Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In 1949 the government of Canada passed an Act to Encourage and to Assist in the Construction of a Trans-Canada Highway. The act specified a set of construction criteria for a two-lane highway to connect Canada's east and west coasts by the most direct route. The federal government would pay 50 percent of the construction costs. The highway was officially opened in 1962, and the federal government continued to make payments under the act until 1971. The federal share was over $900 million, and the total cost was estimated at $1.4 billion. At 4,860 miles, it is the longest national highway in the world.

The highway crosses the Prairie Provinces following the route of the transcontinental railway built between 1881 and 1883, linking together five of the eleven largest cities in the region. Leaving the Canadian Shield country of Ontario, it becomes the main street of Winnipeg, Manitoba, then pushes west to the province's second largest city, Brandon. Regina, Saskatchewan, is the next city on the highway, followed by Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and Medicine Hat, Alberta. The highway is a major expressway through Calgary, then, heading west, it enters the Rockies via Banff National Park. This route makes the highway an important truck route for provincial and interprovincial trade. Most of the highway across the Prairie Provinces has now been widened to four lanes, and the twinning process continues.

Since the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway, the social custom of gathering for coffee has shifted from the centers of the small towns near the highway to the restaurants and service stations at highway intersections. Further, improved transportation has led to the loss of services and the economic decline of some towns, while those towns near cities have taken on a dormitory function.

Like the railway, the highway was also built for symbolic reasons: to demonstrate Canadian unity. The highway is designated Highway 1 and has the Canadian maple leaf signage. During the summer months it is heavily used by hitchhikers, cyclists, mobile homes, and automobile tourists. Banff National Park receives over five million visitors annually.

Many diaries and coffee-table books have been published reflecting personal experiences along the highway. It has been described as "the artery through which the soul of the nation pulses . . . dedicated to the freedom to travel without restriction." Across the vastness of the Prairie Provinces this is particularly noticeable. In some ways it is the Canadian equivalent of U.S. Route 66.

During the 1970s, a northern route through the Parkland Belt was designated the Yellowhead Highway. Following the Trans-Canada Highway west from Winnipeg for fifty miles, it turns northwest to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and Edmonton, Alberta, and enters the Rockies through Jasper National Park and the Yellowhead Pass. It has also been designated as a trans-Canada highway route, although the Yellowhead name is still in more general use.

William R. Horne University of Northern British Columbia

Howarth, William. Traveling the Trans-Canada. Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 1987.

Ratausky, Wes. Silver Highway: A Celebration of the Trans-Canada Highway. Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1988.

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