Agriculture export infrastructure’s future not guaranteed

There are a lot of things you can take for granted in a First World nation.

The rule of law applies.

Civil liberties have the force of law.

Property rights are protected.

National interests trump local concerns.

Actually, you can’t count on the last one. In a federation like Canada, the world’s second oldest federation, national interests do not always or even most of the time trump local concerns.

It all depends on what the constitution says about who has jurisdiction over which areas and matters.

This is a big deal for agriculture because prairie farmers are completely reliant upon railways and ports, and those are generally under federal jurisdiction.

That means that a local town or city council can’t decide that it doesn’t want a grain terminal operating during the tourist season. A municipality or province can’t block a rail or terminal construction, expansion or renovation project just because it doesn’t like industrial operations on the picturesque waterfront.

The importance of this was made clear to me during a recent tour of Vancouver’s port and harbour, as you can read about page 45.

As I and a group of prairie farmers and Canadian agriculture industry people sailed past numerous ag-related loading facilities the risks to the export-orientation of the port became obvious. Those facilities live right beside million dollar condominiums. They occupy the waterfront of one of the most scenic places in the country.

They make noise, dust and distraction in front of some of the most privileged and pampered people in Canada.

If they had their way, some of those wealthy condo owners, many with little attachment to the rest of the nation, might want their municipal councils to put a moratorium on any export-related expansion, might urge them to begin squeezing out industrial operations and railways, and could work to transform the harbour from an export juggernaut into a scenic lifestyle Mecca.

They’re held back because the Port of Vancouver operates under the authority of the Canada Marine Act, which governs port authorities that:

  • Are likely to remain financially self-sufficient.
  • Are of strategic significance to Canada.
  • Are linked to major railways or highways.
  • Have diversified traffic.

It’s a mighty shield against the sorts of local interests that could attack the ability of prairie farmers to get their crops out onto the world market through Canada’s biggest port.

It’s not much of an issue now. Federal authority means national concerns apply, and that means Canada’s desire to boost agricultural and other exports actually matters.

But it could be a shield sorely needed some day. Just look at the crusade launched against Alberta’s oilsands crude and the pipeline expansion needed to get it to the Asian market.

The only thing stopping activists and cynical British Columbia politicians — and those elements of the provincial population that don’t care much about their neighbour’s needs or believe Alberta oil will destroy the planet — from shutting down the Trans Mountain pipeline and export terminal is federal authority over those operations.

We take for granted that prairie crops and meat have free and open access to B.C.’s ports, which they rely upon to reach world markets.

Perhaps we shouldn’t. That access exists because of the powers laid out in the constitution and by courts and subsequent legislation.

As we’ve seen from our friends and neighbours in the oil industry, local and non-industry concerns can overwhelm the rights of producers, and sometimes the only thing you have to fall back upon are your legal rights and the national interest.

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