From sea to sea

Indigenous struggles in canada …

“From Sea to Sea”: Train Blockades, Colonialism and the Canadian Railways History

(Contrepoints: Les temps fous, 15/02/2020)

Canadian National Railway network has been paralyzed for more than a week by blockades in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en community, who opposes the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline on their unceded territory. The Mohawk community of Tyendinaga has been blocking passenger and freight train traffic between Toronto and Montreal since February 5, and a railway blockade in New Hazelton, B.C. has forced the closure of the Port of Prince Rupert. Blockades in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en have since multiplied across so-called Canada as camps have been set up on the tracks at Kahnawà:keListugujHalifax/K’jipuktukDiamond, among others.

On Thursday, CNR announced the closure of its Eastern Canadian Network and the entire Via Rail passenger network, causing million-dollar losses to companies dependent on freight transportation of goods. Shortages are anticipated nationwide in several regions and international grain exports are further delayed. While the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce says that a rail gridlock of this magnitude represents an emergency for the Canadian economy, the Prime Minister is calling on protesters to “respect Canadian law” as threats of court injunctions pile up.

The economic and political impact of these blockades affront the central role of extractivism and rail infrastructure in the Canadian economy, but they also highlight the deep, structural relationship between freight transportation and Canadian colonialism. Strikingly topical, the history of the development of the railway network illustrates how industrialization, the unification of the Canadian nation, Canadian law, colonialism and state violence are intertwined.

Railways at the Heart of the Canadian Constitution

During the second half of the 19th century, railway projects linking various points in the North American colonies multiplied. Entrepreneurs and businessmen invested colossal sums of money to establish new rail lines, supported by equally large government subsidies. Connected cities became strategic economic arteries, and railways contributed greatly to their industrialization, fueling new markets for wood, fuel oil, iron and steel. Railways made it possible to reach areas formerly inaccessible; and by providing transportation for settlers, goods, or armed forces, they quickly became the foundation for hinterland settlements.

Much more than a mere economic tool, the railway system was at the heart of Canadian Confederation and played a key role in Canadian nationalism. The construction of the Intercolonial Railway, linking United Canada to the Maritime provinces, was made a condition of the signing of the Constitution Act of 1867. British Columbia then joined Confederation in 1871, following Prime Minister John A. McDonald’s promise to build the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) that would link eastern and western provinces. The Canadian Pacific Railway project became a major actor in the unification of Canada, both symbolically and materially. The government opted for a route that avoided crossing the American border and the territories belonging to the Hudson Bay Company, which until then had been mostly inhabited by First Nations and Métis communities. Widely subsidized, the construction of the CPR was marred by corruption scandals that ousted McDonald’s government in 1873.

Parallel to the CPR, a multitude of railways with less ambitious routes were built, once again subsidized by the government and raiding First Nations territories. Few of these speculation projects were actually profitable and many were on the verge of bankruptcy following the First World War. Several lines were bought and subsequently nationalized by the government, and then merged to create the Canadian National Railway.

The Indian Act and the North-West-Mounted-Police

The passage of the Indian Act in 1876 provided the legal framework for treaties that would allow the Canadian government to privatize and appropriate Indigenous lands crossed by the railways. The Band Council system and the reserve system enshrined in the Indian Act imposed a political structure and a concept of land ownership that was at odds with First Nations traditions and cultures, and allowed the government to dictate the terms of expropriation negotiations in a “legal” manner. 

In 1873, the predecessor of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) – the North-West-Mounted-Police – was created for the specific purpose of controlling the Indigenous populations of the Prairies. Beginning in 1881, the Mounties were assigned to protect the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and moved their base to Regina, newly founded in preparation for the construction of the railway. Rail transportation was a major asset for the Mounted Police, allowing them to quickly mobilize recruits to deal with Métis uprisings and enforce the Indian Act.

Following the intentional extermination of the buffalo herds by settlers between 1870 and 1880, the survival of several prairie First Nations depended on the food supplies provided by the Mounted Police. The threat of famine forced them to sign treaties surrendering their territories to the Crown and assigning them to reserves north of the railway lines. Between 1871 and 1921, the Canadian Crown signed 11 treaties with the First Nations that ceded virtually all of the land from “Ontario” to the Rocky Mountains.

The Continuation of Canadian Colonialism: From Railways to Pipelines

The similarities between the history of railway construction and the various pipeline projects are more than coincidental. Government subsidies, buyouts of failing projects, theft of First Nations land, legal actions and intervention by armed forces: what emerges from the history of railways in the second half of the 19th century is the current persistence of the structural colonialism on which Canada was built. The appropriation of First Nations lands is at the heart of the Canadian Constitution and Law. Beyond the rhetoric of reconciliation, colonialism continues at the same pace and is still maintained today through legislation and brut force. Canada was built on exctractivism and the circulation of goods. The train blockades of the past week highlight not only the colonialist foundations of Canadian territory, but also its weaknesses, its dependence on its transportation infrastructure and the efficiency with which it can be shut down. 



For nearly ten years the Unist’ot’en Camp has been a beacon of resistance. This short film provides a glimpse of what life has been like at the camp for the past year.

n this era of “reconciliation”, Indigenous land is still being taken at gunpoint. INVASION is a new film about the Unist’ot’en Camp, Gidimt’en checkpoint and the larger Wet’suwet’en Nation standing up to the Canadian government and corporations who continue colonial violence against Indigenous people.

The Unist’ot’en Camp has been a beacon of resistance for nearly ten years. It is a healing space for Indigenous people and settlers alike, and an active example of decolonization. The violence, environmental destruction and disregard for human rights following TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) / Coastal GasLink’s interim injunction has been devastating to bear, but this fight is far from over.

Michael Toledano, Sam Vinal and Franklin Lopez are three filmmakers from different corners of Turtle Island that met while covering the Unist’ot’en Camp. In the summer of 2019 they had an idea: collect all their individual footage of their different visits to the camp into one hard drive (about ten years’ worth), and make a feature film about this inspiring manifestation of Indigenous resistance.

While this is still the plan, they felt the Unist’ot’en could use some visibility, now that the possibility of more police attacks are imminent. So they came up with INVASION, an 18 minute video report of what’s it been like at Unist’ot’en in 2019. They are still working on the full length film, so keep an eye out for that in 2020.

To read more, check out Natalie Knight’s coverage of the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en nation:

“Wet’suwet’en Strong”: Indigenous resistance in Canada and Colonial frontlines in the city: urban Indigenous organizing

(From Roarmag)

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