Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Why Pierre Berton Should Not Define Canadian Railway History

During the past two weeks I have been filling one of those reading gaps that shouldn’t exist. If you claim to study some aspect of railway history in Canada, you really need to know what Pierre Berton said in his two-part chronicle of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway: The National Dream and The Last Spike. After all, Canada’s unofficial historian probably penned the most-read account of anything rail-related in Canada.

My reluctance to read his work was because I thought I knew what he would say: the construction of the CPR built Canada, it was a triumph over untamed wilderness, it was the heroic endeavour of a bunch of white guys. Oh Berton, I misjudged you. A little.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s basically what his two books say, and he tells it like the master wordsmith he is. But that isn’t the whole story here. I tried to approach these books from the perspective of an Indigenous history of the railway. I had assumed that Berton had nothing to say about Indigenous people and the railway. I assumed wrong. Indigenous people are present in several parts of the books. But I think that actually makes it worse. Berton actually has some very emotive passages about the impact that the CPR had on Indigenous people, but his grappling with this issue is even more clumsy than mine is.

Even before the construction of the railway really gets going, we catch glimpses of the tropes that Berton uses. Surveyors “tended to fall in love with the virgin territory they explored.” (Berton, The National Dream, 156) Here he plays with two notions: the myth of wilderness, and the penetrative (sexual) conquest that so informed the colonial mindset. This is a land (and everything in it) for the taking. Were it not for acknowledging the legacy of the HBC, you would think the CPR had stumbled across terra nullius.

It’s in the The Last Spike, however, that Berton really gets going and his thoughts on Indigenous people are worth quoting at length:
“To the Indians, the railway symbolized the end of a golden age – an age in which the native peoples, liberated by the white man’s horses and the white man’s weapons, had galloped at will across their untrammelled domain, where the game seemed unlimited and the zest of the hunt gave life a tang and purpose. This truly idyllic existence came to an end with the suddenness of a thunderstorm just as the railway, like a glittering spear, was thrust through the ancient hunting grounds of the Blackfoot and the Cree … From a proud and fearless nomad, rich in culture and tradition, he became a pathetic, half starved creature, confined to the semi-prisons of the new reserves and totally dependent on government relief for his existence.” (Berton, The Last Spike, 232)
Let’s unpack this. Berton is clearly aware of Indigenous people and he understands quite a bit about settler contact. But he is also totally oblivious to the reality as he wrote in the 1970s, a moment when these supposedly dead cultures were growing and taking on the federal government and Canadian society. He has bought into the idea of the Indigenous being only in the past, something relegated to history that no longer concerns present-day Canadians. This is the noble savage, the passing of a stoic race. Even more, it seems that Indigenous people should be thankful. After all, their freedom had only been secured through settler horses and weapons. Both of these things had significant impacts on Indigenous cultures, but to suggest that they are what made Indigenous peoples successful is settler conceit in the extreme. Berton goes on, to the annoyance of any academic historian, stating that “The buffalo, on which the entire Indian economy and culture depended, were actually gone before the coming of the railway; but the order of their passing is immaterial.” (Berton, The Last Spike, 232) Actually, the order is very much material. If we are going to pretend it isn’t, then we are contributing to the erasure of the past.

But then Berton changes tack and things get a little disturbing. Berton tries to explain the benevolence of government agricultural policy, which
“born of expediency, was a two-stage one. The starving Indians would be fed at public expense for a period which, it was hoped, would be temporary. Over a longer period, the Indian Department would attempt to bring about a sociological change that normally occupied centuries. It would try to turn a race of hunters into a community of peasants. It would settle the Indians on reserves, provide them with tools and seed, and attempt to persuade them to give up the old life and become self-sufficient as farmers and husbandmen. The reserves would be situated on land considered best suited for agriculture, all of it north of the line of the railway, far from the hunting grounds. Thus the CPR became the visible symbol of the Indian’s tragedy.” (Berton, The Last Spike, 232-33). 
Berton didn’t have Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains to read, but he seemed to have a lot of information at hand. So, why didn’t he say that the starvation was in fact part of the government policy of coercion? Would not transforming a “race” into a “community” against its will be tantamount to genocide? Were reserves really placed on prime agricultural land? (Actually, Daschuk says sort-of, although hobbled by government policy and inadequate resources). In Berton's retelling, the government is taking on a tough sociological puzzle; what brave visionaries! This painfully romantic image of the situation (which we can look back on, tut-tut at our forefathers, and move forward from) is sugar-coated in a way which makes me suspect that Berton knew more than he said. When he suspects he has said too much, he re-centres the story: the Indian Commissioner Dewdney and the CPR are cold of the plight befalling Indigenous people until Father Albert Lacombe intervenes to save his Indigenous followers. Once again, the story becomes a settler-dominated one.

Things become even more messy with the Métis, as Berton spends little time going into detail about Riel’s cause, yet dedicates dozens of pages to the heroic journey of the soldiers travelling westward to suppress him. This choice does two things: firstly, it centres the Red River Resistance as a settler issue and, secondly, it makes Métis and Indigenous resistance a sideshow to the imposition of law and order by the Canadian state. This denies Indigenous agency. More broadly, this sidelining suggests that First Nations and Métis people are not part of the Canadian historical narrative, a position apparently only held by settlers. As most writers have, Berton also indicts Poundmaker, although this assertion has now been thoroughly discredited. As Berton explains, the defeat of Riel marks the end of Indigenous resistance and I find this claim to be rather amusing. If resistance had truly ended, would there still be First Nations and Métis people across the Prairies today?

Pierre Berton undoubtedly did much to further the Canadian understanding of its past, but he did so within the confines of his time. I suggest that he knew more than he said, and that in doing so he perpetuated the stereotypes and quiet acceptance of colonial government policy that still hurt Canada today. In a related vein, the Onderdonk's Chinese workers in the Rockies are described in detail, albeit largely in terms related to government policy. This also reinforces the notion of Canada as a nation of immigrants, which further erases the Indigenous presence.

As Andy den Otter lamented in the late 1990s, Berton's narrative of the CPR has been taken as gospel by both the Canadian public and Canadian historians. While The Philosophy of Railways did a lot to counter Berton's understanding of what motivated railway construction, it did not address the complex issues of the Indigenous perspective. Since den Otter's book was published, only one monograph has dealt with Canadian railway history. But rather than further our understanding of the Indigenous perspective, Saje Mathieu's North of the Color Line shows us that we understand railway history even less than we thought by investigating the transnational networks of African-American and African-Canadian sleeping car porters. So, do we really know Canada's railway history at all?


  1. This is only the beginning, if you delve into what Burton had to say about First Nations people on a regular basis, it doesn't paint him in a kindly light.

  2. Burton wrote narrative history. He didn't write critique which is why indigenous were not the focus. The books tell the story from the viewpoint of the protagonists, John A. And his contemporaries. The books only answer the question, why a National railroad and why it was important especially at that particular time. Burton's historical value in this tell is that we get a detailed glimpse into the decisionmakers personas and the political process at the time. No one book perfectly represents history, all have limitations, but each book can bring us deeper insight, better understanding and balance to our biases. Each history book if good will provide us with more context. History is to be continually studied, not just blindly accepted