Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Board of Railway Commissioners of Canada regulated all the major railways in Canada under the authority of the Railway Act of 1903. A broad coalition of interests, including Prairie farmers and merchants, supported the creation of this independent regulatory commission, similar to the American Interstate Commerce Commission. The Canadian government appointed three commissioners to supervise a wide range of activities, including the establishment of rules and regulations for employees, the inspection of new lines, the installation of safety devices, and the investigation of accidents. In 1908 an additional three commissioners were appointed and were expected to regulate the railway, express, telegraph, telephone, and hydroelectric business. The commissioners' most publicly visible activity involved the regulation of freight and passenger rates, and their actions influenced the rate structure in Canada, nowhere more dramatically than in the Prairie Provinces.

Between 1907 and 1914, the commissioners gradually eliminated a number of rate advantages enjoyed by merchants in Winnipeg, Manitoba, since the nineteenth century. These changes allowed rapidly growing business communities in Regina, Calgary, and other towns to compete with Winnipeg as distributing and service centers. Western business leaders continued to complain that the railways granted lower rates to their competitors outside the region, in central Canada. To address these concerns, the commissioners consistently recommended higher rate increases in central than in western Canada during and immediately following World War I. As a result, between 1914 and 1921, a 34 percent difference between central Canadian and Prairie western rates on fifth-class freight (the most common classification of merchandise distributed in carloads) had been narrowed to 14 percent. Thereafter, the railway commissioners addressed more specific Prairie grievances, particularly related to commodities such as grain and livestock. Against the advice of the railway commissioners, the Canadian government reintroduced the 1897 Crow's Nest Pass rates on grain in 1922, rates that remained in effect and controversial until the 1980s.

Ken Cruikshank McMaster University

Cruikshank, Ken. Close Ties: Railways, Government and the Board of Railway Commissioners, 1851–1933. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.

Darling, Howard. The Politics of Freight Rates. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980.

MacGibbon, D. A. Railway Rates and the Canadian Railway Commission. New York: Houghton MiÄin, 1917.

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