Thursday, April 1, 2010

Politics Do Not Change

In the process of attempting to determine what may have motivated my great uncle on my father’s side and my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side to move to Alberta, Canada, I came across a couple of books written about western Canada and the Canadian Pacific Railway.

A book that in particular attracted my interest was the History of the North-West, Volume III by Alexander Begg (Toronto: Hunter, Rose & Company, 1895). Chapter I “The Canadian Pacific Railway” was fascinating. Just having watched Republican’s in the United States House of Representatives employing delay tactics concerning the health care reform, I was struck with the similarity with regards to the establishment of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The establishment of a transcontinental railroad in Canada was being discussed. The Toronto Globe printed an article on February 3, 1871 extolling the importance of an ocean to ocean rail routed through Canada. Apparently, Canadians travelling to Fort Garry (near Winnipeg) had to go to the United States in order to more easily reach this outpost in Manitoba.

William H. Seward of the United States saw the plan to build a transcontinental Railway through Canada as providing vast opportunities for Canada. It would open access to the Canadian timberlands near the Rocky Mountains but more importantly make Canada a major world trading company. The distance between Vancouver in British Columbia and Asia was much shorter than the distance between San Francisco and Asia. Seward (of Seward’s Folly) believed that a Canadian transcontinental railway would draw commerce to and from Canada to Europe, Asia and the United States.

Something changed between 1871 when the Toronto Globe supported the concept and 1880 when the same newspaper attacked the plan to construct a line north of Lake Superior as useless.

A contract was presented to Parliament on December 10, 1880 by a group of men who were connected with the success of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway. The House of Commons had to approve the contract. Mr. Mackenzie and Sir John A. Macdonald of the Opposition party could not secure capitalists to bid. But miraculously George Stephens and colleagues presented to the House of Commons an offer to build the railroad for less money and provide more favorable terms to the government. These offers were deemed not legitimate.

The Opposition seemed more interested in bringing down the majority party than approving the building of a transcontinental railway. They waged a campaign throughout Canada to encourage citizens to send petitions to the House of Commons. A few citizens sent petitions; some were in favor but most of those who sent petitions were against the contract. During the Christmas recess, the Opposition tried to rally the people to rise up against the Syndicate offer. The populace did not respond.

So the Opposition turned to another tactic. Edward Blake on January 18, 1881, moved to amend the contract to make the contract between the Government and Sir W. P. Howland, et. al. vs. the Government and George Stephens, et. al. The Howland offer was not consider as genuine and voted down.

At this point the Opposition proceeded to introduce one by one twenty-three additional amendments to the contract. Each was defeated. Had any one carried then the contract would have been defeated. Sir John A. Macdonald, of the Opposition, ultimately on January 28, 1881, introduced the bill for the incorporation of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.

It was still a hotly contested debate but the House of Commons passed the bill on February 1, 1881 and sent the bill to the Senate. The Senate accepted the bill without amendment and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company officially was incorporated on February 17, 1881.

Can you imagine the impact on the economic growth of Canada had the Opposition party been successful at delaying the building of the transcontinental railway simply because the Opposition wanted to take down the majority party?

It looks like politics do not change.

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