Nipissing First Nation elder June Commanda admitted today that she was not a fan of trains. Her first ride on the rails swept her away to residential school, and since then, the memory of that trip—of that machine—brought only pain. But today, after seeing a shining orange and black locomotive, emblazoned with Every Child Matters along the side, she told the crowd that she was eager to take a ride.
“My first memory of residential school was getting on the train,” Commanda explained, the CPR, which took her to a school in Spanish. “That would be home for five years,” for her and her sister, who joined her on the ride. Her younger brother Frank was delivered to the school soon after. “Frank and I survived; my sister passed away.”
Those five years “were very lonely,” marked by “monotonous meals” of meagre food—the same thing every day. The winters were cold, the “wind would knock us down” as the kids tried to play in the playground. “We were dressed very poorly,” and warmth became a rare treat.
See: Bike ride honours survivors of residential schools
This was in the late 1940’s to early 1950’s, and she recalled the kids at the school couldn’t speak English, but it was a prime focus of their curriculum. Speaking their native language was not accepted. Little joy complimented her young life at the school, as the little girls weren’t even allowed to have dolls for comfort. Older girls were able to sew, and all of the scraps from their projects ended up in a barrel in the basement. “So we’d dig in there and we made ourselves little dolls, little rag dolls,” Commanda said. “And we had to hide them.”
After learning to read, she gained some hope, as devouring the words on the page took her “on an adventure” outside of the cold walls of the residential school. “But there wasn’t much joy.”
All of the girls stuck together, she said, “we were all sisters, and that was one good thing.” The girls and boys were segregated, but neither group “was allowed to cry.”
“We were raised not to know love. We were raised to not be a person.” Upon arriving at the school, they cut your hair, changed your clothes into drab garments, “and it just makes you feel really bad. You lose all self-esteem.”
“You’re a nobody.”
Commanda’s powerful recollection of the horrors she experienced at residential school impacted the crowd, and it was stories like hers, told by so many Indigenous People across Canada, that in part inspired the Ontario Northland executives to create a moving monument to Truth and Reconciliation, and to acknowledge that Every Child Matters by paying tribute to those who survived residential school and those who didn’t.
“We are all very grateful to you for sharing your story,” said Corina Moore, the president and CEO of Ontario Northland. “I have so many thoughts as to what this means for us, and I’m humbled to be part of an announcement like this,” she said.
She emphasized that Ontario Northland “is grounded” in their commitment “to create a better future,” and the train symbolizes that commitment. “It reminds us as individuals that we must listen and learn with open hearts.”
Furthermore, the Every Child Matters engine “reminds us that the path forward is about the actions that we choose to take today but they must be based on what we continue to learn about the past. And that will guide us.”
Moore also explained that Ontario Northland is “powered by diversity, inclusion and acceptance” and one of the key values at the company “is caring for one another.”
The newly painted engine will haul along the Polar Bear Express, which runs between Cochrane and Moosonee. It will pull both passengers and freight, and “I hope that when people see this locomotive travelling through their communities they are reminded that this is a safe space for them” to travel with Ontario Northland and to work with the company as well.
“We all share responsibly to listen, learn, and take action toward reconciliation,” she said, noting this is the beginning of what they plan to do to keep moving toward that goal.
“It’s got a great message,” said Randy Lamothe, one of the painters who made the vision of the Every Child Matters locomotive come to reality. He mentioned the team worked on the project for about a month, but the painting itself took about eight hours per side. After the painting, the decals went on, including the large Every Child Matters along the side.
The project “was something that was very dear to all of our heats,” Lamothe said, “especially the message. It’s amazing that the ONR could do something like this and give back. That’s the greatest gift that we could ever do, to give back like that.”
Scott McLeod, the chief of Nipissing First Nation, noted that for the past year executives at Ontario Northland have been reaching out and “making an effort to establish a good working relationship with our community.” When he thinks about Truth and Reconciliation, “inclusion” comes to mind, and the bridge being built between Nipissing First Nation and Ontario Northland “is very welcomed and much appreciated.”
As for the Every Child Matters and the Orange Shirt campaign, “there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Chief McLeod said, “as a lot of efforts put forth over time tend to blend into the background,” but this mobile reminder “helps to reinvigorate” the cause for all who see.
“I think this is a very unique and wonderful way to not only pay tribute to the survivors but to honour the ones who passed.”
Before the train was unveiled, and slowly rolled into the light of the day, June Commanda noted how she “used to hate the train, when they took the CPR station down in Sturgeon Falls, I was so happy I could have jumped up and down because of what it meant to me—being taken away from my family.”
“But now I see this big train here and I want to get on it,” she said with a laugh. “And I plan to. Whenever it goes, I want to have a ride.”
David Briggs is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of BayToday, a publication of Village Media. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.