Why Canada Needs The Bering Strait Tunnel, or Philosophy of Railroads for the 21st Century

By Rob Ainsworth, August 2007

The relationship of Canada to its railways has always been an existential one; this was true in 1849, the great launching point for 19th century Canadian railroading, as it is true today.  There are even parallels between the two eras, such as the resistance to change that confronted Canada’s early patriots, as it confronts anyone today, who has a greater vision for Canada than the narrow strip and isolated patches of civilization, currently hugging the U.S. border.  The future of Canada is the Northwest, with its untold resources and vast supplies of freshwater; it is one of the final terrestrial frontiers.

Canada is now faced with this era’s existential choice: either to develop or collapse.  As these words are written the entire international financial system is breaking apart in a series of banking crises, which are only a slight foretaste of what imminently approaches.  In the meantime, the condition of the country’s infrastructure grows increasingly wretched; our industries continue to disappear, our companies to be seized by thieving hedge and equity funds, while sovereignty seems no more than a quaint dream.  Fortunately, however, Russia, taking up Lyndon LaRouche’s visionary Eurasian Landbridge proposal of the early 1990’s, has offered, both to the US and Canada, to trilaterally build a Bering Strait Tunnel in order to connect the Americas with the entire Eurasian landmass.  The Tunnel is in actuality part of a Russian offer of a new relationship between the two great powers, to lead the reorganization of the global economy.  A new strategic alliance is in the offing, and the basis for solving the economic crisis is now at hand.  A great moment has found us: shall we rise to meet it, or fall victim to our propensity for national littleness?  The government of Canada has answered: it claims to not know of Russia’s proposal.  Thus it falls to the people to organize themselves and attain to the objective, which their currently elected representatives are too cowardly or incompetent to dare.

04-07- Keefer

Thomas Coltrane Keefer

When nations take it upon themselves to consider such weighty questions – questions which will undoubtedly affect the entirety of the human race and its posterity, it seems proper that a moment or two be taken to reflect upon the less obvious reasons – at least for the current generation – for this project’s overwhelming importance.  It would also be fitting to add to my own voice that of the man who, perhaps more than any other, was responsible for Canada’s first rapid expansion of railroads, an expansion that saved Canada from certain economic ruin beneath the yoke of British rule.  The man was Thomas Coltrin Keefer, Canada’s “Prophet of Progress.”

Keefer was born in 1821 into a family of civil engineers, growing up immersed in the construction of one of the greatest infrastructure projects of the period: the Welland Canal, which circumvented the previously indomitable Niagara Falls.  Keefer’s father was the first President of the Welland Canal Company, and a close friend of the driving force behind the project – the man who was also the mentor of young Keefer, William Hamilton Merritt.  At 17, Keefer left home and spent two years, 1838-40, working on the Erie Canal, the preeminent American engineering school of its day, digesting American System methods and philosophy.  Keefer then spent

Welland Canal construction

Welland Canal construction

the 1840’s working on the Welland Canal, as well as on other engineering jobs, until 1849, when Merritt, who had just attained one of the top posts in Canada’s colonial government, commissioned him to compose a pamphlet promoting railroad development in Canada, at a time when all of Canada had no more than sixty miles of railway.  The pamphlet was entitled Philosophy of Railroads; and it was a direct attack, not only upon the domineering British System of free trade, but also that depraved and bestial conception of man so beloved of the British oligarchy, as well as their philosophers and economists.

The pamphlet’s success was immediate and astonishing.  In less than a year Philosophy of Railroads was in its third printing, had been reprinted in scores of Canadian newspapers, and was circulating throughout the United States as well.  By 1853 there was also a French edition.  One contemporary biographer claimed that Keefer contributed more than any other to the building of railroads in Canada, even though he himself would never actually supervise one’s construction; rather, Keefer’s power was located in his capacity to convey ideas, and to overcome the colonial axioms within the people themselves, which prevented the adoption of American System policies in Canada.  As a direct result of his political intervention and the work of Merritt in passing crucial railroad legislation, over the course of the 1850’s Canada’s patriotic circles would build several thousand miles of track, adopt American System protectionism, and lead an attempt during the U.S. Civil War to break Canada away from the British System.

Keefer would go on to play a leading role in the construction of water management systems in a number of cities, as well as to found the Canadian Society of Civil Engineering, serving as its first President.  Moreover, he is the only Canadian to have also served as President of the American Society of Civil Engineers.  In 1878, as his crowning achievement, Keefer was named the executive commissioner for Canada at the Paris Exhibition, assembling a greater show of domestically produced machine tools than any nation save Germany and the United States.  He was one of the first Canadians to agitate for a continental railway; he also had an ecstatic vision for Canada’s economic future when, in 1898, he spoke of a future of high-speed, electrified trains, running silently between clean, well-lighted cities.

Now, to return to the issue at hand.  As every true humanist and national patriot has understood, the issue of development is not merely one of balance sheets and cost-benefit analysis; nor is it simply about the expansion of trade and production; but rather, it is a question of the very nature of man: that we have the capacity not only to improve ourselves, but nature as well; that nations must be dedicated to the improvement of their people; that the Hobbesian nightmare of globalization is not inevitable; that we may forge instead that prescient vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt – a community of sovereign nation states, working together for the welfare of all.  For this reason is it necessary to speak of the Bering Strait Tunnel not simply as an infrastructure project, but as an idea, as a transformative process with profound economic, cultural and moral implications.  Similarly, Keefer himself often referred to the railroad as “the iron civilizer;” or as one of his biographers, H.V. Nelles, wrote, “as a train of consequences as opposed to a simple line of track,” that “the aim of Philosophy of Railroads was to establish a direct linkage between the railroad and the noblest ideals of the age, and to illuminate the process through which steam technology would necessarily advance the material improvement and the moral perfection of man.”

Today we may not speak of “steam technology”, but we surely speak of nuclear fission, thermonuclear fusion, and magnetic-levitation trains.  These represent, as Lyndon LaRouche has repeatedly pointed out, the metaphorical fire of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, for the giving of which to humankind the immortal Prometheus is eternally punished by an oligarchic Zeus.  As Keefer argues, and as the testament of history proves, great projects have the effect of elevating an otherwise backward population out of their often self-imposed cultural darkness, such as the “Sleepy Hollow” that was early 19th century Canada (see appendix and below).  Speaking before the Montreal Mechanics Institute in 1853, he asked,

“is there not reason for belief that the regeneration of the dark corners of the earth is to be accomplished…by a practical elevation of the people, to be brought about by a rapid development of commerce and the arts?  Ignorance and prejudice will flee before advancing prosperity.  Wherever a railway breaks in upon the gloom of a secluded district, new life and vigor are infused into the native torpor – the long desired market is obtained…the hitherto useless waterfall now turns the laboring wheel, now drives the merrier spindle, the cold and hungry are now clothed and nourished.”

Keefer understood that without economic prosperity, peace and stability would be impossible: whether it was the development of North America then, or the prospects for peace today in the Middle East, the same principle applies.  He observed that,

“the steamboat and the railroad…have diffused a degree of comfort and prosperity unprecedented in history.  Every new manufacture, every new machine, every mile of railway built is not only of more practical benefit, but is a more efficient civilizer, a more speedy reformer, than years of declamation, agitation, or moral legislation.”

But what was it that Keefer and Merritt recognized in the culture that required their intervention?  In Philosophy of Railroads Keefer observes, of revolutionary projects and systems, that, “their origin and maturity are the work of the well-informed few, whose foresight has been rewarded frequently before it has been acknowledged… who have contended with the chilling influences of popular apathy, ignorance, and incredulity.”  Could Keefer not just as easily be speaking of the national malaise of today?  The railway system of Canada was once a source of pride for Canadians – it was a demonstration of our command over nature.  We had straddled the vast continental expanses with an iron belt of power; the railways were the sinews and the great commercial arteries of the nation.  There was a time when Canada hummed with the excited energy of national expansion, there was nothing that could not be overcome; and yet today, beneath the tyranny of the Baby Boomer generation’s anti-progress ideology, we no longer build, we no longer produce, we only desire to consume, and increasingly the future has become our fare.

Keefer’s answer, which is the central feature of Philosophy of Railroads, is to paint a comic miniature of Canadian society, as true today as it was in his time: a little town called ‘Sleepy Hollow,’ where nothing happens and there are no railroads to trouble the residents with “the hideous screech of the steam whistle;” where the people believe they have “attained the limit of improvement.  If they have no waterpower…it is clear to their minds that they were never destined for manufacturing; …it is still more evident, from their position, they are not to become a commercial people and build up large cities; they, therefore, jog along with evident self-satisfaction – the venerable churchyard is filling up with tombstones – and the quiet residents arrive at the conclusion that they are a particularly favored people in having escaped the rage for improvement.”  Of course all this changes when the railway comes to town, though first the people suffer from terrible visions of “bloody skirmishes” with railway workers, of “plundered poultry yards and abducted pigs,” of children “‘drawn and quartered’ on the rail by the terrible locomotive”, while the railway engineers and surveyors “are met with curses both loud and deep.”

These terrible visions come to an end, however, when the townspeople begin to realize the manifest benefits that the railroad brings with it: the population is enriched and elevated, for while “our little hamlet undergoing such a wonderful transformation, the moral influence of the iron civilizer upon the old inhabitants is bringing a rapid ‘change over the spirit of their dreams.’”  The citizens become worldlier, they become wealthier, more educated, their politics take on a national scope.  Progress, “that invisible power which has waged successful war with the material elements, will assuredly overcome the prejudices of mental weakness or the designs of mental tyrants.  It calls for no co-operation, it waits for no convenient season, but with a restless, rushing, roaring assiduity, it keeps up a constant and unavoidable spirit of enquiry or comparison; and while ministering to the material wants, and appealing to the covetousness of the multitude, impels them to a more intimate union with their fellow men.”

Keefer playfully finds a way to outflank the culture’s axioms.  The individual can look at the silliness of the townspeople and their response to the “terrible locomotive,” and chuckle at finding that same silliness in him or herself; but Keefer does more than that, for he is not just concerned with poking fun at the population – he wishes to uplift the reader to a nobler conception of human potential, and to establish a mission of national progress.  There is an urgency to his tone, when, at the close of the pamphlet, he writes,

“…We are placed beside a restless, early-rising, ‘go-a-head’ people – a people who are following the sun westward. …We cannot hold back…we must use what we have or lose what we already possess – capital, commerce, friends and children will abandon us for better furnished lands unless we at once arouse from our lethargy; we can no longer afford to loiter away our winter months, or slumber through the morning hours. …But when once the barriers of indifference, prejudice and ignorance are broken down, no physical or financial obstacle can withstand the determined perseverance of intelligent, self-controlled industry.

“We submit the foregoing view of the railway system and our position to it, to the generous and patriotic consideration of every intelligent merchant, manufacturer, farmer, and mechanic – to every Canadian, native or adopted – and ask them: Shall we have Railroads in Canada?

There is another point of consideration in the case for the Bering Strait Tunnel and great projects in general: the geopolitical and strategic implications, which are understood much more clearly today than in Keefer’s time, thanks to the tireless work of Lyndon LaRouche: the kernel of which is human creativity – the great fear of every imperial or oligarchical system.  In his recent paper, Man & the Skies Above, LaRouche writes:

“The great paradox which oligarchism represents, is that the ability of the human species to maintain a level of population above that of the great apes, depends absolutely on those creative powers unique to the human individual mind through which scientific and related discoveries produce the means for increase in both the potential size of population, and its life-expectancy.  If the population were permitted to share, freely, the knowledge and freedom to employ such knowledge corresponding to presently knowable scientific and related skills, where would there be inequality on which the oligarchical systems depend?”

“If the capabilities for scientific and related discoveries, which advance the standard of life and power over adversities, make societies stronger, per capita and per square kilometer of territory, why hold back scientific and technological progress?  Why insist on wildly hedonistic, irrational entertainments, rather than Classical culture which enhances the individual’s power to think, and sweeten the social relations with other persons?  Simply, because the power which such means promote among the generality of the population would bring an end to the system of oligarchy.”

Herein lies the fundamental issue of the Bering Strait project; just as World War I and II were organized by the British oligarchy to destroy Russia and Europe (documented extensively by Executive Intelligence Review), now today these same British networks, typified by BAE, and their lackey, U.S. Vice President Cheney, are driving for expanded war throughout Eurasia.

Thus, the struggle for Eurasian development and a new international financial system, free of oligarchical control, is the latest phase in this Promethean contest for the minds of humankind: the very question of whether the citizens of the world will have the opportunity to participate in scientific and technological progress, whether they will have the opportunity to develop themselves and make positive contributions to the advancement of civilization.  These are the issues of statecraft that drive men such as Lyndon LaRouche to make the breakthroughs in science and economy that he has made, and then organize the population to see them implemented; these are the issues that drove Keefer and his collaborators to mobilize Canada around an idea of the future potential of what were still a collection of impoverished British colonies, clinging to the verge of an awesome wilderness of nine million square kilometers.  For Keefer, as for LaRouche, the greatest gift that can be given a human being is access to his or her own immortality – something that Globalization denies the vast majority of human beings.  In the same 1853 speech, Keefer concluded with this idea of immortality, in the spirit of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ clause of the U.S. Constitution:

“I venture to believe that, as mechanics we may devote some moments to a consideration of the tendencies, the prospects, and the utility of the great enterprises, which give character to the age, and in the execution of which we are in a greater or lesser degree the agents – that this feeling of being useful in our day and generation will while away with a diminished degree of weariness the many hours of labor – that as you ply the busy hammer or wield the heavier sledge, some of you may dream that you are fast driving nails into the coffin of prejudice, of ignorance, of superstition and national animosities; that as you turn down the bearings or guide the unerring steel over all the 500 parts of a locomotive engine, fancy will picture you cutting deep, and smooth, and true, into obstacles which have so long separated one district, one family, one people, from another – and that you may exult in the reflection that those huge drivers will yet tread out the last smoldering embers of discord, that those swift revolving wheels – by practically annihilating time and space and by re-uniting the scattered members of many a happy family –  will smooth the hitherto rugged path, fill up the dividing gulf, break through the intervening ridge, overcome or elude the ups and downs of life’s checkered journey, and speed the unwearied traveler upon his now rejoicing way.”

It is this joyful Promethean impulse which has built Canada into one of the most prosperous nations in the world, not the British imperial legacy.  That Canada even exists today is in spite of Britain.  This nation – though restrained by British philosophical dogmas, such as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or Theory of the Moral Sentiments, in which Smith claims that humans have no capacity to think beyond their sensual appetites, acting only in their immediate self-interest, and that the greater issues of the common good are to be left to the (hopefully) munificent designs of some unknowable deity – has still managed to do many great things.  The inspiration for those deeds came not from Britain, but from the U.S. Republic and the republican tradition that found its beginnings in Ancient Greece.  Prometheus, the fire-giver, the ennobler of mankind, is the only true identity of Canada’s historical nation-builders.  It is this same latent impulse, which the Bering Strait Tunnel calls upon today.  Entire peoples await the enlightening force of nuclear power, the rushing sound of the maglev, and the sight of bounteous fields, laden with well-watered crops, where desert once had reigned.  Canada has a great role to play in this dawning era, if it so chooses.  Canada’s mission and purpose is to be sought not only within the bounds of our own lands, but deep below the arctic sea, across and beneath the Siberian steppe, and in the deserts of Asia and Africa.  It begins with the Bering Strait.  Thus, as Keefer once before, now again the Canadian LaRouche Youth Movement submits this treatise, to all manufacturers, farmers and people of commerce, Canadians born and newly landed, of all who would see a single nation, dignified and beneficent towards others, and we ask: Canada, shall we build the Bering Strait Tunnel?