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Last week I talked about the first railroad that Canada ever built, the Champlain and St. Lawrence Railroad. This week, we are going to jump ahead a few decades, past Confederation, to the debate over the arrival of British Columbia into Confederation.
Make no mistake, without British Columbia, there would be no railroad across the continent as we know it. In this episode, I am going to be diving deep into bringing British Columbia into Confederation because its role was so important in the creation of the railroad. Just as in the previous episode, we had to look at the first railroad, we need to now look at the promise made to British Columbia.
It was not until the mid-1770s that European powers began to arrive in the land that would be British Columbia. The fur trade was extremely profitable and that would bring in both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. These two companies putting in forts, mapping the land and encouraging traders to find the Indigenous would give the area a strong British feel, much more than was seen in what would be the Northwest United States.
The Hudson’s Bay Company controlled nearly all the trade in the Pacific Northwest, out of Fort Vancouver. The Fort served as the nexus of fur trade on the Pacific Coast, with the fort managing the affair of 600 employees, six ships, 24 ports and 34 outposts.
In 1843, Fort Victoria was established in order to assert British claims over Vancouver Island, and to protect Hudson’s Bay Company interests in the region.
In 1849, the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island was created. In 1851, James Douglas became the Governor of the colony, and today he is called the father of British Columbia. He began to expand the economic base of the new colony and purchased land for settlement and development.
On Aug. 2, 1858, the Colonial Office established the colony of British Columbia. This designation was made due to the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush that brought in huge numbers of Americans looking to cash in on gold. There was the worry that too many Americans coming in would lead to the United States making it part of their territory.
Now serving as a colony, under the government of Britain, it was called the “bulwark in the farthest west”
Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in the Colonial Office, wanted, quote:
“representatives of the best of British culture, not just a police force.”
For the next decade, the colony would grow as more people came in to not only take advantage of further gold rushes, but the mild weather and excellent growing conditions. T
For the government in Ottawa, there was a strong desire to bring British Columbia into Confederation because many saw it as the first step to creating a country that went from sea-to-sea. In 1870, Canada had acquired Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company, an area that amounted to eight million square kilometres of land, covering parts of the North West Territories, Manitoba, Ontario, as well as Alberta and Saskatchewan. With that land, and the potential for American annexation of British Columbia, the drive was one to bring the province into the country.
When Canada became a country, there were three options open to British Columbia. They could be annexed by the United States, they could continue to be a British colony, much as Newfoundland was and would remain as until 1949, or the colony could join Canada as a new province.
In terms of remaining a British Colony, there was little enthusiasm for keeping British Columbia as a colony. Admiral Joseph Denman told the British Admiralty that British Columbia did not deserve Royal Navy protection, and that the government should, quote:
“divest herself of these possessions by any means consistent with honor.”
The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Granville, stated that he hoped British Columbia would become independent and annex itself.
The London Times would state quote:
Joining the United States was something several residents supported. Many saw the British Columbia was already linked economically with San Francisco and American currency was used heavily in the colony. The nearest British settlement to the colony was Manitoba, 3,218 kilometres to the east, and Hong Kong across the Pacific Ocean to the west. San Francisco was much closer and had a population of 60,000, while Victoria only had 4,000. Even the mail that came into Victoria came through San Francisco.
The United States purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867, and while some American residents celebrated, British residents worried about having the Americans to the north and south of the colony. The Secretary of State for the United States, William Seward, had a plan to have the entire Pacific Coast under United States control and with the United States completing its trans-continental railroad in 1869, that just made the idea of joining the country stronger among some residents. In April of 1867, a false report began to circulate that the British government was considering settling the Alabama claims by ceding the colony to America. While this wasn’t true, it stoked the annexation movement, which was supported by three of the six newspapers in the colony. That same year, Senator Alexander Ramsey of Minnesota put forward a proposal that the United States pay the Hudson’s Bay Company $6 million for Rupert’s Land, but this did not go anywhere. In 1869, 104 citizens of the colony signed a petition and sent it to President Ulysses S. Grant asking for annexation.
Among residents, there tended to be the view that both London and Washington were equal competitors for the colony, while Ottawa, was foreign and not as familiar, with Canada only being a couple years old itself. Among some residents, the choice of which country to remain with came down to the incentives they gave. Annexation to the United States was mostly supported by Victoria merchants, while the mainland supported joining Canada.
Among the residents though, there was a strong desire to remain part of the British Empire, and since there was little enthusiasm in London for the colony to remain as a colony, the logical path was to join Canada. Lord Granville, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the British Parliament persuaded the Legislative Council to pass a resolution that supported Confederation with Canada. For the British residents of the colony, Confederation was the best path to keep the connection to Britain.
The Confederation League was formed in the colony in 1867, which included Amor De Cosmos, the eccentric and future premier of British Columbia and John Robson, another premier. This league was formed due to the fear of annexation to the United States, the growing debt due to the huge population growth and the need for government-funded services to support the population in the colony. Before long, it became popular enough to establish branches in New Westminster, Hope, Yale and Lytton. On Sept. 14, 1868, the league held its Yale Conference with 26 Confederation League delegates passing 37 resolutions, all of which outlined terms for joining the Dominion of Canada.
In 1869, Governor Frederick Seymour, who was opposed to joining Confederation, suddenly passed away. As it turned out, this was good fortune who those who supported joining Canada. Anthony Musgrave replaced him, and he would support joining Canada.
One year after Canada acquired Rupert’s Land, British Columbia would join Confederation, but it did so on the promise of a connection to the rest of the country. There was little point in having a province so isolated from the rest of the country, and a road or railroad was the only way to make this new arrangement work. In return for joining Confederation, the Canadian government would also assume the colony’s debt.
It is a common myth that British Columbia demanded a railroad in return for joining Confederation, but this was not the case. The main concern was maintaining a connection to Britain, while also having the debt forgiven. Most residents of the colony believed that a wagon road would be built into the province, and little else. In fact, the Confederation League, when it made its resolutions, only asked for a wagon road to link the province.
Sir John A. Macdonald instead proposed the railroad as a substitute, as it was not only a method to connect British Columbia to Canada, but to encourage settlement in the Prairies and to assert Canadian control over that land.
As for the railroad, the promise was that there would be a railroad connecting the province to the rest of Canada within 10 years, with a deadline of July 20, 1881, put forward.
That would not be the case.
While the railroad was not demanded by the new residents of British Columbia, once they had the promise of a railroad, it became the main condition of remaining in Canada until eventually, it became the only reason to remain in Canada.
Three years after British Columbia joined Canada, the deadline for construction to begin was fast approaching on July 20, 1873, two years to the day that British Columbia joined Canada. Two days prior to this deadline, a symbolic commencement of construction was conducted. Sir John A. Macdonald would also have a survey party run a location line for a portion of the proposed Vancouver Island Railway. He also chose Esquimalt as the terminus for the railroad. At this point, the route for the railroad had not even been decided upon and would not be for another five years.
At this point, having minimally fulfilled its first promise regarding construction, the government went back to inaction regarding the railroad. The provincial and federal governments began to argue back and forth over the question of relaxing the ten-year timeline, but this only created more deadlock.
Unfortunately for the residents of the province, there would be changes on the horizon and it would come in the form of the Pacific Scandal, which would bring down the government of Sir John A. Macdonald in 1873. I won’t go into this scandal here as I have an entire episode about it coming next week. Essentially, bribes were given to Conservative Party members in exchange for the railroad contract. When the scandal was exposed, Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie became the new prime minister of the country. The Liberals had opposed the railroad initially and they would attempt to modify the promise to British Columbia regarding the rail line. Prior to becoming prime minister, Mackenzie had stated that the railroad promise was, quote:
“a bargain made to be broken.”
The Liberals felt that the railway project would inflict an impossible condition upon Canada and that the cost of the railroad, expected to be $100 million, or billions today, was too much for the country to handle.
Mackenzie would say quote:
“in order to get some 10,000 people into the Union, the people of Canada were actually agreeing to pay $10,000 a head on their account.”
Edward Blake, former leader of the Liberal Party, stated quote:
One of Mackenzie’s first acts as prime minister was to remove Esquimalt as the terminus for the railroad. He also announced that he would be obtaining modification for the terms of union and of utilizing water stretches for transport across the continent, rather than a complete railroad across the country. The Canadian Pacific Railway Act of 1874 would repeal the original railway act of 1872.
Regarding the deadlock between the province and the federal government, Mackenzie would ask Lord Carnarvon, the Colonial Secretary in London to find a way past the impasse between the two governments. He agreed but stated that his decision had to be accepted, without question.
His decision would guarantee the building of the railway on Vancouver Island, which was a major point for the British Columbia representatives, as it meant Victoria would be part of the nationwide railway.
Despite the decision, the Mackenzie government continued to delay and in British Columbia there was a rallying cry of Carnarvon Terms or Separation. The defaulting on the terms agreed to created immense political opposition in British Columbia. Joseph Trutch, Lt. Governor of British Columbia, would write to his friend Sir John A. Macdonald and state quote:
“The temper of our community is greatly excited and set against Canada and the Canadians by the nonfulfillment of the Railway Clause of the Terms of Union and especially by the tone and manner regarding it taken by those who have expressed a desire for some readjustment of the obligations of Canada.”
By this point, the talk of seceding was becoming so strong that Lord Dufferin, the Governor General of Canada was brought in to deal with the situation. Upon news that the Governor General was becoming involved, a large meeting was held at the Philharmonic Hall in Victoria and an address was spoken, with the plan to present it to the Governor General. The address stated quote:
“The action of the Dominion Government in ignoring the Carnarvon settlement has produced a wide feeling of dissatisfaction towards Confederation. If the government fails to take practical steps to carry into effect the terms solemnly accepted by them, we must respectfully inform your Excellency that, in the opinion of a large number of people in this province, the withdrawal of this province from Confederation will be the inevitable result.”
Mackenzie would slowly grow more in line with the railroad idea, and he would introduce a bill that would begin immediate construction of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. Unfortunately, it met opposition from his own party. The bill would pass the House of Commons 101 to 62 through support from the Conservatives, but when it reached the Senate, it was defeated 24 to 21 and died at that point.
Upon the arrival of Lord Dufferin in British Columbia, he was presented with the address, but he declined to speak it and instead spoke privately with the meeting organizers, and he stated that the promised island railway would not happen. Lord Dufferin would state quote:
“The Crown would allow the Island to go, but the mainland will be held to the Dominion by inducements of self-interest which the building of the main line will furnish.”
He would spend two months in the province, visiting sites but he would state that the secession movement was political suicide.
While Lord Dufferin was meant to alleviate the sentiment of seceding, his visit did not help matters. On Sept. 9, 1876, the Carnarvon Club was formed with the object of, quote:
Premier A.C. Elliot and his provincial government would not align itself with the Carnarvon Club and became an ally of the Mackenzie and the Liberal government. On Vancouver Island, there was considerable anger towards this.
Soon after forming the Carnarvon Club held three public meetings. The first meeting, held on Sept. 19, 1876, had 700 people in attendance, all of whom voted in favour of separation. There was worry among the Elliot government that the Carnarvon Club would influence the upcoming election. This is exactly what happened as George Walkem was returned to power after two years in opposition in the May 23, 1878, election. Founded only two years previous, the Carnarvon Club had brought down a government and brought in a government more aligned to its interests.
One of the first things that Walkem did in power was to immediately pass a secession petition to Queen Victoria threatening to pull British Columbia out of Canadian Confederation.
At this point, even the survey of a route through British Columbia by Sir Sandford Fleming had not been completed and no definite route was expected to be found anytime soon.
Fortunately for British Columbia staying in Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald and his Conservative Party came back into power in 1878 with a majority government. With this election result, talk of secession in Canada quickly ended. This change in sentiment was seen when Macdonald lost his own Kingston seat in the election, and Victoria offered up a seat in its city for the prime minister.
While the route was still being planned, the decision was made to construct 127 miles of line from Yale to Kamloops and to take a route down the Fraser River to Burrard Inlet.
Work on the railroad once again started up, this time for real. On May 15, 1880, construction began at Yale and within five years, British Columbia would have its railroad, 14 years after it joined Canada.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, The Orca, Wikipedia, The Canadian Pacific Railway and British Columbia,