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The Crown moved a mountain of rock to build the Canso Causeway-only thing is, it wasn't government land.

Fifty years ago, on a hot and sticky August 13, 1955, some 40,000 spectators gathered to witness the official opening of the Canso Causeway, linking Cape Breton Island with mainland Nova Scotia. The remarkable crossing, called "the eighth wonder of the world" at the time, had taken almost three years and $22 million to build. As the vast crowd stood sweating in the heat, provincial, federal and corporate dignitaries spoke. Then at precisely 2:35 p.m. the Honourable C.D. Howe, Canada's powerful "Minister of Everything," cut the tartan ribbon. The navy cruiser Quebec boomed out a salute, an air force jet roared overhead and the crowd surged forward, jostling to be among the first to cross behind 100 pipers leading the procession across. The Canso Causeway was open.

The building of the fixed link to Cape Breton Island was a tremendous engineering feat. The rock fill, eight times thicker at its base than at its 24-metre-wide apex, snaked in a giant S-curve across the Strait of Canso, up to 65 metres deep in places. From the time Premier Angus L. MacDonald, the driving force behind its construction, helped dump the first load of rock from a huge Euclid truck into the strait on September 16, 1952, until the last rock fell into place 27 months later in December, 1954, an amazing 9,070,000 tonnes of granite had been blasted from nearby Cape Porcupine. But for all its grandeur and acclaim, the causeway would soon be at the centre of an unprecedented legal action.

To obtain the extraordinary amounts of rock needed to fill in the roadbed, its builders had to move mountains-literally. Cape Porcupine, a rocky outcropping that loomed over the site, was a perfect source of fill. Its 44.5 hectares were estimated to contain 113 million tonnes of hard, durable granite that could be blasted out in large chunks, and its proximity to the crossing meant moving the rock would save both time and money. In 1952, the federal government expropriated Cape Porcupine and gave its owner $5,505. It was quite a bargain: Ottawa paid a mere dollar for every 20,526 tonnes of granite.

In fact, it wasn't a bargain the owner was happy about, and in 1955 he sued, setting off a legal battle that would take eight years to resolve. The man who owned the land and sued Queen Elizabeth had a privileged relationship to her. He was Her Majesty's representative in the province, Lieutenant-Governor Alistair Fraser.

The New Glasgow, NS, native became lieutenant-governor on October 1, 1952; just two weeks after, workers began blasting his mountain apart, 113,000 tonnes at a time. Fraser's appointment marked the first time in the province's history that the son of a former lieutenant-governor occupied the post. His father, Duncan Cameron Fraser, had been the vice-regal representative from 1906 to 1910 and died in office, following a distinguished career in politics. After studies at Dalhousie University, the younger Fraser followed his father into a law career and was called to the Bar of Nova Scotia in 1911.

Cape Porcupine, an undeveloped property, had been in the Fraser family since 1890. When Fraser launched his lawsuit, he maintained the granite had substantially increased the value of the land and sought $6 million in damages. He was a man of principle, and his appointment did not prevent him from suing the government for what he apparently deemed was a grossly unfair act. The Crown was up against a tough customer-and with a distinguished history. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Fraser immediately enlisted as a lieutenant in Colonel Struan Robertson's 17th Nova Scotia Battalion, the first unit from the province to leave for Valcartier, a massive mobilization camp being carved out of wilderness north of Quebec City. In 1915, he was transferred to the famous Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in France, and in April of the next year moved to the 48th Highlanders where he was promoted captain and appointed adjutant. On promotion to major in July 1916, Fraser became a company commander and took part in the great Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday, 1917, the most acclaimed battle in this country's history.

Fraser was wounded at Vimy, and his bravery earned him the Military Cross. He then served as aide-de-camp to the commander of the Canadian Corps, Sir Arthur Currie, arguably the best general Canada has ever produced. Fraser remained in this appointment until demobilization in 1919. On his return to Canada, he joined the legal department of Canadian National Railways, eventually becoming vice president of its passenger and freight traffic department, a position he held for 19 years until his retirement in 1951.

Fraser's suit against the Crown rested on a very basic point. The government knew it would need rock, stone and other material to build the causeway, and rather than buy the fill and pay the owner its fair market price, the Crown had simply expropriated Cape Porcupine at its value as undeveloped land. With the next closest suitable rock 30 kilometres away, Fraser's lawyer, Henry MacKeen-himself a future lieutenant-governor as well as the son of one-stated at a 1955 hearing that Fraser was only asking for reasonable reimbursement. For its part, the government maintained Fraser was trying "to make a killing on a property that the Crown was under a pressing need to expropriate."

As a lawyer, Fraser knew his case would take a long time to be settled. In the end, it took almost four times as long for the lawsuit to work its way through the courts as it did for his granite to fill in the causeway's roadbed. After a second term as lieutenant-governor, Fraser retired to Antigonish in 1958. Two years later, the Exchequer Court of Canada awarded him $62,500. Neither the Crown nor Fraser were satisfied. Fraser hired noted lawyer J. J. Robinette and took his case to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Crown also appealed the previous ruling, and asked that it be reduced to $30,000 or less. By now, Fraser had dropped his claim to $1 million, given all but 5.2 hectares of the 44.5 hectares originally expropriated had been returned to him.

In October 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that the government owed Fraser $560,000. In its judgment, it noted that the decision to build the causeway before expropriating the land had substantially increased the granite's worth, and it was this value, "at the time of that expropriation which is required to be assessed for the purposes of compensation."

Alistair Fraser's lawsuit against the Crown for personal damages while holding a vice-regal appointment is believed to be the only case of its kind. He died in 1964-having had little time to enjoy the results of his dogged determination to pursue justice.

To read more about the building of the Canso Causeway, check out When Canada Joined Cape Breton, by Elaine Ingalls Hogg (Nimbus, 2005).

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