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.