The CPR saved my people’s life.
OK, maybe that sounds a bit dramatic. (And actually, it’s a bit strange to say it that way—I don’t really ever talk about “my people” quite like that. But for this story, it’s important that I do.)
Anyway, the story is: A century ago, as World War I was grinding on and the Russian revolution flared up, “my people” (Mennonites of Dutch descent who spoke German and had lived as colonists in Russian-conquered Tatar, Bashkir, Nogai, and Ukrainian territories for about a century and a half) experienced incredible hardship.
Mennonites in North America heard about it, and responded generously with relief supplies. But many of the Mennonites from Russia wanted more than aid; they wanted to emigrate. They investigated US, Canada, and Mexico as possible destinations; only Canada chose to open its doors.
But as a plundered and war-ravaged people, the costs of emigration were prohibitive. In 1922, a group of leaders formed the “Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization” (yes, unashamedly colonial!) and signed a deal with the CPR to transport 3,000 refugees on credit. The émigrés began arriving in 1923, and by 1930 the CPR had brought more than 21 thousand refugees to Canada, at a loaned cost of over 1.7 million dollars.
There are stories of those left behind, like my father-in-law, who escaped the USSR during World War II, or others who left for Germany in the 1970s, or who like my father’s half-sister outlived the USSR and could be visited by Westerners in the 1990s. These stories reaffirmed the reasons to be thankful for the CPR’s way of escape. In the minds of many, the CPR was a divine tool along the lines of biblical Cyrus, God’s anointed who brought release to Israel in exile.
The CPR destroyed my neighbours’ lives.
Again, maybe overly dramatic—but in the bigger picture, I don’t think so.
Railway was the Next Big Thing in the mid 1800s. And as the railways came westward first across the American Midwest, and then, in copy-cat style a generation later north of the 49th. They led to the catastrophic demise of the American bison, the mainstay of the prairie Indigenous nations’ economies. Indirectly, by slicing up the seasonal paths of the grazing herds; and more directly, by importing hunters by the thousands, and transporting out bison skins by the hundreds of thousands (one firm in St Louis traded a quarter million hides in 1871).
We know the economic pain of crude oil dropping from $100 to $40 a barrel; can we imagine the devastation and cultural upheaval of the total collapse of the bison economy? Herds numbering in the tens of millions at the time of colonial contact were reduced to a few isolated remnants totalling about a thousand animals by 1889. The resulting mass starvation on the prairies was a very useful colonial tool to encourage bands to sign the treaties.
The CPR saved my family’s life.
My own family is bound up very much in the CPR immigration story. As the poor refugees arrived in Canada full of hope (including my mom’s family in 1925 and my dad’s in late 1928), the Great Depression struck. The $1.7M debt looked like an impossible burden. And my grandfather was the chief debt collector for the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization. He criss-crossed the country (on the railway, of course), visiting every little Mennonite church, farm, and house, collecting dollar by dollar, sometimes only penny by penny, the prohibitive debt.
The principal was paid off in 1946; only $180K had been paid in interest, and the CPR forgave another $1.5M in interest. How could this not be seen as God’s grace? And this work paved the way for another work of grace, as my grandfather returned to Europe after the war, and directed the resettlement of over seven thousand more Mennonite refugees from the USSR. His CPR work gave him knowledge of hundreds of Mennonite homes and communities across Canada, so that when he met fleeing families in Europe, he could help to connect them to relatives across the Atlantic.
The CPR derailed my neighbours’ lives.
The story of the building of Canada “from sea to sea” is the story of the CPR, promised to British Columbia as a condition of joining Confederation. It’s the story of “opening up” the West to European settlers, to occupy land advertised as “empty.” It’s very specifically the story of the Riel Rebellion, with its almost 3000 Canadian troops shipped out from Ontario and east, via the just-finished CPR lines, to suppress the Métis uprising against Ottawa’s unjust rule.
The fear that this event fomented in eastern Canada of “savage Indians” was then used to tighten the already oppressive regime of the Indian Act, through the pass system which restricted the movements of Indigenous peoples off reserve.
And in 1890, Mennonite settlers arrived by rail in Laird, Sask. Federal agents in the years following sold them land that had been reserved for the Young Chippewayan First Nation. These Cree had signed Treaty 6 in 1876, but had fled the region in the aftermath of government crackdowns because of the 1885 Métis uprising (as well as ongoing famine because of the disappearance of the bison). The land was theirs, but vacant, and now it was illegally reappropriated and sold to settlers from “my people.” The Young Chippewayan band continues to work today to convince the government that they are the legitimate heirs of that broken treaty promise.
This is one tiny, personal slice of 150 years of Canadian colonial complexity. It’s not a rant or an attack on the CPR per se, although the CPR was certainly a tool and a promoter of the larger project of colonialism. Mostly, it’s a lament of the inextricable link between my story and my neighbours’ stories, to which I’ve been blind for most of my fifty plus years. It’s a painful reminder that as much as the CPR is part of my family’s story, I am also part of the CPR’s checkered story.
To borrow a phrase from Saint Paul: “The very railway that promised life [to me] proved to be death [to my neighbour]… Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? …Wretched colonial that I am! Who will deliver me from this body politic of death?”
Who indeed! There is a Person whose name is Truth. And his mission in life (and death) is Reconciliation, a journey which he calls us all to join him on. For me, that has meant a willingness to have my eyes opened to the existence of my Indigenous neighbours. Very specifically, the lives of Cree neighbours like Junior, Lucille, Kohkom Betsy, Jamin, Shelley, Hal, Margaret, Moshom Charlie, and other friends. People whose lives and lands have been subject to the derailing actions of a century and more of Canadian injustice, yet who remain people of generosity, goodwill, wisdom, and good humour. Their friendship invites and inspires me to get to know their story better—and to let it shape mine.
I look forward to a time in Canada when their people and mine, indigenous and settlers, can all live side by side with openness, trust, and friendship. Side by side, strong and true, like parallel ribbons of steel, equal in size, stretching across this vast land—no, stronger yet, strong like the solid earth beneath the rails, the ground on which all else is built.