Canada Eats Crow

By McCrorie, James | Canadian Dimension, August-September 1995 | Go to article overview

Canada Eats Crow


McCrorie, James, Canadian Dimension


It was quiet on the prairies this spring. In the valleys of the Assiniboine and Carrot Rivers, communities were slowly recovering from an unexpected spring flood. Elsewhere, the sparse snow cover disappeared from the land. Farmyards were drying out. Spring ruts on gravel roads were being graded. Songbirds and waterfowl were making their annual return. Newborn calves were adding their voices to the music of the season. Farm men and women were going about their business, preparing for spring seeding. It was very quiet out here.

One wonders if it might have been like this 126 years ago when the Dominion Government purchased Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company and set about to lay plans that would seal the fate of the fur trade and banish the Plains Indians forever from their ancestral hunting grounds.

For comparable change of this magnitude is in the prairie wind and the initial initiative has again been taken by the federal government. The decision of Finance Minister Martin to end the historic Crow rates for grain transportation signals the end of an era and the dawn of an uncertain future. Like the purchase of Rupert's Land 126 years ago, this regional transformation will have profound national consequences. what's the fuss about?

what was the Crow's Nest Pass

Rates Agreement all about? The Agreement was born as a contract of convenience between the CPR and the Dominion Government whereby the former agreed to a set of fixed rates for the transport of grain, flour and settlers' effects in return for a subsidy of $3,630 (1897 dollars) in aid of construction of a rail line from Lethbridge through the Crow's Nest Pass to the mineral wealth of the Kootenays.

Following years of struggle between the agrarian radicals and the CPR, the federal government, under pressure from the Progressives, agreed to make the rates, insofar as they applied to flour and grain, statutory (1925) and applicable to all railway companies operating in the prairie region. Over time, these statutory rates came to be viewed as a `constitutional right;' a condition for continued prairie participation in the Canadian confederation.

What was the fuss all about? Simple. The rates were central to prairie economic security. To the south, American grain producers had access to a natural advantage: the Mississippi -- a water route that provided the cheapest form of transportation from the interior of North America to world markets. If Canadian producers were to enjoy a comparable advantage, they would have to create it and they did so in the form of the Crow's Nest Pass rates. Without the rates, the wheat economy would not have developed as it did, providing an expanding, captive non-competitive market for Canadian manufacturers in Ontario and Quebec.

offending the spirit

Has anything changed? No, insofar as prairie farmers are concerned. The rates remain as indispensable to their economic well-being as they always were. Then why abolish them? The conventional answer offered by government and business is that the rates constitute a transportation "subsidy" and therefore they offend the spirit and violate the regulations of the GATT, NAFTA and so on.

The argument is specious for it conceals the identity and purpose of the real players in the game: non-agrarian capital, intent on recapturing economic advantages lost in the past. The opportunities for non-agrarian capital in the development of the prairies proved frustrating, and to some extent, disappointing. Line elevator companies were challenged and displaced by cooperatives, particularly the United Grain Growers and Wheat Pools.

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