The Names of Things IV
Ontario Highways Edition


The picture on the right is entitled Which way? Which way? and is by Lex. It is used in accordance to her Creative Commons license.

Warren Kinsella posted the following item on his blog:

I wrote a column for the Post about the Highway 401 tributes a few weeks ago, having been amazed by the thousands of people who have been showing up to salute our fallen heroes. It is truly remarkable.

Now Dalton McGuinty has a wonderful suggestion, detailed below. Reason 402 why I support the guy.

McGuinty considers renaming Hwy. 401 for soldiers News Staff
Updated: Thu. Aug. 23 2007 10:57 AM ET

A section of Canada’s busiest highway might be renamed the Highway of Heroes to honour the path fallen soldiers take from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to the coroner’s office in Toronto. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he will consider an online petition asking the Ministry of Transportation to change Highway 401’s name.

He said provinces should look for ways to show their support for Canadian troops and thank them for their sacrifices.

Police officers, firefighters and residents living around the highway have made it a tradition to stand on highway overpasses waving flags and saluting motorcades carrying the bodies of soldiers to the coroner’s office in Toronto.

There was no exception on Wednesday as overpasses became filled with crowds wishing to pay their respects to Pte. Simon Longtin, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on Sunday.

McGuinty was previously involved in renaming an Ottawa highway the Veterans Memorial Highway.

This prompted me to send Warren the following e-mail:


Regarding the intriguing idea of renaming Highway 401 in memory of Canada’s brave soldiers, I can understand where the sentiment is coming from. However, I feel it should be noted that the highway already has a name — one steeped in history, and one which we should perhaps be making more use of than we are.

Highway 401 is, of course, also known as the M(a)cDonald-Cartier Freeway, after Canada’s first prime minister and the first premier of Quebec — two fathers of Confederation, one English and one French, who helped give us the nation for our brave soldiers to die defending in the first place.

Honouring our troops is a very good idea, but we should be careful not to trample over our own history in doing so.

Yours sincerely,
James Bow

And Warren noted that the petition referred to “a section of Canada’s busiest highway”, possibly Toronto to Trenton, and not the whole thing. Which is fair enough.

But this got me thinking. Highway 401’s alternate name, the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway, makes a lot of symbolic sense for the reasons described in my letter, joining as it does the major cities of Toronto and Montreal, but it is almost never referred to as such. Which is a shame, since I believe that a memorial not spoken is a memorial forgotten (though it may be a blessing in disguise, since I suspect the temptation from drivers would be to refer to it as the “MacDonald-CartER Freeway”, disrespecting the memory of Quebec’s first premier and father of Confederation). And, given the history that the MacDonald-Cartier name is stepped in why should we avoid this name and stick to the dry “Highway 401”?

I have to wonder if it’s the number of syllables involved. Seriously. Think about this: we tend to refer to all of our interstates by number partly because they are easy to say, having neither too many syllables (making them too much of a mouthful) nor too few. The Veterans’ Memorial Highway is, unfortunately, almost never referred to as such, as people prefer the moniker 416 (four-six-teen). Across the province, the four-hundred series highways break down in similar, roll-off-the-tongue monikers: 401 (four-oh-one), 402 (four-oh-two), 400 (four-hun-dred). Which brings us to the one 400 series highway that’s referred to not by its number (unofficially 451) but its acronym: QEW (for Queen Elizabeth Way). Yes, that’s five syllables, but we see it as three letters which makes it easy to remember and say, and the three letters do have a sort of rhythm about them that makes them not only easier to say and remember but ultimately identify.

On the other hand, the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway (where signs bearing the name stand alongside signs bearing the route’s number) compresses to just M-C — two syllables which feel unfinished. Just try saying it: “I’ll drive the 401 to Cornwall” versus “I’ll drive the M-C to Cornwall.” It’s hard to describe why, but it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t help that the M.C. most people are familiar with is a Master of Ceremonies, and MCF sounds like a software company.

So there might be room for another letter. Perhaps, instead of renaming the Toronto-to-Trenton section of the 401 the Highway of Heroes (which, with respect, sounds a little corny), we should simply add another word to MacDonald and Cartier across the length of the route. The MacDonald-Cartier-Veterans Highway or the MacDonald-Cartier-Soldiers Highway compresses to MCV or MCS, which feels better on the tongue, and commemorates the sacrifices of our soldiers, as well as two of the individuals who gave them the country they’re fighting for.

I’d be willing to go for that, and to even change the signs so that the 401 moniker fades into the new name. Because unless you change the signs, the 401 will stay the 401, and the Highway of Heroes will remain little more than a set of alternate signs drivers pass enroute (as is the case on the 416, the Veterans’ Memorial Highway; which admittedly is still a far better commemoration than nothing at all).

Further Reading

Update: Wednesday, September 5 at 1:07 a.m.

I should note that a very knowledgeable reader by the name of Tom Box (an invaluable source of railroad history over at the Transit Toronto mailing list), wrote me a very nice letter to correct some of the mistakes in this post, and to give me a history lesson worth sharing.

To start with, let’s correct the names of things:

The first prime minister was named Macdonald, not McDonald. I’ll admit that spelling is a relatively minor matter, but it is the name of a very major figure in our history.

Yeah, I caught that after I sent off the e-mail. I corrected it when I posted the e-mail and further thoughts about it here:


Now you have “MacDonald”. That isn’t right, either. It’s “Macdonald” with a small ‘d’. I don’t know if John A. cared, but I know modern-day Macdonalds and MacDonalds and McDonalds who do care about these distinctions.

Noted. Now for the meaty stuff.

On a more substantive point, the first premier of Quebec was Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau. The lieutenant-governor had asked Joseph Cauchon to form a government, but he was unable to get any support from Quebec’s English-speaking community (relatively larger then than now), so he gave up and Chauveau was asked to take over.

You’ve never heard of either Cauchon or Chauveau, right? There’s no shame in that — very few people have, even in Quebec.

The important point here is that the Fathers of Confederation envisioned the provincial premier as a very minor post. None of the leading politicians of 1867, in any of the four original provinces, wanted the job. All of the major Fathers (Macdonald, Cartier, Brown, Langevin, Galt, McGee, Tupper, Tilley, etc.) ran for seats in the federal House of Commons. The leading opponents of Confederation (e.g. Howe and Dorion) did so, too. It was the universal expectation of the time that Ottawa would be where the action was, politically, and that the provincial governments would be little more than glorified municipalities.

George-√âtienne Cartier was Canada’s first Minister of Militia and Defence. He undoubtedly could have been premier of Quebec if he had wanted to be — he was the dominant politician in the province — but he considered a federal cabinet post far more desirable than the premiership.

The names aren’t terribly important, but an understanding of the relative importance of the federal and provincial governments, as they were envisioned by the people who created our federation, seems to me central to an understanding of our history.

As for the name “Macdonald-Cartier Freeway”, it was certainly a nice idea, but unfortunately it never took hold. I remember when the “M-C Freeway” signs started to go up, next to the “King’s Highway 401” signs, but everyone continued calling it the “four-oh-one”. Perhaps the M-C Freeway name would have caught on if the government had eliminated the 401 numbering, and made it an unnumbered road, like the QEW. I don’t know if the M-C Freeway name has been officially removed, but most of the signs showing that name seem to have disappeared.

Calling the Trenton - Toronto segment the “Highway of Heroes” is certainly a well-meant gesture, but I have my doubts as to how long it will remain in the public consciousness, once bodies stop returning from Afghanistan.

Thanks, Tom.


Is Bigger Better?

The City of Kitchener is engaging in a debate over whether or not to expand the size of its council. Right now, Kitchener residents elect a mayor and six ward councillors. They also elect four at-large councillors who attend Region of Waterloo meetings, but they don’t sit on local council.

Thus Kitchener city council is one of the smallest per capita in the province, with seven members serving a population of 200,000. By comparison the City of Guelph has a population of under 100,000, but is served by a dozen councillors, and some say that this has made Kitchener city councillors unresponsive to the needs of its citizens. City council is inviting comment on this debate, and although I can’t attend the meeting itself, this is what I said in my letter:

To the members of Kitchener City Council

I believe it would be a good idea to expand the size of Kitchener city council. The number of councillors per-capita is at odds with the provincial standard, which means that each individual councillor is responsible to far more voters than is the case in other cities. As municipal governments are supposed to be the closest and most responsive to its citizens, it seems reasonable that access should be guaranteed, and that the more councillors that were available to the public, the more responsive said councillors could be to the public.

One way to accomplish this increase would be to have the at-large councillors elected to the regional level of government participate in local council meetings as full members of council. I favour this move as I also believe that the regional level of government should be seen as a venue where local municipalities with common interests can meet to discuss regional issues, rather than a separate level of government that sits overtop our cities. In every example I’ve seen where the regional tier of government has been separated from the local tier, inter-tier conflicts inevitably follow, so there needs to be more connection between the two tiers than just the city mayors. The regional level of government should be seen as a boxing ring where local interests meet and compete, rather than a boxer in its own right.

Failing this, cutting each of our six wards in half and sending twelve councillors to council will enable city council to better reflect the diversity that exists within the City of Kitchener. It will reduce the number of votes required for a politician to become a councillor, or be defeated from his position, and it will improve, I believe, the quality of our local democracy.

Thank you for this opportunity to make my opinion heard. I look forward to a favourable response.

Yours sincerely,
James Bow

And Finally, Watch Doctor Who on Monday

So, did you like Human Nature and The Family of Blood? You can leave comments about it here at my review. And don’t forget to tune in this coming Monday at 8 p.m. as Blink — in my opinion the best episode of the season — debuts. You can read my review over here, although you may want to wait until after the episode airs. And in a well-lit room.

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