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Review

Trucking in British Columbia: An Illustrated History

By Daniel Francis

November 4, 2013

Review By Ben Bradley

Historians of British Columbia have devoted considerable attention to how its economy and social geography were shaped by different kinds of transportation, from sailing vessels and trails to wagon roads and railways. However, automobiles and the roads they travel along have generally been neglected. Daniel Francis’s new book about the province’s trucking industry is intended for a popular audience, but nevertheless makes a valuable contribution to the literature on this oft-overlooked aspect of the province’s modern history.

The only previous book-length study on this topic was Andy Craig’s Trucking: A History of Trucking in British Columbia Since 1900 (1977), which was mostly a retired truck driver’s personal reminiscence about the period 1930-60. Francis’s book helps fill out our understanding of that period, but is especially valuable regarding the period 1950-90. It draws on a wide range of secondary and primary sources, including articles, theses, websites, government reports, industry journals, and a series of interviews Francis conducted with people who have been involved in British Columbia’s trucking industry. There are no citations, but a useful bibliography is included and the reader usually gets a good sense of which sources are being drawn on. To call this book “lavishly illustrated” would be an understatement, for there are less than a dozen pages without some kind of picture on them.

The focus is primarily on long-distance freight hauling, with occasional sections about truck logging and urban delivery trucks. A chapter about the province’s highway network since the turn of the last century is followed by a chapter outlining the evolution of truck and trailer technologies. British Columbia is rarely thought of as a place where automobiles were produced, but Francis draws attention to British Columbia-based truck manufacturers like Hayes and Western Star. Chapter 4 is about the work of trucking. It emphasizes the difficult conditions encountered when driving in British Columbia, including long, steep, grades and wildly varying climatic conditions. Truck driving, Francis shows, has typically involved working alone and spending extended periods away from home. However, questions about pay and working conditions are not pursued in depth, and unions like the Teamsters are only touched on briefly. Coming after chapters about difficult roads and powerful machines, this chapter reads a bit like a celebration, valorizing truck drivers as archetypal “rugged individualists.”

The last three chapters are about the trucking business. Chapter 5 describes some of British Columbia’s biggest and longest-lasting family-owned trucking companies. Chapter 6 outlines the various associations that carriers formed in order to advance their interests – for example, lobbying the provincial government for better roads, or modifications to the licensing system. Chapter 7 is about the regulation and deregulation of British Columbia’s trucking industry, with the British Columbia Motor Carrier Commission taking centre stage. Francis does not shy away from some of the industry’s problems in these chapters, like the widely publicized rash of deadly accidents that occurred during the 1990s on the heels of deregulation. However, even though the book is not meant to be a critical business history, this reader hoped to learn more about the nature of competition within British Columbia’s trucking industry. Companies are repeatedly shown absorbing or merging with other companies, but how and why this was the case is left something of a mystery. Similarly, Francis identifies the 1950 national railway strike as an important catalyst for the growth of the trucking industry in western Canada, but thereafter says little about competition between railways and truckers for the province’s freight market.

This book belongs in the library of anyone who is interested in the economic and business history of twentieth-century British Columbia. Francis has done an admirable job of balancing popular appeal with a scholarly approach, and students of BC will find Trucking in British Columbia an engaging and informative read.

Trucking in British Columbia: An Illustrated History
By Daniel Francis
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2012. 208 pp, $39.95 cloth