Rid­ing the Tshi­uetin

Scenes from Canada’s first Indige­nous-owned rail­way

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Chloë Elling­son

Tshi­uetin, Innu for “the wind of the north,” pro­vides the only vi­able means of travel to cen­tral Que­bec. Bridg­ing the gap be­tween the lower half of the prov­ince and the town of Sch­ef­ferville, which isn’t ac­ces­si­ble by road, the rail­way was orig­i­nally built in the 1950s to sup­port nearby mines. At the time, it fit neatly into the nar­ra­tive of­ten as­so­ci­ated with Cana­dian rail­roads — one of nine­teenth-cen­tury na­tion build­ing, from one re­source-ex­trac­tion town to an­other. To­day, of­fer­ing em­ploy­ment, eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence, and af­ford­able travel to Sch­ef­ferville’s res­i­dents, Tshi­uetin sus­tains the lives of hun­dreds of peo­ple whose connections to the re­gion far out­lasted the life of an iron-ore mine.

Sch­ef­ferville lies near where the bo­real for­est meets the tundra, on land long tra­versed by Innu from the south and Naskapi from the north. But when the town was first formed in 1955 by the Iron Ore Com­pany of Canada (IOC) to sup­port nearby projects, First Na­tions were a mi­nor­ity, out­num­bered by those who had come from else­where to work. Sch­ef­ferville had 4,500 res­i­dents then, as well as its own movie the­atre, com­mu­nity cen­tre, hos­pi­tal, and Hud­son’s Bay depart­ment store. Lo­cals, in­clud­ing the First Na­tions on whose land the com­pany was op­er­at­ing, worked in the mines, in town, and on the rail­way.

Af­ter the IOC mines closed in 1982 due to fall­ing iron-ore prices, work­ers moved else­where, and the town’s pop­u­la­tion plum­meted. The IOC dis­man­tled much of what it had built, leav­ing vast va­cant lots where build­ings used to be. Many Innu fam­i­lies moved from Lac-john, a re­serve just east of town, to Sch­ef­ferville, and the two com­mu­ni­ties be­came vir­tu­ally in­dis­tin­guish­able. In 2005, the IOC sold the por­tion of the rail­way north of Emeril Junc­tion to the Innu na­tions of Uashat Mak Mani-ute­nam and Ma­timekush-lac John and the Naskapi na­tion of Kawawachika­mach for $1, and Tshi­uetin Rail Trans­porta­tion Inc. was born.

Run­ning a rail­way com­pany can be chal­leng­ing, par­tic­u­larly with the re­gion’s harsh win­ter con­di­tions, and it seemed not ev­ery­one had faith in a First Na­tions–owned en­ter­prise. “In the rail­way in­dus­try, I know it was said that we wouldn’t last more than three months,” says Tshi­uetin’s op­er­a­tions man­ager, James Bérubé, who spent part of his child­hood in nearby Kawawachika­mach. The com­pany has now been in op­er­a­tion for nearly twelve years, and it em­ploys roughly fifty peo­ple full-time, with an ad­di­tional thirty for sea­sonal work. Most em­ploy­ees live in the com­mu­ni­ti­escon­nected by the tracks.

In the sum­mer, pas­sen­gers from else­where reg­u­larly board the Tshi­uetin — an Aus­tralian man in the min­ing busi­ness, a lone trav­eller keen to see a re­mote town, Ger­man artists ex­plor­ing the re­gion — but gen­er­ally, pas­sen­gers are reg­u­lars. Res­i­dents from the north head south to visit fam­ily and friends or to go shop­ping. Those from the south visit hunt­ing grounds along the rail­way or va­ca­tion in the Sch­ef­ferville area. De­pend­ing on the sea­son, ad­ven­tur­ers use the rail­way as a point of ac­cess to the moun­tain­ous walls near the south­ern part of the track, a cov­eted spot for ice climb­ing, or to the

mighty Ge­orge River. For those who see Tshi­uetin as a means of eco­nom­i­cally re­viv­ing the re­gion, ru­mours of mine prospect­ing north of Sch­ef­ferville spark hopes of one day ex­tend­ing the rail­way.

For­mer res­i­dents and mine work­ers from the ’60s still con­gre­gate for yearly re­unions, which usu­ally take place in more ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tions, such as Mon­treal or Van­cou­ver. Few make it back reg­u­larly — though some do, in­clud­ing Yves Larose, a fiftytwo-year-old teacher from Mon­treal. He and his three sons of­ten visit the min­ing town where he grew up. “For me, what I liked about life in Sch­ef­ferville — the for­est, friends, the free­dom — all of that still ex­ists.”

above The last stretch of the Tshi­uetin’s jour­ney south from Sch­ef­ferville to Sept-îles crosses from Labrador into the moun­tain­ous re­gions of south­ern Que­bec. Pas­sen­gers press their phones to the win­dows, an­tic­i­pat­ing the even­tual re­turn to cell ser­vice.

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