The 200-year-old decision behind the Nipigon bridge failure

By Daniel Kitts - Published on Jan 15, 2016
Artist's rendering of what the completed Nipigon Bridge will look like.

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Premier Kathleen Wynne tried to calm things down Wednesday when she asked everyone to “take a deep breath” over the failure of the newly constructed Nipigon River Bridge. The only road connection between eastern and western Canada split in two on Jan. 10, slowing the daily flow of $100 million worth of goods across the country.

“Before we start assigning blame, we need to know what happened,” she said

But at the end of the day, it is pretty clear who is really to blame.  

The British.

Quebec's borders in 1774, stretching into what is now the U.S.If it wasn’t for a decision made in 1815, Canada would probably have many more access points to the west and wouldn’t be so reliant on one bridge, says Joe Martin, director of Canadian business history at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto.

Prior to the American Revolutionary War, the Ohio River Valley was not considered part of the 13 Colonies, but part of British-controlled Quebec. If that had been allowed to stand, the entire territory surrounding the Great Lakes, including parts of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and, of course, Ohio, would likely be part of Canada today.

“I don’t know if you have ever flown Porter Airlines to Chicago but if you have in the summer and looked out the window from Toronto to Chicago, it all looks the same,” Martin says.

It’s well-known that the Americans won their war for independence, and Britain lost the Ohio River Valley in the process. What’s less well-known is that the valley came back into British hands again, only to be given up.

During the War of 1812, British forces including Canadian militia recaptured the territory around the Great Lakes. But when the peace treaty was signed in 1815, Martin says, the Americans negotiated hard and the British timidly gave in. The lands were returned to the United States, severing longstanding commercial routes established by the French that were still of great value to the Scottish traders based in Montreal.

“They were devastated when the decision was made,” Martin says of the traders. “There’s a war, we won the territory back, and then the bloody Brits give it back to the Americans.”

Of course, it’s not fair to blame the entire bridge controversy on long-dead British negotiators. Another share of the responsibility lies with the Liberals — Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals.  

The Trans-Canada Highway is inferior to the outstanding interstate highway system south of the border, Martin says. One reason for that, he says, is President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to treat the interstate system as a defence expenditure. While commanding Allied forces in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower had observed the advantage the wide, straight, solidly-built Autobahn had provided German forces. The U.S. highway system was built with that in mind. The administration of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and subsequent Canadian governments didn’t approach funding the Trans-Canada Highway in the same way, and partly as a result the country’s main roadway is often more narrow, meandering and arguably less durable than what the Americans have, Martin says. 

“At the end of the 20th century a group of American business historians voted the interstate highway system the greatest business achievement of the 20th century — think Holiday Inn and its copycats and the car rental agencies,” he says.

These tidbits of history do not mean the current Ontario Liberal government can take a pass on serious questions around how a crucial transportation link broke in the middle of a $106 million rebuilding project. Yet it’s an example of how recent events can have surprising roots in the past: with tougher negotiators in the 19th century and stronger highway funding in the 20th, the failure of Nipigon bridge would still be an issue, but it wouldn’t be as big a concern as it is. 

Update: This article originally stated that the U.S. Interstate Highway System was designed so that airplanes could land on it during emergencies, which is completely false. The author of the article regrets the error. 

Image of Nipigon bridge credit: Ontario News North/karinahunter.com

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