Country for sale; Canadian Pacific
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 December 2015)

"Get your home in Canada," the poster said. "Ready made farms in Western Canada." Posted in Britain in 1920, that appeal was directed to British farmers "of modest capital." A drawing showed a cute little red bungalow against a bright blue sky with a woman walking across the farmyard, a bucket in her hand for milking. The available farms could be purchased by easy instalments.

The poster was produced by Canadian Pacific, which had land to sell. The illustration may or may not have resembled an actual place where immigrants would be able to make a living from the soil. Still, true or false, it showed what life in Canada might be like if everything, including the weather, turned out for the best. It was a dreamlike vision of a future Canada, seen through the prism of advertising. Today it's an artifact of history, a visual reminder of the days when Canada was a work of the imagination.

It reappears now in a remarkable book, Canadian Pacific: Creating a Brand, Building a Nation (Callisto Publishing), by a Montreal professor of design, Marc H. Choko. The book is ambitious - 384 pages, large format, scores of colour images, $80.

The text is short but the posters, photos, drawings and logos represent an impressive collection. Canadian Pacific decided long ago that it would have to sell the idea of Canada in order to sell tickets on its trains and boats and eventually its aircraft. Building hotels and resorts like the Banff Springs, it had to promote the physical world in which they were to be found.

Many potential customers knew nothing about Canada, and even Canadians had only a rough idea of what lay beyond their own towns. So Choko's book, which covers roughly a century, is an account of how Canada was sold as a product, how the sales job became part of the product, and how much of Canada came to resemble (in the Canadian as well as the foreign mind) the effects of corporate branding.

Choko is an architect and town planner, a professor emeritus at the Montreal campus of the University of Montreal and former director of its design school. Like many in his field, he studies the influence of mass culture on the way we live and think. His book demonstrates how a country composed of scattered bits and pieces came together partly under the influence of commercial design. Pierre Berton's two books on The National Dream, and the television version, described the building of the CPR railroad to the Pacific, the fulfilment of a promise made in return for British Columbia's agreement to become a province. Choko's vast array of graphic advertising illustrates the next step, the unfolding of the dream.

One man, an American railway executive, had a lot to do with both building the railway and creating its legend. In 1882 the CPR imported William Van Horne to oversee the difficult final stages of construction. His success propelled him upward and in 1889 he began 10 years as president.

His enthusiasm for visual advertising (he was also a notable art collector) made him eager to display the splendours of Canada in print. He sent for a photographer from William Notman and Son, the pioneering Montreal firm. William Mc-Farlane Notman, the founder's son, travelled the route west eight times and made impressive pictures. On July 24, 1886, the front page of the London Illustrated News carried four of his photographs under the heading "The Canadian Pacific Railway" - a publicity coup for the railroad.

Van Horne forged connections with American railways. "If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists," he announced. In 1889 half of the visitors to the Banff Springs Hotel were Americans.

Van Horne believed advertising was an art form. His advertising to affluent visitors emphasized the glamour, mystery and adventure of the Rockies. The CPR hired Swiss guides to help climbers explore them. "Why go to Switzerland?" one ad said. Another called the Rockies "Fifty Switzerlands in one" The Marquess of Lorne, Canadian governor general from 1878 to 1883, was won over by the Rockies; a beautiful corner, Lake Louise, was named for his wife, Princess Louise, a daughter of Queen Victoria. Lorne became an unofficial ambassador, describing the appeal of what he had seen with lectures in Britain and the U.S. With the railway built, Canadian Pacific became a real estate developer. It began selling off vast tracts of land the government had granted as a subsidy. For years the CPR was the official immigration agent for the West, advertising across Europe in many languages.

Its ads described Manitoba and the North-West territories as "the golden territories" and "the granary of the world." Choko summarizes the appeal: "Colourful brochures and posters presented smiling farmers on welcoming land, without snow or floods - an idyllic construction intended to attract as many potential immigrants as possible but, of course, somewhat different from reality." The publisher of the book, Matthias Huhne, says in the preface "stereotypes linked with Canada today" result from decisions made by artists working for Canadian Pacific. That explains the sense of melancholy I felt as I finished this unusual but well-intended piece of work. Like much advertising, Canadian Pacific dealt in stereotypes - fixed and oversimplified images of people, places or human situations.

Landscape and buildings fill most of the pages of the book. Humans rarely appear, and when they do they are cartoon versions of happy skiers, happy fishermen or happy guests in Banff Springs or St. Andrews By-The-Sea or some other Canadian Pacific resort. The advertisers, whether selling farmland or railway tickets, ignored the humanity of their customers. They give no time or attention to the yearning that leads to immigration, the desperate desire for security and independence that ends up creating civilization on raw land. At the end of a long journey through fantasies of the Canadian future, the reader may decide that everything is here except the important part.

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