The last of the “hook shacks” has tumbled in the Crowsnest Pass. Later this year, the debris of the big brick house near the former town of Blairmore, Alta., will be buried under a new highway. But a few hundred bricks will survive. They have been gathered up by Helen Maxwell and Kathleen Kerr and are being sold, at $5 each, as mementoes of the house that, from 1920 to 1954, was home to some of the prostitutes who once did brisk business in the Crowsnest Pass, CP Rail’s southern route through the Rockies. The brothel was a little outside of town, a lot outside of the law and, says Maxwell, a schoolteacher and long-term resident, its bricks are historic, “symbolic of broken homes, broken hearts, broken virginity.”
The bricks might just as well symbolize the broken minds of almost a century’s worth of Canadians who have tried to grapple with a transportation system that moved prostitutes well enough but isn’t, today, moving grain with 20th-century efficiency. The problem of the Crowsnest Pass rail rates has split the federal cabinet, fractured western solidarity and is disproving the old song that claims the farmer and the cowman can be friends. And while they all wait for some sort of consensus to emerge, Canadian grain exports are faltering as the world market grows.
Hundreds of farmers have been jetting to Ottawa this year to argue their proposals for “the Crow,” but it was hard-rock miners who started it all. By the 1890s, gold, silver, lead and zinc mining camps dotted southeastern B.C., and if Canada didn’t move out the wealth Americans would. By 1897, the miners had arm-twisted Ottawa into striking a deal with Canadian Pacific— a new rail line for a bargain rate on grain.
The railway that carried miners, lumberjacks and ladies of the night from Lethbridge, Alta., to Nelson, B.C., still snakes through the Crowsnest Pass. But if the girls, the guys and most of the mines are relics of the past, the Crowsnest freight rates still ensure that the railways are transporting grain at 1899 rates. That was the deal. In return for a $3.4-million railway-building subsidy, CP Rail agreed to let Ottawa fix certain rates forever. The 1899 rates for grain and flour were cemented at a half-cent a ton per mile and extended to all railways in the Railway Act of 1925.
According to legend, CP Rail didn’t grow perturbed about the Crow until the 1950s when a programmer tried feeding Crow data into one of the country’s first computers. The computer pinpointed what head office executives in Montreal’s Windsor Station had only suspected—CP Rail was losing money on the Crow. Inflation widened the “Crow gap” so that it now costs CP Rail and CN three to six times more than what the railway is paid to move grain to the Lakehead, Vancouver, Prince Rupert and Churchill—an estimated $335-million loss to the railways this year. Although the railways have lobbied for years to get off the Crow skewer, western farmers declared the Crow the Magna Carta of the Prairies, their price for agreeing to enter Confederation. Only when the grain-handling system disintegrated into near chaos did farmers begin to listen to the railways’ argument that service would continue to deteriorate as long as the Crow losses continued.
This might be the year that the two strike a new bargain—relinquishing the “holy Crow” for better service. But
first, three brawling factions of farmers and three strangely silent western governments must agree on what changes to make. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is leaving them to their own devices. He wouldn’t, he said last month, have “the folly or the courage” to tamper with the Crow until the West was agreed.
The Prairie Farm Commodity Coalition (PFCC), author of one solution to the impasse, says “no one questions the crisis facing our grain industry, due almost entirely to our inability to move grain to export.” The PFCC points out that Canada’s share of the world grain market has shrunk to 18 per cent from 50 per cent early in the century. Wheat exports 50 years ago were double those of the U.S.; now U.S. exports are double Canada’s. Between 1975 and ’78, the increase in U.S. corn and soybean exports was 779 million bushels, almost equal Canada’s one-year record grain export. But if no one questions the need to improve the transportation system, tampering with the Crow is still tantamount to political suicide in some circles.
The National Farmers Union (NFU), a declining but still potent farm voice, marched 200 members to Ottawa last week to drive home its demand that the Crow be retained as is and CP Rail (like CN) be nationalized. But two other groups have finally come around to seeing the railways’ argument. The Western Agricultural Conference (WAC), an umbrella group encompassing the three Prairie wheat pools, provincial farm federations and the United Grain Growers, tackled the Crow at an annual meeting in January, 1980, and, during an all-night executive bull session in a Regina hotel room, came up with a proposal. The WAC solution would have the producer continue to pay the Crow rate while the railways’ losses would be paid directly to them by the federal government. On the other
hand, the Commodity Coalition, including the Palliser Wheat Growers, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the rapeseed, barley and flax growers’ associations, would have the producer pay the rate that covers the railway’s costs, with the increase over the Crow paid back to farmers by Ottawa on a seeded acreage basis.
The western governments are both split and silent. With an election looming, Manitoba won’t say anything until Ottawa does. Alberta is in favor of changing the Crow but hasn’t said specifically how. Saskatchewan doesn’t agree with any of the suggestions.
The split is due both to the different interests of different kinds of farmers and to their varying perceptions of what comes after Crow. Bill Marshall, second vice-president of the 73,000member Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and a member of WAC, says if the Crow gap were paid directly to farmers, “we’re concerned that it might be done away with down the road.” If it were paid to the railways, the government could wield it as a stick to improve service. He gets unexpected support from Jack Lumax of Swan River, Man., president of the Manitoba Canola (rapeseed) Growers Association, a member of the PFCC. “Joe Public would just attack it as another farmer subsidy. I think it should go directly to the railways.” But Lumax falls into line with the Commodity Coalition on jettisoning the Crow rates. “The biggest problem is that they don’t apply to everything [that’s shipped] and so they distort the economy. They lead to discrimination against processing on the Prairies. Rapeseed comes under the Crow, but its refined products don’t, so it’s cheaper to ship the raw product east, refine it, then pay to have it shipped back. That’s what we’re fighting. We’re looking at the long-term viability of western manufacturing.” In fact, the western meatpacking and livestock industry has long blamed its declining fortunes on the Crow because it moves grain east cheaply, making it feasible to raise beef and hogs in Ontario and Quebec.
Somehow, the deadlock must be broken. Transport Minister Jean-Luc Pepin has tried to urge consensus by warning of future bottlenecks and freight rationing if the Crow is not settled. But even the federal cabinet can’t agree. Senator Hazen Argue—a western minister—is leading those opposed to change. Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan was pro-change but now seems to be backing away.
By 1985, Canadian grain movements are supposed to increase a whopping 50 per cent, but because of railway reluctance to invest in new rolling stock for such low-rate traffic, Ottawa, Alberta and Saskatchewan have already had to buy 14,000 hopper cars to help keep the grain rolling. So unless something is done about the Crow rate, farmers demanding change predict that all the country’s freight cars will be taken up by potash, sulphur and coal—the profitable products. “What I’m afraid is going to happen,” says the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool’s Marshall, “is that we’ll have a whole bunch of ad hoc policies, a hodge-podge again. Somebody will put a Band-Aid on here and another BandAid on there, and we won’t end up with an adequate transportation policy that will move the increased demand.”
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