If there is a single textbox of Canadian Classroom … it’s the route we travel the country.

How we plan this reflects the answers we give to some basic questions:

*  where we start and where we finish
*  how long we take, and when we travel
*  what we’re looking for/at along the way
*  where we’d like to be five years from now?

East to West, or Centre-West to East and back again?

Histories of Canada, after mention of geological time and aboriginal narratives, often begin with arrival of Europeans on the Atlantic coast and Saint Lawrence, and progress west to the Pacific.

There are limitations to this approach. There is now evidence of English and Spanish explorers on the West coast in the same century English and French explored the East. A Tlingit tradition describes effects of the Little Ice Age on the Pacific coast, predated only by the Norse sagas.

Our political history also has parallel versions. Lord Durham advocated responsible government over protests of the Family Compact and is often given the credit for its eventual achievement across Canada. But on Vancouver Island, it was Richard Blanshard who advocated an elected council over Hudson Bay Company Protest. (Both governors left their posts after a few months of frustration!) East of the Rockies Premier Frederic Haultain proposed a single province with a non-partisan government, and was blocked by the Laurier régime’s preference of divide and rule.

Canada’s story has multi-strands, some laid down simultaneously. We can take liberties in the order we visit them …

Timing – how fast, and when we go?

The pilot itinerary is set to run in late summer and early fall, beginning after Labor Day weekend and ending in October. This means that candidates who join a 2015 operation may choose to delay…

In future years, Classroom’s program may be offered in the late springtime, following university/college exams and preceding the peak period of summer travel. In these two “shoulder” periods, late spring and early fall, rail service and equipment are on high season but are not fully booked.

Travel in July and August is to be avoided because travel systems and facilities (rail, bus, air and water) are stretched to capacity. Transporting a group together and/or arranging special rates, handling or timetables during this period poses challenges to operators.

Leaving the arctic territories to the end of the program allows annual thaw/greening of the North to proceed farther for first time visitors. It also allows the group to gel in self-contained, close quarters of the rail travel mode before dispersing to airports and billets.

Pacing – The itinerary is structured to provide at least one night in two stationary for those who may not sleep well on moving trains. There is also provision for regular quiet times and time off in an concentrated stretch of traveling together. Recharging, reflecting and mental health punctuate the crucible of the group experience.

What we take in, what we pass by

Canadian Classroom … is intended to give participants more and less than they’d receive as tourists. In the arctic region, our visit is a tiny apératif, that may draw visitors back to explore at greater depth/leisure. If it gives this to those who have not set foot there, it will serve a purpose.

An equal challenge faces us to the south. Sites proliferate as people discover/celebrate the land and history around them. It’s not possible to visit more than a few. To “cram” is to overdose the way serious North Americans do on castles and cathedrals on their first time in Europe.

Canada has few castles. Those it has, like the Chateau Frontenac and Macdonald Hotels, former Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk icons now operated by Fairmont, are worth seeing.

It has fewer great cathedrals architecturally speaking, where the bar was set in Europe. What it has may be greater in accessibility. Laurier said “I live in a cathedral.” That cathedral, its grottos and alcoves, sacristies, memorials and altars is what we’ll explore in 9 weeks together.

Bilingualism is an essential of our history/present. Look at names on a map cross country. Victoria’s first police were called Les Voltigeurs: retired HBC voyageurs! Canadian Classroom will operate bilingually. There is lots of Canadian French outside Fortress Québec!

Omissions – To achieve this with perspective, we’ll be leaving things out.

Our cross country trek will not be a smorgasbord of malls and museums, even the big ones. The museums in the capital region and other major urban centres demand a day—a minimum half day, on a whirlwind—to do them justice. Our time in Ottawa/Gatineau does not allow this.

While we may walk or bus by—or make a quick stop for those who want a post card from the gift shop—we won’t be going in to most of them. Exceptions such as Rimouski’s marine museum commemorating the nearby sinking of the Empress of Ireland and UBC Museum of Anthropology are made for local or global relevance, not the size/status of their collections.

The same goes for poster sites. We’ll be in the Rockies—they make up a much of our land mass. We’ll be in Toronto. But we won’t be climbing the CN Tower going to Niagara Falls or Peggy’s Cove. There is time in the city for trips to these as personal preference, not Classroom priorities.

Public programs in summer peak season are “mass” events, incompatible with the more fine-tuned approach of Canadian Classroom … There is little to be gained from taking our group to a three hour Canada Day celebration in Ottawa or taking in a full Saint-Jean Baptiste event in Québec, for instance. Our time may be better spent exploring these cities on our own, and perhaps dropping by the public event, or standing on the fringes, for a few moments.

Starting at/near the centre

The east-west mid-point of southern Canada between Newfoundland and Haida Gwai (the Queen Charlottes) lies in western Ontario north of Lake Superior. The closest urban centre is Winnipeg, half-way point on VIA’s transcontinental Canadian journey, where onboard service staff change: one crew riding west to Vancouver, the other east to Toronto. Winnipeg is the southern terminus of one of two connected railways that extend north of 57°, the only one that runs through tundra.

Greater Winnipeg has vibrant Francophone and aboriginal communities. Louis Riel led his first provisional government here, a stand leading to Manitoba’s joining Confederation as a province. Historian and New Brunswick Lt Governor George F. Stanley called these events “The Birth of Western Canada.” If European-aboriginal interaction in Eastern Canada begins on the Saint John and Saint Lawrence rivers, that on Canada’s plains begins on the Red River, moving through the Qu’Appelle and Saskatchewan valleys to south of Prince Albert where Riel took his last stand.

It is along this arc we will begin our Canadian Classroom on Rails journey on VIA’s Canadian.