This page is archived and no longer maintained. For updates click here.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Quebec unionized Wal-Mart workers win Supreme Court victory

Wal-Mart has long been the most high-profile example of an anti-union workplace, citing the principle of Christian servitude as a substitute for a union. However, the speed with which any outlet heading in a union direction closes down suggests that the issue has far more to do with keeping costs down.

While the Supreme Court ruling is a victory for unions and all retail workers in Canada, the corporate power of Wal-Mart and the Harper government's anti-union stance will likely win the day.

>>>Quebec unionized Wal-Mart workers win Supreme Court victory - CBC News<<<

Sunday, June 22, 2014

ONTC wants to hear from Premier

New(ish) government, debate begins again.

>>>ONTC wants to hear from Premier | North Bay Nugget<<<

A Garden Photo

The Gardens / Les jardins

It has been quite a while since I posted a photo. Here is 47580 pulling a railtour past the Crichton Avenue allotments yesterday.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Influential Railway TV 3: Last Train Across Canada

What TV shows did you watch growing up? I had the usual diet of Mr. Dressup, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Sesame Street but, even when I was very young, I was particularly drawn to the small collection of railway VHS tapes at my local library (Barney really didn't work for me, although Thomas the Tank Engine did!). What amazes me looking back is how influential those tapes were in the development of my interest in railways. At the time, I mainly saw pretty pictures of trains, but the underlying content was also seeping in. As I got older, more information and connections were made with each viewing as I kept being drawn back to the same ones. In this series of articles, I revisit and analyze the railway shows which have had the greatest influence on my study of railways. I was avidly watching many of them before I turned six.

Last Train Across Canada (1990)

This two-part documentary was produced for PBS and features Murray Sayle taking the "last train across Canada." When I first saw it as a child, I barely understood it, but I now understand it as a very thought-provoking look at not just the decline of Canadian railways, but also as a portrait of Canada during a very uncertain moment for the country's identity. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that the documentary was actually about Canadian identity, rather than a sweeping political decision affecting the national transportation policy. Questions of what it means to be Canadian, Quebec sovereignty and the draw of the United States come up throughout the journey, which ended on a rather pessimistic note, concluding that the demise of rail could well be the demise of the nation.

While its discussion of identity is fascinating and offers a valuable insight into the Canadian mindset of a quarter of century ago, its depiction of the railway network is completely inaccurate. Not to be pedantic, but I have never seen a documentary ride so roughshod over Canada's railway network and the country's geography. There never was a "last train across Canada" - or a first. Sayle's journey from Sydney to Vancouver has never been possible without taking at least three trains. In fact, he leaves out Newfoundland altogether (being a few years too late for its narrow-gauge railway). The journey is correct in that it was filmed on the eve of VIA Rail's massive cuts in 1990, which saw the country's passenger rail service halved overnight. The VIA Rail route he (largely) stuck to, via Maine and the CP's transcontinental route across Ontario and the Prairies, was indeed abandoned. That said, the crossing of the country remains possible (except for Halifax-Sydney, which lost all its service) with VIA Rail predominantly using CN's route.

According to the narration, Quebec City is next door to Montreal. Relative to Canada, this is correct, but it is still hours by train. Having visited Toronto, Sayle apparently rejoins the train just outside the city, by which he means Sault Ste. Marie. Not only is this the other end of the province, but Algoma Central territory, not VIA Rail. After a short visit with the Amish, we are back with VIA Rail briefly, before jumping across Ontario again to the Ontario Northland Railway's line to Moosonee, where he meets the Cree and finally acknowledges Canada's Native population. Throughout the show, we are constantly reminded of how empty Canada was before rail, yet this viewpoint erases centuries of Native habitation. While the documentary's perspective seems dated, Native visibility has improved considerably since it was filmed and a similar production filmed now would probably discuss Native people much more.

Jumping back to VIA, the journey skips to Churchill (missing Winnipeg and Thunder Bay completely). After polar bears, Sayle heads south and explores Prairie life, or an extension of Midwestern American life, hinting at the Prairie separatism that simmered at the time. Onwards through the Rockies and straight to the Pacific Ocean, neglecting Vancouver. In fact, the whole journey from Ontario westward feels rushed.

One particular gem in the show is a discussion about the place of railways in Canadian identity with Pierre Berton at Union Station in Toronto. Berton remained convinced that the railway was central to identity in 1990. Were he still alive today, I'm not sure he would be. In 2014, most Canadians do not travel by train at all.

As I have revisited this production over the years, the question of Canadian identity has come to be the most interesting element to me. The idea of a welcoming, multicultural society it portrayed sounds very much like a Trudeau-esque vision of Canada. It is, I think, overly simplistic. I cannot believe that Canadians in 1990 would have considered it acceptable to immigrants to never learn English or French, as Sayle suggests when he meets a Japanese-speaking cashier in Banff; they certainly wouldn't now. Canadians are portrayed as simple, somewhat parochial people. While the country remains parochial, the growth of the internet has made the world much smaller and impossible to ignore. In 1990, it was still possible to be detached from the world. In 2014, it is virtually impossible.

The people Sayle met across Canada were cordial and friendly, traits now relegated to the older generation and rural areas. Of all the stereotypes used to describe Canadians, politeness is the one I most wish wasn't disappearing. I find it increasingly hard to distinguish Canadians from Americans, but it seems Sayle found this was already happening decades ago.

Sayle's discussion of Quebec separatism was timely, as it returned to the fore with the referendum of 1995, but its urgency has since waned. The recent defeat of the Parti Québécois demonstrates that Quebecers value a distinct society and culture (something which has been largely achieved without independence), but not an intolerant one. The western provinces are still part of Canada too, but the ambivalence pulling the Prairies towards the US has grown stronger with the election of Stephen Harper who, while he pretends to "stand up for Canada," has systematically worked to dismantle everything that was distinct about Canada and has adopted sweeping American policies, from an increasingly militarized society to mass election fraud. Sayle spoke of the Prairies as empty farmland, but oil was already shifting the Canadian balance of power westward when VIA Rail pulled out of southern Saskatchewan.

Last Train Across Canada is a whimsical look at an era in Canadian railways which is now gone, even if the documentary completely butchered routes and geography in its portrayal of the "last train."  However, railway accuracy aside, it remains an important snapshot of identity across Canada in 1990 and looks at a society that was still connected with its railway - a fact I feel is no longer the case. Last Train Across Canada was released as a 2-tape VHS set but never as a DVD. A few poor-quality versions of the show can be found floating around cyberspace as well.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Liberals return to power with majority

Honestly, I did not see this coming. It seems that the electorate (or at least the 51-ish % who actually voted) have decided that Kathleen Wynne has officially separated the Liberals from McGuinty's scandals. Overall, the result is a clear statement that Ontarians did not want Tim Hudak's extreme right-wing agenda to win out and instead wanted a more centrist province.



On the Ontario Northland front, the major players are still in place. In fact, only Sudbury changed hands, with the NDP narrowly beating the Liberals. I would expect the status quo in the "transformation" to remain.

>>>Ontario election 2014: Liberals return to power with majority - Ontario Votes 2014 - CBC<<<

Thursday, June 12, 2014

History moves to a new site

Starting today, all new academic-like stuff will appear on my new history website, Pro Bono History. Anything already history-related on this page will remain.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Influential Railway TV 2: Love Those Trains

What TV shows did you watch growing up? I had the usual diet of Mr. Dressup, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Sesame Street but, even when I was very young, I was particularly drawn to the small collection of railway VHS tapes at my local library (Barney really didn't work for me, although Thomas the Tank Engine did!). What amazes me looking back is how influential those tapes were in the development of my interest in railways. At the time, I mainly saw pretty pictures of trains, but the underlying content was also seeping in. As I got older, more information and connections were made with each viewing as I kept being drawn back to the same ones. In this series of articles, I revisit and analyze the railway shows which have had the greatest influence on my study of railways. I was avidly watching many of them before I turned six.

Love Those Trains (1984)

A National Geographic TV special, this charted a romantic history of railways based largely on nostalgia and railway enthusiasts. Its depiction of the building of the American transcontinental line is devoid of any mention of Native people, although it does mention Chinese workers and high death tolls. The production focuses mainly on the United States, but also featured South American railways and a special chartered run of the Orient Express to Turkey.

One thing that strikes me looking back is how the show painted a love of trains as a largely elite pursuit, for those wealthy enough to own swaths of California land (for a live steam park), to ride the Orient Express, or take leisure trips to luxury hotels. When more common people do appear, it is either working for railroads, or at the hobo convention in Iowa. This perhaps reflects the target demographic for National Geographic in the 1980s, but it is worth mentioned that their specials were once prime-time viewing on network TV. In terms of gender, it was surprisingly mixed, suggesting that both men and women could both work on and like trains. Women could even train to be engineers (with the help of a rather hands-on Long Island Railroad instructor...).

Overall, Love Those Trains has aged badly, showing a world so black and white that it seems impossible. It does paint a good picture of attitudes from a pre-9/11, pre-global warming world, all from National Geographic's American-centric and piercing anthropological gaze. It was released as a VHS tape and is sometimes available as a DVD-R from National Geographic.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Lac-Mégantic: Suppressing the Truth Behind Regulatory Failure

Canada's railway safety record has been a problem for years. Successive waves of deregulation led to a virtual free-for-all and, while the number of accidents has decreased, much remains to be done.

In the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic, it seems that the little guy will pay once again. Within days of the derailment, the head of MM&A Ed Burkhard, threw the locomotive engineer under the bus, blaming the entire derailment on him. The investigation into the accident has yet to be concluded, so Burkhardt's accusations were very premature. The United Steelworkers (who represent two of the three MM&A employees recently arrested over the derailment) has set up a legal defence fund to attempt to match the power of corporate lawyers the men will face in court.

This very thorough article outlines the sheer number of people, technologies and institutions that are likely to blame for the accident. Whatever the actions of the crew, Lac-Mégantic is the product of lax regulation, a government that didn't care and an industry that needs to wake up.

>>>Lac-Mégantic: Suppressing the Truth Behind Regulatory Failure | National Newswatch<<<

Edit June 3: My original piece incorrectly stated that the United Steelworkers represented all three arrested MM&A employees. They only represent two (the third is management).

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Influential Railway TV 1: Locomotion

What TV shows did you watch growing up? I had the usual diet of Mr. Dressup, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Sesame Street but, even when I was very young, I was particularly drawn to the small collection of railway VHS tapes at my local library (Barney really didn't work for me, although Thomas the Tank Engine did!). What amazes me looking back is how influential those tapes were in the development of my interest in railways. At the time, I mainly saw pretty pictures of trains, but the underlying content was also seeping in. As I got older, more information and connections were made with each viewing as I kept being drawn back to the same ones. In this series of articles, I revisit and analyze the railway shows which have had the greatest influence on my study of railways. I was avidly watching many of them before I turned six.

Locomotion (1993) 

In my opinion, this A&E/BBC series is the most informative and best-produced series of railway documentaries ever made. The four episodes brought together archive footage, interviews and a coherent narrative of railway history from a socio-economic perspective. The episodes detailed the history of American railroads; the enormous impact of the railways on Britain; the railways' role in turning cavalry-based fighting into modern mechanised warfare (I admit, I couldn't watch this episode until my teenage years); and the future of railways around the world.

The American railroads, chronicled in Engines of Enterprise, is the most economic of the episodes. It charts the construction of railroads across the continent, the opulence of Pullman and the Robber Barons and the slow decline brought on by regulation, trucks and aircraft. One of the advantages of Locomotion was that many people who were adults in the first half of the 20th century were still alive when it was filmed. This allowed first-hand accounts from pre-WWII union organisers and railway employees, which added a fascinating personal layer to the story.

While the economic narrative of railroads is the standard for American railroad history, this episode wove it into the broader social changes in the United States, making for a very interesting account. My one criticism was the decision to end the episode with the decline of streamliners in the 1950s. This meant leaving out mergers, bankruptcies, Conrail, deregulation and the resurgence in freight traffic (which had begun when the episode was made).

The second episode, Taming the Iron Monster, has always been my favourite and has shaped much of my historical study. Even when I was very young, the account of the early days of railways in Britain appealed to me. While Engines of Enterprise focused on economics, the British story focused on engineering, architecture and people. By considering engineering, the documentary is able to demonstrate how the north of England (through coal, terrain and personalities) shaped the development of railways around the world through being the test-bed for tunnels, bridges and locomotive designs. Stations were the public face of the railways, and were designed to exude confidence. Anyone who has visited a major railway station in the UK (and even many of the smaller ones) will understand this point. I suppose what appealed to me most was the discussion of people and how they interacted with their landscape. Social reform and the trade union movement were inextricably linked with the railways, as was an increasingly mobile society.

However, I do think this episode was overly-whiggish when it came to the battle for the Lake District, in which the likes of John Ruskin managed to prevent railway construction from destroying the countryside (in hindsight, cars have caused far more damage than carefully-planned railways would have ever done). Similarly, Ruskin et al. were far more concerned about hoipaloi being able to access the Lakes than about the development of infrastructure. This look at British railways concludes with the striking parallels between early railway building (and its public reception) and the Channel Tunnel, which was under construction when the show was filmed. Just as early railways provoked a mania, the Channel Tunnel has provoked a mania for high-speed rail in the UK, with HS1 absorbing the London-Folkstone portion of the line and the controversial HS2 being debated today.

I am a rather peaceful person and the thought that my favourite mode of transportation could be a vehicle for the evils of war is not something I wish to dwell on. Yet The War Machine shows how railways took technological determinism to the extreme, fuelling larger, more mechanised, longer wars through an almost assembly-line-like movement of supplies, ammunition and people. By focusing on three wars, the American Civil War, and the two World Wars, the documentary shows how railway supply lines both expanded the scope of war and isolated it. One of these instances, the documentary argued, was the systematic extermination during the Shoah. Railways allowed for the movement of millions of people efficiently, but also in such a systematic way that few people even knew the whole picture. In this sense, the Shoah was Fordist (perhaps appropriate since Ford was anti-semitic) as each small part of the Nazi machine played its part in the tragedy with little need for an understanding of the end result. Although it is my least favourite episode, it discusses its subject well and even spoke to Soviet railways workers and used Soviet footage (even if the narration described it as "propaganda"). Railways in war is not pleasant, and as such has been largely ignored outside the academic sphere, but The War Machine is a good grounding for a general audience.

I always felt that the final episode, Magic Machines and Mobile People, was a little out of place, not just because A&E clearly re-cut it for an American audience (complete with several monologues from Jack Perkins), but also because the content didn't fit well together. The first portion, looking at the influence of railways on space and time, has come to mean more to me as my interest of railways has moved towards people's perception of railway technology and travel. Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey was still a new work at the time and a cultural interpretation of railway history was a nascent area of study.

However, the show suddenly jumps to Florida. Yes, Henry Flagler did essentially create the state as a sun destination thanks to extensive railway investment, but it doesn't fit neatly with space and time, even if Florida is arguably a railway-created space. After the citrus state, we jump to Japan, apparently the one place where rail is still in its golden age thanks to punctual (perhaps too punctual?) service and extremely fast trains.

The show ends with the warning that railways, even in Japan, are usually money-losers, yet in a more crowded and urban world they will remain critical to future transportation infrastructure. This prediction has come true. As oil prices continue to rise, almost every developed nation is investing in new trains, better rail infrastructure and resurrecting long-abandoned lines. Sadly, Canada remains an exception and its absence from the television series is probably warranted.

My confusion about the incoherence of Magic Machines and Mobile People is explained in the credits, which hint that there were in fact two final episodes made, one for the BBC and one for A&E. I only noticed this recently, and was delighted to find Track to the Future, the real ending to the show. Whereas the A&E version is like a bad school essay, trying to cram lots of facts together and hoping that it makes sense (note to self, don't do that), Track to the Future presents a coherent analysis of a very simple question: what is the future of rail? Rather than jumping around, the show used three case studies, all suitably glum and postmodern, to show how rail in the early '90s was dying.

While the case study on Japan is virtually identical to the A&E version, the other two are not. The show begins looking at the ruins of the Argentinian railway network, which was once one of the greatest in the world. Decimated by cuts under nationalization, the infrastructure collapsed, literally. Privatized in a last-ditch attempt to rescue some lines, the network shed over 90% of its employees and abandoned large swaths of the population who didn't live on arterial routes. Since the show was filmed, Argentina has suffered crippling economic crises and has now begun to re-nationalize some of its network in order to save it for the future. The other case study looked at Los Angeles' legendary gridlock, ironically the result of a highly popular interurban railway network. Streetcars made the city's suburbs possible, but then chained LA to cars when the tracks were ripped up. This is perhaps the most optimistic case, however, because the city has begun to rebuild its railway network (and continues to this day). Whereas Magic Machines and Mobile People was whimsical and nostalgic, Track to the Future was much more sober and demonstrated how railways will play a leading role in our future megacities.

Overall, Locomotion is now dated in its views of private business and lingering anti-Soviet feeling, but much of what it says remains incredibly relevant and sparked my interest in the social impact of railways nearly two decades ago. Locomotion was released as a 4-tape VHS set and has more recently been issued as a Region 1 2-disc DVD set. Nicholas Faith, the consultant for the series, wrote an accompanying book called Locomotion, which is definitely worth a read.