Here we are again in the middle of winter. This year up north, I am hearing lots of reports of snow and freezing temperatures. Last week, the temperatures with wind chills were in the minus 40 to 50 range in many places across the country. However, all this started late after a mild fall.
Right now, as we head into February, I understand that the really frigid temperatures have given way to freezing rain in many areas in northern Ontario. None of the Elders I talk to can remember such turmoil and ups and downs in the weather systems.
One of the problems that comes out of mild mid-winter weather systems has to do with traveling on northern roads. On slushy highways, where there is freezing rain, accidents happen often. Too many people die on our highways in the winter. It is almost as though they are sacrificed to the almighty car.
When I try to explain to my friends in southern climates or other warmer parts of the world that often I drive on frozen slippery highways and in freezing rain, they are shocked. When I explain further to them that most of the roads in the north are not divided but rather have two-way traffic, they are even more shocked. Then when I tell them that long lines of transport trucks run steadily along these frozen northern highways, only several feet away from oncoming traffic, that really surprises them.
I have found myself explaining how we drive in northern Ontario to people and realizing that their shock is understandable. Everyone wants to be independent and own a car, but at what cost in these dangerous winter conditions?
I have often found myself explaining to family and friends that my travels outside the country were never very dangerous. However, the most life-threatening experiences in heading out to other countries I have always found to be the drive on frozen slippery highways or in sleet as I drove on my way to the Toronto Pearson International Airport.
For some strange reason, our government leaders have decided over the past couple of decades that we don’t need train travel in much of Canada anymore. Tracks have been torn up all over this country. This has meant that anyone who does not have a car or access to one is faced with having to pay a lot of money to fly out of the north.
I know that in the past that many First Nation people depended on the rail system to make their way from semi-remote communities to southern towns and cities. They did this mainly for health reasons but also for employment, education and recreation. The rail option is almost gone from many communities across Canada at this point. Even bus transportation has diminished to the point where it often does not make a lot of sense and it is certainly not as comfortable as a train.
I hear municipalities talking more and more these days about the desire to replace some of the tracks that have been taken from so many communities. The problem is that this is a very expensive undertaking.
Travel by air is certainly possible from northern cities to the south but it is incredibly expensive. In most cases, what it costs to fly from a small north city to Winnipeg, Toronto or Montreal amounts to the same or more that it takes to fly to Europe. That is a bit crazy and it means that people without a lot of money just don’t have the same opportunity when it comes to transportation.
As gas and oil becomes more expensive, the cost of transportation by car is becoming a lot more expensive. I imagine that within the next 20 to 30 years we won’t have any choice but to really consider more train travel and to reinvest in putting tracks back where they have been torn up. We just won’t be able to afford cars and transport by trucks might be cost prohibitive.
I, for one, would be able to adapt to not having my own personal vehicle if there was an efficient, safe, comfortable and fast train service that connected us to destinations all over this land. As a matter of fact, that kind of a trend would make a lot of sense to me. In terms of the safety factor, less people would be losing their lives on slippery winter roads.
I know too many people who have lost their lives merely because they wanted to drive their car from one northern town to another. Our winter roads in the north provide a situation where accidents are just waiting to happen. We need to bring back the trains.