Book of the Month Archive

Canadian Railroad Trilogy

By Gordon Lightfoot
Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anasi Press, 2010
ISBN #978-0-88899-953-5

Gordon Lightfoot’s original lyrics, written in 1967, grace this beautifully illustrated book as pure Canadian poetry. Lines such as “On the mountaintops we stand/All the world at our command/We have opened up the soil/With our teardrops and our toil/For there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run/When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun”, are paired with Ian Wallace’s colourful, shimmering chalk pastel illustrations; each page portrays an aspect of the Canadian railroad’s story. 

Canadian Railroad Trilogy would be an excellent resource for an upper primary classroom, and grade three students would especially benefit from this picturebook during their trains and pioneers unit. There is a brief history written at the back of the book, along with a list of further reading, and, for a great connection to music class, band or choir; the sheet music. In examining the illustrations, students will enjoy discovering the hidden faces in the rocks and clouds, the dragon in the prairie representing the Chinese labourers without whom the railroad would not have been built, and the map of Canada depicted in the smoke of the train. Wallace has included meticulous illustrator’s notes for each page; his research and attention to detail lend themselves to an intriguing analysis of the pictures for your students.

The illustrations also allow for students to consider how the railway affected different groups of people and the natural landscape in Canada. As Wallace states; “For me, this is a song and a book about a dream – the dream of a prime minister and government, entrepreneurs and capitalists, engineers and workers, and the citizens of a young growing nation. I also recognize that for some, especially Canada’s First People who were displaced by the railroad, and the navvies or workers (the vast majority of them Chinese immigrants) who suffered and died in the construction, the dream could be construed as a nightmare.”

Through Wallace’s discussion of the Canadian Pacific Railway having both positive and negative impacts, depending on one’s point of view, students can analyze Lightfoot’s lyrics for a deeper meaning and take the time to consider the construction of the CPR from various perspectives.

Check out the illustrator’s website at:


Show your students Gordon Lightfoot singing Canadian Railroad Trilogy (on the Johnny Cash show in 1971) at:

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