Railways, until the rise of the personal automobile and creation of taxpayer-funded all-weather highways, were the only viable long-distance land transportation available in Canada for many years.
As such, their operation consumed a great deal of public and political attention.
Following CN's purchase of Illinois Central (IC) in 1998, and a number of smaller US railways, it also has extensive trackage in the central United States along the Mississippi River valley from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, CN owns about 20,400 route miles (32,831 km) of track in eight provinces (the only two not served by CN are Newfoundland & Labrador and Prince Edward Island), as well as a 70-mile (113 km) stretch of track (see Mackenzie Northern Railway) into the Northwest Territories to Hay River on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake; it is the northernmost rail line anywhere within the North American rail network outside of Alaska.
The Canadian National Railways (CNR) was incorporated on June 6, 1919, comprising several railways that had become bankrupt and fallen into federal government hands, along with some railways already owned by the government.
At the same time, CNo R was also directed to assume management of Canadian Government Railways (CGR), a system comprising the Intercolonial Railway of Canada (IRC), National Transcontinental Railway (NTR), and the Prince Edward Island Railway (PEIR), among others.
On December 20, 1918, the federal government created the Canadian National Railways (CNR) – a title only with no corporate powers – through a Canadian Privy Council Order in Council as a means to simplify the funding and operation of the various railway companies.
This political trend, combined with broader geo-political events, made nationalization an appealing choice for Canada.
The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and allied involvement in the Russian Revolution seemed to validate the continuing process.
Finally, the bankrupt GTR itself was placed under the care of a federal government "Board of Management" on May 21, 1920, while GTR management and shareholders opposed to nationalization took legal action.