The Trans-Canada Highway, which turns 50-years old this year, is almost too Canadian. Like someone was working with a checklist, trying to jam as many Canadian-isms into one entity as possible.
Like, is it big? It’s gotta be big, right?
Well, how about, one of the world’s longest national roads? This shouldn’t be too surprising. One thing this country is not short on is width.
When it was completed in 1962, it encompassed 4,860 miles (7,776 km). Over the years, several more routes were added, so its even longer today (8,000 plus).
Did we have enough federal-provincial bickering?
“From the very beginning, the feds and the provinces were bickering about who would pay, how much they would pay, where the route would go. This all made it a very typical Canada project,” says Daniel Francis, author of the beautiful book, Road for Canada, The Illustrated Story of the Trans-Canada Highway.
Enough battling with beautiful and cruel nature?
Besides the political hurdles, there were obviously also very, real natural ones. Like really big, mountains. Several of the major mountain roads in B.C., like the Big Bend Highway that links Golden with Revelstoke, were completed as “make work” projects during the 1930s.
But the last gap to be closed was a mosquito-infested stretch around Lake Superior, which actually became known as “The Gap.” A paved road through there was not competed until 1960.
When I asked Francis about his favourite scenic stretches, he mentioned several — all those B.C. mountain passes, the Saint John River Valley in New Brunswick, the road north of Superior — before he metaphorically threw his hands up.
“Well, you could go on about the landscape in Canada forever … the road lets you see it.”
Celebrated in typical muted Canadian way?
While construction continued until 1971, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker officially opened the Trans-Canada on Sept. 3, 1962, in a screwed up ceremony on the Rogers Pass, in B.C. The sound system didn’t work. The musicians were late. Speeches went on and on and on.
And while we’ve come to love our big highway, Francis notes it pales in myth-making capacity when compared to the first railway to cross the country.
“Unlike the railway, which was built very quickly, in a very specific period of time, the highway build spread out over many years. It was also a project that was made up of other roads, which already existed.”
Also hurting its status as a topic for folk singers, is that it has evolved over the years to become more a system of getting across the country, than one magical, all-encompassing East-West route.
But there is lots of magic in that road (or system). Every Canadian dreams of hitting the highway and seeing the country at some point in their lives, and every Canadian can immediately picture Terry Fox and Rick Hansen on that highway, and when one does that, it’s not hard to feel pride in being a Canadian.
Notes Francis: “It does seem that when we have an important statement to make, or some drama to enact, the highway tends to be the place where we do it.”