The Cumberland interchange leading north to Campbell River. Ministry of Transportation photo

The Cumberland interchange leading north to Campbell River. Ministry of Transportation photo

Retracing the long road to the Inland Island Highway

As it celebrates 20 years, a look back at the campaign to replace the old Island Highway

Twenty years ago a procession escorted by police cars and a fire truck worked its way from downtown Campbell River to a new strip of asphalt west of the community stretching 115 km to Parksville.

The procession gathered to a stage set up where a pipe band played, antique cars carrying dignitaries arrived and a party decades in the making was getting underway.

The celebration marked the culmination of a 36-year effort to build a new highway from Nanaimo to the Campbell River.

On Sept. 7, 2001, “The relentless efforts of the municipalities of the North Island area, Chambers of Commerce, the MLA Colin Gabelmann, the SMASHing Grannies and the thousands of letter writers was coming to fruition,” wrote community activist, former journalist and city councillor Morgan Ostler in an article entitled “The History of the Inland Island Highway.”

Ostler wrote, “For the community activists, politicians and chamber members arrayed on the platform, it was a victorious yet poignant moment.”

It was the SMASHing Grannies that drove the effort to pressure the B.C. government to replace old Island Highway that ran along the shore of Vancouver Island. That busy two-lane highway had become known as the “Highway of Death” as it wound its way along the shoreline encroached by driveways and road intersections and traversed by all manner of vehicle from frarm vehicles to semi trucks. The Grannies were spurred on by a tragic event which launched what was to become a longstanding but determined campaign.

In the winter of 1964, a seven-year-old girl, Gloria Bordian, was killed by a speeding motorist as she exited a school bus near Rotary Beach on Campbell River’s waterfront – a stop on what is known now as the “old Island Highway.” The fatality galvanized a group of women for whom it was the last straw. News reports at the time stated that the road north of Nanaimo had the highest accident rate in B.C.

“That winter, really, there was an average of 25-a-year (that) lost their lives on the highway between Nanaimo and Campbell River. That was the coroner’s figures,” Ostler said in an interview with the Mirror.

The fatal accident galvanized a group of young mothers in the community to form a protest group called the Marching Mothers. Led by Ostler and Sandra Baikie, the group demanded a meeting with then Minister of Highways, Phil Gaglardi.

The movement caught on throughout North Island communities and the call to action resulted in enough women from Campbell River, Courtenay, Comox, Cumberland, Qualicum Beach and Parksville to fill a 40-passenger bus. Off they went to confront the powerful Highways Minister armed with statistics and petitions. They managed to wrangle a promise in 1965 that he would have a bypass route surveyed.

Over the next few decades that promise was to fall victim to the vagaries of provincial politics as well as conflicting interests between central Island communities and the North Island. A push by then-Campbell River mayor Bob Ostler in 1984 got a new highway back on the region’s agenda.

That push was taken up by NDP MLA Colin Gabelmann in 1988. Ostler said make no mistake, Gablemman’s role in eventually securing the highway was significant. He would eventually become provincial Attorney General when the NDP came to a period of extended power in 1990s and his push for a North Island highway never wavered. But by then he was doing it from within the government, not the opposition benches.

“I think that we’d have to give a great credit to Colin Gabelmann. He was our MLA and, eventually, the Attorney General, and he lobbied strongly for us for over 10 years, when he was at the cabinet,” Ostler said.

The new highway’s fortunes were to turn upward when Social Credit lost the election to the NDP in 1991. In addition, the Campbell River Chamber of Commerce and other North Island interests renewed their efforts to lobby for a new inland highway sending a cavalcade to deliver a petition to Victoria in October, 1992.

Members of the Marching Mothers who first organized in 1965 joined in, changing their name to SMASHing Grannies to reflect the passage of time. The young mothers were now grandmothers and SMASHing was an acronym for Society for Making A Safer Highway.

The effort was not in vain. On Oct. 19, 1993 then-Premier Mike Harcourt arrived in Campbell River to make a much-anticipated speech.

“You’ve been waiting a long time for this announcement,” the premier said before announcing a plan that would include a four lane highway stretching from Parksville to Courtenay to be completed in 1997 and a two-lane highway connecting Courtenay to Campbell River to be completed in 1998 (eventually becoming a four-lane stretch too).

But it was the summer of 2001 before the long-awaited road from Nanaimo to Campbell River was almost complete. All that was needed was a party to cut the ribbon and open the highway.

After eight years and $1.3 billion, the four-hour drive from Campbell River to Victoria was reduced to three hours, Ostler pointed out.

But the biggest legacy of the now-20-year-old highway reflects the issue that spurred on the original demand for a new route.

“Probably the greatest gift that the highway brought us is that it was a safe highway with a very rare report of someone losing their life on this new highway,” Ostler said. “So that was probably the greatest impact it had because everyone was very uneasy when they had to go down to Nanaimo or to Victoria. In those days, it was considered a dangerous trip to take.”

But the highway also created “a far more attractive community in which to work and live,” Ostler said. It allowed for industrial traffic to bypass the city centre, making the downtown more like a community centre and less like a truck route.

“It allowed us to gentrify the downtown area, particularly,” Ostler said. “It was noticeable that we no longer had all the logging trucks going through the main street.”

The highway has also contributed to the community’s growth in the last 20 years, or, at the very least, accommodated that growth.

“And we can see that with the very good planning that’s gone on through the years that we have become a community that’s just overwhelmed with newcomers and people that are enthralled with the access we have to our waterfront, enthralled with our Sea Walk and our access to the forest that surrounds us,” Ostler said.

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RELATED: The long-standing struggle to replace the Island Highway


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Chamber of Commerce President Ron Hagerman (left) listens as SMASHing Grannies leader Morgan Ostler delivers her message in front of the Legislature in October, 1992. Campbell River Mirror photo

Chamber of Commerce President Ron Hagerman (left) listens as SMASHing Grannies leader Morgan Ostler delivers her message in front of the Legislature in October, 1992. Campbell River Mirror photo