Working on the railway.

The complainant, Fred Woodward, disputed the claim by the Chief of the War Lake First Nation in northern Manitoba that her ancestors built the Hudson Bay Railway in a documentary about the future of the rail service. The reporter provided context and other information but the facts might have been clearer.

COMPLAINT

You challenged the historical accuracy of a documentary about the Hudson Bay Railway. You cited a statement by Chief Betsy Kennedy who lives in a northern Manitoba community along the railroad. You said was “plain BS” to claim as she did that “The Cree were the ones who built this railway.” It is your assertion that this is a ridiculous claim and that historians have documented the fact that the railway was “built by civil engineers of western European background with physical labour primarily by New Canadians of Eastern European background, plus a number of Chinese who were largely employed as cooks for the others”:

The suggestion that the railway was built by Cree natives is ridiculous as they would have been severely challenged to build an outhouse, much less a railway. The line was completed in the late 1920s and in subsequent years some of the Cree natives actually became employed in maintaining the line by replacing worn out wooden ties and steel rails, and filling in the rail bed with gravel where it had been washed away or sunk into the muskeg.

You are disturbed by this misinformation and the lack of fact-checking. You think it is an important distinction that Cree men maintained but did not build the railway. You also pointed out that the reporter, Selena Ross, referred to the railway as the Hudson Bay Railroad, and that is not the correct name.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Jennifer Warren, the Acting Senior Producer for The Doc Project, replied to your complaint. She said that the documentary did not misconstrue the facts - it was Ms. Kennedy who made the statement “The Crees were the ones that built this railway, then the Crees should be the ones that own it.” She said they did “not misconstrue the actual facts around the building and maintenance of the railway.” She pointed out the reporter states:

“The line had been first built by recently arrived labourers - first Chinese, the Ukrainian. But before long the workers were Cree.”

She noted that the online piece also mentioned that Ms. Kennedy’s father and other local Cree men maintained the railway from the 1930s on.

She acknowledged that in one of many mentions the reporter inadvertently says “Hudson Bay Railroad” instead of railway. In every other instance the reference was correct.

REVIEW

Accuracy is a critical component of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices. I agree with you there is a lack of clarity about who built the railroad. The documentary did provide the pertinent information, as Ms. Warren indicated, but it was placed earlier in the broadcast, away from Ms. Kennedy’s statement. For those not as familiar with the history as you, it would have been clearer if the information about the construction of the railroad had been mentioned around the same time.

The focus of this piece was the importance of the rail line to the communities along it, many of them Cree. Ms. Kennedy’s remarks are made in the broader context of the feeling of ownership and importance of the Hudson Bay Railway to her people and community. As the piece noted, it runs through their land. Despite your denigrating remarks about abilities, contributing to the maintenance of the line through difficult terrain for 70 years or so does not make a claim of building it completely unreasonable. In the interests of absolute accuracy and understanding, the context might have been clearer.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman