Life in the frozen north: Canada's first native-owned train is the pride of its community
The ‘Wind of the North’ provides much-needed jobs and a lifeline to remote indigenous people in northeast Quebec. Just don’t mention speed or sticking to schedule, says Rachel Savage
The train ride from Sept-Îles, a port on the north shore of the mighty St Lawrence river in Canada, to Schefferville, a tiny, former mining town 355 miles north, is beautiful. Early in the journey, the train follows the winding Moisie river. Pine-covered mountains plunge steeply into the valley. Much of the dark blue water is still covered in ice and snow, even in May. Then the land flattens out and the train follows slim lakes that streak northwest across the Labrador plateau like oil on water. Under a grey sky, the landscape is quiet. Under a blue one, dazzlingly white.
Fast, the journey is not. It usually takes between 13 and 15 hours, and has taken as long as 24. Hunting and fishing parties are let off. Mine workers disembark at camps beside the tracks. At Emeril Junction, mile 224.5, the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway (QNS&L) driver swaps with one from Tshiuetin Rail Transportation. Tshiuetin, North America’s first indigenous-owned rail company, means “wind of the north” in Innu, a native language spoken in northeastern Quebec and Labrador. Its driver increases the train’s speed from a leisurely 40mph to a breezy 45mph.
Slow it may be, but Tshiuetin is of great importance to the three First Nations that own it: the Innu from Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam (close to Sept-Îles), the Innu of Matimekush-Lac John, and the Naskapi of Kawawachikamach (both near to Schefferville). There are the jobs it provides. There is the vital link between the isolated northern communities and the outside world. And there is the deep, symbolic significance of ownership and control.
“We’re very proud to own the company of Tshiuetin,” says Louise Mameanskum, a Naskapi who works in the freight department in Schefferville. She repeats the word “proud” over and over again. “I’m very proud to work for the train.”
Mobile phone signal disappears soon after the train pulls out of Sept-Îles. Some passengers head for the dining car to buy thick buttery slices of toast or add hot water to tea bags they’ve brought with them. Others snuggle up under blankets with iPads and laptops, or play cards. Children rush down the aisles until worn out enough to sleep in the dens of colourful sheets and blankets the adults build around the seats. Every few hours, cigarette smoke sneaks through the carriages from the toilets.
Yan Fortin Viellette, Tshiuetin’s conductor, waxes lyrical about the train ride. “It’s a dream, every journey,” he says.
He describes the otherworldly feeling as the train follows the Moisie river and then plunges briefly into a tunnel hewn through the mountain. It is the same feeling he felt on his first morning on the job seven years before. “It’s probably the most beautiful place in the world, in my opinion.”
For passengers, though, the journey is mostly a practical one. “Boring” is the blunt assessment of a group of adolescent girls travelling from Kawawachikamach for a volleyball tournament in Sept-Îles. “We sleep, we eat, we listen to music, we hang out,” shrugs Mary Uniam.
The railway was built between 1951 and 1954 by the Iron Ore Company (IOC) of Canada (which still owns QNS&L). Its primary purpose was to transport ore from Schefferville, which was carved out of the wilderness as an IOC company town, to Sept-Îles, from where it could be shipped out of the Gulf of St Lawrence to the steel mills of post-war America.
But less than 30 years later, in 1982, Schefferville’s mines were shut down and most of the population left; the majority who stayed were native Innu (also known as Montagnais) and Naskapi. QNS&L kept running subsidised passenger and freight services to the town until December 2005, when it sold the Emeril Junction-Schefferville line to the three First Nations for C$1 (60p). (IOC, which has been majority-owned by British mining giant Rio Tinto since 2000, still runs mines in Labrador City, which are connected by a 36 mile line branching west from Emeril.)
“It wasn’t feasible for QNS&L,” says James Berube, Tshiuetin’s operations manager. “Nobody was interested in taking over the railway.
“So the three councils decided to take it over. Because it is a lifeline to Schefferville. I mean all food, all fuel, all necessities come in through the train.”
Tshiuetin became the first native-owned train company in Canada, narrowly pipping the Keewatin Railway Company (which started operating in April 2006 in the central province of Manitoba). Fewer than half the staff were indigenous; there simply were not enough who were qualified. Now, around three-quarters of the 60 permanent staff are native, thanks to a rigorous training programme, and another 25 or so are hired to do track work in the summer when the weather warms up.
“A lot of people in the railway industry, and even QNS&L, had said that we wouldn’t last six months,” says Mr Berube, who has been a train driver and conductor in his 10 years with Tshiuetin, having never worked on a railway before. “And here we are 13 years later.”
Mr Berube thinks there is a chance the train could be fully-run by natives within 10-15 years, albeit a slim one. “We’d like to, but I’m realistic,” he says. The company’s manager, for example, needs at least two decades experience in the industry, he explains.
Tshiuetin’s jobs, though, are appreciated for their stability and benefits, especially in Schefferville, where permanent employment can be hard to come by. “My husband and I can retire from there,” says Ms Mameanskum. “We’ve got pensions, we have unions. They’re well-paid jobs.”
The train staff, meanwhile, seem to thrive despite the long return journeys they work twice a week (Monday to Schefferville, returning the following day and repeated on Thursday and Friday).
“It’s a new challenge,” says Simon Pierre Aster, an Innu from Sept-Îles, in a mixture of French and halting English (Innus speak French as their second language, Naskapis use English, due to the colonisers they came into contact with first).
Mr Aster took a job as a train conductor in 2011, after moving home from Montreal following a difficult divorce. Now 37 years old, he is training to be a driver. “It’s very rewarding,” he says. “You bring people from Schefferville to go to Sept-Îles to have their holidays, to buy their groceries.”
Groceries are around 30 per cent more expensive in Schefferville than Sept-Îles, according to an estimate used by the Naskapi band council. Gilles Porlier, a Quebecois (French Canadian) who owns most of Schefferville’s businesses, says freight makes up 13 per cent of the costs of goods at his store and restaurant.
Nonetheless, without the train everything from building materials to cars would have to be flown to Schefferville – there are no roads connecting the town to the outside world. Tshiuetin runs one separate freight train per week. In 2017 it brought 10,800 tons of fuel and more than 15,000 tons of food to the town.
The train is also indispensable for passengers, who make around 15,000 journeys on it every year. A one-way ticket for First Nations is C$63, a tenth of the cost of a flight to Sept-Îles, and C$87 for non-natives. That makes the long ride worth it for the chance to stock up on cheaper supplies, visit friends and family, or just take a break “down south”.
Before holidays, especially at the end of the school year and before Christmas, the train is packed with families. But on average there are fewer than 100 people riding the 528-seat passenger train (Mr Berube says he has seen as many as 310 passengers and as few as one). Each of the 104 yearly return trips costs C$23,000 to run, says Mr Berube. That would require at least 177 native passengers or equivalent per trip for Tshiuetin to break even. Any freight profits are usually used for track maintenance and other upgrades. So the passenger trains are subsidised by the Canadian government (Tshiuetin wouldn’t disclose its freight earnings or the terms of the subsidy agreement).
“It’s relaxing. You can rest, you can watch nature,” says Pako Junior Mameanskum, a 22-year-old who lives with his partner and baby daughter in Pessamit, an Innu reservation 176-miles southwest of Sept-Îles. “It’s long though.”
Mameanskum takes the train to Schefferville every couple of months to visit his mother, Louise, and, on this occasion, to apply for college and play in an ice hockey tournament. Customer service on the train has vastly improved under native ownership, he says, a sentiment echoed by many passengers. The food is better, the baggage allowance of three 23kg bags more generous, and the train staff are now mostly native, like the majority of their passengers.
“A lot of people don’t speak English and French,” says Mr Mameanskum. “Now the workers can speak Montagnais or Naskapi to the elders.”
The return train ride to Sept-Îles, 15 days after the outward journey, leaves an hour-and-a-half late at 9.30am. A Naskapi community Facebook group is regularly filled with posts asking what time the train will arrive in Schefferville, and pointed comments about the service’s regular yet unpredictable lateness. Some passengers gripe about waiting to board, eager to go back to sleep after an early start.
But the mood is mostly jovial. It is “goose week”, when Innu and Naskapi travel to their cabins outside Schefferville or along the train line to hunt Canada geese as they migrate northwards. The schools and the band council offices are shut for the week, so even those who don’t hunt are taking the opportunity to get out of town.
“I have everything here except my kitchen sink,” says Naomi Sandy cheerily, showing off the sugar, salt and pepper she has bought for the journey along with food and bedding. Ms Sandy, who works for Kawawachikamach’s public works department, is taking her great-niece to visit a relative in Sept-Îles. She then plans to head further south to Quebec City for a couple of weeks. “Everybody’s gone so I don’t want to stay there by myself, in the community.”
Night falls and for the last few hours the train is quiet. Snow swirls in the dark outside. Huddled under blankets, people cradle their mobile phones, waiting for signal.
As the train pulls into Sept-Îles a man on the platform spots his young son and daughter. He leaps in the air, grinning and waving as their grandmother ushers them slowly down the aisle. When they reach the carriage door he scoops them off the steps, cradling them tightly in strong arms as the snow falls around them.