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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.

"Nov. 7 marked the 135th anniversary of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s completion .. for First Nations peoples ... Canada’s railways are vehicles for expropriation," writes Joe Bongiorno. #Wetsuweten

“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.”

Iron-bound legacy

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.

Keep reading

This article does not define a path forward, other than through protest. Civil disobedience is only a symptom of the vacuum that exists in the full recognition of Indigenous rights. The answer is to fill the vacuum both in law and in practice.

Today, that recognition is usually defined in legal terms and placed in the context of great social injustice and resource extraction. Indeed, “legality” is a Euro-centric construct previously imposed with genocidal effect on Indigenous society without the acknowledgment of the underlying human rights. But that has changed with the Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which for the first time recognized Indigenous rights in strong European legal terms some 97 years after the CPR was completed.

The central problem is that so much has happened in those 97 years — and still does today — to discriminate against Aboriginal people, even though their rights have been enshrined in law now for nearly 40 years. The law is still catching up to the damage done. To paraphrase Beverley McLachlin, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the law is evolving. So is society. It remains an unfinished project.

There has been progress with Supreme Court cases like Delgamuukw (1997) and Tsilhqot’in (2014). They took decades to arrive at a decision at the highest level, and were appealed at every step of the way by the state, often with private intervenors. They also occurred on truly “free,” unceded land in British Columbia that was never sold, negotiated or tricked away through treaties.

McLachlin recognized the injustice in her memoir ‘Truth be Told’ when she cited the reality of Treaty 7, which encompassed a vast area including the community of her youth in rural Southern Alberta, which affected the Indigenous people she and her family knew as neighbours in the Fifties. The land and all its resources were shamefully sold for a few blankets and tools three generations before. The unjust treaty process will, if ever, take at least several future generations to resolve right up to the Supreme Court, which means that political leadership is more vital than ever to build our nation for the future. That is, it would be far more efficient in theory to elect visionaries who would make new laws or fix the old ones that prolong injustice.

In my view, the focus must shift by necessity from its deep economic addiction to the extraction and export of raw natural resources and onto human resources, knowledge and better urbanism. These are 21st Century concerns and they have a greater impetus to build on social justice as well as to address climate change.

Though the land was never ceded to build a big city, Metro Vancouver and the federal government have struck a compromise with the three First Nations that have continuously occupied the land for between 9,000 years (local archeological evidence) and 14,000 years (regional archeological evidence). The Jericho Lands, formerly a military base, is a site currently under development review through the Canada Lands Company and the three First Nations in a joint partnership involving the private sector. All three Nations are also developing other sites individually within the Metro. This structure was also used to build Calgary’s Garrison Woods development, formerly the Sarcee Military Base in the Sarcee Nation’s traditional territory, still known as Treaty 7.

This example (or variations) could be a model for one form of reconciliation in cities and regions across the land, irrespective of treaties. It is designed to use public property to bring permanent income to the Indigenous community via leaseholds, or sales revenue, as well as jobs, skills training, business opportunities and education.

Public federal land is subject to claim by First Nations in any case, as Stephen Harper found out when he tried unsuccessfully to sell Vancouver’s Sinclair Centre to private interests until the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) Nation discovered his intentions. The site is a magnificent heritage adaptive reuse complex that continues to house the federal passport centre and offices. I am unaware of any recompense to the Squamish, Tsleil Waututh or Musqueam nations for the attempted sale.

I believe this model has great potential on Vancouver Island. The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway was signed over in 1883 and built by then old robber baron Robert Dunsmuir in exchange for 8,000 square kilometres of land (23 per cent of the Island’s area). Sir John A. realized the Island had to be part of the Canadian federation stitched together by railways, or it would probably have gone to the Americans. There is no record of any compensation or representation for Island First Nations. In essence, the land was stolen and the Indigenous inhabitants were damned by confinement into reserves,

The Dunsmuir family exploited the coal and forest resources using the railway and oversaw the arrival of successive waves of settlers. The remnants of the unsettled ENR Land Grant changed hands several times and today is owned by private forestry companies who have high-graded the timber to a level some environmentalists have termed “extinction logging.” A quick glance at Google Earth confirms the vast amount of damage. A number of forest cutblocks were taken right to several town boundaries, and with prior precedences of rezoning and selling parcels for low density rural residential lots, one can legitimately wonder if Sixties-style car dependent, low density subdivisions will be sprawling up the mountainsides up and down the coast.

The original ~250 km ENR Corridor is functionally derelict but remains largely intact as parcels of property, and it connects to most of the largest city centres. Though Via Rail has a stake in it, it’s currently owned by the non-profit Island Corridor Foundation. Legal decisions confirm the Corridor is part of the confederation legacy, which has been just as devastating to local Indigenous communities as anywhere else the railways appeared.

In this case, reconciliation could assume the Canada Lands-Indigenous partnership model where the federal government (perhaps with assistance by an understanding provincial government that just adopted the UNDRIP — a hint to the NDP) purchases several thousand hectares of land near Island cities and plans for compact, zero net carbon, multi-zoned satellite villages and towns strictly confined to sites damaged by industrial logging, as a replacement for standard private subdivisions, and connected to nearby cities by light rail. Part of the land lease revenue and construction jobs would go to local First Nations. Canada Lands would retain partial lease revenue to recoup its development costs.

The majority of the purchased land should be rehabilitated and returned to forestry under a locally-managed Community Trust Model of management using regenerative forestry techniques and value added product initiatives, thereby taking forestry out of the hands of the provincial government that traditionally held private industry’s interests as a priority for too long, using public resources. First Nations must be part of the forestry management and revenue structure, as a subset of overall land use planning for modern times.

Likewise, the ENR could be expanded into a fully electrified commuter / regional intercity rail service with frequencies and capacities adapted to local and regional urban commuter demand. Moreover, the millions of foot passengers BC Ferries moves every year are a captive market for a frequent and fast ferry-rail network that offers an affordable, low emission alternative to taking a car across the Salish Sea from the mainland.

Urban commuter and intercity rail should be operated by a regional company with permanent representation on the board by Indigenous directors (alongside Via Rail and local directors, possibly also a provincial board seat), and employ First Nations in part to construct and operate the railway, including specialized contractors, engineers, conductors, maintenance and station ticket sales personnel, all with standardized training. Via Rail grants will decrease as ticket revenue increases as long as commuter and intercity rail can compete fairly with the Almighty Car, especially in winter conditions. That means putting enough resources into a fast, frequent rail network as necessary to minimize at-grade crossings and assemble properties that follow the most direct routes.

In a manner of speaking, the original confederation sword can be converted to a beneficial railway plowshare redesigned as an instrument for reconciliation and for meeting the challenges of this century.