Safer Railways Act [Northern Ontario History] – Charlie Angus M.P. Ontario, Timmins—James Bay (Hansard -May 1, 2012)

Charlie Angus’ commentary was given inside Canada’s Parliament on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 1:05 pm.

Mr. Speaker, it is always a great honour to rise in this House and speak on behalf of the people of Timmins—James Bay, a region that exists because of the railway.

It is also important to talk about this bill on safer railways at a time when we have so many issues facing railways in Canada. It is clear that if we look at the simple test for whether government has vision, whether government understands the issue of infrastructure, whether government has a forward-looking vision, we look no further than rail. Rail has been the kicking dog of Liberal and Conservative governments looking to squeeze it, to undermine it, to so-called privatize it, and we have seen a continuing loss of service while the rest of the world moves forward with smart high-speed rail.

Just this past February, when the VIA Rail train derailed at Burlington, we had three people killed and 42 passengers injured. We see the $200 million in cuts that are coming to VIA Rail now under the Conservatives. We see the undermining of rail links in important jurisdictions across rural Canada like Churchill, Manitoba. We see the government’s complete lack of interest in the importance of a high-speed rail corridor that would connect Windsor to Quebec City through our densest populations and allow people who are pretty much trapped because of the density of traffic in the suburban regions of this country to be able to move at a reasonable rate.

However, nowhere do we see it more than in the deliberate dismantling of the Ontario Northland railway by a government that, if we look up “myopic” in the dictionary, there Dalton McGuinty would be. Let us talk about the Ontario Northland as an example of the failure of federal and provincial governments to address railway services. I know he is a good friend of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but I hope the Minister of Foreign Affairs does not mind my castigating his friend in the House of Commons.

The story of the Ontario Northland is interesting because at the turn of the last century Queen’s Park had zero interest in the land that was north of the French River. It did not have any desire to spend a dime on it until it found out that Father Paradis and the Oblates were bringing francophone settlers over Lake Timiskaming to settle into Ontario and suddenly the good Orange Protestant burghers of Queen’s Park were outraged. They had to find a way to get anglophones up into land that was being settled by francophones. That was the only time they ever wanted to spend money in northern Ontario. So they decided they would push a rail line north of Lake Timiskaming.

However, as the workers were getting to Lake Timiskaming, at mile 103, they hit the largest silver deposits that had ever been found there. They were found by railwaymen, Fred Larose, Mr. McKinley and Mr. Darragh. Suddenly Queen’s Park thought that maybe there was a use to northern Ontario and that it would go up and find all the resources it could and take them out. That has been pretty much the colonial relationship between northern Ontario and southern Ontario ever since.

It transformed the economy of Ontario, in particular Toronto. Toronto was a sleepy backwater at the time of the silver rush in Cobalt. However, so much investment money was coming in from the United States and from London that they needed a place to set up, so they set up in Toronto because the train line got them within six hours of the biggest rush since the Klondike. That ease of access on the train transformed economic development, so Toronto established itself and it still has that claim today as the largest centre for international capital for mining exploration in the world. That started from that rail line.

Out of Cobalt, the prospectors went north. They went to Val d’Or in the east and as far as Red Lake in the west because they knew there was a value to the land. So the Ontario Northland railway was set up as a development corridor and all the communities were built along that.

Now fast forward 100 years and the Ontario Northland still plays that important role. It is not just with trains, not just with buses. We have the role of telecommunications to isolated small communities that would otherwise pay exorbitant rates so they are now under Ontario.

A few weeks ago, we had a flood in Fort Albany up on the James Bay coast and the flood separated the community from the mainland. People were contacting me and saying they had run out of food. They needed to get food up there, so we spoke with the Cochrane food bank and we managed to secure 1,200 pounds of food to get into Fort Albany, and we did that through my office.

The question then was how to get 1,200 pounds of food to Fort Albany in the middle of the flood crisis. We called Ontario Northland and said, “We need you to move 1,200 pounds of freight to help this community in need”. Ontario Northland said, “Get it to the freight yard in Cochrane tomorrow. We will get it to Moosonee. That is the end of the rail line; from there, you figure out how to get there”. We managed to work with Air Creebec and we got it in.

When we asked Ontario Northland, it was not even a question of whether they would get paid to help one of our communities in northern Ontario. They did it as a public service because they are there for the public. I want to commend the excellent work that Ontario Northland did in that situation, as they have done time and time again in the past.

The rail plays an important role, and it is fascinating that the Liberal government in Ontario has decided that public transit is something it does not invest in if it is rural public transit, that it is not right to subsidize public transit if rural people use public transit. In an urban area it is implicitly understood that there will be some kind of support, because public transit is not about making profit, it is about offering a public service.

We see the McGuinty government exaggerate the numbers. Every time there is an investment in the Ontario Northland, it claims that is a subsidy. How could anybody run a province if they figured that every time they had to make an investment, they were somehow subsidizing the province, subsidizing the people? The fact is that this is an investment, just like highways. Governments never say they are subsidizing the highways.

However, work needs to be done to ensure safe corridors, because we have had accidents on the Ontario Northland railway. South of Temagami about 12 years ago, acid tankers overturned. We need to invest just as we need to invest in roads, yet there seems to be a double standard that says it is okay to invest in highways—even though there is not much investing in highways in northern Ontario—but it is not okay to invest in freight.

In northern Ontario, on the Ontario Northland Railway, we are moving thousands of tonnes of freight a day and we are moving passengers. It plays a unique role. Beside that, we have two-lane traffic running through some of the roughest rock cuts in Canada, and it happens to be the Trans-Canada Highway. It is the trucker route across Canada. In January, I do not know how many times I have sat at North Bay, unable to go north because some poor driver has hit a rock cut or hit passengers, yet beside it we have a perfectly safe rail system

The government’s solution is that it will save a few bucks somehow along the way by getting rid of that rail service and putting the freight and the passengers onto the two-lane ribbon of moose pasture that runs through northern Ontario. Somehow that will be more efficient.

Perhaps most galling was Mr. McGuinty’s assistant in northern Ontario, Rick the anti-minister of northern Ontario Bartolucci. Their explanation is that the reason they are cutting out the development corridor and allowing it to be cherry-picked by the private sector, who will take this or that but leave the rest to fall apart, is that they will reinvest it in health care.

Northern Ontarians has seen a lot of dubious mining deals over the years. They are not saps and they know that people in Kirkland Lake, Cochrane, Iroquois Falls, Timmins, New Liskeard, Englehart or North Bay who are getting cancer treatments have to go down on the train to get medical services. I do not know how many families I have seen on the Ontario Northlander with a sick child going down to SickKids for cancer treatment. They can travel on the train because it is at least comfortable for the family.

Dalton McGuinty tells us, “Do not worry. We are going to put those sick kids on a bus, and you are going to get better service.”

People in the north know better. They remember how just last year the ONTC—and I do not blame it for this, because it was getting no support for offering public transit in the north—was actually trying to save money by excluding going into some of the most major communities on the route because the ONTC does not have enough money to serve the public.

When we talk about development of the rail lines and talk about safety, it is about an investment. It is fascinating that the McGuinty government is looking to rip up the rails and ditch the Northern Ontario Development Corporation at a time when the Ring of Fire is about to be developed.

The Ring of Fire will be the largest mining development perhaps in the last half century, perhaps in the last century. The fundamental question is this. Getting access to this ore comes from rail, so if they are going to rip up the lines and get rid of the development corridor, is this all about a plan to take unprocessed ore and ship it off by truck to China?

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