Externalizing history: Last Spike presents sobering reminder of cost of human progress

130 years ago today, Donald Smith drove in the last spike of the CPR in Eagle Pass in Craigellachie, B.C.
Donald Smith drives home the last spike on Nov. 7, 1885. (National Archives of Canada)

130 years ago today, Donald Smith, whose two names usher us over the Assiniboine River to and from downtown, drove in the last spike of the CPR in Eagle Pass in Craigellachie, British Columbia. The iconic photo shows Smith surrounded by dignitaries in one of the first political photo ops in Canadian history.

What is not present in this image, however, are the collective stories of the CPR based on the exploitation of Métis, First Nations and Chinese whose lived experience was and is often ignored in the name of human progress. This lived experience and the quest to understand human existence is why we do history. To ignore the externalized costs of our industriousness and our lived experience no doubt blinds us to the painful reverberations that present themselves in 2015.

My economist friends often speak of externalities — those things that are not accounted for in initial economic equations, such as costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions or the effects of noise pollution in neighbourhoods undergoing development. The notion of externalities in economics has been of interest lately globally, as we work to mitigate the harmful externalities of climate change. It also is an interesting idea to think of outside of economics, when we consider historical equations. For example, when we use the ideologically infused term "human progress" to frame significant historical events, we often omit or forget the experience of groups that are inconvenient to the narrative of progress.

Métis pushed to margins

The doing of history allows us to correct this error of omission and give voice to those who assumed the cost of historical acts undertaken in the name of progress.

Take for example the Métis of Red River. In 1869, eager to ditch Rupert's Land, the HBC sold most of the Northwest to a salivating new Canada, desperate to mark its territory with a transcontinental railroad. What Canada was not prepared for was a stubborn collective effort led by the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia and its president, Louis Riel, which forced Ottawa's hand in negotiating Red River into Confederation. Unfortunately, the Canadian government failed to adhere to all the conditions in the Manitoba Act, specifically Article 31, which required Canada to grant land to the Métis.

Instead, the Métis were pushed to the margins and are only now able to make their claims in court. The Métis have been paying the price for the past 140 years and now Canada will pay the cost of annexation and empty promises.

A few years later, Canada, bound by the terms of the royal proclamation of 1763, which stated aboriginal people reserved all lands not ceded or sold by them, needed to negotiate with First Nations for land in order to string the CPR across the Prairies. In 1871, Treaties 1 and 2 were signed at the Stone Fort, or Lower Fort Garry. These numbered treaties, arguably signed under duress as University of Regina kinesiologist James Daschuk would suggest, moved First Nations people off their land to make way for progress and a swath of Ontario and European migrants.

But not all the land was allocated, and further land was stolen in St. Peter's, or Little Peguis. In 2015, we see the ongoing ripple effects of our progress within the boundaries of Treaty 1, through the saga of Kapyong and the recurrent flooding in communities such as Peguis.

As we move farther west to British Columbia, history witnesses thousands of Chinese who fled their drought-stricken homeland in search of well-being and work on the CPR. What they discovered was a tremendously callous environment by which many lost their lives, where they were pushed to the margins and increasingly told that they and their family members were not welcome. This, all in the name of human progress.

In 2015, we are perpetually faced with decisions whereby we ignore the plight of those, both in our country and abroad, whom we deem forgettable in terms of their lived experience in the name of progress or profit. Is it not astounding that just now we as citizens of Manitoba and Winnipeg are coming to terms with the fact that the water we drink comes at a great cost, and that we are finally seeing clearly the lived experience of our cousins in Shoal Lake?

Progress must encompass all

In other parts of the country, First Nations are standing up against a notion of western progress that does not include them, as exemplified in the ambitions of Kinder Morgan. These first peoples are often labelled eco-terrorists or are threatened by those who lurk anonymously on comment threads and social media. Along the Athabasca River, Cree, Chipewyan and Dene nations will pay and are paying the price for our progress.

History has demonstrated, however, that Canada needs to be highly aware of the externalized costs of progress and the lived experience of all Canadians. The living and doing of history allows us to attempt to repair historical damage, and in doing so, become a more evolved and just nation. Part of this process has already begun with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its recommendations. What remains to be seen is whether the new Canadian government will acknowledge the externalized costs of the past and look seven generations into the future to avoid future mistakes.

Our challenge is to ensure that human progress in this country, and beyond our borders, includes the progress of all peoples; progress that ensures the protection of our water, air and land are taken into account. To do otherwise would be to drive the last spike into any semblance of a just, equitable and sustainable vision for this country.

Matt Henderson is a teacher at St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg.


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