Manitoba

'It means everything': Families reunited, thanks to train's return to Churchill

As Lena Spence-Hanson looked out the window of Via Rail Train 693, she couldn’t help but get emotional as it got closer and closer to her destination — Churchill.

4 generations come together after town's rail link is restored

Lena Spence-Hanson plays with her newest grandson, two-month-old Sullivan MacPherson. (Rachel Bergen)

As Lena Spence-Hanson looked out the window of Via Rail Train 693, she couldn't help but get emotional as it got closer and closer to her destination — Churchill, Man.

Spence-Hanson lives in Gillam, about 275 kilometres to the south, and is a member of Fox Lake Cree Nation — but her children, grandchildren and many relatives live in Churchill.

It still feels like home to her.

"When we pull into Churchill, you can see my family's old home from the train," she said. "It brings back a lot of memories of being there."

Spence-Hanson travelled with a group of 30 from Fox Lake, including six elders, to celebrate the return of the rail line.

From left, Larry Massan, Lena Spence-Hanson holding two-month-old Sullivan MacPherson, Helen Attley, two-year-old Kane MacPherson and Sarah McCullough have a brief family reunion in Churchill. (Rachel Bergen)

The first passenger train in 18 months arrived in the town — 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg — on Tuesday afternoon. Service on the 400-kilometre Hudson Bay Railway line to Churchill was suspended in May 2017, after severe flooding washed it out in several places, severing the town's only land link.

The line was finally repaired earlier this fall when the railway and the Port of Churchill were purchased from Denver-based Omnitrax Inc. by Arctic Gateway Group, a private-public partnership that includes Missinippi Rail, Fairfax Financial Holdings and AGT Food and Ingredients.

The first freight train of 2018 arrived in Churchill late last month, followed by the first passenger train on Tuesday.

"It's really an epic journey for us," Spence-Hanson said of being on that train.

This trip was especially heartwarming for the mother and grandmother. She had the chance to see her brother, daughter, grandchildren and friends in her hometown.

"I walked in the door [of my daughter's house] and they were waiting, and [my grandson] Kane was really anxious at the door saying, 'Gaga, Gaga! Look what I have,'" Spence-Hanson recalled.

"And when I held my daughter, we just cried. It was beautiful."

'It means everything'

For Sarah McCullough, seeing her mother and grandparents was especially important because her grandparents hadn't yet met her youngest son, two-month-old Sullivan McPherson.

"It means everything. I haven't seen them in so long and it's been really hard," she said, tears welling up in her eyes.

Helen Attley and her husband, Larry Massan, were also on this week's train. They hadn't been able to make the trip from Gillam since the rail service was suspended.

"I told my grandson I want to be on the first train to Churchill to see my grandbabies. He was happy," she said.

Zak McCullough holds his two-month-old nephew, Sullivan MacPherson, while Helen Attley, the boy's great-grandmother, plays with him. (Rachel Bergen)

On Tuesday afternoon they each held their great-grandson and got to kiss his forehead.

"It felt good to be on the train again. We waited a long time for this," Massan said. "We were planning on coming back in the spring, but then [the flood] happened and no more trains. We couldn't go anywhere, so we were stuck in Gillam."

Watch as Helen Attley meets her great-grandson:

Helen Attlee holds her two-month-old great-grandson Sullivan McPherson for the first time. 0:22

The 560 days without train access between Gillam and Churchill were devastating, Spence-Hanson said.

"When the train was down it hurt everyone on this Bay Line, because we couldn't go back and forth and be with our families, we couldn't send food up to the kids," she said.

"[Before the flooding], if my daughter was having problems or a hard time, I could just jump on the train to see her. I could go help her and do stuff with the grandchildren. When this happened, it took that away, so it was really stressful and really hard on the heart."

Spence-Hanson hadn't seen her family in six months because of the increased cost of travelling to Churchill. During the train service disruption she drove from Gillam to Thompson and flew to Churchill, but the costs were exponentially higher.

In fact, she could have taken the trip by train nearly 30 times for the cost of one round-trip plane ticket and the gas to get to Thompson and back.

"I went from a $33 trip to $900. It takes a lot out of you," she said.

She's one of the lucky ones, though. Many from Fox Lake and its sister communities on the Hudson Bay Line haven't been able to see family in Churchill in much longer.

A home away from home

Cynthia Massan made her first trip in two years back to Churchill this week.

"I had happy tears. My aunt hugged me like I hadn't seen her in forever and it was really nice to be home. This is still home, even though I've been gone for so long," she said.

Spence-Hanson agrees and says a year-and-a-half may not seem so long for some people — but it's a long time to people in the north.

"That's a long time to not be able to jump on the train to go see your kids, go see your aunties, your uncles, your cousins," Spence-Hanson said.

"I'm so honoured to be part of it because that's my home," she said, with tears in her eyes. "You can take the train anywhere you want, but there's nothing like going home to Churchill."

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