To what extent did John A. McDonald’s decision to build the CPR influence Canada as seen now?
- Historical Significance:
Outline the focus of your inquiry and provide background knowledge. Why is this an important and significant question to ask about the past? Provide evidence from primary and secondary sources.
The CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) was a transcontinental railway system that would connect the west with the more developed and populated east. It was promised by John A. MacDonald, our first prime minister, when he rose to power in 1867, leading to the entry of British Columbia into Confederation. The railway came under many critics’ attack, and the Pacific Scandal threw MacDonald off the seat of power. When MacDonald came back to power in 1878, he was determined to make the railway happen. The Canadian Pacific Railway company was incorporated in 1881, and construction finished late 1885. Soon, the first passenger train arrived transcontinental into Port Moody from Montreal in 1886.
The CPR is a massive operation at the beginning of Canada’s history, and in the process of making it happen, many mistakes and sacrifices were made. It is undeniable, however, that it profoundly changed the course of Canada and its people. By weighing the pros with the cons, we can judge the value of the CPR and MacDonald’s decision in retrospect.
- Cause and Consequence:
Why did your researched events happen the way they did and what were the consequences?
The first intentions of the railway were to prompt BC to join the Confederation and grow the feeble Canadian economy independent of the US (who refused all trade with Canada at the time). The two goals were certainly met, as BC joined the Confederation soon after the railway was promised with the condition that it must be built in a decade, and businesses sprouted all along the western provinces. The addition of British Columbia further diversified Canada both socially and environmentally and provided a place for people to settle. Canada’s increasing land mass supported its growth politically and economically too, gaining more voice as its assets increased. The railway also fueled new corporations to develop and flourish. The communities started from scratch to provide necessities of life. The new environments also demanded new industries different from the ones Canadians are used to. Fur trading companies became farming and logging ones, and farm forks replaced snowplows. The west and the east could trade local goods, and everyone was happy – the people, who had the commodities they wanted, the companies, which lowered expenses in transport and increased sales, and the government, which sees increased nationalism and a better self-sustaining economy. The brand new Canadian settlements needed much, and the revenues generated by the new industries meant better economy. It is a positive influence on Canadian development as seen from the eyes of mainstream Canadians.
There are more unintended and unthought of consequences of the CPR though. The railway was built on the 10 million hectares of land provided by the government, but one might ask: where did that land come from? To make way for the railway, thousands of indigenous people are forced to leave the land that they have resided on for many hundreds of years. MacDonald even resorted to using hunger to stave off the people, killing many with starvation. These inhumane acts reflect values then and even values now, when indigenous people are on many fronts not equal to non-indigenous Canadians. The Canadian “victory” over the indigenous may even have served to ridicule Louis Riel’s efforts to keep the Metis’ land. Discrimination had only grown with the CPR. Even now, those communities of indigenous people may remember how they lost their ancestral land because of the construction of a railway profiting white people.
To the early Chinese in Canada, the CPR did not bring much hope at all. Forced to work in danger with very little pay, the Chinese workers often died on the job. The Canadians found that the Chinese can be paid very little, expected to work on hard jobs, and more of all be bullied around without care of their lives. Subsequently after completion of the railway, a head tax was introduced for Chinese immigrants, and they were denied the right to vote. The building of the CPR did not do much for the Chinese, who only suffered more because of the labor and discrimination. The history and culture of maltreatment for the Chinese and Asian minorities may have influenced as far as Canada’s treatment of the Japanese in WW2. Looking at the present society, few of the evidence from that period of maltreatment can be seen as apologies are made, and history avoided. However, we need to remember that the same event can be great to one community, race or even country, but the back side of the story is often either untold or drown out in a sea of chants coming from the majority in the front rows.
It is important to mention that although John A. MacDonald did many things unacceptable by today’s standards, we are judging him from our perspective. Many of his policies contained acceptance not found in his era. We should not blame him for his actions extensively, but to properly criticize his actions, we need to look at a different perspective from his own time.
- Social Studies Inquiry Process
What conclusions can you reach about your question, based on the research you conducted?
Through an investigation into the influence of the CPR, it becomes evident that many actions, even ones that are celebrated by something as large as a nation, can have darker sides. While something may have tremendously positive influences, the negative influences could also be far-reaching and extensive, as is the case with the CPR. As all humans are equal, we cannot just shout “for the greater good” and only look at the big picture. It is necessary, especially in the case of multiple identities (Indigenous Canadian, etc.) to investigate every possible perspective to assess a fair picture of the consequences of an action. The negatives can be hard to find in a sea of praise, but it is just in fairytales that “all lived happily ever after” exist.
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