Ralph Goodale stood and painted a picture of chaos on Canada’s railways. “Grain shipments to the west coast are months behind. Forty ships are stalled in English Bay, costing millions in demurrage. Grain handling and transportation failures have driven prairie prices down by 40 per cent,” he opened, painting a picture of multifaceted madness from rural Saskatchewan all the way to Vancouver’s harbour.
Goodale, an MP from Saskatchewan who’s spent much of the last 40 years in some form of public office, wasn’t speaking in hyperbole. These days, oil sands producers rely on railways to ship crude out of Alberta, and that has consequences for traffic on the rails. Keith Bruch, vice president of operations at Paterson GlobalFoods Inc., lamented the impact of oil on grain shipping. “It’s looking more and more that grain is becoming second choice to oil,” he told Bloomberg. Farmers produced a hefty bumper crop last year, and much of that grain remains in the prairies.
Goodale’s ask: “Will the Minister of Transport require the railways to lease locomotive power and rolling stock for grain? Will she require grain companies to publish their export volumes to justify their grain-check deductions? And will she take direct responsibility for getting some coordination into a chaotic system that has clearly failed?” Fair questions, right?
What followed counts as a beautiful exercise in spin. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz opened with a classic Tory counterattack: criticize the former Liberal government, just because.
“Let me recap what the member opposite did during his time when there were logistics challenges: nothing. Absolutely nothing,” said Ritz. “What we’ve done, Mr. Speaker, is continue to work with industry, with the grain sector, with the railways and so on. We tell everybody that they’ve got to step up their game.”
Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, eat your heart out. The Tories know how to inspire industry. Next, Ritz explained to Speaker Andrew Scheer, himself a Saskatchewan MP, that congestion on the rails is just an unfortunate byproduct of smart Conservative policy. “Of course, we’ve got the largest crop in history, Mr. Speaker. Thanks in part to the changes at the Canadian Wheat Board, farmers seeded two million more acres of wheat than they ever did before.” No mention of the good weather that blessed the broad prairie, only that magical market freedom for wheat farmers.
Ritz ended on a note of some reassurance. “There is global demand. Yes, there are logistical challenges, Mr. Speaker. But the Minister of Transport and myself have talked to all of the proponents throughout the supply chain, saying they’ve got to pick up their game. We’re expecting those negotiations to bear fruit very soon, Mr. Speaker,” he finished. “Very soon” isn’t all that reassuring, but if nothing else, that vague timeline counts as an honest conclusion to an otherwise masterful piece of spin.