Crossing Canada by rail, we had a window on history

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Crossing Canada by rail, we had a window on history

(Vancouver) Jefferson’s decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory from the French for the bargain basement price of fifteen million dollars in 1803 is one of the most stunning exercises of Presidential authority in our history. Yet when Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore this patch of real estate that more than doubled the size of the country, they reported back that the absence of viable transport routes—no roads, few navigable rivers—meant that little could be done to economically exploit the new territory in the foreseeable future.

All that changed with the dramatic expansion of railroads. Very quickly the “Iron Horse” became the most visible symbol of the “Winning of the West”. Virtually all of America’s great cities west of the Mississippi owe their prominence to being located on the route of early railroads. The burgeoning fruit of the young nation’s mining, agriculture, and livestock were dependent on proximity to railheads.

When President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1954—arguably the most consequential legislation of the twentieth Century, and the only major federal program that entirely paid for itself—the eclipse of railroads began. The rapidly expanding network of federal highways did to railroads what television was simultaneously doing to Hollywood: imploding their market share by offering a cheap and attractive alternative. For the railroads it was even worse because just as highways were dramatically shrinking their freight business the explosion of automobile ownership and a rapidly expanding airline industry were robbing them of their passenger trade as well.

Within a generation the Golden Age of Rail was over, its final vestige being the government monopoly called Amtrakwith its Post Office—like inefficiency and oceans of red ink.

North of the border, rail service—though also government–run—has fared somewhat better owing to peculiarities of Canadian geography and demography.

Though larger geographically than the U.S. most of Canada lies in a frigid and forbidding landscape beautiful but largely inhospitable to human habitation. Consequently the great majority of Canadians live within one hundred and fifty miles of the U.S. border. This populated belt runs on an East-West axis stretching over 2000 miles from the Maritime Provinces to British Columbia.

These circumstances lend themselves naturally to the dominance of a single transcontinental railway: The Canadian National (CN). For those seeking a nostalgic reminder of the delights of rail travel and simultaneously a panoramic overview of the vastness, beauty and diversity of our northern neighbor a journey on the CN’s crack train “The Canadian” is highly recommended.

The journey this autumn for my wife and me began with a short flight from Boston to the vibrant city of Toronto—Canada’s largest. Following a couple of days of sampling local attractions we boarded “The Canadian” and immersed ourselves in a world of sleeping cars, dining cars, club cars, and observation domes. Friendly service, good and reasonably priced food, fidelity to schedule, and a remarkable run of fine weather, all contributed to this traveler’s satisfaction.

Moving west we passed through the seemingly endless tracts of tall forest in Western Ontario; then the relatively flat prairie of Manitoba, and entered the rising mountainous terrain of Alberta. We exited the train in Jasper, picked up a rental car and headed South on the excellent Provincial Highway 93 for a week’s excursion through Jasper and Banff national Parks.

In size, variety, and sheer majesty the Canadian Rocky Mountains have a bit of an edge on their also splendid American counterparts. In particular an ascent of Sulphur Mountain in Banff rewards the visitor with a breathtaking “Roof of the World” vista equaled in this traveler’s experience only by the Swiss Alps. This mountainous beauty is complemented by mammoth glaciers, ice fields, raging rivers, and crystalline lakes. Side trips to paddle a canoe in the cold clear waters of the magnificent Lake Louise, and hike through Johnson Canyon and the Athabasca Falls were special each in their own way.

Re–boarding our train in Jasper, the final leg of our transcontinental journey took us through the mountains of British Columbia to our rail terminus in the booming city of Vancouver—gateway to rapidly growing Asian Pacific trade routes and recently named by Michelin as one of the three most attractive cities in the world in terms of quality of life.

Having got this far by plane and rail it seemed only right to add a short sea journey across the Georgia Straits to Victoria, the island provincial capital of British Columbia. A beautiful port city in its own right- just a ferry ride from Seattle, Washington—Victoria is the most British of all Canadian cities and correspondingly rich in history as we were reminded while attending the ceremonial entrance of the Governor–General into the province’s most impressive capital building.

The latter event was a reminder that Queen Elizabeth II is Canada’s Head of State—the Governor–General is her representative—as she is of sixty other members of the British commonwealth of Nations large and small.

To American eyes there was something at once peculiar yet strangely moving in these manifestations of monarchial sentiment—the large contingent of Royal Canadian Mounted Police in their splendid scarlet tunics, silver spurs gleaning in the morning sun, kilted bagpipers rendering “Amazing Grace” and “Scotland the Brave”, dignitaries from across the province reciting professions of loyalty to the crown, uniformed school children clutching portraits of the Queen while singing the national anthems of both Canada and what even Americans used to call the “Mother Country”, and finally the aged veterans in vintage uniforms in rasping voices calling out the names of long forgotten battles of the Two World Wars—The Somme, Vimy Ridge, Flanders Field, Dieppe—in which tens of thousands of Canadians gave the last full measure of devotion on behalf of God, King and Country.

The good and politically active friend who gained me access to these ceremonies (and even lent me the jacket and tie required for the reception) was rewarded with a good thick steak at a Victoria restaurant and in the course of a most enjoyable reunion he brought me up to date on recent currents in Canadian politics.

When most Americans think of Canadian politics—if they do so at all—they have a blurred image of a quasi–European social democracy complete with creaking single payer health system, and people who think only of ice hockey.

Such images are highly deceptive and Americans could learn some valuable lessons from recent economic and political trends in Canada.

Canada has weathered the Recession significantly better than the U.S. Because they had no Fannie and Freddie there was no bursting housing bubble. Because their banks and investment houses had stricter (though not suffocating) regulation than the U.S. there were no comparable Lehman Brothers or AIG collapses, and notably no monstrous “bailouts”.

Much of the credit for this success goes to the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper who has led the country for the last five years. Avoiding divisive social issues Mr. Harper concentrated on promoting smaller government, lower taxes, deficit reduction, and a strongly market oriented management of the economy.

In the May federal election Canadian voters rewarded Mr. Harper’s Conservative Party with a stunning triumph while administering a crushing defeat to both the Liberal Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois. In fact the second largest party in the 308 seat House of Commons is now the previously 4th ranked New Democratic Party (NDP).

Candidates for the U.S. Presidency would do well to study the results of this election and learn from the above noted policies which won for Mr. Harper a powerful mandate from his countrymen. All evidence suggests that American voters will give similar primacy to economic issues as did their counterparts north of the border.

William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Washington Times, and The Denver Post. He is a Fellow of the Centennial Institute in Colorado.

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