Bridging Islands – Chapter 3

Built for Going Away: The Canso Causeway Epic, in Three Acts
Mike R. Hunter and Carol Corbin

Islands present opportunities to explore the making and maintaining of culture. Anecdotally- mythologically, even- islands can be cultural enclaves, and few island cultures represent this notion as well as does Cape Breton. Prized as a bastion of Scots Gaelic culture, Cape Breton, during the latter half of the 20th century and since the construction of the Canso Causeway, has become iconic of the Celtic Diaspora. The Causeway is a medium in the fullest sense of the word and its conception and construction are discursively linked with the myth of the Celtic hero, who figures as prominently in the story of the Causeway as in that Celtic iconography.Completed in 1955, the Canso Causeway connects Cape Breton Island and mainland Nova Scotia, eliminating congestion and delays of the ferry service at the Strait of Canso—for which trains had to be broken up and reassembled—caused by ice conditions in winter and spring, by increased traffic associated with the Island’s growing coal and steel industries and by increasing numbers of tourists to and from the island. Spoilage of perishables often resulted from the backlogs. Businesses in the industrial areas of Cape Breton pushed hard for a fixed crossing to develop freer trade for the island, to advance industry, to promote employment and to increase tourism.

In general, while industrialists lauded construction of the Causeway as an efficient means of transportation—for moving manufactured goods to markets—and politicians prized it as an efficient means of getting tourists to Cape Breton, environmentalists and fishers recognized its ecological damage and effects on declining resources. The masculine control of nature, expressed and implied, lent a heroic quality to the engineering feat of linking mainland and Island, supporting a concept that the Cape Breton economy—which still resembled its turn-of-the-(20th) century industrial might—and its Scots culture were something that could be concomitantly commodified through modernization of infrastructure.

The Causeway was one of many factors of change for Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia, linking them to the great web of highways constructed in North America as the same decade saw the automobile become a mass commodity. Wider use of the automobile facilitated bourgeois expeditions to the still wild island of Cape Breton, where modernity was slow to gain a foothold. But when post-war federal nation building saw fit to unify the country with the trans-Canada highway, the floodgates were opened, matching the new found mobility of information through television. Both innovations proved to be bidirectional. The Causeway allowed “freer” flow of goods and caused an exponential growth in tourism and at the same time allowed more people to leave. Visitors came to Cape Breton claiming links with an imagined pastoral past, while Islanders escaped the Spartan lifestyle of their forebears to seek modernity elsewhere.

The need for a fixed link, a way to streamline the flow of traffic on and off the island, is perhaps irrefutable. In 1922, the ferries were carrying nearly 45,000 vehicles annually; by 1949 that had increased to more than 100,000. In 1956, one year after the Causeway opened, 700 vehicles used it each day; by 2002, that figure had climbed to about 8,000. The Strait of Canso had become a gap “in the long arm of unity for more than half a million people living in Newfoundland and Cape Breton”.

The completion of the Causeway pushed Cape Breton into a new industrial era. The new ice-free, deep-water port status brought an oil refinery, a world-class pulp and paper mill and a (later moth-balled) heavy water plant. Where once the communities of Point Tupper and Mulgrave thrived as the terminuses for the ferry services (separate services for rail and vehicular traffic), the Strait area’s centre of commerce moved to the town of Port Hawkesbury, which increased in population by 45%, from 1955 to 1975. Four-hundred-fifty people lost their employment on the ferry services. The full impact was more like 1,000 jobs—Point Tupper “got wiped out … Mulgrave was really decimated” notes Mayor of Port Hawkesbury, Billy Joe MacLean.


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