Music

Re-examining Gordon Lightfoot's 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy'

The song became one of Lightfoot's signatures, but as Polyphonic's Noah Lefevre explains, there's more to the story.

The song became one of Lightfoot's signatures, but as Noah Lefevre explains, there's more to the story

Re-examining Gordon Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy

6 months ago
18:42
The Canadian Railroad Trilogy was commissioned by the CBC in 1967 to mark the country's centennial and has become one of Gordon Lightfoot's signature songs. But there's more to the story than that, as a new video essay from Polyphonic's Noah Lefevre explains. 18:42

"There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run, when the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun," sings Gordon Lightfoot on the "Canadian Railroad Trilogy."

The song was commissioned by the CBC in 1967 to mark the country's centennial, and Lightfoot's ode to the building of the railroad, what he calls the "life blood" of the country, has become one of his signature songs. 

But there's more to the story than that, as a new video essay from Polyphonic's Noah Lefevre as part of the CBC Creator Network explains. The railroad may have physically connected the country, but it came at the expense of Indigenous lives and on the backs of the people who built it, many of them migrant workers who were treated poorly. 

For starters, Canada Pacific, in partnership with the Canadian government, drove Indigenous peoples off their land in order to use it for the railway.  And of the 15,000 Chinese workers who were brought in to help construction through the Rockies, at least 600 died.

"It was a feat in engineering and it did change the country, but from a humanitarian perspective, it was a tragedy and a crime," says Lefevre.

If the railway helped to build Canada into what it is today, so too did the discriminatory practices toward those who helped build it. That legacy is as much a part of our country's history as the railway itself. 

Click the video above and explore Lightfoot's work in a new way. You may hear lyrics like "a dollar a day and a place for my head, a drink to the livin' a toast to the dead," differently afterwards. 

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