POLITICS AND RAILROADS
Canada had come into existence in 1867 as a confederation of the Eastern Colonies, independent of Britain, although its citizens remained British subjects. Union with the new Canada was seen as one solution to the depressed economy in British Columbia. Once the miners had departed from the Cariboo, Wild Horse and Big Bend, the flow of gold ceased, and many of the businesses supplying the miners failed. There was a net out-migration from the Colony.
Protectionist sentiment in the U.S. had imposed a 10 per cent duty on imports from B.C., and the lumbermen, farmers and fishers of Oregon and the new Washington Territory were supplanting British Columbia in the California markets. In 1854 the San Francisco lumber firm of Pope and Talbot had come north to set up the first steam sawmill in the American Northwest at Port Gamble on Puget Sound. To allow B.C. lumbermen to compete in the U.S. market, the government’s royalty on timber was lowered, beginning a practice which continues to this day: letting U.S. market conditions determine the price British Columbia loggers pay for trees.
As well, the Colonial status was now seen as a hindrance to progress, an obsolete and inefficient form of government unrepresentative of the people’s wishes. It was absurd to have all political decisions subject to ratification by London and the 6 months it took to get a question to the Colonial Office and a reply back. The great trade centres of British North America were on the Atlantic seaboard; B.C. customers were in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii, still an independent kingdom), Hong Kong, 5000 miles to the west and the modest settlements of Oregon and the Washington Territory. If a wagon road could be built to link British Columbia with Lake Superior, B.C. merchants believed they could then enter into partnerships with the great eastern houses. Walter Moberly was given the job in 1864 of surveying a route for a coach road over the Selkirk and Rocky Mountains and east toward the new nation of Canada. In 1868, Joseph Truch, Chief Commissioner of Lands and Works for the Colony, presented a Minute to the Colonial Assembly, An Overland Coach Road to Canada. In it he outlined three possible routes and recommended one that would go by the Cariboo Road to Cache Creek, its branch to Savona’s; by sternwheel steamer to Eagle Pass Landing (Sicamous); over the Eagle Pass to Farwell’s (Revelstoke); up the Columbia around Big Bend and over Howse Pass to the navigable North Saskatchewan River. From there sternwheel steamer would be used down the North Saskatchewan and Saskachewan Rivers to Lake Winnipeg, and by the Red River cart road from Fort Garry to Fort William on Lake Superior where lake boats connected to Toronto and Montreal. Truch thought of the project as a coach road only, as the many transfers from wagon to boat and back to wagon would make the shipment of freight uneconomic; it could better be sent by ship around the Horn.
The chief sentiments animated those British Columbians who sought union with the Canada were the wish for representative government, and the hope of profitable trading partnerships with the east. Above all, it was essential that a union with Canada “must be to the material and pecuniary advantage of this Colony,” Dr. Helmken insisted in the Legislature. Amor de Cosmos, representing the populist view, envisioned a more radical kind of democracy,
“I would not object to a little revolution now and again in British Columbia, after Confederation,
if we were treated unfairly; for I am one of those who believes that political hatreds attest to the vitality of the state.”
Among the opponents of Confederation with Canada were those who would lose their Colonial appointments. Judge Haynes, speaking for the appointed officials asked that some means be found to place them “…in safety, in view of the changes likely to take place on this Colony entering Confederation.” The officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company, as well, were opposed to union, reluctant to lose their commercial ascendancy. They would, however, make no common cause with the other anti-confederationists, whom they regarded as effete and snobbish drones. There was also, among most British Columbians, a disdain for and dislike of Canadians, who were found to be joyless and heavy Methodists, grasping and materialist. To be obliged to accept these crude social inferiors as the Senior government, and lose their direct contact with Her Majesty and her Ministers was an intolerable thought for Anglophiles.
With opinion divided in British Columbia, Governor Musgrave, who had succeeded Governor Seymour, suggested to the Colonial Secretary in London that, “If a railway would be promised, scarcely any other question would be allowed to be a difficulty.” Like the idea of the Great Coach Road, a Railway from Montreal to the Pacific was to politicians but a line on a map, something that could be casually turned over to the Engineers for execution. This was serious politics, and no one questioned the expense, the formidable mountains to be crossed, the availability of financing. How sincere was this promise of a railway remains an unanswered question. The suggestion seems to be that, should British Columbians appear likely to reject the terms of union with Canada, the promise of a railway, that red line on a map, would swing the vote in favour of confederation. Once B.C. was in, the question of actual construction of such a work could be addressed, and its practicality and timing considered.
In British Columbia, however, the railway was seen as real, an actual timber and steel line of unbroken track, a functioning link with the commercial centres of the east. The railway, infinitely more than political union with the despised Methodists, would link its merchants with prosperous Eastern houses, and rescue the Colony from bankruptcy which now loomed since the gold diggers had departed.
The terms of union were agreed on by the British Columbia and the Canadian delegations, and the proposal went to Parliament in Ottawa for ratification. The terms provided that the Dominion of Canada would assume the Colony’s debt, and that the new Province of British Columbia would be granted an annual subsidy of $216,000. Half of this sum was supposed to be a payment for a Provincial grant of a “Railway Belt,” 40 miles wide, along the route of the proposed track. The future sale of these Railway Belt lands were to pay for the construction of the line. The railway construction was to be begun within two years, and be completed by ten. Further, Canada would pay the salaries of the Lieutenant Governor, the judges, would maintain a postal service, a telegraph service, customs, militia, a penitentiary, and a geological survey. Those Colonial officials who would be displaced would receive Canadian pensions, and the new province was to introduce responsible government whenever that might be desired by the inhabitants.
South of the border, however, another railway was being projected for the Northwest, the American Northern Pacific line which was to run from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. In the deliberations of the U.S. Congress the Northern Pacific was seen as a line which would open the Northwest of British North America to American annexation. In July, 1866, before the Confederation of the Canadian Colonies, Congressman, General N.P. Banks, introduced his Northern Pacific railroad bill to provide for, “…the States (sic) of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Canada East and Canada West, and the territories of Selkirk, Saskatchewan and Columbia (sic) are constituted and admitted as States and Territories of the United States.” On December 9, 1868 Senator Ramsey of Minnesota moved a resolution that asked, “ That Canada, with the consent of Great Britain, shall cede to the United States the districts of North America west of Longitude 90º on the conditions following…”
Senator Ramsey proposed that the U.S. should pay the HBC $6,000,000 for its claims and rights. The U.S. would also assume the debt of British Columbia to the amount of $2,000,000, and that the Northwest Territory should be organized into three territories with the same rights and privileges and government as the Montana Territory. Further, the U.S. government should guarantee dividends of 5% on the stock of the Northern Pacific Railroad. It is obvious that in the American mind the Northern Pacific Railroad was to be built to exploit the British as well as the American Northwest. The resolution was passed and sent to the Railroad Committee for detailed consideration. In their report, released in February 1869 the Committee noted that:
“The line of the North Pacific (sic) runs for 1500 miles near the British possessions and when built will drain the agricultural products of the rich Saskatchewan and Red River Districts east of the mountains, and the gold country of the Fraser, Thompson and Kootenay Rivers west of the mountains… The opening by us of a North Pacific Railroad seals the destiny of the British possessions west of the 91st Meridian. They will become so strongly Americanized in interest and feelings that they will be in effect severed from the new Dominion and the question of their annexation will be but a question of time.”
It was the view of politicians in the U.S. that the Northern Pacific Railroad was to Americanize the Canadians, while to the Canadians, the proposed Canadian Pacific Railway was to Canadianize those difficult British Columbians. It is not at all evident that the Canadians in Ottawa followed the railway debates in the U.S. Congress. From whatever they thought of the proposed Northern Pacific Railway, they seemed to suppose that Great Britain would not permit it to enter British Columbia.
But from the beginning, doubts were expressed, both in Ottawa and B.C., that the railway promise was sincere. Building the railway would require a country of but 3 million to build two thousand miles of track to link up with only 10,000 Europeans and perhaps 30,000 Aboriginals. It seemed to the hard headed, and the Canadians were certainly these, that it was a mad enterprise. Nevertheless, south of the border, on February 15, 1870, the Northern Pacific began building west from the head of Lake Superior headed for Puget Sound. The next month debate on the motion for Union with Canada. In the British Columbia Assembly Dr. Helmken expressed his deep misgivings, and suggested that if the Canadian railway were not in place in ten years, the Province would demand compensation and have good cause to secede. He may well have been thinking that the Northern Pacific would be completed by then and ready to extend its tracks across the border into British Columbia.
In Ottawa Parliamentary ratification of the terms of union was not automatic as had been assumed at the start. Debate began on April 1, 1871. Two weeks previous the Northern Pacific began construction on the western end of their line, by grading north from Kalama on the Columbia toward Puget Sound. Whatever the Canadian parliament decided, the American railway would soon be in place to capture B.C. trade. In Ottawa the opposition Liberals argued that the railway promise would bankrupt the country if built. The governing Tories were unwilling to be bound by that ten year promise. Debate began on April 1, 1871, and the government found itself in difficulty with its own members at once over that promise to begin construction in two years and complete it by ten. Joseph Truch, who was a member of the Legislative Council of B.C. proposed to win over the recalcitrant government members by softening the promise. He apparently told the caucus that the people of B.C. would not hold them precisely to their promise, a statement which he had no authorization whatever to make. Publicly he produced a masterful equivocation: British Columbians, he said, were a reasonable people and it would be a fallacy to assume that they would demand the railway promise “ to be carried out in the exact interpretation of the words themselves, regardless of all expectation.” Truch was a British Colonial Officer, and these words reflected the genteel mendacity with which the British had for a century been administering their colonies.
Back in British Columbia, however, Truch’s statement was considered treasonous. He had sided with the hated Ontarians, and betrayed B.C. But the weasel words had worked. The Union was approved, Truch was rewarded by being appointed Lieutenant Governor of the new Province of British Columbia in place of Amor De Cosmos who would have been the popular choice.
By betraying B.C. aspirations, Truch had accomplished two things, he had achieved union, and he had kept the populist leader from power in Victoria. He had done the will of Great Britain and the Ontarians. As Lieutenant Governor, Truch represented the members of the old HBC hegemony in British Columbia, and he attempted to govern it in the manner of the old Colonial despots, Simpson and Douglas. He used his power as Lieutenant Governor to pick an utter non-entity, John McCreight as Provincial Premier, when again, the choice should have gone by popular will, to Amor De Cosmos. And in a further perversion of his powers, Truch insisted on sitting in on all Cabinet meetings. This would not be tolerated in Britain, nor anywhere else, and it was a bad beginning to a Provincial government which was to perpetuate in future legislatures, a tyranny of the government over the opposition.
In choosing union with Canada, the majority of British Columbians had opted for political change, for representative government. What they had gotten, thanks to Joseph Truch’s betrayal, was the old Colonial system of appointed officials domineering over elective representatives. The force for change, however, was stronger than Truch expected. At the end of 1872, the ineffective Mc Creight was forced out, and Truch had to grit his teeth and call on De Cosmos, the only candidate with the confidence of the Legislative Assembly, to form a government. De Cosmos took over and refused absolutely to hold a cabinet meeting with the Lieutenant Governor in the room. Truch was obliged to distance himself, and finally, painfully, representative government was allowed to begin functioning in British Columbia.
Interior B.C. was, except for the old Colonial officers, quite untouched by the union with Canada. The Langevin Report for 1870 stated that the Kootenays had 103 white males, 5 white females, 2 coloured males, 139 Chinese males, no Chinese females. Aboriginals were not recorded. Of these 249 persons, 6 were employed in agriculture, none in manufacturing, 20 in trading, and 222 in mining. The occupation of the one missing person is not recorded; perhaps this was the magistrate. The HBC traders at Fort Shepherd and Tobacco Plains, the miners, some thousand or so Indians, and a judge comprised the population, the majority of which was Chinese. Probably most of them had not heard of the Union.
The Union was a fact, however, and the District of Yale-Kootenay was to send one member to the Dominion Parliament. No one but Captain Houghton could be bothered. Now, in 1871, he made his way to Yale on horseback to the nomination convention. But astonishingly, there could be found but two eligible voters in Yale willing and able to participate. Nor was there any other candidate. Captain Houghton was nominated by a vote of 2 to 0, and elected by acclamation. It is doubtful if anyone in Kootenay, knew or cared.
The Provincial Legislature continued a contentious body. There were no political parties in British Columbia at this time. In the Colonial Administration the Colonial Council had divided always into the majority of appointed members, representing the Governor, and the minority of elected members, the opposition. Now, with a fully elected house, the members broke into local factions, which carried on the old quarrel between the two colonies, the Vancouver Island members opposing the Mainland members. Those few from the Interior opposed both Coastal interests.
In Ottawa B.C’s six members had no party affiliation, but were bound to support Prime Minister Mc Donald whose government had promised the railroad. By the terms of Union, railroad construction was to begin by 1873. The year came; there was no sign of construction. Amor De Cosmos, who had promoted Union, and fought for it so vigorously, was now in trouble. He went to Ottawa to lobby for the promised railway. But the problem for Mc Donald and his Conservatives was to find someone to finance this extremely costly undertaking. The efforts to put together a syndicate of wealthy men resulted in a corruption scandal that brought down the government. The new Liberal government under Mc Kenzie was firmly set against building the railway until it could be afforded. He suggested to a desperate De Cosmos that the terms of union be renegotiated with the railway time clause eliminated. De Cosmos was devastated; he was now the man who had led B.C. into a union with a government which was refusing to honour its promises. The best De Cosmos could get from Mc Kenzie was an immediate $1 million cash loan, and a further cash grant in lieu of the promised drydock. But for these he had to agree to let the Dominion government indefinitely postpone the railway.
De Cosmos returned to B.C. to find a Legislature and a people wholly opposed to any changes whatsoever in the terms of union until Mackenzie should publicly and unequivocally promise the railway. Now one of those salutary little revolutions that De Cosmos had previously favoured, took place. A mob, insistent on presenting their demands for a referendum on any changes to the terms of union, stormed the legislature chanting, “We’ll hang old De Cosmos on a sour apple tree.” Disorder followed. Clubs were brandished, guns were drawn, the Legislature was thrown into tumult. Although no blood was spilled, De Cosmos was obliged to lock himself in his room for safety, and the Speaker hastily adjourned the house and fled the assembly.
A victim of the “political hatreds attesting to the vitality” of British Columbians, De Cosmos resigned his seat in the legislature, but kept his seat as a Dominion member of parliament, and fled east to orderly Ottawa. When the B.C. Legislature met again, it acknowledged the wishes of the people that the mob had represented, and passed a resolution that no change could be made in the terms of Union without the consent of the electorate.
With De Cosmos’ departure, Anthony Walkem became Premier and spokesman for the forces against the mendacity of Ottawa. However, a split appeared in the pro railway forces, whether innocent or manipulated cannot be determined. As the province was spilt politically between the Island and the Mainland, the railway supporters split as well. Two routes for the Railway had been proposed, one would be a northerly route, reaching salt water at Bute Inlet, cross by boat (or improbably by a very long bridge) to Vancouver Island, and proceed by rail down the Island to Victoria. The other route, equally formidable, would come down the Fraser canyon and reach tidewater at Burrard Inlet with a ferry connection to Victoria. Premier Walkem chose the Bute Inlet route, since that would make Victoria the terminus of this transcontinental railway, while the Fraser Canyon route would put the terminus and its port on the Mainland.
The Imperial Government, which was responsible for introduction of the railway promise into the terms of union, now feared that separation was a real possibility if something substantial were not offered the disaffected Canadians of British Columbia. It certainly did not wish to reassume the financial burden of the bankrupt Colony. A compromise was proposed. An immediate start was to be made on a railway to link the two Island cities, Victoria and Nanaimo, and railway surveys were to begin on the mainland. A wagon road and a telegraph line were to be built from the Red River to the Pacific. It was promised that $2,000,000 were to be spent annually on railway construction, but no firm completion date was mentioned. These were the Carnarvon Terms from London.
This compromise could have been accepted by both parties in Ottawa and would have got the Dominion government out of an embarrassing spot. For, if B.C. separated from Canada, the Americans stood ready to purchase her with their own Northern Pacific railway line which, delayed by mismanagement and failure of financing, was slowly creeping toward completion. In 1874 its trains were running from Portland to Tacoma, although the line through the Rockies was still to be built. In Ottawa the influential Liberal, Eward Blake was implacably opposed to any subsidies whatever to the Pacific Province, and was quite willing to see it secede if that would preserve financial prudence. Blake’s opposition tied MacKenzie’s hands and the Carnarvon Terms were rejected by the Dominion Senate.
As a shamefaced sop to B.C. Mackenzie and Blake offered a cash payment of $750,000 as compensation for delay in beginning the railway. This offer was greeted with intense suspicion by British Columbians and the Walkem government. The cash offer could be interpreted as a payment for future as well as past delay. Accepting it could be seen as releasing the Dominion government from its promise. Standing on these principles, the offer was rejected in 1876, and a resolution was passed calling for secession from Canada. The then situation in B.C. was intolerable; in joining Canada the province had been obliged to give up its chief sources of revenue, the Customs and Excise collections, to the Dominion government. Without a revenue, B.C. was reduced to subsisting on humiliating handouts from Ottawa. Without the railway there was no hope of integration into the Canadian economy which could have saved it.
With B.C.’s rejection of the cash grant and its threat of separation, the Liberal Government in Ottawa lost its nerve and dithered. De Cosmos angrily attempted to insert an amendment into an unrelated bill calling for work on the Esquimalt to Nanaimo railway to begin at once. Only six eastern members joined the British Columbians in voting for the amendment. This vote made it clear to B.C. citizens just how little regarded they were in central Canada. Their threat of separation had been met with casual indifference. The Walkem government was disgraced and driven from office. It had stood on principle and refused the cash offer. It had threatened separation, and Canada had not cared.
Andrew Elliot, a former Colonial magistrate, took over as Premier. His government was as ineffectual as Walkem’s. The citizens of British Columbia were in a foul and angry mood and ready to lash out at anyone. The Government in London had the Dominion Governor General make a Viceregal tour in the old Imperial way, with smashed wine bottles and flag raisings. The populist faction of the citizenry were unimpressed. They erected the traditional arches festooned with fir boughs to welcome the Marquess of Dufferin, but pointedly hung signs on them threatening secession if the railway were not commenced at once. His Excellency, equally pointedly, refused to pass under any arches so placarded. Amid all this archaic symbolism, the situation worsened. In 1878, De Cosmos rose in parliament to utter a new threat. If the railway were not begun at once, British Columbia would have no other alternative but to seek annexation to the United States. De Cosmos hated Americans from his time in California. He made the threat, which only spite would have made him carry out, to try to make parliament understand the depth of feeling and legitimate anger of his constituents. Parliament’s response was little more than a yawn.
In British Columbia the feeble Elliot government fell, and Walkem came back, promising to solve the railway impasse. British Columbia had but one card to play, that of secession. On August 9, 1878 Walkem moved an address to the Queen, asking Her Majesty, in light of the broken promises of the Dominion Government, to grant British Columbia the right to withdraw from the union and receive compensation for the defaulted pledges. The motion passed, 14 to 9.
But at this point Walkem lost his nerve. Instead of sending the message to London where it would have elicited some sort of action, he weaseled and sent it to the Dominion Secretary of State in Ottawa for forwarding to Her Majesty. This made it clear to the MacKenzie government that the message was just one more threat directed at it, and not a serious move to separate. MacKenzie’s government simply “mislaid” the Address to the Queen, and it was never transmitted. Shortly after, MacKenzie’s government was defeated and Mac Donald was back with his Conservatives and a new National Policy in which the Railway to the Pacific was a major plank.
The decade of political turmoil and mendacity of the 1870s had all been quite absurd. The Province of British Columbia had for six years begged, cajoled, threatened and gone to the brink of secession over the railroad with the Dominion government. Now, with a simple election, the railroad was to be built. It should not be thought that the MacDonald had announced his railway policy to mollify British Columbians, or to redeem the promise of 1870 as the residents of the Pacific Province believed. Mc Donald had cleverly annouced the railway as a National Project that would project the commercial interests of Ontario and Quebec onto the Pacific Coast so that they might enter the lucrative Asian trade. This was the Conservatives’s railway policy, an expansion of Central Canada’s power to the Pacific; the wishes of 10,000 British Columbians were quite insignificant in Ottawa.
Amor De Cosmos, who had been politically destroyed by the railway issue, rose in bitter anger in the house in April of 1879 to excoriate the members of both parties for five years of hostility to British Columbia. In wild sarcasm he challenged them to do in fact what for five years they had done by indifference, moving a motion to exclude B.C. from Canada. British Columbia, he said, “has been called an excrescence, and incubus, has been accused of endeavouring to gain something from this Dominion without any equivalent. I ask the honourable members who say they wish to get rid of this province, to second the motion.” The house was silent. Not even one of the five other B.C. members would second De Cosmos’ motion. He concluded with the angrily prophetic statement, “The people of British Columbia have as little faith in one side (party) as they had in the other.” De Cosmos, now eclipsed, had expressed the bitter judgment of the people of B.C.: the Dominion government, under whatever party, would never be trustworthy. They wanted a Canadian commercial front on the Pacific, but they would never be willing to pay the price for the union of British Columbia. It is a distrust of the Ottawa government, and an anger at central Canada that subsists in B.C. to this day, and is regularly exploited by Provincial politicians of all parties.
The actual construction of the long promised railway was, if anything, even more difficult and frustrating than the five years of political wrangling over whether it was to be built at all. First, the Dominion government had to find that syndicate of wealthy men able to raise the funds for 1900 miles of construction through an uninhabited country, four mountain ranges and six hundred miles of solid and barren rock north of Lake Superior. Sir Sanford Flemming, who had surveyed the route through the tumultuous Seventies, had estimated it would cost $100 million, an astronomical sum for a country of but four million.
The wealthy banker George Stephen, whom MacDonald had with difficulty persuaded to lead the syndicate to built the CPR, held out for concessions without which he absolutely refused to undertake the project.
First, was a monopoly clause in the contract, prohibiting any other railway from building between the CPR and and the U.S. border. This was directed at the Northern Pacific Railway which had been completed in 1883 and had become the de facto link between British Columbia and Canada. One took a steamer from Victoria or New Westminster to Tacoma, rode the Northern Pacific to St Paul, the Milwaukee Railroad to Chicago and the Grand Trunk to Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal. All freight went in bond via this route as well and U.S. line was planning an extension north up the Red River Valley to Winnipeg. The Dominion Government could enforce this prohibition in the empty Northwest Territory where it had sole authority. In Ontario and British Columbia, MacDonald promised to have the Dominion Government disallow any Provincial Railway charter for a line in this CPR claimed territory. This promise was redeemed in 1883 when the B. C. legislature authorized the American Ainsworth Syndicate with mines on Kootenay Lake, to build a 40 mile portage railway around the falls and rapids on the Lower Kootenay River. The Dominion Government found the Ainsworth’s railway to be essentially an entry of the Northern Pacific into the lands promised the CPR as its exclusive territory.
Second, the syndicate insisted on a cash subsidy of $25 million and a land grant of 25 million acres along the right of way.
Third, that whoever built the railway should “run it forever.”
Fourth, that the syndicate would receive those portions of the railway already built or contracted for by the government.
These were enormous gifts, but the undertaking was even more enormous. By its completion in 1885, it would very nearly bankrupt the syndicate, and nearly defeat the government as more and more loan guarantees had to be made to keep the work from collapsing.
No one knows to this day what it cost; $150 millions is a probably a good guess.