Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Canadian Leadership Following Flooding and a Train Derailment

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In the past few days, U.S. media networks have been reporting on the tragic events in Lac Mégantic, Québec, where a runaway, unmanned train carrying crude oil from North Dakota (73 wagons) barreled through a quiet tourist village of 6,000 inhabitants, derailed and exploded, leaving devastation in its trail.  At the time of this writing, the entire downtown area had been decimated—15 people are reported dead and close to 40 missing. This will surely rank among the most heartbreaking tragedies in Canadian history.  The events have since galvanized Canadians from coast to coast to offer heartfelt encouragement to the tiny village of Lac Mégantic and its inhabitants who are coping with this unspeakable horror.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the site over the weekend and described it as a “war zone.” The Québec government under Premier Pauline Marois is on the scene and has pledged its full government support in providing assistance to the local population. Other politicians from across the political spectrum have visited the village and the Red Cross shelter to offer comfort and to demonstrate support.  What led to the derailment will now be the subject of extensive investigations by authorities, and will surely continue over the coming months.  There remain many unanswered questions about why this tragedy occurred.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, the city of Calgary, Alberta, also suffered tragic events, as extensive flooding—some of the most serious in Canadian history—resulted in tens of thousands being left homeless, with irreparable damage to property, personal belongings and infrastructure. Again, politicians and other dignitaries were quick to respond with offers of assistance and support. Canadians across the country have also reacted with the proper mix of compassion and assistance.

Both tragedies are still playing out and the affected communities will feel their impact for years to come. There is not much of a silver lining when tragedy hits so suddenly and affects so many lives.  This is why, as Canadians observe the resilience of the citizens affected, it is encouraging to see how some local leaders can rise to the occasion, confront adversity, and become a source of comfort and inspiration in facing the ordeal.  This is the case of Lac Mégantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Ms. Roy-Laroche is completing her third term as mayor, while Mayor Nenshi is in his first term.  Clearly, Mayor Roy-Laroche is seasoned and experienced, with deep roots in her community.  She is a known quantity and her leadership is well documented.  But her poise and her resolve soon after  disaster struck has  become the talk of all of Québec.

Mayor Nenshi is the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city  (Canada’s fourth largest city).  His 2010 upset victory drew national attention, but his performance since the flooding has now garnered him near hero status across the country. In the midst of the crisis, he has shown compassion, character and leadership and has become the darling of social media.

Both mayors need to be signaled out because they have shown that politics based on civility, compassion, and cooperation with other levels of government form the most effective strategy to achieve results in times of crises. Last summer, Americans welcomed the joint efforts of President Barack Obama and New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie after Hurricane Sandy seriously damaged the New Jersey shore. Hopefully, these expressions of collaboration will become models for future politicians.

Their style of leadership is authentic and inclusive.  In Canada, it is fair to say that both the national and provincial leaders know they can count on these two mayors—who have shown selfless determination and the right balance to comfort their fellow citizens in time of need—to provide the kind of direction essential to restore normalcy in their affected communities.

When one observes Mayors Roy-Laroche and Nenshi, one is reminded of how former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani rose to the challenge during 9-11, and how he inspired his city and the world.  Both our two Canadian mayors, showing leadership in ways reminiscent of Giuliani, faced these difficult moments, and  have  risen to the challenge.  In light of these ongoing crises, it is worthwhile to point it out.



John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

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