Canada 150: On track? or derailed?

CPR logo from the 1890s

The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) saved my people’s life. 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 particular story, I’m learning it’s important that I do. Indeed, for many of us, this story is as familiar and formative as the biblical story of the Exodus itself.

The particular story is this: a century ago, as World War I was grinding on and the Russian revolution flared up, “my people” (those Mennonites of Dutch descent who spoke German and had lived as colonists in Russian-conquered Tatar, Bashkir, Nogai, and Ukrainian territories) experienced incredible hardship. Mennonites in North America heard about the hardships, 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” 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. The stories of those left behind (like my father-in-law, who escaped the Soviet regime 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) 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, this is perhaps 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, 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 First Nations economies. This happened indirectly, by slicing up the seasonal paths of the grazing herds; but also 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 became a very useful tool in the hands of the colonial governments, to encourage bands to sign the treaties—treaties that laid the groundwork for the colonizing that brought my people to Canada.

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 mother’s Thiessen family in 1925, and my father’s in late 1928), the Great Depression struck. The $1.7 million debt looked like an impossible burden. And my grandfather was the chief debt collector for the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization, as an employee for the CPR. C.F. Klassen criss-crossed the country (by train, 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 $180,000 had been paid in interest, and the CPR forgave another $1.5 million 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’ families. The story of the building of Canada “from sea to sea” is the story of the railway, and the CPR in particular, as the reward promised to British Columbia for 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 3,000 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. For example, the unofficial (never passed into law) policy of the pass system was still enforced, restricting the movements of Indigenous peoples off reserve.

And then, in 1890, Mennonite settlers arrived by rail in Laird, Saskatchewan. Federal agents in the years following sold those settlers land that had been set aside for the Young Chippewayan First Nation (Reserve 107). 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 on-going famine because of the disappearance of the bison).

The land was theirs, but vacant, and now it was illegally re-appropriated and sold to settlers from “my people.” The Young Chippewayan band, disbanded for a century and spread across western Canada, continues to work today to convince the government that they are the legitimate heirs of that broken treaty promise.

These intertwining stories are just a tiny, personal slice of 150 years of Canadian colonial complexity. It’s not a rant or an attack on the railway per se, although the CPR was certainly a tool and a promoter of the larger project of colonialism (and it’s commonly acknowledged that the railway enterprise of Canada’s nation-building era was an “orgy of corruption”: political kickbacks, subsidies, and the like). But mostly, this is a lament for 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 deeply checkered story. I might paraphrase the apostle: “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 (may he rest in peace), 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 my own.

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.

Written by Randy Klassen. Randy lives in Saskatoon, in Treaty Six territory. He works for MCC Canada as national restorative justice coordinator. This article appeared in Mennonite Historian 43/3 (September 2017): 5 and was based on an earlier version appearing online as a blog post at <>.