Tag Archives: Mohawk Ironworkers

Another Side of Canada: The Story of Us—The Whitewashing has begun

This week’s episode of Canada: The Story of Us features some remarkable technological advances that were critical in joining Canada from sea to sea to sea: the Welland Canal, the Victoria Bridge and the first underwater telegraph cable. However, with a time span of 65 years, once again many things were left out. And I know, with a history as diverse and a show seeking to cover as much as possible in 44 minutes, I get it, things will be left out. But this week, David Plain and I were both overcome by the elephant in the room.

I should point out that David and I each watch the episodes and then share our thoughts, either talking about the show or simply writing down quick blurbs and sharing that; we do not collaborate so as to ensure we present our own opinions about each episode.

As I watched Sunday’s episode “Connected,” I was trying to see the big picture, where this portion of the story fits amid what we have already seen. Historically, at this juncture the territory that will become Canada had been ruled by Generals; jurisprudence has more or less fallen to the military, including the First Nations people who were considered military allies and instrumental in the defeat of the Americans. Following the War of 1812, control shifts from the military to civilian, and the utility of Indigenous people fades from importance.

That disappearance is also reflected in Canada: The Story of Us. Up until now, First Nations people have been present and a part of the story that CBC is telling, primarily one of mere survival of the elements and war. The role the first people played was vital to Canada before Canada even became Canada. Now that war is no longer an ongoing threat, ideologies change, warriors who are familiar with the topography are no longer a commodity required by the generals of the military and now the thrust becomes uniting Canada. But to what purpose, and at what expense?

Very early on we hear from Jim Balsillie, Chairman of Council of Canadian Innovators, “Canada was a vast open land and we needed transportation infrastructure to be able to harness the untapped potential of this country,” he says. But who and what would be the most significant objector to the commodification of the land and its resources? First Nations. How best to deal with this issue? Make them disappear. Canada: The Story of Us, made them disappear too.

A quick history lesson omitted by the show reveals that, in 1928, the Darling Report set the foundation for the process of colonization, outlining the Indian “civilization” program, that would include settling First Nations in communities where they could be educated, Christianized and made over into farmers. Then, later in 1844, the Bagot Commission recommended the assimilation of First Nations people by means of both residential schools and centralization of policy. In essence, these studies set the groundwork for The Indian Lands Act of 1960, and the Indian Act of 1876.

As I watched the segment on the Victoria Bridge, I wondered, “Where are the ironworkers from Kahnawa:ke?” Last fall, I covered Mohawk Ironworkers on APTN, so I have some familiarity with that portion of Indigenous history in Canada. A quick bit of research revealed that yes, the ironworkers from Kahnawa:ke were not only instrumental in the building of this bridge and many others, they were also hard at work in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. But the CBC chose not to give them any credit. Just like the policy of the era, the CBC—at least in this episode—appears to be whitewashing history; perpetuating the idea that First Nations people are either just “gone” or did not contribute to the building of our country.

Yes the moments covered this week were vital to the story of what Canada is today, and yes it is important that we see how these innovations came to be, and no we cannot change history. However, in this era of reconciliation, I feel, particularly as a non-Indigenous person, that we as Canadians need to learn what we have missed, including the contributions of First Nations people throughout Canada’s history.

The remnants of my latte and David’s mint tea!

Once again I sat down with Elder David Plain of Aamjiwnaang and the following are his thoughts on this latest episode:

This episode was particularly hard to watch. So it’s very difficult to push past the old adage my mother instilled in me as a boy, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.’ But, I’ll try.

The theme of this episode is found in the title, “Connected.” But the producers seem to have forgotten to connect with the partners in this enterprise called Canada. As I watched the first 10 minutes—the building of the Welland Canal—I found myself wondering if others watching questioned where and how did they [builders] get this all this land to do all these great things in. The date is 1828, a year after we [Aanishnabeg] ceded the Huron Tract to Upper Canada. For a quarter century before that, we had ceded huge tracts of land for what would become Southern Ontario, our contribution towards the building of Canada. But not a mention of it. Do the producers subscribe to the debunked doctrine of ‘terra nullius’?

As I watched through each vignette, the building of the railroad in the east, the telegraph lines, the Montreal bridge, I wondered, ‘Where the hell are the Indians?’ Did the First Nations contribute nothing? About halfway through, a comment made by Marianne McKenna, founding partner, KPMB Architects, caught my attention. ‘…we as Canadians tend to act together.’ I thought, doesn’t she mean ‘we as settlers?’

Now I know that this is supposed to be a celebratory production in honour of Canada’s 150th sesquicentennial, but I really would have liked to see some balance. Some great accomplishments have been achieved in the last 150 years, but some not so great things were done as well, like the Indian Act of 1876 and residential schools. Of course, I don’t really expect pronounced negativity to show up, but a little realism would have been nice though.

And did the commentary have to be so syrupy? It made me feel ill. You could easily convince me it was produced in the United States. Anyway, the Indians finally show up for seven seconds at the very end, as the settlers are trying to build their railroad to the West Coast, troublemakers standing in the way of progress. If this keeps up, I am going to have to change the channel.

Chi miigwetch to David Plain for sharing his thoughts!

Canada: The Story of Us airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBC.


David Plain B.R.S., M.T.S., is the author of five books with a sixth, The Exmouth Chronicles: A Memoir due out later this month April 2017 by Trafford Publications. You can reach David on Facebook or Twitter.

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Mohawk Ironworkers talks about health

Mohawk health has always been tied to the land. This week on Mohawk Ironworkers we explored health, home and heritage and what these mean to ironworkers. Additionally, how do the three H’s influence lives once you retire from ironworking?

Hayden Hemlock, a retired Mohawk ironworker from a long line of ironworkers, discussed the importance of family and community. “No matter how far you travel from home to work you always return to that home base.”  Even with his time spent growing up in New York while his father worked as an ironworker, home was still Kahnawa:ke. In the business of ironworking, there are many Mohawks, and their camaraderie is the envy of others who work in the trade. But even with this close-knit working community, home beckoned from afar.

Hayden suffered a fall while working, and his injuries have prevented him from returning to ironworking. Despite his injuries, he refused surgery and turned instead to traditional medicines in order to assist with his body’s healing process. Raised with his grandparent’s influence, Hayden developed a deep connection to the land, fostering a deep respect for, and responsibility to, protecting it. Now, instead of walking iron he spends his time building houses in his community of Kahnawa:ke.

Kaniehtakeron Martin is also an ironworker; he has taken a different approach and runs 20 miles every week to maintain his fitness.   When he first started the job, Kaniehtakeron fell into the trap of work hard, play hard, and repeat. Recognizing this lifestyle was unhealthy, he began eating and exercising regularly. “Gegs” now runs marathons in his spare time to take care of his body and to withstand the rigors of his chosen occupation.

This was one the stronger episodes in Mohawk Ironworkers. We got a real sense of the these two men, and how ironworking has affected them on and off the job. Kudos to executive producer Michelle Smith.

Mohawk Ironworkers airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. ET on APTN.

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Mohawk Ironworkers — The Hill brothers keep it in the family

This week on Mohawk Ironworkers, we head to Six Nations, outside of Brantford, Ont., to visit the Hill brothers. These three siblings have logged more than 83 years of ironwork between them, but their efforts have affected their long-term health. The entire episode focuses on the physical demands that this highly-skilled trade places on your body.

Rodney Hill, the eldest, retired 10 years ago but his time as an ironworker continues to take a toll. Years of hard labour had compressed several vertebrae in his spine, causing excruciating pain and numbness in his limbs. Following several surgeries, he was left paralyzed and is now relies on either a wheelchair or walker to assist in his mobility. Spending countless hours in physiotherapy, Rodney is slowly regaining the use of his legs.  His brothers, Mike and Gary, remain by his side just as they did when they all walked iron together.

In addition to the actual physical loss of his legs. Rodney must also cope with the psychological repercussions. Once a strong, vital man bravely walking the iron high above the city skylines, he must now cope with his reduced mobility. For many men, this is almost as debilitating as the paralysis itself. Rodney, fortified with the same courage he showed in his career, will only be satisfied when he can walk with only the aid of a cane.

Throughout, we learn of the very close familial ties ironworkers have, both within their blood family and within the ironworkers unions.

Mohawk Ironworkers airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. ET on APTN.

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Mohawk Ironworkers build New York

This week, Mohawk Ironworkers explores the connections between ironworkers and New York City.

Thomas Jock II, from Akwesasne explains that workers must travel for the work. Most of the large projects are found along the eastern coast of the U.S. in cities like Albany, New York and Boston. “Booming out” to the job, workers may spend months away from home and family; this is just one of the prices these men must pay for choosing this high paying, very high risk, occupation. Working in New York as a unionized ironworker, a person can earn in the neighbourhood of $2,000 a week.

The work week begins on Sunday, with the six-hour drive from Kahawa:ke or Akwesasne, in order to get to New Jersey for a night’s sleep. The work day begins at 4 a.m. in order to begin the commute to the job site in Manhattan. Several motels in the area recognize status cards, and try to accommodate as many ironworkers as they can with weekly rates. Rooming houses, small apartments and motels have replaced Little Caughnawaga in Brooklyn, New York, with families remaining in Kahnawa:ke.

This episode also covers the history of Mohawk ironworkers that began when they were hired in the 1880’s as unskilled workers on various building projects. Ever since, ironworkers have been traveling where the building boom takes them. Most building sites employ four or five workers from Kahnawa:ke and this brotherhood has helped to preserve the Kanien’keha (Mohawk) language as it’s often the language of choice for Mohawks on the job site.

This history also covers the collapse of the Quebec Bridge in 1907, an accident where 75 of the 86 workers building the bridge died, of which 33 were from Kahnawa:ke. Many of those who tragically died were not killed by the collapse itself, but rather were trapped by the wreckage at low tide and drowned when the tide came in. A number of memorials that have been built to commemorate these workers can be found in Kahnawa:ke.

This is one of the better episodes this season and far richer than many that have preceded it. The traditional documentary style of the program is tiring, particularly when we have seen some great storytelling in documentary formats using innovative techniques. I feel like I am back in grade school, which is a shame since so many of these stories could be presented in a way that engages the audience. I am hoping the directorial talents of Michelle Smith in next week’s episode bring some improvement.

Mohawk Ironworkers airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. ET on APTN.

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Mohawk Ironworkers features Eiffel Al!

I am just going to get this out of the way: I am terrified of falling.

I am not afraid of heights so long as there is some logical way that I cannot fall—safety harness, railing, plexiglass—I am completely at ease. Amusement park rides? The higher the better.

If, however, it is just me up high and nothing but my own skill keeping me from falling, I am terrified!*

So to watch any of these episodes of Mohawk Ironworkers sets  my nerves just a little on edge. However, this episode was stressful for me to watch. My anxiety level was through the roof and I found myself wincing at the death-defying feats Albert Stalk, Jr. performed. I closed my eyes during his commercial. He is brilliant, and the footage is amazing. To be honest, I had never heard of “Eiffel Al” before this but WOW, what a life! I am left amazed, and he is IMHO barking mad to have done this. Brilliant, but barking mad!

We trace the life of Stalk, Jr., an ironworker from Kahnawa:ke who was the first to scale the Eiffel Tower without any safety equipment. From this fame, Albert earned a living as a model before eventually settling down to home building. If you didn’t catch the episode, I highly recommend you stream it online at APTN. This one will have you on the edge of your seat!

*(Usually, I watch a show twice before I review it; once to get the gist and a second time to grab specific details. This time, I just couldn’t. It has nothing to do with the quality of the content. Just call me a wuss!)

Mohawk Ironworkers airs Tuesdays at 7 p.m. ET on APTN.

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