During World War I, the Canadian Pacific Railway fell into debt when they were forced to transport soldiers and war materials across Canada for the war effort. Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden suggested the creation of a new, government-run railroad. In 1918 the government combined 16 smaller government-owned railroads (failed private roads which the government had taken over), creating a temporary corporation known as the Canadian Government Railways. Informally, this was known as the Canadian National Railway, and it was under this name that the railway was formally incorporated in 1919.
The Grand Trunk Railroad was also absorbed into Canadian National by 1923. The company also owned a chain of hotels and a steamship line, and it introduced the first national radio service to entertain passengers on the railway. This service later evolved into the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
The railway never did earn a profit in peacetime until 1978 when railroads became subsidized by the government. By this time it had lost almost all passenger services to airlines and automobiles. In 1977 passenger services on both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific were shifted to a new company, Via Rail.
Canadian National was privatized in 1995. In 1998 it merged with the Illinois Central Railway, which connected the already existing lines from Vancouver, British Columbia to Halifax, Nova Scotia with an American line running from Chicago, Illinois to New Orleans, Louisiana. It is now one of the largest freight railways on the continent.
The management has, as a result of the railway's rebranding as being "North American", has instructed employees not to refer to the railroad as "Canadian National", or any other name mentioning Canada. Canada's Transport Minister has called this move "obscene". However, it can be argued that CN is no longer a Canadian company, as it is primarily owned by American stockholders.