthplace, St Boniface

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ribbons of Steel

Curiosity killed the cat! Since moving to an Ontario property framed by the Trent-Severn Waterway and the Canadian National Railways transcontinental tracks, I have been intrigued to know what the back country in my vicinity looks like from a train. The romance of the ribbons of steel have long beckoned. Railway lines historically in the 19th century tied our nation together from a political perspective. They still do in this century, witness the constant commercial freight traffic. Perhaps the link is less well defined for passenger service in the 21st century. However I determined I was going to find out just what the current passenger train experience is like and it was going to take a trip from Washago to Winnipeg to satisfy this curiosity. Imagine a trip almost half way across North America, passing within a stones throw of my house and leaving from the local station!

My departure is set for half past midnight on a Sunday (morning not late at night I have to repeat to myself in case common parlance persuades me to err, putting nighttime and Sunday together with the consequence that I show up 24 hours late). In the dark several minutes out from the station I can distinguish the level crossing near my home. Already I am ensconced in a comfortable seat, as good as first class on a Chinese train, and in no time it is sun up in the Sudbury suburbs. My first mental note as I wake up is that the sun is on the right, to the east as Sudbury falls behind. We must be going north. I had expected the train to head west then north round Lake Superior destined for Thunder Bay. No such luck. Since VIA became incorporated it has rented the railbed from CN. It had a choice between the southerly passenger route of Canadian Pacific or the northerly route of Canadian National and opted for the latter. Both passenger routes traditionally headed for Winnipeg from the east before diverging again. VIA by choosing the CN track preferred stops at Saskatoon and Edmonton rather than the southern Prairies through Regina and Calgary. Of course the transcontinental tracks end up in Lotus Land i.e. Vancouver. So there is to be no sighting of the Sleeping Giant at the lakehead on this trip. The day turns out to be glorious, ideal for observing the terrain. The boreal forest is arrayed in all its glory under a wall to wall blue sky. It is going to be a peach of a view from the observation car.

Since it is early Spring the leaves are not yet fully deployed on the deciduous trees, all the better for seeing the lay of the land. The amount of water we encounter is prodigious. I have been through northern Ontario before and recall the vast forests but not lakes to this extent. I see beaver dams but no beaver. I am on the lookout for bear and ungulates but moose and deer are well hidden. To my surprise it takes a moody Manitoba morning hours later before wildlife of note make their appearance. And what an introduction! First off it is a bald eagle majestically skimming over a lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park. The morning is soft and puts me in mind of that song, a hit thirty years ago, about the moods of this Prairie province. The first cultural icon of the Prairies that catches my eye is the bulbous bell tower of the Ukrainian church in Elma. Then we encounter cranes in a field, awkwardly moving around on stilted legs. Suddenly three deer are spooked by the train and next thing you know all three are springing in unison over a nearby fence. I must report back to a work colleague just how many red winged blackbirds there are and I am reminded of the numbers of Canada Geese ones encounters out west too, not just on the Hudson River in New York or Hyde Park in London. Sloughs and grain fields must be an attractive proposition for them. We are on time as we pass over the Red River Floodway, barely in use this year unlike many other years. Transcona is negotiated and as we approach downtown Winnipeg I observe from our high vantage point a fort which I have never seen before (turns out it is the centre of the Festival du Voyageur activities which promote the French fact in Manitoba). A new ball park too, new to me at least. We pull into Union Station. It reflects the glory days of the passenger railroad. The societal and architectural significance of the station is recognized by an Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque in the lobby. This indicates it is a national historic site (NHS). I have a soft spot for NHS and decide before I transfer my mode of transport for Regina to make a layover in Winnipeg to explore some more of them.

Winnipeg is a crossroads. They say in many national organizations you will not progress up the corporate ladder unless you have done a stint in Manitoba’s capital, virtually the east west geographic centre of the country (which actually falls near Steinbach some kilometers to the east). Since the days of the fur trade and colonization the Red and Assiniboine Rivers have been a meeting of transportation routes. Union Station is a stone’s throw from The Forks, this famous confluence. The Fort Garry–Fort Edmonton Trail also departed from near this nexus. It was the main wagon road stretching for 1400 kms to the north and west in its heyday. The modern day Hudson’s Bay Company used to have its corporate headquarters in this vicinity, now it is the North West Company (historians must see an irony in that). Of course the famous intersection of Portage and Main is just down the street. Now you can stay out of the wind in a below street level concourse. I determine I want to find out more about St Boniface this trip and embark eastwards across the footbridge to the other bank of the Red River. Within a relaxed couple of hours stroll I take in the Grey Nuns’ Convent, the cathedral vestiges, view Louis Riel’s tomb, see the St Boniface Town Hall and for me the highlight, the birthplace of Gabrielle Roy. I luck into a tour outside of regular opening hours. Peeking out of the attic window of her beautifully restored birthplace (featured in her novel Rue Deschambault) was a treat. Her stories are so evocative of the multicultural Winnipeg of the early 1900s, not least of which her own French speaking roots. Later in the day I migrate back to the city centre. I search out many of the skyscrapers which remain from the days when Winnipeg was king of the West, the epoch when these multi-storied buildings made a statement, in imitation of Chicago. I find the former Bank of Hamilton, Union Trust and Confederation Buildings. I lament the loss of the Child’s Building on Portage but am cheered by the discovery of another gem, the Electric Railway Chambers Building on Notre-Dame. A visit to some of Winnipeg’s fine theatres e.g. Pantages, Walkers, rounds out a day of seeing for myself many national historic sites and more besides.

Next day I am Regina bound. Leaving the city near Assiniboia Downs it is immediately striking how far away the horizon is on the Prairies. Flat Prairie, but interesting. Fort La Reine at Portage La Prairie was a major fur trading depot. Of course, it is astride the Assiniboine River which would have been the main highway for canoeists far into the heart of the continent. I look for gophers but don’t see any. The sand hills of Carberry are still there, not yet blown away. Fellow passengers tell me of a dramatic vehicular accident they had there on the Trans Canada the previous year. This is their first time back and they become introspective as we pass the spot. In Brandon the town is gearing up for the soon to be Memorial Cup, Canada's Junior Ice Hockey Championship. All along the Trans Canada in Saskatchewan the railway line is undergoing major reconstruction. I learn later that Loblaws is about to set up a huge distribution depot in Regina serving the Western Provinces. I speculate the railway may be being upgraded to handle the new load factor. Could passenger rail on this line be coming back too?

In Regina I take care of some business matters. This city has really progressed since my days there as a student. It looks prosperous with new hotels and office blocks. Clean too and wow, cheap public transport. I love Wascana so I visit it but the place I really want to revisit is the North West Territorial Administration Building at 3304 Dewdney Avenue. As a former civil servant, and taxpayer thank you very much, it boggles the mind to think this modest 6 or 8 room building was the seat of territorial government for an area (just guessing) the size of Europe. You get the point anyway. I get my photos and GPS coordinates and commit to letting others know about this place.

The visit to Regina is sweet. Several times while on foot I tangle with traffic and find drivers insist on ceding to pedestrians. But I’m a jay walker, they have no right! It is endearing. It is not an eastern custom (well maybe on The Rock where life is precious). One thing I have confirmed on this trip, they still speak French in Saskatchewan. Whether the Fransaskois do themselves, I make no claim. However RCMP recruits, the French tourist, the couple leaving the court house, the survivors of the Carberry crash, they all speak the language of Molière. L’Eau Vive is still alive and well apparently, the French language rag. Before I leave I take some photos of impressive buildings. The fire hall in Germantown I find out is built on the site of the Regina Riot where the On-To-Ottawa Trek was stopped dead in its tracks, several Depression years protesters being killed. The Chinese Benevolent Society building near the bus station is a beauty.

On the way back to Winnipeg I satisfy my need for photos of grain elevators, fast disappearing on the Prairies and now in the hundreds, less than a quarter of what there were in the 1930s. Concrete terminals are the new substitute. The bus stops in most communities, like Indian Head with its little mosque on the prairie. Sears distributing seems to be recipient of most packets on the milk run. It is raining in Winnipeg. Before my late train I take refuge in an Irish pub at The Forks. It’s a downer near midnight to cross the Red River heading back to Central Canada. At Collins a large aboriginal contingent get on and before one can make their acquaintance they are off at the next stop. The track stretches for miles. I speculate on how anyone can recuperate the thousands of kilometers of abandoned telephone lines which run alongside the railway. To whom do they belong? Are they copper wire?

In the middle of the night we are immobilized but not by the priority freight trains this time. It turns out the train has hit a bear, the first this season. It attempted to outrun the train but down the tracks. If it had just crossed at right angles. Of course nothing ever before has outrun it. It could have been harvesting berries soon with this hot weather. I see the tail end of a bear (bear bum) a few hours later, this time the horn chasing it away. Another passenger sees a moose. Aha, Ontario does have large mammals after all. The dining car proffered pleasant company that evening. A young couple on their way to Ottawa to set up shop were my table companions. Later a Mennonite whom I swear is in a tv ad serenades the observation car devotees with his mouth organ. Evening transitions into night then dawn and Muskoka scenery with the tall pines again. I see a road sign indicating the direction for my home community, just 50 kilometres up the road! We have made up time and I will disembark early in the day. My neighbours have indeed left my car in the parking lot. It is a nostalgic five minute drive home. All that territory and history traversed. It is now past but very much present in my thoughts for some time to come I muse.