Hollow celebration

Amidst the celebration of 30 years of the Coquihalla, let's remember the communities the highway does not benefit

Communities throughout the Fraser and Thompson canyons will probably be forgiven for not joining wholeheartedly in the 30th anniversary celebration of the completion of phase one of the Coquihalla Highway. Congratulatory reports were all over the media last week, extolling the project; one Kamloops media figure said that it “sparked new economic and tourism growth for areas like Kamloops”, adding that “Without that link, some think it’s doubtful that Thompson Rivers University, nor even Sun Peaks resort, would exist in their current forms today, nor would Interior communities be as prosperous as they are.”

Which Interior communities have prospered, one has to ask. Ah, here’s Transportation Minister Todd Stone (from Kamloops) to answer that: “The Coquihalla highway system links Kamloops, Kelowna, and Merritt with the coast and has connected British Columbian communities along this route to opportunity for over three decades.”

This is all very well if you’re a community along that system; but what if you happen to be a community along the route that the Coquihalla replaced, three decades ago? Until 1986, the way from the lower mainland to Kamloops, the Shuswap, and beyond was along Highway 1 through the Fraser and Thompson canyons to Cache Creek, then east. The opening of the Coquihalla shaved an hour off that trip; and 30 years later, the results are all-too-sadly apparent.

They’re apparent in the population figures along the route. In 1986, Boston Bar had a population of 469; in 2011 it had dropped to 206 (all figures from Census Canada). Lytton, in 1986, had 365 people living there; in 2011 its population was 228. Ashcroft and Cache Creek had 1,870 and 1,120 residents respectively, in 1986; today it’s 1,628 and 1,040.

They’re apparent in the businesses that have vanished. Before 1986, one could leave Hope and stop at Lake of the Woods, Spuzzum, Alexandra Lodge, the Tunnels Café, Kanaka Bar, and Jade Springs for food and/or gas. Try doing any of that today, and see how well you fare. There has also been a huge cost to the surviving communities along Highway 1 from Hope to Cache Creek, all of which have lost amenities (just ask the residents of Spences Bridge, whose last gas station disappeared close to a decade ago).

Is this decline in population and business solely, or even mostly, to do with the building of the Coquihalla, and the consequent diversion of traffic away from these communities? The evidence would seem to say yes. There are people living in Kamloops now who have never had a reason to drive the Fraser Canyon route, taking instead the faster, but more sterile, Coquihalla. Travellers used to plan their drive along the Fraser Canyon route so they could stop here for breakfast or there for lunch. Driving the canyon was part of the charm of the journey.

“British Columbia is so much better off for [the Coquihalla],” notes the Kamloops media figure cited above, not incorrectly. The new highway represents progress, which we as a province cannot do without. Progress, however, often comes with a cost; a dark underside that many prefer to gloss over or ignore, as it does not fit a feel-good narrative. By all means, let’s celebrate the construction of an engineering marvel that brought prosperity to many; but let’s not forget those whom progress left behind, and the very real cost of that.