From Trailway Dreams to Roadway Nightmares
Ottawa, ON - Sunday, August 28, 2016

Speaking from the steps of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa. Photo by Angie Vowles.

In 1992, Canada’s 125th anniversary celebrations gave birth to a new National Dream, the construction of a Trans Canada Trail – a linear park, a cross-country greenway, an active-transportation corridor – that would join Canadians from coast to coast to coast. Safe and secure and accessible for people of all ages and abilities, including those in wheelchairs, this extraordinary trailway would be completed – supposedly – by the millennium year 2000.

The dream was ambitious and awe-inspiring, but it was also clear-headed and attainable. Bill Pratt, the founding president of the Trans Canada Trail, proposed linking and “recycling” abandoned rail beds, transforming our nation’s original steel backbone into a modern ecological spine. Decommissioned railways, constructed many decades earlier at huge public expense, stretched for tens of thousands of kilometres throughout the country – for 6,000 kilometres in Saskatchewan alone – and offered ready-made transportation corridors.

With their rock-solid foundations and well-drained structures and gently-sloping surfaces, railway rights-of-way were the ideal cost-effective solution, widely available and cheaply adaptable. After determining a rational cross-country route, trail-builders could easily clear away brush and ballast, pack down a three-metre-wide surface, and then restore historic installations including spectacular heritage bridges.  Local communities could provide tourist services, but also build shelters at regular intervals and, where necessary, campsites.

Although Bill Pratt waxed eloquent about the trail’s potential to foster unity and to stimulate tourism, his principal motivation was the safety and security of hikers and cyclists. Witness to a horrific accident that had left three teenage cyclists dead and four injured, he insisted that the trail be built far enough from motor vehicles to mask traffic noise and to avoid fatal collisions.

Like most Canadians, my wife, Elizabeth Sovis, shared these safety concerns, and when I asked her to accompany me each summer on a three-week cycling holiday, she set one essential condition. NO ROADS. In her view, pedaling near motor vehicles was not merely stressful and unpleasant; it was high risk and life-threatening.

So it was that I painstakingly pored over official trail guides and detailed map books, meticulously plotting our routes along completed and operational sections of the Trans Canada Trail.

But in British Columbia, we traveled down a terrifyingly narrow and rock-strewn shoulder of the Malahat Highway, and Elizabeth reacted with stunned disbelief, convinced that the guide book had made a stupendous error. In Alberta, we struggled through soft sand and rough rocks on the 177-kilometre Iron Horse Trail, yielding constantly to convoys of ATVs, and Elizabeth resolved to devote her retirement to the creation of a genuinely non-motorised trail.

In Manitoba, we pedaled north from Winnipeg on high-speed roadways, and Elizabeth angrily cancelled our vacation, claiming it was too dangerous. But, in Ontario and Quebec, we found many safe and secure and scenic trailways, and Elizabeth renewed her faith and confidence in the Trans Canada Trail.

Then, in New Brunswick, we discovered risky road routes once again, and Elizabeth balked, refusing to travel any farther, until we had boxed our bicycles and boarded the train. Finally, in Prince Edward Island, with big sighs of relief, we arrived in what the provincial guidebook described as “a cycling paradise.” Four hours later, Elizabeth was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

I have taken up her cause, and in an effort to honour her memory and her vision, I am cycling the Trans Canada Trail in five stages, from Victoria (British Columbia) to Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island), a total distance of 12,500 km, beginning July 1, 2013 and finishing July 14, 2017. My goal is to promote the construction of a national trailway that is accessible and safe for people of all ages and abilities.

My cross-country journey confirms, over and over again, that Elizabeth was right to be concerned and fearful. The motorisation of our much-vaunted greenway is not a temporary anomaly; it is a permanent attribute. Our trailway dream has become a roadway nightmare.

The Trans Canada Trail is now projected to be 24,000 kilometres long, but 21 percent is, in fact, waterway. And this includes a torturous 2,100-kilometre route that splashes and thrashes from Jessica Lake (Manitoba) through to Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario), leaving hikers and cyclists little choice but to make a long trek on a treacherous stretch of Trans-Canada Highway.

Equally appalling, 35 percent is now officially and unequivocally on roads and highways, while an estimated 24 percent is on trails used by off-road motor vehicles.

This leaves a paltry 20 percent for non-motorised pathways that often include roadside drainage ditches, concrete town sidewalks, and primitive footpaths.

How did this happen? What went wrong? The answer is that responsibility for building a national trailway passing through 1,000 municipalities has been left to community volunteers and grassroot organisations. And the task is too demanding and too complex. A national project requires national planning and national resources and national authority.

Canada possesses an immense territory, but a sparse population. Many regions have few inhabitants and limited means and doubtful motivation. How can they finance, construct and maintain a top-quality trailway?

I am calling on the federal government to intervene in the Trans Canada Trail and, in collaboration with the provinces, to establish minimum standards for quality and safety, and coherent plans for routing and length. But, first and foremost, I want our governments to immediately take the Trans Canada Trail off roads and highways. A national route intended for the safety of hikers and cyclists should not be shared with motorised vehicles.

Le 20 juin 2016, la sénatrice Claudette Tardif a exprimé son appui en déclarant  que: « Tout comme M. Aunger et plusieurs autres utilisateurs du Sentier transcanadien, je crois que le gouvernement fédéral pourrait avoir un rôle à jouer pour faire du sentier un réseau de classe mondiale. Celui-ci pourrait établir des normes de qualité minimales, y compris des normes de construction, de sécurité et d'accès pour l'ensemble du sentier en utilisant tous les leviers à sa disposition pour en assurer la cohérence. »

In building the Trans Canada Trail, our federal government should consider the strategy adopted 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. Even then, the construction of this vital national transportation corridor was not finished until 1970.

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 cross-country trailway that is safe and accessible for Canadians of all ages and abilities, we will have genuine cause for celebration.