The following column is written by Gord Hume, President of Hume Communications Inc., former Councillor of the City of London, ON, and author of “Cultural Planning for Creative Communities” and “Taking Back Our Cities”
While driving along the Trans-Canada in eastern Manitoba and northern Ontario recently, I was struck by the metaphor that the highway offers to Canadians today. It was a great national infrastructure project that linked our country and brought pride to our citizens when it was officially opened by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1962. It’s the world’s longest national highway—nearly 8,000 km long—and stretches from Victoria, BC to St John’s, NL.
Completing the Trans-Canada was a feat that demanded considerable skill and innovation. Engineers, designers, road builders, and the labourers were justifiably proud of this momentous national investment. It was an important boost to our national economy as well as our spirit. And, it was a vital part of our expanding infrastructure as a nation.
Today, much of the Trans-Canada is an asphalt ribbon of crumble, crack, and patch. It has deteriorated significantly. In many parts of the country it is two lanes instead of a modern four lane divided highway. My friends in Newfoundland and Labrador consider the ferry system to be part of their transportation network, and told me recently that this service too is deteriorating and unreliable.
As I drove on the Trans-Canada from Winnipeg to Kenora to give a key-note address to 200 mayors and municipal councillors and administrators, I thought a lot about Canadian infrastructure as I bounced over the cracks, patches, and potholes.
We are a nation that to a considerable extent has been built on infrastructure. From the thin grey railroad line that extended across the west and for the first time linked our nation from coast to coast, to the most modern of technology today, you can make a reasonable argument that Canada would never have been formed or survived without the successful commitment to and completion of major national infrastructure projects.
The driving of the Last Spike in 1885 opened a new era of national transportation, and led to the opening and development of the both the west and the north. Later, telegraph and telephone wires were strung to connect lonely out-ports and prairie towns, bringing rapid communication for business and families.
Nearly a hundred years ago, a forward thinking federal government established the first national parks service at Banff. Today, Canadians are proud of our extensive national parks and rivers, many of which are now designated as World Heritage sites.
The electrification projects of rural Canada took generations, but it had to be done to provide a modern lifestyle and generate economic benefits to farmers and the agricultural industry.
The St. Lawrence Seaway that opened in 1959 brought shipping into Central Canada, and opened new trade and supply routes for Canadian ore, wheat, and many other products.
The Trans-Canada highway that followed in 1962 opened new vistas for shipping, trucking, vacationing Canadians, and provided a new transportation corridor for municipalities.
What since? Good question.
The private sector has led the digital revolution and the satellite technology and telecommunications links that comprise vital national infrastructure for business—and for a generation of teens that have a smart phone embedded into their palms. We may not be creating the most physically fit generation, but certainly they will have the strongest thumbs in history.
My point is, and the metaphor that struck me as I sped along the highway in eastern Manitoba with the sun setting behind me and the vast prairie sky above me, is that we have lost our way for great national projects.
The last major national infrastructure project that I recall was the 1967 Centennial projects that brought libraries, performing art centres, and other important civic amenities to communities across the country.
Recent and occasional—and sometimes panicky—federal, provincial, and municipal infrastructure campaigns today tend to be municipalities fighting desperately to get a share of whatever pot of money has suddenly sprung up, sometimes with a quaint phrase such as “shovel-ready” attached to it. No one is entirely certain what that means. While these programs are welcome, they are not nation-building in scope.
Federal governments in the last half century or so have steadily diminished their national view. They certainly don’t “get” municipalities. With the exception of Paul Martin introducing the Federal Gas Tax program that today brings Canadian towns and cities $2 billion a year of badly needed infrastructure money, federal governments in recent decades have not had an urban agenda.
Our cities are underfunded, the property tax system is broken, and it can’t be fixed. Mayor Nenshi of Calgary described it to me as “regressive, feudal and medieval.” Our municipal infrastructure deficit grows every day. All the while there is growing competition for attracting and retaining bright young minds and entrepreneurs in the global economy.
The promise and the premise of these major national projects involved cooperation from various orders of government, shared funding, a big vision and lots of political courage. There were substantial economic and social benefits. They helped to link our nation and our people. They were both politically and practically important.
The cracks and bumps on the highway today, the seemingly relentless drive to push passengers away from national rail travel, the deteriorating ferry service on our coasts, recent announcements in budgets of cuts to travel information services, the people who look after the locks on our rivers, and so many other little cuts and slices have further reduced our national vision.
How do we reclaim this pride as a nation? How do we convince politicians that as a nation we can’t keep doing more with less? At some point, we will end up doing less with less. Is this the best way we can do to build and rebuild our nation?
We need to fix the cracks in the highway.
Email Gord at email@example.com, or visit www.gordhume.ca.