It’s a free-for-all! And it’s got to stop

The effects of down-sizing and deregulation on safety are destructive, and they’re finally hitting home.

The tragic explosion that ripped through the heart of Lac Megantic, Quebec on July 6 took the lives of dozens of men, women and children (37 bodies have been recovered, and at least 13 are still missing). But the unjust, unfair and entirely unexpected tragedy also shattered the hearts of millions of Canadians – and people around the world.

Now, as the country mourns its dead and the town of Lac Megantic struggles to come to terms with its loss, the people of Canada are trying to understand what happened, and why, and how we prevent such a heart-rending tragedy from ever happening again.

There are still many questions at this stage, but one truth is emerging quite clearly already, and that is the fact that whatever the specific cause of the accident – mechanical error, human error, or something else – Canada has let down its guard to a frighteningly dangerous degree when it comes to regulating safety standards.

Setting the stage for tragedy

The steady erosion of safety standards is a direct outcome of the neoliberal, conservative-minded, austerity-driven political culture that has gripped Canadian politics since at least the 1990s. Successive governments – both Liberal and Conservative – have competed with each other to reduce government spending, slash the public service workforce, and outsource government services to the private sector. They have made these things sound like praiseworthy goals. In actual fact they have been the height of irresponsibility. The result of these processes has been a downsizing of regulatory agencies and greater reliance on the cost-cutting private sector – those most likely to put profits before people – to look after its own safety standards.

A 2011 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative called the erosion of Canada’s regulatory systems a “disaster in the making”. Tragically, they were right.

And as that report demonstrated, the dangers don’t merely lie with transportation safety. Under the Conservatives, cutbacks to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have resulted in hundreds of job losses and a reduction in regulatory activity (the Conservatives frequently argue they have increased the number of front-line meat inspectors, but at the same time they have decreased vital employees and resources in other parts of the safety chain). In 2008 a listeriosis outbreak due to tainted meat killed 23 people and prompted the largest food recall in Canadian history – until last year’s tainted meat scandal that is, which prompted the recall of 1.5 million pounds of tainted beef.

The July 6 rail explosion was an unexpected, horrible tragedy for the people of Lac Megantic, but it was not entirely unexpected for observers of the railway industry. In 2007 the Canada Safety Council issued a scathing report on the erosion of safety standards in the industry, saying the rail industry was a “disaster waiting to happen”.

That disaster finally happened.

CTV News chronicled the growing frequency of rail accidents under the federal government’s weakened system of oversight as far back as 2005, a year in which they noted a major spike in derailments for CN Rail, which averaged one accident every 3.5 days that year. And as safety regulation drops, dangers have grown: shipments of oil by rail have dramatically increased by 28,000% since 2009.

The pattern of cost-cutting and putting profits over safety was followed in textbook fashion by MMA Rail, the company involved in the Lac Megantic tragedy. When the current president of the corporation took over, he cut salaries by 40% and reduced the size of locomotive crews by half, which saves money but also increases the likelihood that the smaller crews of overworked staff will be unable to prevent or adequately respond to possible emergency situations.

It’s not just railways that are at risk

Incredibly, despite mounting evidence of the dangers and accidents tied to deregulation, the federal government is poised to continue its apparent policy of increasing risks to Canadians, most recently under pressure from corporate airline lobbyists. In an effort to cut costs, Canadian airlines have been requesting permission to reduce the number of flight and safety attendants on board aircraft. As anybody who’s traveled recently on Canadian airlines will know, airline attendants are already overtaxed by having to look after larger and larger groups of passengers (with the result that it takes longer for them to respond to our questions and needs). But airline attendants serve more functions than simply bringing us extra pillows and serving food and drinks. They’re the ones responsible for our safety: dealing with passengers who become ill or aggressive, responding to on-board threats or situations of distress, securing the safety of the aircraft during turbulence or other unexpected situations, and supervising evacuations and emergency landings. While the pilots are the ones responsible for flying and landing the aircraft, all other dimensions of passenger safety rest with the airline attendants. In the event of an emergency, their ability to take charge and coordinate emergency activities makes the difference between life and death for passengers.

It is VITAL that we politicize this issue in order to ensure that more deadly tragedies do not happen.

Two passengers were killed in the recent tragic Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, but the outcome could have been even worse. Airline attendants moved swiftly to evacuate the aircraft and get passengers out of the shattered and burning wreckage. The airline had an airline attendant ratio of 1:24 (one attendant for every 24 passengers).

A similar accident in 2005, involving an Air France flight that went off a runway and caught fire, resulted in a quick evacuation and no casualties. That flight had an attendant-passenger ratio of 1:35.

In Canada, Transport Canada requires airlines to maintain a flight attendant-passenger ratio of 1:40.

Yet recently, corporate lobbyists from WestJet succeeded in persuading Transport Canada to exempt them from this already low standard. They are now only required to maintain a 1:50 ratio. As soon as the federal government granted WestJet this exemption, Air Canada promptly applied for a similar exemption allowing them to reduce on-board flight and safety personnel. That request is currently being reviewed by the federal government.

This is the same pattern which led to the erosion of safety standards in the railway industry – with deadly results. And the federal government is now allowing airlines to put profit before safety, setting the stage for a future tragedy in that form of transportation.

These facts were outlined in a recent open letter from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents Air Canada flight attendants, to Transport Canada. They’re urging members of the public to voice their concern to the federal government and oppose Air Canada’s request for an exemption.

This tragedy had a political cause. It must have a political response

Exemptions from Transport Canada safety regulations: it’s an eerie and sad sort of déjà vu. MMA Rail also requested an exemption from safety regulations in order to allow the operation of a train with only one engineer on board. In 2012 Transport Canada granted that exemption: the train in Lac Megantic had just one engineer.

After the accident, there were some odd admonitions that we shouldn’t ‘politicize’ a tragedy. Au contraire: it is VITAL that we politicize this issue in order to ensure that more deadly tragedies do not happen.

The issues outlined here are only the tip of the iceberg. We also have cause to be concerned about offshore safety and search and rescue capability; earlier this year the auditor general warned that Canada’s search and rescue system was at “breaking point” (the federal government promptly promised an addition $1 million for radio communications, but that’s only part of the problem).

For years corporate lobbyists have been urging deregulation (and the shrinking of the public service that goes along with that) and claiming that it will save money. It has been a bald-faced lie. And it is time for it to end. Not only because deregulation has been costly and expensive (each of these disasters costs millions of dollars). But more importantly, because it has been deadly, and no value can be placed upon the lives that have been lost.

And it will continue to cost dollars and lives until either our government acknowledges its responsibilities and rebuilds Canada’s public regulatory system properly, or until we install a government that will.

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