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Visiting the Crowsnest Road, Crowsnest Pass, British Columbia: remembering First Nations and early European travellers

Updated on February 21, 2015
Provincial flag of British Columbia
Provincial flag of British Columbia | Source
 Crowsnest Pass Highway 3 Province of British Columbia
Crowsnest Pass Highway 3 Province of British Columbia | Source
Crowsnest Pass
Crowsnest Pass | Source
Former Canadian Prime Minister John Turner
Former Canadian Prime Minister John Turner | Source

Freight subsidies, too: "Canada was built on subsidies"

It was First Nations advisers who gave European travellers in the 19th century the background knowledge of mountain trails over the Rockies, including what is now known as Crowsnest Pass, at an altitude of 1358 metres. It was known among First Nations in the area as a particularly difficult crossing.

The Crownest Pass was apparently known to the Palliser Expedition of 1860, although none of the European explorers is recorded as actually having travelled the route.

The first, known European to have crossed the Crowsnest Pass is Michael Philipps in 1873: six years after Confederation and the year in which British Columbia became a province of the young Dominion. Soon the commercial possibilities for the Pass began to be apparent to government and business figures alike.

The Pass is now crossed by British Columbia's Highway 3, similarly designated on the Albertan (1) side of the boundary also.

The name 'Crowsnest' is historically evocative. A former Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable John N. Turner (2), memorably stated: 'Canada was built on subsidies', and the name 'Crowsnest' has come to signify a whole historiographical interpretation of Canada's past. This is because Federally sponsored freight subsidies were often referred to as the 'Crow rate' or 'Crowsnest freight rates', thus making it economic for fellow-Canadian traders on either side of the Rockies to trade with each other rather than rely on custom from south of the US-Canada border. (Or so went the theory...) Initially for rail freight which began to cross Crowsnest Pass in the late 19th century via the Canadian Pacific Railway, this rate was applied to other freight also. The subsidy, applied intermittently, lasted until 1995.

Through this part of the British Columbia / Alberta provincial boundary, the Continental Divide passes, and thus, once into British Columbia, the traveller knows that all the rivers and streams ultimately flow westward into the Pacific.

Just over the provincial boundary, a rest area for travellers is maintained by the British Columbian government. A Point of Interest sign is located nearby.

Pine, spruce and Alpine fir are among the trees which occur in the district. Elk, mountain goat and more than one variety of deer have been observed. Golden eagle, ptarmigan and Canada goose are among the many, known bird species in the locality.

December 26, 2014


(1) The territory east of the Crowsnest Pass formed part of the Northwest Territories until 1905. The distinctive Crowsnest Mountain lies on the Albertan side of the boundary also, as does the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass.

(2) Significantly, John N. Turner (1929-) has represented in the Parliament of Canada both British Columbian, and Qu├ębecois and Ontarian Ridings, providing maybe a unique, in-depth, Canada-wide perspective on issues. Interestingly, Mr. Turner was among the leading opponents of the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, the precursor of NAFTA.

Also worth seeing

Sparwood, B.C., (distance: approx. 20 kilometres from Crowsnest Pass); home to what is known as 'the largest truck in the world', this huge Titan vehicle formerly used in the local mining industry is on permanent display close to the local information centre; Sparwood, on the Elk River, is also known for its large murals depicting life at the former mining communities of Michel and Natal; the local area has various campsites popular among summer visitors.

BC Highway 3
BC Highway 3 | Source

How to get there

Air Canada flies to Cranbrook / Canadian Rockies International Airport (road distance to Crowsnest Pass: approx. 145 kilometres), via Vancouver, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada

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