SULLIVAN: Tickets to the PR Hall of Shame are one way

I’m always on the alert for an outbreak of sanity. They don’t occur that often and we’re so busy dealing with the daily diet of nuts and fruit loops that when sanity happens we can miss it altogether.

So I’m pleased to report a recent outbreak of sanity in West Vancouver. And it’s even from an unlikely corner: the notorious PR Hall of Shame.

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First, a little background.

You may remember that CN Rail, one of Canada’s great pioneer corporations, barged its way into the PR Hall of Shame by deciding – out of the blue, one day in 2017 – that the West Van Centennial Seawalk was encroaching upon their rail right-of-way.

Why CN decided to have a snit fit about the Seawalk 50 years after it was built as a Canada 100 project is a bit of a mystery. I mean, they probably turned up back then for the ribbon cutting. Had a slice of cake.

So why now? Did a CN executive finally make a visit to the West Van operation and notice there was a Seawalk encroaching on his right of way? (“Did you see that? They even have a dog walk running alongside the tracks?! WTF?”)

Speaking of dogs, CN posted fierce, growling signs declaring: “use of the Centennial Seawalk constitutes illegal trespass. Members of the public are cautioned that their legal right to use the Seawalk is in dispute.” Grr, etc.

Money (what else?) appeared to be at the root of the dispute. CN wanted the district to pay $3.7 million rent for encroaching on its right-of-way. Never mind that the district puts up with the constant din of freight trains shunting and grinding and chugging through Canada’s ritziest waterfront. Never mind that the whole mess remains the unceded territory of the Coast Salish First Nations.

The district of course objected, complaining that the railway was holding the community up for ransom. No Seawalk for you.

Cut to today and the outbreak of sanity. CN and the District of West Vancouver have announced they’ve signed a letter of intent resolving the dispute, which is kind of rich – there’s only a dispute because the occupant of the CN C-suite is a hammer who views everything else as a nail. But let’s be charitable and applaud both parties for getting to yes.

The problem remains: Does CN stay in the PR Hall of Shame along with its foremost competitor, CP Rail, which had a not dissimilar snit fit a few years back about the Arbutus right-of-way and started bulldozing posies planted by Montessori school children before coming to its senses?

What is it with these railway companies? Have they locked away their communications people in a broom closet somewhere so they can let loose their inner pirates with impunity? CN, for example, must know it would be viewed as an international terrorist incident to shut off the Centennial Seawalk from public access. CN meet CNN: Anderson Cooper turns up in a down-filled vest, flanked by camera crew and makeup, looking investigative.

We can only conclude that someone at CN decided that protecting the right-of-way was more important than anything, failing to divine there’s nothing more important than a pre-brunch stroll on a sunny day. And now that guy is switching tracks at the Winnipeg rail yards, alongside his Montessori flower-crunching compatriot at the other railway.

So, as commissioner of the PR Hall of Shame, I get to decide. And as far as I’m concerned, assignment to the hall is permanent. You can’t just take down the barking signs warning people that they’re trespassing by going for a walk on the Seawalk and pretend nothing happened.

We have a lot to put up with these days on the North Shore and waterfront access is reliable compensation for increased traffic, affordability problems and particulate smog. CN should have known it runs deeper than some picayune, small-minded dispute about the right-of-way. That fight ended when they built the walk 50 years ago.

CN picked the wrong right-of-way to die on. And won’t live it down for at least another 50 years.

Journalist and communications consultant Paul Sullivan has been a North Van resident since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Madonna. p.sullivan@breakthroughpr.com

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