Opening the Trans-Canada Highway

photo by Michael Kalus on Flickr

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The first week of September was the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Trans-Canada Highway. Or was it?

When I was researching the history of the highway for my book, A Road for Canada(Stanton Atkins & Dosil, 2006), I kept coming across different dates for the official opening. Was it Sept 3, 1962, as some sources claimed, or was it a month earlier, on July 30? And where exactly did the “correct” ceremony take place, Revelstoke or Rogers Pass? The answer to these questions involves an amusing story of petty political bickering and an example (as if we needed one) of how, in Canada, grand national projects do as much to divide the country as unify it.

The origin of a national highway goes back to 1912 when a group of early automobile enthusiasts gathered at Alberni on Vancouver Island to kick off a campaign in support of what they called a “Canadian Highway”. But it was not until the end of 1949 that the Trans-Canada Highway Act passed through Parliament providing for joint federal-provincial funding of a trans-continental road.

The project had an expected completion date of 1956 but when the initial agreement expired less than half the highway was complete. After extended negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces, the agreement was renewed and finally, during the summer of 1962, the final section through Rogers Pass was finished.

Which brings us to the official opening.

The federal government prepared to open the highway in Rogers Pass at a grand ceremony on September 3, 1962. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was going to be there to tamp down the last piece of asphalt, his equivalent of hammering in the Last Spike. Every province had been invited to send a representative, along with military bands and a cavalcade of automobiles, trucks and buses.

But BC Premier W.A.C. Bennett was having none of it. Bennett had built his career on Ottawa bashing and he wasn’t about to allow the feds to take any credit on his home turf. So on July 30 he upstaged Ottawa by holding his own ceremony down the road in Revelstoke. He snipped the ribbon and proudly declared “BC Highway No. 1” open, no mention of Canada at all.

And Bennett nursed his grievances for a long time. Eight years later, when the federal-provincial funding agreement expired, Bennett removed all the Trans-Canada Highway signs in the province and replaced them with signs that said “BC Highway”. Which is how things remained until 1972 when the NDP defeated Bennett’s Social Credit Party in an election. The old signs were discovered in a warehouse and the new premier, Dave Barrett, had them reposted along the highway, allowing BC to rejoin Confederation.

Of course BC was not the only province to have its grievances about the Trans-Canada. Quebec complained about the highway being an intrusion into its area of constitutional responsibility. Newfoundland complained about the cost-sharing agreement. Nova Scotia and Ontario complained about the route. During his speech at Rogers Pass, Prime Minister Diefenbaker remarked that the new highway brought a “renewed sense of national unity” to the country. Not likely.

The Trans-Canada has two Mile Zeroes, one at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria and one in downtown St. John’s. The journalist Walter Stewart once called it the only national highway with two beginnings and no end. Perhaps it is fitting that it also had two official openings.

Daniel Francis is a Vancouver writer and historian.

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