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Colby Cosh: So that's how you get Canada's attention: mess with Via Rail!


“Hi! My name’s Colby. Boy, these Via Rail stations you’ve got out East here are really something, eh? There’s something so … European about passenger rail, am I right? Though I guess strikes and protests are kind of a European thing too, ha ha ha. Back home you gotta hop a plane or a bus to get anywhere. You can board Via in Edmonton but it’s kind of … theoretical? I don’t think I know anybody who has ever set foot in the station.

“Anyway, as long as you’re waiting for your Uber to take you back to the hotel or whatever, I just wanted to give you this pamphlet called So You’re Concerned About the Rule of Law. I figure you probably have time to read it.”

Well, let’s drop the joke. The idea of the newspaper columnist as clipboard-wielding activist nuisance cuts a little too close to home. But maybe you can understand where I’m coming from. Alberta has spent a decade watching pipeline projects approach or receive technical development approval, but then get held up by various commingled species of social and political static, some of which have — or had? — the bulk of popular opinion in the rest of the country squarely behind them.

Since our oil and gas is publicly owned, everybody in Alberta suffers from any straitening of the pipeline network: our New Democratic government was just as persistent in pointing this out to the world as our Conservative one is now, because both have been answerable to the same credit-rating agencies . In November 2018 the NDP, then still in power, unveiled a “ real-time lost revenue counter ” measuring the impact to provincial and federal revenues from delays of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. At that time the counter read $6 billion and was clicking forward at $80 million a day, but it seems the Conservatives, despite their passion for contrived cheeseball comms tactics, thought better of the counter and disabled it.

It’s all hypothetical, of course, but the order of magnitude must be approximately right. When Alberta governments talk about pipeline approvals in budget documents, they tend to suggest that a percentage point or two of the province’s GDP is at stake. The sacrifice might be worth it to you, or to Mother Earth; the point is only that the sacrifice is not shared equally, and that Alberta did not have too much luck convincing anyone outside Alberta to care about what was happening in Alberta.

Alberta did not have too much luck convincing anyone outside Alberta to care about what was happening in Alberta

It never occurred to us to mess with the rail network in Eastern Canada — to inconvenience the precious commuters of the Golden Horseshoe — as a means of gaining negotiating leverage. Actually, I’m sure some people must have suggested it, but they would have been written off as selfish, dangerous idiots advocating counterproductive tactics.

The economic impact of the rail protests is big, but surely comparable, at the moment, to that of a big storm. Yet because a B.C. Aboriginal community is carrying its fight with the B.C. government to the guts of Canada, the clamour over whether large public works are now possible at all in Canada has instantly achieved new and unfamiliar volume levels.

The Coastal GasLink that is the source of the strife is a provincially regulated work running from Dawson Creek to the coast; unlike the vastly more expensive problems Alberta has encountered, this technically isn’t an issue for the wider federation at all. Except, whoops, it is! Because someone decided to make it one!

The levels of irony dazzle the imagination. The Canadian West was settled by means of passenger rail, which is supposedly one reason it was chosen as a target by the radicals supporting the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in their pipeline fight. But intercity commuter rail no longer really exists between the West Coast and Hamilton. The West is ultimately as dependent on rail freight as the East, and maybe more so, but it was that commuter inconvenience that gave rise to an immediate sense of national crisis, while Calgary and Saskatoon and Winnipeg snoozed.

And climate-change activists found themselves blocking rail lines in “solidarity” with the Wet’suwet’en, even though the chiefs’ fight is a question of territorial principle rather than carbon sins. This put the greenies in the position of opposing and thwarting actual rail travel. They admit this is anomalous; nobody likes to attach the word “hypocritical” to himself.

One of the protesters pointed out to the Star’s Alex Boyd how dependence on rail — dependence of the sort that they spend 364 days a year advocating for intra-city commuters — facilitates unlawful, obstructive protest as a means for the self-anointed to “put pressure on decision-makers.” It is a little harder to block paved roads than railroads, and much harder to sabotage them, if it comes to that — which it might have if the police had used force to immediately disperse the protests. For some, this counts as a feature of rail, not a bug.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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