Bridge Over Troubled Waters: The Fixed Link Debate on Prince Edward Island, 1885-1997
The context of the fixed link debate was almost as important as its content. From the time that Ottawa promised continuous communication with the Mainland as one of the terms of Confederation in 1873, it had became an idée fixe for many Prince Edward Islanders as they wrestled with the perceived connection between a declining export economy and the lack of reliable transportation links with the outside world. The unrequited quest for a fixed link gradually became an emblem of Prince Edward Island’s blighted hopes within Canadian Confederation. Long denial magnified the allure of a fixed link until, by the late 1950s, its attainment had become the panacea for every economic ill. But as consummation neared, somewhat unexpectedly, the economic grail of guaranteed connection with the Mainland collided head on with another powerful mystique, the physical insularity of islandness as a cherished determinant of cultural identity. The collision helped set the terms for the fixed link conflict of the 1980s and ‘90s.
The fixed link issue that would so divide Islanders in the late 20 th century actually began in the post-Confederation era as a squabble between two levels of government, provincial and federal. As one of the terms by which Prince Edward Island entered Canada in 1873, the Dominion Government pledged “to assume and defray the charges for efficient steam service for the conveyance of mails and passengers, to be established and maintained between the Island and the mainland of the Dominion, winter and summer, thus placing the Island in continuous communication with the Intercolonial Railway and railway systems of the Dominion”. For a federal government anxious to politically attach Prince Edward Island to the Mainland, the promise was much easier to make than to fulfil. In winter, the Northumberland Strait that divides Prince Edward Island from the North American continent is choked with a broken, shifting ice pack of variable thickness and consistency. Even were Ottawa to exert itself, Victorian technology was no match for the worst Strait ice. But Ottawa did not exert itself, and all too often federal government steamers spent much of their winters either barricaded in port or trapped in the Strait ice, leaving a precarious ice-boat service as the Island’s only physical link with the outside world.
The early decades of fixed link agitation established several patterns. First, the pressure for a fixed link was sustained by periodic conjunctions of severe ice conditions, badly interrupted winter service, and media-stoked indignation. The worse the interruption, the greater the indignation. It, too, had a predictable pattern. It was founded on constitutional principle (the terms of Confederation), wrapped in other grievances against Ottawa, and couched in economic terms. Ottawa, the argument went, neglected its constitutional obligations by failing to provide adequate communications between Prince Edward and the Mainland, which thwarted the timely transport of goods and people, which, in turn, undermined the Island economy. All of this could be addressed if Ottawa either built or financed a fixed crossing. “We should never be imprisoned in the future as we have been in the past,” Howlan claimed. “Not only would the old industries of this province be stimulated and put on a level with the other provinces, but a quite large number of new industries would be inaugurated”. Already, a fixed link had become equated, confidently if vaguely, with economic salvation.
On 31 May 1997, on schedule and more or less on-budget, the Confederation Bridge opened for business, and Marine Atlantic’s Borden-Cape Tormentine service closed. The announced cost for the completed structure was $840 million, 70% of which, according to provincial figures, had been spent on Prince Edward Island. That year, as if on cue, the number of visitors to Prince Edward Island topped the million mark for the first time and tourism spending jumped 63%.
In February 1994, in a piece of constitutional house-keeping, the Canadian Parliament adopted an amendment to the terms of union between Prince Edward Island and the Dominion of Canada so that the Confederation Bridge might literally fulfill the continuous communications clause (Government of Canada, 1994). Born as a constitutional grievance, the fixed link issue had come full circle, and could now, it seemed, be laid to rest – at least until the Confederation Bridge became obsolete. If Islanders’ opinions had been the only consideration, a fixed link would have begun the twentieth century on Prince Edward Island, instead of ending it, but, as historian Ian Johnston has pointed out, the fixed crossing happened when it did primarily because the federal government was, for reasons of its own, bent on building it.