If everything goes to plan, this message will appear as the Northlander departs Toronto Union Station on the morning of 28 September 2012 at 08.40 AM (Toronto time). Never again will the iconic train stop to pick-up passengers and take them north. After 35 years of service, today the Northlander dies.
On Thursday, I received a letter from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. It was from the minister, Rick Bartolucci - or at least his office. I had written to him some time ago to make the case, just as so many people and groups have, for saving the ONTC. His response was cordial and somewhat "your call is important to us", but it failed to really answer my questions. That is perhaps fitting, seeing as the minister has failed to effectively respond to any serious questions throughout the debate over the sale of the ONTC.
Despite his claims that the Northlander is a parallel service (GO buses and GO trains are, of course, also parallel), that Highway 11 is efficient (if you happen to own a car or like to sit on a bus that doesn't have tables and room to walk around) and that the economy is in a mess (which is exactly when the govenment must step in to protect the vulnerable from cuts), he cannot explain why the government is giving up on a 110-year old system. Nobody believes that the system can continue as it is. It is broken. This is not a problem that can go away by throwing money at it. A fix will take time, it will take effort and some people will lose their jobs. The Northlander would probably be cut back to 3 or 4 times a week, but it could still run. This has not been a good year for Ontario, but now is not the time to make it worse. Mr. Bartolucci, I am not satisfied with this government's performance. I know I am not alone.
When I was growing up, I used to pick up travel brochures for Ontario Northland. To me, it was a mythical thing, taking people to a barren land I had never seen before. This year, I actually got to visit that barren land and it touched me. The varied landscape showed me that there are still places in the world that are pristine. The people were friendly and welcoming towards me. They deserve as much from this government as anyone, but they get so much less. It's not really a barren land; rather it is a rich one. Rich in history and tradition - a tradition centred around the Ontario Northland Railway. Until the railway, only the First Nations lived in much of northern Ontario. It wasn't until steel rails headed north that Cochrane, Timmins, Swastika, Cobalt and so many other places came into being. In a strange way, I am indebted to the government. Without their announcement last March, I would probably have never taken the time to visit the north, learn its history and understand their need for the ONTC. If it weren't for Rick Bartolucci's decision, I wouldn't be writing this now.
Thank you Mr. Bartolucci. Thank you for taking the time to respond. We might not agree about the ONTC, but at least my views were noted.