Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Reader's Diary #1142- Bill Braden: Bridging the Dehcho

I was born and raised on islands. It was in Twillingate, an outport community that itself is divided into 2. I was born on the South Side, an island, but raised on the smaller North Side, another island. To leave, we'd have to go to the South Side and then to yet another island, New World Island, and finally cross to the much larger body of Newfoundland, which of course, is also an island.

Except for leaving Newfoundland itself, however, I never really felt like I was on an island. North Side was connected to the South Side, the South Side to New World Island, and the New World Island to the province by a series of bridges or causeways and that was it. Those crossings were there since before I was born and only when my parents sometimes told me stories about the short ferry trips that used to be required, did I even consider them to be islands. There were communities in Newfoundland that still required a ferry to visit those were the islands. Those were the truly, in my opinion at the time, isolated ones.

Not trying to bore anyone to tears with this bridge talk, but it's important to show my perspective when I say that sometimes bridges can change your entire outlook and yet be taken for granted. I'm not sure that is the case with the Deh Cho Bridge which was finished (or at least open to the public) in the Northwest Territories after exceeding 200 million dollars in costs.

Sorry, a little more personal context. Before moving to Yellowknife, I lived in 2 communities in Nunavut, and like all Nunavut communities, they were fly in only. Now that was a feeling of isolation. In Yellowknife there was a road out, and one we took advantage of often just because we could. Sure in the summer it required an 8 minute ferry ride across the Mackenzie River, but big deal. And there was an ice road across it in the winter, meaning one didn't even need the ferry. There were just two short periods throughout the year when there was only the fly out option: spring break-up and fall freeze-up. Minor inconveniences really.

Still, I'm not one of those that had strong feelings about the bridge one way or the other. I trusted that plenty of people had solid reasons for wanting it built, just as I trusted that those upset by the delays, mismanagement, and ballooning production costs had valid reasons to complain.

In Braden's Bridging the Deh Cho, it's those two groups of people I suspect he was trying to bridge. Or not so much Braden, but the Government of Northwest Territories Department of Transportation who commissioned the book. Unfortunately, I don't deem it to be a grand success.

Braden's writing and the photos are just fine, even beautiful on occasion, but the flow is weird, if not even propaganda-ish. It begins with a section on the history of the territory which seems out of place. If you've read any history of the territory before, there's very little new insight here (plus, once again, the history pre-white explorers is portrayed as brief and relatively insignificant). And then, with the latter half of the book about the construction of the bridge, there's an insanely skewed sense of its importance in the territorial history, like everything had led to this ultimate project.

There is no denial in the book of controversies surrounding the bridge, but they are minimized. There's an obvious, but understandable, lack of finger pointing, but a quote from someone suggesting that such controversies are par for the course when a significant bridge is built did seem over-the-top. It is also acknowledged that we're not talking about the Brooklyn or San Francisco bridge here, in terms of cultural significance, Braden (or again, more accurately, the NWT Department of Transportation) practically begs artists, poets, and musicians to take up the cause in a section called, "Not a Northern Icon— Yet" which I felt to be kind of embarrassing, to be honest. 

The thing is, I understand that a book about bridges may not sound compelling. The parts about it being built, however, were riveting (!), it's the rest and the unnecessary context that I feel did this book in. What did I expect from a commissioned book, I suppose?

1 comment:

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I have a real problem with some types of geography, especially islands. Even one the size of Vancouver Island feels too isolated to me. I feel trapped there, by the vagaries of the ferry. I think I would feel a connection to this book.