9 colossal Canadian failures - Macleans.ca

9 colossal Canadian failures

Rifles that jammed, towns that flopped, plus planes, ice ships and automobiles


John Lehmann/Globe and Mail

Tom Villemaire, who co-authored the books Colossal Canadian Failures 1 and 2 with Randy Richmond, and who publishes Historylab.ca and the podcast Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, shares his favourite uniquely-Canadian blunders.

1. Ross Rifle: Arguably the biggest failure in Canadian history. The Conservative government of Robert Borden selected the Canadian-made hunting rifle over the British Lee-Enfield for use in the First World War. The Ross Rifle overheated if fired too much and jammed if exposed to mud, like, say, from a trench, and the bayonet would fall off if you ran. It endangered thousands of troops who relied on it in battle. It was, however, a great hunting rifle.

2. Habakkuk: This was an idea of Geoffrey Pike, an Englishman, but Canadian Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King invested $100 million (in 1942 dollars) in it. The plan? Build ships out of a substance made of ice and wood pulp, things Canada has plenty of, to use in the Second World War. Habakkuk aircraft carriers with payloads of hundreds of planes would provide cover for invasions and convoys. You know, until they melted. A test ice ship was built at Patricia Lake, Alta. It all came to an end when scientist killjoys explained that no one could make enough “pykete,” as the ice-wood pulp mixture was called, in one winter for even a single ship.

3. Sprung Greenhouse in Newfoundland:This strange industry child of Progressive Conservative premier Brian Peckford’s provincial government and Charmar Holdings Ltd. in the late 1980s had the goal of bringing futuristic greenhouses, developed by Calgary businessman Philip Sprung, to the rock. Supposedly capable of accelerating plant growth, the sprawling complex would theoretically produce 4,000 tonnes of produce a year. Oh, scientists warned there wasn’t enough daylight, but that didn’t stop the government from investing $14.5 million. Newfoundland, fruit basket to the world? Um, no. The hydroponics plant failed almost immediately. The province bought it out for $3 million and sold it for $1 to new investors. It closed for good in 1990.

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4. Vancouver’s first ambulance: In 1909 the city got its first ambulance. Everyone was very excited. On its first trip with the city crew it ran over an American tourist at the corner of Pender and Granville. He became the first patient transported in the ambulance.

5. Canada’s not-highest mountain: Canadian botanist David Douglas has a big tree named after him, the Douglas Fir. He was also known for a long time as the man who discovered the tallest mountain in Canada. In 1827, he named it Mount Brown after another botanist. Turns out Douglas wasn’t even close about the height of the mountain. In fact, if he looked around from that mountaintop, he would have seen other higher peaks all around. Still, for almost 70 years it was called the highest peak in Canada. Douglas was a great botanist but not so much a good surveyor.

6. Fast ferries: Glen Clark, the NDP premier of British Columbia in the late 1990s, had what sounded like a good idea—bring shipbuilding back to British Columbia by creating a fast ferry that would be trendsetting. The plan was for three ferries to be built at $70 million each. Even with cost-cutting measures that crippled the fleet, the ships cost twice that much to build and the program topped out at almost $450 million. By the time the Liberals came to power in B.C., the ferries were up for sale. They were sold for $20 million. Not each—for the whole fleet of three.

7. Springmobile: Tom Doherty built a three-wheeled vehicle in Sarnia, Ont., powered by a big spring. Designed to be a cheap substitute for the newfangled cars, his 1895 invention was called the Springmobile by some locals. It would accelerate 3 to 5 kilometres an hour and travel about two blocks. Then you’d need to get out and crank up the spring. It didn’t sell well and Doherty switched the spring to an internal combustion engine. It was banned from use in town because it was so loud it frightened the horses. He eventually got out of the car manufacturing business and went into politics. He was somewhat more successful there, becoming mayor of Sarnia.

8. Cygnet II:Alexander Graham Bell was a smart guy but not all his ideas were winners. His idea for the Cygnet II was to give his plane lift with tetrahedral kites, as in two wings that looked like a wall of kites. He built a prototype at Baddeck, N.S., and Canada’s premier pilot J.A.D. McCurdy had the honour of testing it on Feb. 22, 1909. The Cygnet II swanned around on the ice of the frozen lake but there wasn’t an engine made that could get the 4,000 kites moving fast enough to get airborne.

9. Townsend: Ontario in the 1970s had some problems. The Progressive Conservative government of the day was being criticized for not dealing with the chronic housing shortage. The solution, arrived at by provincial treasurer John White, was to create cities. One of these was near Nanticoke and was called Townsend. In 1974, the province spent the equivalent of more than $260 million in today’s money to buy 3,700 hectares. The population was supposed to be 100,000 by year 2000. Today about 1,500 call it home.

The Maclean’s Book of Lists, Vol. 2, is now available at www.macleans.ca/bookoflists, in the iBookstore, and on newsstands June 24.


9 colossal Canadian failures

  1. Number 1: Quebec, nuff said!

      • No, I am saying that the list is wrong and that Number 1 should be Quebec itself, not that the rifle came from Quebec.

        • Well Quebec is where Canada started….so is Canada a mistake?

          • How dare you make such a racist statement!!

            White man wasn’t first!!

          • FNs means a lot of other nations, not ‘Canada’ as a whole

    • This comment was deleted.

      • English….speak please.

    • Number 2: Frenchie 77, nuff said.

      • I never built a ship in my life!

        • Nice non sequitur.

          • Read all posts, digest and then you get my point, which in this case was humour!

    • I disagree, here’s why.
      There would be no nation of Canada if it were not for Quebec.
      It was the rock around which, the country of Canada was allowed to grow.
      The first threat, during the American revolution, was fended off in Quebec, in part by French Canadians fighting on the side of the British crown.
      Why would they do that?
      Simple: the rights they gained under King George were about as complete as one could expect – they were superior to the rights American colonials had under the same king. King George recognized that if he wanted to retain North America, the threat from his natural enemy in Europe, France, would have to be neutralized. As the French were the most predominate people in the area where Canada would become a nation and had a lot of sway in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, it only made sense to keep them on his side – not with an iron fist against which they would naturally fight, but by using reason. Sadly, this form of governing is seen as weakness today – when it can only be properly exercised from a position of strength.
      So when Benedict Arnold and his army fought its way through the deep forests and hazardous mountains to face Montreal and Quebec, he was not only repelled, but utterly defeated. The French did not rally to the side of the revolutionaries – as even Ben Franklin – the friend of France – thought. Arnold’s army retreated – one of the two leading generals dead and his force broken.
      The second attempt would come during the War of 1812. The strongest militia in Canada was that of the French Canadian militias of Quebec – which were victorious in every battle and often facing forces far larger. Salisberry is just one name that comes to mind.
      If Quebec had been dominated as some would suggest, she would have gone to the American side and Vermont would have been a part of that French-speaking state and Louisiana would have had a northern twin.
      Without Quebec, the eastern provinces would have been taken piecemeal, Ontario would have not much choice but to bow to the Americans and the rest would have fallen in – with the exception of possibly Newfoundland, British Columbia and the Hudson’s Bay Company lands – but it’s hard to say.
      Still, I prefer Canada for all it’s flaws, even with the current government, the way it is instead of a place without Quebec.

  2. Canada has made a lot of mistakes….but none of these are even in the running.

  3. The fast ferries worked well and are still in service to this day. Why not focus on something relevant, like the failure of our senate or justice systems? The failure of the RCMP and VPD on the Picton file? How about our society as a whole, which ignores the one third of First Nations children living in poverty? Or our coporatized, castrated media, which ignores the plight of the majority and repeats decade-old lies instead, helping to make our already braindead citizenry even dumber?

    • How about sticking to the topic at hand.

      A lot of these are interesting but one should’ve been added to the article: the Bricklin car.

  4. Would socialized health care qualify?

    • Bumper sticker stuff

    • As opposed to what? From your handle I’m guessing you think the American system is better… probably sans Obamacare. While we have plenty of room for improvement, I’ll stick to our system before for-profit model like the US where if you aren’t sufficiently ensured, you die.

  5. How could the 2nd Kandahar mission not make the list? At least $ 20 billion and counting, hundreds if not thousands of physical and mental casualties to achieve nothing of lasting value.

  6. If the information on Habbakuk cited in this article is indicative of the research efforts put into the publication, the quality of the Lists is seriously in doubt.

    I spent many summers recently in Jasper and Patricia Lake and, being intrigued by the Parks Canada information sign at Patricia Lake, did much research on the Internet and in Jasper itself. The Jasper Townsite Library/Historical Association has an aging typed manuscript describing the project and its enduring connections to present day Jasper – the remains of the prototype model are sunk in the lake and are an internationally well-known scuba divers’ mecca, and the cabins used by the scientists in WW 2 were the basis of some of the accommodations in the present-day Patricia Lake Cabins.

    Your link above, to Wikipedia,would have corrected some of the errors in the article if the material had actually been read. It was Dr. Pyke who developed the concept, the product was Pykrete (sound like concrete, get it?), and the project was ceased due to the German U Boat threat being diminished from other Allied means.

    There are other fascinating aspects to this historical event. Dr. Pyke was one of many highly intelligent, allegedly bordering on insane, scientists Winston Churchill and his senior staff gathered to think “outside the box” and potentially turn the tide of the war, which was at that point decidedly grim, with any unconventional methods that might be discovered.

    Many of the labourers who worked on the model in Patricia Lake were Mennonites who, once learning of the military intentions for the product, downed tools.

    This was a very interesting part of Canadian history from that era, and deserving of a more serious and informed analysis by Macleans than is evident in the entry above.

  7. Number 8, the Cygnet II, hardly qualifies as either colossal or Canadian.

    The Aerial Experiment Association was spending private money (mostly Mrs. Bell’s), so it wasn’t Canadian, except in the sense that the experiment took place inside Canada.

    The aircraft was a dud, true enough, but the Aerial Experiment Association existed to conduct Experiments. This one didn’t work. The next day, the Association tried out the Silver Dart. That worked out just dandy!

  8. How about the Indian Reserve System? Nothing to be too proud of there and it’s a continuing foul up.