National security is in the eye of the beholder

For Canada, critical export infrastructure should be treated like the U.S. treats national defence: as a non-partisan issue too serious to mess with.

The Trump administration has farcically claimed “national security” as its excuse for the unjustified steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada and other trading partners it imposed last week.

The weak argument of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is that the U.S. is only secure if its economy is strong, and tariffs would help its steel and aluminum industries. It’s an absurd argument, which could be used any time to justify any blocking of trade.

But Canada should actually see maintaining, improving and expanding critical offshore export infrastructure as a national security issue, because Canada’s overwhelming reliance on the U.S. market is an appalling danger to the future of this country.

If the U.S. can stick it to our (unsubsidized) steel and aluminum industries this way, it can do it to anything. Does anybody think Canadian grain, beef and pigs won’t face the same sort of trade violence?

That’s why the state of our export channels to the west and east coasts is far more than a commercial or economic concern. Those are our outlets to non-U.S. markets, and obviously we need to look more that way from now on.

Fortunately the federal government appears to be getting this point, with muscular support for the Trans Mountain pipeline, and the willingness to pass the Transportation Modernization Act, which contained provisions the railways fought like they were poison.

For crop growers and livestock producers, making sure the lines to Vancouver and the east are being managed well and have adequate investment is absolutely critical. That’s always going to be a challenge, because the quasi-monopolies that are our railways will always try to save costs and maximize returns by operating lean.

Unfortunately, leanness is sometimes achieved by under-resourcing and under-investing, as was seen this past winter and in 2013-14. If it was truly a competitive industry, railroading wouldn’t need specific legislation to govern it. But it isn’t, hence C-49.

Public money and attention deserves to be placed upon these export routes, because they are our only real hope to escape over-reliance on the U.S. market.

However, telling the difference between critical and non-critical infrastructure is also important, and that has come up recently with the Churchill situation. The federal and Manitoba governments have been leery about taking over the rail line to Hudson Bay, and rather stingy about throwing big subsidies at it. This has drawn outrage from Churchill supporters, but propping up that port can’t be justified in terms of giving Canada access to world markets.

It’s a nice option to have, but when its best years have seen less than one million tonnes of grain exported from the port, it’s almost irrelevant to farmers.

The line to Churchill may well serve a vital need in serving the small communities along the line and the 800 people who live there, as well as the communities in the arctic and Hudson Bay that receive provisions from the port, but it’s not vitally important for most Prairie farmers.

(AGT Food and Ingredients is part of the deal to buy the port and rail line from Omnitrax, so some pulse growers will no doubt benefit from Churchill surviving as a port, as will some farmers in Saskatchewan’s northeastern farm belt.)

Pipeline politics in Canada is toxic, with not only activists creating conflict and dispute over what should be obviously good projects, but also now the provincial government in British Columbia and municipal governments in Quebec seeing critical infrastructure as fair game for destructive games-playing.

Railway politics is less dramatic, but involves powerful vested interests leveraging their influence in Ottawa to slow or stymie improvements.

But while the mood today over these export systems is still fraught, there have been good developments lately. So perhaps we can hope that our critical export infrastructure will finally become seen as something you just don’t mess with.

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