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The power and privilege of railroads

By: John Kennair

  |  Posted: Saturday, Mar 01, 2014 06:00 am

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As a vast country, Canada has always struggled with the ideal of national unity, which has led to the creation of national symbols to bring us together. The most obvious ones are our flag, our anthem, and, as the Winter Olympics showed, our hockey. They bring us together as Canadians, giving us a sense of “oneness,” yet all of these are relatively new ideals of nationalism.

Initially, when Canada was struggling to create a sense of “self,” of national unity, the railroads were the tool used to help forge our nation. Started through an act of parliament in 1871, completed in 1885, they helped link Canada from coast to coast. They secured the open west, our prairies, from the threat of American expansionism, and, more importantly, they helped open up our economy, bringing resources from all over to central Canada, the economic (and political heart) of our nation, and this would eventually lead to Canada’s industrialization.

There was a cost to this nation-building venture, namely the granting of vast tracts of lands (and wealth) to the railroads, along with unfettered power. We displaced persons living on these prairies, betraying their trust, waging military attacks and demonizing them in order to assure and protect the economic interests of these private capitalists. In essence, we allowed these railroads to become sovereign entities within Canada, a law unto themselves.

Eventually, and slowly, as we evolved as a country, the relationship with Canada’s railroads changed. They were still important to the economic interest of Canada, moving goods around the country, the arterial network that maintains our economic lifeblood, but we developed certain standards that the Canadian people demanded: safety standards, workers’ rights, and fair economic trading. All of these regulated through laws, because parliament recognized that greater interest of Canada over those of the economic elites involved with the railroads. The elites were not impoverished, their wealth taken away through taxes or nationalization, but, rather, we limited the power that a private corporation could hold over our country.

Recently, however, it seems that the pendulum has once again swung to the interests of these railroads. Lac Megantic and the other countless “accidents” have shown how safety standards have become undermined (even non-existent); unfair bargaining practices have undermined workers’ rights, forcing them into contracts that serve the economic interests of private businesses; and deregulation of the industry meaning other aspects of our economy have become held hostage to this industry (sic, the grain industry). All of this was done with the complicity of our “government.”

Simply put, if the railroads are of vital importance to Canada, to Canadians, the government must protect all Canadians’ interests, not just those of a chosen few. It cannot abrogate its responsibilities, leaving such important matters to the “bottom line” of private corporations. Otherwise, we will have devolved as a nation, returning to an era when others exploited us, with little value given to our interests. Then our government becomes superfluous, along with our ideals of being Canadian.


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