Stepping Back into Canadian Consciousness

On Monday night, I sat down to watch the first episode of the CBC’s new series “Canada: The Story of Us”, with some anticipation. After a per functionary nod to the hundreds of Indigenous nations that had flourished for millennia before European contact, we were told that Samuel de Champlain built the first European settlement in Canada in 1608, near the site of Québec City. Seriously? Has the position of New Brunswick, l’Acadie, and the Maritimes diminished in the national psyche to the point that our history is being erased by the CBC?

Readers will recall that the Sieur de Mons and Champlain built the first European settlement in 1604 on Ste. Croix Island, just off the shore from present day Bayside, New Brunswick, marking the birth of L’Acadie. After a disastrous winter, despite the assistance of the Passamaquoddy people, the settlers re-located across the Bay of Fundy in the Annapolis Basin at Port Royal. Champlain did build a habitation in the St. Lawrence Valley in 1608, but also sent settlers to reoccupy the settlement at Port Royal that had been briefly left in the care of the Mi’kmaq.

CBC is supposed to reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions. This is important because it leads to public understanding about the realities that we face in provinces such as New Brunswick. Without that understanding, how are Canadian citizens supposed to develop informed opinions about issues that arise between New Brunswick and the federal government. If New Brunswick’s place in confederation is invisible, then it becomes impossible to rally national support for equitable treatment of our province by Ottawa.

This is particularly critical at the moment because much of the money announced in the federal budget for affordable housing, public transit, green infrastructure, mental health, seniors’ home care and climate action will only flow to New Brunswick after federal-provincial agreements are negotiated and signed. Our lack of public transportation services, our demographic challenges, and the harsh impacts of climate change on our roads and coastlines require federal investments that other Canadians might see as disproportionate for our population. Getting a fair shake out of confederation in 2017 means the Premier and his ministers must fight for our interests in Ottawa, so we are not simply left with federal leftovers. Public transportation is a case in point.

One of the great attractions for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to unite with the Province of Canada 150 years ago was the promise of a railroad. And for generations we had good rail service. You could travel just about anywhere you needed to go inside or outside the Maritimes by train. Freight moved efficiently to market by rail. That certainly is no longer the case. Passenger rail service was largely abandoned by the federal government throughout the Maritimes with barely an objection from regional politicians.

That’s why it was heartening to hear that Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Bill Fraser met with VIA Rail CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano in early March, claiming they are on the same page when it comes to addressing deficiencies in the delivery of passenger rail service in New Brunswick.

It is deficient. You can’t travel among the province’s three biggest cities by rail. You can’t travel into the United States by rail. And the trip from Campbellton to Moncton, where there is still rail service, infrequent thought it may be, takes six hours.

Hopefully this is a sign that Minister Fraser’s mandate letter from the Premier directs him to improve our inadequate public transportation services, integrating new rail service with expanded bus services and enhanced transit.

If you can’t afford a car, the lack of public transportation is a huge barrier to employment, to accessing medical care, and to visiting family. And the excessive carbon pollution from our overdependence on driving stands in the way of the Premier achieving his carbon pollution reduction targets for 2020 and 2030. The establishment of convenient and seamless public transportation services would serve the Province’s social, economic and environmental objectives, but this requires investment from Ottawa.

The feds have budgeted $867 million for VIA Rail over the next three years. And they have committed $20 billion to improving public transit over the next 11 years.

New Brunswick has a tough fight on its hands to make the case for a fair share of those funds, given the gravitational forces that draw federal money to the large metropolises and the wealthiest provinces. However, we’ve been successful in the past when Maritime Premiers cooperated, and enough Canadians were persuaded that our cause is just. That means we have to step out of the shadows and assert ourselves as a vibrant part of the confederation that we were indispensable in creating 150 years ago.