Last stand for the Crow

Carol Goar October 17 1983

Last stand for the Crow

Carol Goar October 17 1983

Last stand for the Crow

Carol Goar


From the age of about 10, when they begin to help their fathers take the grain to the elevator, Saskatchewan children learn all about “the Crow.” As they listen to the wheat farmers playing cribbage at the elevator, they gradually discover the historic antipathy between farmers and railways as they both struggled to settle the West. They find out that Westerners won their only real victory against the railways 86 years ago when Sir Wilfrid Laurier made an historic deal with the Canadian Pacific Railway. Laurier promised CPR the money it needed to build a transcontinental line if, in turn, it promised to carry prairie wheat from western farmers to the sea or lake ports at the same low rate-forever. As a result, when the federal Liberals announced last year that they would seek to abolish Laurier’s famous “Crow Rate,” Westerners saw it not just as an attack on their livelihood but as a dramatic human issue as well.

But human drama is decidedly missing from the Crow Rate debate that now grips Parliament. As Bill C-155 raising the transportation costs for western farmers moved into its final stages last week, the debate had became little more than a succession of procedural wrangles and jargon-riddled speeches. Many Liberals view the debate as the last bat-

tle in the longest-running Parliament in Canadian history. For their parts the Conservatives and New Democrats, consider the issue to be the death knell of the Liberals in Western Canada. By week’s end, the only drama in the issue was the prospect that the two opposition parties might resort to boycotting the House to prevent passage of the bill. Conservative transport critic Donald Mazankowski, for one, was saddened by the tone of the debate. “We have forgotten that it is not just a freight rate bill; it is an issue that goes to the very heart of this nation’s social and economic fabric.”

Alvin Hamilton, a history teacher before he joined the Tory government of John Diefenbaker, said too many royal commissions and inquiries studying the Crow have stripped the issue of its emotional impact. Mazankowski said economists seem to have snatched the debate away from farmers and politicians. And Leonard Gustafson, a farmer-turnedConservative MP from the southern Saskatchewan riding of Assiniboia, said the issue may simply be too complex and troublesome for easterners to give it serious consideration. “When you grow up on the Prairies, you learn about the Crow by osmosis,” he said. “But when I came East, I was surprised at how many lawyers in Parliament could not figure it out.”

Indeed, the debate has shifted focus

so often, since it began in earnest 18 months ago, that a parliamentarian virtually needs a billboard to keep track of who stands where. More than 200 interest groups, ranging from the British Columbia Roadbuilders to the Lutheran Church, have offered the government their views. The federal government has revised its position several times. And the Conservatives disagreed among themselves for most of the debate until their new leader, Brian Mulroney, insisted last month on a united stand. Meanwhile, the provincial governments of Saskatchewan and Alberta are at odds on the issue and farmers disagree with cattlemen.

Despite the diversity of views the basic issues at stake are fairly simple. The government insists that the Crow is a costly relic of a past era. The New Democrats argue that the Crow agreement is an unbreakable bargain between the federal government and western farmers. And the Conservatives concede that the Crow probably needs to be changed, but want to delay the decision for three years. All the participants in the debate agree that there will never be an ideal solution to the Crow dilemma. When former transport minister Jean-Luc Pepin launched his crusade to change the Crow in early 1982, he made it clear that he was only seeking the best possible compromise—not the perfect solution. He admitted that the gov-

ernment’s plan was “a second best.” That plan, which is likely to dominate Parliament’s schedule for the next few weeks, is an attempt to eradicate 86 years of low statutory freight rates once and for all for Ottawa and the railways. The minister now responsible for getting it through Parliament is Lloyd Axworthy, who has been in the transport portfolio less than two months. Unlike Pepin, Axworthy is a westerner—the only elected one in Trudeau’s cabinet. And unlike his predecessor, he seems to relish his task. “This bill means new jobs in every part of Canada, new trade opportunities and an expanded base of economic growth,” declared Axworthy. “It offers hope for Canadians—be they livestock producers in Manitoba, coal miners in British Columbia or railway workers in Quebec.”

The bill contains three basic elements:

•Freight rates paid by farmers would double by 1985 and increase five-fold by 1991. As a result, farmers would pay 60 per cent of the actual cost of getting their grain to market as opposed to the current 20 per cent.

•The federal government would pay an annual subsidy of $651 million to Canadian Pacific Ltd. and Canadian National Railways for the next 10 years to allow them to undertake a massive modernization of the western rail system, including double-tracking through the Rockies.

•The federal government would guarantee farmers that transportation charges will never be allowed to exceed 10 per cent of the world price of grain.

The obvious beneficiaries of the legislation are Canada’s railways. They insist that the plan represents “no big bonanza,” but merely the rectification

of a historical injustice. As Frederick Burbidge, chairman and chief executive officer of Canadian Pacific Ltd., told an all-party committee studying the legislation last summer, “The present bill is a response to reality. But it will produce a rate that will be found to be very much on the low side when compared to a truly compensatory range of rates.” That statement angered the Conservatives. “This is clearly a sweetheart deal for the railroads,” said Mazankowski. The Tories complain that the Liberals have accepted as truth a number of questionable assumptions made by the railways. The are convinced that the carriers have built overly generous profit calculations into their cost estimates. As well, they want better guarantees from the rail companies that they will actually make all the promised improvements in their western network. “I think we should have some assur-

ance of the railways’ performance in return,” Mazankowski said.

For its part, the government argues that the debate has already dragged on for hundreds of hours and that time is running short. Axworthy said that if the railways do not soon get the money they need, their network will become so overburdened and out-of-repair that farmers will face difficulty getting their grain to port. Still, the rail companies’ own statements raise doubts about the urgency of the situation. “I am not aware of any complaints anywhere in the system at the moment,” Ronald Lawless, president of Canadian National’s rail division, told a parliamentary committee studying the bill. “However,” he added, “when the economy returns to normal levels, I am sure that, without the means of increasing our capacity in Western Canada, we probably would have difficulty in moving all the

tonnage that is available to us, including grain.”

Almost lost in all the political rhetoric of the past few weeks is the fact that a fascinating chapter of Canadian history is about to end. Laurier’s bargain with the railways in 1897 was one of the blocks on which the nation was built. The CPR line led to the settlement of the West and the birth of western Canada’s flourishing agricultural economy. It was a bargain that served four generations of Western farmers well. In fact, it became such a pillar of Prairie life that schoolteachers in the 1930s trained their young pupils to recite, on command. “The Crow Rate is half-acent-per-ton-per-mile FOREVER.” The louder they sang out the word “forever,” the more their teachers applauded.

The House of Commons will likely put the Crow to rest formally, by the end of the month with a minimum of emotion and drama. But its real farewell ceremony took place in Regina last August. A committee of MPs arrived in the provincial capital to hear one last statement on the issue by the province’s farmers. As the hearing began, three tractors circled the hotel where the meeting was taking place. Dozens of farmers in tractor caps, wearing Tshirts that read “Keep the Crow,’’gathered for the event. And Wayne Easter, president of the National Farmers’ Union, supplied the epitaph for the Crow. “The ribbon of steel originally envisioned as a means of binding this country together has now been transformed into an instrument of alienation,” he told his audience. It was an eloquent—if angry—goodbye from Canada’s unhappy western farmers.