Confederation is the legislative birth of Canada, but November 1885 is the birth of the Canadian State. When placed in perspective July 1, 1867 was the day four colonies came together with the blessing of Britain out of necessity rather than a shared interest. It was not until 18 years later that something existed that could be called a state and oddly the two (possibly three) things that would leave the greatest mark on the Canadian state happened in the same month. First, on 7 November 1885 William Cornelius Van Horne drove the ceremonial last spike of the CPR. Second, on 16 November 1885 Louis Riel was executed. The third event is of questionable value next to the CPR and Riel so it will come later.
The completion of the CPR was a monumental accomplishment. The longest railway in the world at the time, countless lives lost (mostly Chinese labours) as the Rockies were blown apart to lay track, the final promise to BC fulfilled, and there was efficient means of getting settlers out to the quarter sections of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Without the railway establishing east-west trade was impossible. Without a railway it was nearly impossible to entice people to settle the west. Without the railway the National Policy would remain a pipe dream because the National Policy created by MacDonald and adopted by Laurier had three parts; build a transcontinental railway, lessen dependence on trade with the US by establishing east-west, and settle the west. The entire thing, the entire economic plan for Canada, was contingent on a transcontinental railway.
The second part of the importance of 1885 is all about Riel. Whether you think of the events of 1885 as a rebellion or a resistance, the execution of Riel had repercussions for Aboriginal and Metis in the west that continue to be felt. The same is true of the strain on French-English relations in created. In that one event, the culmination of so many actions since 1867, defined the colonial and postcolonial relationships between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals and between the east and the west. (The east being the eastern time zone not the Maritimes for those non-Westerners). Riel is the personification of all of this. There is no other figure in Canadian history who has come to define so much more than what he was and what he stood for. How someone talks about him speaks volumes to their politic and the nationalism they adhere to. Was he a traitor or a prophet? Certifiably insane or a political genius? The voice of Aboriginals or Metis or Catholics or Francophones? He has become all these things and so much more. He is the one figure of western Canadian history that the entire country can identify and give a pseudo-factual account of.
So what do the completion of the CPR and the execution of Riel have to do with the creation of the Canadian State? Everything. The CPR allowed the National Policy to move forward and as the rapid deployment of troops it facilitated during the 1885 Rebellion showed it was essential to national security. It was a tool of economics progress, national defence, propaganda of the nation state, and the fulfilment of a political promise (and we know how rarely that happens). Gordon Lightfoot even wrote a song about it. The completion of the CPR brought together all the political and economic pieces of the state that were floating in the ether and became the tangible expression of what had only existed as rhetoric in Ottawa. Settling the west was no longer a pipe dream, BC was not going to leave to join the US, and the motto on the coat of arms was a reality. Riel’s execution represents all the negatives of creating the Canadian state and all the things that in 2010 still threaten Confederation. The rebellion he was hung for inciting was about so many things. There were Metis land rights, Aboriginal opposition to treaties, the threat to French-Canadian homeland outside Quebec, and the use of force disproportionate to the rebellion instead of continued negotiation. Executing Riel did not solve any of the problems that incited the rebellion. That action solidified the colonial relationship of Ottawa to Aboriginals, the colonial administration of West from Ontario, and the resulting postcolonial relationships. All of these things are as much a part of the creation of the Canadian State as the positives that came from the completion of the CPR. Given all this (which is admittedly could be explained better) the Canadian state does not truly come into existence until November 1885. Confederation is just when some politicians in London agreed it was also in their best interest to peacefully let their colder colonies be free.
The third event of November 1885 that was important in Canadian history (and possibly the creation of the Canadian state), the Rocky Mountain Hot Springs Reserve was created – better known as Banff National Park. The first national park in Canada, the third in the world, and any parks historian will tell you that these protected parcels of wilderness are very important for national identity – as will all the local amateur historians who live in Banff…