Thursday, November 03, 2022

The end of northland-book.net

In the Internet world, eight years seems like an eternity. Even in the normal world, eight years is quite a long time. In the autumn of 2014, Call of the Northland was published, including a website to host errata and updates. After nearly a decade, I've decided to close down that website. As of today, northland-book.net is no more. Of course, it does live on in the Internet Archive.

So, if you happen to find northland-book.net somewhere on the Interwebs, it won't be me. If you wanted those errata and updates, you can find them here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Ontario Northland's "Every Child Matters" Locomotive

This week, Ontario Northland unveiled a repainted locomotive. GP38-2 #1808 is now bright orange and emblazoned with the phrase "Every Child Matters." The phrase has become the slogan for the commemoration of residential schools across Canada and for the recognition of the damage they did. Orange has become the representative colour through Orange Shirt Day (now the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation), which is held on September 30 every year.

It's not the first time that a railway has chosen to acknowledge residential schools. Last year, Canadian Pacific painted a locomotive orange. Shortly afterwards, CP painted a second locomotive the same shade of orange (or ridiculously close), but with the Hapag-Lloyd logo to promote a logistics partnership. While I felt that this diluted the message of the first locomotive, the idea of a railway acknowledging residential schools would have been unheard of even a decade ago. Several years ago, Canadian National began including its Aboriginal Affairs logo in its standard locomotive paint scheme. However, as I wrote, CN's decision seemed at odds with its corporate policy.

I applaud all of these gestures designed to acknowledge the treatment of Indigenous people in what we now call Canada. However, I wonder whether railway companies realize how deeply ingrained they are in this colonial reality. If they do realize it, will they ever acknowledge it publicly? Railway construction and operation were fundamental to the expansion of Canada and to the ongoing colonial control by the Canadian state. I think there is a sincere desire to improve relations, but I do wonder if companies have realized what better relations might mean. As someone who spent the past five years studying the impact of railway development on Indigenous communities in Northeastern Ontario, I have come to realize just how daunting a challenge moving forward in a good way will be.

While "Every Child Matters" is being used by these companies to represent the entire relationship between railways and Indigenous communities, let's not forget that it is supposed to be rooted in one of the federal government's key Indigenous policies: residential schools. Publicly at least, Ontario Northland has been quiet about its own role in residential schools. I'm sorry to say that my research is also largely quiet on this question. My work was based almost entirely on archival research, and connections between Ontario Northland and the schools are almost non-existent in the archival record. 

However, there is just about enough material to make some very broad observations about Ontario Northland and the schools. Were trains used to transport Indigenous children to residential schools? Yes. Jane Willis's autobiography recounts that this happened, as does the TRC report and the Mushkegowuk Council's Peoples's Inquiry. Did the expansion of the Ontario Northland Railway improve logistics in Northeastern Ontario? Yes, I hope that part is obvious. Did the aforementioned improvements to logistics allow for the expansion of the Horden Hall Residential School at Moose Factory? Yes, correspondence between the federal Department of Indian Affairs and the Church of England says so. Further research, especially in collaboration with local communities, would provide a much clearer answer. This is one of those times when local people, those who lived this, would provide a much better answer than I ever could. As such, my observations should not be the final word on this. Instead, take them as a call for further thought.

Gestures like the ONR's special paint scheme are important. As media coverage has noted, this is only a part of a much larger effort by the railway to foster better relations with First Nations along the line. And this is key! Gestures must be backed up with lasting positive actions. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

FYI: I am no longer on Twitter

 Bye-bye Twitter!

It’s a cliché right now, people dumping Twitter in righteous indignation at Elon Musk’s purchase of the social network. I’m not happy about the move at all, I think it’s a dangerous concentration of power and influence, but ultimately it was only the catalyst for me leaving the site. I took a long hiatus from Twitter last fall and really didn’t miss it. I was never a productive user and my presence was minimal. Even with carefully curating what I read and followed, it was still too angry. Most of the time, it just left me feeling sad. I'm not really a social media person.

I have now deleted my account. If you find a Thomas Blampied on Twitter, it’s not me. If you find a ProBonoHistory on Twitter, it’s not me. My website isn’t going anywhere and those of you who want to get in touch can through it.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Lasso’s Erased, or why everything I thought I knew about the Panama Canal was wrong

Review of Marixa Lasso, Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019).

Many years ago, I studied the construction of the Panama Canal as my main academic focus. In particular, I researched leisure time and tourism during the construction period and the fascinating contrast between life in the American-controlled Canal Zone and in the neighbouring Panamanian cities. In general, I relied on the Canal Record (the official newspaper of the Isthmian Canal Commission), travelogues, memoirs, and existing secondary literature. After several years, academic politics and research limitations forced me to shift my focus and I ended up back on North American topics.

However, my interest in the Canal has never really gone away. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to deliver a guest lecture summarizing the Canal construction and my conclusions about leisure and tourism in the Zone. While I was putting together lecture slides, I struggled to find images of Panamanian towns from the early 20th century. I could find many photographs of official Canal buildings and housing, but almost none of Panamanian communities. Marixa Lasso’s recent and groundbreaking study of the Canal explains why.

Although Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal is a sensationalist choice for a title, it should not detract from what is an extremely valuable contribution to the historiography on the Canal. This is a rigorous piece of scholarship that uses a broad and rich array of sources to challenge many of the standard conclusions about the construction of the Panama Canal. Lasso’s central argument is that as construction of the Canal neared completion, the American authorities undertook a campaign of relocation to remove non-Canal personnel from the Canal Zone. Fuelled by growing racial prejudice and inaccurate understandings of the region, officials hoped to transform the Zone into a civilized tropical paradise. However, as Lasso skillfully demonstrates, this erased centuries of republican government, a sophisticated polity, and denied agency to a Panamanian/Columbian community that saw itself very much as part of the ‘civilized’ world.

Through extensive archival research and work on the ground in Panama, Lasso is able to begin the process of reconstructing the lost world of central Panama as it existed before the 1912 order to depopulate the region. The forced relocation literally erased centuries of thriving mercantile communities that were a global crossroads. In their place, new communities were promised far from the Canal, but they were left mostly incomplete and languished without the trade connections that had brought centuries of prosperity.

By focusing on the immediate consequences of Canal construction, Lasso counters most of the corpus on the Canal. David McCullough’s triumphalist account is the story of American technological and political superiority, but it fails to see the complex and sophisticated society that already existed on the Isthmus. Labour histories by Julie Greene and Michael Conniff focus on the workers but say little about the local population. Alexander Missal’s work on the cultural attraction of the canal (a personal favourite) does focus on the control of the Zone, yet says little about those who lived there before. Perhaps only Michael Donoghue’s borderlands history of the Zone comes close, but even it tends to focus on the post-construction period and the growing movement for Panamanian control of the Zone in the mid-20th century. By shifting the focus onto the local (and adopted immigrant) populations, Lasso calls into question the assumptions made by decades of scholarship.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is one that would be shared by any work trying to resurrect a world that has been eradicated from the record. While Lasso has done an excellent job of piecing together the Panamanian world prior to Zone depopulation, there remains a degree of speculation in the book which is somewhat unsettling. As someone working on Canadian Indigenous history, I appreciate the complexity of archival erasure and understand that speculation may be the best answer given the circumstances. I do not believe that this detracts from the book and it offers encouragement for further research.

It is no surprise that I struggled to find images of Panamanian life away from the Zone. As Lasso’s important contribution to the history of the Panama Canal shows, the American fixation on the Canal was rooted in a mindset that could not accept the existing Panamanian society. By shifting the focus away from Canal construction, Marixa Lasso’s book should be required reading for anyone studying the Canal, or infrastructure in a colonial context more broadly.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Afterlife of a Book

I recently received some completely unexpected and very kind tweets about my most recent book, Call of the Northland. I say recent, but it's already six years old. Apparently, the reader bought the book last year and recently got around to reading it. The timing was uncanny. I've been thinking a lot about that book recently, but not in a good way.

Maybe I went about writing it in the wrong way. I chose to title this post the "afterlife" very deliberately. For me, publication was the end, not the beginning. I didn't think much about reception (I was just starting my MA and was a tad busy). To this day, I've never read my book in full, but I have read enough to make me cringe. In particular, I am very upset with the way I portrayed Indigenous people and Indigenous issues. My understanding at the time was beyond superficial and played into more stereotypes than I was conscious of. In all likelihood, I probably did a better job than the majority of Canadians would have in 2014, but still. I have learned so much since, nowhere near enough, but the connections between Indigenous life and infrastructure have become my 9 to 5. Most importantly, I have learned how much I don't know. If Call of the Northland were written today, it would be a very different book.

I don't want to say I'm ashamed of the book now, even though I am, and I rarely mention it to people. I suppose I should be proud. After all, were it not for Call of the Northland, I probably wouldn't be studying the relationship between Ontario Northland and Indigenous communities today. I love the work and I still love writing. I guess I'm pretty lucky.

One of the tweets asked about the sequel. It's true, another problem with a book is that it captures a moment in time. The story ends the day that it hits the printer. Someone picking up Call of the Northland in 2020 is reading my thoughts from six years ago. I did upload an "updates and corrections" document that concluded at the end of 2014, but I haven't said much since. In the past six years, Ontario Northland has gone through a sort of rejuvenation. Bus transportation has become much more prominent within the organization, as has the remanufacturing division. The Polar Bear Express has been upgraded for the first time in nearly 30 years by refurbishing the passenger cars made surplus by the cancellation of the Northlander. Of course, this move means that Ontario Northland would need to source more passenger cars if the Northlander were restarted. The fate of the Northlander itself remains uncertain. In April 2020, the Doug Ford government shifted oversight of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission from the Ministry of Northern Development & Mines to the Ministry of Transportation. The last time that Transportation was in charge of Ontario Northland was back in the 1970s, which was an era of expansion and innovation for the railway. Don't get me wrong, I think it is far too soon to celebrate, but the signs are more positive than they were even two years ago.

I don't think that the repositioning of Ontario Northland as a transportation, rather than a development, entity is a proactive move. The transportation landscape in Northern Ontario has changed a great deal since the attempt to divest the Ontario Northland was cancelled in 2014. The CN (formerly Algoma Central) passenger service from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst doesn't run anymore. VIA Rail reduced service on the Toronto-Vancouver run. Greyhound cancelled its bus services in the region as well. If the Ontario government had not shifted its thinking and worked with Ontario Northland to boost bus service first with the (ultimately aborted) Manitoulin Island expansion and more recently with expansion to White River, Thunder Bay, and Winnipeg, Northwestern Ontario would have been completely isolated with the exception of private cars. While some smaller bus companies tried to fill in some gaps, the region needed some sort of network. In December 2020, the Ministry of Transportation published its new strategy for Northern Ontario transportation, including a serious examination of reinstating passenger rail service between Toronto and Northeastern Ontario. Time will tell if this amounts to anything, but the signs are better than they have been for quite some time. As I said, this change of direction is not so much proactive as a reaction to a rapidly changing transportation situation. In particular, it has become impossible for government to ignore Indigenous issues, even if this attention does not always lead to better, more respectful outcomes. The Ring of Fire mining exploration continues, although plans for rail connections are now off the table. The focus is now on road development and establishing better communications infrastructure. The Ford government has also loosened environmental assessment requirements, which has upset many Indigenous communities (see my point above about better, more respectful outcomes).

So, what's the story since 2014? It's one of a leaner Ontario Northland setting off in different directions in Ontario and beyond with, at least for now, better government backing. COVID-19 has changed transportation everywhere, so these are still uncertain times. All in all, the attempted divestment from 2012-14 is beginning to fade into the background. It had lasting effects, but they were perhaps not as drastic as had been predicted. In Call of the Northland, I predicted that I would never see the North again. It was a bit dramatic perhaps, and in the summer of 2019 I did visit North Bay, travelling by bus from Toronto. I have to say it: Ontario Northland buses are comfortable with decent leg room. No, they don't beat the train, but things could be much, much worse.

If there is a lesson here, it's that books have a life - or an afterlife as I like to think about it. They are a snapshot; a moment in time. Sometimes they sit on a shelf and gather dust. But sometimes, they jump out again.