Masse in the Windsor Star on Ambassador Bridge

IDNUMBER 200802160016
PUBLICATION: The Windsor Star
DATE: 2008.02.16
EDITION: Final
SECTION: News
PAGE: A3
BYLINE: Gord Henderson

Drivers morouned

You have to hand it to the folks from the independent Republic of Moroun who run that perpetual money machine called Ambassador Bridge. They've just underlined, as no one else could, the urgent need for a new downriver bridge owned and controlled by the governments of Canada and the U.S.

In erecting barriers blocking the main access route to downtown Windsor for motorists entering Canada, the company might have scored points in its running feud with the city, but its move calls into question something far bigger, this country's sovereignty.

How can Canada call itself an independent, self-respecting nation when it allows a privately owned firm, headquartered in another country, to arbitrarily determine how and where visitors get to enter this country from the U.S.? Where is our legitimacy as a country when one billionaire, 80-year-old American transportation tycoon Matty Moroun, and his supporting cast, can call the shots in determining whether motorists arriving in Canada are allowed to use a key artery, northbound Huron Church Road, to reach city destinations.

The Stephen Harper government has made highly popular noises about defending Canadian sovereignty in the remote high Arctic, even if it means conducting costly show-the-flag exercises, constructing a naval harbour and building expensive ships to patrol the Northwest Passage, and yet here, right on Canada's front doorstep, at the busiest and most valuable trade crossing in North America, it has to live with choices made by a U.S. businessman, regardless of their impact on visitors or returning Canadians.

One has to wonder. Where could this end? If the bridge company were to up the ante and shut down the bridge for a week, in order to undertake "necessary" repairs, would the governments of Canada and the U.S. respond? Or would they wring their hands in impotent indignation while cross-border trade is tied up in knots?

EARLIER BATTLE LOST

We didn't make much of it at the time. But we surely understand now why Herb Gray moved heaven and earth, as Liberal minister responsible for FIRA (Foreign Investment Review Agency) in the early 1980s, in a failed effort to prevent Moroun's trucking empire from acquiring the Canadian half of the bridge. That battle was lost in the federal courts and ended with an out-of-court settlement following a marathon legal struggle.

Gray understood what was at stake. An economic nationalist, he recognized that having the nation's most critical border crossing owned and operated by a private company, a foreign controlled one at that, would not be in Canada's best interests. He knew that real countries, serious countries, don't let private companies run their borders.

But don't blame Moroun for being pugnacious in defence of his licence to print money. If you purchased an item for a reputed $29 million, and it returns at least twice that amount annually (which makes the bridge purchase the best deal since the Dutch acquired Manhattan), you too would fight like a cornered mongoose against anything that might affect the value of that asset.

Sure. There'll be further damage to Casino Windsor and downtown businesses -- which they can ill afford -- with the northbound Huron Church Road closing. It could be days before search parties locate some of those dazed and confused Yanks who were redirected south along Huron Church with endless streams of 18-wheelers and ended up marooned (or is it Morouned?) in the frozen wilds of South Windsor. Or maybe Holiday Beach.

It's a kick in the teeth to commerce. But the bridge company will have done the city, the province and Canada a favour, in the long run, by making a powerful case, with their lil' Berlin Wall, for a new government-owned bridge.

Where else could something as ludicrous as this happen? "Maybe Botswana," scoffed Windsor West New Democratic MP Brian Masse. "It certainly tells people who's in charge." He said it's unconscionable that the bridge company would see its private grudge against the city as more important than the economic survival of hard-pressed Windsor businesses and residents. "It screams to the reasons why public ownership of the next border crossing is paramount."

Masse said that on Monday he'll contact Lawrence Cannon, federal transport minister, to discuss the bridge barrier and ask about the status of Bill C-3 regulations, still being drawn up, which would provide federal regulatory control over any construction that alters the Ambassador Bridge's footprint.

Bring it on. It's time, way past time, to restore Canada's tattered sovereignty.

ghenderson@thestar.canwest.com