Intellectual

How We Think

Time

Distance

Space

Mobility

New Words

Political

Political Scene

Canadian Citizenship

 


How We Think

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The railway had a major impact on how Canadians thought about time, distance, and space. They used new words such as “timetable” to cope with the new environment created by the railway. People and goods became more mobile because it was quicker and cheaper to travel by rail than by horse or on foot. In Eastern Canada, urbanization and industrialization rapidly followed the coming of the railway. In Western Canada, the vast spaces of the Prairies became an asset because of the railway. The Prairies were no longer an obstacle to cross but a desired area to be settled. Canadians pioneered the Prairies by using railways to carry goods and people in and wheat out. Railways linked Canada from sea to sea, and we began to think of ourselves as a country.

Time

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Central Station Clock in Montreal

The perception of time changed dramatically because of railways.

  • Time now mattered because the coordination of passengers & trains was now critical. Precision on the railways demanded perpetual attention to time because it was important to know where trains were to in order to coordinate arrivals and departures. The new railway word, “timetable” entered the language and is used in many other contexts.
  • Railroad station clocks and conductor’s watches became public symbols creating a new consciousness of time.
  • Standard Time based on the Greenwich Meridian in London was a result of the Canadian scientist, Sir Sanford Fleming. Internationally, Greenwich Mean Time is the world’s Standard Time because Fleming persuaded the USA, Britain, and Canada to coordinate time and improve global communications.
  • Time used to be measured in every town when the sun was at high noon. As a result, The Gazette of 1856 read as follows:
The trains will be run on Montreal time, which is-
8 1/2 mins. faster than Brockville time.
12 mins. faster than Kingston time.
14 1/2 mins. faster than Belleville time.
23 mins. faster than Toronto time.
  • The sheer length of the Grand Trunk Railway, the longest railway in the world in those years, made it necessary to create similar time zones. With the building of the CPR across Canada, we needed to coordinate time with the United States, the other continental nation.

Distance

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An Overnight Journey In Victorian Canada

Railroads diminished the importance of distance in Canada.

British North America was divided and isolated into pockets of settlements along rivers, lakes and oceans. The distance from rivers, lakes, and oceans mattered before the coming of the railway.

With the coming of the railway, we can say that the iron wheel replaced the ship’s keel as the way to overcome Canada’s vast distances.

For example, the Principal of McGill in Montreal took 5 days to travel to Toronto in 1855-56 but only 10 hours a few months later when the rail link to Toronto was completed. Reductions in travel time on the 19th century Victorian trains were comparatively larger than improvements in travel time on 21st century airplanes and automobiles.

In summary, the railway made us into a continental-wide country rather than a series of scattered settlements divided by vast distances.

Space

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The CPR Crossing the Rockies

Before the coming of the railway, Canada’s vast spaces were a hindrance; difficult to defend, to communicate, and to settle.

After 1860 and the building of the Grand Trunk Railway, Canada’s space was something that could be filled in and overcome. In the 1880’s, the international perception of Canada changed after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Western Canada’s resources were now regarded as a desired space by central Canada and by immigrants. Canada’s space was now seen as a healthy alternative to crowded urban industrial Britain: “the 20th century belongs to Canada” (Sir Wilfred Laurier).

The railway knitted the country together. For example, the first Riel Rebellion in Western Canada was put down with difficulty. However, the second Riel Rebellion and Fenian Raids were defeated by troops using railways.

Railways supplemented Canada’s rivers and canals. River and canal travel continued in Canada. In Britain and the USA, railways tended to replace the canals and rivers as a means of commercial travel.

Mobility

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Immigrants from a CPR Liner

International, national, & local (streetcars) mobility grew because of the train but railways changed much more than just the way we travelled.

  • Social mobility became an important aspect of Canada after 1860. New jobs meant improved opportunities for all classes of society, not just for the elite.
  • This increase in social and geographic mobility was seen as progress. Innovation was prized not feared.
  • The railway was unsurpassed as a “people mover”. Railways were companies operated for profit. They were not a social service run by the Government.
  • The poor could travel on railways, as cheap excursions and day trips were now possible. Mass transit gradually grew so that by the 20th century virtually everyone travelled.
  • Short term mobility became possible. For example, Native women could go to Niagara Falls to sell tourist goods and return home after a few weeks. Native men could work on high bridges and buildings throughout North America then return. Fruit-picking and tobacco harvesting in Southern Ontario employed migrant Canadians. Railway companies promoted tourism thus opening up seasonal jobs along the railway lines.

Immigration/Emigration

Railways increased the long term flow of people into and out of Canada.

  • Immigration (long term mobility) was influenced by the new railroads in Europe. Canadian railway company (GTR & CPR) agents arranged immigrant travel via train, Atlantic steamboat, then train again in Canada. Immigrant travel to the United States was often diverted through Canada because it was cheaper and more efficient. As a consequence, immigration from Central & Northern Europe to Canada soared. Trains had created a new source of immigrants to Canada.
  • Traditional immigration from Britain changed too; children were now a major source of Canadian migrants (100,000 from 1860-1914) and women probably emigrated in larger numbers too (domestic servants). In last half of 19th century, industrial workers from Britain helped transform the Canadian economy.
  • Mobility was not always a positive influence. The great smallpox epidemic in Montreal during the 1880’s was brought from Chicago via the Grand Trunk Railway.

New Words and Expressions

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Wrong Side of the CNR Tracks in Montreal

New jobs, new activities, and new ways of thinking because of the railway led to new words and new expressions. For example, “timetable”, “railroaded”, “wrong side of the track”, “on the right track”, and other words became part of our language.

New rules had to be learned, and fines were imposed for people who climbed on top of moving passenger railcars or who picnicked on the lines.

Political

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Railways Altered the Political Scene

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Confederation of 1867

The Grand Trunk Railway of the 1850’s created Canada in the 1860’s, then Canada built the   Canadian Pacific Railway across the country in the 1880’s.

 

The cultural, linguistic, and religious diversity of pre-1860 British North America was enormous (English, French, Gaelic, and German languages; Catholics, Protestants and Jews).The Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) of the 1850’s was successful in uniting Canada East and West (Quebec & Ontario) by 1860. This unification dissolved the old idea of a divided British North America.

The Maritime Provinces (NS, NB, PEI) developed a community of interest in a rail link to the GTR in the 1860’s. By 1867, the BNA Act(British North America Act) united Eastern Canada, and railway guarantees to the Maritimes were written into the new Canadian Constitution. As a result, the Intercolonial RR linking Maritimes to Central Canada was started in the 1870’s.

A railroad across the continent to British Columbia was then promised in the 1870’s but only finished in the 1880’s.

Railways began transforming rural British North America into urban industrial Canada in the last half of the 19th century.

Canadian Citizenship

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Railways began in Canada what they had completed in Britain, national unity.

Nationalism started in 1860. “Canada” as a nation was its frame of reference.  Canada expanded to include the Maritimes in 1867, and grew again to include Manitoba (1870) British Columbia (1871) and the other prairie provinces in 1905.

Confederation of 1867 was then a product of the GTR of 1860.

Railroads were identified with Central Canada and progressive modernity in the 1860’s because the GTR(Grand Trunk Railway)  had transformed Upper & Lower Canada into “Canada”. The idea of Canada then expanded to the Maritimes and British Columbia. It is difficult to say how deeply the inhabitants identified with the new Canada as many opposed Confederation and the name “Canada” itself.

The economic, political and intellectual centre of Canada was its major rail center, Montreal (1860-1960).  With the decline of the railway and the shift to road and air travel, Canada’s “center” moved gradually to Toronto. The English community in Montreal declined and the City became French-speaking and less of a national center.

The railroad linking British Columbia to Central Canada was named the Canadian Pacific in the 1880’s (Note that the GTR of 1860 was only renamed the CNR in the 1920’s). The CPR of the 1880’s was then a product of Confederation in 1867.

The maple leaf was promoted as a symbol of Upper Canada and went on to become the symbol of the entire country even though it is not native to the Maritimes, Prairies, Northern Canada or British Columbia.

Railways made British North Americans more Victorian and more Canadian. For example, the name “Victoria” is found everywhere across the country, reflecting a 19thc mood.

Railway companies gradually began to be disliked and seen as “oppressive” (as was the case in Britain and the USA). By WW1 (1914-1918) there was tremendous criticism and opposition to the workings of Canadian railways. However, by the 21st century, rail travel is enjoying great public support, especially in cities.

Canadian nationalism did not spring from wars or revolutions but from a desire for cultural, political, and economic unity via railways.

 

“Copyright Statement”

Unless otherwise stated, all the photographs in the Introductory sections of the website are from The Gazette (Montreal) Archives. Coloured drawings by Michel Hellman are the copyright of the Jeanie Johnston Educational Foundation.

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