From citizens to customers: Who owns Canada’s critical infrastructure?

Lac-Mégantic rail disaster 2013

CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE is a term used to describe any service, system, facility, technology network or asset, necessary to run Canada. This includes things like transportation (bridges, roads and ports), communications (news, internet and phone connection), energy (power plants, refineries), security (borders, prisons), health (hospitals, clinics) and so much more. It’s a mix of private and public organizations that have all become necessary for modern daily life.

Despite Canadians reliance on these services, we don’t actually own most of them, and we manage even fewer.

The federal government sold most of its public holdings to private companies beginning in the 1980’s. The idea was that “the market” would be more efficient than the government in getting services to customers. But in reality, it means the government sold Canadians right to have a say in how our critical infrastructure is maintained. We have no say in how safe, secure or expensive critical services are.  

The privatization and outsourcing of Canada’s critical infrastructure takes Canadians from citizens to customers. When Canada began to privatize critical infrastructure in the 1980’s and 90’s, public trust in the government was low. The private sector was trusted to handle just about every aspect of managing important industries and the government let go of almost all control, choosing to take on an information sharing role.

Who’s responsible?

Despite the federal and provincial governments taking a backseat on monitoring and maintaining Canada’s critical infrastructure, the public still holds governments accountable for failures. Massive critical infrastructure failures are called black swans. These are uncommon but devastating events, like the Lac-Megantic railroad explosion in Quebec.

Private companies are more likely to have black swan events. This is because the private sector is motivated by profit, not public good and rewards risk-taking behaviors such as making “efficiencies” to increase profits.

The Lac-Megantic tragedy was able to happen because of a lax safety culture and few regulations on the industry. Rail companies are highly independent and resistant to sharing information. Some companies like CN even have their own police force, meaning they rely on the federal government for no support.

Public Safety Canada is supposed to monitor and enforce regulations on critical infrastructure sectors but almost all mechanisms for accountability in every industry are voluntary and companies almost no backlash for not participating. Public Safety Canada doesn’t provide any public records of the questions they ask in voluntary audits. On top of this, those who do participate have their information protected from the public so they don’t lose customers or give anything away that might help their competitors. In other words: Canada has prioritized “free market competition” over the needs of workers and the public.

What is to be done?

Most audits on critical infrastructure are done after a black swan event or some other kind of failure. They react to events, rather than working to prevent tragic events from happening in the first place.

One issue that contributes to black swans is the decrease in inspections. Most industries don’t have standards for inspections. Industries have started to rely on technology to detect issues rather paying the labour costs of inspections, and the number of inspectors in Canada has dropped from 20,000 to 3,000 over the last two decades.


All of this, and more, is meticulously detailed in the book Too Critical to Fail. The book also tells us that regular inspections, with clear and strong mechanisms for sending information about critical infrastructure issues is the best way to make sure Canadian’s critical infrastructure is protected.

The only question is, will Public Safety Canada step up and demand more inspections to make sure we’re safe, or keep allowing companies to chase profits without thinking about the safety of the “customers” they’re serving.

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