The Railway & the River: Crowfoot

© David Watts 28/11/02 Canmore

Through a gap in the mountains from a field of ice and snow

A river runs green-clear where glaciers chiselled long ago

With others makes the Saskatchewan, as one they onward flow

To Hudson Bay


The Bow arm of the river became the right of way

For the mainline of a railway when the Government had its say

Through lands your people lived on, where your tribe held sway

And you were there


When you were young you saved an infant from a grizzly bear

A brave and skillful warrior, you were cautious, without fear

You had no need to prove yourself to others who were near

Or far away


You rose among the Blackfoot, with wisdom made your way

A sovereign Prince of nations who trusted what you’d say

In parley with another Confederacy with spokesmen from away

Who came to you


You wondered if you could stop the line as you stood beside the Bow

The answer came: “Only if you can stop the River’s flow”

And looking in, you recognized yourself and knew you’d known

Before you asked


You gave your word. They took your pledge for granted and passed on

You knew the land was treatied, they said the west was won

And then they let you wait for your requests when you called

On them to reply.


You watched the firewagon spew its cinders in the sky

You heard its long demonic shriek and saw its gleaming eye

You let it pass and then you stood alone to wonder why

And mourn the cost


Your younger braves said you’d sold out to the men of the iron horse

You shared their anger, yet you knew resistance would be worse

And day by day, the railway followed the river in its course

On to the sea


You wouldn’t join the action of the Métis and the Cree

You knew the plight of Piapot and faced the same as he

When his lodge was taken down, his people there to see

He was disgraced


The River you stood by is still flowing fast apace

The Railway runs beside it with its own determined race

You’re a Father of Two Confederacies since you chose the way of peace

And yet I can’t escape…the sadness in your face.


Notes/Commentary on “The Railway & the River: Chief Crowfoot



1 The opening in the Rocky Mountains just east of Canmore and Exshaw is called The Gap. This is the notch through which the Bow River flows out onto the plains. It joins with the Oldman at Medicine Hat to form the South Saskatchewan, which in turn joins with the North Saskatchewan near Prince Albert. The combined Saskatchewan River flows on to what remains of the inland sea that once covered the prairies: Lake Winnipeg, where it joins with the waters of the Red River from the south and other smaller rivers of the plains. These reach present day tidewater on Hudson Bay through the Nelson.

2 The Government’s decision to run the C.P.R. along the south arm of the Saskatchewan rather than the North Saskatchewan route originally surveyed by Sanford Flemming put the line through the territory of the plains Blackfoot rather than the woodland Cree. Crowfoot had already signed a treaty with the red coated representatives of the Great White Mother–the Northwest Mounted Police–at a solemn assembly before his people at Blackfood Crossing.

3. Crowfoot had proven his bravery at an early age. After leading successful battles against other tribes, he was chosen leader of the whole Blackfoot Confederacy whose sway covered much of what is now southern Alberta. In this capacity he was an influence for stability, protecting his nations’ interests and often reining in younger, more militant chiefs.

4. In this position Crowfoot was the force to be dealt with by the newcomers: first the Mounties who he supported in their efforts to curb the whiskey trade, and now the representatives of the Railway that wished to run its line through the reserves that were left to the Blackfoot.

5. Crowfoot was not pleased to be bargaining with a second wave from the east. The first whites he signed with had come to establish order, this group was here to open the land for settlement. He asked Albert Lacombe, the Oblate missionary he trusted, if it was possible to stop the C.P.R. Lacombe answered with another question: “Can you stop the Bow River?” Crowfoot intuitively recognized the wisdom of this response and agreed to deed the Railway a further strip of land.

6. The result was more costly than foreseen. The Railway became a barrier to the movement of people and animals. When he sought compensation for horses he’d lost as a result of railway activity, Crowfoot had to wait months for a response. “If this had happened to a white man,” he complained bitterly, “it would have been taken care of much sooner.”

7. This is taken from a contemporary account of how first nations viewed a steam drawn passenger train: “A fire breathing demon with an evil eye, running on a road of iron in a trench that animals could fall into, and drawing wagons with people travelling beyond the western horizon.”

8. The grateful directors of the C.P.R. conferred a lifelong travel pass on the Chief who’d given them safe passage in their project. Crowfoot wore it on a chain around his neck. Some of his younger warriors took such honours as a further sign that their leader had sold out his people’s interests. Crowfoot recognized his people’s greatest interest was in peace and a measure of prosperity. Armed struggle with the newcomers would be an unmitigated disaster and mean their decimation.

9. For this reason, Crowfoot persuaded his people not to join the 1885 Rebellion of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont and their Cree allies Poundmaker and Big Bear. Earlier Paipot had mounted a token resistance in setting up his camp on the right of way in southern Saskatchewan. When two mounted policemen removed it by kicking out the poles–after a 15 minute warning to vacate—Piapot wisely restrained his braves from attacking, but suffered a loss of face before his people.

10. My impression of seeing Crowfoot in a famous photo: nobility and sadness. He paved the way for a largely peaceful Canada at personal cost—more a Father of Confederation than some of the politicians who made the cut in the picture.