Creating Canada

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…

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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4 Responses to Creating Canada

  1. Pete says:

    Given the importance of the imagery of nature in (at least the Central/Ontario) Canadian psyche, I think the third point is arguably symbiotic with the Railway. As the waterways become less important for governance, in the face of the railroad being much faster etc, the image of “nature” and nature-as-leisure can come to the fore.

    (This, of course, could be completely anachronistic!)

  2. Pete says:

    I did some research on the Lightfoot song last year, by the way, and it was, if I remember correctly, commissioned by the CPR. And heavy on the “land was empty and quiet and unproductive before we came with our technology” front.

    • Lauren says:

      That makes the song even better! One of my favourite paintings is a Charles Comfort take on Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (except the back drop is the Rockies, the men are Swiss guides, the woman is still naked and there is at least one elk) commissioned by the CPR – but the CPR though the original too risque and had him do a second one with the woman in a polka dot bikini. The original is at the Whyte Museum.

  3. Sean says:

    Hello Lauren and others,

    Here is Bruce Eerickson’s abstract: Happy reading!

    Recreating History, Consuming Nature: Canoeing, Suffering, and the Nation’s Past: “It is often said that the canoe routes established through the fur trade carved out the material dimensions of the Canadian state. Following watersheds from east to west, European explorers, entrepreneurs, and their labour force became entangled in the production of the nation. Some attempts to reconnect with this period have started to follow the material practices of the time, canoeing “a la mode du pays,” retracing key voyages across the continent. This talk examines these recreational re-creations as an aspect of the narration of national space in Canada. For these paddlers, the path of the voyageur leads them to an encounter with the true Canada, embodied by the wilderness travel that was the voyageur’s bread and butter. Within these encounters, minimalism and the attempt to ‘go without’ is designed to help them encounter the character of the nation. This voluntary renuncition is an attempt to present an intimacy with the land and articulate belonging outside of the anxieties of colonial settlement, but it often eclipses the real history of the colonial encounter. As such, suffering, as a mode of encountering the nation, overrides the history of colonialism and presents an authoritative connection between nation and nature. Canada then becomes a nation held in the nature of the landscape, as opposed to an entity created by the multifarious networks of power over the last four centuries.”

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