Connecting Canada: The Importance of Rail to Canadian Confederation


On July 1st, 1867, the Dominion of Canada was created. This was done through the union of the Province of Canada (Canada West and Canada East), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. By 1871, British Columbia joined the Dominion and became Canada’s sixth province. While a large factor of BC to join Canada was Canada’s willingness to take on its debt, the railway was also an important component. In fact, the railway was probably the largest play that Canada had when negotiating with other colonies to join the Dominion. It certainly had a large role when negotiating with the Atlantic provinces during discussions of confederation between the governments of Canada and Maritimes.

In 1870, Canada had acquired Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Canadian Pacific Railway was constructed as a promise to British Columbia upon its entry into Confederation. British Columbia wanted a connection to Eastern Canada and it with no doubt played an important role into the development of the country. However, there was some controversy as the government needed to extinguish Aboriginal title to land. The reason was not only for constructing the railway but also to enable future settlement. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 issued by King George the III saw a part of it dedicated to the protection of Indigenous people and the promise to preserve their rights to traditional territories. Treaties 1 to 7 between the Crown and First Nations from 1871 to 1877 solidified Canada’s claim to lands north of the United States-Canada border. This would in turn enable the construction of the railway from Eastern Canada towards the West. Doing so would allow for potential future agricultural settlement. However, in exchange for the traditional territory, the government promised various special rights including rights to treaty lands, hunting and fishing, farming and more. While these promises were made verbally and written, there is still controversy over the matter and there has been legal and socioeconomic impact on the Indigenous communities.

The construction of the railway would see many delays before finally starting in 1878. In 1872, the contract for railway construction was awarded to Sir Hugh Allan, a shipping magnate and railway promoter. However, it was later discovered that Allan had contributed a large amount of money to the Conservative Party’s election campaign in 1873, forcing the resignation of Sir John A. Macdonald’s government. Eventually, construction would begin in 1878 after Macdonald returned to power. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was incorporated in 1881, with the railway being completed in 1885, connecting Eastern Canada to British Columbia in the west. The construction of the railway had a large impact on settlement as it was able to rapidly grow with rail. The CPR was heavily involved in the development of early Canada.

Settlement towards the west was enabled b the CPR. The western region of Canada was sparsely populated and for the most part, was covered in wilderness. Many immigrants and settlers were recruited and travelled by rail from Eastern Canada and Europe. It allowed the population to grow through agriculture and sold farmland to willing migrants and settlers. Moreover, the tourism industry for Canada was propelled through rail. It drew in wealthy visitors from abroad who were keen to see the nature that Canada had to offer. Numerous hotels were built across Canada where travellers in search of Canada’s beautiful mountains would stay. The mountains, beaches, winter recreation and much more caused a massive amount of resorts to spring up due to the ability to travel across the country and seek out Canada’s diversity in nature. During the World wars, the railway would have a significant impact, on Canada’s ability to transport troops. As one of its purposes for being built, the movement of crucial troops and resources was able to be transported across Canada to be deployed to Europe quickly. The CPR provided its rail, hotels, people, ships, and all resources it possibly could during both World Wars and lost 12 vessels in the Second World War.

The railway provided Canada with a lot of opportunities. It essentially enabled Canada to develop during a time where its colonies were struggling and ease the fear it had over the United States. While economic collapse brought a number of colonies together for Confederation, the construction of a railway played a significant role in negotiations. Without it, Canada’s borders could look a lot different than what it is today.


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