For this independent assignment, I’ve decided to investigate the Canadian Pacific Railway, and its effect on the Canadian identity. I’ve formulated my inquiry question as such: “In what ways have the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway connected Canadians and promoted multicultural relations?”. I bounced onto this question while ferociously studying John A McDonald, a Canadian figure as influential as he was controversial. While breaking apart his legacy, I’ve found that his political achievements have always been motivated by the idea of a united Canada; a concept he achieved despite his extreme tactics. To embody this unity (and convince western provinces to join Canada), McDonald promised to build a transcontinental railroad.
So in what ways have this railroad impacted our national identity?
To many, the construction of the CPR was questionable, and remains a controversial topic today.
The CPR was an ambitious project. The first spike was laid in Bonfield Ontario, and was set to expand westward into BC. While many European immigrants were contracted to reform labours for the railway, early Chinese residents also found work constructing the CPR. However, the Chinese were seen as expendable, often performing the most dangerous of tasks. To no one’s surprise, this resulted in the death of many Chinese-Canadians (according to Globe and Mail, about 1000 died). Despite this, they were payed a maximum of $1.25 a day (which would be around $25-30 in today’s money if calculated with the inflation rate), only half as much as their European counterparts. After the railroad was completed, the Canadian government no longer needed the Chinese work force, and introduced a head tax on all Chinese-Canadians. This placed a tremendous burden on the Chinese-Canadian population, that now had to survive off of a low income, and pay and additional tax. This injustice only increased, and “the Government subsequently raised this amount to $100 in 1900, and then to $500 in 1903” (Harper 2006). Out of speculation, one could assume that this series of actions were taken to exploit Chinese Canadians for cheap labour, while discouraging them from residing in Canada after they have fulfilled their laborious quotas. The number of immigrations plummeted after 1885 – I can only assume that this head tax played a major role in this decrease.
The construction of the CPR did provide Canadians with thousands of job opportunities, and a central sense of purpose. As for the “Multi-cultural” aspect of my inquiry question, this stage of the CPR seems to impede the idea of multiculturalism in Canada. This is a personally sensitive topic, and is both infuriating and relieving that the Chinese were the ethnic group negatively impacted during the construction of the railway. In 2006, Harper delivered an official apology and promised living survivors of the head tax a “symbolic compensation” of 20 000$. Though this chapter of Canadian history was closed for many Chinese-Canadians, the construction of the CPR did result in an ethnical division within Canada for many decades.
Coincidentally, the “Klondike Gold Rush” was a very hot topic shortly after the construction of the CPR (in 1885). This was not the first time a gold rush has swept entrepreneurial hopefuls off their Canadian feets. Just 30 years prior, a surge of seemingly “free gold” appeared around the Fraser River, putting BC on the radar of many Canadians. Now that Canada was tied coast to coast by a transcontinental railway, prospectors from all provinces were anxious to participate in the second gold fever. In 1896, over 30 000 merchants and miners arrived in the Canadian Northwestern region. This stampede of participants eventually lead to the founding of Dawson city, a thriving cultural hotspot in the Yukon. However, this surge in population density forced the indigenous “Han” people to relocate to reserves, where many died. This gold rush contributed heavily to the formation of our national identity, and can be compared to the “American Dream”. In Yukon, “Discovery Day” is held on the third Monday of every August to pay homage to this quoxitic and iconic era.
More so than cultural differences, British Columbia was isolated from the other Canadian provinces by the rocky mountains. After the CPR was built, this simply wasn’t the case anymore. During the great depression of the 20th century, many Canadians found themselves unable to support themselves. This was especially true for Canadians who lived in the prairies. Wheat prices were hitting an all time low, and agriculture just wasn’t a stable profession anymore. In addition, the prairies seemed to have become subject to chronic dust storms and drought conditions. Because of these factors, many Canadians relocated to provinces such as Ontario and BC – regions that were at the ends of the CPR. With rural areas becoming unpopular, Canada became increasingly urbanized resulting a huge population disparity between the two archetypes. in 2018, 81.3% of all Canadians were reported to live in a city.
(BC’s population growth during the great depression)
To answer my inquiry question, I think that the actual construction of the CPR did more harm than good. In some ways it united Canadians under a sense of purpose and patriotism Unfortunately, these positive affects only applied to non-Chinese workers. To put this into perspective, two-thirds of the transcontinental railway construction work force was composed of Chinese immigrants. Because the CPR was a national project, it made unequal pay for specific ethnic groups an accepted business practice in Canada.
However, the CPR is much more than just a construction project. While the early construction of the transcontinental railway was unjust and a horrible burden for our multi-cultural identity, it is hard to argue that the CPR was a step back for Canada. CPR did physically unite all of Canada coast to coast. The proposal (to BC) of a transcontinental railway made joining the Canadian confederation an attractive idea, and they ultimately did in 1871. Not only did it provide Canadians an effective and progressive mean of transportation, but it also symbolically links the provinces together. This was the national dream of John A MacDonald, and as you can imagine, a relief for all Canadians. With the end of the American civil war, many Canadians were anxious about a potential invasion.The railway allowed Canadians access to areas they otherwise wouldn’t have dared to attempt reaching, leading to mass urbanization during the 20th century. The CPR became an incorporated, government operated company in 1881, and provided Canadians with many other services. Telegraph lines, for example, were erected next to the railway in 1882, allowing Canadians to make communications across the country. It has encouraged cross-continental trade, a national function that has introduced diverse elements of Canadian cultures to its equally multi-ethnic residents.
The CPR was undoubtedly raised from a controversial beginning, but it has fulfilled its duty rather well. While John A MacDonald may have a complicated legacy, I’d be surprised to meet a modern day Canadian that is opposed to his idea of a “united Canada”.