Rail, Empires, and CommunicationJun 7, 2013 ● Build Strong Cities ● Kadie Ward
Riding across Canada one can’t help but reflect on the importance of the construction of the rail in Canada’s history. In particular, I am reminded of Harold Innis “Empire and Communications.” Innis argues that communication platforms impact the political, social, and economic growth of nations. Innis has noted that historically “the effective government of large areas depends to a very important extent on the efficiency of communication,” and that the technologies of communication extend and strengthen empires. One could argue that the railroad created a kind of “economic communication” that birthed our country.
Canada’s economy is predicated upon transportation and communication technology. At the time rail construction began, Canada was a sparsely populated territory with rocks, mountains, and sheer distance inhibiting contact between those living in several distinct areas. As Charland argues, Canada owes its existence to technologies that overcame these obstacles.
In part those were the railway and telegraph lines, which enabled the movement of goods and information across the “wilderness” of a young Canada. In addition to building trade and communication lines, the trans-Canada rail enabled the development of a political state and possibility of a nation by extending Ottawa’s authority to exclude American interests that were moving into western Canada.
Beyond physically linking the country to facilitate commercial exchange and political administration, the railway offered a mythic tale of our nation’s origin. The railway as a national project legitimized our sovereignty as a united Canada. It was an epic project constructed despite political, economic, and geographic struggle built on the idea that a nation could be constructed by binging space. For Canada to exist barriers between regions had to be removed with communications between regions improved.
The very idea of Canada, its historical and mythical origins, is bound up in the sagas of the Canadian Pacific Railways (CPR) and the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation. Canada’s first national radio network was established by a railway in 1924. The Canadian National Railway initially broadcast to passenger cars and developed a network of stations across Canada to promote Canadian culture. Just as the railroad connected the Canadian economy, the radio sought to connect Canadians with information.
The rail and evolution of radio as forms of economic communication in Canada laid the foundation for new platforms to emerge. Now 128 years later we are facing a new platform for “economic communication:” fibre. I’ve heard fibre referred to as the “railroad of the 21st century” alluding to the historical significance of the rail in Canada’s economic development and the impact fibre will have on ushering our economy into the future. As rail moved grain and other natural and manufactured goods through Canada 07to distribution channels for international markets, fibre will move data and ideas: the next great currency of economic growth.
The need now to connect ideas and move data is as relevant and significant as connecting our nation from coast to coast and move Canadian goods to international markets.