The ‘iron road’ that brought ruin and death

Stephen Maher: As tempers flare over rail protests and talk of the rule of law, consider the history of the CPR
Protesters blockade CN Rail tracks in Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. The protest is in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the LNG pipeline in northern British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Ask Canadians to describe their country and they talk about public health care and hockey, military valour on European battlefields, peacekeeping and multiculturalism.

But most industrialized countries have public health care, some better than ours. Lots of countries play hockey. Most societies have stories they tell themselves about military glory. Many countries do more to keep the peace around the world than we do.

If you were to describe this country to someone who had never heard of it, it would be accurate to describe Canada as a country built around a railway—the Canadian Pacific Railway—on land taken by force from Indigenous people.

“There was a time in this fair land, when the railroad did not run, when the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun,” sang Gordon Lightfoot. “Long before the white man and long before the wheel, when the green dark forests were too silent to be real.”

Before the CPR, which allowed people, mostly from Ontario, to settle the plains, when white people travelled West, they did so as traders and explorers, living among Indigenous people on their sufferance. It was a complicated relationship, often violent, but it was not a relationship between masters and servants.

READ MORE: Does the B.C. gas pipeline need approval from hereditary chiefs?

Confederation and the CPR ended that, creating as Lightfoot put it, “an iron road stretching from the sea to the sea,” and suddenly the settlers were able to subjugate Indigenous people.

Without that iron road, there would have been no Canada. The Americans would have pushed north, taking the parts of Rupert’s Land that they wanted, as they took so much of Mexico and every Indigenous nation that stood in their way in the 19th century.

In a way, I am glad that Sir John A. Macdonald and his men did what they did, because without his expansion west, we would have no country, and I believe Canada is in many ways the best country in the world, a humane, peaceful, prosperous and free society.

But some people—mostly Indigenous people—paid a terrible price, and we should not shrink from that, as we did for so long, not if we want to understand the situation we are in now.

To clear the plains of the Cree and Blackfoot, so that they could not threaten the railway, Macdonald and his government forced them onto reserves in the north.

The Cree and the Blackfoot were buffalo hunters and warriors. They lived in teepees, rode horses, danced the sun dance, sold pemmican and buffalo skins to the Hudson Bay Company, and lived more or less as they pleased.

When the buffalo were hunted out, and the Cree and Blackfoot were facing starvation, MacDonald’s Indian commissioner, Edgar Dewdney, tried to starve them into submission. They tried to push back. Furious that the Crown had paid the Hudson’s Bay Company 300,000 pounds for Indigenous land, they tried to stop the surveyors from laying out the railroad line, but did not, could not, stand against the British empire.

The chief who argued most strongly against the injustice of this, Big Bear, refused to join Treaty Six, holding out for years even while his people starved.

“We want none of the Queen’s presents,” he told a missionary bearing gifts. “When we set a fox trap, we scatter pieces of meat all around, but when the fox gets into the trap we knock him on the head. We want no bait. Let your chiefs come like men and talk to us.”

Big Bear took his people down to Montana to hunt the last of the buffalo but was driven out, his band dwindling as starving members fled to treaty reserves, where they could starve to death more slowly on rotten bacon and mouldy flour, purchased by Dewdney from a company in which he held stock.

When Louis Riel and the Metis rose against the land-stealing newcomers from the East, some of Big Bear’s furious warriors massacred some whites at Frog Lake, over Big Bear’s objections. The North-West Mounted Police and militia rode north and, after an inconclusive battle at Cut Knife Hill, Big Bear surrendered.

The authorities threw him in prison, along with Poundmaker, another chief who had tried but failed to keep the peace. Both men were released when they sickened and the authorities feared they would die in prison.

Dewdney punished the reserves that he thought were disloyal, denying them food, taking away their horses and guns. Many people starved to death, and when the Crown had the upper hand, they imposed a pass system, which meant many people had no choice but to stay on their reserves and watch their children starve.

As James Daschuk wrote in Clearing the Plains, his heart-breaking history of the period: “Mortality rates for bands deemed rebellious for the two years after 1885 are striking. Maureen Lux estimated that the Cree at Thunder Child incurred a mortality rate of 233.5 per 1,000 people and at Sweet Grass 185.0 per 1,000. Deaths in the Battleford Agency exceeded births by a ratio of 4:1. So many died among the Sharphead Stoney group in central Alberta that they ceased to exist as a distinct population.”

When the CPR came through, it brought waves of newcomers, and they brought measles and whooping cough, which cut a terrible swath through the Cree and Blackfoot, whose immune systems had been weakened by starvation.

Eventually, determined to civilize the savages, the government took away their children and sent them to residential schools, where they were treated terribly. Many died of tuberculosis. The government deposed chiefs it did not like, banned the sun dance and other religious ceremonies.

If you study Canadian history, you find similar stories of dispossession and subjugation from coast to coast. The Crown pushed Indigenous people aside, forced them to live in poverty on land that nobody else wanted, destroyed their traditional systems of governance, broke treaties at will, a period that ran from Confederation until 1973, when the courts granted an injunction to the James Bay Cree, temporarily blocking a hydro development.

For most Canadians, the railway has been a great boon, as Lightfoot described it: “An iron road running from sea to the sea, bringing the goods to a young growing land, all up through the seaports and into their hands.”

We can’t expect Indigenous people to see the story that way.

When tempers get raw, and politicians talk forcefully about the importance of the rule of law, we would be wise to remember that the rule of law, and the Canadian Pacific Railway, brought ruin and death to Indigenous people.

I don’t know how we are going to get through this winter and get the trains running again, but I believe our politicians and police should err on the side of caution, and we should keep in mind that our country only exists because of the lawful crimes our government committed to get the railway built.