All posts by Julius

Prorogation x4

prorogation-Bruce-MacKinnon  On August 19 the federal Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared its plan to prorogue the Canadian Parliament — for the fourth time.

Harper used prorogation in 2007, but subsequent moves to prorogue in 2008 and 2010 drew the most fire. In 2008, Harper’s minority government used the tactic to prevent the combined opposition from removing him and forming a coalition government. He prorogued again in 2010 in the midst of a controversy over the Canadian Force’s mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan, and just prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics hosted by Vancouver.

Before the summer break this year, Harper faced daily criticism in the House of Commons over the ongoing scandal involving the expenses of senators, including three Conservatives he had appointed.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair accused Harper of shutting down Parliament to evade accountability and to avoid questions on the Senate.

“People aren’t going to be fooled. This is clearly a desperate government worn out by ethical scandals and mismanagement. Stephen Harper refuses to answer legitimate questions from the public,” the NDP leader said.

Senate reform legislation is just one of several bills that will die on the order paper with prorogation. The government is awaiting a Supreme Court opinion on Senate reform that could come in Fall 2013. The NDP is presently conducting a commendable cross-country campaign to abolish the Senate.

Prorogation would not affect the Auditor General’s review of Senate expenses. However, the recommendations of a Senate report concerning Senator Pamela Wallin’s expense claims would be on hold until they are adopted by the full Senate. That can’t happen while Parliament is prorogued.

Other affected legislation includes changes to the Canada Elections Act to establish new rules for political loans, and a bill to change parole rules for offenders found not criminally responsible for their actions.

However, these bills can be reintroduced at their most recent stage in the House of Commons.

A private member’s bill that would require labour unions to publish detailed financial information, known as Bill C-377, would be restored to third reading, the last stage completed by the House of Commons.

The bill, strongly opposed by the Canadian Labour Congress and its union affiliates, had been the subject of heated debate in the Senate, where it was amended and sent back to the House of Commons. But prorogation would wipe the slate clean as far as the Senate deliberations are concerned, according to the Library of Parliament.

“Thus, the bill would be sent back to the Senate in the same state it had been when it was passed at third reading by the House in December 2012, prior to the Senate amendment,” the library said in an email to The Canadian Press.

“The Senate would then begin the process of considering the bill anew; the Senate may vote to pass the bill unamended, amend the bill in precisely the same way it had been amended before, or introduce entirely new amendments.”

Harper’s frequent use of prorogation does more than add an arcane word to everyday political jargon; it shrinks and withers bourgeois democracy so its henchmen can serve more ruthlessly the capitalist austerity agenda. This is what some call the new authoritarianism – replete with increasing state surveillance of the population, curtailment of the right to strike, arbitrary police beatings and detentions, expulsion of refugees, and strident promotion of the military. It must be stopped – not just the P word, not just Harper, but the system that drives this descent into a living hell for working people.


– BW, with notes compiled from Wikipedia.

Disarm the Cops! Abolish the SIU. Fire Blair

billblair    Bowing to enormous public pressure, the Special Investigations Unit of the Toronto Police Service on August 20 charged Constable James Forcillo with second degree murder in the death of 18-year old Sammy Yatim, three weeks after the shooting on an empty streetcar.
    While the charge is a nod to the power of street protest, including a July 29 march of nearly 1,500, it falls far short of justice for Sammy, a young Syrian immigrant to Canada, or for the many victims of violent Toronto cops.
Outrageously, Forcillo got bail in record time (less than ten hours). He remains suspended with pay ($106,800 in 2012) while the case slowly makes its way through the court system. It will undoubtedly take years. None of the 22 ‘witness officers’, so designated by the SIU, are charged.
    So, is the indictment of Forcillo merely a pressure release valve? Is it an exercise in distraction? Would there even be an arrest if not for the video-gone-viral showing nine shots fired by one cop at Sammy, followed by another’s use of a taser gun on Sammy’s motionless, prone body?
    The SIU is itself a distorted product of mass protest. Created in 1990 with the Police Services Act in Ontario, the SIU was a response to widespread social discontent arising from a series of police killings of civilians, predominantly in Toronto’s Black community. Black Action Defense Committee leader Dudley Laws (deceased, March 2011) gave voice to the movement for accountability and for an end to racist policing practices.
    In its 23 years, the SIU has conducted 3,400 investigations into police actions causing serious harm or death. Only 95 led to criminal charges, only 16 to convictions, and only three to jail time.
    Const. Forcillo is just the second cop in over two decades to be charged with causing a death while on duty. Since 2011 alone, Toronto police have shot at least 15 people, seven of them fatally. No Toronto cop has ever been convicted of murder in an on-duty killing.
    Lawyer Peter Rosenthal, who is representing the family of slain Toronto man Michael Eligon at an upcoming coroner’s inquest, said the video in Yatim’s case could make a difference.
    Rosenthal goes a step further. He says it’s time to consider disarming front-line police officers. With “lesser weapons”, Rosenthal argues, street patrol police might be more inclined to talk to potential arrestees, especially people exhibiting mental issues, with the option of calling in the armed emergency task force should that appear to be necessary. He notes that regular police in Britain do not carry guns.
    Without any illusions that such a step would fundamentally change the nature of the police force, socialists support the call to disarm the cops.
    Why? Because it would save civilian lives, it would boost grassroots movements that demand an end to racist policing, and it would marginally weaken the repressive capacity of the state.
    Recent events dramatize the urgency of building social protest movements – organizing that could lead to self-policing by poor and working class communities, in alliance with labour unions.
    During the infamous G20 Summit in Toronto in June 2010, authorities spent nearly $1 billion turning the downtown core into a police state. Arbitrary beatings and detention in inhuman, makeshift facilities ensued. ‘Kettling’ entered the lexicon. Despite 1,118 arrests, only 308 were charged, and 6 convicted of any offence – and no police have been punished for their transgressions.
    In the Fall of 2011 police harassed protesters and forcefully uprooted the Occupy Toronto site at St. James Park.
    Also in 2011 a Toronto police spokesperson told a York University audience that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. That cop’s brazen sexist declaration sparked the defiant, international ‘slut walk’ movement.
    Such misogynist musings give rise to the question: What do police have to say about the hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women?
    Quebec provincial and Montreal city police savagely attacked students and their supporters at marches and picket lines during the mass movement against university fee hikes in Spring/Summer 2012. They arrested thousands, enforcing a law that made it illegal for more than three people to gather in one place.
    Add to this the police practice known as ‘carding’. It involves detaining and prying personal information from people, stopped on the street because they appear suspicious. Police admit this investigative procedure disproportionately targets black and brown racial minorities, as well as youths and the poor. It is estimated that Toronto cops are ‘carding’ 400,000 annually; some young people report being carded up to 20 times in the past two years.
    So why is all this happening, and what’s the solution?
    Liberals and social democrats tend to argue that the main problem is a lack of training; that police lack sensitivity, and are not provided the necessary social work tools.
    Certainly social expenditure cutbacks, and chronic lack of attention to the needs of mentally and emotionally challenged people, aggravate the situation. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Dealing with human needs has never been a priority for the police or the establishment – nor can it be in a world increasingly characterized by gross inequality and deteriorating living conditions for the vast majority. The Great Recession only aggravates these failings. The system has less room for manouver, while it drives more people to desperation.
    The Toronto police motto ‘To serve and protect’, really means to serve the bosses and protect the rich. Notwithstanding other duties, like traffic control, search and rescue, dealing with illegal drugs, minor thefts and assaults, etc., the primary police function is the protection of major private property, and the repression of political challenges to the profit system. Police attacking workers’ picket lines, indigenous peoples’ blockades, anti-capitalist marches and racialized youths is commonplace. Their role flows from the class nature of the state in capitalist society.
    The state is never neutral. It serves the interests of the class that owns and controls the major means of production, distribution and exchange. Today that’s the 0.1 per cent. At its core, as Frederick Engels explained over a century and a half ago, the state consists of “special bodies of armed men.” The police, the courts, the state bureaucracy and the military are guardians of the social status quo. Some well-meaning people enter those occupations hoping to make ‘improvements’. But soon they are overwhelmed by the major material determinants: the controlling force of wealth and power in class-divided society.
    Sexism, racism, homophobia, and police brutality are inherent features of capitalism, crucial to its rulers’ divide and conquer strategy. Austerity measures, including the current round of attacks on public services and union liberties, foment wider social discontent — which the state confronts with mounting surveillance, its propaganda for more ‘security’ spending, and blatant repression.
    While the bosses claim there is no money to fund social services and youth employment, on August 27 Madelaine Meilleur, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, announced that the Ontario Liberal government approved the wider use of Tasers. Her aim is to provide all 26,000 police in Ontario with the lethal devices, at a cost of $1,500 apiece. It is fatuous to claim that this is a ‘safer’ alternative to guns and bullets given how frequent and widespread the use of Tasers will be.
    The response of socialists is to reject more weapons for the cops, and to pose the need for workers and oppressed communities to take control of policing. We say refrain from reliance on the bosses and their state. Promote mass mobilization of the ranks of labour, the labour-based NDP, and progressive social movements. Fight for a Workers’ Government and a Workers’ Agenda.
    Socialists demand: Reverse the social cuts. Money for decent jobs, for quality health care, child care, education and environmental protection, not for war.
    We say: Disarm the police. Jail killer cops. Abolish the SIU. Fire Toronto Police Chief Blair. Free political prisoners and unjustly detained immigrants and refugees. Stop the harassment of Arabs, Muslims and people of colour. Justice for Sammy and for all victims of state violence.

Manning sentenced to 35 years


By ANN MONTAGUE – Socialist Action USA

U.S. Army whistleblower Pfc. Chelsea (Bradley) Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for giving hundreds of thousands of secret military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks. The military judge, Col. Denise Lind, offered no explanation for her sentence. As military guards conducted Manning from the courtroom on Aug. 21, his supporters shouted out, “We will keep fighting for you!”

The response to the sentence was swift. Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, stated, “The only person prosecuted for the crimes and abuses uncovered in the WikiLeaks’ releases is the person who exposed them. That alone proves the injustice of even one more day in prison for Bradley Manning.”

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said, “This is a sad day for Bradley Manning, but it’s also a sad day for all Americans who depend on brave whistleblowers and a free press for a fully informed public debate.”

“It seems clear,” Wizner noted, “that the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.”

Three and a half years will be credited to Manning’s sentence for time served. This will include time for the period that the judge ruled he was mistreated at the Marine Corps Brig at Quantico, Va., before being moved to the prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Throughout his time at Quantico, he was designated a “maximum custody” detainee and locked up alone for at least 23 hours a day. He was forced to sleep naked for several nights and required to stand at attention naked in the morning. He will have to serve one-third of the sentence before he is eligible for parole.

Manning faced a possible 90-year sentence. The government had denied him a whistleblower defense and the right to describe intent or to show that his actions harmed no one. U.S. prosecutors asked for a sentence of 60 years while acknowledging Manning’s youth. But it was clear that the true motivation for the prosecution’s request for the extremely long sentence was to deter future leaks. Prosecutor Capt. Joe Morrow stated, “There is value in deterrence.”

“Pfc. Manning was one of the brave Americans who was not willing to remain silent,” defense attorney David Coombs told the media. “Instead he decided to provide us with information that he believed would spark reform, would spark debate and he provided us with information that he believed might change the world.”

“Perhaps the biggest crime was that he cared about the loss of life that he was seeing and couldn’t ignore it, and was struggling with it.”

The forensic psychologist who testified in Manning’s defense, Capt. David Moulton, told the military court, “Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was going to really change how the world views the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and future wars. … It was his opinion that if through crowd sourcing that enough analysis was done on these documents, that it would lead to greater good.”

Three days before Manning was sentenced, British authorities made their own effort to intimidate whistleblowers when they detained David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, and confiscated his laptop. Greenwald has been writing articles based on leaked information from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Officials told Miranda that he was being held under Britain’s Terrorism Act, and threatened him with prison if he didn’t “cooperate.”

It was reported recently that the NSA has no idea what or how much information Edward Snowden has in his possession.  Clearly, the United States and Britain are terrified about what information might be revealed next concerning their war machines and surveillance networks.

Manning downloaded the leaked material to his computer when he was deployed as an intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2010. What did he actually reveal? The most widely seen information was seen in the “Collateral Murder” video, which showed an Apache helicopter attack on a group of people walking in a Baghdad street in 2007. Two of the victims were employees of Reuters news agency. A member of the helicopter crew yelled “dead bastards!” at those they killed. They also blew up a van of civilians who had stopped to help the initial victims of the first round of gunfire.

The “Reykjavik-13 Cable” was the first leak to be published by WikiLeaks; it describes frank discussions of meetings between the U.S. embassy chief in Reykjavik and members of the Icelandic government. The scornful attitude of the U.S. representative towards their nation in the middle of its banking crisis so angered activists in Iceland that they edited the “Collateral Murder” video, which was soon released worldwide.

The “Iraq War Logs” were 75,000 Army documents that detailed U.S. nighttime raids with reports from U.S. troops on the ground. These reports have been used to track civilian casualties that officials previously had said were not available.

The “Afghanistan War Logs” were 75,000 pages of documents that The New York Times described as “a ground level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is more grim than the official portrayal.”

The “Guantanamo Files” included 700 detainee files and 250,000 State Department cables detailing CIA extraordinary renditions, in violation of international law, of people suspected of “terrorism.” Shane Kadidal, a lawyer for the Center For Constitutional Rights, believes the volume of the material is part of the importance of these leaks: “It is one thing to tell a few anecdotes based on a few items, but to be able to say across the board that most of the men that are there shouldn’t be there and are people that could be safely released, that is pretty staggering.”

The leaks also showed the hypocrisy of the U.S. collaboration with Arab dictators while proclaiming a commitment to democracy.

The Bradley Manning Support Network will continue to keep the spotlight on Manning. They have organized international support through education and activism about his case as well as raising $1.4 million for his defense. Even as the sentence was handed down, the network announced that they were teaming with Amnesty International to launch a petition asking President Obama for a pardon.

At the same time, Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, is preparing to bring the case to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals to address violations of due process rights. Manning was detained without trial for more than three years in violation of his Constitutional right to a speedy trial. He was only awarded four months off of his sentence for the psychological torture he suffered while in solitary confinement for more than nine months.

The U.S. Marine Corps was never held accountable for Manning’s treatment. Also, President Obama declared Manning guilty in April 2011, more than two years before the trial began. This constitutes unlawful command influence, in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

The Center For Constitutional Rights has made clear that all of the supporters of Bradley Manning must continue to struggle for his freedom and raise the demand that President Obama issue a pardon for Manning.

[Update: Aug. 23] The campaign to free Manning immediately showed that the push for a presidential pardon will be more aggressive than simply a legal maneuver and e-mail petitions. On Aug. 22 Ursula Rozem and Amelia Ramsey-Lefevre interrupted President Obama’s speech at Henninger High School in Syracuse by raising a sign saying, “Free Bradley Manning,” and shouting, “President Obama, you must free Private Manning. With all due respect sir, Private Manning exposed war crimes. Private Manning exposed torture. Private Manning aided the public, not the enemy. Private Manning is a hero.” The two women were then escorted off the premises. They then issued a longer statement about why they had interrupted the president and detailed his record of prosecuting whistleblowers.]

[Update: Aug. 23] This article was written immediately after the sentencing, on Aug. 21. The next day, Manning provided a statement to the press, “As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.”  In future articles, Socialist Action will respect Chelsea Manning’s wishes, and refer to her using female pronouns.

Labour Day 2013 marred by unions bowing to austerity

And the downbeat goes on. In sector after sector, from auto to steel to forestry to railways to the Ontario and Federal Public Service, to the federal postal service, bosses usually get the concessions they demand from labour.
In the latest move, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union agreed with General Motors to organize special early retirement buyouts at its two assembly plants in Oshawa, Ontario. This is designed to accelerate the automaker’s drive to replace higher-paid veteran workers with workers earning low wages. Temporary workers will get about $10 per hour less than their counterparts, receive an inferior benefits program, and be barred from enrolling in the pension plan. New hires will begin work at $14 per hour below the regular-tier rate, will receive reduced benefits, and also will be ineligible to participate in the pension plan.
To supplement threats at the bargaining table there is the hammer of strike breaking law. Government back-to-work legislation in 2011 broke strikes in the railway, Air Canada, and at the post office, with scarcely a murmer from the labour movement tops. Union heads kept mass job action, urgently needed to counter the anti-labour coups, off the political agenda.
Unions in Canada now encompass 31 per cent of the work force, 9 per cent less than in 1983. Average wages are lower now than in a generation. Morale is even lower.
Some union leaders talk about confronting the threat of so-called ‘right to work’ laws (which would end compulsory deduction of union dues at pay source). Meanwhile they side-step the need to fight rollbacks in wages, benefits and pensions, and the insidious lower wage rate increasingly imposed on new hires. Such heinous measures undermine all workers’ (especially young workers’) confidence in unions.
Is the 30 year pattern of retreat by Labour due primarily to an inherent lack of self-confidence, to ingrained passivity, or to false consciousness on the part of working people? Are unions no longer suited to their task, as some academic ‘Marxists’ argue? Or does a sense of powerlessness simply feed off bureaucrats’ self-inflicted failures? Does Labour’s retreat arise from an aversion to struggle by union officials?
Plenty of evidence suggests that where a good, strong lead is offered, large numbers of people are willing to fight the austerity agenda of growing social inequality. The massive Quebec students’ uprising, the global Occupy protests, and the cross-Canada Idle No More movement testify to that. What’s lacking, especially at the top, is a will to fight, or even to allow the ranks to exercise the option.
Treachery, Authoritarianism undermine Teachers
In the teachers’ unions we find a particularly egregious example of class collaboration, and the strangulation of rank and file initiative.
Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association brass agreed to concessions before the Ontario Liberal government enacted Bill 115 (which suspended collective bargaining and the right to strike for education workers) – and did so without conducting a vote of OECTA members. Canadian Union of Public Employees-Ontario followed suit. Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation tops mounted token protest rallies, and simultaneously negotiated local concessionary deals. In York and Niagara districts, members voted in November to reject the deals that mirrored provincial take aways, despite heavy pressure from Federation headquarters to accept. In February 2013, OSSTF suspended its ‘political action’ protest (chiefly the boycott of extra-curricular activities, which impacted mostly on students and parents), and in April capitulated to the province’s demands, with minor tweaks. ETFO, the last holdout, gave way on June 13. Discouraged by the unravelling of what began as a common front of resistence to austerity, education workers ratified the deals. But scandal dogs the leaders who did the dirty deeds.
Outraged members of Toronto OSSTF are demanding accountability from the District 12 Executive which donated $30,000 to four candidates contending for the Ontario Liberal Party leadership.
And members’ indignation pursues former OSSTF President Ken Coran. Coran angrily denounced the Liberals for violating collective bargaining rights, right up to the front door of the Liberal Party leadership convention in February. Then Coran stood as a Liberal candidate in the byelections held on August 1. Was his candidacy a reward for services rendered?
As it turned out, Coran came a dismal, distant third in London West. The labour-based New Democratic Party surprised the pundits by winning that seat, and by making an even bigger breakthrough in Windsor-Tecumseh. The Conservatives captured Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and the Liberals retained Ottawa South, and Scarborough-Guildwood in Toronto. All five contested constituencies had been held by Liberal Cabinet Ministers. The loss of three is a serious blow to the scandal-plagued Liberal minority government at Queen’s Park, now reduced to 50 out of 107 seats, with Tories holding 37 and the NDP 20. Most observers expect the next Ontario-wide election will occur in Spring 2014.
While perpetrating treachery from on high, union officials curtail democracy below. The latest attack is a ten year ban on this writer from attending OSSTF meetings for the crime of speaking out of turn at a substitute teachers’ bargaining unit meeting in November 2012. At the time, I demanded job access data that the local executive (consisting mainly of double-dipping retirees) refused to disclose for 10 years!
A decade ago, OSSTF officials removed the entire elected leadership of the Toronto substitute teachers’ unit on petty and false charges, and put conservative retirees in control. The latter surrendered an array of job security, wage and benefit gains in short order. On July 25, activists from several unions launched a Campaign to Defend Democracy in Unions and to Rescind the 10 Year Ban. For more info, please visit:
The fact is that the teachers’ top brass, and most of the entire labour leadership, would rather suppress militant members than fight austerity-minded bosses. Bureaucrats put a premium on tight control — even if it means weakening workers’ resistence to an agenda that harms the vast majority, including ultimately themselves.
Going Forward
So, how can workers organize in a non-sectarian way to challenge both the bosses and the labour traitors? Fortunately, some positive examples exist, pointing the way forward.
In the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union, rank and file members organized a large and inspiring Solidarity Caucus. Its mission: to get OPSEU to rejoin the Ontario Federation of Labour, to which it stopped paying dues without good reason. The caucus attracted much support. It helped to elect reformers to the union’s Executive Board, but it did not win the re-affiliation battle at the April 2013 OPSEU convention. The campaign continues.
In OECTA, in March, convention delegates defeated and replaced the President who signed the bad deal and denied members a vote.
Meanwhile members of OSSTF and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario formed a cross-union caucus, the Rank and file Education Workers of Toronto. REWT initiated actions to protest government policies, and is now demanding accountability from officials who approved funding and other forms of collaboration with the governing party which attacked teachers’ rights.
And in the Toronto substitute teachers’ bargaining unit, the Action Caucus, which was launched in 2003 when local control was undemocratically usurped, has been increasingly successful at winning policy and action resolutions at unit meetings. It has come close to getting its candidates elected. The ten year ban reflects the bogus executive’s fear of losing control.
What do these experiences suggest?
  1. The fight against capitalist austerity and union concessions requires rank and file organization in all the unions to promote mass job action to win a Workers’ Agenda.
  2. Rank and file organization should be based on policies, not personalities. It should actively strive to replace the current mis-leaders on political grounds. Abstention from struggle in the union arena, or giving political support to this or that wing of the bureaucracy, are a betrayal of the fight against austerity and concessions.
  3. To change the overall direction of our unions, it is necessary to build a cross union, class struggle left wing. This has been the approach of revolutionary socialists in the unions in Canada and the USA since the 1920s, pioneered by the Trade Union Education League. The TUEL, which was active prior to the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist Party, provides an example that every worker-socialist should study.

Corporate Greed, Gov’t Collusion fueled train disaster

by Barry Weisleder
Lac-Mégantic fell victim to a deadly combination of greed, deregulation, and a mad rush for energy profits that devalued the environment and human life. Five years ago the small Quebec town was not even on the route for shipping ‘fracked’ shale oil from North Dakota. But since the boom in dirty, unconventional fuel, energy companies in pursuit of record profits are using a wide range of means to convey this oil to market. That includes rail. In 2009, companies shipped 500 carloads of crude oil by rail in Canada; this year, it will be 140,000. New oil-dedicated rail lines, truck routes and the use of barges on waterways are now under consideration. These are among the ways to get around the growing popular movement to block pipelines from the Alberta tar sands.
Thirty years of neoliberalism have fostered corporate recklessness. Ottawa, and other governments in Canada, and elsewhere, have freed the owners from environmental, labour and safety standards, and oversight. It opened the public sector for private profit-seeking.
The railway in Canada is a prime example. Through the mid 1980s, the publicly-run industry was highly regulated. But Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney enacted ‘reforms’ that deregulated the sector, and allowed companies to rewrite safety rules. What followed was an era of cost-cutting, massive lay-offs, speed-up on the job, and eventually, the full privatization of companies and rail-lines.
The Liberal government completed the transition by turning over what regulation remained to rail companies themselves. A rail safety report issued in 2007 concluded: Canada’s rail system was a disaster in waiting to happen.
It’s no wonder that today’s oil and rail barons so easily cut corners. They’ve been using old rail cars to ship oil, despite the fact that regulators warned the federal government they were unsafe, as far back as 20 years ago. A more recent report by a federal agency reminded the government that the cars could be “subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.” All were ignored. To top it off, the federal government gave the go-ahead last year to Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway to operate with just one engineer aboard their trains. In the 1970s, North American freight trains usually carried five-man crews constantly. As companies cut crews, workers competed for the scarcer jobs, which drove down wages – including, eventually, the wage of the one person left running the train.
The over-riding issue, beyond malfunctioning brakes or weak regulation, is the mad scramble for resources whose reckless exploitation dooms a fragile planet. The profit system is the culprit, driving the doomsday machine.
The road to meaningful change requires re-regulation of the industry, linked to public ownership under workers’ and community control, and a rapid transition towards green energy generation. That won’t come from any government enquiry, but only from a raucous social movement that forces it onto the public agenda.
The U.S. residents of Fairfield, Maine, 160 kilometres across the border from Lac-Megantic, Quebec, took up this challenge in July. Several got arrested blockading a train carrying North Dakota fracked oil to the refinery in New Brunswick, Canada. Their message was: End the reliance on oil.
The deaths of nearly 50 people in the July 6 train derailment and explosion touched a nerve, on a continental scale. It sent bureaucrats and politicians scurrying.
Canada’s Transportation and Safety Board called for an urgent review of railway safety procedures. It issued two safety advisories on July 19, echoing ignored recommendations from a 2011 Auditor General’s report. New Democratic Party transportation critic Olivia Chow demanded an emergency meeting of the House of Commons Transport Committee. Conservative MP Larry Miller, the committee chair, brushed aside her request.
In response to mounting pressure, the Conservative government, through Transport Canada, imposed a series of country-wide directives on July 23 which it claimed set more rigorous standards of brake application and procedures for leaving trains unattended. It also outlawed one-person crews, which were standard with Montreal, Maine and Atlantic. Meanwhile, Quebec police raided the headquarters of MM&A in Farnham, Que., after the firm failed to pay more than $4 million (as of July 30, close to $8 million) in disaster cleanup bills, forcing the town and the provincial government to pick up the tab.
Law suits, court challenges, enquiries and studies will, no doubt, drag on for years. Justice, however, will require more than those avenues have to offer.