ARCHIVED - Building for Prosperity: Public Infrastructure in Canada - Building a Nation

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Building a Nation

Kicking Horse Pass, Golden, BC
(photo courtesy of the Province of British Columbia)

Infrastructure is everywhere and touches everyone. From the water we drink to the roads we drive on, Canada's public infrastructure forms the fabric of our nation. Our quality of life, prospering communities and resilient economy depend on our systems of public infrastructure, and our continued ability to compete successfully on the global stage depends on the quality of these systems.

Since Confederation, the federal government has supported Canada's public infrastructure through investments in railways, the telegraph system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, ports, airports, highways, broadband and other investments, such as those required for national defence or to support national cultural institutions. From isolated colonies in the New World, to a modern vibrant country, our history is etched in public works across a vast landscape.

1800s: Building for Confederation

Construction of Transcontinental Railway, 1909, Northern Ontario

Construction of Transcontinental Railway, 1909, Northern Ontario
(photo courtesy of Stewart M. Ogilvy, Library and Archives Canada,

Public infrastructure investments in the 1800s focused on canals and railroads. Massive labour-intensive public works stretched from one frontier to another, uniting a scattered population and giving birth to a nation. The Lachine Canal, completed in 1825, which bypasses treacherous rapids on the St. Lawrence River, created a vital transportation link necessary for the economic success and development of Montréal. The Rideau Canal, originally built for its strategic importance, stretches over 200 km from Ottawa to Kingston. The completion of this inland waterway resulted in the transformation of a small lumber town into Ottawa, the nation's capital. The Rideau Canal, which opened in 1832, is now a recognized world UNESCO heritage site.

Perhaps the most symbolic of Canada's 19th century capital works are its railways. A promise of Confederation, railway commitments were written into the British North America Act and also secured the union with British Columbia. In a time of rail "mania" throughout the British Empire and America, Canada's sparse 1881 population of 4.3 million built a lasting bond of national unity that weathered natural, political and financial disasters. In the late 1800s, crossing the barren Precambrian Shield and the daunting Rocky Mountains was both dangerous and technically astounding. The first passenger train reached Port Moody, British Columbia, in July 1886, almost eight months after the last spike was hammered in 1885. Over a century and a half later, Canadians still travel on the national rail system.

Into the Next Century: Industrialization and Urbanization

Marine crane loading boilers and engine assemblies at shipyard, 1943, Montréal, QC

Marine crane loading boilers and engine assemblies at shipyard,
1943, Montréal, QC (photo courtesy of the National Film Board
of Canada and Library and Archives Canada)

By the time Saskatchewan and Alberta joined confederation in 1905, more and more Canadians were leaving the family farm and moving into the cities. Although the national urban population would not pass the halfway mark until the 1920s, public works throughout Canada were responding to the new industrial reality and booming cities. Changes, such as electrification, reliable water, waste management and public transit, made cities a viable place for both families and factories. Additionally, manufacturing and industrial growth were well supported by the transportation investments of the 19th century.

Montréal published its first telephone directory in the 1880s and by the mid-1890s cities across the country, including Vancouver and Winnipeg, had electric street car systems. Public infrastructure supported the movement of raw materials across the dominion, and significant investments supported the new urban working class. The Union of Canadian Municipalities, a forerunner of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, was well aware of the new role of cities when it held its first meeting in 1901. Steel building frames and suburbs were the hallmarks of a new economy driven by urban centres connected by water, rail, telegraph and the telephone.

Public Infrastructure: The Golden Age

Construction workers on the St. Lawrence Seaway, 1952

Construction workers on the St. Lawrence Seaway,
1952, (photo courtesy of the National Film Board
of Canada and Library and Archives Canada,

Trans-Canada Highway Improvements, Banff, AB

Trans-Canada Highway Improvements, Banff, AB

After World War II, countries around the world began to rebuild. The 1950s and 1960s are generally considered to be the Golden Age of modern infrastructure. Building the 306-km section from Montréal to Lake Ontario of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a joint Canada-U.S. undertaking, became one of the great public works projects of this era. Recognized as one of the most challenging engineering feats in history, the Seaway overshadowed even the Suez Canal built in 1869 and the Panama Canal built in 1914. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959.

Enthusiasm for public infrastructure as nation building also extended to our cultural heritage. Libraries, arenas and art galleries were built across the country in celebration of Canada's centennial, including Ottawa's National Arts Centre.

In the post-war boom, the automobile became a symbol of prosperity, individuality and modernity. While the railways were still the foundation of the transportation system, work began to unite Canada by highway. In 1949, the federal government passed the Trans-Canada Highway Act which set the stage for joint federal-provincial funding of what would become the world's longest national highway. In 1962, with cars lining the road for three kilometres in each direction, the prime minister and representatives from all ten provinces officially opened the Trans-Canada Highway at Rogers Pass near Revelstoke, British Columbia. While construction would not be fully competed until 1971, Canada's "billion dollar highway" was open for traffic from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Era of Renewal

Red River Floodway Expansion, Winnipeg, MB

Red River Floodway Expansion, Winnipeg, MB
(photo courtesy of the Manitoba Floodway Authority)

Following a general decline in Western spending on public infrastructure in the 1970s and 1980s, renewed interest in public works investments has emerged in the last ten years. In Canada, governments have worked together to fund all manner of infrastructure projects from community-oriented green infrastructure investments to major projects of regional importance. In Manitoba, the Red River floodway, originally constructed in the 1950s, is being expanded to protect residents against a flood larger than the 1997 "flood of the century." From harbour cleanups to pipe replacement, all orders of government are investing in the renewal of water and wastewater systems.

The benefits of past nation-building investments in public infrastructure are very apparent today. Recent investments have contributed to the ongoing renewal and improvement of what Statistics Canada describes as Canada's core public infrastructure (CPI).1  The average age of infrastructure is often used as an indication of the state of infrastructure and as seen in the chart below, the average age of Canada's core public infrastructure peaked in 2001 at 17.0 years. Between 2001 and 2010, this average age fell to 14.7 years, including a drop of a full year between 2008 and 2010.2 The unprecedented infrastructure investments made across the country by all orders of government as part of Canada's Economic Action Plan are likely to contribute to a further decline in the average age of Canada's public infrastructure in the years to come.

Average Age of Canada's Core Public Infrastructure

Source: Statistics Canada, Investment and Capital Stock Division.
*Note: CPI includes bridges, roads, water, wastewater, transit, plus cultural and recreational facilities.


West Coast Express Commuter Rail Improvements, Vancouver, British Columbia

West Coast Express Commuter Rail Improvements,
Vancouver, BC

The success of current investments does not mean the work of Canada's three orders of government is complete. Aging infrastructure is a fact of modern societies. The Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada indicates that 50 percent of public infrastructure will have reached the end of its serviceable lifespan by 2027. Governments all over the world are looking at how to invest responsibly to maintain competitiveness and standards of living.

Over the last 50 years, the scope of possible infrastructure investment has increased dramatically. The building blocks of public infrastructure, such as drinking water systems, remain vital to our prosperity and well-being, but exciting new areas for growth and investment now present themselves. In the wake of the world's worst global recession in over 50 years, the biggest challenge for all levels of government will be to invest prudently in public infrastructure in order to safeguard our fragile economic recovery while supporting continued growth.

1 Statistics Canada defines "core public infrastructure" as comprising the following asset categories: bridges, roads, water, wastewater, public transit, and cultural and recreational facilities.

2 Estimated based on 2010 spending commitment from Statistics Canada CAPEX data.

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