Beyond the Last Spike

Who is the person driving the “last spike” in the iconic photograph of the completion of the Canadian Pacific railway at Craigellachie 125 years ago? Not the president of the railway George Stephen, as most Canadians might assume, but Lord Strathcona, another CPR luminary. While Strathcona hammered away, Stephen was in London securing a subsidy for the ships that would pick up where the railway left off for the journey across the Pacific.

Mr Stephen’s absence on that historic day points to a lost truth about “Canada’s railway”: that it was as much about connecting to Asia as it was about connecting Canada. “The C.P.R. is not completed”, Stephen wrote to Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, “until we have an ocean connection with Japan and China”. This idea also appealed to the imagination of William Van Horne, the railway’s chief engineer and collector of Japanese porcelain, who dubbed the route “the new highway to the east”.

This week’s celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Last Spike is an opportunity to reflect not only on the “national dream” of linking Canada from coast to coast, but also on the larger “international dream” of a combined rail and ocean transportation system that linked North America to Asia.

The conventional image of the railway as a national project owes much to the appeal of Pierre Berton’s books, which drew on its construction – with all the blood, sweat and scandal that went into it -- as a metaphor for nation building, a physical extension of Confederation into western Canada. This interpretation also helped us get past the colonial dimensions of the enterprise, reflected in the “All Red Route” from Britain to the Far East familiar to generations of Canadian schoolchildren.

By ignoring the trans-Pacific origins of the railway, we forget the connections to Asia that played such an important part in Canadian history. The role of Chinese labourers in the construction of the railroad is a key part of that story, and is now generally well known. They too were absent from the Last Spike photograph.

Less well understood, however, is the robust trade and economic connections with Asia that came about with the completion of the railway. By the early 1890’s, C.P.’s fleet of dashing White Empresses were plying the Pacific, carrying passengers as well as the tea, silk, and oranges of the early oriental luxury trade. In the early 1900’s, Wilfrid Laurier extolled trans-Pacific trade as the outlet for the “wheat boom” of the newly-opening Canadian North West, predicting that wheat would become “the tea of the orient”.

By the 1920’s, there was a roaring trade across the Pacific in grains, lumber, metals and other staples of Canada’s growing resource economy, as well as in manufactured goods. Indeed, the most popular Canadian display at a 1925 Tokyo trade show was automobiles and auto parts.

It is reassuring in a sense to know that Canada-Asia connections are central to one of our founding myths. On the other hand, the relatively small role that Asia occupies in our current trade and economic profile is a reminder of how underdeveloped Canada's connections to Asia remain, despite the long history of trans-Pacific relations.

The modern-day version of Craigellachie is the Asia Pacific Gateway and Corridors Initiative -- a set of multi-billion dollar investments in physical infrastructure designed to help Canada capture a larger share of trans-Pacific trade. This includes not only the ports of Metro Vancouver and Prince Rupert, but also airports in Canada serving Asian routes, especially Vancouver International.

While these investments are vital for the competitiveness of the country's transportation sector, the challenge of expanding economic relations with Asia will also require investment in soft infrastructure, namely knowledge, skills and networks, as well as a strong strategic and policy focus on key economies in the region, especially China, Japan, and India.

As Asia's weight in the world economy continues to rise, it is high time for Canada to rediscover its Pacific pedigree. So let us this week salute the missing man, George Stephen, and celebrate the last spike in a railway that was in effect the first milestone in forging deeper ties with Asia.

Co-authored by Anne Park Shannon, a former diplomat and member of Canada’s finance ministry with a strong interest in Asia

This piece also appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on November 12, 2010. 

George Stephen, the first president of CPR

George Stephen, the first president of CPR

 

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