Three past federal ministers of transport – Hon. Messrs. David Collenette, Tony Valeri and Chuck Strahl – helped kick-off the Canadian Transportation Research Forum’s 50th annual conference with a retrospective look at the issues of their day, how they addressed them, and related lessons for Canadian transportation policy looking forward.

This opening panel session, moderated by former Deputy Minister of Transport Nick Mulder, covered a broad range of subjects, from the political dynamics influencing transportation decisions to the opportunities to expand access to Canada’s vast North.

Chuck Strahl (Minister of Transport from 2011-2012, among other Cabinet posts) opened by providing a frank insiders perspective on the challenges inherent in effecting change as a federal minister, citing resistance to change within the bureaucracy, legacy policies and regulations, as well as day-to-day fire fighting among the difficulties in advancing new policies. Strahl recounted humorous anecdotes, including the time he had to deal with a plane that was grounded for lack of a washroom ashtray as specified in an outdated regulation, or the unexpected significant pushback he had been subjected to on the elimination of the canoe and kayak registry. Things tend to moves slowly in government, he acknowledged, citing the pitchers of water in Committee meetings, as an example – they contain so much ice that it’s often difficult to pour water out, but changing something as simple as this can take considerable time, given the sheer size of the government machine.

Strahl also pointed to the political realities he faced, singling out freight rail regulation, during the Rail Freight Service Review, as the most political issue of this term. “Everyone had an interest they were trying to advance”, he noted. Nevertheless, he explained that government tools for dealing with market issues are limited, but regulatory discipline is one of the few things government can do.

David Collenette (Minister of Transport from 1997 to 2003, among other Cabinet posts) similarly acknowledged the politics of freight rail regulation, adding that grain was likely the most divisive of all the rail issues. In discussing the success of the CN privatization initiated by his predecessor Doug Young, for example, Collenette recounted the only fight he ever had with then CN CEO Paul Tellier was about grain rail regulations.

Collenette also spoke of the transportation reforms of the mid-1990s which he had a hand in implementing, which included, beyond the privatization of CN, the elimination of the Crow Rate, the commercialization of Canadian ports, and the reform of the air sector, adding that these reforms have worked incredibly well. This point was echoed later by Tony Valeri in his remarks. Nevertheless, Collenette cautioned that regulatory tendencies can swing like a pendulum, noting that there was a tendency to regulate up to the end of the last part of the Trudeau years, which was followed by a period of deregulation, but adding that the pendulum seems to be swinging back, pointing to the passing of Bill C-30 (Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act) as an example.

In his comments, Tony Valeri (Minister of Transport from 2003-2004) noted that transport policy can be a powerful lever in supporting a government’s overall economic agenda, and underscored that commercial and market mechanisms are the most efficient way of enabling the competitiveness of Canada’s transportation system. There was unanimous consent on this – irrespective of political stripes. Valeri’s term as Minister of Transport was short – six months – but he played some important roles, including as Chair of the Cabinet Committee on the World Trade Organizations (WTO) negotiations. Valeri recounted the four pillars of his policy framework while Minister of Transport: 1) Market-driven policy framework, 2) Efficient trade corridor policy, 3) Multimodal infrastructure strategy, and 4) Skills and R&D support, which to some extent are still central to Transport Canada policies today. Now working in government relations for integrated steel company ArcelorMittal Defasco, Valeri provided some comments, from a shippers perspective, underscoring the importance of transportation as an enabler of competitiveness. He did highlight some industry concerns, including the cost of marine pilotage in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, the truck driver shortage, which is to some extent exacerbated by hours of service rules, and the challenges and delays associated with environmental reviews for new infrastructure projects. He also cited continued investment in research and technology as key to helping Canada compete on the world stage.

Many common themes emerged during the panel discussions, perhaps most notable are the challenges inherent in developing and advancing good transport strategies and policies when ministers of transport continually have to react to emerging urgent issues. Strahl noted that sometimes politicians are forced by political imperative to focus on short term issues, rather than longer term strategies, likening the process at times akin to a game of “whack a mole”. One related example was the looming financial meltdown of Canadian Airlines, when Collenette worked to encourage a merger with Air Canada, noting that at the time he spent close to 70 per cent of his time dealing with airline issues. Collenette also recounted his response to the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., which he noted as his most difficult day as Minister of Transport, recalling how he made the tough decision to ground all air traffic and accommodate U.S.-bound planes at Canadian airports – all this via three cell phones in car heading back to Ottawa and within 45 minutes of the U.S. closing off its airspace.

Despite the reality of constantly having to react to issues, Strahl noted the importance and need for a coherent and robust strategic plan to guide decisions, noting in a memorable quote that “if you mess around with transport policy from the seat of your pants…. it will be messy”. It was suggested that the ongoing review of the Canada Transport Act, Chaired by David Emerson, could provide a solid basis for a future transportation strategy for Canada, as was similarly the case for the successful Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative, also led by Emerson, then as Minister of International Trade and Minister for the Pacific Gateway.

In the closing Q&A discussions, many of Canada`s most significant transportation policy challenges were also identified as potential opportunities – notably the development and opening up of the North, funding infrastructure and the issue of cabotage, among others. It was broadly acknowledged that a clear strategy, backed by strong leadership, was central to guiding successful transportation policies and to continuing to ensure Canada’s prosperity. It is hoped that the recommendations to come from the review of the CTA will help get us there.

Marc-André Roy is a Partner with management consulting firm CPCS, and the Immediate Past President of CTRF.