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Construction, make-work projects and the bright side to the dark side:

Driving the Trans-Canada Highway in Quebec and Ontario

Writing and photos by Mark Richardson

Illustration by Molly Margaret

Kenora, Ont.

Published July 6, 2023

Quebec seems to be the province of road works. There’s been major construction on the Trans-Canada Highway for more than two decades, on the section that runs between the St. Lawrence River and New Brunswick. This seems fitting. Quebec was the last province to sign on to the federal government’s dream of building the cross-country highway in 1960, and it was among the last to complete it.

Mark Richardson is driving the length of the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John’s to Victoria. This is the fourth of a seven-part series.

In Quebec’s defence, this is a major upgrading project, costing an estimated $1.7-billion to flatten hills and divert creeks and turn the two-lane Trans-Canada into a swift, safe, four-lane highway that will be twinned down to the Maritimes.

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The Montreal River, just south of Wawa, was the beginning of The Gap and one of the last sections of highway to be built.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

It’s due to be completed in 2025 and when that happens, the many trucks that drive the road between Toronto and Halifax will finally have an autoroute capable of handling their traffic.

That’s not to say truck drivers will stick exclusively to the upgraded Trans-Canada, though. They already take the new bypass south of Montreal instead of the older route on Highway 40 that crosses the island and dips under the river on the Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine bridge-tunnel. There’s repair work on the bridge-tunnel that’s expected to take until at least the end of 2025, and which will cost about $2.5-billion.

In truth, like in New Brunswick, the Trans-Canada Highway in Quebec has little appeal except to get you places more efficiently. The scenic drive is on the original Highway 132 from the 1960s, which runs parallel to the Trans-Canada along the south shore of the St. Lawrence; it winds through pretty tourist towns and affords beautiful views across the wide water. The bucolic detour I took from Rivière-du-Loup to Levis, near Quebec City, was a balm to the anonymity of the expressway though its calming effect was shattered by the three-hour crawl through the bridge-tunnel. I took that way in order to follow the Trans-Canada’s route on Highway 25 onto the Island of Montreal from near Boucherville.

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Traffic on the Trans-Canada, Highway 40, in Montreal.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

When the Trans-Canada Highway was opened in 1962, it ran right through the centre of Montreal, along Sainte-Catherine Street. Merchants had lobbied for the tourist business. It didn’t take long before trucks were detoured onto the city’s other major routes, and then those six-lane highways were redesignated as parts of the Trans-Canada.

It was the same situation in Ottawa, where the new national highway originally followed the river into the city and passed right in front of the Parliament buildings. Again, the planners in Ontario were thinking of it as a tourist route, not as a commercial trucking route. Again, a controlled-access highway, Highway 417, needed to be constructed later to handle the commercial vehicles and their drivers, who valued efficiency over scenery.

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Edward Nyman, at home in Wawa.Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

“The Trans-Canada Highway was built to provide employment, pure and simple,” says David Monaghan, who was Curator of Land Transportation at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa until 2002. His 1996 thesis, Canada’s New Main Street, is considered the definitive account of the highway’s many political challenges. “The federal government had it as a ‘shelf project,’ and when they finally pulled it off the shelf, it was to create employment after the Second World War.”

That was in 1949, and it took another decade of wrangling before everything was under way. One of the last sections of the Trans-Canada Highway to be built was in Northern Ontario, where the mining town of Wawa, on the north shore of Lake Superior, was still isolated from the south, accessible only by train or ship. In 1951, a local merchant named Al Turcott dreamed up “Operation Michipicoten,” in which four local men walked the 100 kilometres south through the bush from Wawa to the Montreal River to draw attention to the need for a highway.

One of those men was Edward Nyman, whom I first met 11 years ago and then met again this summer at his home in Wawa.

“I was only 17 or so, and Mr. Turcott talked me into it,” he remembered. “He was a great bullshitter. We had a radio, and supplies were dropped in by a plane, but it really wasn’t difficult. We could have done it much more quickly, but Turcott wanted the publicity, so we took our time and went slowly.”

At their reception dinner, the politicians agreed a road was needed but it was a tremendous physical challenge to build through the rock and swamp. It cost $40-million at the time, and it wasn’t unusual for the construction crews, labouring among the blackflies, to find their work from the previous day swallowed up overnight in the marsh. The highway was finally completed in 1960. Is life in Wawa better now for it?

Nyman isn’t so sure. “We used to more or less trust anybody,” he said. “Nobody had locks on their doors. These days, everybody has locks.”

Now, drivers take the road for granted – and not just drivers. I met Bryan Cowie and Kelly Durst on the highway as I was driving to Kenora, Ont., and they were cycling their recumbent bicycles to Dryden. They said they left Lethbridge, Alta., about three weeks ago and were on their way to Newfoundland.

“It’s a wave. It’s just like life, cycling,” said Durst. “You have to ride the wave up and down, but the downs usually end up as something you appreciate more. Like, we had a breakdown, but the next thing we knew, we had people helping us out. There’s always a bright side to the dark side. I think that’s why we do it.”

And they can do it all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, all across Canada, because the highway is there for them.

Open this photo in gallery:The Lexus RX 500 h at the half-way point of the Trans-Canada Highway, north of Sault Ste.-Marie

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

In Wawa, the price of gas finally exceeded two dollars a litre. At least, it did for the Lexus RX 500h that I’m driving, supplied by Lexus of Canada, which requires premium fuel. Regular gas at the Petro-Canada station was priced at $1.73.9 a litre, but premium gas cost $2.03.9.

In the Atlantic provinces, the difference between a litre of regular and premium was about 10 cents, but down east, gas prices are regulated by the provincial governments. Not so everywhere else in Canada.

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The Lexus parked with the original Wawa goose, now at Young’s General Store in townMark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

“Often, gas stations compete with zero margins on their regular [fuel], and they use premium to subsidize the loss,” says Dan McTeague of On that day, the wholesale price to stations was about 10 cents more for premium, so the pump profits in Ontario came from earning about 20 cents a litre for all the premium fuel sold. As a rule of thumb, says McTeague, urban stations sell about one litre of premium for every five litres of regular, while rural stations sell about one for every seven.

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Gas prices in WawaMark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Some vehicles recommend premium fuel for better performance, but will run fine on regular. The RX 500h, however, requires premium fuel, thanks to its high-compression turbocharged engine that’s shared with the Toyota Grand Highlander and the [detuned] Toyota Crown.

I’ve been getting an average of 8.6 litres per 100 kilometres of fuel consumption, owing to the hybrid powertrain, which is impressive, but not so much when fuel costs 15 per cent more.

I asked Lexus what would happen if I routinely filled the tank with regular fuel and not premium. “Damage to the engine may occur and may void the vehicle warranty,” I was told.

Would the vehicle lose power? “Yes, engine performance would be reduced,” Lexus said, adding that lower octane fuel would cause engine knock to occur.

And can that damage the engine? “Yes, engine damage may occur when high engine load is demanded and the vehicle is running under turbo boost.”

Is that extra performance worth a 15-per-cent spike in the fuel bill for most Canadians? That’s up to the buyer to decide.

Mark Richardson is the author of Canada’s Road: A journey on the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John’s to Victoria (Dundurn).

Read more in this series:

Of moose, a monument and a devastated port town: Driving the Trans-Canada Highway in Newfoundland

A bridge, a ferry and a dot-matrix printer: Driving the Trans-Canada Highway through the Maritimes

Canada’s national highway didn’t come easy – it took some daredevils and squabbling to make it happen

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