Blockaders must pay financial price for their actions

Rail blockades, such as this one erected near Edmonton last week, are affecting farmers’ ability to move their grain to market. The Edmonton blockade was later removed by counter-protesters.  |  REUTERS/Codie McLachlan photo

The railway blockaders have been smart, or maybe lucky, to target Canada’s railways.

They truly are the jugular throat of this nation and of almost all western Canadian farmers, who are utterly reliant on export markets.

That’s what makes resolving this situation right now so important, as is resolving the China situation in the right way.

Giving in to the demands of bullies, provocateurs and radicals might work in the short term, but in the long run it would turn these unique situations into chronic conditions.

Pay off radicals for blockading the tracks this time and they’ll likely pull the same thing some other time.

Nobody wants another Oka, but nobody can allow much of Canada’s rail system to remain shut down for long. This isn’t a peaceful protest. This is radical political hooliganism.

What’s the solution? This is one of those times when I and every sane person are happy to not be the prime minister.

The situation appears to me to not really be a manifestation of Canada’s overall indigenous situation, considering that most of the indigenous people directly affected by the Coastal GasLink pipeline have approved the project.

It’s more an outgrowth of a decade of radical actions in a variety of realms across North America in which extremists have faced almost no costs and penalties for often flagrantly illegal or destructive — even violent — behaviour.

If there are no costs to pulling these actions, and one gets a power rush out of it, why not do it?

That’s where the economic math is wrong here. This is a form of what economists call an “externality,” in which a third party incurs a cost or benefit unexpectedly due to another party. Farmers are paying the cost of these protests as sales and shipments slow and stall. That’s a negative externality.

The blockaders are mostly enjoying a positive externality. They’re able to cause massive losses to others, get a lot of attention, and pay little if any price.

Sincere protesters are worth talking with, but it’s hard to tell how sincere these blockaders are when they mostly aren’t paying much of a price for what they’re doing.

If they aren’t charged for illegal actions and don’t have to dig up bail money or face fines, there’s not much disincentive.

Farmers are being hit with lots of costs from this. So are millions of other Canadians. The blockaders need to carry some financial cost, too.

By the time you read this (I’m writing Feb. 21) the dispute might be over, or at least have been de-escalated.

But it would be better for it to go on than cave in to the blockaders. This nation’s railways are too important to be allowed to become a regular tool of radical politics.

Farmers need the railways to be de-politicized, and rewarding railway interference will just turn them into a go-to choice the next time somebody wants attention.

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