No one it Ottawa seems to know where the “buck” stops: they do in other city’s.

January 10, 2014


By Ray Rivers

The dealer in a wild-west game of poker was  selected by the position of a buckhorn handled knife rotating in clockwise fashion after each hand.  If a player didn’t want the responsibility of dealing, he’d pass the buck to the next player.  Former US President Truman was given a sign to that effect, which he placed prominently on his desk.  The buck stops here – meaning: responsibility will not be passed beyond this point.

Former US President Harry Truman made sure everyone knew where the buck stopped.

New Jersey Republican governor Christie is in the news.  One of his staff had shut down a couple of  lanes of traffic on a very busy bridge linking his state with New York.  This was purely a political action aimed at punishing the mayor of a town at the base of the bridge, a democrat, who refused to endorse Christie.  So Christie, a 2016 presidential hopeful, trumpeted that the buck stopped with him then passed it on, denying any responsibility for what his office had done, blaming his senior staff and then firing them.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?  Stephen Harper claims he was unaware that his Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was trying to influence the outcome of an audit into the expense claims of Senator Mike Duffy.  Harper the micro-manager, who once told Parliament that he had personally reviewed and accepted the expense claims of Senator Pamela Wallin, orchestrated her and Duffy’s removal from the upper chamber for exactly that reason, both of whom had been his personal appointees.  He then fired his chief of staff for trying to keep Duffy quiet and announced the matter closed.

 In 2008, 23 people died and 57 others were sickened from eating listeria contaminated cold cuts prepared by Maple Leaf Foods.  CEO Michael McCain was praised for his handling of the aftermath of this catastrophe.  Maple Leaf is a huge company and this was clearly a mistake, an oversight, by plant staff and the inspectors.  But 23 people died and he is still CEO.  The federal agency responsible for food safety, CFIA, and its minister had commended McCain on his deportment during the crisis but shrugged-off any responsibility on their part – they just passed the buck to the plant operators. 

Hogs slaughtered and ready for butchering.

Perhaps that lack of accountability helps to explain why some four years later CFIA inspectors turned a blind eye at Alberta’s XL Meats.  This plant which processes 35% of Canada’s beef had a deregulated inspection system but the company’s own inspectors ignored the deadly e-coli bacteria contaminating the meat tenderizing machines.  Fortunately only 18 unwary customers were poisoned by the e-coli bacteria.  In a system without consequences why expect things to change?

It was also e-coli bacteria in the water supply, which had killed 7 people and sickened half of Walkerton’s 5000 residents in 2000.  The town’s water plant operators received criminal penalties, but the Mayor and his council committee just passed the buck.  And the Harris government also passed the buck after having deregulated provincial water testing without considering ways of preventing this kind of incident.

And on the topic of deregulation, the disaster at Lac-Mégantic last year involved a shifty railroad entrepreneur, given a special exemption by the feds to run his train with only one operator.   Unsurprisingly, the workload was too much for a single operator who didn’t or couldn’t set all of the train’s brakes, allowing the train to escape and destroy the downtown, killing just under 50 people. 

The federal transportation safety agency is trying to shift the blame for this incident to other factors, which they should have known about – the explosive trend of moving petroleum by rail, and the documented inferior tank car design being used.  This week there was another fiery train derailment, in New Brunswick.  Oil shipments by rail in Canada have leapt from 529 cars in 2005 to 160,000 cars in 2013, but the number of dangerous goods inspectors has remained relatively constant.  The ratio of inspectors to oil carloads over the period has crashed from 1:14 to 1:4000.  Is there any wonder we are seeing this?

China experienced a tragic health event in 2008 when its state-owned Sanlu Group poured melamine (a product associated with kitchen counters) into infant formula to artificially raise protein levels while they watered down milk in the product.  After several babies died and hundreds of thousands were sickened (imported pet food in North America was also affected), Chinese authorities beheaded those who had engineered the deadly plot and imprisoned the milk company CEO for life.

China takes responsibility seriously although the buck did stop short of the communist party.  Beheading is not yet a part of Mr Harper’s tough-on-crime policy and in any case we need to observe that higher law – you know, the one in the scene from the Mikado – let the punishment fit the crime.  So life imprisonment and beheading are out of the question even if you chose your senators poorly and are a control freak. 

Under Mr. Harper’s crime legislation there is a mandatory six month prison term for anyone cultivating as few as six marijuana plants in their backyard.  Yet, I have never heard of anyone dying from smoking pot, not even Rob Ford.  So what about some time in the ‘big house’ for those whose crimes really kill, like e-coli, listeria and flaming trains.

British Columbia’s fragile aquatic environment could be at risk.

Who will be passed the buck when the first tanker full of Northern Gateway dirty oil hits a reef in the fragile aquatic environment of B.C.’s coast – a project exempted by Harper from proper environmental assessment?  Who will the buck be passed to when the federal government finally admits Canada will never meet any of Harper’s international commitments on global climate change – but will, instead, further increase our emissions, contribute to climate change and more of the unpredictable weather events we saw in 2013.

Perhaps our federal leaders misread Truman’s famous phrase, thinking he was referring to a dollar bill –  even though those don’t exist here anymore.  And the US sawbuck (ten dollars) is crashing over our own ten dollar bill as our exchange rate keeps deteriorating.  That has got to be hurting snow birds looking for that much-needed southern break each year. 

It is little comfort to know that your government will not increase your taxes when all your other costs rise instead.  Canada has always been a trading nation but why have we decided to start trading our living standards down to third world standards.  And who will take responsibility for the failed and divisive economic policies that are leading us to this economic state – a government fixated on tar sands oil development at the expense of economic development in the rest of the country, or even Alberta.  It’ll be somebody else’s fault I’m sure.

Ray Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington where he ran against Cam Jackson in 1995, the year Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution swept the province. He developed the current policy process for the Ontario Liberal Party.

Background links:

The Buck Stops Here   Chris Christie   Maple Leaf Foods   XL Meats   XL Meats 2

Melamine in China   Lac Megantic  Punishment Fit the Crime


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1 comment to No one it Ottawa seems to know where the “buck” stops: they do in other city’s.

  • Bob Zarichansky

    The Canadian Labour Congress reports that over 1,000 Canadian workers are dying on the job every year; that’s four workers dying each day. The number of Canadians killed at work each year has risen for the past 15 years.
    Is it so unreasonable to demand mandatory jail sentencing for all senior directors of any firm that experiences a death on the job? I suspect that we would then see a significant decline in fatalities.