When British Columbia became a Canadian province in 1871, Prime Minister Macdonald boldly promised that a transcontinental railroad would link it to Ontario and Quebec within twelve years. The performance he put on in this effort to give fuller substance to the motto of the Dominion, A mari usque ad mare (From sea to sea), was possibly the most brilliant as well as the most controversial of his long and tempestuous career. For a relatively undeveloped country of less than four million people to build such a railway was, technically and financially, a Herculean project. Attacking with new gusto in 1878, after five years out of office, Sir John worked intimately with a talented group of financiers and engineers who by 1884 had pushed the Canadian Pacific tracks across fifteen hundred miles of muskeg, lakes, rivers, canyons, and towering mountain ranges. It cost a fabulous amount of money as well as energy, however, and the builders repeatedly applied for public loans, which were granted with increasing reluctance. Ironically, what saved the day for the railway was another Métis uprising, once more led by Louis Riel, who returned to the Canadian West in 1884 after many years in the United States (and two, incognito, in Quebec mental hospitals). This time Canada’s Plains Indians shared the Métis grievances: extinction of the buffalo herds, rather strict control by the North West Mounted Police (formed in 1873), growing numbers of land-grabbing settlers—and now, intensification of all these pressures by the relentless advance of the railroad. The unbalanced Riel failed to prevent violence, and there were short but bloody encounters between Métis and Canadian troops who were swiftly transported to the troubled area by the new railroad, thereby greatly improving its public image. The rebellion was quelled, but the dispute over Riel raged anew between Ontario and Quebec—greatly intensified when he was hanged as a traitor in November, 1885. That same month, the Canadian Pacific reached the west const. The Dominion had been tied together with bands of steel.


Though physically united by the railroad, Canada suffered from severe political division as well as severe economic depression between 1885 and 1896. Then came a more hopeful time under the premiership of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a Canadien who dreamed of a truly national Canada and did much to make it a reality. He was assisted by a remarkable upswing in the country’s economy: between 1897 and the start of World War I, Canada moved from near stagnation to become economically the most rapidly developing nation in the world. “Natural” products like fur, fish, and rough timber (above: hauling logs on the Ottawa, 1871) had been the chief sources of her national wealth; now more sophisticated industries began to dominate. It took decades of painful experimentation before Canadians developed a variety of wheat and the agricultural techniques suited to the relatively cold and arid northern plains; but by 1900 Canada was on the way to becoming “the breadbasket of the world.” (Above: a great wheat field in Alberta, in 1906—“sowed 22nd March, reaped igth August.”) At the same time there was an enormous surge in newer enterprises: canned fish; packed meat; pulp and paper; dairy products; copper, nickel, platinum, and other minerals; hydroelectric power—and widely diversified manufactured goods. For all her internal disparities, Canada had grown into a nation to count among the world’s powers. It remained lor her to sustain and mature her nationhood.


Sir John A. Macdonald , Conservative, 1867–73; 1878–91 . The new Dominion’s chief architect (above, in an efection poster of 1891) staked everything on westward expansion and the transcontinental railway—and won. Intuitive and unpredictable, sly and merciless, but more than any successor a man of the people, revelling in controversy. Notorious for boozing and for juicy stories. In 1873, campaign-fund scandals forced him to resign, but he staged brilliant comeback in 1878 and won again in elections of 1882, 1887, 1891. Held Quebec by careful alliances with strong French-speaking partners, while Ontario was at his feet when he thundered: “A British subject 1 was born, a British subject I will die.” His most serious adversary was the ghost of Louis Riel; failure to grant a pardon unhinged Macdonald’s Quebec following. A political opportunist, he followed often-contradictory policies. His clever delaying tactics won him the affectionate nickname, “Old Tomorrow.” With Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, he belongs to the trio of “greats” who have dominated modern Canadian history.