Stand Fast, Craigellachie

Stand fast, Craigellachie[1]                                      © David Watts

Kamloops 20 June 2000


A hundred thirty years ago we laboured on a dream[2]

To build a bridge to Asia from Cartier’s “Lachine”[3]

To span the seas with steel canoes, portage the land by rail[4]

Our ships and trains around the world in an age of steam and steel.


But time dragged on and, credit spent, the will began to wane

Until we wondered if we’d hear the whistle of the train[5]

And in the gloom, a cablegram between two crusty Scots

Said “We’ll go down together with our line, and give it all we’ve got.”[6]


Stand fast, Craigellachie!  “the true North strong and free”[7]

Stand fast, Craigellachie!  “Dominion sea to sea”[8]

We’ll build a northwest passage over “Canada by land”[9]

And on the way, a country, the world can understand.


The line went through and spanned the world[10] but still we could not rest

For in our own untamed expanse we faced another test

Our wealth, our space, our cultures, began to stretch and strain[11]

Till other links took up the cry[12] that once went with the train:


Stand fast, Craigellachie, we’ll make ourselves anew[13]

Stand fast, Craigellachie, the message will go through

We’ll be the northwest passage[14] in our vast and varied land

Our Canada, a meeting place[15] the world can understand.


The word’s gone out and now our world is growing to be one[16]

Yet other lines divide and so our work is far from done

The borders fall but barriers rise between the rich and poor[17]

And so to all who’ll listen, the cry goes out once more:


Stand fast, Craigellachie, around our planet Earth

Stand fast, Craigellachie, no matter where our birth

We’ve built a global village in our vast and untamed land

For we’re the northwest passage the world can understand.[18]


Stand fast, Craigellachie!

Ah, for just one time I would take the northwest passage

To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea

Tracing one warm line through a line so wide and savage

And make a northwest passage to the sea.


Notes on “Stand Fast, Craigellachie!”


[1] The Most Famous Cablegram in Canada consists of these words from the C.P.R.’s first President and financial backer to his cousin Donald Smith, another backer, in one of the dark days of the line’s financing and construction.  He was quoting the cry of the Clan Grant in their native Scotland.  Craigellachie was a huge rock in Banffshire where sentinels watched and waited to warn the Clan of approaching danger.

[2] The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway was not undertaken simply to unite a country, as we’re usually taught in school.  It was to be the land link the a trade route from Europe to Asia—the elusive northwest passage the first explorers had been seeking.  After many attempts and much mapping of the new continent on both eastern and western shore, the entrepreneurs and explorers realized they couldn’t get around it:  they’d have to build through it.  The C.P.R.—and Canada—was the result.

[3] Lachine Rapids get their name from a remark by Jacques Cartier when he found he passage up the St. Lawrence blocked by whitewater:  “So I guess this is China!”  Was he being sarcastic or still hopeful?  In any case, the Railway builders continued from his beachhead by rail and then sea again to his destination.

[4] C.P.R.’s bands of steel became the land portage between her steamships on both oceans.  In 1891, five years after the Railway’s completion, the first steamer built for the line, the Empress of India, put into Vancouver.  In the intervening period, the Company chartered vessels from other steamship lines.

[5] Joseph Howe’s statement “There are many in this room who will [live to] hear the whistle of a steam locomotive [from Canada] through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean” preceded Confederation by thirty years.  Forty-five years later, with the Railway in financial difficulties and British Columbia talking secession, that earlier optimism did not seem so well founded.

[6] The three word cablegram was an affirmation of these men’s commitment to put their entire livelihood on the line for the venture that became Canada in its present form.  Until then “Canada” was little more than a new alliance of British colonies on the Atlantic and St. Lawrence.

[7] This phrase from the third line of the English version of our national anthem was penned by Stanley Weir in 1908 for the tercentenary of the founding of Champlain’s founding of Québec.  At that time, it was seen as a Québec song:  Canada’s national anthem was “God save the King” and her national song in English was “The Maple Leaf for Ever.”

[8] Taken from Psalm 72 in the Bible, this became part of Canada’s official name and a cameo of her spirit:  “…dominion from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth.”

[9] Alexander Mackenzie’s inscription in red ochre on a rock near Bella Coola, BC:  “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada by land 1792”  was fulfilled in a bigger way than he foresaw by the C.P.R. 93 years later.

[10] “Canadian Pacific spans the World” was a slogan coined by Scottish born John Murray Gibbon in 1936 describing what was then undeniably the “World’s greatest transportation system” (another Gibbon slogan).

[11] In the half century following the Second World War Canada’s greatest challenges were internal, and expressed the strengths of the languages, cultures and economies of Canada’s diverse regions.  More than once these brought us to the brink of giving up on our journey together thus far.

[12] The CBC/Radio Canada—originally a service to provide entertainment to passengers aboard CN trains—and various aspects of the social safety network began to emerge as quintessential Canadian connections.

[13] From 1967-82 Canada redefined herself as a modern pluralistic state with an international orientation.  Critics called this “social engineering” and in some respects it was.  However it was less a grafting on of something foreign than a building on foundations that had been laid earlier.  The social safety net had begun in the 1930’s with old age security and unemployment insurance.  Pierre Trudeau’s “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” continued in the direction begun by John Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights, and his more independent (vis-à-vis the US e.g. trade with Cuba) foreign policy also followed in Diefenbaker’s footsteps.

[14] In the first quarter of her second century after Confederation Canada moved from building the northwest passage in her trade and transport to becoming that passage in her internal social fabric.  Significantly, that destiny was foretold by George VI in his final speech before returning to England from the1939 Royal tour.

[15] “Meeting place” and “group of huts” (village) are two possible meetings of the Algonkin word “Kanata” that Cartier heard in 1534.  The embracing of pluralism has become a hallmark of the New Canada.  For many in Canada’s first century, pluralism was tolerated reluctantly until others would “become like us” (English Canada) or “until our people have our own state.”  (Québec).

[16] Economic globalism is becoming a fait accompli—going beyond the wildest dreams of the generation of Cabot and Cartier, who found Canada in the way of their far eastern destination.

[17] Yet this collective prosperity has come at a cost of social dislocation for many.  Some internationalists see Canada’s social safety net as being in the way of the more level playing field they seek economically.

[18] Others choose to see the Canadian experiment as on the way of where Earth is going collectively, as we proved to be for the explorers who found our land mass a barrier until they learned to build with/through it.