For people of our time, the previous one hundred years, a century, represents an imaginable period; a time span that we can deal with.
Anything longer, except for professional historians, is, well, a really long time ago and looks further back in time than most people are interested in or capable of imagining.
But a century? Most of us know, or know of, people who have lived for 100 years (often even longer) so the notion of “a century” fits easily into human comprehension while, by contrast, the two-hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812, while interesting to Canada’s development celebrates an event that happened long enough ago that for almost all Canadians, this represents only an historical fact of which they’ve heard or read but about which they do not know a great deal.
(In the War of 1812 example, the distinct exception would be many First Nations citizens of Ontario who can trace their direct lineage from ancestors who migrated into British North America-present-day Canada-from what is now the midwestern US following their support of the British cause.)
But for most Canadians, the previous 100 years is about the longest epoch they are capable of holding in their minds.
How important, then, is the celebration this weekend of 100 years of Manitoulin Island’s physical connection with the rest of Northern Ontario as we recognize the centenary of continuous operation of the swing bridge. This venerable structure is comparable to the great-grandmother or family friend who we may have helped to celebrate a similar milestone.
There she is, in all her refurbished glory and with her designation as an “Ontario Heritage Bridge,” still carrying traffic to and from Manitoulin and still swinging open to allow important marine traffic to pass through the narrows at Little Current.
This is what 100 years looks like and one can only imagine the excitement felt in Manitoulin Island’s small towns, farm communities and First Nations a century ago when, for the first time, the world’s largest freshwater Island had direct traffic and transportation, other than by water, with the outside world.
At that time, in 1913, a year before Canada became embroiled in the First World War as a Dominion of Great Britain, for the people of that era this direct railway connection with the rest of Canada and the world-symbolized then as now by the swing bridge-must have been to them as big an event as the arrival of the internet, television and the telephone were to our own generation and the two preceding ones, but a single event that for pioneer citizens of Manitoulin would have rivaled or even surpassed all of these other aspects of modernity taken together.
That is why this weekend’s Bridgefest festivities are so symbolically important: we’re considering a period of the past that most of us are able to comprehend, we’re celebrating a tangible example of this period, the bridge itself, and we’re also celebrating the first time that the people who had been taking up lands here since the 1862 Treaty and the First Nations people living on lands reserved for them in that treaty could look beyond the boundaries of this large Island and imagine themselves part of Ontario’s and Canada’s economy as commerce could easily flow back and forth.
One hundred years is a lot to take in, but not too much.
This weekend, this summer and, indeed, this year let us think of those people, second generation Islanders by then for most of the people of European descent, who at that time must have had such high hopes for the prosperity and general success of this place at the time the railroad came.
We should put ourselves in the shoes of these believers 100 years ago and re-imagine a beautiful Island of prosperity 100 years hence and, as they did then, do whatever is necessary to achieve new goals, large and small alike, that will keep Manitoulin Island still viable 100 years from now.