VIA versus the airport gulag

Canada’s airports may not exactly meet all the qualifications of a gulag archipelago, but they are arguably our single most significant institutional reminder of liberty lost.

Those who find such a claim slightly excessive should spend extensive time travelling, as I do, by VIA Rail and then return to air travel via one of our major landing strips.

The contrast is experienced with particular sharpness by routinely coming and going from Toronto’s downtown Union Station, then abruptly submitting to the horrors of Pearson Penitentiary Airport situated, entirely appropriately, in the nightmare of modernity that is Mississauga.

But ultimately it’s not a matter of geography, architecture, or airport/airline personnel. It’s the airport as institution that is emblematic of freedom foregone.

When I refer to airports as institutions, by the way, I mean the word as it is commonly used on the nameplates of penal institutes rather than in its sense of organizations of established activity such as religious orders, democratic bodies etc. I hope the clarification lets my Cardus colleague Brian Dijkema sit back from the edge of his chair and defer his tight-jawed 911 call to the Sloppy English Political Language Committee.

Against air travel, travel by train in this country remains—or did until this week—fit for civilized free adults.

The comfort of VIA’s coaches, even in economy class, as well as the easy hospitable decency of its on-board staff, grants it the laissez-passer of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf the Wizard, who famously said that his kind never arrived early nor late but always at exactly the moment they got there.

Undergirding everything is the free simplicity of the whole process. You show up some reasonable moments in advance of your train. You proceed through the boarding doors, showing a staff member your ticket that may or may not be marked with a felt pen (it seems to depend on the artistic impulses of the door-keeper.) You are directed to your car. You sit down. You stretch your legs and settle. There is a short speech of welcome over the amplifying system. Before you know it, someone is offering you a cup of tea as the big iron wheels begin to roll.

No one is hectoring you to turn off all electronic devices, though you are courteously asked to be mindful of fellow passengers whilst you are using a cellular phone. No one, at any point, looks at you as though you might have spent the previous evening communicating with Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat, and Carlos the Jackal by Ouija board.

You may remove your shoes at your pleasure. No one commands you to do so.

You are not scanned, inspected, eyeballed, passed over with a radioactive wand, ordered to hand over zee papers or otherwise afflicted with any of the innumerable violations of personal physical space and human autonomy that are now not just routine but psychically ingrained in air travellers.

Nor does anyone regard you as so deficient in fundamental intelligence, and the use of your opposable thumbs, that you must be instructed for the ten thousandth time in how to attach the basic mechanical clip of a seat belt. There are no seat belts on VIA Rail.

I am old enough (but just barely) to remember when air travel was almost, though never quite, so human. I remember catching a flight out of Calgary, believing I was late, walking down to the gate and actually knocking on the closed door of the aircraft and asking to be let on. (No, children, the plane was not a Sopwith Camel. I don’t recall the Camel having doors that could properly be knocked upon.)

The door opened. I was welcomed in. It turned out I was not late but, in fact, early. I was supposed to be on the next flight. Oh, well, there I was. Might as well find a place to sit, sir. Unimaginable today.

We all know, of course, the historical reasons why airports have acquired the atmosphere, the accoutrements, the indignities, and the concomitant stress levels of the welcome dock on Devil’s Island. What we have forgotten is that the exchange of liberty for safety, inevitable as it might seem, is not just a temporary short-changing. It is a permanent loss of freedom embedded in our essential habits for moving from Point A to Point B.

The shocking proof is the very beautiful, trustworthy, untrammeled and unbound alternative available via train travel. Or, as I say, it was the proof until this week.

When I heard the news that suspects have been arrested in a conspiracy to launch a terror attack against a VIA train between Toronto and New York, I shouted “huzzah” that the devils have been foiled and no one was imperiled, much less injured. Then I thought of what might come from even that most desirable outcome.

I drove past my local VIA Rail station, and it looked to me as though they were unloading off the back of a truck something the size and shape of an X-ray scanner. I can’t be sure. Perhaps they were only continuing the improvements to the business class lounge.

Let us pray, as fervently as prisoners who have found religion, that is all it was.

(This blog is also posted at

Tags: Privacy, Airports

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