Mayor Maurice Clemons is hard to describe. We’ve met a lot of incredible people on the road this summer, but his kindness and conviction are hard to convey in 1000 words.
Our train pulled into Thicket Portage, Manitoba around dusk, on a muggy mid-July day. We’d been on the road for weeks and on that trip, we were returning south from Ilford. The tracks to Churchill flooded in the spring and our C4C team was working with communities who were impacted. In Thicket, the mayor met us at the station. He drove down from his house up the road in his trademark black and red golf cart. Greeting us immediately with a wide smile, he introduced us to the town Safety Officer, Vanessa Quill, who helped us settle in. She took us to the Council office and lent us fishing rods for our stay. Later, Vanessa set us up with an air mattress, traditional bannock, and 1990s movies – which made for a cozy stay.
Thicket Portage is a small town in northern Manitoba located along the Hudson Bay Railway. Thompson is the big town nearby. Thicket’s charm comes mainly from its people but it’s also filled with vintage one-level buildings along dusty roads.
The train runs straight through the middle of town. It halves the community quite literally and it’s at the centre of life. While there is a small airport and a winter road (a path across a frozen lake), the only all-seasons route is the train. Like other northern communities, people get their food, medicine, and just about everything else via the rail. Everything us southern city folk take for granted is a day or more of travel on the train for communities like Thicket. As Mayor Clemons said, the train is their “lifeline.”
Admittedly, I misunderstood the rail’s function in northern Manitoba. Our team has been on many passenger trains this summer, so I assumed these trains were mostly laden with tourists. Once we were past The Pas, Manitoba, the trains transformed from primarily passenger to commuter trains as well. The baggage cars were no longer stacked with checked suitcases but filled with necessities like groceries, fridges and stoves, ATVs and other small vehicles. When the trains don’t run, the people in Thicket are stranded, effectively. The track flooding up north has made life precarious for many communities.
There are 126 people living in 31 homes in Thicket. Over the last five years, the population HAS dropped from around 150. People told us they’ve gradually lost elders and how it’s impacted their community. Elders help share culture through generations – language, tradition, and stories. In Thicket, many identified as Cree but there were also other Indigenous peoples living there. Without them, younger residents told us that they fear the cultural loss.
When we were there, the town was quiet. Thicket had been rocked by a death of one of their own. The former resident had been living in a town over and as we were arriving, many left to attend the funeral.
For those who stayed, we appreciated the chance to get to know them a bit. Townspeople told us about what mattered – transportation, education, safety, and so on. But it was health that kept coming up.
In a conversation with a former mayor, town elder, and Mayor Clemons, we learned that there are ongoing health challenges in the community. Thicket maintains seemingly high rates of diabetes, cancer, and other conditions. Mayor Clemons shared his own experience with cancer and the troubles other community members face.
Late or cancelled trains can have dire consequences for many people in Thicket. For the mayor, he’s had to cross a choppy lake in a small boat and take multiple vehicles to get to essential chemotherapy treatments. Other townspeople shared similar experiences. Sadly, the “lifeline” is more apt that we first thought.
Summer days pass peacefully in Thicket. Playful teens joke and swim down at the dock, calling to each other to come swim in the cool waters: “It’s the spirit of Thicket Portage!” Dusk was usually for chatting porch-to-porch, swatting at the black flies – or “bulldogs” as they call them.
All too quickly, our four days in Thicket were over. As we are boarding the train back to the south, a woman pulled us aside. She told us she hadn’t received medical attention for her diabetes in months. She said the doctor isn’t scheduled to visit until the end of the summer. The workers at the nursing station in town do what they can, but a registered nurse and doctors only visit about once a month or so, if that.
The mayor – a fighter on many fronts – has some ideas. The main one? He is thinking of heading to Winnipeg – 22 hours away by train – to recruit potential nurses for the Thicket area. He plans to sit outside the universities with a poster board, pleading for medically-trained students to come up to their community. Strength willing, it seems Mayor Clemons would likely do almost anything he can for his community.
He joked with us about the plaid pants that he wore but it made for a telling, important detail about him. The mayor wasn’t feeling well during our time in town but he still did whatever he could to help us out. That meant wearing the only thing that was comfortable after his chemo treatments – his pajamas. He could have cancelled but he did what he could to introduce us to people in town and to be there generally. Because what he had to say was too important.
There’s a grit that comes with living up north. My C4C colleague Maggie and I talk about it often, having met the people that we did these past weeks. You have to be strong to live in remote parts of Canada with less access to essential services. You have to be strong to weather the fires and floods and evacuations. And to lead a community through it all, you have to be a fighter. Mayor Clemons is representative of the people in Thicket Portage: wide smiles, endless generosity, and plenty of grit. True grit.