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Ottawa, Ontario — VIA Rail passengers are making more connections than ever following the launch of a new, thought-provoking podcast series on VIA Rail’s On Train Entertainment system in the Quebec City–Windsor corridor. This marks the first time VIA Rail has introduced a podcast channel for riders.
The podcast, called C4C Conversations, was created from Canadians’ conversations recorded by six Mitacs researchers — three journalism students from Carleton University in Ottawa and three from Ryerson University in Toronto — who spent the past summer travelling across Canada by train, meeting and listening to fellow passengers. Starting this month, the 10-episode series is available for passengers to enjoy while riding the train.
Working on behalf of Challenge for Change, a not-for-profit media organization launched in 2016, and funded by Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit research and training organization, the students recorded candid conversations between hundreds of passengers — from friends to strangers — to develop a one-of-a-kind compilation of raw, honest and organic dialogue on topics ranging from bullying, parenting, fear and belonging, to what it means to be Canadian.
Hosted by popular social media editor for Buzzfeed Canada, Elamin Abdelmahmoud, the podcast aims to “inspire all Canadians to really listen to one another and think about what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes,” said Senior Producer Brittany Spencer, a Ryerson student who has since graduated and now works at CBC in Charlottetown.
“It’s extremely satisfying to have captured this collection of incredible conversations and know that they have the potential to impact other peoples’ lives,” said Spencer, explaining that the overall goal is to strengthen understanding between different groups of Canadians, who might not otherwise have an opportunity to hear what each other has to say.
“These are their words, their thoughts, their feelings — even complete strangers were finding connections with one another,” she said. “We hope listeners will be encouraged to keep conversations going, and maybe even launch discussions of their own.”
A common theme flowing through every conversation is the desire for a sense of belonging, whether from the point of view of a recent immigrant, an Indigenous person or a transgendered individual, the students explained.
One exchange, between 55-year-old Peggy and Pete, a young visitor from England, is so moving that it is being streamed as a standalone, special episode, Spencer said. “Peggy spoke about her experience as a child in the Canadian residential school system in such a candid way, it was incredibly powerful,” she explained, noting that Pete wasn’t aware that the Canadian government sponsored religious schools for the purpose of assimilating Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture.
The Mitacs students rode the trains in pairs, working with VIA Rail staff to find volunteers to share their stories. One woman decided to share her experience of giving birth to her stillborn son only to find that her seatmate was returning home from her sister’s funeral.
“They talked about grief in this very compassionate and open way,” Spencer recalled. “It was amazing to see these strangers, from different ends of the country, connecting.”
What makes the project unique is that the journalism students didn’t set out with a specific story in mind, but allowed topics to develop naturally.
“We helped start up the conversations, but then we just let them flow. For the most part, this was just about listening and offering a platform so that different voices could be heard,” said Carleton student Maureen McEwan, who is pursuing a Masters in Journalism. “We weren’t chasing a sound bite. We were a little bit invisible in the process.”
One of McEwan’s most eye-opening moments came when a scheduled stop in Churchill, Manitoba, was cancelled when flooding made the tracks impassable. She ended up spending time in Ilford and Thicket Portage, two Indigenous communities that rely on the train for essential services, where she gained a new perspective on issues facing remote communities.
“It was interesting to see the contrast between youth riding the train for fun on their Canada 150 pass and the difficulties faced by northern communities where the railway is a part of life,” said McEwan. “Meeting the people in Northern Manitoba was the highlight of my summer and I hope to carry forward my research and reconnect with them in the future.”
According to Jennifer Bauer, Editor in Chief, Communications and Marketing at VIA Rail, “this was a project that we were very interested in from the get-go. From the perspective of our heritage and Canada 150, of course, but also because our work is about connecting people, in every sense of the word. This innovative podcast series is about listening to our passengers, which is something we strive to do every day.”
C4C Executive Director Cindy Witten said the project would not have happened without the support of VIA Rail, as well as Mitacs, which helped fund the students’ salaries.
“Mitacs saw the opportunity for our organization to partner with talented Masters students,” Witten said. “Their involvement allowed us to test and evaluate methodology for potential social impact. Along the way, we met a lot of incredibly generous people and captured some amazing stories.”
The founding partners of Challenge for Change (C4C) are Inspirit Foundation, The MacMillan Family Foundation and The National Film Board of Canada in partnership with VIA Rail Canada, Discourse Media and Mitacs.
In addition to streaming on VIA Rail, the C4C Conversations podcast is available on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
For information about Mitacs and its programs, visit mitacs.ca/newsroom.