Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

“Fears of a damaging trade war”

with 4 comments

The Americans are going to start a study to see if Canada subsidizes its ports – with particular reference to Prince Rupert. Oh goody, I just happen to have a recent picture of that

Chuane on the container berth

Container ship at Prince Rupert - my photo on flickr

I added the comment

Container ships to Prince Rupert from the Asian Pacific rim save two days sailing over Vancouver. And the CN line from PR to Chicago is easier too. But BC is still spending billions on its misguided Gateway programme.

In fact Canada has its own federally funded programme of Pacific port expansion (this is a 2007 report which popped up near the top of my Google search). And of course this blog has been warning for some time that any program that is designed to win more business from the United States will, inevitably, attract their attention. And when times get tough the instincts of American politicians are always towards protectionism. Indeed just look at almost any of the earlier posts in the same categories as this one and you will see that this response was indeed predicted.

Whether or not the rules say that governments in Canada are allowed to invest in ports, or in improving access to ports (something the Americans have been doing for years too) does not matter. Anyone who followed the softwood lumber saga – which continues to this day over how we deal with beetle damaged timber – understands that it is what appeals to American voters that matters, not what the agreements on “free trade” might include.

Basically, as Pierre Trudeau observed, when you sleep next to an elephant…

Their view of “free trade” is that they want our resources, especially the oil gas and water. They also want untrammelled access to our markets. But if we want to be treated as equals in an open trading relationship, that is only a matter of what is currently acceptable. Speeches and smiles when the documents are signed – but lots of harrumphing and threats if the deal turns out to favour us in any significant way.

Our current political leadership at both federal and provincial levels has been embarrassingly eager to adopt the role of America’s little brother – not noticing that the Americans themselves always add the word “annoying” to the front of that appellation. The economic viability of the programs to expand our ports and the transportation networks that connect to them was never very strong. After all, just handling containers and passing them along adds very little value. The employment (after the construction phase) is quite small when viewed as a cost per job given the billions spent. And the jobs themselves are not exactly what we need either. The whole traffic of consumer goods from Asia to North America, funded by dubious financial instruments and a huge trade deficit, is clearly not sustainable. The environmental impact has been, generally, ignored by government.

It is, after all, only a study. But given the reaction already, the penny seems to have dropped, finally, that the people who have been pushing the Gateway and port expansion have really not been especially forthright. And that we could indeed be stuck with some more white elephants. The money is largely spent – and the benefits have not been very much and could evaporate. Just as BC’s lumber processing industry has shrunk to a shadow of its former self, not least because of the pressure of the US softwood lumber producers.

Fortunately, the construction of the additional container berths at Roberts Bank has not yet started. It is not too late to cancel them – but we are stuck with the SFPR and the widened Highway #1.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 5, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Posted in Gateway, port expansion

4 Responses

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  1. It’s interesting that your photo of the ship at the shiny new container dock in Prince Rupert is of the Panama registered COSCO Chuanhe, owned by the government of the People’s Republic of China and loaded with manufactured goods bound for Chicago to destroy American jobs and sabotage American consumers with shoddy products that break and fall apart. You would think that the government of the United States might want to focus its attention on China and not Canada and especially not poor, beleaguered Prince Rupert.

    I have never understood the purpose of the Gateway Project in Vancouver. If you ask me all we are doing is facilitating Chinese manufacturing companies and providing very few jobs in British Columbia. Container ship loading and unloading is highly mechanized and does not create many jobs. A few full-time longshoreman make a living wage in Vancouver but a lot of the port jobs (like container trucking) pay near minimum-wage and the trucking imposes costs on British Columbia taxpayers. Container ships like the COSCO Chuanhe don’t use Canadian shoreside servicing companies either. All Chinese ship servicing is done in China. The Chuanhe scoots up to the Prince Rupert dock, containers are quickly unloaded and then she scoots back to Asia quick as a bunny. It’s unlikely a Chuanhe crew member even set foot on the dock in Prince Rupert.

    I’m guessing from the perspective of your photo that you were arriving in Prince Rupert on board BC Ferries Northern Expedition. That is my favorite ferry trip in the world. The last time I was on the Northern Expedition I took a picture of the railway enhancements east of Prince Rupert:


    October 5, 2011 at 7:24 pm

  2. Nearly but not quite – this was departing Prince Rupert and there is a set of pictures on flickr of the top half of that voyage.

    Stephen Rees

    October 6, 2011 at 9:45 am

  3. Stephen, I know the purpose of your blog post is not to propagate a travelogue about the north coast but your photos make me nostalgic for the time I lived up there and I traveled back and forth to Vancouver on the ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy. I have a photo I took on the aft deck of the ill-fated Queen of the North. On my next trip on the Queen of the North she did not show up at the dock. When the unbelievable news of her fate was confirmed we all knew what happened to Shirley Rosette and Gerald Foisy. They were trapped in their cabin by the unfortunate lock design on the Queen of the North. The new ferry should have been named The Spirit of Txałgiu to honour the people of Hartley Bay who rescued the survivors of the Queen of the North disaster.

    MV Queen of the North


    October 6, 2011 at 6:11 pm

  4. I heard from a reliable source that one reason that a search for the two passengers was not conducted was that there were two stowaways aboard on the night of the sinking. The passenger count was correct, and there was no reliable manifest.

    Stephen Rees

    October 6, 2011 at 6:28 pm

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