Ride to Queen’s Park, Rally for Safe Trails
Toronto, ON - Sunday, August 7, 2016

My name is Edmund Aunger and, on behalf of my late wife, Elizabeth Sovis, I am appealing to the Ontario government, the federal government and other provincial governments to intervene in the Trans Canada Trail, and to propose minimum standards for quality and safety, and most especially to get it off our country’s roads and highways.

Many years ago, when Elizabeth agreed to accompany me each summer on a three-week cycling holiday, she set one essential condition. NO ROADS.  She believed that sharing the road with motor vehicles was extremely dangerous, and she stubbornly refused to put her life at risk. Personally, I thought her fears were exaggerated. After all, as a youngster, I had often pedaled on busy Toronto streets, carrying newspapers and delivering groceries, and had never felt threatened. Of course, I was also too stupid to be scared.

And Elizabeth, not I, represented the sensible voice of public opinion. A recent study by the National Association of Transportation Officials in the United States reports that most potential cyclists are concerned about their safety and, in this group, 81 percent want to be separated from motorised traffic by a physical barrier.  Canadian cyclists exhibit similar apprehensions, and even more so when asked about their children.

So, in planning our summer cycling trips, I worked hard to ensure that we traveled safely – and off road.  Europe was relatively simple; Canada extremely difficult. Although we conscientiously followed the Trans Canada Trail routes, we consistently found ourselves – except in Quebec – riding on life-threatening roadways. And Elizabeth, true to her principles, would angrily refuse to continue.

In July 2008, Elizabeth and I set out on an Alberta cycling trip that included the province’s longest stretch of “operational” Trans Canada Trail, a 177-kilometre rail trail running from Wasketenau to Heinsburg. We soon discovered, however, that the trail – composed of loose gravel, soft sand and jagged ballast – was used only by off-road motorised vehicles. After struggling laboriously for sixteen kilometres, and yielding frequently to ATVs, we finally detoured onto hard-packed township roads that, ironically, had less motorised traffic.

Shortly afterwards, with undisguised indignation, Elizabeth announced  that, in the not-too-distant future, after winding down her practice as a speech-language pathologist, she would be campaigning for the development of a Trans Canada Trail that would be safe and accessible for people of all ages and abilities – just as the trail founders had originally promised.

Four years later, we took our annual cycling vacation on the Trans Canada Trail in Prince Edward Island, reputed to be the safest destination in North America. On the day of our arrival, however, after cycling for only four hours, we discovered, much to Elizabeth’s disgust, that the route to our accommodation, recommended in the official trail guidebook, was on a two-lane road. Several minutes later, Elizabeth was struck and killed by a drunk driver. The impact threw her body fifty metres.

I have taken up her cause. I am cycling 12,500 kilometres on the Trans Canada Trail, from Victoria (British Columbia) to Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island), and campaigning for the creation of a national spine trail that is truly safe and widely accessible.

Bill Pratt, the founding president, envisioned a Trans Canada Trail that would foster unity and stimulate tourism but, most importantly, promote safety. He vowed that the trail would be built far enough from roads to mask traffic noise and to avoid deadly collisions. No wonder. In 1985, he had witnessed horrifying carnage when a careless driver swerved onto a highway shoulder near Calgary, killing three teenage cyclists and injuring four.

And yet today, in a perverse betrayal of the original objectives, more than 45 percent of the land-based Trans Canada Trail is on roads and highways. In addition, an estimated 30 percent is used mainly by off-road motor vehicles.

How did this happen? How did our proud national dream become a shameful national nightmare? How did our glorious plans for public safety become an odious means for public endangerment?

The answer lies in the original organisational strategy. Bill Pratt was confident the Trans Canada Trail could be built with community volunteers, private donations and corporate sponsorships. It didn’t work. Volunteers lacked the political power, the financial resources and the planning capacity to successfully complete an ambitious cross-country project.

Moreover, in many sparsely-populated regions, there were no volunteers. No people, no trail. So hikers and cyclists were told to walk and ride on the highways, euphemistically described as “road trails.”

We need to adopt the strategy used so successfully to complete the Trans-Canada Highway. First proposed in 1912, our national highway was going nowhere until 1948 when Canada’s newly-appointed minister of Public Works, Robert Winters, offered generous funding to provinces that met agreed standards for routing, surfacing, width, gradient and load bearing.  Ironically, Winters saw construction of a cross-country highway only as a huge make-work project designed to reduce post-war unemployment and encourage American tourism.

Provincial governments have constitutional responsibility for highways, roads and trails, but a national project requires national cooperation. I am asking the Ontario government to champion a federal-provincial program that would set world-class standards for our cross-country spine trail.

I invited Eleanor McMahon, the provincial minister of Tourism, Culture and Sports, to meet me here today, but she had a prior commitment. The minister is participating in the opening of a new section of the 1,600- kilometre Waterfront Trail that runs through Sarnia, St. Catherines, Hamilton, Toronto, Kingston and Cornwall, and that also coincides with 87 kilometres of Trans Canada Trail from Hamilton to Toronto.

Unfortunately, the Waterfront Trail, like the Trans Canada Trail, is not really a trail. Only 21 percent is on pathways, the rest is on roadways.

Between Hamilton and Toronto, like this scene near Port Credit, Ontario, most sections of the Lakefront Trail and the Trans Canada Trail are on the road.

From Orillia through Cookstown, Waterloo and Hamilton, Ontario already possesses many excellent rail trails – non-motorised greenways at least three metres wide with hard-packed and well-drained surfaces. These are outstanding examples of what the entire Trans Canada Trail could be and should be.

Boasting that our current 24,000-kilometre trans-Canadian maze of hazardous roadways, motorised pathways and turbulent waterways is the world’s greatest recreational trail is a dangerous hoax.

If, by July 1, 2017, in time for Canada’s 150th birthday, our governments can reach agreement for the future construction of a non-motorised spine trail that is safe and accessible for Canadians of all ages and abilities, we will have genuine cause for celebration.