Mr. Speaker, this debate is the furthest from hypothetical debates we could find.
I want commend my colleague, the member for Sydney—Victoria, for bringing forward his motion, which is extremely important. He is a very active advocate for agricultural producers and for agribusiness. He viscerally understands the role and the purpose of Canada's agricultural sector in a larger economic context, a theme I will come back to in a few moments.
I want to go back to first principles for listeners, readers or people watching this debate. Let us collectively recall that Canada's railroads were built chiefly with the leadership of government and that they had a unique foundational role to play in helping to kick start our economy and underpin this post-modern economy in which we now live. In fact, rail is indispensable to Canada's economic success. That is woven into the fabric of the specifics that my colleague from Sydney—Victoria wants to see examined in his important motion; what we see with respect to the government and how it interfaces with the transportation sector and its responsibility for transportation.
First, governments have an obligation always to get the big things right, the things on which Canadians count. One of the chief responsibilities of a federal government is transportation, which includes transportation policy, regulation, enforcement and so on.
We have seen an increase in agricultural production, in natural resource exploitation, the transportation of oil by rail and stability, if not a slight increase, in passenger rail transportation across Canada. The government knows this. In fact, for almost a decade now it has watched this growth. However, as my colleague from Sydney—Victoria pointed out, we have seen the government reacting in knee-jerk fashion. It is almost as if it is jumping from one ice floe crisis to another ice floe crisis, depending on the crisis of the week, month or year. It is so much so that now our rail system is in flux.
Our rail system is in crisis. We have ships waiting off the west coast of Canada for our grain, our agricultural products and sometimes for other natural resources. We have seen a massive 1,200% increase in the transportation of oil by rail. The government has known this for almost a decade. We have seen a crisis emerge in passenger rail services in the country. There have been complaints from all over northern Quebec, from Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie and so many other smaller parts of Canada that are witnessing a decline in service, frequency and availability. On all fronts, we have a problem.
What has the government's reaction been to this problem in almost a decade? Its first reaction was to appoint five transportation ministers in less than nine years. No minister can take on a portfolio like Transport Canada seriously and commit the time and effort that is required to improve the transportation system by flitting in and out, either heading up, down or out of cabinet. This is what we have seen with a succession of cabinet ministers.
One of the things I have noticed in my time as the transportation critic for the Liberal Party of Canada is a proximity relationship between the regulated railways sector and the regulator at Transport Canada. This has deeply concerned me. This relationship, in my view, and I do not say this lightly, between Transport Canada, its minister, its staff, its good officials and the regulated sector of the railway is too close. It is too cosy. It is almost too integrated, and we have seen this as we have studied the safety management systems that apply as much to the transportation of grain as they do to the transportation of oil.
The facts are, as I mentioned, there have been five ministers in nine years. There has been an Auditor General's report, which can only be described as scathing. Over a four-year period, the Auditor General ferreted through what was happening at Transport Canada and came back with some incredibly problematic and troubling findings, thing likes in a four-year period, the government had not had Via Rail, with its millions and millions of rail passengers a year, audited by a qualified inspector for its safety management system.
In the entire rail sector, only 25% of all the audits that were supposed to have been done, planned by the government, were in fact done. It does not increase our confidence in rail safety, particularly in response to and after the terrible tragedy of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec.
As my colleague pointed out on penalty provisions, the minister was buttonholed last week by media. On camera, the minister said that the government would have to see whether it would impose a fine and how much it would be. Agriculture producers and shippers have to know. The government has said that it will be $100,000 a day in fines. Now it has said that it will not be $100,000 a day, but $100,000 a week. It actually is not $100,000 a week either. It is full of discretion. The minister will decide, when she feels like it, or whoever the next minister is, whether the railway company should be fined. I do not know on what grounds or on what basis, because the criteria is not clear.
The fines do not go to the shippers. They do not go to those who have been affected by the choices made by the railways or the constraints imposed on the railways. The fines are paid to the government, not to the shippers who have liquidated damages, with crops and yields and grain sitting in storage waiting to get on to ships that are moored off the coast of B.C. It makes no sense, but these are the kinds of changes and actions the government has brought in, again in a very ad hoc way, dealing with a bottlenecked railway system.
Prairie provinces are the world's top canola producing region. It is incredible what our agricultural producers have done, the efficiency, the environmental sensitivity, the quality of the grain. We are the second largest exporter of wheat, up 14% to record 81 million metric tonne levels in a short number of years.
The Liberal Party of Canada thinks that with the relationship between the regulator and the regulated, the railways companies being regulated, it appears is if the railways are now picking and choosing, based on profit margins, what they will or will not essentially ship. Some volume standards have been brought to bear, but even these do not deal with the crisis that is in play.
To recap, our are shippers captive. They have no competitive commercial alternatives, no legal recourse when the system fails. The threatened fines have no real impact. They are no substitutes for liquidated damages for the affected shippers. The government has brought in an order to move certain minimum volumes of grain, which expired in November 2014, and is making it up again as it goes along.
We need this motion. We need a comprehensive examination of the rail transportation system to get it right and get it better. We owe it to Canadians, to our future, to our economy and we really owe it to the future success of Canada.
Mr. Speaker, federal funding for the Algoma Central Railway will expire on April 1. Without that funding, hundreds of jobs will be lost from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst and between $38 to $48 million in annual economic benefits for the region will vanish.
Time is of the essence. Why has the minister failed to meet with stakeholders and failed to respond to a proposal that will preserve passenger service in northern Ontario, reduce operating costs, and transition away from a subsidy in five short years?
Why is she not doing anything to protect northern Ontario's fragile economy?
The electoral district of Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario) has a population of 89,028 with 69,272 registered voters and 191 polling divisions.
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