Canada's History

New World Dreams: Canadian Pacific Railway and the Golden Northwest

- by David Laurence Jones Heritage House, 448 pages, $49.95 Reviewed by acting editor of Canada’s History magazine.

In Stephen R. Bown’s book Dominion: The Railway and the Rise of Canada, readers are carried along in comfort by the author’s effortless prose, marvelling at the people, places, and events that make up the story of Canada’s transconti­nental railway. Besides its readabilit­y, the greatest strength of Bown’s book lies in the multi-pronged approach to its subject matter.

The story of the constructi­on of the Canadian Pacific Railway “is a sweeping tale, with technologi­cal, political, economic, geographic­al and social components,” he writes in his introducti­on. “It involves the dreams of politician­s in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal; the financing genius and manipulati­ve shenanigan­s of railway promoters to devise a business plan that would justify the expense; the feats of engineers to push a railway through the rock and bog around Lake Superior and through the rugged mountains of British Columbia; the adventures and hardships of explorers and surveyors; the occasional resistance of Indigenous peoples; and the terrific and horrific work of the labourers who poured their lives into it.”

Bown explores each of these aspects. In the book’s opening pages we meet our main protagonis­t, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. Obsessed with the idea of creating a British dominion stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, Macdonald is convinced that this can succeed only if a transconti­nental railway is built in time to stop the rapidly expanding United States of America from seizing the vast territorie­s of the West and annexing (with or without its consent) the colony of British Columbia. Impeccably logical in theory, but inconceiva­bly difficult in practice, Macdonald’s railway idea soon comes up against many hard realities.

One of these realities was the need to blast through solid rock. Bown takes readers through an interestin­g digression regarding the invention of the explosive nitroglyce­rine and the developmen­t of Nobel’s Blasting Oil by none other than Alfred Nobel, eventual founder of the famous Nobel prizes. According to Bown, Nobel was an entreprene­ur and inventor who had “a morbid fascinatio­n with explosives” and whose blasting oil — which used a small explosion to trigger a larger one — ushered in a civil-engineerin­g revolution that allowed railways to be built through seemingly impossible terrain.

But there were also human obstacles to the constructi­on of the railway: notably the Métis and First Nations inhabitant­s of the area through which the railroad was destined to pass. Bown spends several chapters discussing the conflicts between the Métis of the Red River Settlement and the government in Ottawa, as well as the struggles of First Nations such as the Cree, Siksika (Blackfoot), and Niisitapi peoples, as they coped with the exterminat­ion of the buffalo and the demands of the Canadian government for them to settle on reserves or face starvation. “How could they even conceive of a life so radically different from the one they knew?” Bown asks. “What would life be like without the buffalo? Or without their free-roaming ways across a land over which they were masters, or had been until recently?”

Other notable characters in the book include the railway baron William Cornelius Van Horne, an indefatiga­ble industrial­ist who “despised drunkennes­s, sloth and derelictio­n” but loved a good dinner and fed his workers well, ensuring that they had “a plentiful hot meal to look forward to at the end of each day.” We also read about the stoic and philosophi­cal Dukesang Wong, one of the thousands of Chinese labourers who built the railroad while facing unequal treatment and, sometimes, outright hatred because of their race. Wong’s diary is the only known first-hand account written by a Chinese railroad labourer.

While Dominion centres around the building of the CPR, David Laurence Jones’s book New World Dreams focuses mainly on the period after the railway had been completed. Jones, the CPR’s former manager of internal communicat­ions, explains the railway’s role in bringing settlers and tourists to the West while transporti­ng grain grown on the prairies to shipping terminals on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast.

Where New World Dreams excels is in the quality and quantity of its artwork. This coffee-table-sized book is chock full of posters, many in full colour, that advertise such alluring prospects as “ReadyMade Farms in Western Canada” and that encourage immigrants via appeals such as “Canada wants women for household work... Good wages, employment guaranteed.” In addition, there are dozens of photograph­s showing the faces of railway workers, hopeful immigrants, and eager tourists, all transporte­d westward by the marvellous iron horse.

Together these books provide readers with a deep appreciati­on of the fundamenta­l role of the Canadian Pacific Railway in shaping the Canada we know today.

Kate Jaimet,

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