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A 'Heartland' City in Revolt

In Prince George, even a key supporter of the BC Rail privatization calls the provincial government's communication effort "pathetic." And the backlash is getting noisier by the day.

By Chris Tenove 14 Nov 2003 | TheTyee.ca

Chris Tenove is a journalist and broadcaster based in Vancouver. He writes for magazines such as The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest, and Maclean’s, and produces radio documentaries for CBC and the Radio Netherlands World Service. He is a contributing editor for The Tyee. For more information, see www.tenove.com.

Prince George on Sunday night. The downtown streets are four lanes across and empty except for the wind. A lone person dashes across the road to his idling car, pizza in hand. I circle a few more blocks and a young woman in a thin beige jacket detaches herself from the wall of the Prince George Hotel. She knocks on my window: Am I looking for a joint? A date?

What I want to ask is: Where is everyone?

Then I find the Tandoori Restaurant. Inside there are 60 people; all the women are dressed in saris and the men are at separate tables, talking loudly over beer. A little kid hides under my table and snickers while his friends hunt for him. What we have here is a party, but it's a bittersweet one: family and friends have gathered to wish Bobby Pahal goodbye. He's taking his family to Surrey.

His brother Sam Pahal, the family patriarch, leans against the bar and watches over the crowded room. "Yes, the B.C. Rail, it is a very complicated issue," he says when I bring it up. "Everyone is worried what will happen. First, the government lied when they said they weren't going to privatize BC Rail. Politicians will say what they need to say to get elected, I know this. But now, does the government have a vision, or are they just cutting costs? Will we lose more jobs?

"People will always leave for the bright lights of Vancouver, or when the economy is bad," he continues, "but I've been here 31 years. I believe in this community. I want my family to stay here."

BC Rail is on a lot of minds in Prince George. Any day now, the provincial government is expected to announce the name of the company it has chosen to manage the railway for the next 30 years. There is the feeling that if citizens are to have any say in the future of the railway, that time is now.

Across town tonight, the nucleus of opposition to privatization is preparing for tomorrow's Big Event: the November 3rd rally at City Hall, followed by a city council debate over whether to request a halt to BC Rail privatization. The group - which has strong union support - is working out rally logistics, making placards, and predicting which councillors will vote for or against the motion.

Communities in the Interior and the North are increasingly doubtful that the provincial government has their best interests and mind. Here in Prince George, they've decided that quiet negotiations in Victoria won't cut it. They've decided to make some noise.

When I leave the Tandoori Restaurant, Bobby Pahal and family are winding down their last party in Prince George. Outside it is wincing cold. On the horizon around town there are clouds of steam from the pulp mills, coloured orange by the city lights--the plumes look like fires from an army that has the town under siege.

'People are the Opposition'

Dan Thorne has one of those faces that expresses worry well. His forehead creases up, his eyes are troubled and darting. It's 15 degrees below and he's worried that people will stay home rather than attend this Monday night rally. Thorne is a 24-year BC Rail employee and the local point man for the union's anti-privatization campaign. He's a bulky, muscular guy, who a colleague calls the Gentle Giant. (The colleague then describes the week he spent pestering Thorne, until one day Thorne grabbed his collar with one hand and lifted him two feet off the ground. "Donny said 'Cut it out,' " the colleague remembered, "and I agreed that this was reasonable.")

Thorne, who is already red-eyed from exhaustion, believes that tonight's events must take the place of a strong elected opposition. "I think the only opposition now in the province is the people of British Columbia," he says. "We need to take action like tonight and form large groups and get town councils on our side." Then he remembers that the city council vote tonight is up in the air, and the creases on his forehead deepen.

By six o'clock a crowd has gathered in front of city hall, stamping their feet and rubbing hands in the cold. There are maybe 800 people present (it's tough to tell in the dark), and they hold up a thicket of anti-privatization signs. It's a big crowd for Prince George; the fate of BC Rail is an issue that cuts across the city.

Railway a fragile thread

 

For much of the last century, BC Rail has been the stitching that held the province together, binding communities and economies as well as hauling out timber and coal. The railway links Prince George to fellow Northern and Interior communities, towns like Fort Nelson, Quesnel, Fort St. James, and Lillooet. It is also a link between the Interior and the Lower Mainland, a connection that many here feel is tenuous.

So there is heritage and identity at play in the debate about BC Rail -- but Prince Georgians are practical people, and most of the talk is about economics. A recent survey by the BC Federation of Labour found that 69 per cent of residents believe the Prince George economy will be hurt by schemes to privatize the railway. Not only does the railway employ 400 people in town, paying out $20 million, it spends another $20 million at local businesses. Four hundred local businesses and citizens took out a full-page an ad in the Prince George Citizen, telling Campbell not to sell or privatize BC Rail.

Victoria hasn't done a good job of convincing Prince George of its plan. Over the weekend Transportation Minister Judith Reid, as well as MLAs Pat Bell and Shirley Bond, have just visited testy city councillors.

But for the Liberals to get any traction in town, they will have to overcome a keen sense of betrayal. Shortly before the 1996 election, Gordon Campbell announced that a Liberal government would privatize BC Rail. Many credit that statement with his party's loss that year, and after the elections Campbell publicly announced that he'd learned his lesson. Before the 2001 election he stated that the railway would not be privatized or sold.

So there are howls of indignation from the crowd in front of City Hall when Ron East, a local businessman and head of the Prince George Committee to Save BC Rail, takes the stage and says: "Gordon Campbell, you lied to us!"

"You broke your word, not just to those of us who worked to get you elected," shouts East, who was co-chairman of the campaign to elect Liberal MLA Pat Bell, "but you also broke your word with your voters, your MLAs, and many municipal councils throughout our province.

"You have no mandate, no moral right to sell off a major asset of the province without the approval of its shareholders!"

Strange allies

 

As East speaks I scan the crowd. One man sticks out. He's standing ramrod straight, wearing a neat black trench coat, and his smile grows as the crowd gets more worked up. His face seems to catch more light than the people around him, the mark of someone used to wielding charisma like a weapon. I came to B.C. in 1997 and have never seen this man, but I am sure this must be Bill Vander Zalm. A few minutes later he takes the stage.

"I never thought I'd share the platform with the BC Federation of Labour," the Zalm begins, and the crowd cheers--there is, of course, no sweeter sight than a former enemy defending your cause.

"It tells us that we all share the same concerns," he continues. "What is at risk is not just jobs. Instead of the people of the province having some say of how we develop the economic opportunities here, it'll be someone in Montreal or in the U.S., dictating what's best not for us but for themselves. This particular asset is one of the few things left that gives us a little sovereignty."

The rally ends when a BC Rail conductor takes the stage and shouts "All aboard to the council." The crowd surges into City Hall and packs the council chambers and two outer rooms where proceedings can be watched on closed-circuit monitors. The energy of the rally is now a bubbling excitement, the chanting crowd somewhat calmed by decorum and warmth.

Still, it's a feistier audience than usual for council meetings. During an agonizing debate over whether to let Ron East address the council, the crowd expresses itself through mutterings and little hisses of disapproval. When East is granted permission to speak there is a muffled sound of hurrahs and clapping from the two outer rooms.

'Like it or not'

Mayor Colin Kinsley, who has consistently spoken out in support of the province's stand on BC Rail, glares out at the crowd and intones, "We don't allow cheering and signs of emotion."

The crowd boos.

"I'm serious," he says, his face in a grimace that will last much of the night. "I am perfectly ready to clear these rooms."

East takes the floor hits the major points of the anti-privatization argument: BC Rail is doing a good job and is now turning a profit, it would be dangerous to surrender important infrastructure to a private company with distant owners, and the communities most affected by a changeover have not been consulted.

"There has been no opportunity for public to debate the effects of a change to communities where BC Rail operates," East says. "Why is there such a rush to dispose of what British Columbians have built since start of the last century? What's wrong with taking two years out of this century to develop a new model for BC Rail? We must take the time to do it right."

East also takes exception to the possibility that CN might take over the railway, giving them a monopoly over rail transport in the province. "If the idea is to improve competition," East asks, "why is CN even being allowed to make a bid? It doesn't make sense." Since then, rumours that CN's bid is favoured have become news reports that it's a done deal.

After East, the chairman of the Western Canadian Shippers' Coalition gets up to speak. The vibe in the room changes--it is obvious that for most people here, Ian May is playing the role of the villain. They listen impatiently as he explains why BC Rail is in dire straits and how the forest companies are threatened.

"This information is coming from the forest companies that know it best," May concludes. "In terms of folks having a place in their hearts for BC Rail, I understand that. But this is an issue where economics are going to prevail, whether we like it or not."

There is no applause when he finishes.

Sending a message

At last, the council turns to Brian Skakun's motion to demand a halt to BC Rail privatization. Skakun is a steam engineer in a local mill, a square-jawed and bull-shouldered guy who seems out of place in a suit addressing the council. But he makes his intent very clear. "We in the north have taken an economic beating from the government with job losses, downloading, privatization, and lack of support," he says. "This motion, if it passes, will help send a message to our provincial counterparts, that enough is enough."

The debate lasts two hours. Councillors have obviously done some soul-searching, and they're eager to pull out their speaking notes and elaborate.

Mayor Kinsley sits on his dais and watches. He's the only one in the chambers with an inside track on the province's decisions, and he's likely aware that nothing that happens tonight will affect them. When I go to speak to him the next day, in his corner office on the fifth floor of City Hall, he will argue that some privatization is inevitable, and that his priority has been to ensure that the integrity of the rail line is maintained and that possible benefits to Prince George are pursued. He admits that the province has done a poor job of arguing their case. "The provincial government communication on this has been absolutely pathetic," he says. "If there was ever an example of how not to communicate on a public policy, this has been it.... Maybe [Prince George town] council hasn't been as well informed about this as they should have been. I may be partly to blame for that."

The debate in city council finishes and Mayor Kinsley calls for the vote on a resolution that reads, in part, "the City of Prince George [will] call upon the Government of British Columbia to immediately institute a two year moratorium on the sale of BC Rail; and that during that period the government initiate full public discussions about the future of BC Rail."

Hands go into the air and the audience quickly sees that only three - including the mayor - are against it. There is a brief, shocked hush and a smattering of applause.

"OK, you've earned it," Kinsley announces. "You can cheer."

The crowd whoops and hollers out of the chambers and into the cold night.

Chris Tenove, who has contributed to the National Post, CBC Radio, The Globe and Mail, Maclean's, and Adbusters, will file irregular dispatches from around British Columbia this winter, giving Tyee readers a look at the personalities and the politics found outside the Lower Mainland. If you want to comment on a story or to suggest a future trip, email him at ctenove@yahoo.com  [Tyee]

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