Monday, August 19, 2019

Did we learn anything from Lac-Mégantic? Bruce Campbell isn't so sure.

In my work, I have to think about how railways are an extension of state power during the development of Northern Ontario in the early twentieth century. I think a lot about railways in Canada more broadly too: past, present and future.

I remember when the tragedy unfolded at Lac-Mégantic in 2013, and I remember the federal government and the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway both scrambling to distance themselves from it. It wasn't particularly surprising when the criminal liability was placed almost entirely at the feet of the crew on duty that night, even though safety violations were systemic throughout the company and even the regulatory system. I knew this was wrong, and I donated to the legal defence fund in the hopes that the trial would see this as well. Ultimately, the justice system worked and recognized that almost all the charges simply didn't fit the accused standing in the dock.

I even wrote about the issue of crude-by-rail on my website, and ultimately for Rabble. I called for increased track inspections and for companies to focus more on safety. However, I didn't say anything about government. Bruce Campbell shows how short-sighted this was.

In The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied, Campbell (the former Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) looks at the safety issues plaguing the railway industry in Canada and specifically those created by oil trains. This is a solid book, meticulously-researched and focused on the roles played by both the federal government (regardless of political stripe) and big business in what should have been an unimaginable disaster. It can get a little sensationalist at times, but this does not detract from what is a thorough explanation of just how engrained the safety problems are that led to the deaths of 47 people in the small Quebec town.

While I only bothered to look at the industry, Campbell looks deeply into the regulatory holes left by years of neoliberal ideology in government, and within Transport Canada in particular. He charts the origin of this transformation back to the Mulroney government and its decision to shift much of the regulation of the railway industry from government to the industry itself. When the new Canadian Railway Operating Rules came into effect as part of the new 1988 Railway Safety Act, the regulations had largely been drafted by industry and put efficiency ahead of safety. Since then, the erosion of regulation has continued under both Conservative and Liberal governments, often with close ties to railroaders. Mulroney himself had been CEO of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, which owned the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway, the first railway in Canada to successfully lobby for one-person crews. After he left politics, former Harper cabinet minister John Baird accepted a seat on the board of Canadian Pacific.

Campbell charts lobbying efforts from the railway and energy industries to roll back regulation on both sides of the border, to remove power from government investigators, and to undermine workplace safety in the name of cost-cutting. The derailment in Lac-Mégantic was inevitable - not necessarily in that town, or with that train, or with that crew - but it was going to happen somewhere because the system was designed to ignore all the mistakes that led to the derailment.

Not only does Campbell look at the history of railway regulation leading up to Lac-Mégantic, he also examines what happened after the derailment. In short, not a great deal. Yes, the most dangerous tank cars have been removed from oil service, but railway regulations have not changed much, the Transportation Safety Board still lacks teeth and railway companies can still push the government around too much. In fact, the number of runaway train incidents across Canada is increasing. I'd like to say that we can peg all of this on Stephen Harper, but progress under Justin Trudeau has been almost as glacial. Even more stunning, for me at least, is that railway safety regulation in the United States is actually more robust than it is in Canada, even if Donald Trump is trying to undermine it.

Campbell looks deeply at a subject that most of us never think about. The people of Lac-Mégantic have been forced to think about it whether they wanted to or not. As Canada's railways post healthy profits, we need to ask whether regulation would really be that much more expensive? Perhaps more important, would we rather have a government willing to ensure that those profits keep rolling in, or one that makes sure that the residents of Lac-Mégantic never have to relive their ordeal as they read about another town razed by an inferno on the rails?

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Deconstructing a Scene: Through Black Spruce

Leaving Moosonee Behind
A new film based on Joseph Boyden’s novel Through Black Spruce is now in limited release across Canada. It follows the Bird family from Moosonee as they struggle with the disappearance of one daughter, an uncle's guilt and a drug feud. Near the start of the film, Annie (Tanaya Beatty) ventures south to Toronto. While it is supposed to be a vacation, Annie soon finds herself immersed in Toronto's Indigenous and drug cultures as she follows in her missing sister's footsteps. How does Annie leave Moosonee? By train of course.

Pretty much the entire railway sequence is shown in the trailer, but having seen the whole movie, it is clear that the train is there for a reason. As Annie's uncle Will (Brandon Oakes) watches the train leave, the camera looks out at the forest as the southbound Polar Bear Express leaves Moosonee behind. The only break in the trees is the right-of-way. This marks the train as the connection between the Indigenous and settler worlds. It is the transitional space. It also adds great realism to the production. Large portions of the movie are very clearly filmed in Moosonee and Toronto with wonderful touches and references that will only make sense to people who have lived in or researched these places. Apart from the railway, aircraft and vehicles also play central roles. In particular, Will's float plan also serves as a transitional space from the conflicts of life in Moosonee to the traditional peace of life on the land.

On the whole, I found the movie somewhat inconsistent and I think it carries a great burden on its shoulders. At times, it feels like the writers are trying to fit every possible contemporary Indigenous issue into the script. Yet this is also powerful because it shows how much of an overwhelming mess we find ourselves in. While brutal, the film is also a story of resilience as Annie nearly succumbs to the city, but ultimately finds herself again.

With powerful acting and a thoughtful portrayal of traditional Omushkego hunting and Cree dialogue (I don't speak Cree, so I can only assume that it's accurate), Through Black Spruce is definitely worth a look. I know it's not a railway movie, but the train is important nevertheless.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

An Indigenous Railway History of Canada?

One of CN's newest locomotives, complete with Indigenous logo.
Everyone knows about the building of the transcontinental railway in Canada. It helped to get British Columbia into Confederation and to keep the Americans out. It was a foundational event in Canadian history. We are told that, thousands of dead Chinese labourers and government corruption notwithstanding, it was a key event in uniting Canada. The more erudite might even know how vital the railway was in suppressing the Red River Rebellion* and thus fuelling the Métis struggle for recognition that continues today. But what happens to Canada’s railways when we try to bring railway history into conversation with Indigenous history?

The short answer is that we don’t know. In fact, historians know surprisingly little about Canada’s railway history. Every survey of Canadian history talks about the Canadian Pacific, but beyond that it’s normally taken for granted. Like most Canadians today, railways for historians are something in the background that don’t really matter anymore. To my knowledge, A.A. den Otter’s The Philosophy of Railways was the last monograph devoted to Canadian railways to be published, and that was in 1997. As a result, we are woefully ill-equipped to begin thinking about an Indigenous history of railways in Canada. As a result, these musings are a very hesitant first step.

For those of you with long memories, the tragic story of Chanie Wenjack came to your attention from the pages of Maclean’s magazine in February 1967 or perhaps from the naming of the Wenjack Treatre at Trent University in 1973. For those of you who are younger or have shorter memories, Chanie’s story comes to you through the late Gord Downie’s Secret Path project.

Chanie didn’t want to be at residential school in Kenora - he wanted to be at home with his family at Ogoki Post (Marten Falls, Treaty 9). Along with two other boys, he ran away and tried to use CN’s transcontinental main line as a path home. After a brief stop in Reddit (a place you’ve only heard of if you know railways) he set off on his own heading east along the track. He had a CN passenger map and was told to seek help from railway section crews along the way. Marten Falls lies well to the north of any railway line, so the tracks would never have led Chanie home, even if he had somehow managed to complete the 400 mile journey. In fact, he only managed to walk 12 miles from Reddit. It was late October and snow was already falling. After about 36 hours, Chanie died. The next morning, a locomotive engineer spotted Chanie’s body, as Ian Adams put it in Maclean’s, “just four-and-a-half feet from the trains that carry the white world by in warm and well-fed comfort." To most, the railway is what unites Canada. For Chanie, it was a futile path home. Anyone who has seen the animated version of Secret Path will know that the railway looms large in the story.

The Chanie Wenjack story is the most well-known case of a child running away from residential school, but it is not an isolated incident. We will probably never know the number of children who ran away - either temporarily or permanently. Chanie wasn't even the only one to use the railway. The Maclean's article about his death explained that Indigenous children ran away all the time, "Sometimes they lose a leg or an arm trying to climb aboard freight trains."

Northwestern Ontario's Indigenous connection to the railway is still a very live issue today. Ryan McMahon's Thunder Bay podcast is a harrowing listen as he tries to figure out just how messed up the city on Lake Superior really is. If you're Indigenous in Thunder Bay, life is difficult. If you live on the Fort William reserve, across the Kaministiquia River from the city, the railway makes your life a daily ordeal. The problem is the James Street bridge, a rather unique stucture with two decks: one carrying a CN spur line, the other carrying the road. In 2013, vandals set the bridge on fire. CN quickly repaired the damage to the rail deck, but six years on, the road deck remains closed.

The bridge was built by the Grand Trunk Pacific at the start of the twentieth century. When the bridge was built, the railway agreed that it would be accessible to rail, pedestrians and vehicles in perpetuity. When the Grand Trunk Pacific became part of Canadian National in 1918, CN became responsible for the bridge and the original agreement. While CN was quick to repair the rail portion of the bridge, it claims that the damage to the road deck goes beyond its maintenance commitment. So far, two levels of courts have disagreed with CN. CN appealed to the Supreme Court, but no decision has been made. While this legal fight drags on, residents on the reserve must drive an extra 10km to reach the next bridge into Thunder Bay. As McMahon notes in his podcast, this also means that ambulances are taking longer. In CN's defence, it has hired an engineering firm to prepare a plan to repair the bridge by 2020. Of course, CN's continued legal appeal suggests that it still hopes to get out of the repair bill.

This particular legal wrangle pits the city of Thunder Bay against one of Canada's most established companies. As is so often the case, Indigenous people are stuck in the middle. It is also happening at the same time that CN is boosting its Indigenous relations. By "Working alongside Aboriginal communities across the CN network, [CN] hope[s] to strengthen [its] ties, cultivate economic opportunities and set an example among [its] industry peers." This includes a new Indigenous logo on the railway's newest locomotives. While their commitment to Indigenous communities is to be praised, the protracted legal dispute in Thunder Bay seems to contradict this initiative.

What does an Indigenous history of Canadian railways look like? I'm not sure. My own work on the Ontario Northland Railway in Treaty 9 territory is only in its infancy and I am excited about where my research might lead me. I know one thing for sure, I will never think the same way about Canada's railway history again.

* Or fight for political, ethic and cultural recognition, depending on your perspective.