Orillia cottagers campaign to rename Ontario highway in honour of Gordon Lightfoot

Bust of Gordon Lightfoot outside Orillia opera house Photo by Douglas Walkinshaw

The late musician behind such hits as Sundown and Carefree Highway, Gordon Lightfoot, could soon have a highway of his own.

A group of Orillia, Ont. cottagers with fond memories of Lightfoot’s music are campaigning to rename Highway 400 in his honour. Douglas Walkinshaw is the main voice behind the campaign—he lived in Orillia from the time he was 10 years old to 18 and attended high school a grade behind Lightfoot. They met twice: once when Lightfoot drove him home from a local pub, and another time backstage at a live show. This proximity gave the young Walkinshaw direct exposure to the musician’s early performances.

Now 82, Walkinshaw organizes occasional get-togethers with his Orillia friends so they can reminisce and discuss local news. When Lightfoot died, they all gathered to tell stories about their encounters with him.

“We all learned a bit more about Gordon,” Walkinshaw says. “He was a big hit in high school and around local sites. He was always gifted.”

They eventually decided they needed to translate their memories into something long lasting. It was during a conversation with a cousin from PEI that the idea to rename a highway in Lightfoot’s honour came about.

Walkinshaw wants to rename Highway 400 to Gordon Lightfoot Memorial Highway because it links Lightfoot’s hometown of Toronto to Orillia. Though the campaign was inspired by Quebec’s Autoroute Guy-Lafleur, named after Montreal Canadiens hockey legend Guy Lafleur who passed away in April 2022, Walkinshaw says it makes more sense to rename a highway after a musician.

“For Guy Lafleur you want to go to the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame and read about his exploits. And he’s a great guy, but all you’re going to do is read about him or watch him on TV. You’re supposed to be looking at the road! With Gordon Lightfoot, when you Google him, you’re going to put on some of (the more than 400 songs he recorded) and enjoy them. This would be his museum.”

He enlisted the support of around 40 friends from across Canada and the U.S. to write a letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and he eventually got a notice from the Ontario Ministry of Transport. For the name change to be considered by the ministry, he would have to get permission from all communities adjacent to the highway, including Indigenous communities. He would then have to raise the funds independently to update signage.

“Right now that’s the only process, and it’s not realistic,” he says. “We’ve decided to contact our MPPs and members of parliament. The media also has to make an impression on the premier.”

Lightfoot’s music holds a special place in Walkinshaw’s heart. He says the singer covers “a gamut of emotion” and helps record important Canadian historical events. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, for example, memorializes the 27 people who passed away in a 1975 freighter accident on the Great Lakes. Cotton Jenny, meanwhile, is an intimate story about a working man who gets through his days at a cotton gin by looking forward to returning home to his partner, Cotton Jenny.

But what Walkinshaw appreciates most is how Lightfoot uses beautiful metaphors to “hit moods that we’ve all felt.”

“I remember going to camp as a young boy and getting pretty homesick. We’ve all been homesick,” he says, referring to the main theme of Lightfoot’s song Early Morning Rain. “We just think his messages and his singing are worthwhile passing on to future generations.”

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