A northern Manitoba First Nation held a protest Wednesday night by the VIA Rail tracks in the community over complaints of priority treatment being given to tourists.
“We had a protest when the train came into the community [last night] to let them know that if we’re going to be treated in this way, there will be a blockade and we’re pretty serious about that,” said War Lake First Nation Chief Betsy Kennedy.
The community about 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg is not accessible by road and relies on VIA Rail’s Winnipeg-Churchill train service, which goes through the community three times a week, for people to shop and get necessities.
On Wednesday night, people in Ilford, Man., gathered with signs as the train arrived.
“It’s mostly because we’re not able to get any seats on the passenger train,” said Kennedy.
“We use this passenger [train] regularly and we noticed that VIA Rail is selling out the tickets to the tourists that are on the train now.”
Kennedy said people in the community use the train year round, but recently residents are having a hard time buying tickets to get to Thompson.
She said residents are doing what is being asked of them — they are phoning ahead to make a booking — but said everything is being booked by tourists months ahead of time. On top of that, customers are being told they need to use credit cards to pay for tickets even when bought in person at the station, and the chief said it is not ideal for people in the community.
“We’re pretty upset that this is happening,” said Kennedy.
They’re asking for Via Rail to make more seats available by adding a third coach to the train.
Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak which represents 26 First Nations in northern Manitoba, said the First Nations along the train route are being treated with disrespect in their own territory.
“The people of War Lake and other First Nations along the railway depend on this as their only mode of transportation and one of the concerns that I have is that our people should never be treated as second class citizens,” said Settee.
While Kennedy is not opposed to having tourists visit the north, she said First Nations passengers should be treated equally on the train. She alleged VIA Rail staff have threatened to kick off First Nations passengers for not having masks, while being lax toward tourists on the trains about the same issue.
She said the community has been following the province’s public health guidelines, including wearing masks and sanitizing their hands, however, she is worried for her community members’ safety, especially when they have to travel on the same trains as the tourists.
“We will try and protect ourselves and protect our families. All we want is to be treated fairly,” said Kennedy.
In an emailed statement to CBC News, a VIA Rail spokesperson wrote that “We are sensitive and understand the nature of the concerns raised and are working to find and quickly implement the best solution for all communities. We will not comment further at this moment as we are currently having ongoing discussions to address the concerns and are adjusting our service operation plans accordingly.”
The spokesperson added masks are mandatory at all times for all employees and that passengers may be denied service or detrained for refusing to wear a mask during their trip.