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The Road To Hell

Construction Season

As the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intention”. But for Canadians, the saying takes a very deep and literal meaning in the spring.

A popular Canadian joke claims that there are only two seasons in Canada: winter and construction. Indeed, after our long and harsh winters, crews of construction workers are dispatched all over Canada to tackle new projects, fix the roads and repair the many cracks in the pavement. A good intention, really. Yet, it is one that Canadians fear almost more than freezing rain and the perspective of losing the Stanley Cup to a US hockey team.

Each country has good intentions paving the way to hell. France’s is probably strikes – incidentally, “strikes and protests season” also starts early in the spring. There is always a strike going on somewhere but most are only worth a Gallic shrug. For instance, if you complain that you haven’t received your paycheck, the answer will invariably be “the cheque is in the mail”. Any further complain will be refuted as follow: “we posted it long time ago, but the Post Office may be on strike….” French are used to see part of their administrations and services working sporadically. It is not expected to be otherwise.

All in all, French only fear two kinds of strikes and protests: those affecting public transportations (trains and subways) and truck driver’s strikes. Transport strikes are big in terms on impact on users, especially in Paris where the population heavily relies on the subway and suburban trains. Besides, most – if not all – public transportation workers are unionized and are considered to have somewhat highly privileged work conditions, so support from the population can quickly wear out. Truck driver’s strikes have less of an immediate effect but can cripple the country in no time. They usually block supermarkets and gas supply, thus motivating the government to act quickly on the matter.

When it comes to the construction season, Canadians’ attitude is not unlike the French’s toward strike – a mix of despair, hope and resignation.

Despair is the best way to describe the feeling that crosses your mind when on one of the first sunny days of spring, you notice a bunch of orange signs and arrow scattered on the road. Most signs just say “detour” but you could swear they mock you: “you will never get to work on time, ah ah!” Construction sites appear to be totally random most of the time. For instance, on a long stretch of bumpy road, only a few square meters here and there will be patched. Yet, of course, the whole street will be closed for months.

For instance, I worked on the infamous Bank Street for almost four years. Every year, a portion of the street would be torn up and rebuilt, thus prompting the shut down one of Ottawa’s major downtown artery from April to October. Two weeks into the construction, we had no buses, no sidewalks and we were breathing dust for ten blocks. Businesses went bankrupt faster than the asphalt was sliced and getting to work became a daily challenge, even as a pedestrian. Yet, despite yearly pleas from local business associations and angry residents, construction on Bank Street invariably resumes every year. It actually became a fixture in Ottawa.

After despair comes hope. After all, construction crews are here for a reason – there is indeed plenty to fix. Bumpy roads are one of the stuffs Canadians don’t like and after winter, they can be downright dangerous. So Canadians figure it will just be a few months of misery, slow driving, road blocks, detours and one lane freeway. Yeah, you wish. Contrary to popular belief, Canada usually enjoys nice weather from May to October – so the construction season lasts for six months – half of the year. And no matter how well the roads are fixed, the job will have to be redone the following year.

To top it all off, the Harper government launched the Canada’s Economic Action Plan which aims, among other things, at “creating jobs through a massive injection of infrastructure spending”. But the measure is criticized: a lot of projects are said to be just ridiculous, like the replacement of door-knobs at the Parliament or the upgrade of water fountains. Still, I’m afraid we will see even more construction sites this year. Hopefully, it will at least help the economy…

Eventually, you know you reached resignation when you sigh to yourself “oh well, if Canadians like to destroy and rebuild random stretches of road, so be it”. I guess construction season is to Canada what strikes are to France – a cultural specialty.

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