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Canadian Pacific Railway - Background

A railway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, all the way on British soil, was long the dream of a few in Canada. This dream of the few became, in time, the hope of the many, and on the confederation of the British North American provinces, in 1867, its realization was found to be a political necessity. Then the Government of the new Dominion of Canada set about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a work of such vast proportions that the richest empire of Europe might well have hesitated before entering upon it. The British Empire responded to the American Civil War by passing the British North America Act of 1867, which created a confederacy from the separate provinces. The goal was to encourage immigration and settlement of the Canadian West in an attempt to ward off the land-hungry United States. Canadian Confederacy radically changed the country’s relation to its western lands.

Before Confederation in 1867, early explorers portrayed the West as a barren and inhospitable landscape, even though its rich natural resources had been used for centuries by First Nations. Before European settlement could proceed, this negative image had to be reshaped into a more welcoming environment. Early attempts by Europe to understand Canada's vast western landscape were often ill-conceived and disorganized. The region's isolation from Europe, and problems reaching it from across the Canadian shield, slowed its integration with Europe for several centuries.

The first European venturers to the western interior approached it from the north, through Hudson Bay. Their quest at first centred on the elusive North-West Passage, the fabled water route which they hoped would lead to the riches of the Orient. Instead, the European intruders happened upon a lucrative fur trade, and on May 2, 1670, King Charles II granted the "Governor and Company of Adventurers of England tradeing [sic] into Hudson's Bay" (now the Hudson's Bay Company) exclusive rights to this natural resource. The King's cousin, Prince Rupert, became the company's governor and the 7.7 million square kilometres over which he and his friends were named the "true and absolute Lordes and Proprietors" was called Rupert's Land.

For nearly two centuries, the fur trade between First Nations and Europeans dominated Rupert's Land and shaped much of the outside world's perception of the region as an inhospitable wilderness. "These great Plains," wrote fur trader David Thompson, "appear to be given by Providence to the Red Men for ever, as the wild sands of Africa are given to the Arabians." This image served the Hudson's Bay Company well. It helped to limit settlement and allowed the traders to pursue their business interests free from the influences of "civilization." Such narrow interests, and a diminishing resource base, eventually brought the diverse cultures of Rupert's Land into conflict.

Alarmed by the rapid expansion of American authority across the continent in the mid-nineteenth century, Canada West (now Ontario) began to look to Rupert's Land as a way of securing links with the British colonies on the West Coast and building its own economic empire. Having little detailed information on the western landscape, the Canadian expansionists began scientific expeditions to inventory the anticipated vast natural wealth that seemingly awaited European exploitation. Not surprisingly, the results of these explorations painted a frontier of unlimited promise.

Canada's confederation on July 1, 1867 brought four eastern provinces together to form a new country. As part of the deal, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were promised a railway to link them with the two Central Canadian provinces – Quebec and Ontario. Manitoba joined confederation in 1870. British Columbia, on the west coast, was enticed to join the new confederation in 1871, but only with the promise that a transcontinental railway be built within 10 years to physically link east and west.

Much of the country through which the railway must be built was unexplored. Towards the east, all about Lake Superior, and beyond to Red River, was a vast rocky region, where Nature in her younger days had run riot, and where deep lakes and mighty rivers in every direction opposed the progress of the engineer. Beyond Red River for a thousand miles stretched a great plain, known only to the wild Indian and the fur trader; then came the mountains, range after range, in close succession, and all unexplored. Through all this, for a distance of nearly three thousand miles, the railway surveys had first to be made. These consumed much time and money; people became impatient and found fault and doubted.

There were differences of opinion, and these differences became questions of domestic politics, dividing parties. The railway's early construction was filled with controversy, toppling the Conservative government of John A. Macdonald in 1873 and forcing an election. It was not until 1875 that the work of construction commenced in earnest. But the machinery of Government is ill adapted, at best, to the carrying on of such an enterprise, and in this case it was blocked or retarded by political jealousies and party strife. Governments changed and delays occurred. By the time Macdonald was returned to power in 1878, the massive project was seriously behind schedule and in danger of stalling completely.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:42 ZULU