Politics·Analysis

The Liberals, the 2019 election - and a tunnel to P.E.I. that was never built

It took over a century for Prince Edward Islanders to get the fixed link they wanted, though it didn't quite turn out as they'd first hoped.

Liberals in Halifax considering proposal to support underwater tunnel connecting Newfoundland and Labrador

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will speak to fellow Liberals at the national party convention in Halifax on Saturday. One of the proposals being considered is support for an underwater rail link between Newfoundland and Labrador. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Liberals gathering in Halifax this weekend to plot strategy for the 2019 federal election have an unusual question to ask themselves.

Are they "Tunnel People" or not?

It won't be the first time that Canadian politicians have grappled with this question — one that harkens back to the late 19th century when one province demanded the federal government embark on an "absurd and ridiculous" feat of Victorian engineering.

At the national Liberal convention on Friday, attendees will debate 30 policy proposals — part of the work of putting together the party's platform for 2019. They will whittle that list down to 20 proposals and put them to a vote on Saturday. One of those could be a pitch to support a fixed link between Labrador and the island of Newfoundland in the form of a sub-sea railway tunnel.

It's an ambitious idea. A study by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador concluded it would take 15 years and $1.65 billion to dig a tunnel underneath the 16 kilometres of the Strait of Belle Isle that separates Newfoundland from the Canadian mainland.

This map shows the location of a potential underwater rail link between Newfoundland and Labrador. (Hatch)

The proposal by the Newfoundland and Labrador wing of the federal party points out that Prince Edward Island got its fixed link over two decades ago, when the Confederation Bridge was completed. But it took a long time. Calls for a fixed link had been coming from Islanders since their first days as a province — though what they wanted at the time wasn't a bridge.

As part of the negotiations that brought the Island into Confederation in 1873, the federal government pledged to ensure continuous communications between the mainland and P.E.I.

But the ferry service maintained by the government was woefully inadequate in the winter months, as detailed in "The Politics of the Link," a paper written by Ian G. Johnston in 1995 on the long debate over a fixed link to P.E.I. The Northern Light, a wooden ship originally designed for use on rivers, was often bottled up in harbour when the ice was too thick to navigate.

So on April 9, 1885, Senator George William Howlan rose in the Red Chamber to propose a solution. Why not connect P.E.I. to New Brunswick with an underwater subway?

A bridge? Too expensive and it would interfere with ships, Howlan concluded. A tunnel beneath the seabed, meanwhile, was "entirely beside the question, and in my judgment is outside of what is called practical politics."

An iron tube under the sea

Instead, Howlan wanted to build a subway on the seabed between Cape Tormentine and Cape Traverse, roughly where the Confederation Bridge stands today.

Quoting from an analysis written by engineer Vernon Smith, Howlan told his fellow senators about a subway that "I would propose to cover by an iron and cement tube to be lowered in lengths from the surface and joined together below the water, resting either on the bottom direct or supported upon concrete blocks."

What Howlan was proposing was unheard of in 1885. Tunnels of the length proposed by Howlan — 13 kilometres separates P.E.I. from New Brunswick — had only been attempted through mountains.

Senators George William Howlan (left) and Alexander Walker Ogilvie (right). (Library of Parliament)

It wasn't until 1891 that the first underwater railroad tunnel in North America — the St. Clair Tunnel connecting Port Huron, Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario — was built. That tunnel was less than two kilometres in length.

Some of Howlan's colleagues were impressed by the detail of his lengthy presentation. Others were not.

"The idea of a structure such as the hon. gentleman proposes, to contend against the tide and ice of the Straits of Northumberland," said Senator Alexander Walker Ogilvie, "is so thoroughly absurd and ridiculous that I would not like to have it go out of this Chamber without opposition."

Nova Scotia's Lawrence Geoffrey Power was more sympathetic to Howlan, but less so to other Prince Edward Islanders.

"There has been in Canada altogether too much fighting against nature," Power said. "We are not responsible for the fact that Prince Edward is an island. Providence separated her from the mainland, and she has to take the consequences."

Tunnel politics

But the idea of a subway or tunnel connecting P.E.I. to the mainland was taken up with gusto by Islanders, and it became an important election issue in provincial and federal elections.

In the 19th century, the P.E.I. tunnel was a ballot box issue. (Bird Bear Press)

In the federal elections of 1887, 1891 and 1896, each candidate for office vied with his rivals to prove just how much of a "Tunnel Man" he really was. According to Christopher Pennington's "The Destiny of Canada: Macdonald, Laurier and the Election of 1891," it was the dominant ballot box issue in P.E.I., though "in the rest of the country, the tunnel was regarded as a lunatic pet project that was about as realistic as a highway to the moon."

No progress on the tunnel was made and it was revived again as a significant election issue for the last time in 1908, though the idea of the subway had been abandoned in favour of a tunnel under the seabed. But if politicians were quick to promise the tunnel in the run-up to an election (and they did, repeatedly), they were quick to forget all about it once the votes had been counted — quick enough to push some frustrated P.E.I. MPs to openly talk about secession.

Lessons for modern Liberals

Though the fixed rail link may not be the major ballot box issue for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in 2019, the story of the P.E.I. tunnel is nevertheless one that the Liberals in Halifax might want to avoid repeating — even if the party's electoral prospects in the province look good.

The Liberals won 64.5 per cent of the vote in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2015 and swept all seven of its seats. Polls suggest they could do it again next year. The Liberals won 74 per cent of the vote in the Newfoundland riding of Long Range Mountains, where one end of the proposed tunnel would be located, and 72 per cent in Labrador, where the other end would be.

With the exception of the 2011 federal election, when the Conservatives won Labrador (only to lose it in a 2013 byelection), the two shores that would host the tunnel have been held by the Liberals since 1980.

The Confederation Bridge spans 13 kilometres over the Northumberland Strait. In the 19th century, Islanders wanted instead to go under it. (Canadian Press)

But voters might also have a lesson to draw from P.E.I.'s first harsh experience of tunnel politics. In 1887, John A. Macdonald pledged his government's support for the tunnel in the hopes of winning a few seats in what was shaping up to be a tough re-election campaign. Instead, the Liberals swept the island and not a single Conservative MP was sent to Ottawa. Following the snub, Macdonald promptly abandoned his promise.

It took another 110 years before Prince Edward Island finally got its fixed link. But while the Confederation Bridge is a modern engineering marvel in its own right, Howlan might lament it isn't the crazy iron tunnel under the waters of the Northumberland Strait that his fellow Islanders were demanding over a century ago.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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