Saskatchewan Says No. But Keep On Trying.
Yorkton, SK - Wednesday, August 6, 2014

“Unless people demand it, the government’s not going to do it,” he explains. “People might say they like the idea, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to pay for it. They want their taxes spent on schools and hospitals.”

And that’s that. I’ve marshalled my best arguments, and made my best pitch, but Greg Ottenbreit has given me a direct Saskatchewan response. He knows that the provincial government won’t build the Trans Canada Trail. Not unless I can generate a huge public clamour. And both of us realise that’s not likely. Still, he encourages me to keep on trying.

Mr Ottenbreit, MLA for Yorkton SK, and government whip, is a kind-hearted, generous-spirited and community-minded man. He understands my mission and he gives me a sympathetic hearing. He lost his five-year old son to cancer and then started a campaign that raised almost $700,000 for cancer research.

“You either get bitter, or you get better,” he advises. He channelled his grief into positive activities. I’m trying to do the same.

“My wife believed passionately in the Trans Canada Trail,” I recount. “Most Canadians do. When the idea was first announced, 80 % said they supported it, and 30 % said they would make a donation.”

“She not only dreamt of a greenway that would link Canadians, she wanted a place where it would be safe to walk and to cycle. And when she realised that many parts of the Trans Canada Trail were impassable and unusable – we were constantly being forced off the Trail and onto dangerous roads – she resolved that, after her retirement, she would work to promote its completion. I’m taking up her cause.”

“Saskatchewan,” I continue, “has the worst record in Canada. Officially, It has built only a third of its proposed 1,500-km Trail. But I’m discovering that even this abysmal figure is an exaggeration. The province is simply posting trail signs on rural roads.”

“There’s no excuse. This is a wealthy province with the strongest economy in Canada. But people are acting like it’s still poverty-stricken and bankrupt. My grandfather, also Edmund Aunger, got married and raised a family in Saskatoon, before financial difficulties forced him to move to Ontario. My father-in-law, Stephen Sovis, rode the rails from Broderick to Toronto during the Great Depression, searching for work.”

“But those days are over. Saskatchewan now has a $14 billion budget and can easily find the money – estimated to be $15 million, but I think that figure is too low – to build the Trail. Spread it over five years. It’s a drop in the bucket. This province has already built 190,000 km of public roads. Surely it can build 1,500 km of public trails. At a small fraction of the cost – less than 10 % per kilometre – of a gravel road.”

My fiscal arguments don’t make any headway with Mr Ottenbreit. “That $15 million would have to come out of somebody’s budget,” he responds. “And nobody’s going to give it up. We have a lot of infrastructure and a small population. And with the flooding this summer the maintenance and repair costs are huge.”

We’ve reached an impasse. The province has a projected $71 million budget surplus this year, but it’s still trying to cut services and reduce taxes. I’m barking up the wrong tree. So I try a different tack.

“I spoke with a municipal councillor in Edam who said that the Trans Canada Trail Foundation has allocated $2.5 million for a trail along the abandoned 135-km rail line running from Frenchman Butte to Prince. But CN won’t even talk about it. The premier, Brad Wall, should get involved. He could apply some pressure. Those rail lines were built with public money. They should revert to public ownership.”

No luck. “The railways are like a fourth level of government,” Mr Ottenbreit informs me. “They don’t listen to anybody. We can’t tell them what to do. They’re private corporations. And they just want to make money. And we’re not in their good books after pushing them to carry our grain.”

“Well,” I conclude, somewhat desperately, “if the provincial government isn’t going to take on the task, the rural municipalities certainly aren’t equipped to build a cross-country trail. They don’t have the financial resources or the population base or the planning power.”

He agrees. “Rural municipalities just do roads and easements. That’s all. And they already have their hands full. They don’t have time for trails.  But they always want provincial money so they can reduce taxes on agricultural land.”

Now what? The rural municipalities can’t do it. I had hoped that the provincial government might be persuaded. But apparently not. Saskatchewan won’t budge.

“You should write to the premier,” Mr Ottenbreit offers, “and carbon copy all the MLAs. Give them some information.”

“I’ve already done that,” I explain. “I sent a petition to the premier and copied the relevant ministers – tourism, parks, infrastructure, transportation – but it’s not going anywhere. The Saskatchewan Trails Association tells me that trying to talk to the government is a complete waste of time. Its members have been trying for years; they’re burned out and they’ve given up.”

“You know,” I reflect, “this whole situation reminds me of another great national project, the Trans-Canada Highway. It wasn’t going anywhere until the federal government took a leading role, strong-arming the provinces and putting up the money. We really need a coordinated national effort.”

Mr Ottenbreit assents. “The railroad and the highway wouldn’t have been built otherwise. Not without the federal government.”

But he encourages me to keep on trying to inform the public. Unless people demand the Trail, no government is going to build it.

Brad Wall, premier of Saskatchewan, and Greg Ottenbreit, MLA Yorkton