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RENAUD, JEAN-BAPTISTE – Volume XI (1881-1890)

b. 22 June 1816 at Lachine, Lower Canada


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The Canadian Pacific Railway

The acquisition of territory west of Ontario [see Western Expansion, Religion, and Politics] necessitated policies that would strengthen the connection with distant communities in the young country. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), a transcontinental line connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, was a key component of Sir John A. MACDONALD’s National Policy. A proposal used to secure British Columbia’s entry into confederation in 1871, it became an unparalleled engineering challenge and took 15 years to complete. The railway was mired in partisan politics and marred by scandals [see The Pacific Scandal], labour shortages, racist immigration policies [see Chinese Migrants], and the mass displacement of Indigenous people [see Macdonald and Indigenous Peoples].

An intercontinental railway had been important to Macdonald since the days of the American Civil War (1861–65) and the Fenian raids, when the quick movement of troops across British North America was seen as the primary guarantor of the colonies’ security [see The Fenians]. After confederation in 1867 the railway would serve two important functions: first, as a firewall against American expansion, and, secondly, as an agent of economic modernization. Sandford FLEMING, the first chief engineer of the CPR, put it succinctly:

“Steam and electricity, Fleming maintained, were the ‘twin agencies of civilization.’”

Construction for a part of the CPR was entrusted to William Cornelius VAN HORNE, an American with a grand vision of what the railway – and the country it traversed – could become:

“To build up traffic, Van Horne directed the fabrication of increasingly complex systems that integrated agricultural and timber lands, grain elevators, flour mills, port facilities and terminals, maritime fleets, express and telegraph operations, and passenger and tourist services, including large hotels [see Bruce Price*]. To publicize the completed CPR, Van Horne, himself an art connoisseur, did not hesitate to turn to professional artists. John Arthur Fraser* and Lucius Richard O’Brien*, among others, received commissions in the 1880s to execute paintings of the Rockies for promotional exhibitions, and the inspiring photographic work of Alexander Henderson would lead to the formation of a photography department within the CPR in 1892. At the same time, but without the nationalistic/frontier aura of its western drive, Van Horne and the CPR moved steadily to expand in eastern Canada, in direct competition with the established Grand Trunk Railway [see Sir Joseph Hickson*]. In the 1880s the CPR completed a line to Windsor, Ont., with through trains to Chicago, and a series of acquisitions and construction projects was launched to take it across Quebec and Maine to the Maritimes.”

The CPR was a private company that relied on the goodwill of the government; if Canada benefitted economically from a transcontinental railway, so too would the party in power [see The Pacific Scandal]. Macdonald described the CPR in 1884 as the government’s “sleeping partner (with limited liability)”:

“[He] suggested to Stephen that, in the war coming between the Grand Trunk and the CPR, it would be well to strengthen the latter’s hand in sections of the country. ‘The CPR must become political & secure as much Parliamentary support as possible.’ Appointments to the Ontario and Quebec, the railway leased by the CPR from January 1884, ‘should all be made political. There are plenty of good men to be found in our ranks.’ In March Macdonald put the question more jocularly to Henry Hall Smith, the Ontario Conservative organizer. No one should be working on the CPR who was not – Macdonald used William Cornelius Van Horne*’s pithy remark – a ‘fully “circumsised”’ Conservative.”

For more information on Macdonald and the building of the CPR, please consult the following biographies:


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