The Crow Route and the Ktunaxa Peoples
St. Eugene Natives   The story of the Crowsnest Pass began thousands of years before the first European explorers surveyed the pass and considered routes for the proposed railway. The Ktunaxa (sometimes written as Kootenay, Kootenai or Kutenai) peoples who lived in the region for hundreds of generations used the Crowsnest Pass as a travel and trading route through the mountains. The route finally adopted by the railway was to pass through or near many areas used by the Ktunaxa for hunting and fishing and for harvesting food, medicine and materials and other sites that were sacred. The first recorded exploration of the pass by a White man was in 1873 by Michael Phillipps who crossed through the mountains from the west. By the late 1880s, the route was better known. There had been serious explorations by George Dawson of the Geological Survey of Canada and in 1888 Sam Steele of the Northwest Mounted Police passed through. William Fernie and his brother Peter had carried out some prospecting for minerals and had found coal deposits. By the 1890s, the future course of the Crowsnest Pass region had been set in motion but the impact of these pending developments, including the railway, could hardly have been anticipated.

For the Ktunaxa peoples the railway would bring tremendous and lasting changes because it was an enormous catalyst for settlement and subdivision of the land, industrial development, landscape and ecosystem change as well as bringing profound pressures for cultural change.

The Indian Reserve system imposed on First Peoples bore little relationship with traditional land use patterns and with the progressive subdivision, sale and development of surrounding areas restricted traditional land uses. In some cases, such as in Cranbrook, better lands were excluded from reserves. Subsequent logging and burning of large areas affected further the accessibility of traditional hunting and gathering territories. The introduction by ranchers of cattle had widespread impacts on the natural grass lands. Overgrazing and the introduction of weeds damaged wildlife habitat and areas used by the Ktunaxa for gathering many plant foods and products. Cultivation and fencing introduced more barriers to traditional land use patterns and lifestyles. "They want us to practice our culture," comments Ktunaxa elder Leo Williams, "but they are putting us in a space where we can’t do it."






Missionaries brought new religions and schooling that often attempted to displace traditional languages and customs. In the early days of the railway, a hospital was built at St. Mary’s for the construction workers but later this was closed and moved to Cranbrook. This removed the hospital from the St. Mary’s area and made it more difficult for the Ktunaxa to have access to medical services.

Another change that impacted First Peoples, although not directly related to the railways, was the international boundary between Canada and the United States. The border divided relatives and friends and created a legalistic barrier that separated people from their traditional territories.

For all the influences on First Peoples and their cultures that came with the railway and all of the associated industry and settlement, the Ktunaxa were able to use it themselves for travel and shipping goods. They were given reduced fares as part of the original understandings at the time the railway was built but these lasted only as long as passenger services. For the First Peoples, as it was for all others in the region, the trains made it easier to visit relatives and friends, to travel for work or to see doctors or to shop in the larger centres. People from the St. Mary’s area might travel over the CPR’s Kootenay Central, for example, to celebrations at Windermere.

The Great Northern routes to the United States were also important for travel for Ktunaxa people. The Great Northern’s railway motor car or "Galloping Goose" provided a service to the south that was used by the Ktunaxa to travel to communities in the Tobacco Plains between Cranbrook and the United States border and Rexford or other towns in Montana. However, with the end of passenger services on the Canadian Pacific and the Great Northern, this connection between the Ktunaxa and the railways ended. Few Ktunaxa people worked for the Canadian Pacific or the Great Northern and the railways were simply part of the overall impact of European cultures on the region.

For the Ktunaxa People issues of lands and aboriginal title are an ongoing concern and certainly reflect back on the alienation of lands and the disruptions of their culture that came with the building of the Crowsnest Route and the many profound changes that followed the railway.


Link to the Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre Informational Website

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