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).

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