Keep the Passage Open

(c)    David Watts


Keep the passage open                                                                                              

Clear the snow away                                                                                                        

Thundering down the mountains                                                                                   

All along the way.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed from coast to coast in 1885. The first lives lost in defense of the new Dominion were not on the battlefield1 but in the mountain passes: section men who cleared debris from the avalanches that roared down the slopes.

           Keep the mainline open

           Keep a passage free

           Canada depends on

           A lifeline sea to sea.

The Railway built 31 snowsheds over the most hazardous sections of the line through Rogers Pass. Areas between were still vulnerable. A thousand snowslides a year occur in the pass. Up to fifty snowslides a year blocked the line, many with loss of life. In a one incident a crew of 62 was wiped out while clearing an earlier slide. Two hundred sixty men and some women, many Italian and Japanese immigrants, were lost in the 31 years before Connaught Tunnel was built and Rogers Pass was abandoned.

                     Keep the rail line open

                     While the winter sky

                     Empties on the mountains

                     In the passes high.

In the 1960’s the Trans Canada Highway came through2. After considering the big bend of the Columbia, it decided it could do no better than the route found by Rogers three quarters of a century earlier. Once again, a snow watch began. British Columbia and Parks Canada highway crews didn’t wait for slides to come down on them—they watched snow build ups, then closed the road and called armed forces personnel to trigger avalanches with mortars. It was still demanding work, digging out and keeping Canada connected through its area of greatest snowfall.

                               Keep the lifeline open

                               Clear away the snow

                               Sweeping down the mountains

                               To the Pass below.

The work goes on. Keeping the Pass open in the Selkirk Mountains has become a symbol of Canada herself, being a passage between East and West in the world. Today new challenges face us—North and South, rich and poor, and a struggle for the planet itself, between development and wilderness. All these meet and mingle in Canada: in our First Nations, in the French and British legacies and those of others who have joined to build an international village.

The search for a Northwest Passage has come full circle. Now we know the world is round. Finding each other is coming home to ourselves, deeper with the riches we bring to each other. So in our own space we release and remove the blackages that prevent our planet from coming together3.

                                         Keep the channels open

                                         Clear a passage through

                                        The world outside is waiting

                                        To see itself anew.


Notes on “Keep the Passage open.”

1 I am dating the “new Dominion” from its actual completion at Craigellachie: November 7, 1885, NOT the date of BC’s joining Confederation (which was conditional upon completion of the Railway), or of Confederation itself, which encompassed four central/eastern colonies, with the “sea to sea” aspect still an unrealized dream.

2 As a child growing up in Calgary in the 1950’s, I never even heard of Rogers Pass until the Trans-Canada Highway. The C.P.R. was still the main way of getting to Vancouver, and it went through the “five mile tunnel” as I heard Connaught Tunnel described. My father told me that the train used to go over Mount Macdonald (which it now went through). I remember seeing an old stone bridge just beyond where the original line diverged from the one we were on. “Over Mount Macdonald” conjured up images of the very top—like The Little Engine that Could.

On a 1959 holiday when our family planned to drive to the coast, there were two choices: around the “Big Bend” (of the Columbia) which, I later learned was one of the alternatives considered by the C.P.R. before Rogers Pass was discovered, or southward through the U.S.. I recall my father saying that he would have liked to have taken the Big Bend because “the scenery was beautiful” but it was a rough road—all gravel without services along the way. So we went through the States. So in western Canada in my generation, the building of the Trans-Canada Highway—along the original C.P.R. right of way—had the same impact the completion of the Railway did three quarters of a century earlier: it meant we could take an “all Canadian route” across our own country. This was the issue that divided some of the original rail builders, including Canadian J.J. Hill, who wanted the C.P.R. to go south of Lake Superior through the States, and American expatriate W. C. Van Horne, who supported the all-Canadian route. The first time I traveled Rogers Pass was 1968 when I had my own first car—a 1950 Chev.

3 Canada is equipped to do this because for the most part her development has been vis à vis the forces of nature: sometimes in harmony, sometimes in struggle with them. We have not had a personified human adversary that has focused our national psyche. Despite the view of those historians and politicians who see our “coming of age” in the two world wars, our participation in these was perceived as part of a global struggle of issues rather than against a personal “them”.

The closest we have had to an adversary is our continuing fear of the United States with whom “we”—as a part of the British Empire—were last at war with almost two centuries ago (1812). Fear of American expansion north and west was a contributor to Confederation later in that same centuries. Despite the inevitable cross border frictions that will occur between neighbours who are different—and particularly of different sized economic/population bases—the fear of a territorial/political takeover in Canada has been no more than a bogy for most of the twentieth century. The more amicable relationship between peoples was personified in the relationship between Franklin Delanore Roosevelt and William Lyon McKenzie King—significantly our longest serving political leaders—and translated into words in the Ogdensburg and Hyde Park agreements during the Second World War.

Our transcending of the need for an external personal bogy will show that we have truly come of age, to paraphrase Deputy PM John Manley in 2002. This does not mean that we abdicate distinct interests and values or servilely “roll over” on issues of principle with our powerful neighbour. It does mean we deal with each episode on an issue by issue basis, rather than falling back on a “Them again!” set of defenses, complexes and reflexes.

It means that our leading English speaking news magazine may someday abandon its annual issue/survey on “Are we becoming more like the Americans?” (assimilated) This is parallel to French speaking Québec’s ongoing fear of linguistic assimilation. Whenever the nationalist pot in either of the Two Similitudes is getting cold or empty, someone commissions a poll to show We’re in Danger of being Taken Over by Them!

Humankind’s hopes of transcending its boundaries lies in our growing beyond the need for a Them as a focus for our fears. Canada’s capacity to be a model in this evolution—a role for which we’re well equipped historically, geographically and demographically—depends on our ability to exorcising/outgrowing the shades of a Them bogy in our national psyche. “Keep the channels open/Clear a passage through” must start with and among ourselves.