Sunday, June 15, 2014

Influential Railway TV 3: Last Train Across Canada

What TV shows did you watch growing up? I had the usual diet of Mr. Dressup, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Sesame Street but, even when I was very young, I was particularly drawn to the small collection of railway VHS tapes at my local library (Barney really didn't work for me, although Thomas the Tank Engine did!). What amazes me looking back is how influential those tapes were in the development of my interest in railways. At the time, I mainly saw pretty pictures of trains, but the underlying content was also seeping in. As I got older, more information and connections were made with each viewing as I kept being drawn back to the same ones. In this series of articles, I revisit and analyze the railway shows which have had the greatest influence on my study of railways. I was avidly watching many of them before I turned six.

Last Train Across Canada (1990)

This two-part documentary was produced for PBS and features Murray Sayle taking the "last train across Canada." When I first saw it as a child, I barely understood it, but I now understand it as a very thought-provoking look at not just the decline of Canadian railways, but also as a portrait of Canada during a very uncertain moment for the country's identity. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that the documentary was actually about Canadian identity, rather than a sweeping political decision affecting the national transportation policy. Questions of what it means to be Canadian, Quebec sovereignty and the draw of the United States come up throughout the journey, which ended on a rather pessimistic note, concluding that the demise of rail could well be the demise of the nation.

While its discussion of identity is fascinating and offers a valuable insight into the Canadian mindset of a quarter of century ago, its depiction of the railway network is completely inaccurate. Not to be pedantic, but I have never seen a documentary ride so roughshod over Canada's railway network and the country's geography. There never was a "last train across Canada" - or a first. Sayle's journey from Sydney to Vancouver has never been possible without taking at least three trains. In fact, he leaves out Newfoundland altogether (being a few years too late for its narrow-gauge railway). The journey is correct in that it was filmed on the eve of VIA Rail's massive cuts in 1990, which saw the country's passenger rail service halved overnight. The VIA Rail route he (largely) stuck to, via Maine and the CP's transcontinental route across Ontario and the Prairies, was indeed abandoned. That said, the crossing of the country remains possible (except for Halifax-Sydney, which lost all its service) with VIA Rail predominantly using CN's route.

According to the narration, Quebec City is next door to Montreal. Relative to Canada, this is correct, but it is still hours by train. Having visited Toronto, Sayle apparently rejoins the train just outside the city, by which he means Sault Ste. Marie. Not only is this the other end of the province, but Algoma Central territory, not VIA Rail. After a short visit with the Amish, we are back with VIA Rail briefly, before jumping across Ontario again to the Ontario Northland Railway's line to Moosonee, where he meets the Cree and finally acknowledges Canada's Native population. Throughout the show, we are constantly reminded of how empty Canada was before rail, yet this viewpoint erases centuries of Native habitation. While the documentary's perspective seems dated, Native visibility has improved considerably since it was filmed and a similar production filmed now would probably discuss Native people much more.

Jumping back to VIA, the journey skips to Churchill (missing Winnipeg and Thunder Bay completely). After polar bears, Sayle heads south and explores Prairie life, or an extension of Midwestern American life, hinting at the Prairie separatism that simmered at the time. Onwards through the Rockies and straight to the Pacific Ocean, neglecting Vancouver. In fact, the whole journey from Ontario westward feels rushed.

One particular gem in the show is a discussion about the place of railways in Canadian identity with Pierre Berton at Union Station in Toronto. Berton remained convinced that the railway was central to identity in 1990. Were he still alive today, I'm not sure he would be. In 2014, most Canadians do not travel by train at all.

As I have revisited this production over the years, the question of Canadian identity has come to be the most interesting element to me. The idea of a welcoming, multicultural society it portrayed sounds very much like a Trudeau-esque vision of Canada. It is, I think, overly simplistic. I cannot believe that Canadians in 1990 would have considered it acceptable to immigrants to never learn English or French, as Sayle suggests when he meets a Japanese-speaking cashier in Banff; they certainly wouldn't now. Canadians are portrayed as simple, somewhat parochial people. While the country remains parochial, the growth of the internet has made the world much smaller and impossible to ignore. In 1990, it was still possible to be detached from the world. In 2014, it is virtually impossible.

The people Sayle met across Canada were cordial and friendly, traits now relegated to the older generation and rural areas. Of all the stereotypes used to describe Canadians, politeness is the one I most wish wasn't disappearing. I find it increasingly hard to distinguish Canadians from Americans, but it seems Sayle found this was already happening decades ago.

Sayle's discussion of Quebec separatism was timely, as it returned to the fore with the referendum of 1995, but its urgency has since waned. The recent defeat of the Parti Québécois demonstrates that Quebecers value a distinct society and culture (something which has been largely achieved without independence), but not an intolerant one. The western provinces are still part of Canada too, but the ambivalence pulling the Prairies towards the US has grown stronger with the election of Stephen Harper who, while he pretends to "stand up for Canada," has systematically worked to dismantle everything that was distinct about Canada and has adopted sweeping American policies, from an increasingly militarized society to mass election fraud. Sayle spoke of the Prairies as empty farmland, but oil was already shifting the Canadian balance of power westward when VIA Rail pulled out of southern Saskatchewan.

Last Train Across Canada is a whimsical look at an era in Canadian railways which is now gone, even if the documentary completely butchered routes and geography in its portrayal of the "last train."  However, railway accuracy aside, it remains an important snapshot of identity across Canada in 1990 and looks at a society that was still connected with its railway - a fact I feel is no longer the case. Last Train Across Canada was released as a 2-tape VHS set but never as a DVD. A few poor-quality versions of the show can be found floating around cyberspace as well.