Canada is having a woke railway moment
What a moment Canadians find themselves in. A courageous movement of people have paralyzed a large portion of the national railway infrastructure and have caused what is frankly the most significant railway disruption in Canadian history. I study railway development in Northern Ontario and its impact on Indigenous communities. In short, I am in academic overdrive.
However, as my brain fires on all cylinders, I am left with far more questions than answers. I do not really study Indigenous activism, so on this side of the issue I am much less clear. When it comes to the railway, I am on stable ground. What follows is a selection of my thoughts, some of which are more complete than others. I think that all Canadians have a lot to think about right now. For many, once the blockades are lifted this will soon fade into memory, but this will stay with me longer.
For years, the Wet’suwet’en have been fighting to ensure that pipeline construction projects are conducted on their own terms. This happened, sort of. Elected band council chiefs mostly agreed to allow the Coastal GasLink pipeline plan to go ahead. But the elected chiefs are only representatives in the highly artificial and imposed structure of Indian Act Crown-Indigenous relations. Hereditary Chiefs, because the Wet’suwet’en are a people who have hereditary Chiefs, do not agree to allow pipeline development. This means that there is an internal conflict within their communities, let alone the tension with outside forces. For an excellent primer on this, see the First Peoples Law guide.
Many Wet’suwet’en people do not want the pipeline, so they set up camps to block construction access. Naturally, the pipeline consortium called the police, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s involvement over the past two years has made things much worse. According to the Guardian, the RCMP authorized snipers to use whatever force was needed to subdue the occupation. For those of you unfamiliar with the RCMP, it borders on paramilitary – from its tactics to its ranking system. But that was a year ago. The catalyst for this series of protests was the RCMP decision to enforce an injunction to clear the Wet’suwet’en protest camps this month. This is what caused sympathy protests to take place across Canada, many choosing to target railway tracks.
Unless I am very much mistaken, shutting almost the entirety of VIA Rail (except Northern Manitoba and Sudbury-White River) along with pretty much all of the eastern portion of CN’s network, is the most significant disruption to Canada’s railway network ever. Labour disputes rarely shut down every train and normally there is a wind-down period first when trains are moved to yards. This time, trains are stuck on the main line. Passenger trains never reached their destinations. I think that CN’s decision to shut down is a practical response to the situation, but I am also sure that it is partly a pressure tactic to scare the government into action. From an Indigenous perspective, these blockades are a very visible form of resistance and a real statement against the colonial structure that continues to shape Canada. After all, the railway plays a central role in the history of Canadian colonialism. For examples, see Adele Perry’s amazing Twitter thread here or my discussion of Treaty 9 in Northern Ontario here.
The most significant blockade is at a location known as CN Marysville, east of Belleville, Ontario. I was actually there last summer, just watching the trains roll by. It is a very unassuming location, but it borders the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. If the boundaries on Google Maps are to be believed, the crossing is not actually on reserve land, but it is certainly on the traditional territory of the Tyendinaga community. This is CN’s main line between Toronto and Montreal and it carries all VIA passenger trains from Toronto to Montreal and Ottawa. Trains stopped moving on February 6, and haven’t moved since. Other blockades have sprung up across the country, disrupting railway operations in BC, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec (and probably elsewhere, this is a fast-moving story). The majority of these blockades have targeted CN tracks, but CP has also experienced disruptions, notably in Southern BC. While CN has received a provincial court injunction to clear the blockade at Marysville, the Ontario Provincial Police has yet to carry it out.
The hesitancy about clearing the blockade says many things. For one, it says that the place of railways in Canada is not what it once was. By allowing the blockade to stand, the pipeline development is being given the higher priority. While the national railway network was 19th-century Canada’s megaproject, the 20th and 21st centuries belong to pipelines. While many, including federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, are calling on the Justin Trudeau to step in, the reality is that Ottawa can’t do much. The injunction was provincial and therefore it is up to Doug Ford’s government to act. I am not surprised that the government is hesitating. The state has learned a lot since Oka, Ipperwash, and Caledonia. While the police default is still to prepare for an all-out war, the last thing Ontario or Canada wants is violence being broadcast by the world’s media, which is perhaps why the media are having such a hard time covering this.
More broadly, we are seeing a very different tactic. While Andrew Scheer calls for Indigenous people to “check their privilege” and essentially go back to being subjugated, Trudeau is letting the protest run its course. Meanwhile, Doug Ford isn’t doing much, which he is highly skilled at doing. If Scheer was Prime Minister, the blockades would be down and I suspect blood would have been shed by now. I’m not letting Trudeau off the hook here, the Crown-Indigenous relationship remains highly adversarial on his watch and the state continues to meddle unnecessarily in Indigenous lives, but at least he likes to talk rather than lead with his fists.
Railways matter, my work matters
One of the most difficult parts of doctoral study is feeling that you are accomplishing nothing. You spend years on things that most people will think are a waste of time. For the past week, my research topics have been front-page news in Canada. I study railway development. I study how this development affected Indigenous people. True, my work looks at Northern Ontario, but this is a region that never gets any media attention. In a sense, this makes understanding the role of the railway near James Bay even more pressing. The Tyendinaga defenders of Indigenous rights chose their location wisely. It is near enough for Toronto journalists to actually visit. No doubt this will fade from media attention and I will feel my work doesn’t matter more often than I think it does, but it is also hard not to think that something is happening right now. Settler people are connecting railways to colonialism in a way that few of us have before. This is exciting.
Thirty Thousand Feet Above the Fields
One of the most striking examples of the imposition of European Enlightenment rationality onto North America is the overlaying of the grid system onto land by European settlers. The surveying of towns and farm plots for private ownership during the 19th century was a tangible articulation of the new order being imposed by settler colonialism onto Indigenous land. Flying over the American Midwest, the rigid grid structure of Iowa farmers’ fields was a striking reminder of the historical process of settlement, and its lasting form. As the plane began its descent over the Missouri River, we neared Omaha, where I would be exploring another facet of this settler colonial process: the railroad.
Throughout 2019, commemorations and celebrations were held to mark the 150th anniversary of the completion of the American transcontinental railroad. In 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific met near Promontory, Utah, linking the Pacific Coast to Council Bluffs, where the UP joined up with the rest of the American rail network to the Eastern Seaboard. As Richard White has pointed out, this was not really a transcontinental railroad at all, but when its construction was combined with the frontier ethos, it felt like a bringing together of the disparate states of America, helping to heal the divisions of the Civil War. The last spike was a momentous occasion for the relatively young nation, but for the people who had occupied the land for millennia, the railroad was a confusing, intimidating, exciting, and above all transformative newcomer. I was meeting a group of people who hoped to think beyond the commemorative celebrations and understand what the railroad has meant in Native America.
I don’t officially study the United States, and I certainly don’t study the transcontinental railroad. In fact, I have to confess that much of what I knew about it before this gathering was informed by the AMC series Hell on Wheels (ok, and White’s book). I was the only Canadian at this symposium, and I hoped to explain the similarities and differences between my work on railway development in Northern Ontario and the much larger project in the American West that had taken place over 30 years earlier. More importantly, I wanted to see how other professionals, scholars, and elders understood railway development and its impact on Indigenous people. As the headquarters of the Union Pacific, Omaha was an ideal location to hold this discussion, which was sponsored primarily by the UP, the National Parks Service, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, which also hosted the gatherings. Omaha itself is an excellent example of the settler understanding of land. It is a sprawling city, over 140 square miles, with few buildings taller than two or three stories. This is a space where land appears unlimited and can be used inefficiently without consequences. Indigenous teachings tell us a different story, where actions have consequences and land and all it does for us must be respected. The development of the American West really was the imposition of a new worldview.
If nothing else happens in my doctoral journey, my few days in Omaha will have made it all worthwhile. It was my first foray into the academic world as a doctoral candidate, my first presentation in the United States, and there wasn’t a single bad paper or presentation during the whole event. The participants were friendly, knowledgeable and, above all enthusiastic about the topic. While the work was all of a truly excellent quality, several of these discussions really stood out for me, and it is these that I want to reflect on. (For a full list of presentations and presenters, visit the Union Pacific Museum’s website).
The California Myth
Until very recently, most people’s understanding of California’s past was the story of the Missions: Franciscan outposts spaced a day’s journey apart as Catholicism headed North along the coast. The Spanish place names all over California seemed to corroborate this Hispanic heritage. After all, who else would pick names like San Diego, San Luis Obispo, or Ventura? It turns out that it was mostly Anglo-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. California is home to one of the most enduring historical myths in the U.S., and Indigenous history blows it apart.
As Michael Connelly Miskwish and Theresa Gregor showed, the Mission Myth is an act of historical erasure. California was home to a wide variety of Indigenous peoples, and perhaps the greatest concentration of Indigenous languages anywhere. “El Camino Real,” as we have come to know it, was really a weak patchwork of missions, mostly concentrated around Baja California. In many cases, the Padres met strong resistance, controlled little land, and most mission development was abandoned by the 1840s, but not before disease had significantly weakened Indigenous communities. The coming of the railway and later roads encouraged local businessmen to promote the region to investors. To do this, they chose to resurrect the piecemeal mission system and to bolster it through a constructed Hispanic heritage. A key tactic in constructing this was to replace Indigenous place names with Spanish ones: Tecuan became Tijuana, and so forth. By constructing the idea of “El Camino Real,” the Automobile Club of Southern California hoped to attract tourists looking for the mythical Spanish past. All this helped to hide California’s Indigenous past and marginalize the surviving tribes. Only recently has the California Genocide been acknowledged as an act of physical and cultural erasure.
But there is another, equally troubling side to this story. Historians and educators have been complicit in perpetuating the Mission Myth. Until very recently, all California 4th grade students were required to complete what is known as the “Mission Project,” a history module where a passing grade was determined by how well a student could retell and explain the Spanish Missions. For Indigenous students, who knew better, they could choose to accurately explain the erasure of their cultures and the imposition of the Spanish myth (and fail), or toe the line (and pass). As the complexity of California’s development has become more widely known, the curriculum has been revised, and the “Mission Project” now allows for multiple interpretations. Why were educators complicit? According to Miskwish and Gregor, the Mission Myth was too vital to the California tourism industry to lose.
I don’t study food history, but Adae Romero-Briones and Hillary Renick convinced me of the railroad’s role in damaging Indigenous foodways. Railway development reshaped land, which in turn reshaped cultivation patterns and migratory routes for animals. Railroads and the farmers they brought introduced new animals to the West, like pigs and horses, which upset existing ecosystems. Railroads were part of an extractive system, where commodities like bison were collected in mass quantities and then shipped away. In fact, in the Cochiti language, the same term is used for white railway passengers and for invasive species. As the railroad promoted tourism, it built the pottery industry, which shifted Indigenous communities to a cash economy, which also changed how food was sourced. Where Indigenous people had once grown their own food, they now needed money to buy it. Perhaps most damaging, railroads brought in a sugar-heavy diet, which continues to wreak havoc on Indigenous (and frankly settler) health.
But all is not lost, as these two strong community leaders showed, the tide is turning and Indigenous communities are reclaiming their food sovereignty. Key to this is getting the next generation interested in food and in cultivating traditional food practices through local projects. Most importantly, we need to see the dollar as a tool, not the end-goal.
In Canada, the telegraph was synonymous with railroad development. In the U.S., it actually predated it by eight years! And just like the railroad, one company built east and one west, with the two meeting at Salt Lake. As Edmund Russell explained, this complicates our understanding of the role of the telegraph in the colonization of space. Here, the telegraph is actually the agent driving railway development, not the other way around. While Russell is now a senior scholar, he is very much at the same juncture as me: we are both trying to take an established historiography and challenge it by thinking about how Indigenous peoples fit into the picture and about how this changes our understanding of technology. With the telegraph, it was obviously a technology foreign to tribes. It was both a dramatic demonstration of settler technology, and a dangerous system that could deliver a powerful electric shock (something that was done to unsuspecting Indigenous people on more than one occasion). But its construction also offered opportunities for guiding and supplying of the construction crews. We cannot forget, however, that the technology also encroached on Indigenous land and was met with armed resistance on multiple occasions. This resistance meant an increased army presence in the West, and the improved communication offered by telegraphy boosted military efficiency. In the context of the American West, Russell argues, we can see the telegraph as a prototype for the railway development that followed it. These ideas will be part of a larger book project on the construction of the transcontinental telegraph and I am looking forward to reading it.
The Symposium Painting
Sitting near the entrance was a modest-sized painting by Sičáŋǧu Lakota artist and teacher Paul High Horse. This is an image steeped in symbolism depicting the coming of the Ȟemáni, the Lakota word for train. The track is coming from the East, the land in the West darkens as the railroad approaches. The white buffalo, a symbol of peace, will not cross the track as a cloud of smoke follows the right-of-way. But this is but a moment in time: the smoke will disperse; and the nearby lodge and altar are still standing. In this painting, the visual representation of the symposium, the railroad is a powerful transformative force, but one that will pass just as smoke does not linger forever. The land will outlast it, and so will Indigenous peoples.
The short documentary, Metal Road, was something I was not expecting to see, but it was an important reminder that Indigenous interactions with railroads are not all negative. For generations in the Southwest, the Union Pacific has employed a track gang made up almost entirely of Navajo workers, often including multiple generations of the same family. Their employment came at a moment when the UP was desperate for manpower. After WWII, Mexican labourers brought in to keep the railroad operating were deported, leaving a void in UP’s workforce. Track maintenance is hard work for anyone, but it has two main advantages that have kept some Navajo coming back. Track work is outdoor work and allows for a continued connection to the land. Further, track maintenance shifts are often intensive with substantial breaks in between. In the case of the UP, shifts are either four days on/three off, or eight days on/eight off. This time flexibility allows Navajo workers to remain close to home for long periods of time and retain a great deal of autonomy.
However, it isn’t an ideal situation because this shift design wreaks havoc with seniority and benefits, and the Navajo reach retirement age with no security, something that advocates within the railroad are working to remedy going forward. This is part of a wider commitment UP is developing to better engage with tribal communities and to make their employment opportunities more attractive for Indigenous people.
Meskwaki Understanding of the Railroad
If any one paper offered a blueprint for the sort of rethinking of the railroad that I hope to do, it was Erik Gooding’s presentation of the Meskwaki perspective on the UP’s tracks through their territory. In North America, the Meskwaki is an unusual Indigenous community because it lives on private land secured with the help of the state of Iowa over 100 years ago. As a result, the railroad needed to negotiate for access to the area, promising free passage (which doesn’t mean much when passenger rail is abolished). Critical to the Meskwaki understanding of the railroad is the separation of train and track. The train is a momentary phenomenon and soon passes by. On the other hand, the track is a permanent presence and its alteration of the land is more lasting. Gooding listed the multitude of ways the railroad has influenced life, both in good and bad ways. The right-of-way changed the landscape; scared wildlife; caused environmental damage (especially through derailments); increased access to alcohol and provided an easy option for suicide; disturbed traditional land use; and cut their territory in half. But there were also more positive developments as well. The railroad provided some employment, its bridges offered an easy (but risky) route across water, and it fostered cultural contact with the hobo community so lauded in nearby Britt.
As Gooding pointed out, the key here is balance and to understand the railroad as both a positive and negative force. An anthropologist, he has worked with the Meskwaki for over 20 years and developed the presentation in collaboration with them. Recently, the railroad has completed extensive drainage upgrades on Meskwaki land without consultation. These upgrades have caused sacred gardens to flood. By presenting this problem in his paper, Gooding is bringing it to the attention of UP representatives who are responsible for Indigenous relations. This is an excellent example of the reciprocal scholarship advocated by Indigenous scholars such as Kovach and Smith as a way of conducting research in a good way. In this relationship, Gooding is granted the insights necessary for his presentation and the Meskwaki’s views are conveyed to the UP through the presentation. Both sides benefit.
How the Osage Beat the Railroads
As David Treuer explains, we often talk about doom and gloom à la Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or the presentation of the stoic Indian in Ken Burns’ and Stephen Ives’ The West, but this is a misrepresentation of the historical record. The Osage are often brought forward as an exception to the rule through their royalties from oil discovered on their land, but as Alexandria Gough showed, their ability to negotiate extended to the railroad as well. Back when railroads were vying to cross the Indian Territory, the Osage were able to skillfully negotiate the legal system in Washington and prevented railroad encroachment on their land.
When a breakaway group of warriors attacked local settlers, railway and government interests used the incident as a way of forcing the Osage into abiding by the Sturges Treaty, which forced the sale of Osage land to the Leavenworth, Lawrence and Galveston Railroad on unfair terms. In an example of excellent political skill, the tribe hired a lawyer and took their case to Washington, arguing that they had been coerced into giving up their land. So compelling was the case they presented that President Grant ultimately declared the Treaty to be annulled, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court. The railroad remained stuck on the edge of Osage territory and ultimately went out of business. This early victory encouraged the Osage to further hone their ability to take on the American government and led to new treaties offering generous and meaningful concessions in exchange for access to land and resources. When we talk about Indigenous peoples and the development of a settler society around them, it would be inaccurate to assume that it was a straightforward victory for the growing United States. In some cases, the original inhabitants beat Americans at their own game and came out ahead.
Like the Osage, Robert Voss demonstrated how the Choctaw and Chickasaw understood that railroad development might be used to their advantage. At the time of the 1855 Net Proceeds Act, both asked for rail access, but this was denied. Voss argues that this was an attempt at Indigenous economic development and that the federal government did not want to encourage this. However, the development restrictions placed on the Indian Territory allowed tribes to tax businesses that wanted access to the resources on their land. Through this, the Choctaw became important mine owners and by the 1890s, they were even asking for the help of federal troops to act as strike breakers. Again, this paper challenges our idea that Indigenous peoples have no agency and that the government and settlers always had the upper hand.
As bizarre as it sounds, there is one direct flight from Toronto to Omaha each day. In fact, it’s the only international flight to the city. Unfortunately for me, it departs mid-afternoon, and when the symposium closing ran late, I needed to duck out before Gerard Baker could finish his closing remarks. I’m sorry to have missed the end, but grateful for what of his wisdom I was able to listen to.
Baker recounted how, in one of those rare but delightful moments when government forgets what it’s doing, he was appointed to head the commemorations for the anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s journey to the Pacific. Thanks to his leadership, the commemorations were not a celebration, but a sober reflection on what two hundred years of settlement had meant to Indigenous peoples. He encouraged us to be angry about the changes that development, including the railroad, brought. But he was clear that this anger must be used positively, to push for a greater understanding of what happened and to work towards making it better. Now is the time for settlers to listen, to learn, and then – and only then – to act. These actions must be done in collaboration with Indigenous peoples, for only through this reciprocal approach can we live in a good way.
One thing that Gerard Baker emphasised over and over again in his closing remarks was that we must think about what the legacy of the symposium would be. I think about this every day. What did those gathered in Omaha contribute? What did I contribute? What do I do now? Although my students never seem to believe me, thinking takes time, and so my research and thinking continue slowly to move forward. I am thinking about what a railway is. As Gooding explained, do we need to separate the train from the track? All of these papers, including the wonderful ones I have not mentioned above, show how the Indigenous perspectives can no longer be ignored when we think about railway development. Most of the events discussed took place in the mid 19th century, and Canada was watching. By the time the Ontario government was building tracks through Northern Ontario, treaties in Canada were being worded in such a way as to prevent the sort of agency that the Osage and the Choctaw had demonstrated. As always seems to be the case, Canadian history is like American history, only a bit different. I keep working my way through the ideas surrounding railways, infrastructure, government power, colonialism, and Indigenous understandings of all of these things. As I do so, I am reminded of the energy in that room over those days. I am reminded of how privileged I was to be able to learn from so many people coming from so many backgrounds. I am reminded that my work, and all of our work, matters. Railways shaped North America and now it is time to really think about what that means.
1. Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).
2. Margaret Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009); Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Second edition (London: Zed Books, 2012).
3. David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (London: Corsair, 2019).