Thousands of tourists flock to Craigellachie’s Last Spike Gift Shoppe each year. They pose for photos by the tracks and take turns re-enacting the 1885 photograph of Donald Smith driving in the last spike. But several hundred kilometres north, the Coastal GasLink pipeline is charging through the Wet’suwet’en territories that brought Canadian railways to a grinding halt.
Nov. 7 marked the 135th anniversary of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s completion. Although the railway has always been a private corporation, it was — and remains — a wrought iron symbol of Confederation. But for First Nations peoples, Canada’s railways are vehicles for expropriation.
“Hot metal screaming through the valleys, echoing loud enough to wake the mountains,” the voice of Wet’suwet’en poet Jennifer Wickham shakes as she recites a poem from her collection, I’m a Real Skin. “A procession of metal caskets carrying stolen goods: clickety clack clickety clack, cha-ching.”
She wrote the poem when she lived in Burns Lake. There, the trains would echo across the water, waking her up multiple times a night.
“I hate the trains,” she says. “Like, a lot.”
But in 2018, her community stood off with a different piece of Crown-backed, privately owned corporate infrastructure. Coastal GasLink had received approval from the Wet’suwet’en band council to build a pipeline on their territory, but not from the hereditary chiefs who traditionally govern their communities. Land and water “protectors” created blockades on the construction site to prevent the project from going forward, and this continued through 2019.
“Stand up and fight back,” Molly Wickham, spokesperson for the Gidimt’en camp and Jennifer’s sister, urged in a YouTube video, “Shut down Canada.”
From January 2020 until COVID-19 struck, protesters from coast to coast answered the call by blocking the country’s rails.
On the other side of the country in Kahnawake, Que., Mohawk filmmaker Roxann Whitebean was moved to block the rails when she saw Wet’suwet’en people being forcibly removed from their territory.
“Canada always projects itself as being the most peaceful country in the world, but that’s not the case for Indigenous Peoples,” said Whitebean. “That’s not our reality.”
But why target the railways?
Displaced by the 'national dream'
Rewind to 1878 when John A. Macdonald, the man who dreamed of a national railway, also began serving as superintendent general of Indian Affairs.
“In his correspondence, (Macdonald) said he was managing Indigenous issues because (it) was of primary importance to completing the railway project,” said James Daschuk, a professor at the University of Regina. “His goal is to build a railway, but to secure the railway, he had to take care of ‘Indian affairs.’”
Between 1871 and 1876, treaties 1 to 7 cleared the western path for the railway’s construction. In treaty negotiations with the Cree on the Saskatchewan plains, the government promised humanitarian aid in times of crises, but 18 months later, in 1876, bison were disappearing.
The starving Cree went to the Indian agent for food. From their lands, the hungry Cree were moved onto reserves to the north. The North West Mounted Police were ordered not to feed any “non-treaty Indians” south of the tracks, Daschuk explained during an interview with Canada’s National Observer. On the reserve, the food provided was substandard. “People were so poor, so malnourished and so poorly dressed, and tuberculosis broke out like at a community-wide level.”
Once the tracks had been laid, the railway allowed for mass settlement of the territories across the country formerly occupied by First Nations.
“Until the railway, the number of settlers was minuscule,” Daschuk said.
The celebrated moment in the driving of the last spike “signalled the end of freedom for First Nations people,” said Daschuk. From that same year until the mid-1930s, the Canadian government imposed an extralegal and little-known policy of segregation called the “pass system,” which prevented First Nations peoples from leaving their reserves without written consent from government officials.
“For (Macdonald) to make sure the railway is complete, he not only subjugated First Nations people, he stomped on them,” said Daschuk.
To this day, many First Nations believe they are still being stomped on. “The only way we can have rights as Indigenous Peoples really in this country is if we’re living on reserve,” said Whitebean.
To Thomas Deer, historical and cultural liaison at the Kahnawake Language and Cultural Center, the CP is “a symbol of expropriation, a symbol of how (Mohawks) became dispossessed from (their) land.” Though CP and other railways never received formal permission from the community, the railway extended its line through the Mohawk territory from the 1880s onward.
“CP was pretty wily in the way they attained (approval),” he explained. “Sometimes, they went directly to Indian Affairs and bypassed the community. Sometimes, they went to community members themselves to lease out land or buy land. They did whatever they could, playing sides off one another to get the approval from the Privy Council to expropriate land for the railway.”
Resources within reach
As a child, Deer would play on the CP tracks and oil cars. However, perception of the railway, especially CP, has grown more critical.
“People are understanding that railways are accessories to the energy extraction industries ... that exploit our Indigenous communities,” he said.
The government fears losing access to the land’s resources, Wickham said. “We clearly saw evidence of the government and industry working together on how they could exploit Wet’suwet’en resources and have complete access to them, knowing full well the implications of the decision of the Delgamuukw court case.”
To Wickham, the train cars carrying woodchips and lumber have destroyed more than the trees. Local food sources, including fruit, moose and deer, have grown scarcer, she said. The caribou have completely disappeared. Now she fears that pollution caused by the pipeline will kill the salmon and render the river water undrinkable. “It’s a calculated attack on who we are as a people, our way of living and governing ourselves.”
“They continue to participate in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples through resource extraction and land expropriation,” Whitebean said. “By putting us on reservations, they had free rein to our land and resources. Within the next few generations, we might run out of land within our community.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first ran for office with promises of reconciliation. However, when the RCMP raided Wet’suwet’en territory donning military helmets and war-like tactical gear, and carried sniper rifles to once again “sterilize the site” for Crown-backed industry through unceded land, many saw the state’s fist instead of an extended hand.
One hundred thirty-five years ago, a week after the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed and the iconic “Last Spike” photo was snapped, Métis leader Louis Riel, who had once successfully negotiated with Ottawa for Métis land rights, was hanged for treason. The railway transported Canada’s first army to crush Métis uprisings.
Nov. 7 marked the realization of John A. Macdonald’s “national dream,” the steel spine said to have triumphantly bound the west to the east to form Canada, a then new and united nation. But to those who feel excluded from the grand designs of Macdonald’s dream, railways, pipelines and future infrastructure projects may erode what remains of their nations within Canada, rather than bind them all together.
Joe Bongiorno is a freelance journalist and fiction author from Montreal.
Editor's note: The article has been updated with the correct distance between the Coastal GasLink pipeline and the location of the last spike.