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 Recently rescinded by the Vatican, the religious concept of the 15th century allowed French and British colonizers to claim “undiscovered” silent lands from Indigenous Peoples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.