Arthur Kroeger's (2009) Retiring the Crow Rate: A Narrative of Political Management focuses on the 1980-83 period leading up to the Western Grain Transportation Act
which repealed the statutory Crow Rate. The book is a valuable case
study of managing an important policy file through the obstacles of the
Canadian political system and amongst the rapids of opposing policy
constituents. This insider assessment of the machinations of Ottawa
intrigue and regional politics demonstrates — with wit and wisdom — the
tenuousness of victory and the ever present dangers of defeat inherent
when challenging entrenched institutions and managing radical policy
change. The objective of this paper is to highlight the features of the
narrative which are archetypical for effective public policy management
of complex issues.
For anyone not involved in transportation policy prior to about 1990
the ‘Crow Rate’ issue would seem to be ancient history of little
relevance today. Not so. This paper argues that the Crow Rate reform
process is a highly informative case study in the complexities of
successful public policy management. Most of this paper involves a
careful reading and analysis of the contents of Kroeger’s book along
with reference to secondary literature to elaborate specific points.
The ‘Crow Rate’ was the statutory rate for railway movement of grain
from country elevator to ports established in 1897. Its intent was to
finance the construction of a railway by Canadian Pacific (CPR) to
southern British Columbia with the assistance of federal subsidies.
The Crow Rate was a small part of the political price extracted by
the federal government from CPR to ensure broad political support for a
subsidy to be paid to the railway and avoid the appearance of
government over-generosity. The Crow Rate came to be embedded in the
Western Canadian psyche as their regional benefit from Confederation –
on par with the construction of the CPR (ensuring British Columbia’s
entrance) and the National Policy of high tariffs to protect nascent
manufacturing (benefiting Ontario and Quebec).1
Historians have linked Confederation, land settlement, the
transcontinental railway and tariffs as part of Prime Minister
Macdonald’s National Policy of the 1870-90s which has been termed
‘defensive expansionism’ in reaction to the threat of territorial
expansion under the American policy of ‘manifest destiny’ (Eden and
This paper is an exercise in hermeneutics – i.e., the close reading
and critical interpretation of a written text. The interpretation is
that of the present author and is subject to the criticism that the
author is projecting unwarranted judgment into the reading of the text.
However, I feel there is ample evidence to support these judgments.
Kroeger’s first degree was in English and, as a senior public
servant, he was a careful and precise writer, who valued the classical
arts of discourse: grammar, logic and rhetoric.
1 Earl (1996) persuasively argues that this myth was a construct of the 1920s resumption of the Crow Rate following its suspension during WW1. Berry et al. (1983) and Earl (2011) provide useful further history of the Crow Rate.
2 Macdonald was responding to similar policies pursued by various American administrations (e.g., Adams/Jackson/Monroe/Polk).