I’m really glad to be here, and I’d like to thank Sandra and Charlie for inviting me to speak this evening.
My name is Patricia Lai, and I am a co-founder of Safe Rail Communities.
I’m also a mom of three beautiful young children, a full-time employee, and an avid runner.
I was on maternity leave in February of 2014 when an email from a neighbor alerted me to a news story about the train that exploded in Lac-Mégantic in July 2013, tragically killing 47 people. It turns out that the same train carrying volatile crude oil in unsafe tank cars had travelled right past our homes. We live on a street in west Toronto that runs parallel to the main CP rail line. This line runs right through the middle of Toronto.
I think I was kind of stunned at first. Lots of images ran through my head, images like the intense fires and huge black mushroom clouds of smoke I’d seen on TV the day after the horrible crash, and also the noticeable increase over the last year of black tank cars passing within feet of the small playground on our street. Then my inbox started pinging. Other neighbours were concerned, and when someone put out a call to act, I accepted. In one evening, a few neighbours gathered over beer in a local pub and developed a plan to respond to this tangible threat to our community. Safe Rail Communities was created in March 2014. I never expected the journey of the last 3-plus years.
I consider myself an average Canadian. I follow politics from the sidelines, I have a general distrust of politicians, but I’m not jaded. I vote.
I vote because I believe that my voice matters, that I can make a difference. But the moment that Safe Rail Communities started to raise awareness and press our federal government for answers on the matter of volatile crude oil passing through our country without any risk assessments and in defective tank cars, I realized how small our voice was. And this just made us angrier.
How could our government have allowed this? We expect them to protect us, but with explosion after explosion occurring across the US and in Canada in 2014 and 2015, our doubts grew.
We started with simple canvassing of local neighbourhoods and letter-writing to the railways and politicians. We got some media attention after almost every explosive crash, but advocacy is not for the faint of heart. We spent hours researching, writing, and reaching out to experts and potential allies, trying to understand tank car construction, the properties of crude oil, details of rail explosions of crude oil, rail safety and dangerous goods legislation, and any other pieces of the puzzle that would help us advocate intelligently and effectively. It felt strange to be educating federal politicians on a matter of public safety that they had the power to improve, but knew so little about.
It was a no-brainer for us. We’re not going to be able to immediately eliminate our reliance on oil, but the technology to make the transport by rail of volatile crude oil safer right now exists. It’s a matter of political will, and there just isn’t any when it comes to tangling with the railways.
Safe Rail Communities is a team of ordinary Canadians who champion public safety, and when we got our first invitation to appear before committee at the House of Commons in April 2015, we were buoyed by the support of Charlie Hatt, our wonderful lawyer from Ecojustice. Charlie had found us in March 2015 through our association with the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers who’d helped us prepare our first environmental petition in January 2015. Charlie pored over the Rail Safety Act with his keen legal eye to see if there was anything we could use. It saved us so much time, and his review and input lent so much credibility to our presentation in response to Bill C52, An Act to amend the Canada Transportation Act and the Railway Safety Act. We were subsequently invited in June to speak before Senate committee on this matter.
We were also really excited with Charlie’s support in preparing our first Access to Information and Privacy request in July 2015, and his invitation to join with Greenpeace Canada in November 2015 on a submission to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, urging them to subject the Hardisty Rail Terminal project in Alberta to an environmental assessment.
Having Charlie’s support has been invaluable. We can do as much research as is humanly possible for ordinary people, but we will never have the legal knowledge to understand how to make our points meaningful or whether or not some legislative investigation is worth our time. To be honest, having Charlie in our corner has been a bit like having our own superhero in our back pocket. We call on him whenever, and he just understands what we’re trying to do, and completely elevates our work.
Safe Rail Communities is a registered not-for-profit. To be honest we don’t like to do it, but we have to fundraise to maintain our insurance, our website, and promotional material. We are very grateful to receive free legal services from Ecojustice, and it is truly humbling to have our work considered worthy of their attention and effort. In his first email to us back in March 2015, Charlie explained that ‘Ecojustice lawyers provide free legal services to groups and individuals in pursuit of strong precedents that protect people and the environment’. Yep, that’s us. We are stubborn, and on days when we just feel completely overwhelmed in this work, we remember that we have met people of Lac-Mégantic, and we just can’t let it happen again…..ever….
Thank you so much for your support of Ecojustice. It means so much to us.