By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
When Sir Sanford Fleming first came to Canada, he was told “Go back to Scotland”. The need for engineers was over. Some were convinced that we would only need sixteen miles of railway in Canada. Fortunately for us, Fleming loved a challenge. He was passionate about railways, once driving a bear off the railway tracks with nothing but an umbrella and a loud cry.
Fleming has been described as the outstanding Canadian of the nineteenth century. Prime Minister John A Macdonald appointed him as chief surveyor and engineer of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Fleming knew that he needed to see the route first-hand. With the Rev George Grant, he canoed and portaged across Canada in 1872, creating a best-selling travelogue ‘Ocean to Ocean’. The beauty and ruggedness of Canada’s wilderness spoke to the depths of his soul.
Our most recognizable Canadian photo is ‘The Last Spike’, celebrating the completion of our national railway on November 7th 1885. Fleming, our most famous Canadian engineer, was right there at the centre of the photo.
To complete the Canadian Pacific Railway in just ten years was an astronomical task, but Fleming always made time for God in his busyness. Fleming only missed attending church twelve times in his entire life. Sometimes ‘church’ was simply kneeling by the Rocky mountain railway tracks and giving thanks. On all his surveying trips, no work and travel was done on Sunday if he could help it. He even wrote a worship service that his busy construction crews could use.
After the frustration of his missing an Irish train, Fleming went on to create Meridian Standard Time in 1878. Standard Time replaced the dangerous chaos of 144 different North American time zones. Every city had its own unique time, none of which agreed with any other city. Standard Time went a long way towards keeping locomotives from crashing into each other because of different clocks.
Fleming founded the Canadian Institute which grew into the Royal Society of Canada. He published a dozen books, served for thirty-five years as Chancellor of Queen’s University. Canada’s very first postage stamp: the three-cent beaver, was the creation of Fleming. Fleming was knighted in 1897 by Queen Victoria for building the world-circling sub-Pacific cable. For the first time in history, the world could communicate instantaneously around the globe. With membership in over seventy international societies, he was Canada’s preeminent voice on the world stage. Everyone looked to Sir Sanford Fleming.
Fleming was often snubbed, sidelined, criticized but he never let the nay-sayers stop him from accomplishing his life-goals. Fleming knew that God had put him here on earth to make a difference, to help raise up the nation of Canada from sea to sea. Fleming’s strength came from a deep sense that God would never abandon his children.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the North Shore News
-author of the award-winning book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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