Northern Ontario tourism in the crosshairs again

People familiar with last year’s battle to maintain ferry service between Manitoulin Island and Tobermory will find similarities with the plight of businesses, communities, and property owners set to lose passenger rail service from the Algoma Central Railway (ACR).

On Manitoulin, the Conservative government walked away from their clear responsibility to repair the federal port facility that hosts the Chi Cheemaun ferry and chose to start a fight with the province over who should pay.  Manitoulin businesses were left twisting in the wind and a 35 million dollar tourism economy on the Island was threatened by the dispute.  With the ACR, tourism dollars are again a minor consideration as the Conservatives place the blame on CN who own the ACR.  In both cases the government threw the first punch.

The ACR’s trouble began when the Conservatives changed the subsidy for rural and remote passenger rail service by removing the rural component altogether.  They say the ACR is not a remote line since the communities it serves are accessible by road and killed the subsidy.  CN say they operated passenger services at a loss but will not continue doing that if they have to shoulder the entire burden.  The government is defending themselves by claiming they are not going to subsidize a profitable corporation, which is a position that stands in stark contrast to the $2 billion in subsidies and tax breaks they give the oil and gas sector – but that is another issue.

As I listened to the Transport Minister respond to my question on the ACR, I was struck by the complete lack of regard shown for the people who will suffer the most.  This isn’t limited to those who will lose their only or preferred mode of transport between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.  There are also people who will not be able to access their remote properties, and tourist outfitters who will now have to scramble to bring guests to their establishments.

For outfitters like hunting and fishing camps the announcement came at the same time as they are drumming up business for the upcoming season.  Many use the unique experience of arriving by train as a selling point.  I don’t envy the task they now face informing their guests that the train is no longer an option and scrambling to find other means of bringing them in to their remote locations.  Just like on Manitoulin Island, these operators must wonder if their hard work and contributions to their local economy is of no value to their own government.

What is disturbing is the Conservatives willingness to pick fights at the expense of Mom and Pop businesses.  These are usually lean budget ventures that shouldn’t have to face tremendous obstacles from their government, especially ones that are sprung upon them at the last minute without a hint of consultation.  That should be clear enough for any government to understand.