There is a time when individuals and groups are called upon to stand up for a higher principle. And so it was over seven years ago, when the provincial Liberal government, puffed up with arrogance and drunk with power, reversed its election promise and announced that it would sell off the provincially-owned railway BC Rail to a private bidder.
The establishment of BC Rail was a crucial step in the development of the Interior and of the province as a whole. The railway knitted together communities from Vancouver in the Southwest all the way North to Fort Nelson near the Yukon border, and played a major role in the advancement of the forest industry and other industries in the Interior. With the establishment of the railway and some other key developments, it can be said that modern British Columbia - the province as we know it - came into being.
Not surprisingly, when the sale (or "990 year lease" as it turned out) was announced, people were outraged all over the province. But nowhere was the opposition and anger stronger than in Prince George, one of the main cities along the BC Rail line.
It was a time for people to stand up for a publicly-owned asset of great value to the province. And it was a time to stand up against a government that was cynically breaking a key promise.
Railway workers and their unions were in the forefront of the opposition. They worked hard, organizing rallies, circulating petitions, and participating in committees. Don Thorne, railway worker and local spokesperson, impressed everyone with his sincerity and courage, and there were many other rail workers like him. It takes guts to speak out when the government is against you and your company is about to be taken over by a giant U.S. monopoly with a reputation for anti-labour practices. But to their credit, the workers did speak out, not only for themselves, but also for all the people of the province.
The Active Voice Coalition, a broad-based community organization which I and many others were involved with forming, played an important role in the struggle, coming together with railway workers, the Prince George & District Labour Council, and others in the city to form the Committee to Save BC Rail. From outside the region, the Committee received timely support from Jim Sinclair and Glen McInnis of the BC Federation of Labour.
Alice Ross played a significant role in all of this, as did, in one way or another, Ann Krauseneck, Wiho Papenbrock, Dawn Hemingway, Ed Mazur, Erle Martz, George Davison, Jan Mastromatteo, Melinda Worfolk, Julie Carew, Lorna Waghorn-Kidd, Bob Martin, Hilary Crowley, Doug Tedford, Lara Beckett, Ken Benham, Justa Monk, Christina McLennan, Kathy Jessome, Leann Dawson, Nives Pastro, Norm and Val Wright, Dave and Ann Halikowski, Bev Collins, Sandy Stephens, Brian Skakun, Herb Conat, Wayne Mills, Chuck Fraser ... there are too many names to mention them all. Together, we organized the largest rally in the province against the sale of the railway, as well as numerous public meetings, pickets, petitions, and resolutions.
But it wasn't only workers and community activists who stood up. A broad range of people in the community, including local business people and broadcasters, did so also. Some at great personal and career expense.
Ben Meisner, the current editor of Opinion250, was host of one of the top-ranked radio talk shows in the province. Ben refused to stop asking questions about the increasingly controversial, and suspicious, sale of the railway. He was ostracized by various local "leaders" who ganged up as cheerleaders and shills for the Liberal government. But he didn’t complain – he just stood his ground and refused to capitulate.
Ron East, a well-known and respected broadcaster, had been co-chair of local Liberal MLA Pat Bell’s election team. He had worked on the Liberal campaign with the understanding that, if elected, the new government would not sell the railway under any circumstances. When the news came of the sale, Ron broke with the government, local MLAs and Liberal Party functionaries, many of whom he had known for years, and opposed the sale on principle.
And then there was Paul Nettleton, local Liberal MLA, who actually split with the Liberal government over the privatization of BC Hydro, but who also came forward to oppose the sale of BC Rail. Paul, of course, was expelled from the Liberal Caucus, and eventually moved away from the region.
All three men became members of the Committee to Save BC Rail, speaking at meetings in Prince George, Quesnel and Williams Lake, with Ron East serving as spokesperson for the Committee.
There were many outside the region who also stuck their necks out in significant ways. One of those, of course, is Mary Mackie, also known as "BC Mary", who tirelessly worked over the years to catalogue all the news stories and analysis about the sale of the railway on her online blog, "The Legislature Raids".
As a Vancouver-based columnist, Bill Tieleman wrote extensively on the scandal, to the point that his offices were even broken into under mysterious circumstances that appeared to be related to his coverage of the scandal.
Writer and activist Robin Matthews was the journalist who, by far, attended the most sessions of the BC Rail trial. For his fearless writing, he was threatened with expulsion from the Supreme Court chambers.
And the two opposition NDP MLAs Joy McPhail and Jenny Kwan stood up and hammered away at the government on the issue day after day in the provincial Legislature. Former Premier Bill Vander Zalm travelled up to the rally in Prince George and spoke out as well.
And the list goes on and on ...
The trial of the BC Rail defendants has ended as sordidly as it begun. Some are saying that the scandal is now over. And they may be right.
But the stench of corruption and betrayal by a government, and its cheerleaders and shills, will linger on through time. The Premier and his obedient MLAs, no matter how much they scrub, will never be able to remove the rotten odour from their legacy.
What will also remain is the memory of those who, coming from different backgrounds and political points of view, stood up for a principle, some doing so at great personal loss, never wavering in their opposition to the sale of a public railway that was a jewel in the crown of the province.
I believe that some day that jewel will come back to the people of this province. It may take many years or even many decades. But times change. Big rail companies come and go. Lying and corrupt governments fall.
But the people - and the principles they stand for – remain forever. Peter Ewart is a columnist, writer and community activist based in Prince George, British Columbia. He is a regular contributer to www.opinion250.com