Wednesday, February 20, 2019

An Indigenous Railway History of Canada?

One of CN's newest locomotives, complete with Indigenous logo.
Everyone knows about the building of the transcontinental railway in Canada. It helped to get British Columbia into Confederation and to keep the Americans out. It was a foundational event in Canadian history. We are told that, thousands of dead Chinese labourers and government corruption notwithstanding, it was a key event in uniting Canada. The more erudite might even know how vital the railway was in suppressing the Red River Rebellion* and thus fuelling the M├ętis struggle for recognition that continues today. But what happens to Canada’s railways when we try to bring railway history into conversation with Indigenous history?

The short answer is that we don’t know. In fact, historians know surprisingly little about Canada’s railway history. Every survey of Canadian history talks about the Canadian Pacific, but beyond that it’s normally taken for granted. Like most Canadians today, railways for historians are something in the background that don’t really matter anymore. To my knowledge, A.A. den Otter’s The Philosophy of Railways was the last monograph devoted to Canadian railways to be published, and that was in 1997. As a result, we are woefully ill-equipped to begin thinking about an Indigenous history of railways in Canada. As a result, these musings are a very hesitant first step.

For those of you with long memories, the tragic story of Chanie Wenjack came to your attention from the pages of Maclean’s magazine in February 1967 or perhaps from the naming of the Wenjack Treatre at Trent University in 1973. For those of you who are younger or have shorter memories, Chanie’s story comes to you through the late Gord Downie’s Secret Path project.

Chanie didn’t want to be at residential school in Kenora - he wanted to be at home with his family at Ogoki Post (Marten Falls, Treaty 9). Along with two other boys, he ran away and tried to use CN’s transcontinental main line as a path home. After a brief stop in Reddit (a place you’ve only heard of if you know railways) he set off on his own heading east along the track. He had a CN passenger map and was told to seek help from railway section crews along the way. Marten Falls lies well to the north of any railway line, so the tracks would never have led Chanie home, even if he had somehow managed to complete the 400 mile journey. In fact, he only managed to walk 12 miles from Reddit. It was late October and snow was already falling. After about 36 hours, Chanie died. The next morning, a locomotive engineer spotted Chanie’s body, as Ian Adams put it in Maclean’s, “just four-and-a-half feet from the trains that carry the white world by in warm and well-fed comfort." To most, the railway is what unites Canada. For Chanie, it was a futile path home. Anyone who has seen the animated version of Secret Path will know that the railway looms large in the story.

The Chanie Wenjack story is the most well-known case of a child running away from residential school, but it is not an isolated incident. We will probably never know the number of children who ran away - either temporarily or permanently. Chanie wasn't even the only one to use the railway. The Maclean's article about his death explained that Indigenous children ran away all the time, "Sometimes they lose a leg or an arm trying to climb aboard freight trains."

Northwestern Ontario's Indigenous connection to the railway is still a very live issue today. Ryan McMahon's Thunder Bay podcast is a harrowing listen as he tries to figure out just how messed up the city on Lake Superior really is. If you're Indigenous in Thunder Bay, life is difficult. If you live on the Fort William reserve, across the Kaministiquia River from the city, the railway makes your life a daily ordeal. The problem is the James Street bridge, a rather unique stucture with two decks: one carrying a CN spur line, the other carrying the road. In 2013, vandals set the bridge on fire. CN quickly repaired the damage to the rail deck, but six years on, the road deck remains closed.

The bridge was built by the Grand Trunk Pacific at the start of the twentieth century. When the bridge was built, the railway agreed that it would be accessible to rail, pedestrians and vehicles in perpetuity. When the Grand Trunk Pacific became part of Canadian National in 1918, CN became responsible for the bridge and the original agreement. While CN was quick to repair the rail portion of the bridge, it claims that the damage to the road deck goes beyond its maintenance commitment. So far, two levels of courts have disagreed with CN. CN appealed to the Supreme Court, but no decision has been made. While this legal fight drags on, residents on the reserve must drive an extra 10km to reach the next bridge into Thunder Bay. As McMahon notes in his podcast, this also means that ambulances are taking longer. In CN's defence, it has hired an engineering firm to prepare a plan to repair the bridge by 2020. Of course, CN's continued legal appeal suggests that it still hopes to get out of the repair bill.

This particular legal wrangle pits the city of Thunder Bay against one of Canada's most established companies. As is so often the case, Indigenous people are stuck in the middle. It is also happening at the same time that CN is boosting its Indigenous relations. By "Working alongside Aboriginal communities across the CN network, [CN] hope[s] to strengthen [its] ties, cultivate economic opportunities and set an example among [its] industry peers." This includes a new Indigenous logo on the railway's newest locomotives. While their commitment to Indigenous communities is to be praised, the protracted legal dispute in Thunder Bay seems to contradict this initiative.

What does an Indigenous history of Canadian railways look like? I'm not sure. My own work on the Ontario Northland Railway in Treaty 9 territory is only in its infancy and I am excited about where my research might lead me. I know one thing for sure, I will never think the same way about Canada's railway history again.

* Or fight for political, ethic and cultural recognition, depending on your perspective.