Meet Jean-Guy DuSablon. For more than 30 years he’s been connected with Canada’s rail industry—first working as a service attendant on VIA passenger trains, and later as a safety and security counsellor at their head office in Montreal. Although DuSablon retired six years ago, he’s continued to be an active Operation Lifesaver (OL) Rail Safety Ambassador.
As OL's Eastern Regional Coordinator, he’s delivered hundreds of presentations in schools and communities across Quebec, including many Indigenous communities. Sometimes, it has meant doing outreach where tragic incidents have already occurred: communities like Wemotaci, Quebec, a First Nation’s reserve 400 km north of Montreal.
In September 2018, an 8-year-old boy was killed in Wemotaci when he was hit by a train. He and a group of other children were playing on a railway bridge over the Saint-Maurice river when a passenger train came along the tracks. The other children were able to get off the bridge in time; the boy was not.
We spoke to DuSablon about why he’s been spreading the rail safety message for almost 15 years and why he thinks sharing that message with Indigenous communities is critical.
Why is it important to do outreach in Indigenous communities in particular?
It saves lives. If we can make a difference by saving one life or preventing an injury, it’s worth it. The impact of a railway crossing or trespassing incident is severe—you can lose your life or a limb. People don’t realize that, so that’s why I am working on the education part.
Many Indigenous communities are isolated so they may not have the same information as in Montreal or Ottawa. They also were there before the tracks were built, so they don't really understand trespassing... their philosophy is different.
I also believe it is important to get them involved. So, I don’t go there to tell them what to do. I want them to tell me how we can support them. For instance, at the presentation in Wemotaci, I was advised to have the material translated in their language as well—which we have done.
How does having material in Indigenous languages help get that message out?
It matters because their culture is really important to them. They're teaching their kids about their own culture, customs and ancient language as well—to find their identity again. So, having the material in their language makes us connect easier with them. Sometimes I even have a translator with me. The community usually likes that and are willing to give me somebody to translate so I can do my presentation in their own language.
What is your message when you're doing those presentations?
Well, it's simple—the rails are made for the trains, not for humans. As long as you stay away and you obey all the warning signs and signals, you will not be at risk. This is a really, really simple message. But in Indigenous communities they also use ATVs and snowmobiles. It's part of their way of life, a way of travelling for them. If I know specifically that they're crossing tracks with those machines, I'm going to talk about that as well. Because I think people don't really realize the risks around trains and tracks. That's why education is so important.
What are some of the risks that you've seen people taking?
There are more commuter trains now around the Montreal area. So, I see a lot of people taking chances. Even when the bells are ringing and the gate is going down, I see commuters going under the gate and running across the tracks to catch their train. Everybody is in a hurry today. They don't want to wait two minutes for the next one.
Is the rail safety message getting out? Are people understanding it?
Safety has improved in many ways. If you look at automobiles for instance, we're using seatbelts now. At one point, we didn't have any seat belts in those cars. People come to me all the time and they tell me stories about what they did or their friends did around the tracks when they were young. But they really understand now that they have to be safe, so they won't do that anymore. Also, sometimes they’ve lost a friend or a family member, so they really support Operation Lifesaver.
How long do you think you'll continue being a Rail Safety Ambassador?
Well, I'm 62 now. I'd like to do it until I die... but probably just until 65. Basically, I just want to save lives, and reduce the number of injuries and deaths across Canada.