Schefferville train a vital link to life in Quebec's north
Tshiuetin, First Nations-owned company, runs the passenger train between Sept-Îles and Schefferville
After about 10 hours of travel, the train to Schefferville, Que. stops at Emril Junction for about 20 minutes. The tracks split here, one goes to Schefferville, the other to Wabush in Labrador.
This is where the locomotive engineer crews switch. The Tshiuetin crew takes over from their Quebec North Shore & Labrador (QSN&L) counterparts.
The engineer who is going to drive the train for the rest of the night is James Bérubé. Both he and his assistant, Jos Shecanapish, are Naskapi.
"I'm proud of the fact that it's native-owned," Bérubé says. "I don't think it'll ever be 100 per cent native-run. There just aren't enough qualified people to assume the higher positions."
The train provides an essential link to the closest city in the province, Sept-Îles. Had three first nations communities not taken over its ownership nearly 10 years ago, the future of the service would have been in jeopardy.
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The land in this area is dotted with black pines and much of it is wet; swamps, lakes, rivers. The 217 kilometres between Emril Junction and Schefferville belong to Tshiuetin, the same First Nations-owned company that runs the passenger train between Sept-Îles and Schefferville.
About 85 per cent of employees at Tshiuetin are aboriginal.
The company is owned by the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach and Innu from Matimekush-Lac John, who live near Schefferville as well as the Innu from Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam who live in Sept-Iles.
Orlando Cordova, Tshiuetin's general manager, says he thinks the Innu and Naskapi feel they "recovered something that belonged to them" when they bought the train company from the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) in 2005.
"The train represents like a trophy for them because this train is like the most important thing they own," Cordova says. "It's more than a service of a passenger train. It's like something they can show to the world."
The IOC had been trying to get rid of the train tracks between Schefferville and Emril Junction for some time.
Tshiuetin bought the line for a dollar.
The IOC continues to own and operate the rails between Emril Junction and Sept-Îles under the name QNS&L.
In the two passenger cars, most of the travellers are aboriginal.
Myna Mameanskom-McKenzie is returning to Schefferville after a grocery run to Sept-Îles.
"We really need a train here because we don't have any roads to Sept-Îles," she says, adding she would like to see a road opened up one day.
Many of the passengers travel to Sept-Îles to stock up on food, supplies and clothes.
They say despite the cost of the ticket and the travel time, it is worth it.
"You save money," says Fernand Meloatam.
"In Schefferville, it is two, three times more expensive. Cost of living there is hard."
Another passenger, Jean Tooma, says she is making the trip about once per month for a driving class. The closest place for her to get a provincial licence is 600 kilometres from home.
A round-trip ticket on the train costs about $175, or $115 for aboriginal passengers. In comparison, a round-trip plane ticket from Schefferville to Sept-Îles costs about $1,200.
The train trip between Sept-Îles and Schefferville is a long one, taking all day, and not crossing a single town in between. The average trip takes 10 to 12 hours, but it sometimes can be much longer.
Passengers who are used to the trip bring sheets to cover the at-times stained seats and pillows to sleep. Within the first hour of the trip, cell service is lost.
When they are not sleeping or chatting, most passengers spend the time playing games or watching movies on laptops, tablets or smartphones.
Future of the train
At first, Tshiuetin only carried passengers and freight. But as mining activity started up again near Schefferville, the company secured contracts transporting iron ore.
Orlando Cordova, the general manager, says mining contracts is where he sees the most growth in the company's future. He says the biggest challenge for the company is that it is owned by First Nations.
"I think many people think that aboriginal people are not responsible, are not on time and they don't take things seriously, but I can guarantee that it's not true," he says.
Alexandre McKenzie, an Innu elder and member of Tshiuetin's board of directors, says owning the train company has brought a lot of good to his community.
He says a company that was bought for a dollar has grown to be worth a lot more and is now profitable. He wouldn't say how much Tshiuetin is worth, but says the benefits of owning the company go beyond the monetary.
"There are jobs. We've decreased social problems, people have careers. We have locomotive engineers and that comes with a lot of responsibility."
You can hear Marika Wheeler's documentary about her journey on the Tshiuetin train on C'est la vie with Bernard St-Laurent on CBC Radio One on Feb. 15 at 6:30 p.m. ET and Feb. 17 at 11:30 a.m. ET.