When it comes to our national stories, sometimes we hear only what we want to hear.

Canadian folk icon Gordon Lightfoot reflected back to us one of our most enduring national myths. The Canadian Railroad Trilogy was powerful stuff. In its construct, the progressions and pace of guitar were designed to evoke a train gaining speed, wheels slowly chugging to churning and an unheard, always anticipated, whistle. But the song wasn’t just a hymn to our national railroad, it was one of the most effective anthems of the Canadian colonial and settler project ever written.

There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real

The first verse of Lightfoot’s song is a powerful echo of the controversial Doctrine of Discovery. Recently rescinded by the Vatican, the religious concept of the 15th century allowed French and British colonizers to claim “undiscovered” silent lands from Indigenous Peoples throughout Canada.

The concept, as a legal claim, was used by the Canadian government to legitimize its appropriation of vast tracts of “silent” lands for the Crown. The Indigenous Peoples who inhabited them were never consulted or compensated for the loss of their lands and were often forcibly removed wherever the railway progressed.

Lightfoot’s song acknowledges Indigenous Peoples only by omission.

“Long before the white men…” he sings, as if some other, clearly non-white men had come before, but he does not say who. And it isn’t just First Nations people Lightfoot omits. He ignores entirely 17,000 Chinese workers who were brought by ship from San Francisco, Portland and directly from China to break their backs building the railway.

Layin' 'em in and tyin' 'em down
Away to the bunkhouse and into the town
A dollar a day and a place for my head
A drink to the livin', a toast to the dead

Chinese workers earned $1 a day. A place for their heads wasn’t in the same bunkhouse as the white workers, who were paid $1.50 to $2.50 per day. Six hundred of them perished over the course of the railway’s construction. At the time, a reporter visiting B.C. from the Yale Sentinel wrote, “The Chinese workmen are fast disappearing under the ground.”

Canadian folk icon Gordon Lightfoot reflected back to us one of our most enduring national myths. The Canadian Railroad Trilogy was powerful stuff, writes Sidney Coles. #RIPGordonLightfoot

It’s not these dead men that Lightfoot toasts.

Lightfoot performed the Trilogy for the first time in 1966, though it didn’t enter the public’s imagination until he performed it on a special CBC broadcast in celebration of Canada’s Centennial. At midnight on Dec. 1, 1966, towns and cities held parades and lit fireworks. On Parliament Hill, a gas-powered Centennial flame was lit in celebration of Confederation. An eponymous Confederation Train, a diesel locomotive with stylized coaches on loan from the Canadian National Railway, stopped at 63 cities across the country that year.

As the Trilogy quickly grew in popularity, Kamloops Indian Residential School had been operating for nearly 75 years, the Cecilia Jeffrey (Shoal Lake) school in Kenora for nearly 65 and the Indian Act, federal legislation aimed at eradicating First Nations culture, had been in effect for 110 years.

By 1967, the “Sixties Scoop” was well underway. The Scoop began in the mid-to-late 1950s and continued into the 1980s. Later known as the “Stolen Generations,” First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families, adopted by white families, sometimes in other provinces or the U.S. Some, as far away as Europe.

The federally sponsored “education program” robbed young Indigenous children of their cultural identities, their languages and robbed their communities of their presence. The separation was often unbearable.

On Oct. 22, 1966, at the same time as Lightfoot was writing about the green, dark forests and the men who “built the mines, the mills and the factories for the good of us all,” the body of 12-year-old Anishinaabe boy Chanie Wenjack was found by a CPR engineer along the railway tracks outside Kenora, Ont.

In a desperate bid to escape the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School and return to his family in Ogoki Post, the boy died alone of hunger and hypothermia. Like so many other Indigenous children who tried to escape the horrors of those schools, he never made it home.

In 1978, Mi'kmaq artist Willie Dunn wrote and first performed Charlie, a song that describes Charlie’s (Chanie’s name was mispronounced by the administrators and teachers at the school) tragic walk along the tracks. His tribute is searing music realism:

Walk on, little Charlie, walk on through the snow,
moving down the railway line trying to make it home…
it’s a long lonesome journey, shuffling through the snow.

Many first learned of Chanie’s story when, in 2016, Gord Downie, the late lead singer of the band the Tragically Hip produced the concept album and graphic novel Secret Path in collaboration with illustrator Jeff Lemire.

Secret Path became a national movement, in part because of Downie’s fame, but also because of the honesty with which he delivered that tragic and sacred story. Unlike Lightfoot’s revisionist history lesson, Downie’s was a lesson we were ready to hear and learn from because, in part, it was also a story about all of us.

“I’m a stranger, You can’t see me,” sings Downie.

In 1967, that was true. Many of us couldn’t see Chanie Wenjack, whose death was a reality made too silent to be real.

Sidney Coles holds a PhD in comparative literature. She is a freelance journalist living on traditional Lekwungen Territory in Victoria, B.C. She is an environmental justice and human rights advocate whose writing focuses mainly on the impact of extractive industries on Indigenous land rights. She is a DPE candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and mother to two grown children.

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bravo for this article. very nice tight counterpoint. print it everywhere, put it in poems and songs!
there is also a good little doc going through the song’s ommissions available online cbc news.
Im 70 so this was my era of songs that spoke to me. I LOVED the can rrd trilogy . it made me weep. how much we've understood since then of how thoroughly indoctrinated into the erasure of “ before the whiteman” we have been.

Thank you Sidney Coles for this moving and wonderful article. I love Gordon Lightfoot’s hauntingly beautiful music —- but this iconic song in particular did and does express the tragic blind spot that many of us white settlers held, and perhaps many still hold. Perhaps that is why it is so iconic.

Thank you to Sydney Coles and both of the commenters above. Thanks also to CBC radio for choosing not to play it (as far as I am aware) even once during its beautiful day of Lightfoot tributes. I too loved the song dearly in the 60s, but it is an artefact of a time that should be well and truly past.

* Sidney.

I do not fawn over Mr Lightfoot but this is ambulance chasing at its worst. There is no research shared about if he supported First Nations or had any opinion about those Chinese working on the railroad. Nothing from his manager or others. It took me a very few minutes to find some expression of his concerns, and Buffy Saint Mares had only kind words for him on his passing. Surely the author can find someone else to beat up for their actions in the 1970s, like teenagers volunteering in animal shelters.

I've seen Gordon Lighfoot live on at least a couple of occasions, as well by chance at the theater. On the surface he seemed like a nice fellow with his interesting stories. I fondly remember Gordon Lightfoot at Ontario Place a couple times before they took away the quaint original amphitheater surrounded by grass.

May he rest in peace, he will be missed, but his music will live on.

Yes, the song's lyrics are flawed.

But it should be noted that Lightfoot did support Indigenous causes. David Suzuki recalls: "In 1984, John McCandless, along with Chief Ruby Dunstan of the Lytton First Nation and Chief Leonard Andrew of the Lil’wat Nation, organized a festival to prevent logging in the 107,000-hectare Stein Valley, about 300 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. I couldn’t make the first concert in 1985 but was invited again the following year. I called Gordon Lightfoot, and he and his band came and performed for free. Gordon came to most of the festivals in following years.... One year, John McCandless came to my house while Gordon was visiting. He said the festivals had driven the Lytton band into debt, 'How much?' Gordon asked. McCandless replied, '$70,000'. Gordon immediately wrote a cheque. I remember John breaking into tears. Gordon never bragged about it or even talked about it."

Suzuki says Lightfoot also accompanied him to Brazil to support the Kayapo people in the struggle against a proposed dam that would flood their land. "I know he didn’t find the trip easy, but he never complained. The point is, he came, supported [Kayapo leader] Paiakan and the people and left without any fanfare. He contributed tremendously yet never bragged about it."

Thanks Angus.

This article is crap.