Canada

The national nightmare

SUZANNE ZWARUN,JULIANNE LABRECHE June 12 1978
Canada

The national nightmare

SUZANNE ZWARUN,JULIANNE LABRECHE June 12 1978

The national nightmare

THE PRAIRIES

Death sentence was passed on Schuler, a tiny Alberta hamlet 35 miles northeast of Medicine Hat, in the early 1970s when Canadian Pacific announced it intended to abandon the town’s rail line. The rails were shaky and choked with weeds, the speed limit was down to 10 miles per hour, and CP had no interest in spending money to spruce things up. However, Schuler’s 130 residents took their case to the Emmett Hall Commission on Grain and Rail in Western Canada. The briefs pleading for the rail link—presented by everyone from school kids to the area mp—brought at least a temporary reprieve.

The five-man commission, when it filed its report a year ago, did not declare Schuler’s fate, but lumped it into a 2,344-mile grey category of branch lines that should be dealt with later. Schuler, living on tenterhooks ever since, finally heard from the newly created Prairie Rail Action Committee (PRAC) this spring. The federal government will pour $500,000 into reconditioning the 6.8-mile line.

While Schuler rejoices, communities north and west of Brandon, Manitoba, are sunk in gloom. The Hall commission recommended killing off 284 miles of branch lines there; orders to do so went out May 16 and abandonments will start July 31. “It’s a hard pill for local people to swallow,” says A. M. (Mac) Runciman, president of the United Grain Growers in Win-

nipeg. “The farmer who has lived half a mile from the elevator all his life thinks the sky has fallen.”

Win or lose, westerners are at least relieved that somebody is finally making some firm decisions in the wake of the Hall report. People in grain production feel Hall’s recommendations for a permanent rail network have been confirmed and that

PRAC is moving quickly to tidy up the branch lines left in limbo by the grain and rail commission.

However, the branch line controversy is only one small aspect of the Hall report.

Transport Minister Lang, who calls former chief justice Hall “an old friend, colleague and teacher,” appointed him in the spring of 1975 to deal with a whole range of long-standing prairie transportation concerns. During the two-year, $1.8-million study, Hall held hearings in 77 communities, attracting some 15,000 people. And the government, which evidently hoped Hall would come through with some simple, fair recommendations on the fate of 6,322 miles of prairie branch lines, also got the whole indigestible meal of prairie alienation handed to them in his 545-page report. Everything complained about by Western premiers at the 1973 Western Economic Opportunities Conference in Calgary was again served up to the government, accompanied by a side order of 92 recommendations from Hall. The commission found that the Prairie provinces have been victimized by discriminatory freight rates from the beginning.

If sliced bread is the closest most eastern Canadians get to grain, the report was hailed in the West as a farmer’s manifesto. By last fall, however, the Western premiers were disenchanted with the federal government’s progress in implementing the report. Hall himself has now piled into the fray, charging the government has virtually ignored his work: By the opposition’s count, the government has accepted only seven or eight of his recommendations, 20 more are under study and the rest have been ignored or discarded.

AÍ Beattie of the Alberta Wheat Pool is

one of the West’s pragmatists. “We didn’t expect miracles,” he says. “We wanted a defined rail network and we seem to be getting it.” As for the rest, western opinion falls somewhere between opposition demands for Lang’s resignation and Lang’s contention that “we have carried out very effectively and very fully most of the important recommendations of the Hall commission.”

SUZANNE ZWARUN / JULIANNE LABRECHE