The Canadian Railroad Trilogy by Gordon Lightfoot…Song #23/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip

As 1967 drew near, many plans were set into motion to mark the occasion of Canada’s 100th anniversary of becoming an independent country. For my family, we embarked on a cross-Canada tour that involved the three of us taking the train from Sydney, Nova Scotia, traveling all the way westward to Vancouver, British Columbia, and then driving back home in our family car that my father had shipped out to Vancouver on the train along with us. At the time of our trip, I was only three years old so I was not privy to any of the planning that had gone into organizing such a journey. However, with the hindsight of history to guide me, I know that my mom and dad were commemorating Canada’s centennial by traversing this great land using one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever: the creation of the Canadian National Railroad. Our history books like to wax nostalgic about the creation of the railroad being one of the great acts of national unification. All that I knew at the time was that being on a train for over ten days seemed like fun to me. Some of the earliest memories in my life are of the train stopping in the Rockies and me looking at how big the mountains seemed and how cool and fresh the air felt. From Stanley Park in Vancouver, to the endless wheat fields of the Prairies, the Big Nickel in Sudbury, Expo 67 in Montreal, the Parliament buildings in Ottawa and finally, back across the Maritimes to Cape Breton Island once again. We were home in this great land we call Canada.

Canadian singer, Gordon Lightfoot.
Gordon Lightfoot.

Our national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the CBC) had planned a year long series of broadcasts that were aimed at telling “our story” as a country. To start it all off, the CBC contacted singer Gordon Lightfoot and asked him to compose a song about Canada. Lightfoot was not just a great singer and songwriter but he was a natural storyteller. So, when Gord put pen to paper, he opted to tell the story of the making of the railroad that ran from east to west. He called his song “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy”. The song debuted on January 1st, 1967. It was well received by many in Canada and has gone on to become one of Gordon Lightfoot’s signature songs in a catalogue filled with hits. Lightfoot created the structure for the song based upon a US song called “The Civil War Trilogy” that was originally sung there by The Limelighters. In Gord’s song, there are slow parts and speedier parts. This cadence was meant to resemble the chug-chug-chugging of a steam locomotive, which would have been the sort of train in use back when the railroad was built in the 1800s. For many who enjoy this song, The Canadian Railroad Trilogy stands as a testament to a moment in time when our nation was united and strong. For that reason, the song evoked a sense of national pride whenever it was played.

About fifty Chinese labourers posing by a segment of railroad track that they had built as part of the original Canadian National Railroad.
Chinese “navvies” who worked on the building of the Canadian National Railroad. Many lost their lives due to the dangerous nature of their work and to poor safety standards at the time.

But as we are becoming more aware, the telling of history is a fickle thing. Gordon Lightfoot deserves credit for dedicating a large portion of “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” to the navvies (or the immigrant Chinese workers), whose labour helped build each length of track. It was dangerous, back-breaking work and many Chinese labourers lost their lives completing the “national dream”. The navvies were paid less than English-speaking workers and they were required to perform the most dangerous tasks (such as blasting through the Rocky Mountains to make tunnels). It is generally acknowledged that 3-4 Chinese workers died for every mile of track created. Knowing the vastness of Canadian geography as we do, the death toll among Chinese workers stretches into the tens of thousands. In gratitude for the heroic nature of their work, the Chinese labourers were fired en masse once the last spike was driven in Craigellachie, British Columbia and were forced to find their own transportation back to wherever they were going to live next. Those workers were always considered expendable. But, at least, their existence was acknowledged by Gordon Lightfoot in his song, so there is that, I suppose.

But, the same can’t be said for the Indigenous Peoples of this land. The history of Canada is replete with example after example of Indigenous Peoples being on the short end of national expansionism. I want you to stop and think back to a time just prior to the arrival of European explorers such as Jacques Cartier, Giovanni Caboto and Samuel de Champlain. In those pre-contact times, the whole of the land that is now considered to be Canada was actually populated by Indigenous nations. These Nations existed from sea to sea to sea. Each Nation had its own customs and governance. All existed with the foundational thought that they were not above nature and animal life but were as one with it. Bison and beavers thrived at this time. The idea of taking what you need but no more, was a guiding principle that allowed the various Indigenous Peoples to survive for thousands of years. And then came the Europeans.

About fifty workers watch as a rich white man in a beard and tip hat hammers in the final spike to complete the building of the Canadian National Railroad at Craigellachie, British Columbia.
The “Last Spike” being driven at Craigellachie, British Columbia.

Say what you want about European settlers, but the actual facts from History show that they viewed this new land as theirs for the taking. The Indigenous Peoples were merely an obstacle to be overcome, either by negotiated treaty or by force. Even those negotiated treaties were very one-sided, with the settlers getting the best land and access to resources, while the Indigenous Peoples were shunted off to the side…of the land that they had lived on successfully for an eternity. One of the most lethal instruments of colonization of Indigenous lands was the Canadian National Railroad. Its creation was the political excuse used to appropriate Indigenous lands, especially across the Prairies and into British Columbia. It was the political excuse used to send troops into the Prairies so as to “safeguard” the work of railroad building and to help acquire additional territory along the way. It was opposition to the railroad, and more specifically, to the appropriation of Indigenous land that caused Louis Riel to take his famous stands at The Red River Valley (in what is now Manitoba) and later at Batoche (in what is now Saskatchewan), for which he paid the ultimate price with his life by being sentenced to death for treason. Much of what happened to Louis Riel and the Metis Peoples reverberated into Quebec and was the start of French nationalism there. The politics of the railroad entering British Columbia helped convince those settlers to officially enter into Confederation as the westernmost province in Canada. It goes on and on. The creation of the Canadian National Railroad has become synonymous with Canadian history, in general.

And so it was back in 1967, as the words of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” played out to great acclaim, my parents were inspired to recreate that journey and relive the national dream, creating memories to last a lifetime for themselves and their young son. The beauty and the vastness of the land is a memory that I retain to this day. As a toddler, I had no idea of the politics of railroad building, of the sacrifices made by so many underpaid Chinese labourers, nor of the devastating impact of the railroad on the lives of Indigenous Peoples ever since it went across this land. But I do know now. While it may not be for me to insist that those of you who read this rise up in anger and in protest, I think it is my place to insist that we, as the descendants of those who colonized this land, do our part to understand the true nature of its history. When we do, it forces us to regard the railroad as much more than a feat of engineering worth celebrating in song. I imagine that the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” must be a difficult song for Indigenous Peoples to have to listen to. I apologize in advance for any hurt that this post causes. As we make our way through the songs listed as being part of this Great Canadian Road Trip of mine, we should always be aware of the history of this land and what our role has been in shaping it as it exists today. It is, quite literally, the very least we can do.

The link to the video for the song “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by Gordon Lightfoot can be found here. ***Lyrics version can be found here.

The link to the official website for Gordon Lightfoot can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can be found here. *(As you may know, this Commission reported mainly on the impact of the residential school system but, in doing so, it touched on many aspects of the impact of colonization upon the Indigenous Peoples of this land such as land appropriation, forced cultural assimilation, The Indian Act and much, much more). Its report and recommendations should be required reading for all who live in this country called Canada, imo).

The link to an article from the Globe and Mail newspaper about the use of the railroad as a tool of colonization and why, in reply, so many Indigenous protests involve railroad blockades can be found here.

The link to the official website for the town of Craigellachie, British Columbia can be found here. *(Craigellachie was the original terminus of the Canadian National Railroad. It was where the “last spike” was driven).

**As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

I Read Canadian

Today is Wednesday, February 19, 2020. It is “I Read Canadian” Day. For the first time ever, Canada is honouring all of the authors and illustrators who have published books in Canada over the years. The effort to promote the Canadian Book Publishing Industry has been organized by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, children’s author, Eric Walters, CANSCAIP (the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers), as well as, The Ontario Library Association.

There is much to be proud of, as Canadians, when it comes to our nation’s literary canon. Our stories paint a vivid picture of who we are as Canadians and help to share the physical beauty of our country with the world. As citizens, we owe a debt of gratitude to all of the men and women who have put pen to paper on our behalf. My post today is meant to act as one, small payment that has come due.

The focus of today’s post is going to be a listing of Canadian Picture books and Chapter books that have played an important part in my classrooms over the years. I have been retired for almost two years now but, many of my most cherished memories that I have as a teacher came as a result of the books I read aloud to my students. I was so fortunate to have such rich resources to draw upon in the promotion of literacy and in helping children discover the magic of a story well told. So, here, in no particular order, are some of the best of the best Canadian books that I had the very great privilege of reading aloud.

15- The Secret Life of Owen Skye/Dear Sylvia/After Sylvia

The Secret Life of Owen Skye was the first book in a trilogy that included Dear Sylvia and After Sylvia, too. These wonderful chapter books were written by Alan Cumyn. The series revolved around the Skye Family who, like most families, have their share of secrets, rivalries, shared traditions and various ups and downs that Life tended to throw their way. I liked how Mr. Cumyn allowed life to unfold for this family in an unhurried, very natural manner. There are no zombies, time portals or machine guns in this series. I, especially, like the tenderness with which he allowed Owen and Sylvia to explore the nature of the affection they feel for each other. Overall, a wonderful, wholesome, funny look at family life.

14- The Name of the Tree

The Name of the Tree by Celia Barker Lottridge is one of the single, most important books in my collection. I devoted an entire post to it last year which detailed the magic of this book and highlighted the important role it played in helping my students develop a love of books and of stories, as well as, helping them to grow as little humans and believe in their hearts that they were capable of great things. You can read that post here. There isn’t much that any of us can say with absolute certainty in life but, one thing that I can say for sure is that this book is extremely special and that if I live to be 100, I will still have this book on a bookshelf near to where I am. It is that good. The illustrations are by the incomparable, Ian Wallace and add so much meaning to the text.

13- A Salmon For Simon.

A Salmon For Simon is written by Betty Waterton. Aside from the fact that this book has a super title, the tale told is one that lots of children over the years have been able to relate to. Simon longs to catch his own fish, like the big boys do. But, salmon are strong fish and Simon is still a small boy so, he is unable to catch one on his own. That is, until one day when a salmon actually falls from the sky, released from the talons of an eagle. The fish falls into a small pool at Simon’s feet. It is his for the taking but, as he studies the salmon, he notices the fear on its face. So, instead of taking the fish as a prize, Simon decides to work to save its life and set it free. Many a class of mine engaged in rich discussions when it came to whether Simon should keep the fish or release the fish. Even small children are capable of acts of great compassion and kindness, as Simon showed. Lovely book. The illustrations, by Ann Blades, are soft and warm, in keeping with the feel of the book.

12- The White Stone in the Castle Wall.

The White Stone in the Castle Wall is by Sheldon Oberman. It details how a single, white stone came to find its way into the wall surrounding the historic Case Loma in Toronto. I took many classes on field trips to explore Casa Loma and, before leaving on the bus for home at the end of the day, we always walked the perimeter of the property until we found the legendary white stone. Then, we would all pose beside it as a group and the memory of our trip would be preserved. The story, itself, introduces children to Sir Henry M. Pellatt, who made his fortune bringing electric street lights to Toronto. The White Stone in the Castle Wall also makes the important point that there is value in hard work, as the young boy learns when he meets Mr. Pellatt and tells him the story of how hard it was to get his stone from across the city, all the way to Casa Loma. In addition to the historical bent of the story, the illustrations are gorgeous! The illustrator was Les Tait and each picture is actually a painting. Fabulous work, all around and a wonderful companion piece to many a memorable class trip to the big city from our small town.

11- Barbara Reid Art.

OMG! Barbara Reid is a megastar when it comes to children’s literature in Canada. She is well known as an author and as an illustrator. But, she is most famous for creating exquisite illustrations using the medium of plasticine. I first came to know of Barbara Reid when I discovered her book, The New Baby Calf. I would be willing to place a very large wager that you would have difficulty going into any elementary school in Canada and trying to find any educator who has not read her books or has not had a Barbara Reid art lesson or three with their students. I always enjoyed making Barbara Reid Art with my students because, in order to replicate what she did, students had to be aware of art-related concepts such as foreground, middle ground and back ground in a picture. They, also, were able to incorporate a fair amount of detail in their work because their work surfaces were usually small. I, often used stiff cardboard as the backing for their plasticine art and placed the finished work inside a clear cd jewel case….when cds were still a thing.

10- A Poppy Is to Remember.

A Poppy Is to Remember was written by Heather Patterson. It isn’t easy to explain concepts like War and Remembrance to small children but this book, A Poppy Is To Remember is among the best at doing so that I have come across. In sparse, simple text, children come to learn that soldiers could be in the air, on the water or marching on land and that many were scared and that some did not make it back home to their families in Canada. The famous poem, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae is included in context with the story being told. I credit this book with helping many, many children truly understand this important Canadian poem. When it came time to conduct Remembrance Day services at school, my students often were tasked with reciting this book in front of their peers. They always took that responsibility seriously and made me and their parents and themselves, proud. The illustrations in this book are by Ron Lightburn and are actual paintings, too, as was the case with The White Stone in the Castle Wall. Mr. Lightburn is from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario.

9- A Northern Alphabet.

A Northern Alphabet is written and illustrated by Ted Harrison. Mr. Harrison has written and illustrated many children’s books but, what sets him apart are two things: (a) many of his stories are set in the northern regions of Canada and highlight the life experiences of the Inuit people, (b) his illustrations tend to use swirling, wavy lines and vibrant hues of purple and pink and shades of blue. As was the case with Barbara Reid earlier, Ted Harrison is an author whose stories lend themselves to further exploration though Art. One of my fondest teaching memories was working at a school where we cooked with the kids quite often (for a variety of reasons). But, specifically, with regard to Ted Harrison, I remember creating homemade soup and then, as we ate it, we painted Ted Harrison-style pictures, while Canadian music played in the classroom. I can never look with passivity at any work of Ted Harrison’s. His work evokes a sensory experience for me every time.

8- Kathy Stinson.

Kathy Stinson wrote two books; Those Green Things and Red is Best waaaay back at the beginning of my teaching career. They were two of the very first books I ever owned as a professional educator. She had a wonderful way of capturing the many moods of small children; especially when it came to eating suspicious green veggies or wearing your favourite red clothes. But, like many people, Kathy Stinson matured as her own career went along and, lo and behold, she came out with an enormously important book called the Highway of Heroes; which talks about the importance of a stretch of highway that runs past my town. The Highway of Heroes is a book about honouring those Canadian soldiers at work today in hotspots all over the world. Many children only think of Remembrance Day as being for soldiers from WWI and WWII. But, Ms. Stinson reminds us that today’s soldiers are helping to keep the peace in many war-torn countries around the world and that, sometimes, that work is dangerous and, even, deadly. When a Canadian soldier dies in active duty, their body is flown to the air force base at Trenton, Ontario. It proceeds down the main 401 highway until it reaches Toronto, where an autopsy is performed. All along the route, people line the overpasses and salute the fallen hero. It is an amazing experience to stand on a bridge overlooking the Highway of Heroes. Kathy Stinson captures that feeling ever so well. What a special book.

8- Waiting for the Whales.

Waiting for the Whales was written by Sheryl McFarlane. This is a beautiful, slow moving story that luxuriates in the warmth of the family bonds it is describing. One of the beautiful parts of being a parent or grandparent is having the chance to share those things that we find special with our beloved children. The memories of such sharing live on, even after death takes the elders away. Waiting for the Whales is a wonderful story for introducing children to the concept of death and to the circle of life. The illustrations are completely lovely and were created by my fellow Cobourg citizen, Ron Lightburn.

7- Have You Seen Josephine?

Have You Seen Josephine? was written and illustrated by Stephane Poulin. Josephine is a cat who is running loose through the streets of Montreal. The thing that every single class loved about this book was how, in each picture, Josephine was hiding somewhere, trying to elude detection. So, part of the joy of reading this book for each child was trying to find Josephine, too. Each page of the book took the reader to a different part of Montreal so, students were given a good glimpse of how the city was organized, what went on in the various places they were taken to and so on. There are a couple of “Josephine” books out there and all were well-loved in my classroom.

6- Town Is By The Sea.

Town Is By The Sea was written by Joanne Schwartz. This book is an exception to my list because it is a book I never got to share with my students. It was published just as I retired. But, I am including it on my list of special Canadian books because it is set where I grew up, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Joanne Schwartz grew upon a community called New Waterford, which is about a twenty minute drive from where I grew up in Glace Bay. When I look at Sydney Smith‘s beautifully-illustrated front cover, I see my home as I remember it; the many-coloured houses, the telephone poles, clothes hanging on the line and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. ***Funny personal note, I’m pretty sure that my mother and Joanne Schwartz’s father knew each other. I believe her father was a man named Irving Schwartz and, if I am correct then, Mr. Schwartz ran a chain of furniture stores from which my mother furnished our homes. I don’t know Joanne Schwartz at all but, that having been said, neither of us has lived in a Town by the Sea for a long time, either. But, regardless, Town Is By The Sea is, yet, another one of those special books that I will keep forever. Home has never been captured so well. Many thanks to Joanne and Sydney.

5- Phoebe Gilman.

Phoebe Gilman wrote some of the most beloved books in my collection, including Jillian Jiggs, Something From Nothing and The Balloon Tree. She was an extremely talented illustrator and used her illustrations to add layers of meaning to her text. All of her stories were whimsical and highlighted creativity and fun and family life, too. The Balloon Tree was her first published book. Phoebe Gilman passed away recently but, her legacy as one of the most popular and important members of the Children’s Literary scene in Canada is firmly entrenched.

4- The Breadwinner Trilogy.

The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey and Mud City make up The Breadwinner Trilogy. All were written by Deborah Ellis. All three books take place in Afghanistan, with Mud City, also, spilling over into Pakistan. In each case, the lives of girls and women are scrutinized in ways that are relentless and unflinching. I read these books with my own daughter, Leah, as well as, with a Grade 5 class I taught one year. Many, many important conversations were held regarding the role of women in oppressed societies such as the Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are no warm fuzzies with these books but, this trilogy remains an important work of courage and conviction by Deborah Ellis. Not everyone has the luxury of a “happily-ever-after” life story but, for those who don’t, it is crucial to tell their stories anyway so that the world can know the dignity of lives lived differently and, hopefully, make those lives better through knowledge and empathy.

3- Anne of Green Gables.

This story has become the image of Canada that is held by many people from around the world. Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote the story of the orphan girl named Anne who talked so much her tongue must have been hung in the middle, it flapped so! Through Anne, we learned about the importance of kindred spirits and her Lake of Shining Waters. This story takes place in Prince Edward Island and has been made into a multi-book series, a movie series, an animated series, a musical and has recently been given new life in a modern-influenced adaptation called Anne With an E. Anne of Green Gables is a story about family and loyal friends and imagination and uses beautiful, beautiful language in the telling. If Canada is to be imagined from abroad then, having images of Avonlea dance in the heads of those imagining must be a wondrous thing indeed!

2- Hana’s Suitcase.

Hana’s Suitcase was written by Karen Levine. Simply put, this book is the most special book to me of them all! I wrote a post about why it is such an important book to me, earlier in the year, which you can read here. Sometimes a book can change your life. This book changed mine…for the better, too. For a book about the Holocaust, it turned out to be such a warm story about family and the bonds of love that exist between family members. An important portion of this book takes place during wartime but, make no mistake, Hana’s Suitcase is a book about Peace and about Hope but, most of all, it is book about Love.

1- Love You Forever.

Love You Forever was written by the highest-selling Canadian author of all time, Robert Munsch. I read Love You Forever for the very first time in the University of Western Ontario book store while I was attending Teacher’s College. I read it amid the hubbub of a regular business day in that book shop. By the time I finished the book, I was in tears. No one else in the store seemed to notice but, I felt as though the orientation of my life had changed a little at that moment. While I had grown up reading stories such as Hop on Pop and Cat in the Hat, this story was different. It told a generational tale of family love in a way that I had never read before. It was told in simple language and contained a repetitive verse that came to be a trademark of Robert Munsch’s. It was the very first book I ever bought as a professional educator. This is the book that began a thirty-year quest to build a personal library of the best of children’s literature because our children, my students, deserved nothing less than the very best.

This list of mine is the mere tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to quality literature for children in Canada. Farley Mowat, Dennis Lee, Mordiceau Richler, Melanie Watt, Sheree Fitch and so many others all come easily to mind when I think of the books that have made a difference to my own children and to those who were entrusted to my care. How lucky we are to live in a country so rich in talent!

Please feel free, as always, to comment in the box below if you have any thoughts you wish to share about the books I have listed or some others that you feel are deserving of praise, too. Happy “I Read Canadian” Day, folks. Thanks for allowing me to play a small part in the festivities.