Views / Opinion

Lack of Indigenous history glaringly obvious on Via Rail: Botelho-Urbanski

Train staff announced a bit of history about noteworthy sites but didn't acknowledge the treaty lands we ventured over or which Indigenous Peoples inhabited these unceded stretches first, writes Jessica Botelho-Urbanski.

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski travelled across Canada on Via Rail this summer and found the Crown company lacking when it came to honouring Indigenous history.

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Jessica Botelho-Urbanski for Metro

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski travelled across Canada on Via Rail this summer and found the Crown company lacking when it came to honouring Indigenous history.

This summer, I took a trip many Canadians dream of (or so I’ve heard after the fact). I travelled west on Via Rail's Canadian line from Winnipeg to Vancouver.

The two-and-a-half-day trip meandered through the mountains and myriad towns. As we passed by noteworthy sites, Via Rail staff announced a bit of history about each place.

Here’s a pulp and paper mill to your left. An oil refinery on your right. We’ve arrived at Biggar, Sask., population: 2,161, slogan: “New York is big, but this is Biggar.”

What became glaringly obvious by mid-trip was the lack of Indigenous content in these announcements. I didn’t hear acknowledgment of the treaty lands we ventured over or which Indigenous Peoples inhabited these unceded stretches first.

I met Kate Black, a 23-year-old Edmontonian who now lives in Vancouver, on board and she lamented the lack of Indigenous awareness, too. Black managed to snag a coveted Canada150 youth pass for the month of July and rode from Halifax to Vancouver.

“I definitely learned more about Canada… but I didn’t hear anything about who was there before the area was settled or what treaty areas we were entering. I feel like if we’re learning about the settler history of an area, we should be learning the pre-settlement or Indigenous history as well,” she told me after her trip.

Taking a look at the Toronto-Vancouver map Via provided on the train, there were no mentions of Indigenous history beyond translations of words (Toronto is the Huron word for “a place of meetings,” for example), a few allusions to the fur trade and a shout-out to the Winnipeg Art Gallery for having the world’s largest collection of Inuit sculpture and art.

Via Rail Canada “operates the national passenger rail service on behalf of the Government of Canada” and “plans and funding are approved by the Treasury Board of Canada,” according to its website. Last year alone, the rail service carried 3.97 million passengers.

In what could have been a teachable moment for thousands more this summer — especially the more than 4,000 youth using the Canada150 pass — Via dropped the ball on Indigenous education.

I asked the Crown corporation’s communications staff whether it has plans to include more Indigenous and treaty information. In an email, I was told yes, this will be “part of [Via Rail’s] strategy moving forward.”

Jacqueline Romanow, a Métis woman and chair of Indigenous studies at the University of Winnipeg, weighed in on VIA’s reactionary strategy.

“There’s all kinds of stories you could be telling all across the Prairies and Western Canada about how Indigenous people were involuntarily incorporated into the Canadian state that would really help [passengers] understand the situation today,” she said.

If VIA is going to attempt to tell these stories, let’s ensure it has Indigenous Peoples’ voices on board first and foremost.

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