I recently prepared a short entry for the Canadian Encyclopedia about the Last Spike and I realized once again how important a single nine-day stretch in November 1885 was in the history of the country.
As you know, the Last Spike marked the conclusion of the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The company held a modest ceremony at Eagle Pass not far from Revelstoke in the British Columbia interior on the morning of November 7, 1885. CPR director Donald Smith wielded the hammer, driving the iron spike that completed the transcontinental line. The photographs of the event are considered to be the most famous in Canadian history.
For many people the Spike came to symbolize “the birth of a nation,” the point when Canada could truly be said to be a unified country. The CPR, Pierre Berton argued in his two-volume history of the railway, was our “national dream” without which the nation would probably not exist. Travellers could now cross the country in five and a half days. By linking it east to west the railway made a united Canada possible. So the argument goes.
Yet at the same time as Smith’s hammer blow echoed through the Monashee Mountains, one of the most contentious, disunifying figures in Canadian history was languishing in a jail cell in Regina, waiting for the politicians in Ottawa to decide what to do with him. Louis Riel had surrendered to authorities on May 15 following the defeat of the uprising he led against the Canadian government in defence of Metis rights. He was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death.
Riel’s fate polarized the country. French-speaking Canadians saw him as a champion of their rights and demanded the commutation of his sentence. To English-speaking Canadians he was a traitorous rebel who deserved what was coming to him. Under extreme pressure, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald delayed, trying to figure out a way to hang Riel without paying the political price. In the end he let the execution go ahead. Riel hanged on November 16 at the NWMP barracks in Regina, nine days after the Last Spike.
Immediately Riel became a martyr to the cause of French-Canadian nationalism and minority rights. Wilfrid Laurier, then a Quebec MP, told a huge protest meeting in Montreal six days after the hanging: “Riel’s execution was a judicial murder.” His death shifted political allegiances and left a deep grievance among indigenous people and Francophones. The country was as sharply divided as it had ever been before, or since. All nine days after the completion of the railway that supposedly brought Canada together as a unified nation.
I’m reminded of the excess of optimism that accompanied Expo 67 in Montreal. The fair was supposed to have generated a whole new identity for Canada as a brash, sophisticated, forward-thinking country. It was our moment. “The last good year,” according to Pierre Berton. Yet before Expo had even closed its gates, Rene Levesque was forming his own separatist political party in Quebec, a move that shattered Canadian unity for years to come.
Unlike a railway a country is usually moving in more than one direction at a time. History is not an arrow, it’s a tilt-a-whirl. Are things getting better, or are they getting worse? Both. Is Canada more unified or less? Yes.
Canada is having another moment these days. Our young prime minister seems to have captured the public imagination. Our generous acceptance of refugees is held up as a model to the world. The sesquicentennial finds us feeling pretty good about ourselves. All of which probably means: get your head down, trouble ahead.