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British Columbia: Brought to You by Financial Desperation and Gin

08/08/2013 01:23 EDT | Updated 10/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Along a lonely, winding stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway, past Sicamous and prior to that last turn towards Revelstoke, there is a place forlorn and forsaken, its significance hardly reflected by its physical location.

It is Craigellachie B.C. The place where the Last Spike was driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, sealing the big promise that brought British Columbia into confederation. It marked the end of a decade of political uncertainty, enabling us to celebrate B.C. Day last weekend, from the comfort of our hammocks or sofas.

Famous for a staged photo featuring men in top hats doing the work of labourers, Craigellachie is easy to miss -- I nearly did, twice -- forcing a tricky U-turn on a roadtrip to Banff a few years ago. A small sign hints at a place of historical interest. But on the day I discovered it, no one else was there to read the commemorative plaque, admire the cairn, or pop into the deserted gift shop where one can purchase small locomotives.

The impromptu visit unlocked memories of Grade 5 social studies classes, watching what felt like years of an adapted Pierre Berton miniseries on the railway saga containing more questionable acting and melodrama than ten-year-olds would ever be able to appreciate. But my teacher, Russ MacMath, must have made it entertaining enough to sink into our heads that the decision for what was then the colony of British Columbia to make a deal with Ottawa was as much about the romantic nation-building a united Canada coast-to-coast as it was about getting B.C. out of a financial pickle in 1871.

Sound familiar, HST activists?

After the economic good times of the Gold Rush turned to brass, the deal to build a railroad and absorb B.C.'s massive debt burden was enough to convince members of B.C.'s Confederation League to come to terms. Negotiators included three future B.C. premiers: Amor De Cosmos, John Robson, and Robert Beaven. Too bad their work would be left incomplete for nearly 15 years.

For a while, it looked like the railway might never be completed. The so-called Pacific Scandal saw allegations that railway building contracts were given in return for political favours -- sound familiar, B.C. Rail watchers? It sunk Prime Minister Sir. John A. Macdonald and his Conservatives at the ballot box. Liberal PM Alexander Mackenzie was no fan of the railway either, and called the terms under which B.C. joined Canada "impossible." It makes me wonder if this first general election was where the federal Liberals lost B.C. once and for all.

But without the deaths of scores of Chinese migrant workers who blasted through B.C.'s unforgiving mountain terrain or the return of a gin-loving Macdonald to political power, I wondered what might have become of B.C.

Could we have wound up as Americans?

I also wondered at our own seeming lack of a sense of history or respect for deserted Craigellachie. Where were the tour buses? Where were the guides? If this were China, I thought, it would be teeming with camera-ready tourists.

Indeed, I might guess that as many Chinese visitors have shuffled on guided tours through the hallways of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria this summer as visitors from our province. It is that they care more about monuments and places of historical significance in their own country and abroad than we do as British Columbians? Not so, says Kenny Zhang, senior research analyst at the Asia Pacific Foundation in Vancouver.

He points to a combination of factors. For example, Chinese visitors flock to Gravenhurst, Ont., the home of Dr. Norman Bethune, the medical pioneer who is a hero in China. But Zhang says much of a Chinese tourist's travel itinerary abroad is decided by marketing to tour operators, not some sense of historical obligation.

Zhang says the emerging class of Chinese visitor to Canada, or anywhere else in the world, is relatively new to international travel.

"They are taken to monuments. They are taken for lunch, and for shopping," he says. It's all new to them. Perhaps not unlike the way North Americans, newly mobilized by affordable cars and a road system, spent vacations driving themselves anywhere, stopping for lunch, and driving back.

That made me feel a bit better about things. Perhaps as British Columbians we're doing as good a job honouring our province at backyard barbeques and visiting its great outdoor. But, should you find yourselves on the Trans-Canada Highway, heading to Golden to golf, or to Salmon Arm for some fishing, slow down and make the sharp turn at Craigellachie and stop for a moment to think about the country our founders forged out of fiscal practicality, back breaking hard work, a hint of scandal, and splashes of gin.

I think we've done alright.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog incorrectly stated B.C. entered confederation in 1858. B.C. in fact formally became a Canadian province in 1871. This version has been updated.