The Alaska Highway: Papers of the 40th Anniversary Symposium


208 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-7748-0229-4




Edited by Kenneth Coates
Reviewed by William A. Waiser

Bill Waiser is a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan,
and the author of Saskatchewan’s Playground: A History of Prince
Albert National Park and Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western
Canada’s National Parks, 1915–1946.  His


In June 1982, Northern Lights College of Fort St. John, British Columbia, hosted a symposium marking the fortieth anniversary of the construction of the Alaska Highway. The majority of the conference papers have now been brought together in an interesting, at times provocative, collection.

The essays that comprise The Alaska Highway have been grouped into five sections. “Planning the Highway” reveals that the idea of a major road link with the north was a peacetime concept dating back to the Klondike Gold Rush. David Remley (“The Latent Fear”) suggests that early highway proposals failed to secure federal support because Ottawa feared economic/political domination by the United States, whereas Robin Fisher (“T.D. Pattullo and the British Columbia to Alaska Highway”) contends that the highway was not built during the 1930s because of fundamental federal/provincial differences over how to deal with the Depression. M.V. Bezeau (“The Realities of Strategic Planning”), meanwhile, observes that when the decision was finally made in early 1942 to undertake the project, the road had little defensive value vis-à-vis Alaska and the far northwest coast.

The actual construction of the road is examined in “Building the Highway.” Here, the various essays detail the logistical problems associated with punching a 1500-mile highway through a largely wilderness region from Dawson Creek via Whitehorse to Fairbanks in just eight months, outline how the American general in charge of the project determined part of the route on the basis of sightings from a bush plane, and document how highway standards steadily declined as the Japanese threat to the Pacific Coast diminished.

“Canadian Sovereignty and the Alaska Highway” explores the potential threat that the American-dominated project posed to Canadian sovereignty. In “The Army of Occupation,” Curtis Nordman explains how the concerns raised by the British High Commissioner finally forced the Canadian governments to give serious consideration to the American presence and assume a more prominent position in the Northwest. Richard Diubaldo (“The Alaska Highway in Canada-America Relations”) argues, on the other hand, that even though the road was never completed to original plans or Canadian satisfaction, Ottawa was forced to take over the road in order to eliminate any possible American post-war rights in the region.

In “The Postwar Highway,” one paper (“Really a Defile Throughout Its Length”) suggests that the Department of National Defence continued to maintain the highway believing that failure to do so would invite American intervention. “The Civilian Highway” describes how plans to upgrade the road between 1964 and 1983 by the Department of Public Works were plagued by differing regional/national priorities. Coates and Cruikshank in “The Impact of the Alaska Highway” disagree on how the impact of the road affected the socio-economic position of the Yukon Indians. The last essay, by Richard Stuart, argues that the highway was not built for Yukoners, in that it hastened the demise of the territorial capital, Dawson City, and led to the emergence of Whitehorse as a major metropolitan centre.

Illustrated with period photographs and ably edited by Ken Coates of Brandon University, this fine collection of essays demonstrates how northern development has been determined by southern requirements, not northern needs, and is generally outside local control. It also suggests how Canadian interest in the north has largely been a response to foreign activity in the region.


“The Alaska Highway: Papers of the 40th Anniversary Symposium,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 22, 2024,