At one time Ontario’s Highway 7 was the only route from Toronto to the national capital Ottawa. Just 40 kilometres within the Trans-Canada Highway route, it was a bustling, busy and important road built in the Depression that bypassed the highly populated areas to the south making the drive pleasant, direct and reliable. Businesses along the highway, hotels, restaurants, gas stations and parks experienced expansion and more homes, cottages and communities sprang up all areas it touched. There was no denying the significance of Highway 7.
And then another highway was improved and widened and offered a faster ride through the same area. The 401, now also known as The Highway of Heroes, and its shiny new gas station stops, Starbucks and Tim’s rendered Number 7 virtually non-existent, dashing the dreams that existed there, driving locals away and bringing hard luck to those that stayed.
Filmmakers Neil Graham and Derreck Roemer went back to the strip to find out who was left and why. What they discovered was heartbreaking. Far from its exciting beginnings, it is now populated with ghost towns and abandoned business, ruin and overgrowth. Poverty and isolation is now the reality of Highway 7. Junk which is everywhere isn’t considered junk, or even an eyesore, to locals. Rusty ancient trucks, hubcaps and falling down buildings are barely noticed. The filmmakers compare the area to “darkest Appalachia”.
Defining the collapse is the now -empty gas station belonging to 80 year old Howard Gibbs, the one his father started in the Depression and which he operated since he was a teenager. He says he hasn’t pumped gas in a year. He lives in desperate straits, way beyond the age of retirement, having to replace equipment he can’t afford and hoping to sell the derelict place to his daughter in the city. He just can’t take it anymore.
The Friends of Arden (a tiny community near Sharbot Lake) is a group of optimists, including business owners, artists, authors, newspapermen and other local boosters who hope to bring back some of the area’s lost lustre. They have established that something needs to be done, but they can’t seem to agree on how. So a first member quits.
A pair of hopeful city folks plans to re-build an existing inn, to create a new-age style hotel/restaurant, hoping to set itself apart with its unique décor, a music programme and city-fied food. But the couple running things aren’t getting along and differ wildly on the direction their business should take. That’s not the fault of Highway 7, but it does seem there’s bad mojo at work in this place that’s barely alive and doesn’t know it.
There are other characters with their own stories, and each seems somehow marked hard by life along the stretch. Or we’re reading it into their stories, equally as spooked as the filmmakers seem to be. In all, it’s a fascinating, hard to watch story of collapse without hope, just three hours from Toronto.