I love to ride upon the Canadian. It is one of the world’s great train journeys, and it conveniently takes me from my places of work and school, Toronto, to my family’s home in British Columbia; a journey of more than five thousand kilometres. When I see the route on a map, I’m often flabbergasted at the sheer vastness of this route and of the state of Canada as a whole. It’s as if a single country stretched from Jerusalem to Paris, or from Spain to Warsaw, Tripoli to Karachi.
Of course, such countries have existed, or empires rather. To think properly about Canada we have to think of it as an empire-become-country – appropriated as a series of colonies by the British through conquest and annexation. And the end of the British empire did not mean decolonization and independence for the indigenous peoples of these lands, but instead independence for the colony. The reasons for this are not pretty: on the one hand campaigns of genocide, cultural and otherwise, weakened indigenous communities, and on the other hand the technological advantages of the industrial-revolution powered colonization. These factors and others assured that indigenous peoples were unable to arise as a political force able to challenge the power of the colonizer on their native lands. While treaties exist in places, these treaties only mediate rather than challenge the supposed right of european colonization in North America, and more often than not such treaties are little more than conditions of indigenous surrender. Worse still, where treaties did guarantee important rights or significant territories to natives, the breaching of these terms by the colonial governments is the rule rather than the exception.
The role of the railway in this process is not insignificant. Prior to the construction of trans continental railways, transporting people and industrial equipment across the continent took weeks or even months, and was hugely expensive and often dangerous. As soon as the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, however, the travel time from Montreal to Vancouver was reduced to seven days, and the lines across the United States were even faster than that.
The role of industrial and technological power can easily be underplayed when studying the history of colonization. It is attractive to believe that anti-colonial resistance relies mostly on the will of the colonized to oust the colonizer, to maintain independence and cultural autonomy. And it’s attractive for good reasons – because willful resistance is the domain of freedom, and it is for the sake of freedom that resisting colonization can be reamed as universally virtuous, as on the side of justice and right. However, in truth the the principle of decolonization rarely actualizes itself as a force in history without economic power, without industrial capacity, and ultimately, without a reliable supply of arms. Indigenous people can do little against a colonial regime unless effective and disruptive resistance can be brought into being and sustained against attempts to crush it.
The case of the Palestinians is instructive: yes, the Palestinian Revolution was an expression of a collective will for freedom and self-determination, and a collective negation of the expulsion and dispossession of the Nakba, but it was never only this. The Palestinian Revolution was led not be the disposed masses but by the colonized’s bourgeois class, and it rose as a powerful force in the region because it was able to maintain enough economic, military, and ultimately political power to remain an independent and significant force in middle east politics – at least between 1968 and 1982.
Also instructive is the case of anti-colonial resistance in North America. In 1850 many indigenous peoples effectively challenged white sovereignty in large tracts of North America. However, by 1900 or shortly after the resistance was all but snuffed out. What changed was the increasing technological power that the colonizers were able to mobilize against the anti colonial resistance. For example, the Lakota people fought a series of wars against the United States and they won each conflict, except the last which was the first in which the United States employed machine guns. What can be done against a force willing to open machine gun fire against a tent encampment, killing everyone inside? If the natives had access to AK-47’s, then perhaps quite a bit could have be done, but in addition the last Lakota war taking place about fifty years before the invention of the cheap submachine gun, the native’s only source of any kind of firearm was the same people who they were at war with.
If the gun won the west it was the railway which cemented the victory. The railway brought settlers in droves to occupy the annexed lands, to work them as farms, to give physical presence to colonizers property lines marked otherwise only on maps. Just as settlements are built today in the West Bank to create “facts on the ground”, the railways permitted the settling of much of Canada. And just as the apartheid road system in the West Bank integrates the settlements into Israel’s economy, the railways integrated the farms of the prairies into Canada’s economy. The speed of the railway and the relatively cheapness it brings to the long distance transport of heavy goods makes integrating the prairie economy with the economy of Easter Canada, and with the global economy, in a way which would not otherwise be possible. This is crucial because if annexing indigenous land merely meant setting up new self-sufficient colonies in the places where natives lived it would not be of much use to elites, or ultimately to global capital. Ultimately the railway contributes to the displacement of lands – lands no longer exist for themselves, to sustain themselves and the people who live on them, but rather to sustain people living thousands of kilometres away. This displacement has wide ranging implications, not only on the people who once inhabited and sustained themselves on those lands, but on humanity as a whole.
Because lands no longer exist for themselves but for the sake of the national and global economy they are tended by forces which are not concerned with their sustainability but with maximizing the extraction of whatever they have to offer to trans national consumptive forces. What colonization changes is not merely who rules the land, but how the land is ruled, and the impacts on the environment of these changes are only beginning to be felt.