Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Sir John A MacDonald
The Canadian Pacific Railway and the North-West

THE Intercolonial Railway had been built as a necessary link between the old provinces of Canada, to give them cohesion and to create common interests where these had not existed before. But cohesion in the east was only a basis for expansion in the west. On the acquisition and development of the vast regions between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains depended the future of the Dominion. Amid many difficulties and not a little bungling, as we have seen, they were acquired. The construction of railways and the introduction of colonists were essential to their development, and to these objects Macdonald and his colleagues, on their return to power in 1878, addressed themselves with foresight, enthusiasm, and indomitable courage. For the tasks before them, they needed all the support that these qualities at their best could give. It is true that the continent of America had already been bridged and the Rockies had been crossed by a line of railway through the United States, but the conditions under which it had been done had been far different from those with which Canada had now to deal.

The population of the Eastern and Western States numbered forty millions; the advance guard of civilization had been pushed far west of the Mississippi; a large and wealthy population had already settled and built great cities on the Pacific coast, before the people of the United States attempted to link together their east and west. The white inhabitants of British Columbia, on the other hand, numbered only ten thousand; the whole population of Eastern Canada only four millions; two thousand miles of the country to be traversed were practically without a settler when the statesmen of the Dominion undertook the gigantic task of uniting their most distant borders by a line of rails, recognized by them as a necessary part of the frame-work of a great nation. Four hundred miles of rough granitic country north of Lake Superior, uninhabited, and, save for a mining population, well-nigh uninhabitable; then one thousand two hundred miles of virgin prairie; after that five hundred miles of mountain railway through the almost unexplored passes of the Rocky and Selkirk Ranges; this was the problem that confronted the engineer, the contractor, the financier, the politician. The skill of the engineer, the resources of the builder, the audacity of the financier were all to be strained to the utmost. But all these would have been of no avail but for the unflinching courage of the strong men at the helm of the State, in whom the people had put their trust. Under the terms of the bargain made with British Columbia in 1870, the railway connecting the Pacific with the Atlantic was to be begun within two years, and completed within ten. The work was to be carried out by a private company assisted by large money and land subsidies from the Dominion government. When Macdonald's administration fell in 1872, it of course became impossible for the company represented by Sir Hugh Allan to carry on the work, even if it had been able, as it was not, to raise the necessary capital.

The Liberal party had, while in opposition, vigorously criticized the original scheme, as placing too heavy a burden upon the resources of the Dominion. On coming into power it adopted a policy of government ownership, and of gradual construction in scattered sections connecting the extensive lake and river stretches which it was proposed to utilize as part of the highway from east to west. The agreement with British Columbia was abandoned as impossible of fulfilment. That province naturally resented what it considered a breach of faith. A representative of the government sent out to allay the discontent failed in accomplishing his purpose, and all the tact and influence of Lord Dufferin, then governor-general, who visited the province in 1876, was required to prevent the repudiation of the Confederation agreement.

On Macdonald's restoration to power in 1878 his first care was to carry out his election pledges in regard to a national trade policy. But no sooner was this inaugurated than he reverted to the transcontinental railway scheme which he had always deemed essential to the consolidation of the Dominion. Experience with the Intercolonial had now converted him from his earlier preference for government ownership and operation, and on June 29th, 1880, he announced at a political picnic at Bath, Ontario, that negotiations were on foot with a syndicate of private capitalists. In September the contract was signed. In six years it was completed.

Never did a young country embark upon a more audacious enterprise ; never did capitalists throw their all into a more hazardous speculation; never did a cool and wary politician more strikingly display a readiness to risk his reputation and his fame on a momentous adventure. Among the obstacles to the work, not the least serious was the pessimistic view of the situation taken by the leaders of the Liberal party. Even when in power in 1874 Alexander Mackenzie, the Liberal prime minister, in a formal State paper of instructions to Mr. Edgar, the agent of the government sent to British Columbia, had described the task of completing the line in the ten years as a "physical impossibility." "You can point out," he said, "that the surveys for the Intercolonial were begun in 1864, and the work carried on uninterruptedly ever since, and although the utmost expedition was used, it will still require eighteen months to complete it. If it required so much time in a settled country to build five hundred miles of railway, with facilities everywhere for procuring all supplies, one may conceive the time and labour required to construct a line five times that length through a country all but totally unsettled."

No one doubts the honesty of conviction with which such an opinion was given; the accuracy of judgment can only be measured by the fact that when Macdonald was again in a position to control the work the whole line was completed for through traffic, as has been said, in six years. Alexander Mackenzie had in 1880 been replaced in the Liberal leadership by Edward Blake, a man of equal honesty of purpose and wider range of ability, but little imagination or enthusiasm. Both in parliament and throughout the country the new leader employed his power in delivering a series of eloquent but mournful attacks upon the railway contract, in which he fancied he saw ruin for the State. The leading Liberal organ declared that the new line would never "pay for its axle-grease." Nor were political opponents the only critics. British financiers, looking coolly at the vast stretches of country to be covered, inclined towards the opinion of one of their number who said, "Somebody will have to hold these Canadians back, or they will plunge themselves into hopeless bankruptcy before they come of age."

The history of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway reads like a chapter of romance. The original Canadian directors of the syndicate were Mr. George Stephen (now Lord Mount Stephen), Mr. Duncan Maclntyre and Mr. R. B. Angus. Behind them was Mr. Donald A. Smith (now Lord Strathcona), member of parliament for Selkirk, whose speech in 1873 had so largely contributed to Macdonald's defeat, but who, by 1878, had come to feel that on his return to power depended the future of the West and of Canada.

By the original contract the company was to receive twenty-five million dollars in cash, twenty-five million acres of land in alternate blocks along the route, and all lands required for stations and workshops. The government handed over to it six hundred and forty one miles of railway, partly in process of construction, partly completed, and estimated by the minister of public works as having cost twenty-eight million dollars. The company was allowed to import its materials free of duty, and its lands were to be free of taxation for twenty years. For a like period no competing road was to be built south of its main line, a provision intended as a protection against American competition, but which proved so irksome to the province of Manitoba that in 1888 the company, for certain considerations, abandoned it. These privileges were great, but not, it is now universally admitted by impartial men, too great for the vast task that was being undertaken.

At the last moment the Opposition succeeded in getting up a rival syndicate headed by Sir William P. Howland, which offered to do the work on conditions more favourable to the government. Macdonald denounced their attempt as a "disingenuous and discreditable trick," and flatly refused to take any notice of an offer made, after the signature of the contract, by a company whose members had made no effort to tender while the offer was open.

The Canadian Pacific Company forthwith addressed itself to the work with extraordinary vigour. Over considerable sections of the line all previous records of speedy railway construction were eclipsed. The greatest public spirit was shown by individual directors; Donald Smith faced beggary and threw his all into the work of construction.

Even so, the resources of the company proved insufficient, and the government on several occasions were compelled to come to its aid with loans and subventions. Many of the more cautious Conservatives proved restive. Even among the ministers there was discontent, and all Macdonald's tact and Tupper's fiery energy were required to hold their majority together. Stories are told of debates, long and doubtful, in the council chamber, while without white-faced directors, with possible ruin before them, paced the halls waiting for the decision. But Macdonald triumphed, and on November 7th, 1885, at Craigellachie, a lonely village of British Columbia, the last spike of the main line was driven by Sir Donald Smith, and on July 24th, 1886, Macdonald himself reached the Pacific by rail from Ottawa. The company had completed its contract with four years to spare.

The operation of thefl road during the next ten years was almost as great a feat as its construction. The problem before the company was to create a traffic where none had existed before, through nearly two thousand miles of virgin prairie and what Mr. Blake had called a sea of mountains, where there was scarcely any population to serve. Mr. (now Sir William) Van Horne was made president of the company in 1888, and brought to his arduous task an unrivalled skill in railway development. Mining, lumbering and other industries were freely subsidized or otherwise encouraged along the route; branch lines were built; land settlement assisted; one fleet of steamships was placed upon the Pacific and another on the Great Lakes; rate wars were successfully waged with American rivals, and by degrees, through many anxious days, one of the greatest and most prosperous railway systems of the world was firmly established. What the success of the enterprise meant to Canada in establishing the credit of the country and developing its resources is well known. Two parallel transcontinental lines now (1907) in course of rapid construction; a fourth projected; an immense inflow of immigration; an annual output of grain amounting to a hundred millions of bushels; expanding fleets of steamships upon the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Great Lakes;—all these are triumphant witnesses to the wisdom and foresight which lay behind the splendid audacity of Macdonald, Tupper, Lord Strathcona and the group of men who carried through this national undertaking.

Before the completion of the railway its military value was put to the test. On March 28th, 1885, word arrived at Ottawa that two days before a force of mounted police and volunteers had been attacked at Duck Lake by the half-breeds and compelled to retreat with heavy loss. A new rebellion had broken out, and it must be acknowledged that the circumstances which led up to it are not creditable to the Conservative government. It will be necessary briefly to rehearse the facts of the case.

Under the Manitoba Act two hundred and forty acres of land had been awarded in fee simple to every half-breed resident born before July 1st, 1870. Nothing was done, however, to extinguish by grant or purchase the title of their brethren further west in the Territories, and the complaints of the little band who had settled along the South Saskatchewan in the neighbourhood of the forts grew louder and louder. The story was repeated of lethargy and inefficiency on the one side; of ignorance and suspicion on the other.

The metis, in accordance with their ancestral custom borrowed from Lower Canada, had occupied long strips of land, each with a narrow frontage on the river. The Dominion surveyors, who came among them, parcelled out the land in neat squares, and paid scant attention to the complaints of the settlers. Ottawa was far away, and the premier, who would naturally have been sympathetic, was busy with what seemed larger questions nearer home. Once he roused himself, and in 1879 an Act was passed awarding grants to the half-breeds, but, for reasons difficult to explain, nothing was done. Nor were the wrongs of the metis confined to the unsettled state of their tenure. Many of the white settlers were undesirable; many of the local government officials were party hacks "totally unqualified for their positions," according to Bishop Tache. If Ottawa was far away "hungry partisans who mark the new and defenceless territory as their perquisite" [Goldwin Smith.] were on the spot. "Riel put his fighting men in his first line," wrote Lord Minto, "but in his second line we may perhaps find the disappointed contractor, the disappointed white land shark, the disappointed white farmer." [Nineteenth Century, 1886.]

The metis had constituted a most valuable connecting link between the white invaders and the old lords of the soil. Blackfoot and Cree now grew restless as they saw the discontent of their friends and leaders. Nor is a darker shadow absent. The debauchery of low whites, and their unfair dealing, added fuel to Indian passion. A rising of the prairie tribes, who had not yet experienced the generous treatment since accorded to them by the Dominion, was imminent.

The mutterings of the coming storm grew louder. Petitions poured into the Department of the Interior, to be pigeon-holed and neglected. Bishop Tache pleaded the cause of the scattered people whom he loved so well. Charles Mair, the author, who was living at Prince Albert in close proximity to the half-breeds, came on several occasions to Ottawa to impress on the authorities the seriousness of the situation. Macdonald heard him courteously, recognized the justice of the case which he stated, and made a passing attempt to stimulate his colleague at the Interior into action. But counsels were divided. Two ministers, who visited the country, heard from their flatterers that all was going well, and reported that nothing serious need be feared.

Such was the situation when in 1884 the half-breeds of the St. Laurent settlement sent a deputation on a weary foot journey of seven hundred miles to their old leader, Louis Riel, who had for some years been living quietly in Montana. In his fiery and fanatical brain ambition seems to have mingled with his old idea of a western theocracy, French and Catholic, free from the defiling taint of the Englishman and the heretic. But though he returned with the deputation to the Saskatchewan, nothing more than constitutional agitation was anticipated, till, after one or two scattered outbreaks of lawlessness, the affair at Duck Lake set the whole country ablaze.

In face of the thought of an Indian rising, party divisions were hushed and troops. were sent forward under Major-General Middleton, the general officer commanding the Canadian militia. The citizen soldiery of Canada fought well in a series of small engagements; on May 12th the rebel camp was stormed at Batoche and three days later Riel surrendered. lie was tried for high treason, condemned, and, after several reprieves granted in order to test his sanity, he was hanged on November 16th in the yard of the Mounted Police Barracks at Regina. Fanatic he doubtless was, but he was no coward, and he met his fate with something of the high constancy of a martyr.

Such a circumstance could not fail to arouse the latent jealousies between Ontario and Quebec, French and English, Protestant and Catholic. To Ontario, Riel was either a twice convicted traitor, or an American filibuster. The powerful Orange order recalled the murder of Scott at Fort Garry, and cried aloud for the punishment of his murderer.

To no small section of Quebec, on the other hand, Riel appeared as the most heroic of all the metis, the upholder of their race, religion and language; consequently when Macdonald refused to interfere with the course of law, an ominous revolt broke out among the Quebec Conservatives. The position of both political parties now became extremely difficult. The Opposition at first endeavoured to make capital out of the undoubted defects in administration which had in part brought on the rebellion, and on July 6th Mr. Blake spoke for several hours in support of a motion of want of confidence. He had material for argument, but the progress of events soon threw mere debate into the background. The Liberal leader in Quebec was Mr. Honore Mercier, the most brilliant, fascinating and unscrupulous politician that the provincial politics of Canada has produced. With consummate skill he formed an alliance between the clericals and the "Nationalistes"; the Liberals, so long under the ban of the Church, found themselves suddenly its allies. In the flood of feeling that had been aroused Mercier saw his political opportunity and turned all his influence as Liberal leader under these new conditions towards the protection of Riel.

Amid this swelling and raging tide, Macdonald stood firm. When a life-long friend, unconnected with either party, urged on him the need of mercy, in order to conciliate Quebec, the old man turned on him with toss of head and stamp of foot, all the lion in him roused. "He shall hang," he said fiercely, "though every dog in Quebec bark in his favour." He would have no more of this firebrand who had twice set the Dominion in a blaze, twice attempted to undo in one mad hour the work of a generation. Had political expediency been consulted it would doubtless have dictated the same decision, for Ontario was at as white a heat as Quebec. The Toronto Mail, the official Conservative organ, declared that rather than submit to the yoke of the French-Canadians "Ontario would smash Confederation into its original fragments, preferring that the dream of a united Canada should be shattered forever, than that unity should be purchased at the price of equity."

Return to Book Contents Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus