THE NATIONAL DREAM DERAILED
PETER C. NEWMAN
Thera was a time, not so long ago, when tarins made this country what it was
The following is an excerpt from Peter C.
Newman’s work in progress, The Canadian Revolution 1985-1995: From Deference to Defiance. The book, to be published this fall by Penguin Canada, brings Newman’s explorations of power in Canadian society to a chilling climax. “During the past decade, the country was transformed into a very different kind of community, and Canadians into a very different kind of people,” he writes. “The Canadian Revolution had no leader, no manifesto and no strategy. But it overthrew the established order just the same. The precipitous decline of trust in their once-sacrosanct touchstone institutions caused Canadians to rebel. The resultant shift in social values rejiggered elements of the Canadian character from being deferential to authority, to defying it at every turn. ” In the excerpt, from a chapter called “The National Dream Derailed,” Newman describes the impact of the disappearance of train travel, and the sustaining metaphor of the land, on the way Canadians think about themselves and their country:
Having been conceived aboard the Orient Express, I’ve always had a special feeling about trains, even to this day. They are—or more accurately, in Canada’s case, were—a singular way to travel. I was lucky enough to have been aboard for some of their last treks across Canada and fondly remember tossing in my berth, caught up in the hypnotic mantra of their noisy passage through the Prairie night—counterpoised by the clicks of wheels passing over rail joints: “I THINK I can; I THINK I can; I THOUGHT I could; I THOUGHT I could....”
About all that remains of those magnificent long-distance passenger trains is the jolt felt when driving over abandoned railway crossings on the edge of Canadian towns. But there was a time, not so long ago, when trains made this country what it was. “No nation owes more to the steel wheel on the steel rail,” historian Donald MacKay has written, “though it is not always clear whether railways were built to unite Canada, or Canada was created to justify the railway building.”
The first paragraph of the 1871 pact that brought British Columbia into Confederation stated that the Pacific coast must, within 10 years, be linked with Canada by a railway. (The only passage over the Rockies at the time was a strenuous journey by packhorse from Punch Bowl, near what is now Jasper.) Sir John A. Macdonald gambled his career on that railway. He knew that without it, most Canadian cities would become little more than dangling appendages of U.S. branch lines.
The Canadian Pacific Railway syndicate, which spent only $100 million of its own money on the rail line from North Bay, Ont., to
Port Moodie, B.C., was granted an astounding $206 million in cash subsidies by the Macdonald governments, plus 25 million acres of land along its route, which included some of the finest wheatgrowing acreage on earth. Railway-building dominated Canada’s fledgling Parliament for its first 30 years, and a CPR lobbyist once boasted that whenever the Speaker’s bells rang for a division, there were more MPs in his lodgings swilling free booze than there were in the Commons.
By 1915, Canada had 64,000 km of rail, built with government subsidies of $1.3 billion. Enough track had been set to traverse the longest span of Canadian territory east to west, from Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the Yukon-Alaska border, a dozen times over. The aweinspiring proportions of the Canadian railway system made it the foremost engineering marvel of its time. Government subsidies alone spent on Canadian rail construction were nine times greater than the estimated cost of building the Panama Canal. The railway promoters became folk legends, reviled and envied at the same time. They inspected their empire of track and land from ornate private cars, some equipped with bathtubs that had 14-karat-gold taps. The
CPR president Thomas Shaughnessy, who succeeded William Van Home as Canada’s leading railway baron, had a private rail car where he was dressed by a valet each morning, was fed by a private chef in a dining-room of Honduran mahogany and took his brandy in an observation room of Circassian walnut. The rail barons gestured with fat cigars, felt they mied the universe and rented the politicians they couldn’t buy. Railway building and politics became corresponding black arts, only marginally more ethical than piracy on the high seas.
But the railways did get built and there followed a golden age of steam that lasted from the 1890s to the 1950s. In 1913, when Canada’s population was seven million, an astounding 46 million passengers rode its rails. The ponderous locomotives were frightening to behold. Silhouetted against open boiler doors, engineers and firemen resembled demons. The smokestacks belched steam and fire; the whistles shrieked like curlews and the iron beasts squeaked away on six-foot driving wheels. “Hell in a harness,” the American frontiersman Davy Crockett said, upon first sight of one of these monstrous machines.
But inside their carriages, the trains offered civilizing comforts.
The plush green seats and mahogany panelling of the passenger cars, the rattle of crested china and silver-plated cutlery in the dining compartments, and the excitement of sleeping in the swaying Pullmans while the panorama of nature unfolded through the window: all these turned train travel into a memorable experience. (You always remember a train ride; you try to forget a flight.) The conductors, in their navy-blue uniforms with service bars, had the bearing and authority of ship captains. The big-city stations were not just functional depots but urban palaces of granite and fieldstone, as prominent as cathedrals and evoking the same sense of possibility and awe. Winnipeg’s Union Station, built in 1911, was the most beautiful of them all.
The unsophisticated steam train of the late 1880s physically and legally united this country, and its memory lingers still, symbolizing the open spaces it conquered and the simpler, less stressful times it represented. Although the last Canadian steam locomotive on a scheduled run pulled out of Winnipeg in the winter of 1960, passenger trains—the old-fashioned kind—remained an essential touchstone for succeeding generations of Canadians. Puffing their iron hearts out beyond the horizon, somewhere, in AÍ Purdy’s celebrated phrase, “north of summer,” these trains became the country’s dominant metaphor. While First Nations orators circumscribed their dreams by how long the rivers shall run, for Canadians of a certain vintage, the country seemed secure only as long as the trains ran—even if they never used them and even if they seldom ran on time. The railways were a silver cord that threaded its way through the farmland of the St. Lawrence, through the measureless plains and across the continental divide. Every small-town rail station was a link in a tangible chain that stretched a mari usque ad mare—from sea to (shining) sea. Because it gave form to a national dream; because a farm boy in Alberta could touch a rail and feel connected with the port of Montreal; because it was unbroken steel, no one could imagine how fragile this link would become.
Of my many train journeys, I remember most fondly the whistlestop tours during John Diefenbaker’s election campaigns of 1963 and 1965. The politician from Prince Albert, Sask., had been elected in 1958 with the largest mandate until then granted any Canadian prime minister. By the early 1960s, he had exhausted the patience of just about every member of every elite in the country. An ardent populist with the countenance and speaking style of an Old Testament prophet, his words sprang instinctively from him as he indulged in dreams and slogans that had only the vaguest connection
with contemporary reality. As it became obvious that he was incapable of managing the daily business of government, he lost the trust and support of nearly everyone except small-town Canadians.
In the face of near-universal rejection,
Diefenbaker retreated into a shell of his own. At the time, I wrote that like most self-made men, he began to worship his creator. By the mid-1960s, his most ardent disciples realized that he was a politician in the bleak evening of his career, to be used strictly for his symbolic value—just like the trains from which he insisted on campaigning.
During the first of those campaigns, on the run between Winnipeg and Saskatoon, his chartered train was supposed to stop only at Melville, Watrous and Semans, where local Tory organizers had promised to produce sizable crowds. But that timetable had to be scrapped when word of his tour got out and people began to gather at nearly every whistlestop. I remember watching the inhabitants of those flat, sad little towns turn out by the hundreds in the March chill to pay deference to their champion. He strode the station platforms, shaking hands and patting backs, a scramble of yelping dogs and children following his every move. He told a cluster of adoring supporters at Duck Lake, Sask.: ‘They say I’ve made mistakes, you know. But they’ve been mistakes of the heart. The last time I flew over the people. This time I’m down on the ground with you. I’m not asking for support of the powerful, the strong and the mighty—but of the average Canadian, the group to which I belong.” Diefenbaker lost office in the election that followed, but almost all of the ridings he had visited by train held fast.
Two years later, out of power and out of favor, Diefenbaker decided to campaign by private train across not just the Prairies, as he had done before, but across the entire country. His advisers had warned him that railway stations were no longer part of the active urban landscape and that few would turn out to see him. For the first leg of his journey it seemed they were right. I was on that train as it jolted out of Halifax. At Matapedia, Que., only five off-duty trainmen and three stray dogs greeted The Chief. At Amqui, Que., the local Tory candidate was one of a scattered half-dozen curiosity seekers who turned up. The candidate introduced his son as mon fils (my son) to his party leader. In response, the least bilingual prime minister in Canadian history smiled and replied: “Ah. Bonjour, Monsewer Monfils.” It wasn’t until we hit Saskatchewan and Alberta that the campaign got its kick start. We puffed into the Prairie platforms at 20-minute intervals, and John Diefenbaker moved like a legend over the land.
Everywhere the train stopped, people crowded about to catch a glimpse of him. The men, standing with their thumbs hooked into the front of notched belts, awkwardly raised their arms to wave at the former prime minister, while the women, wind fluttering their hair, executed rusty curtsies and shook his hand. Here, framed by the impatient
train, was an instinctive communion that would never be repeated. Watching the scene from a polite distance, I realized the tableau was far more than a partisan political occasion. The locals who turned out at these soon-to-be abandoned railway stations were there not because they were Tories, but because the visitor reminded them of a time when they were at the forefront of Canadian civilization. Despite their impeccable manners, anger and resentment motivated their politics. They had turned the virgin sod into wheat fields and fought the good fight in two World Wars, kept the faith and their part of the bargain. In return, they had been pushed aside by a world they had seldom visited, and lost influence and their legacy to the moneyed navel gazers of the urban East who had never served their harsh apprenticeship.
Clearing land in the plains meant tearing at the stubborn rock with bare arms and bent back. Displaced discs, strangulated hernias, strokes, frostbite and heart attacks were a
daily hazard, not to mention dismemberment by machinery or death by influenza. These pioneers had learned the hard way that any battle against cold, wind and rock yields no victories, only the postponement of defeat. Two things sustained them in that great lone land—wishful thinking and the rail lines.
Like his people, John Diefenbaker had been written off as irrelevant. To make matters worse, he was literally falling apart. His jaw had collapsed around his shirt collar like a Madame Tussaud wax figure in which the paraffin has run. Parkinson’s disease caused him to shake uncontrollably, advanced years had weakened the once-powerful voice. Yet the mere presence of the man evoked the vanished virtues of a time when buffalo bones still littered the Prairies, Red River carts creaked along the Battleford Trail and people did a little business so they could socialize, instead of the other way round. Diefenbaker absorbed the fever of these events, which was like a hot swift fire that burned away the scrub of a hidebound life. At Melville, Sask., the Tory leader asked an old-timer when he had come West.
“Nineteen ought-three,” was the laconic reply.
“But which month?” Diefenbaker persisted.
A gleeful Diefenbaker shot back: ‘We came in August!”
As the Diefenbaker train went tumbling through the nightside of its time, the press car echoed with the tapping of portable typewriters, the tinkling of glasses and the slap of cards on poker tables. At a whistle-stop in Richmond Hill, Ont., a supporter had given Diefenbaker a chrome cage with a yellow canary. For some obscure reason the Tory leader, who rode in a private coach at the back of the train, decided that he would win the election only if the canary sang. The bird uttered nary a cheep, but on the morning of Nov. 6, 1965, between Saskatoon and Prince Albert, the steward serving his car took pity on the old man. When Dief s back was turned, the steward whistled an acceptable canary imitation. Diefenbaker became very excited, generating the second wind he needed to finish the campaign.
The Prairies became a land to flee across; every town, village and whistle-stop, a destination. Just outside Stettler, Alta., we 1 passed a couple of ragged kids waving a hand-lettered sign with § the hopeful spelling: “Deif for Cheif.” At Morse, Sask., a clutch of
local musicians serenaded Diefenbaker with a ragged version of The Thunderer, none of us journalists could file copy because the telegraph agent was the band’s drummer. At every stop we were greeted by placards with the scribbled message: “He cared enough to come.” At Swift Current, Sask., 21 ladies in blue gowns sang Land of Hope and Glory from the flatbed of a Mack truck. Diefenbaker lost the election, his last as PC leader, but he held every western seat. And somewhere along that final train ride an old man sat by the tracks in the twilight, holding up a sign that read: “John, you’ll never die.”
But he did (in 1979) and his trains vanished with him. I saw many of those Prairie whistle-stop inhabitants one more time two years later, on May 24, 1967, when angry farmers staged their last grand march on Ottawa. I mingled among them, saddened by the palpable sense they exuded of not only being dispossessed, but forgotten. They stood on that spring afternoon in their ill-fitting suits on the manicured parliamentary lawns, making their claim to be heard, but nothing happened. Lester Pearson, who was then prime minister, did not deign to appear. The hapless minion sent out to appease the milling mob served only to enrage it. The decline of power among those who worked the land and the decline of the railway that crossed it were more than a mere coincidence of history. The one was very much implicated in the other, although Diefenbaker was the last politician who understood—and worked—the connection.
The first serious rail cuts of the mid-1960s were followed in 1978 by the establishment of Via Rail, a federal agency established to run what was left of the nation’s passenger rail traffic. The Trudeau Liberals eliminated 20 per cent of its unprofitable services in 1981. The subsequent Tory government at first put in more funds, then in 1990 imposed the deepest cut of all. Half of Via’s remaining network was made redundant, including the CPR’s historic Canadian, the train that followed the line’s original route through Hornepayne, Ont. By then, less than 10 per cent of Canadians had actually travelled by train. The populist protests against the rail cuts were as vicious as they were unexpected.
Effective Jan. 15, 1990, the three per cent of Canadians who still regularly took the train found their Via service had been cut
A silver cord united the country
in half. The federal government had sliced its operating subsidy from $800 million to $350 million a year. Gone were most regional services and the southern transcontinental route from Montreal to Vancouver, via Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary. It was still possible to cross the country by train, at a cost nearly double that of air travel, on the three days a week when the remaining northern route was still open.
At the level of pure logic, the rail cuts made sense. But logic had nothing to do with it and, in retrospect, there was no reason to think that it should. The great passenger trains were a national symbol—still are, years after their demise—and symbols do not operate on the level of logic, but of emotion. The nationalists who boarded The Canadian for its last journey, the poets, writers and journalists who joined them in spirit, the child who waved at a passing caboose before it, too, disappeared—all understood the train as a symbol that united a
people with the great mystery of their land. It wasn’t so much that they actually used the trains (I’ve only travelled on Canadian rail a half-dozen times since those Diefenbaker pantomimes), but they wanted to feel the trains were still out there, rolling sentries on the land bridge that had given this country birth.
By killing the trains, Brian Mulroney was accused of killing the country. Stanley Hartt, the deputy minister of finance who would later become Mulroney’s chief of staff, sat in on the cabinet committee meetings that decreed the depth of the Via budget cuts. “You know what we should do?” he remembered suggesting, semi-seriously, to his colleagues. “We should buy a stereo amplifier company and install amplified speaker systems at every level crossing in the country that go ‘choo-choo’ and reproduce the sound of train whistles. People will think that we still have trains. Since they don’t ever use them anyway, they wouldn’t realize the real trains were gone!”
The last Canadian crossed the country on Jan. 17, 1990.
The train crew wanted to mark the historic occasion by paying tribute to the CPR’s beginnings.
They asked to lay a wreath at the monument in Craigellachie, the whistle-stop near the Monashee Mountains where the last spike had been hammered in place by the railroad financier Donald Smith on Nov. 7,1885. Railway management withheld permission to make that sentimental stop, so the trainmen decided they would throw their wreath off the baggage car at the appropriate moment. But when the diesel engineer slowed down, he forgot to notify the crew. Nothing happened. So much for history. Yet if Paris was worth a mass, surely Craigellachie was worth a stop.
Doug Young, transport minister in the Chrétien government, announced in the summer of 1994 that all rail subsidies would be eliminated by the year 2005. “The national dream of iron horses, steel rails and steam,” he said, “is dead. The national dream today is to try to protect the integrity of social programs such as the Canada
‘The press car echoed with the tapping of portable typewriters, the tinkling of glasses’
Pension Plan and medicare. Railroads are just another way of moving people and goods. They don’t get my heart going pitty-pat or anything like that.” It was a frigid epitaph.
t some point on the last of those evocative journeys with John Diefenbaker— and I still don’t know if it was the result of having been aboard that train for most of a month or soaking in too much atmosphere at those Prairie way stations—I began to understand why trains and the land they opened had become such essential elements in any debate about Canada’s national identity.
I particularly remember one night when our iron horse was late leaving Fort Macleod. I went for a walk under the darkening sweep of the Prairie sky. What this elusive Canadianism of ours consisted of, I decided that evening—encouraged by the clarity of thought provided by a bottle of domestic vin blanc de qualité—was a kind of crazy pride that we had outlasted and outfoxed the elements. We may have been a nation perpetually on the brink of breakup but damn it, we were still here. Despite our willingness to put ourselves down, our habit of avoiding the envy of others as a strategy for success, there was a certain valor in our humble stand against an impossible geography and a hopeless climate.
All men and women are sons and daughters of their geography, but nowhere is this more evident than in Canada, where the dominant gene of nationhood has been possession of the land itself. Canadians made their claim to citizenship by planting settlements on the shoulders of shores, the elbows of rivers and the laps of mountains. The main instrument in that process was the railways.
That connection between rail and land formed an early and essential
image of ourselves as a people. Rail provided an imprint of the land upon the mind of a nation in its infancy. We subscribed to the cri de coeur of historian A R. M. Lower of Queen’s University: “From the land, must come the soul of Canada.” Duddy Kravitz, the antihero created by author Mordecai Richler, expressed the same thought only not quite so nobly. “A man without land,” he whined, “is a nobody.” The concept of the land was as much an organizing principle of Canada as Catholicism was to the Vatican. There really was no other legitimate reason for its being.
As the railways opened up more of the empty territories, place names began to indicate not just an isolated whistle-stop of felled underbrush and a few root cellars, but locations of noteworthy events. Still, it was less a tally of those events than the land itself that became the chronometer by which Canadians measured their lives. In many ways, their history was a series of plays performed on a vast stage—but the stage, and not the play, was the thing. It was a point of view that came from having tamed the largest national hunk of the Earth’s crust, connecting three great oceans. That undertaking became a magnificent obsession and it left Canadians magnificently obsessed with the land.
A place belongs to those who claim it the hardest, and Canadians—
The fragile link of steel was broken
or at least that hardy generation that came out to greet John Diefenbaker—had claimed the land and, in turn, been claimed by it. Land-asIdentity became an accepted axiom, with territorial integrity becoming the country’s strongest sustaining myth.
Canada happily bargained away its energy resources to outside investors, sold ownership in its mines and oil wells at rock-bottom prices, spun off to strangers most of its manufacturing assets, relinquished to foreigners its capital, entrepreneurial skills and management class, allowed Hollywood and Madison Avenue to dictate its popular culture and voluntarily became a client state of the Pentagon. But let a foreigner sail through the Northwest Passage, export a drop of its water or lay claim to a grain of its land and Canadians became fierce defenders of their patrimony.
Part of the reason for Canadian land-mania was the country’s outrageous size. A continent in all but name, Canada stretches across 88 degrees of longitude and 42 degrees of latitude, its six time zones spanning a quarter of the Earth’s day.
Overlaid on a map of Europe, Canada would reach from the west coast of Ireland across the continent to the east of the Ural Mountains, deep in Asia. This vast landscape owed its predominant imagery to the Group of Seven, those magnificent visionaries of the 1920s who invented new techniques to capture the breathtaking magnitude of Canada’s hinterland. “We came to know that it is only through the deep and vital experience of its total environment that a people identifies itself with its land, and gradually a deep and satisfying awareness develops,” reminisced Lawren Harris, the best of the Group of Seven painters, after one of his northern journeys. They, and the artists who followed, captured the essential hues of the Canadian landscape: the pewter-grey cliffs of Newfoundland, the scarlet slashes of Prince Edward Island’s soil, the verdant farms of rural Ontario, the rich, mahogany loam of Alberta’s eastern slopes and the moody blues of the Pacific Coast rain forests. Canadians have traditionally found spiritual sustenance in land and water, an inner solace that goes far beyond recharged brains or ventilated lungs. Marshall McLuhan postulated on the unique relationship of Canadians with nature. ‘We go outside to be alone,” he proclaimed, “we go inside to be with people; a pattern that is antithetic not only to Europeans, but to all other cultures.”
The trouble with having a national identity defined as an offshoot of nature is that it had so little to do with the Darwinian ethic of the 1980s. Once the passenger trains had stopped running, the romance went out of the land. For dwellers in the global village, circa 1995, the new frontier was the electronic territory known as cyberspace. Its landscapes were the virtual reality of Internet. They could no more indulge themselves in the luxury of whimsical visions
or put their trust in the land, than a rail car could carry freight on the information highway. Canadians after the age of rail may have felt connected by cellular phones, they may in fact have been linked with blinding efficiency by fax machines, e-mail and satellite, but these were puny next to a line of shining rail that a farm boy could hobble along, and dream. The former passed through the ether and was without nation, the other bound the land.
The retreat from Land-asIdentity had, of course, started with plane travel. Flying at 30,000 feet over clouds or, on those rare flights when clear skies afford a spectacular view of the most magnificent landscape in creation, with blinds drawn to watch some third-rate Hollywood epic, was no way to æ touch the Earth. During the % decade covered by this book, 5 the decade in which the coun§ try lost touch with itself and § Canadians lost touch with their > country, more Canadians travelled than ever before. More travelled within their own country. But the country, to them, was a string of dismal concrete airports and hotel chains. Besides that, air passengers and distance flown—both sensitive to recession—were about the same in the early 1990s as they were a decade earlier. Growth in telecommunications, meanwhile, had catapulted. Passenger rail revenues peaked at $546 million in 1981; they have since fallen to about one-quarter of that and most of it is travelled on short commuter runs. There were still, at decade’s end, 70,000 commuters in Toronto and Montreal who rode the rails daily to work. But they were as disconnected from the land as any airplane passenger. During that same period, freight on the telephone lines doubled, from about $7 billion to $14 billion in telephone revenues. There could be no denying that Canadians, in a very real way, were staying in touch with each other, but had lost touch with the land.
In a merciless global environment, land as a dominant theme of identity no longer filled the bill. In the new lexicon of values, land was just glorified dirt—and space, the air that filled the holes between places. If a suitable anthem for Canada before the 1980s was the haunting melody and lyric of Gilles Vigneault, Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver (My country is not a country, it is winter), then Canada in the 1990s marched to Tom Cochrane’s Life Is a Highway. Canada’s geography was still, and would always be, important. But instead of being the defining element of the country, land had become a mere backdrop to other events. Yet another once-reliable touchstone of the past had vanished.
Land had become increasingly abstract and unreal. There was no longer any attachment to the land, in the sense that no national politician would ever find it necessary to actually cross it, let alone dream of such a thing. With the trains gone, it could never happen again. It wasn’t hard steel after all, but a thin umbilical cord of silk and dreams and hands shaken on platforms. It connected a people with the mother soil. When it was cut, it was cut forever. □