This article originally appeared in the Calgary Herald on July 1, 2016
As Canada Day celebrations begin, I find myself thinking about our country’s outstanding history of nation building. The construction of Canada’s first transcontinental railway comes to mind as the most important national infrastructure project of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Started back in 1881 by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada embarked on its first nation-building experience. The project was a bold and ambitious plan that ultimately unified and strengthened the country. The railroad promised social and economic prosperity, while sending a strong message to the United States that Canada was not interested in becoming just another state in the union.
On Nov. 7, 1885, the final spike was laid at Craigellachie, B.C., completing a 1,600-kilometre railroad linking together western and eastern Canada. The project required tremendous political courage and leadership, but the results were worth the effort. It crossed party lines and the country was focused on what it could become – a great nation of the north.
The railroad connected Western Canada’s resource-based economy with manufacturers in eastern Canada and created a powerful economic union in North America.
Pipelines, the railroads of our time, have the potential to deliver the same social and economic benefits experienced generations ago. They would inject billions of private investment dollars into a struggling Canadian economy, hire tens of thousands of Canadians and generate billions of dollars in future tax revenue to pay for social programs.
Moreover, they would tie the country together, securing our high standard of living and positioning Canada as the world’s preferred supplier of responsible oil and gas.
Although Canada has approximately 830,000 kilometres of pipelines, we still lack sufficient capacity to meet our own domestic needs and growing global demand. Oil and gas producers are beholden to a single market, and the United States consumes nearly 98 per cent of our petroleum exports.
Eastern Canada continues to import the majority of its oil from outside the country, often from countries with lower environmental, human rights and labour standards. This can all change, but where is the Macdonald and Laurier of our time to make it happen?
I often wonder how the railway debate unfolded back in the late 1800s, and if there are lessons to be learned from that experience? How did our political leaders of that time approach such a significant national decision? Was political decorum based on gotcha politics or a true dialogue of ideas?
Of course, the political culture was much different back then. There wasn’t access to timely public opinion data and limited communication options made it difficult to manage the media story. Politicians weren’t restricted to 140 characters, but influenced others with passionate speeches in Parliament. It was a time for visionary leaders with big ideas for a young, ambitious country. The railroad represented just as much a symbol of our can-do attitude as its promised social and economic benefits.
In those days, debates were won by delivering sound arguments, not political rhetoric. Decisions were made based on facts and evidence. It was a time where substance triumphed over style, and leaders were not afraid to make difficult decisions, especially when they were clearly in the national best interest. In fact, the leaders of that generation would often put their own political careers on the line to lead rather than follow.
It’s hard to see any similarities between today’s political realities and the past. Yet the decisions are no less important. The Trudeau government can choose the path taken by the Macdonald government – a choice to unite the country through a modern railway, energy pipelines, thereby paving the way for future prosperity and economic advantages for all Canadians.
According to a recent Abacus survey, 68 per cent of Canadians believe we should build new pipeline capacity and use more of our own oil resources. Canadians are ready for the next nation-building experience, something our political leaders appear reluctant to either believe or admit.
After the construction of the national railroad, Sir John A. Macdonald stated, “we are made one people by that road, that iron link has bound us together in such a way that we stand superior to most of the shafts of ill-fortune.”
For the sake of future generations, I hope we can do the same.
Mark A. Scholz is president of the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors and spokesman for Oil Respect