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The time and date: 9 a.m., Nov. 7, 1885, a sullen, bone-chilling day with wet snow hanging from the conifers and the mountaintops hidden in cloud.

The place: Craigellachie, a few kilometres west of the Eagle Pass summit between Revelstoke and Sicamous, B.C.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was just yards from completion. The last two rails were brought forward and measured for cutting, with bets being made on the exact length that would be needed to link the track coming from the west with the track that had been built from the east. It came to 25 feet, five inches.

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One rail was laid in place and spiked. Then the second rail . . .

The dignitaries came out of their private rail cars. Donald A. Smith, the eldest of the four directors present from the CPR, was given the honour of hammering in the last spike. He bent the first one, was given a second and drove it home. It was promptly replaced by a third to prevent souvenir hunters from grabbing the ceremonial spike.

The affair was over in minutes. The infant nation of Canada had its transcontinental railway. There were no speeches, no refreshments. no bands. The CPR, on the lip of bankruptcy, could afford no frills. A glorious achievement, just nine days before one of the darkest moments in Canadian history: the hanging of Louis Riel.

What we learned from the last spike

The CPR was an entrepreneurial gamble, not a collective dream

What's come down in history is the stirring tale of a railway that gave Canada its creation story. But what really happened wasn't a romantic national notion at all. The CPR was a gritty, grandiose and exploitative act of 19th-century capitalism. No public figure attended the hammering of the last spike. It was an event staged by a group of businessmen - and done as quickly and dourly as possible - to mark the completion of a privately owned railway, albeit one generously supported with public land and cash. "The Canadian Pacific was built for the purpose of making money for the shareholders and for no other purpose under the sun," said CPR vice-president William Cornelius Van Horne, an American.

Canadian business can be bold, too

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Once the line was completed, the CPR hired teams of writers, marketers and immigration promoters to sell Europe's poor on the idea of immigrating to the Canadian West and the wealthy of Europe and the United States on the idea of holidaying in the Canadian Eden. It built luxury hotels, created a global steamship line to bring people and goods to the country, and sent lecturers and exhibition vans to tour Europe with pamphlets, photographs and the new technology of moving pictures, including 13 dramatic films made by the Edison Company in the early 1900s featuring dramatic plots set against the impressive backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.

Political transparency can be helpful

Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, was forced to resign some years before the Last Spike after the Opposition Liberals discovered he had taken substantial political donations from financiers to whom he had given the railway contract.

Canadian geography is romantic in pictures but not when you're building things

Broadcaster Valerie Pringle, chair of the Trans Canada Trail, has discovered that building the 22,000-kilometre recreational route that will link Canada's three ocean coasts resonates with the CPR's tribulations. "It's harder than you think," she says. Building a trail through the Precambrian Shield on the north shore of Lake Superior has proved unfeasible, so a water route will be substituted for much of the way - echoing the first schemes for the transcontinental railway before it was decided to blast through the rock. And the Prairies are still sparsely populated, making it hard to find communities that will volunteer money, time and work for the trail, just as the CPR worried whether the Prairies would ever provide the revenue to justify building a railway across them.

If the CPR were to be built today...

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Mel Cappe, a former Clerk of the Privy Council - Canada's top public servant - and now a professor at the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy and Governance, offers this vision (with tongue planted firmly in his cheek) of what would happen is the CPR were to be built today.

Target date: 2042

"The environmental assessment would take 33 years and nine months. The land claim settlements of first nations would have to be resolved first. I would expect to target 2042 for completion of treaty negotiations. They would insist on first nations hiring of engineers and workers.

Who would build it?

"Chinese coolies [who built much of the original CPR line]would be banned from working on the project, not for humanitarian or human rights reasons, but rather from purely xenophobic anti-immigrant views.

Charter challenge

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"There would be a Charter of Rights and Freedoms constitutional challenge over whether this is actually a rail project and a national undertaking or a resource project with obvious provincial responsibility. The parliamentary debate would be complicated. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on National Undertakings would hold hearings every summer for 63 years. Provincial governments would insist on a First Ministers Conference. Then they would hold each other hostage to approval until they got bought off by the federal government or the [private business]proponent.

A net benefit?

"The U.S. would object, and file a WTO [World Trade Organization]challenge on the basis of non-compliance with procurement obligations. The proponents would be seen to be foreign-owned and thus FIRA [Foreign Investment Review Agency]would apply and the government would have to review net benefits to Canada. It would agonize about net benefit because of the exploitation of Canada by Van Horne raising money in New York.

"But Goldman Sachs would be able to raise the money in a day and a half."

Insurmountable difficulties

Preston Manning, president of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy in Calgary and former leader of the federal Reform Party, suggested (also with tongue in cheek) that the project might be halted by the Committee for Saving the Buffalo.

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He added (this time seriously): "The difficulties are insurmountable." He suggested the days of big infrastructure projects are over.

What is our next great national mission?

George Ham, an early CPR publicist, exulted over how the railway "magically transformed a widely scattered Dominion into a prosperous and progressive nation." Former prime minister Joe Clark, contemplating the nation two days before the Last Spike anniversary, told The Globe and Mail that "Canada is fragmenting in old ways and new and not much attention is being paid to the idea of being a nation."

So what can we do? Some leading Canadians share their visions of a new trans-Canadian connection.

High-Speed Rail

Could we revive our railway mythology and at the same time get ourselves out of our cars? Repeated polls have shown 80 per cent of Canadians approve of introducing high-speed rail in Canada.

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There's support from business and the public, and there's a citizens advocacy committee: High Speed Rail Canada - Le Train à grand vitesse au Canada. Three routes have been frequently proposed: Vancouver-Seattle, Edmonton-Calgary via Red Deer, and Quebec City-Windsor via Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and London. Work is in progress on the Vancouver-Seattle route, although it will not result in trains reaching speeds usually associated with high-speed rail.

The two most recent proposals - one by a consortium including Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin using French turbo-train technology; the other by Bombardier and Via Rail using Bombardier's JetTrain - have envisioned trains travelling at 320 km/h.

The federal government agreed in 2008 to participate in a $2-million Ontario-Quebec feasibility study on the Quebec-Windsor corridor, which is home to about half of Canada's population with a density comparable to France's Rhône Valley, where the French TGV operates.

National ecological survey

Preston Manning, the populist man of ideas from Alberta, feels national projects of a different sort stand a better chance of success. He proposes a national ecological survey, sort of like pulling together a passenger list for Noah's Ark so that we know what species are out there and how much has to be saved from the Flood.

Canadian democracy revival

Alex Himelfarb, a former Clerk of the Privy Council who writes a mind-catching blog on the public sphere (afhimelfarb.wordpress.com) wants renewal of democracy to be Canada's 21st-century CPR. Canadians will do nothing together, he says - not even honestly pay taxes or reduce their electricity use at moments of peak power consumption - until their trust in the state and the institutions of government is restored and the public service learns how to restore its vitality and reinvent itself.

National Electricity Grid

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams steps up to the plate: "I have always been a strong advocate for a national electricity transmission grid that would connect the country," he says. "Such infrastructure would greatly benefit Canadians from coast to coast to coast, in particular given the requirements for clean, renewable hydro electricity."

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