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THE ROAD: Constructing the Alaska Highway

April 8 to June 11, 2006

To many people the Alaska Highway is simply a long line that connects two dots on a map. To others it is an essential transportation route, linking towns, cities and communities across northern Canada. To others, it is an engineering marvel − a symbol of a history of cooperation between two great nations. To the thousands of people that built it, however, the Alaska Highway was known simply as “The Road.”

Initiated by the U.S. military as a response to the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the Alaska Highway was an attempt to address the looming threat of a Japanese invasion through Alaska. On March 8 1942, the United States and Canada entered into a joint military operation to begin its construction; in only eight months and twelve days, a highway was built that cut through 1,523 miles of northern terrain. At the cost of $140 million, 7,000 pieces of machinery and 11,000 workers, the highway consisted of 133 major bridges and 8,000 culverts. The route connected all of the vital military air bases from Edmonton, Alberta to Fairbanks, Alaska. During the last years of the war, these airbases, known as the Northwest Staging Route, were used to move more than 8,000 warplanes from Great Falls, Montana to Ladd Air Force Base in Fairbanks. While the Highway officially begins in Dawson Creek (B.C.), Edmonton served as the major supply and staging centre for its construction.

The construction of the Alaska Highway also opened the door for economic and cultural reform both in Canada and the U.S. At the time U.S. military policy denied African American soldiers active duty, which meant many of them were assigned to work on the Highway. Of the 11,000 workers, three regiments consisting of 3,695 workers were of African heritage. Due to their efforts and dedication, many were decorated for their perseverance, and as a result, African-American soldiers were granted active duty and integrated into the war effort.

Personnel were not limited only to the military. Determining the path of the Highway and supporting the construction endeavour were more than 16,000 civilians: local trappers, prospectors and First Nations peoples who knew the way in to this “unexplored” terrain. In the end, the Highway opened the northern regions of Canada and America to industrial development and natural resource extraction − a legacy that has had both positive and negative impacts on Canada’s northern communities.

In 1942, the National Gallery of Canada commissioned Alberta artist, H.G. Glyde, and A.Y. Jackson to document the Alaska Highway's construction. Over a three-week period in October of 1943, they produced numerous pencil and oil sketches of the personnel, equipment, land clearing and construction of the Highway.

In addition to works by these noted artists, The Road: Constructing the Alaska Highway comprises significant works by other Canadian artists, including York Wilson, Euphemia McNaught, and Evelyn McBryan.

Since the 1950s, the Alaska Highway has been a major tourist route − with travellers from across Canada and the U.S. coming to drive along this last northern frontier. Images of this Highway can be seen in the drawings of Sidney Clark Ellis and Joan Watson de Bustin from the National Archives of Canada, and in the collection of artifacts, souvenirs and documentary material that spans the decades from the 1950s to the present day.

Adding another dimension to the exhibition are contemporary works by artists from the Yukon. Working in a variety of media Joanne Jackson Johnson, Mitch Miyagawa and Derek Crowe, Valerie Salez, Doug Smarch Jr., and Mike Yuhasz creatively explore the impact of the Highway on northern communities.

Curated by Andrew Hunter and Catherine Crowston, The Road: Constructing the Alaska Highway opens at the McMichael on April 8 and runs until June 11. The exhibition was organized and circulated by the Art Gallery of Alberta (formerly The Edmonton Art Gallery) with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage, Museums Assistance Program.


Canadian Heritage

Highway South of Nelson

A.Y Jackson, 1882-1974
Highway South of Nelson, 1943
oil on panel
26.8 x 34.3 cm
National Gallery of Canada
Courtesy of the Estate of Dr. Naomi Jackson Groves

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