By Melanie Law
Special to the Observer
If you travel south from Quesnel on Highway 97, you may notice a roadside sign around 30km out of town marking the community of Australian.
It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type of place – a dot on the map that remains mainly for historic reasons. But for Ben Direen, it holds special significance. On June 15, 2022, Direen sat on the hillside there to take his oath of Canadian citizenship.
Why in Australian? Well, Direen is from Australia – a city called Mackay, in Queensland. And since 2017, he has worked as a host on the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury train that shuttles tourists through the Rocky Mountains from April to October each year.
One of his main routes is the company’s “Rainforest to Gold Rush Route”, which begins in Vancouver, travels through Whistler and Quesnel, and ends in Jasper, Alberta. Direen noticed the non-descript rail-side sign as the train swept through the Cariboo community each week. Being an Aussie, he was intrigued.
“For years, I have traveled on the lines, and when I first got the Rainforest to Gold Rush Route, we would come through Australian Ranch, or just beside it,” says Direen.
“We had about two lines in our commentary guide about it; just, ‘Some people came here from Australia, and they settled the cattle ranch,’ and that was about it. I was like, ‘That’s so weird. There has to be more to it than that,’” he explains.
Direen has a passion for history and storytelling and wanted to share more with the passengers he guides. So last year, in the train’s off-season, the Rocky Mountaineer tour group asked him to enhance the route’s storytelling book, to add more local stories and details.
In his research, Direen discovered that Australian is so-named after four gold-seeking men who travelled to the area in the 1860s. The men – only one of whom was actually Australian – all had Australian accents, according to some of the sources Direen read. One source suggested the four had met during the Australian gold rush and travelled to Canada together, which Direen thinks may explain the accents.
Regardless, the men – Australian George Cook, Swedish Andrew Olson, and British brothers William and Stephen Downes – built the ranch south of Quesnel, and eventually opened a roadhouse for travellers. Over time, the roadhouse became known as Australian Ranch.
Direen added the story and others to the commentary book, and began his season in April this year. Then, he heard that he was able to complete his citizenship ceremony in June; and due of COVID-19 safety measures, the ceremony would be online.
The virtual nature of the ceremony got Direen thinking. “It opened up new possibilities to where I could be when I do my citizenship,” he says.
Having discovered a quirky connection to the Cariboo, and having already established a fondness for Quesnel, when Direen found out he could take his citizenship oath from anywhere in Canada, he thought: Why not Australian?
“I thought, I want to be the first-ever Australian to become Canadian on ‘Australian’ soil,” says Direen. “I just wanted to do something silly because I could.”
Direen disembarked from the Rocky Mountaineer in Quesnel in mid-June. He planned to simply find a place in Australian with phone reception, so he could dial in and become a citizen. But on a whim, he decided to get in touch with the people who now own Australian Ranch: Bob and Lenore Yorston.
“I said, ‘Hey, this is going to sound a little weird, but I’m an Australian guy that’s been guiding on the Rocky Mountaineer for years, and I’ve been going through Australian, and I’m becoming a citizen in about an hour. Would you mind if I came down and found somewhere on the property to do my ceremony?’”
To Direen’s surprise, the Yorstons did more than simply say yes: Bob and his daughter guided him to a shaded ridge on their property overlooking the ranch.
“They knew there was reception there, and it was kind of perfect because it had a little place to sit… they set me all up and wished me well. And then [after the ceremony] they were the first people to welcome me to Canada, which is kind of nice,” says Direen.
“I really appreciated how kindly they responded to some strange Aussie fellow calling up out of the blue,” he laughs.
But then again, Direen doesn’t seem especially shocked at their hospitality – having travelled through Quesnel every season, he has nothing but nice things to say about the community.
“I love going. It’s one of the things that’s kept me on that route for so long,” says Direen. He likes that the Rocky Mountaineer staff and guests get the chance to interact with Quesnel locals. “The people have really embraced the train, more so than anywhere else that we stop. And for the host, that’s really special.”
Direen says Quesnel is unique in that there are always people at the station to greet the train and the guests, no matter how late they arrive.
“We have these two young boys, Chase and Joshua, they come out and wave the train in with their mom and their grandma every time,” he notes. “We sometimes get the Rotary Club; the Lions Club; we’ve had the Special Olympians come and bring their medals and show the guests and welcome them. Miss Quesnel and her runners up… the classic car club are big supporters… They come along and welcome the guests. That just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
Direen is proud that he can now weave a little bit of his own personal history into his stories of the Cariboo as he rides the rails with tourists from all over the world.
“I really take a lot of pride in the job. And I know for me, as a tourist, I like leaving a place feeling enriched,” notes Direen.
“So I try and take something that could be just a simple ranch in the Cariboo, or a sign on the side of the railway tracks, and turn it into a narrative that people can connect with. And that’s really what my job is.”
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