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HISTORY 2205E: THE “NATIONAL” POLICIES - HOW NATIONAL WERE THEY?
INTRODUCTION: The national policies of the Macdonald government, and, in particular, the
National Policy of protective tariffs initiated in 1879, were subjects of debate among politicians
at the time and for decades after (with the federal Liberals as traditionally free traders). These
policies have also been subjects of debate among historians. Note that when historians speak of
the national policy (or policies) of the Macdonald government, using lower-case letters, they are
usually referring to three distinct policies - a protective tariff, a transcontinental railway, and the
settlement of western Canada.. Macdonald’s government sought to present these as a three-
pronged economic strategy for nation building. When historians refer to the National Policy
with capitals, they are usually referring just to the policy of protective tariffs.
[FIRST: some background on sources and uses of government money in the post-Confederation
1. The National Policy of protective tariffs: origins; implementation; longevity
Historians’ debates about the National Policy:
The defence: a successful nation-building strategy
The criticisms: inefficient; benefitted some classes and regions more than others; had the
effect of promoting an American-owned “branch-plant” economy in Canada (see Bliss)
2. The transcontinental railway (completed in 1885 as the Canadian Pacific Railway):
conception; scandal and delay; completion; costs
3. Settlement of the West (the former Rupert’s Land):
role of the Dominion Lands Act, 1872
role of the Northwest Mounted Police (later RCMP)
role of the Indian treaties
Shortcomings of the policies for promoting Western settlement
CONCLUSION: It is now generally recognized that the benefits - and the costs - of the national
policies were unevenly distributed across the Dominion of Canada, and eventually they led to
various types of protest. It is not clear, however, that there were viable alternative policies back
then that would have proven more effective as nation-building strategies.
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