Forging the National Dream

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Introduction VIEW-6488.F N-0000.193.316.2 VIEW-1682 VIEW-1508 II-93008 VIEW-2098 VIEW-3261 VIEW-2117


William R. Morrison, University of Northern British Columbia, 2003

Although many Canadians under the age of forty have never travelled by train, railways were once as vital to this country as highways and airplanes are today. Not only did they make modern travel and trade possible, they were also at the heart of Canada's growth as a nation. From the country's first railway, the Champlain & St. Lawrence, to the establishment of the Canadian National Railways in 1918, railways were the steel that bound this country together.

And it was the railway that made modern Canada possible. The Champlain & St. Lawrence, opened in 1836 between Laprairie and St-Jean, Quebec, linked Montreal to the Hudson River Valley and New York City via the Richelieu River and Lake Champlain, in the process greatly improving trade and travel. The Grand Trunk Railway, opened in 1856, joined Toronto and Montreal, and made it possible to travel between the two cities in a matter of hours. Prior to this, a trip by sleigh could take more than a week.

Canada's most important railroads, however, had as much to do with nation building as they had with trade. The building of the Intercolonial Railway Line, for example, is one of the conditions under which the Maritime Provinces agreed to Confederation. Stretching some 1100 kilometres, it was completed in 1876 and linked Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with Quebec and Ontario. But even more vital to the new country was the Canadian Pacific Railway, begun in 1875 but built mainly between 1881 and 1885 from Ontario to the Pacific Coast. Without the promise of a transcontinental railway, British Columbia would not have entered Confederation, and it would have been impossible to settle what are now the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The political careers of men such as John A. Macdonald, Georges-Étienne Cartier, and Francis Hincks (who once said "railways are my politics") depended largely on the success of their railway projects.

More than just a line of steel, the Canadian Pacific Railway was an integral part of the federal government's national policy in the years after Confederation. The company was heavily involved in the sale of prairie land, as well as in tourism and the hotel business. It also built a steamship fleet that carried passengers and trade goods from Canada to Japan, China and other countries. In the 20th century, it expanded into the airline and telecommunications sector - to name just two. Clearly, then, it is the railways that made the "national dream" of a united Canada a reality.

This tour will trace the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway from central Canada to the west coast, showing how it achieved the national dream of joining the country together "from sea to shining sea".