DENZIL, Sask. – On a cold winter night in 1971, trucker Wayne Whitney saw first-hand the tragic consequences that can result from poorly maintained or neglected highways.
He was running what is now called Hwy. 117 in Northern Quebec when a car passed him on an uphill grade known in truckers’ circles as the Old Maid Hill. Whitney looked out his window to see a child wave at him as it drove by. Moments later, the car careened off the dangerous, winding road, killing the two adults in the car.
Whitney frantically searched the scene for the third passenger, a young girl, who he soon found clinging to life in the snow. He covered her with blankets, packed the snow up around her and then climbed under the blankets beside her to keep her warm. He remained there for three and a half hours until rescue workers arrived on the scene.
To this day, Whitney is haunted by the memory of the accident. He doesn’t know if the little girl survived – the police and hospital refused to tell him. But what he does know is this – the poorly maintained road was the cause of the accident.
“That was caused by a bad highway,” says Whitney. “The highway was very bad, it was very narrow and it was all busted up. It looked like the car got caught in a rut.”
Ever since then, Whitney has struggled to get the provincial and federal governments to address the poor condition of many of the nation’s highways. It’s a struggle that has played out in his home province of Saskatchewan, as well as on Parliament Hill where he lead previous protests for truckers’ rights. Many will remember Whitney for his role in the trucking shutdown of ’90/91.
“I still have the scar on my wrist from when they put the handcuffs on me,” he says proudly.
But Whitney is now engaging in another battle – one that will be played by a different set of rules – in a courtroom. He’s launching a class action lawsuit against the federal and provincial governments for what he feels is the misappropriation of fuel tax revenue.
“I feel the government is responsible (for the poor state of highways) because they neglected it for so long,” says Whitney. He is suing the government over what he calls “the misuse of government powers and the misuse of public funds.”
That alleged misuse of public funds is costing Whitney, and the entire trucking industry, thousands of dollars, he says. Whitney recently spent $7,000 repairing a trailer suspension that eventually broke due to the bumpiness of Northern Saskatchewan highways and he says his fuel costs are soaring.
“It takes us twice as much fuel because we can’t operate our trucks the way they’re supposed to be operated,” he says. “We’re always at low speeds hauling heavy loads.”
In Saskatchewan, Whitney regularly drives 50 km/h rather than posted highway speeds because the narrow, shoulderless roads provide no room for error. Yet, he has seen his licensing fees and fuel taxes soar in recent years. Now he’s ready to put up a fight, if he can rally the support of other Canadian truckers.
“I’m not asking the truckers for shutdowns, I’m just asking for support,” says Whitney.
He recently met with a lawyer who agreed there is a compelling case against the government.
“He agreed with me that this is a fuel tax for the use of the highways,” Whitney says. “But that money’s not going back into the highways.”
He plans to pay the retainer out of his own pocket, but he’s asking other truckers to help contribute whatever they can afford, to get in on the lawsuit and draw attention to the situation. Whitney’s message to fellow truckers is this: “Look truckers, if any of you still remember me, I stood up and I fought the best way I could in 1990-1991 against the government that was doing us in, and I’m asking for your help again now.”
There will, however, be a different battle plan this time around. While Whitney is still proud of the way Canadian truckers rallied together during the shutdown of the early ’90s, he doesn’t want to take the same approach this time.
“I paid my debts for what I did. If I have to fight again, I’ll fight again, but I’ll do it the right way this time,” says Whitney. “I will go to their stadium and fight them there. There are courtrooms for this type of thing.”
This latest fight will be waged in memory of fallen truckers, he says.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends on these highways,” says Whitney. “I’m tired of seeing my brothers and sisters dying on these highways and I’m tired of seeing little kids, whose lives haven’t even started yet, dying on these highways.”
The situation is particularly bad in Saskatchewan, where thin-membrane surface (TMS) roads form 7,500 kilometres of the province’s road network. These outdated roads weren’t built to accommodate today’s volume of truck traffic and the roads have simply crumbled apart over time. Exacerbating the situation is the fact Saskatchewan has more kilometres of road to maintain than any other province, and only a fraction of the population.
Many roads in Saskatchewan and other parts of the country were built in the mid-1950s and early 1960s and little has been done to improve them since. “Our country’s 50 years behind the times in our highways and yet the trucking industry is growing in leaps and bounds,” says Whitney.
Fuel taxes have been a fact of life since they were first implemented in the 1920s. Currently the federal government receives about four cents per litre in fuel taxes, but there’s no national highway program in place and much of that revenue doesn’t find its way back into the system. Provinces apply much heavier provincial fuel taxes (more than 14 cents per litre in Ontario for instance) and most provinces are also guilty of pocketing the majority of that money or redirecting it towards other expenditures.
“It boggles my mind, how much money is being put into the government coffers,” Whitney says.
Whitney says it’s time to take a stand.
“I’m willing to pay whatever price I have to pay to fight this,” says Whitney. He’s already garnered the support of some fellow drivers in Saskatchewan who are spreading word on the highway about the impending lawsuit. If there isn’t enough money raised to challenge the government in court, Whitney says all leftover funds will be donated to the Canadian Children’s Wish Foundation on behalf of Canadian truckers. For more information or to make a contribution to the class action suit, call lawyer William H. Roe of Roe and Company at 306-244-9865. Funds should be submitted to the Canadian Truckers Fighting Back fund.
Funds can be mailed to the law firm at Roe & Co., 313-220 3rd Ave., Saskatoon, Sask. S7K 1M1.
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