Type Your Broadening the Definition of Citizenship Through Storytelling

Hidden Stories: Lady Agnes and the Canadian Pacific Railroad

You said you're doing what?!

What would you do if your wife came to you one afternoon and told you that you have decided to ride on a train across Canada?.. Unless your marriage was on the rocks you'd probably be okay with it once the details presented in full. Now what would you do if your wife told you that not only is she going to ride across Canada but that she has gotten someone to construct a seat on the cowcatcher of this said train? Furthermore, pretend that you are the 1st Prime Minister of the newly formed Canada and most likely you've woken up in a fog after a long night of drinking brandy (not completely factual for this scenario but c'mon, who are we kidding here!)

This is the the reality that Sir John A MacDonald had to live in 1886 when his wife, Lady Susan Agnes MacDonald, traveled with him across Canada on his first coast-to-coast trip on the newly built railroad. But this is not a story about Sir John A. This is a story about Lady Agnes and her ability to dream of something so ridiculous that it almost seems like an urban legend. It's stories like these that not only make our national history unique, but they hold unique value in the classroom because of their ability to challenge the norm and the unreal.

To what degree does the story of Lady Agnes MacDonald provide an important perspective within the grand narrative of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway?

The story of Lady Agnes riding the rails helps complete the story of the Canadian Pacific Railroad because it provides a narrative of the maiden voyage that might have never been produced. Sir John A was a very busy man during this trip (shaking hands and kissing babies) so Lady A took it upon herself to document the trips major events, the construction and various roots, and the stunning landscapes they came across in a publication released in 1887. Murray's Magazine published her tale of travelling the rails, enticing new Canadian citizens about the wild west and ultimately helped promote the expansion of the west in the coming decades. The true value of her account, however, comes in the adventurous tale of riding upfront of the on the cowcatcher. She stated that although her private train car, the Jamaica, had the comforts of home and was safe, it did not have the same excitement as the the Cowcatcher (p. 216).

The reason why her perspective is so important in the overall narrative of the building of the CPR is because she is able to create a sense of excitement and adventure that many times would get looked over due to political importance of the railroad and its ability to bring the vast land of Canada together under one single entity. Her tale of rushing down the Kickinghorse Pass strapped to the front of the steam engine brings fear and passion to the story that unwise would never have been captured. Although the purpose of the railroad was to connect the east and the west, as well as show that new settlers could easily make the trip to the new lands of the west, Lady A potentially sparked the imagination of these new settlers and gave them some different ambitions for moving into the unknown.

How would Lady Agnes MacDonald’s story be used differently in today’s political landscape?

When Lady A embarked on her quest across Canada I believe she was driven by self ambitions when it came to her personal choices. The story of her sitting on the cowcatcher somewhat overshadows some of the other aspect of her trip. First and foremost, she was travelling in support of Sir John A on his quest to reach the people of Canada. In sorts this was a media tour, something that politicians have done extensively since the cross country travel became more accessible. After shaking hands in Winnipeg Lady A participated in talks with local First Nations communities all across the Canadian prairies, helping husband in any which way she could (Murray Magazine, 1887). In todays political landscape spouses still play a large part in media and community relations. We hear more about the American First Lady then we do about Laureen Harper, yet Mrs. Prime Minister still is active in the political arena bumping shoulders with government officials, human rights groups and other political better halves throughout the year.

The biggest difference in her story again revolves around the cowcatcher and her self ambitions to take in the natural beauty of Canada. Nowadays if a politicians wife did the equivalent of strapping themselves to the front of a train the media would be going crazy! This would be seen as some sort of stunt to further the career of their husband and a sort of celebrity status would be placed on that individual. Where Lady A differs is that she decided to sit on the front of the train on her own accord without taking away from her husbands mission. Her reasons were completely un selfish in nature and she took on the possible repercusuons that came along with her daredevilsih actions.

How can Lady Agnes MacDonald’s story impact men and woman today?

The story of Lady A and the cowcatcher train ride can be a message of inspiration for men and women today. It shows how females blurred the line of conformity and succeeded as early as the 19th century. This was a time when women had specific gender roles and Lady A was one of the few who did not seem to live by those standards. She is a strong women of history and can be seen as a positive role model for both men and women. Furthermore she encompasses the wild spirt of Canadians, both from the past and in present times.

Find the intersection between the telling of the story and its personal meaning for you. Here, discuss how this story has personal meaning and possible life lessons for you.

The reason why I feel this is an important story is for me personally is for two reasons. First, Lady Agnes' daring spirt resonates with me due to myself being a risk taker in most aspect of my life. I do not like to live a rigid life and any chance I get to mix things up, I take the opportunity. Lady Agnes was a very strong woman who wanted to achieve something and would let the naysayers get in her way. The second reason why this story resinates with me is because I am completely jealous of what she accomplished. My love for the mountains, along with what was said above, makes me want to tie myself to the from of a train and take a little trip through the mountains. I completely understand how breath taking the scenery is out in the Rockies, and other than having to pick bugs out of my teeth I would jump all over the opportunity if it was ever presented to me.

As a future teacher I could use this story in my social studies classrooms as a type of case study or even as a way to engage students through storytelling. Most students have not heard of this tale and at the very least it would interest student for a short period of time because it shows that not all Canadian history is boring and dull!

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