COMMENTARY · 9th May 2013
The scandal-ridden sale of BC Rail has haunted provincial politics and the BC Liberal government since 2003. Like Marley's ghost in Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol", it shows up again and again, chains clanking, reminding all who will listen of some very unpleasant facts.
Now, finally, it looks as if we could have an opportunity to confront some of these facts. The BC NDP has announced that, if elected on May 14th, it will conduct a judicial inquiry into the sale of BC Rail to the U.S. rail giant CN Rail. This inquiry is expected to take two years and cost $10 million.
What are just a few of these unpleasant facts?
In the early 1990s, David McLean, Chairman of CN Rail, provided substantial backing and support for Gordon Campbell's bid to take over the leadership of the BC Liberal Party, which was then in opposition.
In the 1996 election, Campbell ran on a platform that included the selling off of BC Rail, a provincially-owned crown corporation. However, he lost the election in large part due to the opposition to the proposed sale from people in the north of the province. After the election, Campbell apologized to northerners and said that he would not repeat the mistake.
Yet, after winning the provincial election in a landslide in 2001, Campbell reversed his promise. BC Rail was put up for sale in 2003. Although the Liberal government used other terminology to describe the transaction, such as "partnership", "lease", and so on, the bare fact remained that it was, for all intents and purposes, a sale.
People in Prince George and surrounding communities, from all walks of life and political affiliations, stood up against what they considered to be a flagrant betrayal of trust. Nevertheless, the provincial government, with the full support of then Minister Christy Clark, as well as local Liberal MLAs Pat Bell and Shirley Bond, proceeded to push it through.
The bidding process itself was scandal-ridden. Two of the bidders, CP Rail and Burlington Northern, withdrew their offers alleging that the government had leaked key information to the winning bidder CN Rail, and that the bidding process was "unfair."
Soon after CN Rail was granted the contract, the RCMP launched an unprecedented raid on the BC Legislature. News outlets around the world reported on the spectacle of RCMP officers ringing the Legislature and marching out of buildings with seized computers and boxes bulging with files. The incident has to be one of the most shameful things ever to happen in the history of BC politics, and brought the entire political process in the province into disrepute.
As part of the investigation, the RCMP also raided the home of Bruce Clark, brother of current Premier Christy Clark, and seized confidential documents that had been handed over to him by the two ministerial aides, Basi and Virk, who were charged with accepting bribes, breach of trust and fraud. Bruce Clark was never charged.
The corruption trial of Basi and Virk had its own set of controversies. In testimony, various dirty tricks and questionable practices carried out by individuals associated with the BC Liberals came to light. Indeed, just as key testimony was about to be given that could have shed light on broader aspects of the bidding process and scandal, the provincial government announced that a plea deal had been negotiated. Astoundingly, as part of the plea deal, the $6 million legal bill for Basi and Virk was paid off with public funds and the trial was shut down.
There are a multitude of other unanswered questions and controversies too numerous to be mentioned here that are associated with this sordid affair, and which hover phantom-like over BC politics.
These must be brought to light. Why? Because there is a perception amongst many British Columbians that other crimes and wrongdoings associated with this deal still remain to be uncovered. Indeed, a number of facts point in that direction. Given the sheer magnitude of the sale and the controversies associated with it, a full public inquiry is warranted.
Furthermore, BC Rail represented a major billion dollar public asset, one which was closely associated with the opening of the Interior and development of the province. To sell off such an important asset, after promising not to do so, was an act of treachery committed against the people of BC and the sovereignty of the province.
Elected officials must be taught that when they carry out actions in contempt of the people, there will be consequences. Not to do so, means that such actions will be repeated in the future. As an example of this repetition, scarcely two months after the 2009 election, the government tried to impose the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) even though before the election, it had clearly indicated it was not planning such a controversial action. The parallel to the sell-off of BC Rail in 2003 was apparent to the many who were outraged by the imposition of the tax.
Finally, the $6 million payout to Basi and Virk to cover their legal expenses (and subsequent shutting down of the corruption trial) stinks to high heaven. Government officials need to account for such an outrageous act.
No doubt some in the BC Liberal Party will howl and moan about the prospect of a public inquiry. But the fact of the matter is, it was their mess. They caused it. They inflicted it on the province. So they shouldn't complain when others try to clear the air.
In addition, they definitely should not complain about the price tag of $10 million, considering that they handed over $6 million to the convicted criminals who were part of the scandal, and considering that they sold off a publicly-owned asset worth more than $1 billion to a U.S. rail company, using a scandal-ridden bidding process to do so.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: peter.ewart,,,shaw.ca
Comment by Karen on 12th May 2013
I often wondered why our court system allowed such blattant manipulation of this case to continue. Could it be because judges were under the misconception that government must be construed as uncorruptable in order to maintain control? Maybe the Liberals ensured that those judges connected to the case would not oppose the Liberal's prefered outcome by what ever means.
Either way, corruption in our governments will not only continue but will escalate if our court system continues pandering to corporate interests and those politicians under the corporate thumb.
I say bring on the inquiry, whatever it costs, ensure the media is kept abreast of the progress and if it results in another court case the public must be kept completely informed so we can renew our trust in our courts, in our government and in a badly erroded democratic system.
I couldn't agree with you more....
Comment by Larry on 11th May 2013
The liberals have raped and plundered this beautiful province for years and it is time they were held accountable. Sure the NDP are not the be all/end all party but it is time for a change