Great Canadian Railway Journey (August 2016)

Perhaps nothing is more embedded in the psyche of Canada than its national railroads which were not only the prime movers behind the creation of the country in 1867 but continue to this day to be the principal means of transporting all of its goods. It may be quicker to fly across the country but there’s no better way to enjoy the scenery and appreciate the spectacular views of the ever changing landscape than by sitting in the dome car of the Via Rail train. It’s also the perfect opportunity to slow down the pace of our overly hectic lives and take in the nearly forgotten pleasures of a proper meal service and personalized attendants.

Boarding the train in Vancouver we were quickly settled into our private room with its own bathroom and the beds all made up with clean fresh bedding before joining the other passengers for a champagne send off party. After travelling around the world it was nice to be in our own country for a change where everyone spoke the same language and the exchange rate was good. The train was filled with like minded folks from Europe, Asia, and the U.S. and we looked forward to making the acquaintance of our closest neighbours.

Along the familiar Fraser Valley we went, oblivious to any traffic, and then up the Fraser Canyon itself as we followed the Fraser River and the original gold rush route of the 1850’s past Hells Gate, and its famous salmon ladders, through a few of the tunnels blasted out of the mountain in the 1880’s and still in use today before arriving in Kamloops where the train route now follows the Thompson River. The Thompson is actually a tributary of the Fraser but there couldn’t be a greater contrast between the blue/green waters of the Thompson and the muddy, silt laden waters of the Fraser.      

The CN railway line and the Yellowhead Hwy both follow the Thompson River all the way to Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies and Yellowhead Pass, the border between Alberta and British Columbia.  Named after Pierre Bostonais, an Iroquois-Metis trapper hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company to find a way through B.C. and whose nickname was “Yellowhead” because of his blond hair, the route was discovered in 1820 and originally proposed for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The CPR rejected it in the 1880’s in favour of a different more southerly route through the Rockies and it wasn’t until 1910 that the CN decided to use it for their main line route into B.C.

There are two principal national parks in the Canadian Rockies, Banff and Jasper, with Jasper National Park being the largest though the town of Jasper is a smaller commercial centre than Banff. Both are go-to destinations for outdoor enthusiasts and for anyone wanting to gaze in awe at the mountain peaks on full display. As the train continued on to Edmonton we also kept our eyes open for any bears and elk wanting to get their picture taken.

Woke up in the early morning somewhere in Saskatchewan, a Cree word meaning “swift flowing river”, and also the name of the 7th largest river in Canada that flows 1,900 km eastward from the Bow glacier in the Alberta Rockies all the way to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. The prairies never looked prettier with all the colours of the crops in various stages of harvest mixed in with trees and lakes dotting the countryside and flocks of migrating ducks and geese passing overhead.  It wasn’t a flat, featureless landscape by any means and we kept ourselves and our fellow passengers amused by searching for and trying to photograph the no longer ubiquitous red barns and grain elevators of the square mile farms that once dominated the prairies.

Rarer still were sightings of buffalo, or more correctly the American bison, that once roamed throughout most of North America from Alaska to Mexico and from the Rockies to the Atlantic. Originally numbering over 60 million there were only 500 or so of these magnificent beasts left by 1900 because of the commercial slaughtering that took place in the 1800’s. Thanks to the efforts of a handful of ranchers determined to save the animal from extinction the remainder were gathered together and there are now over 500,000 on private and government protected land of which 200,000 are in Canada.

After two days we arrived in Winnipeg, which means “muddy water” in Cree, an apt word considering it's located at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers in an area now known as “The Forks”. In spite of its reputation for extreme cold and mosquitoes we encountered neither and, with the waters below the flood level, we enjoyed a lovely walk along the river banks and over the Esplanade Riel (a magnificent pedestrian only bridge) into St. Boniface where Louis Riel is buried.

Originally vilified in the Canadian history books, as a traitor for fomenting the North-West rebellion in support of Metis rights, and hanged for treason, he is now recognized as the founder of Manitoba and a hero of the native rights movement.  As with all First Nations people, including the Inuit, there is a long history of Canadian injustice and the Metis, who are the descendents of the intermarrying between French Canadian trappers and First Nations women, are still working through the settlement process.

By far the most intriguing building in Winnipeg is the newly opened Canadian Museum of Human Rights. An architectural marvel that rises 7 levels from a Great Hall through a series of spaces and illuminated ramps made from Spanish alabaster to the Tower of Hope with its spectacular view of downtown Winnipeg. Here the heartbreaking and shameful history of Canada’s mistreatment of its First Nations people, the internment of Japanese Canadians and others, the Chinese head tax, the Komagata Maru incident with the Sikhs, and other disgraceful acts are on full display alongside atrocities such as the Holocaust. But there is also attention paid to other contemporary human rights issues around the world that need to be addressed and examples of the progress slowly being made in spite of all the ignorance.

Thanks to its unique river location, as well as being at the longitudinal centre of North America, Winnipeg has always been an important gateway; first as a canoe crossroads for First Nations people, later as one of the principal fur trading posts (Fort Garry) of the Hudson’s Bay Company (after it merged with the North West Company) and then as a hub for both the CPR and CN railways. By 1911 it was the 3rd largest city in Canada but since then it has slipped to number 8 thanks to the Panama Canal and the rise of Vancouver’s importance in international trade. The “Forks” which was once a massive railway yard, has since been redeveloped into a vibrant tourist attraction filled with shops, restaurants, outdoor recreational areas, theatres, and unique public art.

Besides the intersection of Portage & Main, another popular tourist attraction is the “Journey to Churchill” exhibit in the Assiniboine Zoo. Here snowy owls, Arctic foxes, muskoxen, caribou and wolves are on display as well as polar bears and seals which can be viewed through underwater viewing tunnels as they swim below the surface of the water.  Costing over $90 million to build, and using orphan polar bears that otherwise would have been euthanized, it’s an amazing interactive experience and a fabulous teaser for anyone wanting to go to Churchill to see the real thing.

After three days in Winnipeg, including a side trip to see Lake Winnipeg, we got back on the train for the journey to Toronto which took us through the Ontario portion of the Canadian Shield. A large swath of exposed Precambrian igneous rock covered by a thin layer of soil, this rock is as old as the planet itself, and stretches north from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Ocean and covers most of Ontario & Quebec. It’s also covered with countless lakes, with an estimated 110,000 in Manitoba, 250,000 in Ontario, and 500,000 in Quebec.

Granted these lakes are mostly quite small but, as we rode along, we could see there was a beaver dam in nearly every single one. It made for another photo contest amongst the train passengers and a very graphic appreciation of the role the beaver played in the development of Canada. It was the fur trade that first opened up the country to European explorers and settlers and brought them into contact with First Nations people. Nearly hunted to extinction, the beavers were eventually saved by the changes in fashion and have since completely recovered.

One advantage of train travel over air travel, besides avoiding the security screening process and all the wasted early check in time, is that you are always arriving and departing from downtown instead of some distant airport. Pulling into the Toronto station after two days we were immediately surrounded by all the high rise office headquarters of corporate Canada. Within minutes we were out and about mingling with the office workers and other tourists crowding the sidewalks and bustling in and out of all the buildings.

As Canada’s largest city, and the 4th largest in North America after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles, it’s the country’s centre of arts and commerce with the CN Tower, the western hemisphere’s tallest free standing structure, the city’s most recognizable icon.  Besides being the home of the Hockey Hall of Fame, it’s also the only Canadian city with a major league baseball team. A night at Rogers Centre, formerly the Skydome, to watch the Blue Jays in their run up to the playoffs was a special treat.

The word Toronto in Iroquois means “place where trees stand in water” something that hasn’t existed for quite some time. The downtown architecture may be dominated by the financial towers of the banks and telecom companies but the entire city is filled with high rises, with over 1,800 buildings higher than 100 feet. The condo boom is even crazier than Vancouver’s but the redeveloped Distillery District and St. Lawrence Market along the waterfront is a particular delight. Pedestrian friendly and filled with shops, restaurants, condos and of course micro-breweries, it was a favorite destination.

In old Toronto there are lots of colourful neighbourhoods catering to various ethnic groups, students, and the LGBT community and featuring old style homes and Edwardian buildings.  In the middle of old Toronto are both the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and you couldn’t ask for anything more cosmopolitan than what they were offering. The ROM with its radically redesigned entrance was featuring a Chihuly glass exhibit and the AGO was showcasing the paintings of Lawren Harris, one of the Group of 7 artists whose paintings redefined the images of the Canadian north.  

A side trip to the Niagara peninsula introduced us to the largest wine growing area in Canada as well as the pretty tourist town of Niagara-On-The-Lake which hosts the annual Shaw Theatre Festival.  But the main attraction is the famous Niagara Falls, located on the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario and forms the border between the U.S. and Canada. While the Victoria (108m) and Iguazu Falls (82m)  are higher, the Niagara Falls (51m) have a much higher flow rate; 2,400 cubic metres/second compared to 1,088 and 1,746 respectively. That’s a lot of water and we certainly got a taste of it going through the Canadian Horseshoe Falls.

Back on the train after three days in Toronto, this time following the shoreline of Lake Ontario to Kingston and then turning north up through the farmlands en route to Ottawa the nation’s capital.  In Algonquin, Ottawa means “to trade” and historically this area was another important canoe crossroads for First Nations people where the Ottawa, Gatineau, and Rideau Rivers all came together. Surrounded by forest, Ottawa was a prosperous lumber town and in the 1850’s had some of the largest sawmills in the world.

Ottawa wasn’t always the capital but, after 17 years of alternating and bickering between Kingston, Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City, the government of Canada asked Queen Victoria to pick a permanent capital city for Canada. Located on the border of Quebec and Ontario, and halfway between the English and French settlements, Ottawa seemed the perfect compromise so, on New Year’s Eve 1857, she made it her choice. Work started almost immediately to build the Parliament buildings, the largest North American construction project ever attempted, and by 1866 the Gothic Revival style buildings were finished.

Ottawa was originally named Bytown, after Colonel John By, who was in charge of the Rideau Canal project to connect Kingston with the Ottawa River. This was a military initiative to provide an alternate supply route to Kingston from Montreal that would bypass the stretch of the St. Lawrence River bordering New York State in case there was a repeat of the 1812 invasion by the Americans.  Over 200 km in length and incorporating two rivers, 16 lakes and 47 locks, the Rideau Canal was completed in 1832. It has been recognized by UNESCO as a work of genius and is still used to this day by boats up to 100 feet in length and 25 feet in width. In the winter part of it becomes the world’s largest outdoor skating rink.

Being the nation’s capital Ottawa has the most incredible collection of museums and galleries. Of particular significance are the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canadian Museum of History. Here we walked through the breathtaking Grand Hall with its Pacific Coast totem pole exhibit, the largest indoor collection in the world, and the First People’s Hall outlining the Aboriginal history from 500 years ago to present time.

For a country that prides itself as being in the forefront of the United Nations peacekeeping forces, an idea first suggested by Lester (Mike) Pearson when he was the Canadian ambassador to the UN and for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 before becoming Prime Minister in 1963, we have quite a history of warfare that is on full display in the Canadian War Museum. It was a very profound and moving experience going through the various galleries and studying the photos and exhibits.  It was also impossible to imagine the sacrifices made by so many people over the ages and the horrors that have occurred on land, sea, and air.

From the founding of Tadoussac in 1600 there were First Nations conflicts and 100 years of “Beaver Wars” that followed between the French backed Algonquin-Huron alliance against the Dutch & British supported Iroquois confederacy. The Great Peace of Montreal in 1701 ended the conflict but then another 100 years of colonial warfare on Canadian soil started between French and British troops, until France withdrew from North America after signing the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The American Revolution then followed in 1776 – 1783 with France supporting the Americans colonies against the British as they invaded Montreal and attacked Nova Scotia. The 19th century brought the War of 1812 when once again the Americans tried unsuccessfully to invade Canada. To contain any further ideas of American expansionism after their Civil War ended in 1865, the British colonies of Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were federally united in 1867 as the Dominion of Canada.  In 1868 the Militia Act was passed to create a volunteer defence force and in 1873 the North-West Mounted Police was created.  In 1885 the two forces joined together to put down the Louis Riel led North-West Rebellion, on what would become, the last battle fought in Canada.

In spite of being a Dominion, Canada did not have full legislative autonomy until 1931, with the passing of the Statute of Westminster.  (It wasn’t until 1982 under Prime Minister Trudeau the Elder that the Constitution, along with the Charter of Rights was finally patriated to Canada) While Canada voluntarily supplied troops for the 1899 – 1902 Boer War in South Africa, it was automatically drawn into World War 1 (1914 – 1918) when Britain declared war on Germany. In spite of having a population of only 8 million a total of 620,000 men and women served in the Canadian forces and of these 60,000 were killed and 154,000 were wounded. By the time the 2nd World War rolled around (1939 – 1945) Canada decided on its own to declare war on Germany and, out of a population of 11.5 million, over 1.1 million served in the armed forces. While the losses were still significant, with 45,000 dead and 55,000 wounded, it wasn’t anything like the trench warfare slaughter of the First World War.

Less than 2 hours by train takes you from Ottawa to Montreal, the historic commercial capital of Canada, the largest city in Quebec, and the 2nd largest French speaking city in the world after Paris. Named after “Mont Royal” the name given to the hill in the centre of the city that also forms its largest park, the city is referred to as the cultural capital of Canada with its bilingual population and hundreds of summer festivals including Just For Laughs, the world’s largest comedy festival and the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the world’s largest jazz festival.

It's also home to McGill University, the number 1 university in Canada, and of course the Montreal Canadians, the most winning hockey team in the NHL. Filled with funky, tree lined neighbourhoods all offering great places to eat and drink, the most reasonable rents in Canada, and featuring colourful wall murals everywhere you turn, the city has a look and feel that is that is uniquely very human in scale.  All of which makes it easy to sit back and enjoy. 

While the French explorer Samuel de Champlain first tried to establish a fur trading post at Montreal in 1611, it wasn’t until the British took control in 1760 and the North West Company was formed in 1779 that the golden age of fur trading really began, as well as an intense rivalry with the Hudson Bay Company who they eventually merged with. More and more Scottish and English immigrants continued to settle in Montreal and establish businesses including Molson Brewing in 1810, the Bank of Montreal in 1817, the CPR in 1880, the CN in 1919 and the Royal Bank in 1928.  Up until the 1930’s Montreal was the most important economic centre in Canada with virtually all of the country’s financial institutions and transportation companies headquartered here.

Many of these historic buildings are still on display as you wander through St. James Street in Vieux Montreal along with famous churches such as Notre-Dame Basilica and the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel or “Sailor’s Church”.  Saint Joseph’s Oratory is the largest church in Canada with the second largest dome in the world after Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A perfect city for walking and exploring, particularly through the Latin Quarter, along St. Catherine, or in Vieux Montreal, it also has a fabulous Metro to whisk you anywhere else you need to go. Old and new architecture, cathedrals, shops, bars, and fabulous restaurants are everywhere you turn and all with a laid back vibe that takes away the pressure even though this is still Canada’s 2nd largest city.

On the 4 hour train journey to Quebec City evidence of the old Seigneurial system of land allotments was on full display with farms laid out in long, narrow strips along the St. Lawrence River. The system made for easy access to transportation and kept habitants close to other families with each farm only a hundred yards or so from one another. Contrast this with farmers in the prairies that were laid out in the checkerboard style of the township system that put each farm a mile apart from the other.

After checking into our room inside the walls of Vieux Quebec (a World Heritage Site) we went for a late afternoon stroll along the promenade of the Citadel enjoying the view of the St. Lawrence and realizing what a perfect location it was for a military establishment.  Founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, Quebec (the Algonquin word for “where the river narrows”) is one of the oldest cities in North America and the ramparts surrounding Old Quebec are the only fortified city walls remaining in the U.S. and Canada. 

Quebec City was the capital of New France and headquarters of many raids against New England and the site of three battles between the British & French until France finally ceded New France to Britain in 1763 as part of the Treaty of Paris. In exchange France got to keep the rich sugar colony of Guadeloupe, fishing rights off of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence fishing ports of St Pierre & Miquelon.

The old town is filled with lively restaurants, souvenir shops, and military history including of course the Plains of Abraham where, after a 3 month siege, the British under Wolfe defeated the French under Montcalm in a 15 minute battle that ended up killing both generals. It also contains the magnificent Chateau Frontenac, the principal architectural attraction of the city and the most photographed hotel in the world. Outside the walls of Vieux Quebec are the provincial legislative buildings, a vibrant commercial centre and the picturesque train station, Gare du Palais, which is modelled after the Chateau Frontenac.

Leaving Quebec City we journeyed through the colourful forests of the Jacques Cartier National Park en route to Saguenay, a city formed by the merger of Chicoutimi, Jonquiere, and La Baie and located on the Saguenay River/Fjord. Carefully heeding the moose warnings while taking in the autumn foliage it was hard to believe an area with so much scenery was also the centre of both a large aluminium plant and pulp & paper industry.

From Saguenay to Tadoussac, where the fjord meets the Saint Lawrence River, is a National Marine Conservation Area, one of only 4 that exist in Canada, and the road offers magnificent views of the waterway and surrounding cliffs. Whales of many species including; minke, fin, blue, humpback, and a resident colony of belugas are drawn here by the rich food supply created by the mixing of fresh and salt water. In addition there are harbour porpoises, the surprisingly large grey seals and many species of migrating sea birds.  

Based out of Tadoussac, the charming and colourful town established in 1600 as the very first French trading post in New France and the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Canada, whale watching tours depart every morning and afternoon and there is also a large marine mammal interpretation centre that provides a perfect complement to any tour.

Another picturesque highway follows the north side of the shoreline of the St. Lawrence from Tadoussac to Quebec City passing through pretty villages and magnificent hillsides all while taking in the sparkling water of this signature river.  Ever since it was first discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1535 it has been critical to the exploration and settlement of Canada. Originally only navigable to Montreal because of the Lachine Rapids, an ongoing series of locks and canals built over the years, and culminating with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, have since made it possible for ocean going ships to go all the way to ports in Lake Superior.

Leaving Quebec City at night for the final leg of our journey we follow the south shore of the St. Lawrence, pass through the forests of New Brunswick, and come out in the farmland of Nova Scotia before arriving in Halifax 20 hours later. We have now traversed the entire country by train and it’s a little sad saying goodbye to the Via Rail folks who have done such a great job of keeping us well fed and watered while providing us with such a scenic passage.  As the train readies itself for the return journey we set off to explore another great Canadian city and one that is rated as one of the nicest places to live anywhere in the world.

First stop in Halifax was Citadel Hill, a fortified summit overlooking the Halifax Harbour and headquarters of the Canadian Atlantic Fleet that was first started in 1749 when the town was founded and finally completed in 1856. While it was never attacked, the Citadel was a key component of the British forces in their frequent battles with the French, a strategic defense in the event of war with the Americans, and a logistical base for the Expulsion of the Acadians from 1755 – 1764.  It’s also the location of the Town Clock which has kept time for the city since 1803.

Located on the lively and colourful downtown waterfront, and bearing testament to its rich maritime history, is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the oldest and largest maritime museum in Canada. On display inside are a large collection of ship models while outside visitors can explore historic vessels on the dock and other small craft. Perhaps the most moving exhibit is the Halifax Explosion where, in December 6th 1917, the SS Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship carrying munitions, collided with the Belgian relief vessel the SS Imoin. The resulting explosion was the largest artificial explosion before the development of nuclear weapons, and it killed over 2,000 people, wounded another 9,000 and destroyed every building within a 2.6 kilometre radius.

Fortunately the city was able to rebuild itself and today the urban core has a vibrant cultural scene with public sculptures, art galleries, theatres, festivals, and, thanks to the numerous post secondary institutions, a large student population that keeps the bars and restaurants hopping, especially along Argyle Street.  All in all a wonderfully compact, safe, and very clean city to explore.

But the real Nova Scotia is found along its coast and the most famous spot of all of course is less than 50 km away at Peggy’s Cove with its lighthouse on Peggy’s Point.  A typical fishing village nestled into one of the countless coves along the eastern and southern shoreline that provide protection from the Atlantic Ocean, and where lobster fishing is still the mainstay of the economy. Following the coastal road as opposed to the interior freeway means it can take hours to only journey a short distance but the scenery is over the top. 

The clear, blue ocean water meeting with powdery white sandy beaches seems to meander along forever and in every cove are modest little houses perfectly positioned to take in the beautiful view.  Arriving at the colourful port town of Lunenburg, another UNESCO and Canadian historic site, we check out the Bluenose 2 and other attractions before tucking into some fresh lobster, fries, and local craft beer at a sunny, outdoor patio.

After all, when you talk about maritime traditions in Nova Scotia, it’s all about the seafood and beer.  It’s also the end of the road for us and what a perfect finale.

If anything the trip has not only shown us how large the country really is but also how much more we still have to explore. Already we are planning a road trip to the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, another rail journey from Winnipeg to Churchill to see the belugas and polar bears, a return to Ottawa to see more museums, a boat cruise in Kingston to take in the Thousand Islands, attending the Jazz Festival in Montreal, and spending more time exploring Nova Scotia including the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, whale watching in the Bay of Fundy, and checking out more of the beautiful coastline. It was the railway that stitched together this country from coast to coast and what an educational journey it has been learning about our history as we rode the rails from one end to the other.

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