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COLUMN: Our iconic nation-builder may be leaving us

Canadian Pacific Railway, which helped unite Canada, may be moving headquarters to the U.S.

The great and glorious CPR, the railway that united a nation, brought us our national parks system and stimulated the economy that made Canada what is today may soon be leaving us … at least its corporate headquarters … for the United States.

This iconic company, like no other perhaps except for the Hudson’s Bay Company which is now also ‘resident’ in the U.S., typified the pioneering spirit that linked our nation from sea to shining sea.

Founded in 1881, the CPR was completed exactly 130 years ago, when on November 7, 1885 the historic last  spike was driven at Craigellachie, now little more than a pullout on the TransCanada Highway between Sicamous and Revelstoke.

Like today, the man behind the success of CP Rail and its initial construction was an American – William Cornelius Van Horne. Not only did he oversee its building, awestruck by the scenery when in the Rocky Mountains, Van Horne realized the tourism potential, urged the company to build hotels and suggested setting up a national park system to preserve the area’s beauty in perpetuity.

As anyone who has travelled the Rockies from Banff to Jasper can attest, his foresight resulted in the preservation of a spectacular scenic corridor that ranks as one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

Although Van Horne’s work was essentially completed with the first transcontinental train arriving in Port Moody in 1886, the CPR was just beginning.

My one and only trip on the route was as a three-year-old, along with family, from Halifax to Vancouver, and then aboard one of the CPR’s fleet of ships to Vancouver Island. I recall in later years, before WAC Bennett created the B.C. government-owned ferry fleet, often travelling between downtown Nanaimo and Vancouver aboard the “Princess” vessels Patricia, Marguerite, Elaine and other like-named vessels. These were ‘ships’ as opposed to ferries. However, Bennett’s take-over of the old Blackball Ferry line spelled the demise of CPR’s passenger service between the Island and Lower Mainland.

The railway and its many branches, on the other hand, was wildly prosperous. Its real estate holdings vast and its ability to carry Canadian resources to ports on both coasts for export, as well into the United States, made it a transportation behemoth.

And thus we come to today where CP Rail is courting, rather coolly it appears, the very large U.S. railway Norfolk Southern Corporation. Despite a $28-billion offer, NSC is a reluctant bride but the courtship has begun.

CP believes the merger would create possibly the strongest rail-shipping network on the continent, linking ports and intermodals location throughout North America. Additionally, CP is eyeing NSC’s very large real estate holdings with an eye to generating billions of dollars in revenue through their sale. CP is not unaware of the value of land, having been given 25 million acres by the Canadian government in exchange for building the railway.

That acreage became, under CP’s Marathon Realty, an enormous cash-cow, and led to hotel chains, development of much of Vancouver’s waterfront area, and projects across the country.

However, with the railway’s proposed continued expansion into the U.S. through acquisition of Norfolk Southern, there is the strong likelihood that the CPR’s headquarters will move from Calgary to a U.S. location.

For something that is so tied to the fabric of our nation, losing such an iconic entity that speaks to the world as Canada would be a shame. But, in the corporate world where shareholders make the decisions and national identity ranks well below profit-taking, that’s the price we might have to pay. That the name Canadian Pacific remains may be our bonus.

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