When Nathalie Dumais read two books written by an award-winning author Jocelyne Saucier, she got inspired and wanted to visit the places the books mentioned.
Dumais is the co-ordinator of a project creating a literary, historical and tourist trail following Saucier's books and taking people on a journey throughout northeastern Ontario, virtually or in person.
The project will also follow the route of the Northlander passenger train from North Bay to Cochrane, with some slight variations. The train, which was operated by Ontario Northland Railway, was discontinued in 2012.
The Timmins Museum: National Exhibition Centre received $50,000 from the province to sponsor the project. It's one of 51 Francophone Community Grants Program projects to receive funding to enhance the cultural and commercial vitality of the francophone communities.
“Everything kicks in the high gear now," said Karen Bachmann, the museum’s curator and director. "I think it's a very neat (project). It looks at francophone history, particularly in northeastern Ontario. And it looks at a lot of the early settlers, people that were in the communities, how they survived, and all those things with the fires and everything."
The 101 Experiences will also be involved in the project, according to Dumais.
The project is expected to launch in late winter or early spring 2022.
There will be a website with an online map. People will be able to go online, follow the map, discover local communities, the history, the books and what places or activities they can do or see in each community.
"It would be a journey talking about literature, (Saucier's) books but maybe even other books that talk about the history of Northern Ontario. It would be about the history and we're picking specific events that people might be interested in or that are covered in the books," Dumais said. "And about current tourism. If you're to take the journey in person, what is it you could see?"
Saucier’s books tell stories of friendship and love but they are also based on historical facts, Dumais said.
During the pandemic, Dumais read Saucier’s books And the Birds Rained Down and And Miles to Go Before I Sleep.
"The first one is about a beautiful love story in the context of the Great Fires of northeastern Ontario," Dumais said. "And the second one is more about the history of the trains in Northern Ontario and the importance of the trains."
Some of the communities that will be included in the map are Cochrane, Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Matheson, Englehart, Haileybury and North Bay.
“Timmins will be on the virtual map. The museum would be one of the current tourism places we would showcase. We’re going to try to diversify what we offer, maybe even restaurants or other things that could have a link,” Dumais said. “We’re trying to stay close to the books and the themes.”
Should the Northlander train return to the region, the tour could potentially be done by train, Bachmann said.
Saucier remembers her disappointment when she wanted to take the Northlander passenger train to Toronto in winter 2012 and learning the train stopped its service.
When she saw this project was proposing to remake the train's route from North Bay to Cochrane, she saw it as the Northlander coming back to life.
“I hope that the people of northeastern Ontario will become aware of their fabulous history and that the people of the south will have the curiosity to discover a unique part of the country,” Saucier said in an email.
Saucier, born in New Brunswick, is now based in Quebec.
Throughout the past decade, she said she learned about the communist past of northeastern Ontario, the Great Fires that ravaged towns and villages at the beginning of the last century and about the railway car schools that taught literacy to children from 1926 to 1967.
She said finds the history of northeastern Ontario fascinating. The area has developed at an extraordinary speed, “in indescribable chaos,” bringing people from all over the place, she said.
“I am thinking, in particular, of the immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many of them, inspired by the economic success of communism in Russia (we didn’t know yet about Stalin’s bloody killings), fought Homeric battles, created trade unions and cooperatives,” Saucier said. "They have really believed that they could create a new world in the vastness of this country that was offered to them. The result was a colourful society, multicultural, free and brawling, a unique fact in the history of Canada.”