Canmore author Stephen R. Bown explores the building of the railway, Canada's biggest megaproject

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No one could ever accuse writer Stephen R. Bown of lacking ambition in his most recent books.

In 2020, the Canmore-based author published The Company: The Rise and Fall of Hudson’s Bay Empire, a revisionist take on the fur-trading juggernaut and the impact it had on the formation and development of our country. Bown, who has written 11 historical books on everything from early 20th-century Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen to the 1741 shipwreck of the St. Peter along the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, suspected that most Canadians only thought they knew the history of “The Company” and that the real story had never been fully documented. The 500-page tome won the J.W. Dafoe Book Prize and the National Business Book Award and Bown was praised for his exhaustive research.

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When it came to following up that book, Bown zeroed in on another nation-making project, the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. As with Hudson’s Bay, the story of the CPR had been told before. But, as with past takes on Hudson’s Bay, Bown saw that past explorations did not do a particularly good job of documenting the true cost of this wildly ambitious enterprise. More than 3,000 kilometres of track was constructed, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific to connect the the British colonies in the late 19th century. It was a formidable task and helped create modern Canada. But for Bown, retelling the history wasn’t enough.

“What I wanted to do was update the national narrative on some of these big events to show multiple dimensions of it,” says Bown, in an interview from his home in Canmore. “I won’t even say both sides, because clearly there are a whole bunch of different things going on and points of view. If we can broaden the national story to include all the divergent voices from that time period and different perspectives of what was going on and the stories about how some people were thriving and others were being crushed down, then at least we’ll have some basis in fact for understanding the world and draw people together so at least there is a common foundation.”

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In the first paragraph of the introduction to Dominion: The Railway and the Rise of Canada, Bown makes it clear that his account will not be a repeat of past chronicles, including Pierre Burton’s national cheerleading in 1970’s The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871-1881 and 1971’s The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881-1885. Bown acknowledges the Canadian Pacific Railway as Canada’s “first and greatest megaproject, a political and engineering feat of staggering dimension” but writes it also a “horrible environmental and social tragedy” that “enabled the often-cruel repression of the land’s original inhabitants and the exploitation of thousands of labourers.”

Bown says it was the most difficult book he has ever written, joking that maybe he should “go back to writing about shipwrecks.” But to present different perspectives, he had to find them. That included consulting resources that wouldn’t have been available to writers in the 1970s. Among the colourful characters Bown introduces in the book is R.M Rylatt, one of the surveyors in British Columbia, who left England in 1871 to work for the railway and whose recently unearthed first-hand account of the hardships facing workers offered a new perspective; and Dukesang Wong, who was among the hundreds of thousands who came to Canada in the mid-19th century and, through his diary, provided what is believed to be the only first-hand account by a Chinese railway worker.

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“Most of these people were illiterate, so they didn’t make any records of their time there,” Bown says. “They were illiterate in Chinese and English. Dukesang Wong wrote in Chinese, but his journal was very enlightening. You couldn’t include that before because the information doesn’t exist, it does now. Also, the journal of one of the surveyors who was there travelling around, making interesting observations on the world and the changes and the scenery. That didn’t exist either. So it was a combination of new information coming to light and new ways of looking at it. Rather than just cheerleading about how fast and how speedy the railway came across the prairies, you might want to look at the number of treaties and how agents were sent out to sign agreements with Indigenous people across the lands specifically to make sure the railway was not going to encounter violent conflict. But, also, John A. MacDonald wanted to claim all that land as part of Canada (although), of course, there (were) people living on it.”

MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was a main player in moving the idea of a railroad ahead, determined to make Canada a cross-continental country like the United States.

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“It was because of his passionate hatred of American expansionism,” Bown says. “He didn’t like Americans. He didn’t like anything about them. Most of his career was spent trying to prevent Americans from conquering and taking over all that part of North America. The colony of British Columbia, Victoria on Vancouver Island, was several thousand people. The gold rush had happened. American miners had swamped in during the gold rush. Some of them had left. All of their commerce was with California, and San Francisco. To the north of them, Americans had purchased Alaska. To the south was Washington State … to the east of them were impenetrable mountains: no roads, no path, no railway and no way of getting any communication through. It was pretty obvious that whole thing was going to be part of the U.S. It was only the promise that if you join our new dominion of Canada, we’re going to build you a railroad.”

So, in the end,  Dominion became a book that was not just about the railroad but a broader look at how the country was born.

“The whole railway was a massive, dramatic undertaking,” he says. “It was like the spine of the nation. Without the railway, there would be no Canada.”

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