Canada’s Pacific railway: an iron spine for a paper nation

Built to protect British North America from an economically ravenous United States, the Canadian Pacific Railway proved to be a quixotic project.

Postcard advertising the Canadian Pacific Railway circa 1910.
Postcard advertising the Canadian Pacific Railway circa 1910. Credit: Amoret Tanner Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Dominion: The Railway and the Rise of Canada, Stephen R. Bown, Penguin, Random House, £25

Railways are just one of the things that Canada cannot build any more. In Ottawa, the builders of a long-delayed light rail network recently discovered that it does not work in cold weather – a problem in a town with interminable, freezing winters. Plans for high-speed trains between Toronto and Montreal are mired in disputes about who should pay for them. As so often, failures to build infrastructure are expressive of deeper problems. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government had failed to boost national productivity even before it was overtaken by global inflation in energy and food prices. The federal government’s authority is wobbling. Separatist parties have long dominated Quebec, Canada’s most populous province, but the provincial conservatives who run oil rich Alberta are now emulating them by fighting the constitutionality of federal policies and threatening to withdraw from the Canadian Pensions Plan. The radicalisation of the federal Conservatives has introduced a paranoid style into Canadian politics, which targets the state itself, rather than merely the opposing party. Its leader Pierre Poilievre cheered on the ‘truckers’ who besieged Ottawa in protest against federal Covid policies and repeats the libertarian catchphrases of an Americanised online right.

The derailing of Canada reminds us that it was always a provisional nation. The publication of Stephen Bown’s considered but unsparing new epic of its founding decades is therefore timely. His focus is on the ‘first and greatest mega project’ Canada has ever undertaken: a railway from Vancouver to Montreal. The promise of a transcontinental link had induced British Columbians to join their distant colony to the new Dominion of Canada in 1871, creating a state that stretched from the Pacific to the Atlantic. This paper giant needed an iron spine and got one when the first train from Montreal pulled into Vancouver on 4 July 1886, having traversed 4,670km of completed track. Bown is not the first to argue for the crucial role of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in forging the nation. Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike (1971) did just that. His rollicking account pinpointed the CPR as the origin of Canada’s addiction to real-estate speculation, with the magic power to make Winnipeg as expensive as Chicago or to convince people to move to Edmonton. Bown is no match for Berton as a writer, but he neatly draws on more recent scholarship to give a darker and more complex account of how the railway both bridged and exacerbated the political and racial divides of a fragile country.

The origins of the CPR were strategic rather than economic: it was meant to protect British North America against the United States. John A. Macdonald, the driven, alcoholic Glaswegian who was Canada’s first prime minister and its tireless promoter, was not a Canadian nationalist as such, but was rather fiercely attached to the British monarchy and English common law. It was no accident that the engine of the first train into Montreal sported a portrait of Queen Victoria. Although disdainful of the United States, Macdonald could hardly fail to notice that it had emerged from the Civil War as an industrial and military hegemon, whose leaders often ruminated aloud about which bits of British territory to annex and when. Macdonald came to feel that only confederating the United Province of Canada with other British colonies could persuade the Americans – not to mention the British – to take their independence seriously. After the British North America Act created the new Dominion of Canada in 1867, the same logic soon brought British Columbia to join it, hemmed in as it is not just to its south but by the new state of Alaska to its north. Confederation was a defensive huddle, which threw the outlines of a state around territories with little in common. The new government was as strong as its new Parliament buildings in Ottawa were imposing, but the exact nature of its sway over its constituent provinces was vague and is still disputed today. Macdonald’s allies in Quebec understood Confederation as an act of separation rather than integration, which recognised it as a Francophone nation with its own rights and customs.

These were problems for the future. What the new dominion really needed in the short term was infrastructure. The promise of an intercolonial railway from Halifax to Montreal had persuaded Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to throw their lot in with Canada; Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, which would not benefit from it and faced no immediate threat of American invasion, stayed out. Macdonald wanted a route which ran entirely in British territory, feeling that the unhindered movement of troops along it would be vital to resisting American aggression. Yet the United States primarily posed an economic rather than a military threat: colonists might get so used to obtaining goods and services from their thriving southern neighbour rather than from each another that they would transfer their loyalties to it. The completion in 1869 of the Union Pacific, the first transcontinental railroad with its terminus at San Francisco, and the planned construction of the Northern Pacific, which would run close enough to the border to attract Canadian branch lines, brought the West ever closer to America’s economy. Although the Dominion had purchased Rupert’s Land, the vast expanse between British Columbia and Ontario, from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869, it stood to lose it all to America if it could not quickly settle it and integrate it with eastern Canada. ‘If Englishmen do not go there,’ Macdonald fretted ‘Yankees will.’

The CPR’s eventual route reflected these anxieties. The first surveyors thought it should veer north-west after leaving Winnipeg to pass through the rich soils which might attract settlers and generate profitable rail traffic. It would then follow a wagon route to the Pacific, crossing the Rockies at the Yellowhead Pass. Yet the final route struck much further south, hugging the northern shore of Lake Superior before cutting across the southern Canadian prairies. It was an attempt to forestall American penetration of those regions which involved compromises and huge gambles. Lake Superior was ringed with barren rocks which required hazardous and expensive blasting with dynamite – only later did they turn out to be reamed with precious metals. A periodic switch to a wetter weather system made agriculture and settlement viable on the grasslands of what is now Alberta – by the time the drought returned, Calgary and other railway cities had their start. The CPR was barrelling towards the Selkirk and Rocky Mountain ranges before anyone knew if they were passable. Enter Major Rogers, a rough-hewn American trail blazer who found two passes that could take trains, although the latter – named for him – was initially built to a murderously steep grade.

In the West, Canada was a company state, uncomfortably reliant on Napoleonic financiers for whom profits and patriotism were convertible terms. Macdonald’s first attempt at a public-private partnership was corrupt even by North American standards. In 1874 he lost power when it emerged his preferred backer for the railway, the Montreal shipbuilder Hugh Allan, had paid bribes to get Macdonald’s candidates returned in an election two years earlier. By 1880 he had bounced back from the ‘Pacific Scandal’ and formed his consortium. It was not patriotism that united its members. One of them, George Hill, was American, and Donald Smith, an old enemy, ran just the kind of rail line from Minnesota to Manitoba that Macdonald feared. Rather, it was Ottawa’s offer of huge land grants to the CPR, whose value they could boost through tweaks to the railway’s route and the siting of its stations. The CPR’s general superintendent, an ebullient American called William Van Horne, who is one of the few nice people in Bown’s book, brilliantly exploited these opportunities. After firing surveyors who had speculated for private profit, he deftly maximised the company’s return on its landholdings, especially after the adoption of the southern route. He also shifted its Pacific terminus from the cramped Port Moody to the spacious Granville Townsite by the Burrard Inlet, where the CPR had holdings to exploit. He then renamed it ‘Vancouver’ to render it more attractive to investors and future tourists, infuriating the good people of Vancouver Island, who had long hoped to secure the terminus for themselves.

Smith, who had himself photographed driving home the railway’s last spike at Craigellachie on 7 November 1885, would later be rewarded by Queen Victoria with the barony of Strathcona and Mount Royal. But it was Stephen – also made a baron – who was most instrumental in its success. As a director and former president of the Bank of Montreal, he got it to prop up the CPR, of which he was president and in which he had invested heavily. No one in his clannish world thought this raised a conflict of interest. Smith and Stephen were indelibly marked by their Scottish origins, but their adopted home was Montreal. Today it is a cultured but hard-up city in a resentfully separatist province, but in their day Montreal was a Franco-Scottish metropolis. Macdonald’s Quebecois ally George-Etienne Cartier, a French patriot but also a royalist who named one of his daughters ‘Reine-Victoria’, had made it the terminus of the Grand Trunk railway to the boom cities of America. Its designation as the eastern terminus of the CPR further boosted its commercial pre-eminence, to the disquiet of Macdonald’s followers in Ontario.

The overstretched directors of the CPR had good reason to want it finished as soon as possible and no need to worry about the safety protocols or environmental assessments which bedevil such projects today. They were guilty of a carelessness with the lives of their workers which would disquiet even the builders of Qatar’s football World Cup stadiums. Van Horne – a corpulent bon vivant – ensured that they had enough food and kept bootleg alcohol out of their camps, recognising that dynamite and drunkenness do not mix. Yet corners were cut. Navvies working around Lake Superior used volatile nitro-glycerine when out of the safer dynamite, triggering deadly explosions. In the mountains, men fell from trestle bridges or were crushed by avalanches and rock falls. The CPR’s need for manpower in the sparsely populated west led Macdonald to defy British Columbia’s racist politicians and to permit the immigration of thousands of Chinese workers. But the CPR’s capitalist cosmopolitanism did not extend to concern for their welfare. Exploited by traffickers, thrown out of work in the winter and shifted around before they could cultivate market gardens, they endured hunger and even scurvy. Accidents killed six hundred of them, deaths which the CPR forgot to report. British Columbia rewarded the Chinese for their sacrifices by debarring them from the electoral franchise and introducing a head tax to discourage future immigration.

The construction of the railway coincided with the collapse of indigenous independence in the West. Berton touched on this subject only in passing and with wistful fatalism. The gaunt Plains Indians, who now and then gaze on the tracks in his pages were doomed to vanish, just as the railway builders regretfully but necessarily marred the pristine landscapes through which they passed. Bown sees their overthrow on the prairies as all the more agonising because there was nothing inevitable about it. They were already facing catastrophe because Americans had deliberately extirpated the buffalo herds on which they relied for food, clothing and shelter. Many of the Yankee settlers who had begun to drift northwards into their lightly policed territories were whiskey soaked, trigger-happy ‘wolfers’, well used to killing Indians. In this menacing context, the railroad promised to consolidate the authority of British law and to expedite the delivery of much-needed food. Chiefs held back from interfering with the CPR, especially when coaxed by Catholic missionaries, and many indigenous people worked for it, both as manual labourers and as scouts. Bown captures their toughness and versatility admirably, not least because he avoids any romantic primitivism. Their life had been no paradise and nor was it primeval: their reliance on the buffalo was a recent response to the supply of European horses and guns.

Macdonald and the eastern political class were, however, set on the cultural and economic assimilation of indigenous peoples rather than their recognition as sovereign allies of the crown. The CPR advanced their aggressive paternalism, because it made the state’s monopoly of violence mobile and thus pervasive. Macdonald’s vision of an all-Canadian route was vindicated when in 1885 Louis Riel launched a second rebellion to defend the distinctive land claims of the Métis, a mixed-race people who hunted and farmed in what had become the province of Manitoba. Van Horne turned over the completed section of the CPR line to the eastern militias, who steamed directly from Montreal to fight and capture him. CPR shares, which had languished because of doubts about its profitability, rebounded. Riel’s summary execution, nine days after Smith drove home that last spike, was deeply unpopular in Quebec because he was a Francophone Roman Catholic. Elsewhere though, the immiseration of indigenous people aroused little public comment. The corruption of officialdom made the uneven treaties which swapped sovereignty for reserves and food a devil’s bargain. Edgar Dewdney, the first lieutenant governor of the Northwestern Territory, had designated as his capital a cheerless spot whose only recommendation was that he had pre-empted a lot of land there for himself. It was called Pile of Bones after its only distinguishing feature; renaming it Regina after Queen Victoria did not much improve it. It was a fittingly venial start to his term, during which he and other officials palmed off mouldy food and poor lands on their indigenous charges.

Macdonald’s failure to reign in such abuses, his support for the residential schools which forcibly civilised indigenous children and his belated conversion to restricting Asian immigration have damaged his reputation. He has lately become a pawn in the Canadian culture wars, which have echoed American feuds over the past. Across Canada, local authorities have removed, and protestors have toppled, his statues. Bown engages in some ponderous casuistry about whether Macdonald was a bad person in the context of his times. What he clearly sees is that Canadians set too much store on polite amnesia about the past. To ritually revile or even to scrub out historical actors who no longer fit our values does not help in resolving the problems they bequeathed us. There is no need to condemn the hurried and brutal manner in which Canada’s founders stitched its lands together. Bown shows that it is enough to clearly narrate it. To demonstrate that the Canadian state might have taken shape differently, or not at all, generates responsibilities towards the peoples and interests overlooked or harmed by that process.

Bown’s story tails off with the driving of the last spike, but the subsequent history of the CPR suggests that its construction was less a triumph or a crime than an error. Certainly, it established Canada as a land bridge to the Pacific, especially after its extension to the Atlantic coast. Van Horne and his fellow American Thomas Shaughnessy set up fleets of steamers to carry passengers from Liverpool to Halifax and from Vancouver to Yokohama or Sydney. The CPR were able to price Jules Verne’s romance, offering to carry people around the world in eighty days for six hundred dollars. Van Horne also planned luxurious hotels at stations across the country, which in Banff’s case was set in a newly created national park. The CPR’s advertisements, in which plush cabins whisk tweedy couples through the mountains, crystallised a highly marketable idea of Canada as a groomed wilderness. The Habsburgs took note of its flair for Alpine tourism: in 1912, Emperor Franz Joseph invited it to run observation cars from Vienna to Trieste. CPR trains and steamers fulfilled the dreams of Canadian politicians by carrying huge numbers of European immigrants to homesteads in the West, where they formed a living wall against American influence.

Yet the CPR, like the protectionist policies introduced by Macdonald, remained a quixotic attempt to deny the natural movement of trade from north to south. Its freight rates were expensive and the beetling movement of its trains through the mountains slow. No wonder the grain producers of Manitoba repeatedly tried to create branch lines to the south instead. Ottawa enforced the CPR’s right to ban such projects, setting up the federal state as a shelter for an unpopular and overpriced monopoly. By the mid-twentieth century, with planes and automobiles now decisively rivalling trains, the CPR became a rentier instead of a builder, spinning off a real-estate company which erected condos and office blocks on the site of its shrinking rail yards. The last year in which you could catch a train from Vancouver to Montreal was 1988. VIA rail, the crown corporation set up to absorb the CPR’s passenger operations, now mainly uses its network for expensive tourist jaunts. The recent boom in container shipping and the rise in manufactured imports from Asia has revived the CPR’s fortunes as a freighter: by buying up Kansas Rail last year, it extended its network as far south as Mexico. For Macdonald though, the CPR had never just or mainly been a business: it was supposed to make Canada more than the sum of its parts, a state well connected and economically dynamic enough to stay out of America’s orbit. His dream of an imperial Dominion makes little sense after the disappearance of the British Empire. The challenge facing Canadians today is to devise a new logic for their weakening union and a new vision of its place in the world. For a divided and increasingly introverted nation, that would be a feat to match the making of the CPR.


Michael Ledger-Lomas