The Seaway: a failure.

A translation by Judith Turcotte

The construction of the seaway (at the end of the fifties) was considered as an important engineering achievement. At its inauguration, Raymond Charette, a journalist at Radio Canada declared: “June 26, 1959, is now a milestone in Canada’s history of ommunications and intercontinental and transoceanic connections.” During the inauguration, the Queen, accompanied by President Dwight Eisenhower and Prime Minister John Diefenbaker declared: “This achievement, above all, opens a new chapter in Confederation history.”

Even if the construction of the seaway was considered as an historical accomplishment, the project was not without criticism as witnessed by a report in Actualité magazine on July 27, 1958, a year prior to its inauguration. Experts, perhaps blinded by their nationalistic sentiments, predicted that Toronto would benefit more than Montréal from the construction of the seaway since a large part of the maritime traffic would be directed to the Great Lakes. While some saw the advantages for Toronto, others saw the port of Montréal becoming as important as New York thanks to increased maritime traffic and to the size of the boats. Ten years after the inauguration, the journalist, Claude-Jean Devirieux, in a report entitled, “A Thousand Milles on Fresh Water: …” wrote that the Québec metropolis is still the one that welcomes the largest ships.” As happens to many journalists, he had shrewdly sniffed out important information but did not go far enough in his thinking and had not realized that that snippet of information was only the tip of the iceberg.

Sixty years later, the seaway, despite its great promises of economic prosperity at the beginning, never met its objectives. The construction of the seaway was a grandiose project that would allow the circulation of ships from all over the world towards the major cities situated around the Great Lakes. The cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto saw themselves becoming great port cities like New York and Rotterdam. Those who made the decision of building the seaway hoped for an economic impact similar to the results obtained for the Suez Canal in Egypt and the Panama Canal. It was not the case. They probably had smoked the same product as those who had planned Mirabel Airport.

First, the idea of building a seaway in a Nordic country on a river that freezes in the winter was not the brightest idea. In a world where the industrial production adopts the “just in time,” it is impossible to use a mode of transportation that becomes inaccessible during the three months of winter. However, the actual reason why the seaway is a failure resides in the building of locks too small to accommodate the large ships and containerships that will become the main transporters of manufactured products in the years following the end of construction. The seaway therefore became obsolete a few months after its inauguration. In 1980, the containerships were 300 metres in length and 40 metres in width, 15 metres wider than the seaway locks. The conclusion becomes obvious; the seaway was built too small and is a failure.

The day of the inauguration, I remember arriving at Seaway Park to see the Royal Britannica yacht pass by. I was 12 years of age at the time and as everyone, I was impressed by the ceremony and the presence of all these beautiful people celebrating the “the important moment of our history.”  I had not yet realized that I had just lost access to the St. Lawrence River and that the bucolic peace of Saint Lambert, the city where I was born, had just been disrupted by the vehicles circulating on the 132. If only the loss of this quality of life had served a purpose.

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