If you know anything about Canadian history you know the Canadian Pacific Railway company played a role in shaping it. Marc H. Choko’s Canadian Pacific: Creating a Brand Building a Nation tells the story based on CP’s publicity output—their marketing and graphic design in particular. It’s a unique take on telling a brand story while educating readers on how public and private interests can align for the greater good. In this case, forming a unified Canada.
Being raised in Canada, I learned about CP’s scandalous beginnings from a political point of view. I imagined the private company as the big baddie, trying to monopolize the rail industry by outbidding all competitors and making backroom deals with politicians. While it’s not not what happened, this book adds another side to the story, the part where provinces (NS, NB, BC) refused to join the Canadian Confederation without the promise of a railway linking them to (now) Ontario/Quebec and how the British government wouldn’t/couldn’t fund it. Also added was the HUGE obstacle of the Canadian Shield and Rocky Mountains—and even once CP had the contract they were near bankrupted several times finding ways across these untamed wilds.
Canadian Pacific: Creating a Brand Building a Nation cover
Oh, and if the railway didn’t happen out west then the United States would have annexed BC—the history of the Pacific Northwest (up until 1846 this was Alaska-California under the control of British North America) was interesting in particular as the motivation for keeping British Columbia under British control was for two reasons: 1) it seemed like a shorter route to Asia and 2) gold rush. Those were the only reasons because everyone out east thought the west was worthless.
CP had an uphill battle because this opinion was so prevalent. So the company advertised. They convinced their workers to talk up the west whenever they returned home to their families and communities, they brought in influencers (sorry, travel journalists) and gifted them all-inclusive luxury vacations so they would return to Europe and share their adventures. They built stunning hotels and created a steamship line to lure wealthy travellers across the sea and continent. And over time they even created mid-range accommodation so the new middle class could come too.
Building a national railway was all well and good but CP was a for-profit company and therefore needed profits. Tourism was one thing, but to keep the rail lines safe and to increase land values they needed more people living out west. So they advertised. They worked with the government. And they built ready-made farms for people.
Because the (eastern) Canadian settlers had such a poor opinion of the west, CP reached out to Americans and Europeans instead, offering amazing deals and door-to-door (ish) travel. This was of interest to me because this is how my great grandparents came to the Canadian prairies—the promise of affordable land, a farm, and a home. I knew they got a good deal on the land but this is a whole other layer to their story.
For 374 pages of Canadian Pacific: Creating a Brand Building a Nation, take in the history, complexity, and ingenuity of a company created from a prime minister’s vision for a transcontinental railway. Learn how the company overcame devastating obstacles like political scandal, sabotage, financial ruin, the Great Depression, two world wars, recession, competition, and critique by holding on to a clear vision, creative marketing, influential graphic design, and diversification.
One note: I read a PDF review version and must say, I have missed out. I thought this was a marketing book so didn’t mind the digital format but more than half the pages are images of CP advertisements and historical photos. If I had the hardcover I would have enjoyed this book much more. As it stands, it was a joy to read, even if it did take me six months.