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The YKDFN member helping to steer a huge Canadian rail project

Fiona Blondin in seen in a photo provided by Via HFR.
Fiona Blondin in seen in a photo provided by Via HFR.

Fiona Blondin, a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, has joined the board of a project designed to transform passenger rail in Quebec and Ontario.

The new, high-speed service between Toronto and Quebec City is named Via HFR, Via being the Crown corporation that runs inter-city passenger rail and HFR standing for High Frequency Rail.

The project remains in its earliest stages, and the opening of the finished Via HFR is many years away. Around 1,000 km of railway would be involved, much of it running through Indigenous communities.

Blondin, already vice-president of Indigenous strategy at Ontario-based power group Cormorant Utility Services, now joins the Via HFR board as an expert on Indigenous partnerships ahead of what is being called the largest Canadian infrastructure project in generations.

Last week, she spoke with Cabin Radio about her route from Yellowknife to working on such a massive initiative, and her role as a member of Via HFR’s board.



Here’s a transcript of that interview, recorded on June 30, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ollie Williams: Tell us about your Yellowknives Dene First Nation background and your time in the North.

Fiona Blondin: I’m originally from Yellowknife and I’m a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. I have three beautiful children. One of my children is residing in the North and I’m currently living in Toronto, Ontario and have been for quite some time, but return home regularly in the summertime and very much enjoy my community. I’m a proud member and certainly enjoy being in the North for things like Folk on the Rocks.

You’re a descendant of George Blondin, is that right?



Yes, George is my grandfather and my mother is Georgina Blondin, both from the North and also proud of our northern roots and my grandfather certainly an esteemed journalist himself, and somebody that truly inspired my path as an Indigenous person and an Indigenous mother to my children.

What has the path looked like that took you from Yellowknife and the North through to what you’re doing now?

I actually started as a young First Nations woman in my twenties with BHP diamond mines at Ekati. The chance to see mining, the chance to work in a corporate community, the chance to see that interaction for communities in the North certainly inspired my path. To this day, I still reflect on that good learning experience around how First Nations, Inuit and Métis participate with commercial activities, with large-scale companies.

I went on to work both with the federal government in infrastructure, oil and gas, and now I’m the vice-president of Indigenous strategy for Cormorant Utility Services in Toronto, where we oversee transmission, distribution like substations in the power sector all over the province, that continues to inspire my path in the energy sector with Indigenous partners and equity and ownership of those projects.

In Ontario, I’ve had the opportunity to see the first Indigenous utility, Five Nations Energy, and then Wataynikaneyap Power – that’s approximately 1,700 kilometres of transmission line and 22 substations that is currently 51-percent Indigenous-owned.

A proposed route map published by Via HFR.
A proposed route map published by Via HFR.

Now, my work with Via HFR, I recently joined the board of directors and that’s a passenger rail service connecting Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. It’s mainly new, electrified, dedicated track that extends over 1,000 kilometres and may even one day reach up to speeds of about 200 km/h.

What are you hoping you can bring to Via HFR?

This particular project is probably going to be the largest transportation electrification project in Canadian history, and certainly the largest infrastructure build of our generation. This is a huge milestone and a dynamic project really affecting the future of transportation in Canada. What attracts me to this project is both the innovation and the dynamic nature of transportation.



As an Indigenous woman, I also bring a perspective around our participation on large-scale infrastructure projects. With my background in design, construction, build and operation and maintenance of transmission and distribution, this is a key area with the electrification of this project. And with the many First Nations and Métis that surround this project within Quebec and Ontario, I think that I bring that unique perspective that the North has really provided as a young woman growing up in Yellowknife: my appreciation for both the environment, for the good values that I bring as a northerner, and also an innovative perspective around new infrastructure happening.

A lot of electrification and new builds that are happening around the country really do impact – through geography – First Nations, Métis, and potentially Inuit people. How do we participate in the development of that infrastructure and, particular to this project, transportation infrastructure? This is a huge project for Canada, connecting people. How do we achieve the build of this project, and how do we approach the relationships and partnerships that we have along the way?

Have you broached the subject yet of a relatively cheap branch line, spur line, to the Northwest Territories?

We’re actually in the request for qualifications stage, a period where we qualify our partners and we’re not yet in the co-development phase. As we move forward, we will be looking at, you know, opportunities, and we will be looking at the route and, with the strong partner that we choose in the future, we will be looking at how we actually build this specific project.

The North, as you will know, suffers a significant infrastructure debt. There’s always talk of very big projects up here and hope that funding will become available. Is there any interest on your part in working on something directly in the North?

My heart is in the North, and with my people and northerners. Should I ever be called for service in the North, this would be something that I absolutely would consider – and in fact, it would be an honour to work in this area and to bring my expertise home. This is certainly something that I’m thoughtful about, and something that I feel very passionate about.

Coming from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, I have a first-hand knowledge of what it means to further access to infrastructure for our communities. And I continue to bring that good value to the work I’m doing in the south, but it would be my honour, one day, to work in the North and to bring that skill set that I have to my own people and to the North, around what we’re trying to build and what we’re trying to leave for future generations.

Correction: August 1, 2023 – 3:07 MT. A previous version of this article stated that Wataynikaneyap Power was 50 rather than 51-percent Indigenous owned.