Building the railway on occupied, mountainous land
When examining history, it is important to seek alternative perspectives, not just rely on the information presented by the dominant media. Many documents portray the railway as built on empty land. These documents usually frame the railway in a positive light, highlighting the role it played in uniting Canada and strengthening the economy. But, the railway also had some not-so-good impacts on groups of people, animals, and the environment.
Railway construction involved deforestation and the loss of animal habitats across the county. In Quebec, the terrain was less mountainous than on the West Coast, so the environmental impacts were less. Many towns and cities expanded quickly around the railway, which increased deforestation and air and water pollution.
The railway was built on some of the most fertile land in the Prairies because its developers wanted trains to be close to farmland. This closeness would make it easier to transport grain and produce to other regions of the country. This had huge economic benefits for those involved in its construction! As a result, a lot of good farming land was cleared. This land had not been empty before construction; it was the traditional territory of many First Nations and Métis people. It was also home to many animals that Indigenous Peoples hunted for sustenance. Numbered Treaties cleared the Prairies for the railway’s construction, non-indigenous settlements and economic gain. Indigenous Peoples were displaced. Many moved to reserves on less fertile land. The population of the animal herds they hunted decreased and relocated due to loss of habitat. These changes have had significant intergenerational impacts on Indigenous Peoples and animal populations.
The environmental impacts of railway construction and maintenance are probably most visible on the West Coast, where the terrain is mountainous. Many areas needed to be blasted with explosives and excavated to make tunnels or flatten ground. Fire and deforestation impacted watersheds near the Rocky Mountains. The decision to build part of the railway by Rogers Pass, British Columbia, also led to flooding, soil erosion, avalanches and deep snow. These were dangerous conditions for the workers, many of whom were underpaid Chinese immigrants. The construction of the railway also led to increased water and air pollution across Canada. Occasional events like derailments and spills continue to impact the land, animals and humans.
Author: LEARN/RÉCIT for the Anglophone Community.
Tracks, Tunnels and Trestles: An Environmental History of the Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Accessed Feb. 10, 2024.