Leo Rosten

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Surely the pipeline advocates who accused New Democratic Party Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair of being an “opportunist” for talking about railway safety in the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe measure up to author Leo Rosten’s definition of chutzpah.

The late Mr. Rosten, writing in the Joy of Yiddish, famously defined chutzpah as “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”

Or, as the ever-useful and usually accurate Wikipedia puts it, “chutzpah amounts to a total denial of personal responsibility that renders others speechless and incredulous … one cannot quite believe that another person totally lacks common human traits like remorse, regret, guilt, sympathy and insight.”

A recent editorial in the Edmonton Sun delivers a truly breathtaking example of this crude (as it were) lack of remorse, regret, guilt, sympathy and insight that in our great multicultural society we all know as chutzpah. Indeed, one might add common sense to the list of missing qualities in this particular case.

In fact, regardless of where on stands one the current safety of pipelines or railways, surely Mulcair was asking questions that, under the tragic circumstances, were entirely appropriate and need urgently to be asked and answered.

The implied accusation made by the Sun was of course that Mulcair was exploiting a tragedy for political purposes, and therefore behaving in an unseemly fashion. In this, the Sun was only parroting the same view made explicit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s media spokesperson, who called the Opposition leader’s queries “grossly inappropriate.”

Andrew MacDougall’s and the Sun’s real message, however, was that by speaking up on behalf of the victims of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy — and just as important, the potential victims of similar tragedies all across this country — Mulcair was inconveniencing the highly political people for whom they both speak. Naturally, those people would very much like Mulcair to shut up.

The highly political people in question, of course, are the ones who have been pushing the line that regulation is always, no matter what, an impediment to the efficient operation of a sound economy.

But whatever specific circumstances led to the Lac-Mégantic tragedy — and we’re unlikely to have that information for a very long time — it’s pretty obvious that deregulation of rail transport should be a major concern to anyone who lives anywhere near a rail line, as every one of us does here in St. Albert.

After all, we have all learned recently that oil shipments by rail have increased by the astonishing figure of 28,000 per cent over the past five years. And it was only on June 27 that eight rail-tanker cars full of a substance similar to that which exploded in Lac-Mégantic were dangling over the Bow River in Calgary.

It’s entirely appropriate that a federal politician speak up on our behalf, since under the laws governing the operation of railways in Canada citizens living near rail lines and the local politicians who represent them have no power and very little influence over what rail companies choose to do on the lines they operate.

You will notice, interestingly, that this is one kind of regulation with which our Conservative federal government seems to have very few problems.

Meanwhile, however, when it comes to its responsibility to keep citizens safe, the tireless advocates of self-regulation in the current federal government seem determined to do what they can, as NDP Transport Critic Olivia Chow put it, “to recklessly cut public safety, from food inspection, to search and rescue, to transportation safety.”

Remember, the reason those tanker cars were allowed to roll over the flood-damaged bridge in Calgary in the first place appears to be because impartial municipal officials were not permitted to inspect infrastructure on the rail line that ran through the city.

This kind of thing, it stands to reason, is precisely why so many of our neighbours in British Columbia and the United States distrust the noisy commitment to safe pipeline operation of the governments and companies pushing for new lines to carry Alberta crude through the Rocky Mountains to the West Coast, and south to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

It’s certainly safer — as the Sun rather opportunistically pointed out, given the circumstances — to carry unrefined oil by pipeline than it is by rail car, if you’re so foolish as to ship crude, and the jobs you could create with it, out of our province for upgrading and refining.

But one can certainly understand why a resident of the B.C. Coast might nevertheless have deep misgivings about a new pipeline carrying oil to the sea through that environmentally fragile part of our country.

It seems to me that if we Albertans really want other Canadians to feel confident about the safety of our petroleum transportation infrastructure, whatever form it takes and whatever product it carries, the answer would be to elect governments that are prepared to enact a sufficient level of regulation for Canadians to trust.

And, sorry, but we can’t have much confidence in a system that allows corporations focused on the bottom line in the next quarterly report to regulate themselves — whether they run pipelines, railways, slaughterhouses or hotdog stands.

We certainly can’t have much confidence in people like the PM’s spokesperson and the tame editorialists at the Sun who rely on cheap rhetorical parlour tricks to attack anyone who dares to connect the dots between deregulation and danger.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...