Why the Ruling on Canada Line Must Stand

With their decision to appeal the BC Supreme Court ruling granting compensation to Cambie merchant, Susan Heyes, the powers that be are demonstrating their determination to have the legal right to bankrupt and destroy the lives of anyone in the path of one of their mega-projects.

A couple of years ago, the decision to appeal might have seemed less shocking than it does today. In this era of multi-billion dollar corporate bail-outs, it is absolutely baffling that our political leadership would treat small businesses, our economic backbone, so differently than they do large corporations.

Many of the corporate giants that are being infused with billions in taxpayers’ dollars made serious errors that led to their own demise. Small businesses along the Canada Line simply had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have no private jets, retreats to the Bahamas or multi-million dollar bonuses – heck, they don’t even have CEOs. No, these businesses had few extravagant perks to cut back when the Canada Line gave them the shaft. They mortgaged or sold their homes to try to keep afloat. One family on the brink resorted to living in the back of their Cambie Street restaurant.

While the provincial government was deriding these businesses, even suggesting their losses were the result of poor management, they were quietly handing over $53 million in bail-out money to the Canada Line to cover losses in the US sub-prime mortgage crisis.

We have entered an era in which a pro-corporate culture dominates government with corporate rights trumping citizens' rights at almost every turn. Nowhere is this more clear than with the Canada Line. As a P3 – a public-private-partnership - the Canada Line is a for-profit, corporate venture.

For years leading up to the eventual P3 partnership, public input was sought on a system that included an underground bored tunnel from at least 2nd Avenue to 37th. The secret last minute change to cut and cover made all this public input meaningless. By the time we discovered the truth – thanks to a diligent citizen who read through hundreds of pages on the Environmental Assessment website – it was too late. The project was already running out of time to meet the Olympic deadline imposed by the provincial government. The futile post-disclosure public meetings were used to rubber-stamp the government’s requirement for additional public consultation once the truth was known.

So just how did this happen? As Justice Pitfield stated during a pre-trial hearing, P3s take us into "uncharted waters". The bidding process in a P3 is cloaked in confidentiality to protect the commercial interests of the bidders. So, even once cut and cover was on the table, no one knew unless they had signed a confidentiality agreement. Even the City of Vancouver, the owner of Cambie Street, was not fully aware of what it was granting street access for.

Members of the City’s Engineering Department signed confidentiality agreements after they were authorized by Council to negotiate the street access agreement for the project. When they learned that cut and cover was a possibility (contrary to the conditions upon which they were authorized to act), they never advised City Council, nor did they tell Translink there was a conflict and they could not proceed. Instead, they kept quiet, citing confidentiality.

It was former City Councillor, Anne Roberts, who broke the news about cut and cover in late January 2005 after a citizen approached her with the information at a Canada Line Open House. The winning bid had been chosen almost two months earlier and the need for confidentiality was gone, yet the dramatic change to cut and cover was never publicly announced by any of the P3 partners.

The Canada Line is a study in how not to undertake a massive infrastructure project. The cloak of confidentiality that allowed the project to unfold as it did, is an affront to democracy, transparency and accountability. While we’ve been told that confidentiality was essential to protect the commercial interests of the corporate bidders, small businesses are no less deserving of protection for their commercial interests.

At the end of the day, Judge Pitfield’s ruling - currently under appeal - would change the way projects like the Canada Line are planned; breathing new life into what is too often a sham consultation process, and increasing the transparency and accountability that should be a given in a democratic society.

It would also ensure that if the public-private partnership model is applied to future projects, the rights of citizens and small businesses are respected, and that private corporate partners cannot profit by cutting corners that cause devastating losses to local businesses.

It is a ruling that must stand.

Jillian Skeet is an International Affairs Consultant who has worked with organizations at the local, national and international levels. Her varied background includes working in the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, as well as with organizations at the United Nations offices in both Geneva and New York.

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