History Slam Episode Twenty-Nine: Canada’s Cross-Country Train

By Sean Graham

Whenever I have to fly, I generally feel like this and assume that the flight is going to end like this. As a result, when I learned that Congress this past spring was going to be held in Victoria, my initial reaction to having to confront two cross country flights in the matter of days was something like this – although I will say that being able to watch Airplane on the flight out did make the entire experience much more bearable.

It quickly dawned on me, however, that I could take advantage of being on the west coast by taking the train back to the Eastern Time zone. Often included in those ‘100 Things To Do’ lists, the train follows a northern route out of Vancouver and stops in Jasper, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg on its way to Toronto. I had done the trip between Saskatoon and Toronto a couple of times, but I had never done the whole route, which takes parts of five days (the train left Friday night and arrived on Tuesday morning). While the amenities were nice – the beds are surprisingly comfortable, the food is outstanding, and the inclusion of an on-board shower is critical – the opportunity to really soak in the country was what really made the trip worthwhile. From the mountains to the Prairies to the Canadian Shield, there is a chance to see the diversity of Canada’s landscapes. The other thing that struck me was how quickly the train had gone from an engineering marvel to a vestige of a bygone era. Viewed by some as critical to our national survival in the 19th century, the cross-country train no longer holds the same place in our collective imagination. That history is not lost on board, however, as videos of the railroad’s past are shown and photos adorn the interior – although there is no noticeable mention of how the tunnels through the mountains were built.

This episode of the History Slam features my conversations with the people I met on the train. Given its popularity as a tourist attraction, I was able to talk with folks from around the world and across Canada. Starting just west of Edmonton, I talked with 12 people as we crossed the country, concluding as we sat just north of Sudbury. It was a terrific group and included:

Visual Artist Robin Lambert from Red Deer, AB

Singer/Songwriter Joshua Smith from Halifax

Sally and Ed Williford from Brooke Haven, MS

Member of TTNG Cris Collis from Dorchester, England

Lillian Cargill from Capreol, ON

Gaye Casey from Darwin, Australia

Rona Simpson and Mitch Gibson from Aberdeen, Scotland

Ken and Tami Burgess from Vernon, BC

Devin Andrews from Winnipeg, MB

We chat about why everyone was travelling, the history of the railroad, and the meaning of the train in the 21st century. Everyone had their own story and connection to the train and it was a privilege to speak with them about it.

Sean Graham is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa where he is currently working on a project that examines the early years of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He has previously studied at Nipissing University, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Regina and like any red-blooded Canadian his ultimate dream is to be a curling champion while living on a diet of beer and poutine.

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