The phone shrieked a few times very early in the morning. The tone was so different from the normal that I got up to check the reason. It turned out to be an alert about a child lifting case near Sudbury. The name of the suspect and that of the child were related by the surname. It looked to me that the mother had abducted her child and was on a bus out of the city! Late in the evening, in North Bay, I came to know that the complaint was filed by the father who had custodial rights of the child. The mother and child were traced in Toronto. Strange are the ways of the world.
North Ontario is definitely colder than the other provinces. Night temperature was 2 degrees Celsius and there was ice on the car on the morning and the seats were too cold to occupy. I was told that the coming days would see warmer weather and that was a comfort. After spending more than two hours on the phone responding to birthday wishes from friends, relations and social media acquaintances and a breakfast of Rice Krispies and cold milk I was yet again on the road. North Bay was the destination and it was just over 500 km from Sault Ste. Marie.
One of the major activities in the area is the lumber industry. Ontario supplies hardwood logs for conversion to lumber and many other products that include wood chips, veneer, plywood, wood composites and lot else. The deciduous hardwood trees are birch, maple and oak. Most of the lumber produced by Canada is exported, primarily to the USA. Canada consumes less than 40% of its production. Over the years Europe, India and China have emerged as new markets for the lumber market in Canada that sought to reduce its dependence on the US market and avoid ugly trade disputes. Large machines are deployed to cull the chosen trees in the ‘plantation’ and huge trees transport the dressed wood to factories for processing. It is interesting to note that the power transmission lines use large logs instead of steel poles.
I noticed during the drive that school buses all over the country have the same colour and use the same model. The ones I saw in Banff were almost identical to the ones I saw in Ontario. I have come to know that their design characteristics are mandated by federal and provincial instructions. They are purpose built buses meant to be distinguished from other buses. Besides the distinct school bus yellow paint they have external warning devices and many other safety features. A very strict law is in place to ensure that the school buses are safe for transportation of children. I think that this is a system worth ‘copying’ in India where the profusion of educational institutions have led to mushrooming bus services that would fail even elementary safety standards.
On the drive to North Bay I found quite a few advertisement hoardings on the highway of a new cannabis store that was due to open in a few months. Cannabis is presently legal for medicinal and recreational use. However, it had been banned till 2001. With legalisation for recreational use in 2018, cultivation, possession and use is now allowed. There are restrictions, however, regarding home production, distribution, sale times and consumption areas, as it is with alcohol. So far the relaxation seems to have worked alright in the country.
The most popular four wheel drive pickups seen on Canadian roads across the country are the Ford Fiso, Ram pickup, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra Denali; sales figures also support the order of its narration. The pickup trucks are more popular than sedans in the suburbs and are numerous on the highways for its multi-functional utility. The versatile trucks are used for daily and heavy duty work over weekends.
The taxation in Canada is dictated by federal and provincial taxes. While direct federal taxes are nearly 35%, indirect taxes are 5%. Provinces levy their own share and, in the end, citizens fork out a substantial part of their income as taxes to federal and provincial entities. On the surface the taxation level looks enormous. But, what every citizen needs to weigh the pay out with is the facilities that she enjoys in the community. Free school education, health and geriatric care, top class infrastructure, good governance and a crime free society. A Canadian government gives this, and much more, to its citizens for the taxes it collects. I have been drinking water straight off the tap ever since I landed in Canada. Not knowing that this would be possible I bought a large can of water for the expedition which continues as a passenger in the boot of the car. Why not pay when the payback is better?
I was booked to stay in the Canadore residence and conference center in North Bay. I reached there in over 5 hours of leisurely travel from Sault Ste. Marie. It is a college hostel that is let out during the vacations months between May and August. The rather commodious facility sadly lacks cooking and serving implements, despite the cooking range and fridge. I had to request the amiable gentleman at the reception for a pan and spoon so that I could make myself coffee and a meal in the night. After I lodged comfortably in the appointed room I took a nap to get rid of the fatigue caused by less sleep the previous night.
The Sun was still quite hot by 4.30 pm and so decided to try out the North Bay Museum in the town, which was not very far away.
I was pleasantly surprised by the exhibits in the rather small museum. They had a good collection of railway memorabilia from the times of its early origin from cancelled tickets to uniforms to signal lights to inspection car and booking office. They even had a couple of toy trains, one passenger and the other freight, running above the eye level of the visitor. An interesting exhibit was the Velocipede, a contraption invented in 1877 by George Sheffield, a farmer, who was too bored to walk along the railway tracks to his farm. His invention that looked like a funny bicycle eventually led to modified contraptions used by the railways for inspection of tracks. The museum brought home the fact that the origins of the city were founded on fur trading and development of the railway line. On the first floor of the building was a travelling science exhibition organised by the Science Club of Ontario called ‘Beyond Humans’, meant to sensitise the young and old alike to extreme sports activities. They had a few well-made videos and games as well as an interesting Virtual Reality center.
Every Tuesday, in front of the museum, vintage cars are exhibited by its owners between 5 and 8 pm. I had been right on the dot to watch the mega event happening. I met the proud owner of a Volkswagen Beetle that looked at least as old as its 80 plus year owner, Jerry. He told me about the vintage car club that brought together like minded people who even bought and sold them at the weekly ‘fair’. When asked if he found it difficult to source spare parts for such old vehicles he said that internet had solved all these problems by getting what he wanted delivered at his door step. This was seconded by Frank, a Yugoslavian by descent, who virtually rebuilt a 1937 vintage Plymouth that he discovered in terrible shape in a scrap yard. Such is the passion of guys who own these cars that they maintain it in running condition, whatever the cost.
From the Museum I decided to take a short walk to the waterfront to have a peek at the Heritage Railway and Carousal which is mentioned in tourist books as a charm of the place. At the Museum I was told that during this season it is open only during the weekend and therefore, I would miss it. Nevertheless, I walked toward it and saw something priceless. A whole group of people, old, young and children, engaged in cleaning up a large bed of fallen leaves and branches. Later I was told that the large park had 48 such beds that were maintained exclusively through voluntary community involvement. They rake the fallen leaves and branches, collect them into recycled paper bags, exclusively used for this purpose, and leave them where they have to be, to be collected by the authorities to compost it. A brilliant intuitive and I was most impressed by the involvement of kids, who ran around and did what they had to with gusto and a look of ‘duty’ on their faces. This is what a civilised community is all about. All citizens have to contribute to the upkeep of the community. I briefly interacted with them to know the process and film what they were doing.
I was not prepared for the next. I saw the closed doors of the carousal and was taking pictures there when a gentleman stopped by, changed his coat to wear the windcheater of the Heritage Railway. I asked his permission to see the inside of the coach, when he opened it, which served as the platform for those intending to take the railway rides. Don Coutts then gave me the most fabulous tour of the Heritage Railway and the two Carousals, explain in detail how each came to be, the way it functions, how they are maintained and operated.
The Heritage Railway started operating from 1994 and has three train sets that can seat 22 passengers each. The train sets are operated using gas, electric and diesel. Don told me that the bureaucracy was too cumbersome to overcome to operate a steam train set. His team had even got one of the coaches converted to take wheel chair bound passengers. Seven rides cost as little as C$ 10. The big Carousal is operational from 2002 and has hand crafted and painted horses while the smaller one set up in 2005 has animals found in the region like bear, skunk, squirrels, rabbit, wolf, moose and the like. It was a tough thing to take leave of Don who was a fountainhead of information and courteous hospitality. He made sure that I took home lapel pins, information booklets and a fantastic the coffee table book on the setting up of the big Carousal. Don turned out to the ‘unseen hand’ on my birthday, perhaps, His way of letting me know that His blessings, care and protection shall guide me along the way, every day. Even when the situation is hopeless a door of succour will open to lead me on.