Nova Scotia

Old law can force Nova Scotians to shovel highways

Nova Scotians complaining about the state of roads in the wake of Sunday's winter storm should be careful how much they grumble.

The 'physically fit' can be ordered to clear roads blocked by snow

Men shovel along Coburg Road in Halifax in this undated old photo. (Courtesy Nova Scotia Archives)

Nova Scotians complaining about the state of the province's roads in the wake of Sunday's winter storm should be careful how much they grumble.

An old law still on the province’s books can order "all physically fit male persons" between 16 and 60 years of age to shovel out highways made impassable by snow. At some point the law was amended to include women, too.

And for those conscripted, don't be a shovel scofflaw. The financial penalty if you don't show up for duty is paltry in today's money, between $5 and $10. But if you don't pay you could end up in the slammer for 10 days.

Snowplows have long taken care of clearing highways, of course. The province's Transportation Department says it's not certain when the legislation was used to send out a shovel brigade, but safe to say it was some time ago.

The law is still in place simply because no one has bothered to remove it.

"It's good entertainment for everyone. We never use it," assures Barb Baillie, executive director of maintenance and operations at Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.

Joan Dawson, author of the book Nova Scotia’s Lost Highways, said statutory labour was introduced in Nova Scotia in 1761. Settlers, for example, were responsible for clearing roads in their community.

But she’s "amazed" the highway shovelling law still exists.

"In the old days they used wooden shovels and sometimes they got out teams of oxen or horses to beat the roads down," Dawson said.

Some people out shovelling their sidewalks Wednesday were also mystified to hear that such a law is still in place.

But one of them, Craig Brown, said his wife’s grandfather used to drive in from Musquodoboit Harbour after storms, picking up men with shovels along the way.

They then loaded dump trucks with sand, shovelling it by hand, and spread it on local roads.

A lot has changed since then.

"With man-made machines things got a bit easier," Brown said. "But people still cry for you to get it done."


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