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Tuesday November 17, 2009

Numbers man helped Tories chop subsidies to Via Rail

Special to The Globe and Mail

Lawrence Hanigan was the chairman of Via Rail who helped put an end to Canada's century-old romance with the rails.

A chain-smoking autocrat, he was above all a numbers man who, in 1989, helped implement the Conservative government's controversial program that chopped $641-million in annual government subsidies to Via and changed forever the way Canadians experience rail travel.

Mr. Hanigan was a street-smart, high school dropout who also served as Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau's right-hand man in the 1970s, then ran Montreal's urban transit corporation for 10 stormy years before then prime minister Brian Mulroney appointed him Via Rail's chairman.

"He was eminently qualified to do the job," Mr. Mulroney said. "He was a very fascinating guy, an Irish French-Canadian, who made major contributions to Montreal, Quebec and to Canada. I came to know him through city hall, when, for many years we wagered on the outcome of elections. He was a good-natured, principled man, who treated everyone fairly."

His father was a hard-nosed Irish Canadian National Railway station agent at Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge, a whistle stop in Quebec's Eastern Townships, and his mother was a French-Canadian, so he grew up at ease with both English and French.

When he was 15, his parents couldn't afford to send him to high school, so he sold bread, then went to work at a Singer sewing machine factory. He was hired as a salesman by Cooper-Wideman, a B.C.-based lumber supply company when he was 18, and within a decade he was director of the company's Quebec division.

His entry into politics came in the late 1950s when he organized a citizens group in his suburban Montreal neighbourhood to oppose construction of a 14-storey apartment block. In 1960 he was recruited by Mr. Drapeau to run for Montreal city council and was elected.

In 1970, he was invited to join the inner ranks of Mr. Drapeau's executive committee and in 1972 he replaced Lucien Saulnier as chairman of the Montreal Urban Community.

"Drapeau wanted someone who was loyal, someone who was smart, fairly competent" and someone who wouldn't talk back to him," said Paul Leduc, who was then Mr. Drapeau's executive assistant. "Lawrence was certainly discreet. He was knowledgeable, had made contacts throughout North America. There were no skeletons in his closet. He was bilingual, which was an asset when Montreal was getting ready to bid on the 1976 Summer Olympics."

Mr. Hanigan disliked being called a politician. He thought of himself as an "objective administrator," whose decisions were influenced not by politics, but by sound financial management. He left Montreal city hall to run the city's transit commission, where he spent years dealing with disgruntled transit workers who often went on strike and passengers who complained about lack of services. Always the numbers man, he chopped the Quebec government's master transit plan because he said, it would have "served insufficiently populated areas." In retrospect, his critics say the decision was short-sighted.

In 1984 Mr. Hanigan was a star Progressive Conservative candidate in the federal election, but lost to Liberal Raymond Garneau. The following year, Mr. Mulroney gave him a $180,000-a-year patronage appointment as chairman of Via Rail, a post he held until 1993. "He was a very loyal party man, confirmed in his conservatism, very competent, and fun to be with," said former senator and Montreal executive committee member John Lynch-Staunton.

Mr. Hanigan shocked observers when he accepted the job by admitting he never much liked rail travel, never took his grandchildren for a train ride, was indifferent to Via Rail, and that his only concern was "to serve the government."

As chairman he vigorously defended 2,600 job cuts, reduced service, fare hikes, and the elimination of the transcontinental train that ran from Toronto to Winnipeg across the Prairies through Calgary to Vancouver.

"It was a bloody and brutal exercise, but when we put the plan together to do what we had to do, Lawrence was 100 per cent on board," said Ron Lawless, the former CN president who was brought in as Via's CEO after the government fired Denis de Belleval for complaining about the planned cutbacks.

Mr. Hanigan was something of a recluse, seldom accepted social invitations, and spent much of his spare time reading biographies of self-made men. He remained a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who once said "all normal people, even if they consider themselves radical, are conservative at heart, they are opposed to change whether they admit it or not."

Lawrence Hanigan Lawrence Hanigan was born in Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge, Que., April 3, 1925, and died in St. Jérôme on Oct. 31, 2009. His wife of 59 years, Anita Martin, died in 2005. He leaves children Carmen, Doris, Guy, Patricia, and Michael.

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