Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn

Neil (@sarahdaddy) asked in a comment a few days ago where I stand on the question of romanticizing Pembroke, compared to its history.

I understand the desire to create a utopia where everything is beautiful on a sunny summer (fall or winter) day and there isn’t any poverty or racial issue but some things existed that we can’t ignore…I would be curious if you had ever given thought to this or other “realities” we tend to ignore.

Prototype modelling is a form of history, and as historians our role – in fact our responsibility – is to face the ugliness alongside the beauty. To sweep objectionable parts of history under the rug is to deny their existence and I think then perpetuate the underlying ugliness. Owning up to the fact that we are not perfect, that we have been (or are!) racist, that there is poverty, that many are disenfranchised is the first step to reconciliation. From there, perhaps we can do something about it.

In terms of Pembroke, the first thing that Neil’s question brings to mind is the Golden Lake Reserve, which was at the other end of the Pembroke branch.  A quick Google brought me to a virtual museum site, which contains many photos of the Algonquins of Golden Lake, and of these, the above is the best.  In the timeframe of this photo (1890, according to the caption), we were a mere 10 years into the Indian Act, which effectively imprisoned First Nations people on reserves, while simultaneously forcing them to assimilate western culture.  The people on the church steps above are wearing their Sunday finest because they aren’t allowed to wear anything else!

Maybe one day I will model Golden Lake and portray its people sincerely and sensitively, but there are decisions within Pembroke itself that are as difficult, although less politically charged.

The Pembroke Southern pushed its way into Pembroke merely six years before my model timeframe.  The embankment on which the railway sits was still a soil-less scar, except where there was a culvert near the Mary Street bridge.  The river itself was choked with snags and the detritus of logging.  In a word, the landscape was ugly.

I’ve always been tempted to grass over that bank, but thanks to Neil and the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, I’ve reflected further: no, turning the river bank into a bucolic paradise would be dishonest and disrespectful to the sacrifice that built this country.  When I finally get back to scenery, it will be gravel.

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6 thoughts on “Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn

  1. good stuff Rene.

    I have seen very few individuals speak to the burden of building a model with this sort of integrity.

    Perhaps one element of that is the narrow bit of land a model railway is able to represent. But where the hardships and challenges of life are/were proximate, I think they are necessary.

    For me, the most obvious place I expect to reflect the non-railway realities of the community will be further east on Burrard Inlet, where squatter’s homes literally stood on pilings right next to the railway and the sea. The railway itself erased most proximate physical evidence of the world (and communities) it built over and through.

    I suppose if one isn’t doing prototype modelling the burden isn’t there in the same way. A fantasy is what the author chooses to depict. But even there, I think the argument would be that a better fiction is one that wrestles with reality.

    Anyhow, I appreciate seeing this topic raised.

    1. Thanks Rob. I love the idea of representing the squatters’ shacks on Burrard Inlet. In North Van, many of the squatters were artists, writers and so on; was it the same on the south side? Don’t forget the garbage!

      I really like your observation that wrestling with reality makes a better fiction, but might I suggest a minor amendment. It is the juxtaposition of opposites that creates the tension to make a good story, whether fictional or not.

      In our context, the railway could represent progress, while the squatters represent status quo; or perhaps the railway represents corporate greed and the squatters represent Steinbeck’s nobility. You get to choose the story you tell.

  2. Excellent post; I appreciate for your thoughtful approach to the hobby!

    Thanks for sharing the thought process behind this sort of faithful and fully engaged prototype modeling. I like the realization of Rob’s comment of this as a burden of creating this sort of integrity. It is not easy to research and find these situations to begin with, and on top of that, be willing to show the true history in a hobby setting where people are generally trying not to think about the problems of real world. But I think the effort creates a layout that is more meaningful and significant, and frankly more interesting because of its pursuit of modeling reality.

    Rene, if you haven’t seen my thoughts, I think of it as the difference between ‘modeling to escape’ where people pursue model railroading to be comforted by history and ‘modeling to engage’ where people pursue model railroading to understand history. I write about it here: http://modelrailroaddesign.blogspot.com/2013/11/modeling-to-escape-versus-modeling-to.html

    Among others, my friend Gerry Fitzgerald got me to thinking about all of this in an excellent article on Jim Crow railroading in Layout Design Journal No.36.

      1. I’m impressed that you’ve made a space in your hobby for the consideration of the historical implications to people. I like the fact that this creates an opening for a conversation about privilege.

        My layout models a paper plant that the owners were compelled to tear down because the EPA determined it to be a major source of nasty toxins polluting the Niagara River. I acknowledge that fact in my clinic presentation because it speaks to the era I’m modelling. I still model it, not to celebrate the damage done to the environment, but because the point of my hobby is to create a representation of a place and time. A representation can acknowledge history without passing judgement or being judged. It’s what artists do, and in some ways our hobby crosses over to the realm of art, or at least human artefact.

        I don’t think your layout minimizes the experience of First Nations people in Canada, but I’m only qualified to speak to this as a social critic. My social and economic disenfranchisement was manifest within the context of simultaneous racial privilege. Social agency is nuanced and affected by manifold forces. The fact that I have the luxury of leisure time and some disposable income is not lost on me. I can participate in a hobby while many people can’t imagine having the time to pursue leisure, or too much time and no money. And to bring this completely back around, I wouldn’t have this world view without having been emancipated by the education I received while attending two universities and earning three degrees. I’m thankful for having been gifted with wits sufficient to enfranchise myself, combined with just enough privilege to permit me to put my wits to use to that end.

        Every action that we undertake, or are prevented from undertaking, is political. I think it’s important the people have conversations like this, and consider that our hobbies don’t exist in isolation of a greater social context. The point of these conversations is not to prevent us from enjoying our lives. On the contrary, I think everyone should enjoy equitable access to opportunities for fulfillment, all of which is impossible without dialogue.

      2. “Our hobbies don’t exist in isolation of a greater social context.”

        That is well-said, Hunter.

        It is rare that we in the model railroading hobby reflect on how lucky we are to be able to enjoy leisure time together with some disposable funds with which to enjoy it. More often, we hear griping about the unavailability of a particular model, or complaints about the lack of space in a basement.

        When I wrote this piece, I would have been more lenient on modellers who choose to romanticize the past. After reading your comment here, Hunter, I am less so-inclined.

        Sure, rule #1 – “It’s my railroad” might apply, but perhaps a modeller should think also about the privilege they have in being able to make a miniature world. With that privilege comes a certain responsibility, and those who choose to gloss over the uncomfortable parts of the history they are modelling are shirking that responsibility.

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