Categories
Ontario Roads

The north needs roads

IMG_2905.JPGNipigon River Bridge, August 2019

In January 2016, a bridge over the Nipigon River failed. Located roughly 100 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, it formed part of the Trans-Canada Highway. The only east-west link between Western and Eastern Canada was severed, with the only detour through the United States.

Climate change, road safety, and access to remote First Nations communities are some of the unique challenges facing Northern Ontario, where highways are especially important. Though highways fall under provincial jurisdiction, the federal government has a role in funding infrastructure and economic development.

I examine these issues in more detail in my latest article on TVO’s website.

Categories
Intercity Rail Ontario Travels

Trekking across Northern Ontario

IMG_2761-001.JPGVIA RDC train about to depart Sudbury for White River

Last month, I embarked on a journey from Toronto to Thunder Bay, a distance of over 1,300 kilometres. My journey took me nearly three days as I opted to travel by bus and rail, rather than by car or by air. Though I had to take three separate trips to accomplish it (an Ontario Northland bus, a VIA Rail RDC train, and a Kasper Transportation mini-bus), it was a very interesting trip.

IMG_2768.JPGUnloading a canoe from the RDC on the Spanish River, northwest of Sudbury

Once I arrived in Thunder Bay, I rented a car. Though I know Northeastern Ontario quite well, I had yet to visit Northwestern Ontario (a brief stop in Sioux Lookout on VIA’s Canadian notwithstanding). There are several beautiful provincial parks within a short drive of Thunder Bay, and the city itself has a few interesting sights. Highway 17 along the Lake Superior shoreline is probably Ontario’s most scenic drive.

Travelling without a car has its challenges, especially as the traveler is at the mercy of sudden schedule changes, traffic delays, and other hiccups, but it is still possible to get across Northern Ontario even after Greyhound’s withdrawal from Western Canada and Northern Ontario last year.

I wrote about my experience for TVO.

KasperBusWhiteRiver.JPGKasper Transporation bus at White River – filling the gap left by Greyhound

Categories
Canada Intercity Rail Ontario Travels

Passenger trains of Northern Ontario

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Southbound Northlander train arriving at Gravenhurst, March 2012

In a few weeks, I will travel from Toronto to Thunder Bay by bus and by train, stopping at cities and towns like Sudbury, Chapleau, White River, Marathon, and Schreiber. I expect to write about the experience and the challenges of getting around Northern Ontario without a car. At one time, it was possible to take just one bus or train from Toronto or Ottawa to Thunder Bay. Now, the same trip can only be done in three separate segments.

Greyhound Canada, which once ran four daily bus trips between Toronto and Winnipeg, reduced service to just two daily trips in 2009, and then to just one trip in 2015. Greyhound pulled out completely from Western and Northern Canada in October 2018, cutting all its bus routes between Whitehorse, Vancouver, and Sudbury.

According to the joint Canadian National/Canadian Pacific railway schedule of 1976, there were daily passenger trains connecting Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto with North Bay, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Timmins, and Kapuskasing. There was also a daily train between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, and there were trains to Fort Frances, and several trains a week through the wilderness in Algoma District.

Most of those trains are now gone. The CP Sudbury-Sault Ste. Marie train lasted just one more year, before being eliminated in 1977. The 1990 cuts to VIA Rail resulted in the loss of the daily Canadian through Thunder Bay, Sudbury, and North Bay, and the end of direct rail service to Timmins and Kapuskasing. The Canadian, now operating on the less scenic and less-populated CN mainline, ran just three times a week, with only a shuttle service on the most remote section of the CP route between Sudbury and White River.

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VIA Rail RDC stopped at Cartier, Ontario on its way to White River

In 2012, the Liberal provincial government announced the elimination of the Northlander, a daily train operated by Ontario Northland between Toronto, North Bay, and Cochrane. This decision was made with the intention of “modernizing” Ontario Northland, the provincial Crown corporation that operates freight and passenger rail and coach buses in northeastern Ontario. In 2014, the federal Conservative government cancelled the subsidy to run thrice-weekly Algoma Central Railway’s passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. (A popular excursion train still operates to Agawa Canyon.)

Though I was too young to travel on my own when the devastating 1990 VIA Rail cuts were made, I was able ride the Northlander and the Algoma Central Railway passenger trains while they were still operating.

With a friend from Calgary, I rode the Northlander from to Toronto to Cochrane and back, in May 2012. We continued to Moosonee near the shores of James Bay coast on the Polar Bear Express, which continues to operate. I made a second trip on the Northlander from Cochrane to Toronto in September 2012.

Ontario Northland continues to operate a freight railway, scheduled coach buses, and the Polar Bear Express, a mixed train between Cochrane and Moosonee. There are no all-season roads to Moosonee, so the train remains a lifeline for the James Bay community. We also took that train in May 2012.

In February 2014, after learning that Canadian National (owner of Algoma Central) was planning on discontinuing the local ACR passenger service, a friend and I made the trip to Sault Ste. Marie to ride the train all the way to Hearst and back. It was an especially memorable ride because of the deep snow, as well as the opportunity to take photographs from the vestibules between the rail cars. We traveled with a group of snowmobilers from Wisconsin (their Ski-Doos were in a baggage car) as well as local residents heading to their cabins.

Categories
Ontario Politics

Where, exactly, is Northern Ontario?

29496350986_0f43c86857_k.jpgThe French River at Highway 69, where Northern Ontario truly begins

Last week, the leaders of the three major provincial parties (Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and the New Democrats) met in Parry Sound, at a debate dedicated to issues specific to Northern Ontario. It was the second of three debates scheduled ahead of the June 7, 2018 general election.

But is Parry Sound, a town that’s only a two hour’s drive north of Toronto (when free of weekend Cottage Country traffic) really a part of Northern Ontario? That depends on who you ask. Even government agencies disagree. In my opinion, though, Parry Sound isn’t in Northern Ontario, even though the district it’s located in shares some characteristics of this vast part of the province.

Despite living my entire life in the Greater Toronto Area, I have an affinity for Northern Ontario, particularly the northeastern part of the province. My father’s hometown is Timmins, one of my siblings lives in Sudbury, and I have visited both cities many times. I made a trip up to Sault Ste. Marie to ride the Algoma Central Railway passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst and back before it was cancelled, and I still lament the loss of the Northlander, Ontario Northland Railway’s passenger train between Toronto and Cochrane that was terminated in 2012. I even made it all the way to Moosonee, on the James Bay coast.

The northern part of this province covers a huge area — over 800,000 square kilometres, larger than France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined — but has a population of just over 750,000. It is even crossed by a time zone boundary. Despite my connection to the region, I still have to yet to make a proper visit to Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario.

The North includes many First Nations communities accessible only by plane or ice road. Other communities, with names like Dryden, Kapuskasing, Iroquois Falls, and Kirkland Lake, were established to serve mines or pulp mills — resulting in a very different economic landscape than the agricultural and industrial south. In recent decades, many of those mines and mills have closed, eliminating many towns’ only major employer.

In a province dominated by the urban centres in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Ottawa, and London, it’s too easy to ignore the North.

So how do people actually define Northern Ontario?

Traditionally, Northern Ontario begins at the French River, Lake Nipissing, and at the Mattawa River. North Bay, which calls itself the “Gateway to the North” sits right on this line. For administrative purposes, this includes the entirety of Sudbury and Nipissing Districts, which extend south of the French and Mattawa Rivers, and includes most of Algonquin Park. It also includes Manitoulin Island, which can only be reached year-round from the north, through Sudbury District.

The Canadian Shield, the defining landscape of most of Northern Ontario, starts further south. Driving north from Toronto on Highways 400 or 11, the shield starts about where Simcoe County ends and Muskoka District starts. But the Canadian Shield also encompasses large sections of the City of Kawartha Lakes and Peterborough, Hastings, Frontenac, and Lanark Counties and the entirety of Haliburton County.

NOntario.jpgThe various definitions of Northern Ontario, including the county, regional and district boundaries. 

But the provincial and federal governments both have special economic development funding programs whose boundaries take a more liberal definition of Northern Ontario. FedNor, the Government of Canada’s economic development agency, includes Parry Sound and Muskoka Districts. The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, a provincial agency, includes Parry Sound District, but not Muskoka District.

Whether Parry Sound and Muskoka are considered part of Northern Ontario is very much a political question. In 2004, the newly elected Liberal government chose to remove Muskoka from the areas eligible for provincial grants meant for northern communities — Muskoka being a reliable Progressive Conservative seat, and the riding of the previous PC premier, Ernie Eves.

Parry Sound District, while not, in my view, part of Northern Ontario, at least shares some similar characteristics with neighbouring Sudbury and Nipissing Districts. It includes many isolated communities, and apart from the Town of Parry Sound itself, it has a very sparse population. Muskoka, on the other hand, is more urbanized with three larger towns, and is much more popular for recreation, particularly during the summer. Muskoka also has a regional government — the District Municipality — while much of Parry Sound District’s land is unorganized — meaning lands without any municipal government.

And if one considers Muskoka to be part of Northern Ontario, why not also include Haliburton County, which also has a sparse population and is relatively isolated from the urbanized south? A line needs to be drawn somewhere, and there is no valid reason why Muskoka should ever be considered a part of Northern Ontario. There might be a case for Parry Sound District, but definitely not cottage country.