Canadian Venture

The Canadian Venture David Watts 19 July 2003

The first Canadian venture was John Cabot’s expedition in 1497. Financed by Bristol merchants and sponsored by England’s Henry VII, Cabot hoped to find the Orient and tea, silks and spices.

The venture failed in its intended purpose. But on the Grand Banks of New Found Lande Cabot’s men discovered cod. This did not provide a return on the backers’ investment. It did provide a livelihood for English, French, Spanish and Portuguese fishers—one that lasted almost 500 years.

The distinction between enterprise and livelihood is important. First nations in North America built a way of life based on fishing, the buffalo hunt and agriculture—that lasted for millennia. These were integrated cultures. Labour, investment and return were shared by all.

But a venture where one raised the money, others invested, and others still spent it—based on speculation, and from which one could choose to walk with impunity—this was foreign to them.

The capacity to distance, to separate, put on a front were skills used by the aboriginals in warfare. War is a venture where one puts his life on the line. In a business venture one may stake honour and reputation as well as his property, but investment—and liability—stops here.

Introducing the other elements of war into business without the pride or restraint of putting one’s life on the line gave Europeans an advantage in dealing with first nations. It had a decidedly dis-integrating effect upon the seamless aboriginal cultures and livelihood when it impacted on them.

So the history of the business venture in Canada effectively began with the arrival of Europeans.

The components of capital, shares and limited liability that are the pillars of the corporation emerged in Europe, took form and spread to North America.150 years ago.

It was in Britain, and then the United States, that capitalism flourished, giving birth eventually to the multi or transnational corporation that now recognizes no boundaries.

The alienation that Marx observed and analyzed as part of capitalistic culture has affected aboriginal life first in the destruction of a traditional culture and now in a reconstituting of it as many band leaders take the levers of business into their hands.

The fishermen, too, who came to work the Grand Banks were small businessmen, earning a livelihood—until this fell to ventures of foreign trawlers at the end of the 20th century.

Canada’s post-European history parallels the rise of modern business. As a satellite, first of European colonial powers, and now of multi-nationals based in the United States, Canada’s economic history began as a blend of state paternalism and foreign financed enterprise.

In the past century some of our ventures have succeeded on the world stage in their own right.

The second Canadian venture was the Company of One Hundred Associates. A 1627 Royal Charter gave Samuel Champlain and his backers a monopoly on the St. Lawrence fur trade.

In exchange they promised to explore, develop and colonize New France. Champlain was made Viceroy and Governor of the Company.

This venture too failed. It did not meet its quota of settlers and was continually in debt. In 1663 Louis XIV, in a more hands on approach to government, cancelled the Charter.

Hoping to make it more economically viable, he reconstituted Quebec as a Crown colony under the supervision of his Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

Though it did not meet its goals, the Company of One Hundred Associates laid a foundation for New France. It foreshadows future monopolies and introduces us to elements we encounter again: the mixing of public and private interests, immigration and economic development.

Six years later another Company, not of Associates but Adventurers, was established by Royal Charter from another King: England’s Charles II. France still controls the St. Lawrence main door but Henry Hudson’s discoveries gave England a side door to the fur trade of the interior.

The Governor and Company of Adventures of England trading into Hudson’s Bay received a fur trade monopoly over 40% of present day Canada. This comprised the drainage basins of all rivers and streams flowing into the enormous sub-arctic estuary.

It includes most of five provinces, large parts of two territories and the north central United States. Unlike the Quebec venture, this company did not mix commerce and colonization. It was trade first and only, to the chagrin of a few attempts at settlement in the granted territory.

The Hudson’s Bay Company is Canada’s oldest corporation. It began on the initiative of two Quebecois, Radisson and Groseillers, who were banned from trading in New France. Stripped of their profits and full of proposals they went over to France’s traditional rival.

Contacts in New England put them in touch with the court in London. This led at last to Prince Rupert, a cousin of the King who was to become the first Governor of the new Company.

A century later another fur trade company arose. With Quebec and the St. Lawrence now under British control, the Northwest Company used Montreal as a base to challenge the Bay monopoly.

The Nor’westers bought another advantage: instead of waiting for hunters and trappers to bring furs to their forts, they spent winters on the land, mingling with natives and cultivating suppliers.

Nor’west bourgeois—proprietors, clerks, interpreters—were more than paid labour. They could buy into the company. This added explorers, linguists and other men of initiative to their ranks.

The Northwest Company competed with the Bay for forty years, sometimes violently. In 1820 the two combined under the Bay name, bringing together the best of both traditions.

The next great Canadian venture was the Canadian Pacific Railway. In many ways the CPR was an outgrowth and ongoing of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Companies.

Some of the Railway’s financiers had made their first fortune in the fur trade. Donald Smith, who drove the last spike on the CPR, was one. He had been President of the Hudson’s Bay Company and had mediated between Ottawa and the Metis in the birth of Manitoba.

The route the Railway followed for much of its length was the waterways of the voyageurs, traced by Nor’westers such as Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson and Simon Fraser.

But Canada’s first transcontinental railway had something the fur trade companies did not The CPR was incorporated 19 years after the first Companies Act passed the British Parliament.

The Act provided for the issue of joint stock and the selling of shares with liability limited to the amount of the shareholder’s investment. These were necessary for projects size of the CPR, which required huge amounts of capital raised on international markets.

Canadian Pacific was an international venture. Its goal was not simply to create a country but to link Europe and Asia with Canada as a portage between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans

The City of Vancouver was created by the CPR as a port to the Orient. From the Far East it was the beginning of the portage by which products would move to the Atlantic and on to Europe.

Tea, silks and other commodities were loaded on Canadian Pacific steamships in China, carried to Canada, transferred to trains for Montreal, then to other ships down the St. Lawrence to London.

That had been the goal of the first Canadian venture. Canadian Pacific, with its overland passage, succeeded where Cabot and Cartier’s hopes for a northwest passage by sea seemed to fail.

By the mid 20th century the CPR was recognized as “the world’s greatest transportation system.” Its crest, with a beaver atop the globe, proudly proclaimed “Canadian Pacific spans the World.”

Cabot and Canadian Pacific are the bookends of a 400 year long reach from Europe to Asia.

The sea-to-sea country the Railway built has also become a global connector. The CPR brought workers from Asia to build its lines, and immigrants from Europe to settle along them.

Inter-culturalism, trade, transport, communications have been part of Canada from its beginnings. Our national radio and television network began as part of our second transcontinental railway.

Today Canada’s two railways are the top two in North America. Our original snowmobile manufacturer, Bombardier, builds hi-tech equipment for railways and airlines around the world.

For almost a century Canada has produced media leaders. Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, Ken Thompson and Conrad Black all built newspaper chains, though some are no longer citizens.

In internet communications Bill Gates says [Canada’s] “SchoolNet is the leading program in the world in terms of letting kids get out and use computers.”

So we can say that Canada herself is a venture in globalism rather than country with connections.

The search for the northwest passage was our advent. The Company of Associates, the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay and Canadian Pacific Railway companies were ventures to find it.

All who share that spirit of search, discovery and exchange are living the Canadian Ad-Venture.

A la bonne aventure!