Canada’s most iconic highways were all built in the 20th or 21st centuries. Before the car became popular, good roads were hard to find once you left a city. As simple as they seem, it’s expensive to build and maintain roads. Rural routes were often treacherous for travelers.
Modern highways connect our massive country. A few of them stand out for their length, origins, or wondrous landscapes.
When two men tried to drive across Canada in 1912 — the first attempt at such a journey —there was no uninterrupted route between North Bay, Ontario and Winnipeg. Instead of driving through the United States, they loaded the car onto trains and schooners for that stretch of the road trip. To better facilitate such journeys, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent initiated the Trans-Canada Highway in 1949. Thirteen years later, the highway opened in 1962 (though it took until 1971 for all sections to be completely finished).
Today, the Trans-Canada is a system of highways connecting all 10 provinces. While the main route is 7,821 km, a total of about 12,800 km have the designation.
The Yellowhead Highway connects Winnipeg to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Now considered part of the Trans-Canada Highway system, the Yellowhead Highway is located further north than the original Trans-Canada route. West of Prince Rupert, the highway continues on Haida Gwaii, between Skidegate and Masset.
The highway is named for the Yellowhead Pass in the Rocky Mountains. The pass is in turn named for a Métis-Haudenosaunee trapper named Pierre Bostonais. In 1819, Bostonais, nicknamed Tête Jaune or “yellow head” for his blonde hair, led a group of Hudson’s Bay Company men through the area.
Between Prince Rupert and Prince George, British Columbia, the highway is known as the Highway of Tears. Bordered by 23 First Nations, it has been the site of many murders and disappearances of women, mostly Indigenous.
Despite the American name, most of the Alaska Highway is in Canada. For decades, the US and Canadian governments planned a highway, to help the northern economy and military.
In 1941, Japan bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, bringing the US into the Second World War. Military bases were built in Alaska, including its Aleutian Island archipelago. To facilitate the movement of supplies and better defend the area, the US decided to build the highway, cover the entire cost, and turn over ownership to Canada after the war.
This scenic highway passes through the Tombstone and Nitainlaii territorial parks, over a continental divide and into the Arctic Circle. Communities along the highway include Fort McPherson and Tsiigehtchic. The land is the traditional territory of the Vuntut Gwich’in and Tetlit Gwich’in.
An extension of the Dempster Highway, the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (officially known as Northwest Territories Highway 10) is the first all-weather road to the Arctic Ocean. Until it opened in 2017, Tuktoyaktuk was accessed by air in summer months, and ice road in the winter.
The highway was built on top of the permafrost, which is melting due to climate change. This damages the road. As a result, scientists are using the corridor to research the effects of infrastructure on permafrost.
If you watched the 2010 Winter Olympics, held in Vancouver and Whistler, this name might be familiar. Part of British Columbia’s longer Highway 99, which runs from West Vancouver to Lillooet, the Sea-to-Sky Highway connected the two cities’ venues.
Despite a British newspaper calling it one of the five best road trips in the world, the International Olympic Committee was worried about frequent collisions along the “highway of death.” In preparation for the Games, BC aimed to eliminate the road’s blind curves. This required blasting rock from cliffs and going over sensitive wetlands, moves that were protested. Changes cost $600 million.
Queen Elizabeth Way
Opened in 1939, “the QEW” had its beginnings as “Middle Road.” Middle Road was named for its location between Toronto’s Lakeshore Road and Dundas Street. During the Great Depression, the provincial government hired unemployed workers to widen Middle Road to make room for increasing traffic.
A few years into the widening, in 1934, the design was changed by a new government.
The new design made it North America’s first divided highway between two cities. It also introduced Canada’s first cloverleaf interchange. The design allows the highway to cross a road, without either throughfare stopping, while at the same time allowing drivers to get on and off or switch direction.
The QEW isn’t named for Queen Elizabeth II, who was just 13 years old when it opened. Instead, it was named for her mother. Today, the highway stretches from the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto to Fort Erie’s Peace Bridge, at the US-Canada border.
Highway 401 stretches from Windsor, Ontario to just past Cornwall, at the Quebec border. In 2016, a 1 km section near Pearson International Airport was the busiest portion, with an average of 400,700 vehicles passing through each day. Some claim that this 18-lane wide portion is the busiest stretch of highway in the world.
Once curvy and unpaved, the highway had a reputation as being dangerous. Some car rental companies even forbade use of the road. With paving almost complete, the road’s conditions are said to be much more dependable.
This loop around Cape Breton Island opened in 1932, connecting remote Nova Scotia fishing villages. The name remembers Italian explorer John Cabot, who led the first recorded meeting of Europeans with the Mi’kmaq people on Cape Breton Island, in 1497.
Highway of Heroes
Fallen Canadian soldiers are driven along a 170 km stretch of Ontario’s Highway 401 from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to Toronto when their bodies return home. In 2002, residents of the town of Cobourg began draping flags on overpasses above the route to honour the motorcades as they drove by. The idea spread to other communities, and the route was designated a Highway of Heroes.
The name and tradition now applies to seven stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. Three more Highway of Heroes are on Northwest Territories Highway 1, Quebec’s Highway 20, and Halifax’s Circumferential Highway.