Back in 1992 the federal government created the Trans Canada Trail (TCT) organization as a national entity to establish a trail system that connected the entire country. It was touted as one of those national dream schemes that would bind the nation together. Reference to the building of a national railway in the 1880s is usually mentioned as a similar goal. In typical government fashion the TCT was given a healthy budget and a fairly open mandate to get the job done. That’s a sure-fire recipe for bureaucrats to get into mischief and it didn’t take long to create unneeded controversy.
In the beginning TCT bureaucrats engaged in their usual busybody work by hiring consultants to figure out what the TCT should do to expedite the creation of a national trail. One reality was that established trails already existed in various parts of the country, more so in eastern Canada because of geography and population. Connecting them into a national grid would be a lot easier than in the more trackless open spaces in other parts of the country. Also, local groups, municipal authorities and provincial governments had long been involved in developing trails. In a way that probably frustrated TCT bureaucrats, they could only be cheerleaders and provide grants. But that was about to change thanks to railway companies.
In their ongoing rationalization, railway companies abandon uneconomic lines. The side effect is that trail friendly rights of way are created. In the past railways disposed of them either by selling or giving them away to adjacent land owners or letting them revert to crown ownership. It was a matter of getting rid of the tax burden and liability. However, with the creation of the TCT railways were given the opportunity to donate abandoned rights of way to the TCT and receive a tax credit for their donation. It was a win-win situation for the railways and it gave TCT bureaucrats something to do. For adjacent landowners particularly in Alberta this was not a positive development.
The TCT accepted the donation of railway rights of way property and almost immediately began to flex its ownership attitude in a way one might expect from a federal entity headquartered in distant Montreal. Legal letters were sent to adjacent landowners arrogantly telling them that the TCT was not going to honour any rights or commitments that the railway formerly had in place. Many adjacent landowners felt that the TCT was downloading liability onto them – a political fight was inevitable. Meetings were held and letters of outrage at the TCT’s arrogance were sent to governments demanding that the TCT be reined in and that honest negotiations be held to resolve disputes. Not surprisingly arrogant TCT bureaucrats stood their ground. Some meetings were held between the parties, but it was more of a PR effort challenging the audacity of land owners to stop such a noble national scheme. It took a while but inspired political action was taken and the federal government stripped the TCT of its ability to act on its own in developing any donated property for trail development.
That started the TCT to initiate a more cooperative approach, and in many cases provincial and local authorities took over control of abandoned railway rights of way for possible trail development. Local user groups were encouraged to take over management of trails. It’s a policy that has generally worked, but there are still significant gaps in the national trail in remote areas. The hope was that the trail could be completed by 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation, but that will probably not happen. The reality is it’s costly to develop some long distance trails that would probably not see much use, that doesn’t encourage governments being that it affects very few voters. The TCT does provide funding for trail development but that usually requires matching funding from other agencies and groups. The TCT has caused some of the problem by insisting that no motorized traffic be allowed on trails it helps finance. The issue involves trail use by all-terrain vehicles (ATV), it’s more an ideological issue with purists insisting that ATV use interferes with other users. Be that as it may ATV user groups are well organized and would be a valuable asset in financing and developing trails particularly in the gap areas which involve long distances. Seemingly there is a compromise in this matter to the benefit of all stakeholders, perhaps for the TCT attitude in this matter, old habits may be hard to change.
AHEAD OF THE HEARD