There are many lessons to be learned from the Lac-Megantic, Que. train derailment disaster.
But perhaps the first lesson to be learned is that what unites us now is what has united us as Canadians in the very beginning: the railroad.
We are all railroad towns.
Whether we are small rural Saskatchewan prairie communities, small Quebec towns like Lac-Megantic or a larger urban centre, we owe our existence to the railways.
Our towns and cities were all built up around the rails station or rail yards. The railway came first. We just happened to grow up around them.
They brought our great grandparents and grandparents to this place so that they could contribute to its prosperity. And long after the trains quit moving people, they still move our wheat, barely, potash and oil to markets — the very thing that now allows our economy to prosper and gives reason for more people to move here.
Rural Saskatchewan communities that have lost their branch line service or are struggling to keep a short line truly understand the importance of these tracks.
But it is also for this reason that we all can so relate to the horrific events that saw 72 tanker cars roll into the Quebec town of 6,000 explode, level its entire downtown and kill a still undermined number.
We relate because what happened in Lac-Megantic could have happened in anyone of our communities across the country — Quebec town, prairie village or big city. And that it was carrying oil from North Dakota — oil from the Bakken Play — makes it that much easier for people in places like Weyburn, Estevan, Kindersley and any of our oil-based communities to relate.
This is an important lesson to be taken from this unspeakable tragedy, although the next important lesson is that we don’t play politics with Lac-Megantic.
Sadly, this seems to be exactly what federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has already done when he seized the opportunity to make political hay out of this disaster.
“We are seeing more and more petroleum products being transported by rail and there are attendant dangers involved in that,” Mulcair said less than 24 hours after the explosion.
“And at the same time, the Conservative government is cutting transportation safety in Canada, cutting back budgets in that area.”
That Mulcair did not one have shred of evidence to suggest this incident was caused by anything Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government did or didn’t do is a little disgusting. In fact, early suspicions suggest tampering caused the Lac-Megantic disaster.
Nor is especially helpful to decry the dangers of rail transportation in moving hazardous petroleum products. It is simply a reality that we must do this.
Research shows that rail is safer than tanker truck and pipeline is safer than rail. But given the opposition to the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines — much of it, based on the pipeline companies’ records of spills — there is little public desire to convert to moving oil by pipeline that can only move petroleum in one direction.
Our communities — whether they are large cities or small towns — cannot afford to rip out their tracks and move them. It would simply be too cost and, for many communities, it would be like ripping the veins out of your body.
That said, the last and arguably most important lesson is that we do start examining all facets of rail movement of dangerous goods to ensure another Lac-Megantic is not repeated in someone else’s hometown.
There are legitimate issues of railroad protocol, including having a single conductor on these trains. Questions on the durability of these cars are also in play.
We need our railroads, but we must insure that what is moved on them is moved safely.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.