Saturday, March 11, 2017

Corruption, racism and a railway: The making of Canada

John A. Macdonald dreamed of an Aryan Canada

Confederation: A political coup by crony-capitalists and power-hungry politicians

Not many merchants, lumbermen, manufacturers or bankers were particularly enthusiastic about the creation of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. The plan to make a new nation out of squabbling, debt-ridden colonies injected new instability into British North America’s economic climate. Confederation would probably bring more government, more debt, more taxes, more friction with the United States and more wildly visionary schemes by impractical politicians. Why upset the business status quo?

But suppose you were a failing businessman, longing to be bailed out. Suppose the only choice for your enterprise was to go big or go broke. Suppose your best hopes lay in wild visionary schemes for expansion.

The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada was by far the biggest enterprise in all of British North America. By 1861, its main lines ran about 1,800 kilometres from Sarnia in Canada West to Quebec City and Portland, Maine, in the east. It claimed to be the greatest railway in the world, and the greatest foreign project ever financed from Britain. The investors who had poured almost $5 billion in today’s purchasing power into building the Grand Trunk had vitalized the colonial economy as they anticipated fabulous returns. In their first golden age, railways were expected to be everybody’s gravy train.

The reality was very different. The Grand Trunk’s promoters, like most early railway entrepreneurs, had grossly underestimated their costs of construction and overestimated the traffic their line would generate. They had trouble competing with waterways and trouble with the harsh Canadian climate, and had foolishly built their line to a gauge that would not allow for connections with U.S. railways. In an ethically challenged business climate, insider trading, bribery and political chicanery drained off money and credibility.

A committee of the Grand Trunk’s debt holders described it in 1861 as “an undertaking which is overwhelmed with debt, wholly destitute of credit and in imminent danger of lapsing into utter insolvency and confusion.

There seemed to be two routes to salvation: Build more track and get more government help. Early in the 1860s, the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada began lobbying for railway expansion eastward to the Maritime colonies, railway expansion westward through “Indian” and fur-trader country to the Pacific, and all the help of any kind it could get from the government of the Province of Canada.

These hopes coincided almost exactly with the grandiose vision of the coalition of Canadian politicians led by John A. Macdonald, George-√Čtienne Cartier (a solicitor for the Grand Trunk) and George Brown, who wanted to create a new country by uniting with the Maritime provinces, annexing the Hudson’s Bay Company lands in the west and tying it all together with an intercolonial railway running to Halifax and a transcontinental line to British Columbia.

The Grand Trunk did everything it could to promote Confederation. We don’t know what “everything” involved because so much power and cash circulated in backrooms and under tables in those days. It is known that in 1866 the general manager of the Grand Trunk, C.J. Brydges, was the conduit for supplying what John A. Macdonald called “the needful” (cash worth more than $2 million today) to help overthrow an anti-Confederate government in New Brunswick in 1866. We can assume that pro-Confederate politicians got free rides on the Grand Trunk, while their opponents had to pay their way. And the possibility of serious opposition to Canadian expansion by the Hudson’s Bay Company was neutralized when key Grand Trunk shareholders purchased control of the historic enterprise in 1863.

Except in New Brunswick, the Confederation plan was never put to a popular vote. It might have had trouble passing. Its opponents loudly proclaimed the whole idea to be nothing more than a great Grand Trunk railway “job” – a swindle mainly for the benefit of its shareholders and their political henchmen. The muddy waters of Confederation’s paternity were not clarified by the claim of Edward Watkin, Britain’s leading spokesman for the Grand Trunk, that he was the true Father of Confederation.

Regardless of who Canada's real daddy is, one thing is certain, Confederation had nothing to do with "independence" as the British colonies of North America didn't acquire any new powers at the expense of the British Empire. In fact, they actually found themselves with less freedom following 1867 as many powers designated under provincial jurisdiction were reassigned to the newly created federal government. This new government had unlimited authority over provincial jurisdiction, all matters not explicitly outlined in the Constitution and all forms of taxation and regulation. No, Confederation was not about any kind of "national" independence, it was essentially a coup performed by British crony-capitalists and power-hungry politicians.

Ethnic cleansing

Sir John A. Macdonald deliberately starved thousands of aboriginal people to clear a path for the Canadian Pacific Railroad and open the prairies to white settlement. His “National Dream” cost them their health, their independence and – in many cases – their lives.

In March of 1882, John A. Macdonald said in the House of Commons that the Indigenous people south of the proposed railway tracks in the territory of Assiniboine or south-western Saskatchewan would be removed by force if necessary. What he wanted to do was eliminate any threat to the construction of the railway. So when the Europeans showed up over the next couple of decades, the land was literally cleared of people. 

Despite guarantees of food aid in times of famine in Treaty No. 6, Canadian officials used food, or rather denied food, as a means to ethnically cleanse a vast region from Regina to the Alberta border as the Canadian Pacific Railway took shape. Acting as both prime minister and minister of Indian affairs during the darkest days of the famine, Macdonald even boasted that the indigenous population was kept on the “verge of actual starvation.” 

For years, government officials withheld food from aboriginal people until they moved to their appointed reserves, forcing them to trade freedom for rations. Once on reserves, food placed in ration houses was withheld for so long that much of it rotted while the people it was intended to feed fell into a decades-long cycle of malnutrition, suppressed immunity and sickness from tuberculosis and other diseases. Thousands died.

Asian exclusion

From 1880, thousands of Chinese workers were imported to build Canada's national railway and were paid starvation wages for performing the most dangerous tasks. Right after the last spike was driven, the Canadian government thanked them by imposing a unique and racist law, the head tax of 1885, which forced all Chinese immigrants to pay a $50 tax. This was increased to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903. Between 1885 and 1923, the Canadian government collected an estimated $23 million from 81,000 Chinese immigrants. (This would be worth $1 billion today.)

The head tax imposed a crushing burden on the impoverished new immigrants. At the time, $500 was the equivalent of two years' wages. Many paid off the unwieldy debts incurred by the tax through long, painful years of hard labour. At the same time, the Canadian government was paying many European immigrants to settle on land that had been seized from Aboriginal peoples. The Chinese were the only immigrants ever forced to pay a head tax.

In 1885, the Electoral Franchise Act explicitly denied Chinese Canadians the right to vote; but, in 1898, new legislation extended the franchise to Asian voters. This lasted until 1920 when the Dominion Elections Act said that if a province discriminated against a group by reason of race, that group would also be excluded from the federal franchise, meaning that British Columbia residents of Chinese, Japanese and South Asian background lost their right to vote in national elections. Saskatchewan also disenfranchised the Chinese. 

The suppression of French

In the aftermath of Confederation, francophones from several English-speaking provinces watched helplessly as their rights were systematically eroded. Throughout Canada, French-Catholic minorities were attacked one after the other in an attempt to make them conform to the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant mold. 

In Manitoba and the North West francophone rights were curtailed. The anglophones of these provinces took advantage of their majority in the legislature to declare war on what they called the French-Canadian “threat” in an attempt to “Keep Canada British!

In 1890 Manitoba's Official Language Act banned French, formerly an official language in the province. It diminished the rights of French school and abolished the use of French in the Parliament and in the Courts of the province. In 1916, the Thornton Act abolished bilingual schools and completely ended the teaching of French in the province in spite of these rights being explicitly guaranteed in the federal Manitoba Act.

In 1905, the Alberta School Act imposed English as the only language of instruction and in 1909, Saskatchewan follows suit with its own School Act which made English the only language of instruction but allowed limited use of French in primary classes. In 1929, a different Saskatchewan law completely abolished French in public education. 

It's no coincidence that in the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan was one of the largest organizations in Saskatchewan, with only the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool accounting for more members. Although the Klan itself was an American import, the Saskatchewan branch must to be situated in this decades long battle against Catholic and francophone rights. The Saskatchewan KKK's driving motivation was not specifically against Blacks, as in the US, but it was rather about preserving a narrow, religious and ethnic based notion of Britishness in Canada. And this goal fit very well with official government policy at the time.


Canadians like to portray the Fathers of Confederation as god-like men and exalt Confederation to biblical proportions. According to the usual narrative, Confederation was all about putting aside differences and working together to build something great. This story is almost always a complete whitewash of history. The ugly side of that story is rarely told. 

The reason is that Canadians have a pathological need to see themselves as the good guys of the universe, a need that stems from a deep seated insecurity. Canada is basically a relic of empire, which means it has no inherent legitimacy. The good guy fantasy provides a means of dealing with that unpleasant reality. It also provides a means of feeling superior to both Quebecers and Americans.

People can live in whatever fantasyland they like. I don't know what Mexicans tell themselves about their origins. It may be factual or it may not. It's not really something that concerns me. However, what Canadians tell themselves does concern me as it often leads to hypocritical fingers being pointed at me, like when some jackass from British Columbia, the Canadian jurisdiction that has passed the most racist laws by far, accuses me and all Quebecers of being horrible racists. That type of ignorance and hypocrisy is a byproduct of Canadian myth-making.

This is what compels me to tear down the fantasy. People should see Canada for what it really is. English-Canadians just reinvented themselves in the 1960s as this kind, forward-looking, progressive country without ever really coming to terms with their dark past. They seemed more fixated on America's past and flattered themselves that they were somehow better. It's the fantasy of a caring, sharing Canada whose beloved Mounties settled the west without America's violence and lawlessness. It's a Canada sanitized of its real history.

So, the same patterns of dominance remain but with new and more acceptable window dressing. The same assimilationist attitudes persist but they're now coated with a veneer of "multiculturalism." The same feelings of superiority persists but they are no long presented as racial or cultural superiority, they're now about Canadian moral superiority over "racist" Quebec. Independence for Quebec will not only liberate Quebec, but it will also free Canadians from the mental straitjacket needed to keep their empire together. It will not only lead to a better, freer, and more just Quebec, but it will probably lead to a better English Canada as well.

Based on an article by Michael Bliss in the Globe and Mail, July 1st, 2016


  1. While the author's recounting of the various infringements of francophone rights over the years by the provinces is for the most part accurate, what he leaves out is equally crucial: the support by Quebec in many --if not all -- of those instances in preventing the use of the federal veto power against these provincial acts.

    A solemn promise was made by the Fathers of Confederation: that if the provinces were to ever abuse the rights of its minorities -- French/Catholic outside Quebec and English/Protestant in Quebec -- that the federal government would intervene by vetoing said provincial legislation. The veto power is vested in disallowance, reservation, s. 133, (and maybe a few other BNA Act powers).

    Quebec holds equal if not more blame for its part in preventing the use of the veto power to protect provincial minorities.

    1. So according to you, Tony, Quebec is more to blame for the violations of francophone rights in other provinces than the provinces themselves or even English Canadians in general because it somehow prevented the federal government from using its power of disallowance!?!

      First of all, how exactlly do you believe that Quebec had the power to do this? I mean, constitutionally speaking, how did Quebec have the power to prevent the federal government from using this power? And can you provide a concrete example of this?

      It's true that Quebec has always defended classical federalism in Canada because this ofered it some measure of national sovereignty and was seen as the best means to ensure cultural survival in a largely English-speaking country. And so this has lead Quebec to defend provincial rights in the face of English Canada's growing desire for more cenralised power even when it put it occasionally in opposition to francophone groups in English Canada.

      It's a matter of principal, but to say they that Quebec is therefore more to blame for English Canada's oppression of its francophone minority is beyond absurd. This conclusion of yours shows what thick ideological blinders you wear.