Commuting, and Confronting History, on a Remote Canadian Railway


At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Chloë Ellingson shares a collection of photos from a remote railway in Canada.

In 2015, as I drove through my hometown, Toronto, a radio documentary came on the air describing a remote railway, the Tshiuetin line, that runs through rural Quebec.

Named after the Innu word for “wind of the north,” Tshiuetin is the first railway in North America owned and operated by First Nations people. Its southern terminus, I would soon learn, is about 15 hours east of Toronto by car.

Canada was built by rail. The country’s early railway system was a vital tool for economic growth, but it also abetted Canada’s colonial mission. In addition to carrying goods and services, trains in Canada disseminated disease among the Indigenous communities on whose land this country was built. And while the country’s railroads offered the possibility of expansion to some, for others they were harbingers of forced relocation.

Tshiuetin has a different history. The company operates on the 360-mile line between Sept-Îles, a city on the northern shore of the Saint Lawrence River, and Schefferville, a remote town on the verge of the tundra in Quebec. (Tshiuetin owns 132.5 miles of that track — the stretch between Schefferville and Emeril Junction in Labrador — and manages passenger services for the entire line.)

Schefferville was built by the Iron Ore Company of Canada to facilitate mining in the 1950s. After the closure of the area’s I.O.C. mines in the 1980s, the company had no use for the northern portion of its railway. Since 2005, it has been run by the three First Nations that it connects: Uashat Mak Mani-utenam, Kawawachikamach and Matimekush-Lac John. With a mandated 85 percent Indigenous work force, Tshiuetin is now a symbol of reclamation and defiance for those it serves.

Andy-Greg Jérôme, an Innu employee who joined Tshiuetin in 2012 at the age of 22, said the company gave him leadership experience. “Best thing I did in my life,” he said of his job. “I am proud to work for a local company. I hope that in the future we can have more employees who come from the three communities.”

The combined population of Schefferville and Matimekush-Lac John is around 800, and the Tshiuetin line plays a central role in the community. The passenger train normally completes its round-trip journey twice a week, with its estimated arrival times announced on the local Schefferville radio. (Since the town lies outside the country’s provincial road network, a costly plane trip is the only alternative way in or out.)

During the coronavirus pandemic, the frequency of trips has been limited, and restrictions have been placed on passengers’ reasons for travel.

On any given trip on the Tshiuetin train, most passengers are regulars. Some are heading to hunting grounds — like Stéphane Lessard, whom I met en route to his friend’s cabin, which he has been frequenting for 17 years.

Others are residents of Kawawachikamach or Matimekush-Lac John, near Schefferville, traveling south to appointments, or to shop in Sept-Îles, where goods are less expensive than they are up north.

Passengers might also be setting off on a holiday, with Sept-Îles as a point of departure — like Elayna Vollant-Einish and her family, whom I saw several times on the train, including after a celebratory trip to Québec City to mark her brother Shane’s high school graduation.

On my many trips aboard the Tshiuetin train, I have met passengers like Gary Einish and Cynthia Pien, traveling with young children and equipped for the long day ahead. They bring whatever comforts they need to transform their seats into their own temporary living rooms.

There aren’t exactly formal stops between Schefferville and Sept-Îles; the only passengers who board or depart en route are either railway workers or those who have been at their hunting cabins, and who catch the train at the sides of the tracks. Along the route, the train becomes a sea of patterned sheets and blankets; passengers know the surrounding seats will likely be theirs for the duration of the journey.

“I feel like Kawawachikamach wouldn’t be where it is today without the train,” says Shane Vollant-Einish. “It’s the lifeblood, the main artery for here.”

Shane will soon set off on a cross-country trip to study in British Columbia, on Canada’s West Coast. “The train won’t be as important for me as it used to be. Instead of waiting every Thursday for fresh fruits and vegetables, they’ll be available readily, and instead of waiting over two weeks for mail, it’ll be next day,” he said.

“I guess the train will symbolize how willing we are to live in ancestral lands and walk on the same hills and ice covered lakes as our forefathers did,” he added. “The train always will mean home for me.”

Chloë Ellingson is a documentary photographer who lives in Toronto. You can follow her work on Instagram and Twitter.

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