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.