Rethinking the Causeway

For thousands of years, the diverse marine life in the southern part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence prospered as the waters of the Atlantic Ocean mixed with those of the Gulf. The ebb and flow of huge volumes of salt water brought food and myriad whales, fish, lobster, crab and other assorted marine life from one location to another. That movement enabled the water from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to be exchanged for the water of the Atlantic Ocean and visa versa. Just as birds move from one location to another in the medium called air, marine life moves from one location to another within the medium called water.

Humpback whales in the Bay of Fundy, NS.

Humpback whales in the Bay of Fundy. (Photo by Mlouisebarbour, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Whales of almost every species travelled freely through the Canso Strait, accompanied by millions of other species of marine life. These huge mammals had developed memories of their journeys through these waters and those memories were passed on to their offspring. That process of communication between parent and offspring had gone on for as long as they could remember — this was demonstrated when the Causeway opened and hundreds or thousands of migrating species returned year after year to seek passage where there was none.

Mi’kmaq had sustained themselves for thousands of years by fishing and hunting in these waters and they know the relationship that is needed between Creator and man in order to survive: we need a sustainable environment, which means we all need to take care of each other. Mankind needs to change the way we think about our responsibilities to Mother Nature because we all come from the Earth.


It took many years of lobbying and convincing to find a way to join mainland Nova Scotia with Unama’ki (Cape Breton Island). Environmental studies were in their infancy before the thought of building a solid, continuous structure from the mainland to the island was conceived. A number of indigenous Mi’kmaq elders and advisors seriously questioned it, but they were ignored for a variety of reasons. Fishers in the area also believed the causeway would negatively affect marine life in the Gulf of St. Lawrence as well as the southern side of the proposed causeway. Historically, there were many reasons (political, social and financial) to find an alternative to replace the ferries that had provided transportation across the strait since the 1780s. But the engineers doing the planning had a choice.

Canso Canal Lock

Canso Canal Lock. (Photo by Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

They could have built a bridge, which would have allowed ship traffic to pass through the strait. This option would have allowed emergency traffic like ambulances, fire trucks or police to pass from Unama’ki to the mainland and back without interruption. This option would also have allowed any spawning marine creatures (like fish, lobster and crab stock) to continue to breed, especially in the southern end of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Whales of all sizes would have been able to pass freely from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and visa versa. Sediment would not gather in the bays or estuaries on either side of a bridge because the tide and currents would continue to move it through the strait, as they had for thousands of years.

Instead, the Canso Causeway was opened on 13 August 1955, closing off the flow of water between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. While the locks allow marine vessels to pass from one side of the causeway to the other, all highway traffic is delayed for the entire time it takes for vessels to pass through. There is no option for ambulances, fire trucks or other emergency vehicles to get to the other side if they’re needed, they have to sit and wait as the marine traffic — which, according to Transport Canada data, averages 2,069 ships per year, with an average gross tonnage of 1.9 million tonnes — passes through the Canso Canal from Chedabucto Bay to Northumberland Strait or vice versa.

At an estimated 15 minutes per ship and 10 minutes for pleasure craft that equals a great deal of time when the roadway is closed. On 23 September 2018, the Port Hawkesbury Reporter wrote about this very topic. It does not help when the various federal and provincial departments that control the highway, swing bridge and locks fail to communicate effectively with each other. This detains traffic of all kinds and undermines public health and safety.


“The worst thing we can do to marine ecosystems is to disconnect them from each other. Water connects all the world’s ecosystems, and we meddle with those linkages at our peril.” — Bruce Hatcher 24 March 2018, Cape Breton Post.

It’s worth considering a similar situation in the Atlantic region, one that demonstrates intelligent design. The Confederation Bridge, created to join New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, is worth comparing with the current Canso Causeway for numerous reasons. The Confederation Bridge, at nearly 13km, is the longest bridge in Canada. It is also the longest bridge in the world  spanning ice-covered water. More than 1 million people drive across the bridge to visit Prince Edward Island every year and emergency vehicles are seldom, if ever, stopped.

PEI's Confederation Bridge, 2008

Panorama Confederation Bridge, 2008. (Photo by Wladyslaw, Free Art License, via Wikimedia Commons)

The bridge opened with a pedestrian walk on 31 May 1997. In the past few winters, there has been significantly less concern regarding ice on the bridge’s foundations because the ice has been sparse thanks to climate change. The Canso Causeway, on the other hand, is just 1,385m long. Replacing it with a bridge sooner rather than later would take into consideration rising sea levels that are bound to continue thanks, again, to the climate emergency.

From environmental, financial and safety perspectives ,the Canso Causeway needs to be replaced with a modern, multi-lane structure that will allow sea-going ships to pass unrestricted through the Strait, as does the Confederation Bridge. Ships and marine life of all sizes can travel between the mainland and P.E.I. and that should be possible in the Canso Strait as well. Intelligent design should always take into account environmental considerations but that was not done in the case of the Canso Causeway.

Replacing the Causeway with a bridge would allow the return of marine life within the Gulf of St. Lawrence as well as the waters on either side of the Strait of Canso. This would reduce the temperature in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and allow the returning flow of water to flush out the sediments that have built up since the 1950s.

In short, the Causeway is a man-made structure that should be replaced now that mankind is more environmentally aware of our errors.

(For further reading see: “The Canso Causeway and its Effects on its Surrounding Area,” by Judy Peitzsche and “Our changing, fragile Gulf of St. Lawrence,” by Aaron Beswick)

Featured image: Aerial view of Canso Causeway, 2007 by Swampfoot at English Wikipedia, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Paul Strome

Paul Strome worked 12 years as an educator in the Northwest Territories/Nunavut where he experienced the culture, language and geographic parameters of Indigenous people. He has petitioned the government at every opportunity to bring about the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. As an elder and David Suzuki Ambassador he has championed the Blue Dot Movement in Unama’ki (Cape Breton) and in recent years was the Atlantic regional representative for the Council of Canadians.