Rethinking Canadian Railway History

What did you learn about Canadian railway history in school? Something about the Canadian Pacific? Sir John A. uniting a nation from coast to coast? Fortifying the border against the Americans? Maybe something vague about Chinese workers? There is truth in all of these statements, but none of them give us a very complete understanding of what railways mean to the story of Canada. Did you learn about the impact of railways on Indigenous people? Probably not (if you did, please let me know!). This lack of understanding hurts all of us. It robs us of part of our history and means that we continue to perpetuate mistakes that our ancestors made decades, if not centuries, ago. Reconciliation is a big and very debated word in Canada right now. At its core should be education and courage: the courage for all of us to learn more and to do something about it. My work is helping to dig a little deeper into how railways helped to make the Canada we see today. In reality, the Canada we see today may not be what we think it is, or what we want it to be.

Obviously, rewriting all of Canadian railway history is a huge task and it's one that I am not even pretending to take on. However, by picking something a little more manageable, I can begin to draw conclusions that might be applied to the bigger picture. 

Enter "Ontario's Development Road"

In my case, I chose to look at the Ontario Northland Railway, which began as the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario in 1902. The railway was established to open Northeastern Ontario to settlement, which made lots of money for the Ontario government and resource extraction companies. It is still owned by the provincial government today. The ONR is not a new subject to me since I published a book on it in 2014, but I have taken a new angle with my doctoral work. Something never sat quite right with me in my book, and I admitted as much in the conclusion. Essentially, my book defended the Ontario Northland in the face of a proposed government privatization plan. But, as I wrote, 

"the idea of a colonial power exploiting the land and its Native people is a perspective I relate very strongly to. Given the time and resources, I would love to write a history of the relationship between the [ONR] and First Nations groups." (It's in there, check page 196) 

Thanks to the history department at the University of Toronto, I am pleased to say that I have been able to do this and the history of the Ontario Northland has been taking up most of my time since late 2017. 

Researching anything related to Indigenous people and the government is complicated. First of all, there are fundamental cultural differences that need to be recognized and I've had a lot to wrap my head around. In the case of railway history, the concept of land use and ownership is really important. What did Indigenous people think land ownership meant? What did railway companies think it meant? What did the governments (yes, federal and provincial) think it meant? Then there is the question of state power, because railways do not get built without government authorization. How did government policy towards Indigenous people change once they realized that railways meant quick access to more remote places? This one is difficult because, although both the Canadian and Ontario governments leave us mountains of documents, they mostly tell us one side of the story. To get a bigger picture, we need to broaden the types of sources we look at and ultimately this means engaging with communities connected to the railway. The halls of government are a long way from the railway tracks and the territories they cross. How did railways accelerate cultural contact between peoples? How did Indigenous peoples embrace or reject this new form of transportation? By asking questions like these, we can begin to find out more about the Ontario Northland and then ultimately what railways mean in Canada.

Small Topic, Big Picture

In the winter of 2020, Indigenous land defenders across Canada blockaded railway tracks for weeks in solidarity with land disputes in British Columbia between the Wet’suwet’en, energy companies, and the federal government working on behalf of the energy sector. The choice to block the tracks was both strategic and symbolic. The economic damage of freight being slowed down was real, even if it was overblown by both business and the government. However, the symbolism was much more powerful. In Canada, railway tracks were one of the earliest permanent forms of land occupation imposed on Indigenous people, who often lost their land to governments and private corporations who negotiated in bad faith, if not outright just stealing. In Northeastern Ontario, the Ontario Northland built north over land the Canadian and Ontario governments claimed through Treaty 9, an agreement we can now prove deliberately misled the Indigenous leaders who signed it. 

In the case of Ontario Northland, the building of the railway accelerated settlement in the region and contact with settlers developed quickly beyond the centuries-old relationships forged through the fur trade. In particular, whole new towns emerged. The townsite of Moosonee, for instance, was little more than a few small buildings on the bank of the Moose River until the railway arrived in 1931. The coming of the railway meant new employment and mobility opportunities. Indigenous people migrated from along the James Bay coast looking for work. Since then, the ONR has remained a core part of Moosonee. Until the late 1960s, the railway was even the only form of government in the town, a job it did very poorly. It also brought thousands of tourists to the town and nearby Moose Factory as part of its Polar Bear Express tourist excursions. It still does. The ONR also meant that access to the rest of Ontario didn't have to be by river anymore, which allowed Indigenous communities to come together in new ways. There are no roads to Moosonee, so for most people the trains is the only way. The railway opened new routes for supplies and meant people could reach urban Canada in a matter of days instead of weeks. As I look at the Ontario Northland in Moosonee, I have a lot to think about, but I always try to remember the big picture: what does this tell us about Canadian railway history? With patience, I hope to be able to offer an answer.