Vehicles of Nationalism: Defining Canada in the 1930s

By Coutu, Joan | Journal of Canadian Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Vehicles of Nationalism: Defining Canada in the 1930s


Coutu, Joan, Journal of Canadian Studies


This paper explores Canada as defined by the Ontario provincial politician T.B. McQuesten in the numerous "make-work" projects he oversaw in the 1930s: the reconstruction of numerous historic sites; the building of the Oakes Garden Theatre, the Clifton Gate Memorial Arch and the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls; and the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Way and the St. Lawrence and Niagara Parkways. McQuesten's teleological march of settlement and civilization is compared to contemporaneous definitions of Canada and is situated within the international pre-occupation with and the pursuit of modernity in the name of nationalism. His Canada is also evaluated against the parameters of postcolonial theory.

Dans cet article, l'auteur examine le Canada tel que l'a defini le politicien ontarien T.B. McQuesten dans les nombreux projets destines A creer du travail qu'il supervisa durant les annees 1930: la reconstruction de sites historiques, la construction du Oakes Garden Theatre, du Clifton Gate Memorial Arch et du Rainbow Bridge, A Niagara Falls, ainsi que la construction du Queen Elizabeth Way et des promenades Saint-Laurent et Niagara. Il compare la marche teleologique de colonisation et de civilisation de McQuesten aux definitions que ses contemporains donnaient du Canada et la situe dans le contexte de l'attention qu'on accordait a l'epoque, a l'echelle internationale, a l'histoire ainsi qu'a la poursuite de la modernity au nom du nationalisme. Le Canada de McQuesten est aussi evalue en regard des parametres de la theorie post-coloniale.

Niagara is ... the crowning glory of ... the continent of America. No other like gift of Nature equally holds the interest of the world or operates as an inducement for men to cross the seas.1

No doubt Thomas Baker McQuesten, Member of Parliament for Hamilton and Minister of Highways and Public Works in Mitchell Hepburn's Ontario government in the 1930s, was banking upon this late-nineteenth-century sentiment when he embarked upon an elaborate and costly scheme to develop the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Historic reconstructions, formal gardens, a memorial arch and an open-air theatre were built along a 30-mile scenic parkway that overlooked the great gorge carved by the majestic and powerful falls. The gardens, arch and theatre were designed in the "Canadian Style" of architecture, promoted by a group of Toronto-based architects and landscape architects between the two world wars. At the other end of Lake Ontario, McQuesten matched the Niagara developments with another ambitious scheme of reconstructions of nineteenthcentury military forts and battle engagements, several of which were linked by the scenic landscaped St. Lawrence Parkway.

McQuesten encouraged Canadians to visit the Niagara and St. Lawrence sites, although his primary intent was to attract American tourists. Obviously, tourism, both Canadian and American, would help to invigorate the otherwise stagnant Depression economy, but McQuesten was ultimately motivated, as he acknowledged in speeches he delivered at the unveiling of the various sites, by a desire to promote Canada as a civilized, cultured nation abroad. Americans could cross the border at Niagara on the Honeymoon (or Upper Steel Arch) Bridge replaced by the Rainbow Bridge after it collapsed in 1936, which was designed and constructed under McQuesten's careful scrutiny. After visiting the Niagara sites, the tourists could then drive to Toronto along the Queen Elizabeth Way, the technologically state-of-the-art, aesthetically pleasing auto-route that was McQuesten's brainchild and is perhaps his most enduring (although largely corrupted) legacy. Near Kingston, Americans could drive across the Ivy Lea International Bridge at Gananoque, a huge suspension bridge built during McQuesten's tenure as Minister of Highways. He also envisioned the forerunner of Highway 401, linking Kingston to Toronto and ultimately to London (Best 114), although this never came to fruition during his political or natural life; he was removed from office in 1942 with the fall of Mitchell Hepburn's Provincial Liberals and he died in 1948.

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