The NITC: Voyageur Bridge?

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June 16, 2012 by LeVoyageur

Voyageur Canoe, Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869. Public Domain

Voyageur Canoe, Frances Anne Hopkins, 1869.

On Friday June 15, Canadian and American officials gathered in Detroit and Windsor to announce plans to build a new international bridge crossing the Detroit River to be opened in about 5 years. The current links between the two cities, the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, are the busiest crossings between the two countries according to Crain’s Detroit. They are also both over 80 years old.

The volume of traffic has warranted an “upgrade” for years, but Matty Maroun the billionaire private owner of the Ambassador bridge, the busier of the two links, has avoided the investments. Further, he has stymied all efforts to bypass his influence, built through financial support of politicians across Michigan, and get a much-needed new bridge built.

Until Now.

Using his executive powers, Governor Rick Synder of Michigan and the US Department of Transportation has made an agreement with the Canadian government to get a new bridge built. Aimed squarely at fostering and building more trade links and creating more jobs in both Canada and the US, the new bridge is rightly being seen as an investment in the economy of both nations.

I am from Michigan but no longer live there. At the moment I don’t even live in the US or Canada. But I have deep roots in both Detroit and Windsor. My family has been moving back and forth between their shores for nigh on 300 years or more. I have a lot of good will toward both areas and read admiringly of enterprising residents who are trying, against great odds, to kick-start a renaissance in these areas that are so important to both countries.

And that brings me to the most important part of this whole deal. The name. Giving this bridge a great, evocative name will establish it in the hearts and minds of all Americans and Canadians. Would the Mackinac Bridge be so storied in the imaginations of so many people if it were called, oh, Romney Bridge, after a previous governor? Or Potter Bridge after a former senator? We’d still be taking ferries those names are so boring!

“NITC” (New International Trade Crossing), as the project is currently being called is, hopefully, a working name. The name-game started early in the week as word of the bridge deal leaked. Predictably, there were lots of good jokes on comment boards about the best names. A few seem like they could be good candidates: Tecumseh Bridge, after the great Shawnee leader; or Gordie Howe Bridge, a former hockey player much-admired on both sides of the border.

However, if trade is the heart of this matter, there is one name that will not only evoke the long history of the Detroit River Region, but that is also rooted in the idea of trade. I believe the bridge should be called Voyageur Bridge, after the early traders who passed through the Great Lakes region from their Canadian bases starting in the 1600’s and continuing through the middle of the 19th century. Trading first for furs, the Voyageur/Indian trade links became a vital component in the economic growth of the area, with their activities stretching down the Mississippi and deep into the Northwest interior of the US and Canada.

Operating as teams, Voyageurs were contractual employees whose travels supported their families and farms back home. Serving for stretches of years at a time, the Voyageurs formed the economic base of the economy of what was once New France. Over time the teams of traders included French, Black, Scottish, English, Irish, Indian, German, and Metis workers: a multi-cultural workforce that is in many ways a mirror of today’s workplace.

The history of the French Canadian explorers, traders, missionaries, and settlers who first encountered the Detroit-Windsor area has long been marginalized. In addition to demographic changes that have made the areas truly multi-cultural – microcosms of two great nations – the descendants of the earliest settlers were often treated as second-class citizens as Anglo culture became rooted in both countries. Although children may learn in school about the early history of the area, in my memory such history units are minor and quickly forgotten. As a consequence, many people are not aware of the long history of the region.

Building this bridge between the US and Canada is about trade, yes. But drawing on our shared history can only serve to build the international relationship in ways that are meaningful beyond profitability. Millions of Americans have roots in Canada and many Canadians report the US as being their place of birth. Celebrating the history of one element of our shared history by naming the NITC Voyageur Bridge would let us build the future on a foundation that was laid in the earliest days of our nations. Let the decision not fall to the lowest common denominator of political payback or sports heroes. Voyageur Bridge is history, trade, pride, and without question the future of economic development in areas ready for regeneration.

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