Learning Curve: Celebrating 150 years of Canada’s transportation history

by Tracy Clayson
Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.

As a country, we’ve come a long way from the primitive, early days when settlers homesteaded, developed their farms and, whether they knew it or not, laid some of the groundwork needed to create a nation. This year, Canada turns 150.

I think it is appropriate to thank our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, for the crucial role he played in steering us, and for helping to prevent our annexation to the United States of America in 1812.

And how we’ve grown since then.

When Canada came together in 1867, the population was estimated to be 3.5 million. According to Statistics Canada, our population stood at over 36 million in 2016 and has been growing by an average of about 250,000 every year for the last quarter century.

In 1867, commercial enterprises ranged from the Hudson’s Bay Company, est. 1670, the Molson Brewery, est. 1786 and the Bank of Montreal, est.1817. Clearly there was a pressing need for transportation by the time the Canadian Pacific Railway was incorporated in 1881.

You don’t have to be a historian, meteorologist or geographer to know the Canadian terrain and weather made it incredibly difficult to explore this land.

The fish and fur trades date back to the 1500s and the time of French explorer Jacques Cartier, when large trading posts could be found in places like Quebec City. Trade between First Nations and New France along the Great Lakes was also taking place, in an effort to satisfy European demands for the pelts that would produce new fashions for those across the ocean.

Much of the fur trade declined with a decrease in demand and the rising strength of the silk trade in the East.

While the railway development of the 19th century contributed to the successful expansion and economic growth of Canada, the industrial revolution brought increased demands for more raw materials, and forest and agricultural products. These had to be transported, for manufacturing, processing and exporting—sometimes at a great cost—over land and sea.

We still have the world’s longest coastline and vast fresh-water waterways, of course. According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, transportation in Canada today has grown into a $200-billion industry, with 450 million tonnes of freight moving on the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans and Great Lakes. Over 54 percent of Canada’s ocean freight arrives at the Port of Vancouver, 29 percent in Montreal, nine percent in Halifax and seven percent in Prince Rupert.

Buildings, logistics engineering and designs for bridges, roads, pipelines, and rail lines have always been a major transportation expense, especially considering our small population and giant land mass.

Sir Sandford Fleming, famous in part for surveying land for Canadian rail, first travelled by horse, oxcart and boat around 1850, and it took over three months to cross Canada.  When the railway was built, transportation from coast to coast could be done in a week. Today, the flight time from Newfoundland to British Columbia is now just eight hours!

The distribution and size of Canada’s trade makes us the world’s 11th largest exporter, with 78 percent of goods exported to our North American Free Trade Agreement partners, the US and Mexico, says Global Affairs Canada.

The future for Canada’s trade with the US might be uncertain and a serious consideration with the start of the Trump US presidency in January, but there is hope that Canada could soon increase its trade outside of North America.

What does the future look like for Canada’s transportation sector? Depending on the strength of our largest trading partners and their willingness to do business with us, we are well positioned to offer multimodal transportation options to meet the needs of a range of industries.

Current data shows growth in exports of wood, aircraft and spacecraft and automotive parts, while declines in crude oil and minerals continue.
Whether these products ship by sea, rail, road or air, in manned or unmanned vehicles, we have a long way to go to perfect the designs for, and planning of, extremely efficient movement of goods. But we have also come a long way—and that’s worth celebrating.