Hon. Dennis Dawson:
We have before us a bill that seeks to address a good number of challenges in transportation. We live in a vast northern country and our economic success depends greatly on our ability to transport our goods. Whether we are talking about transporting grains from the Prairies or minerals from the North to our Atlantic and Pacific ports, or softwood lumber from Abitibi to American yards, our economy depends on an effective and fluid transportation network to ensure that all sectors can flourish.
Achieving this balance is no small task. The bill we have before us, as technical and complex as it may be, has very concrete measures that affect the diverse sectors of our economy in all our regions.
As a longstanding member of the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications, I can assure you that this bill addresses many of the critical and varied issues involving transportation, such as passenger rights, rail safety, and competitiveness.
As honourable senators will recall, 2013 was a record year for our farmers but it was an also a disappointing year due to an unusually harsh winter, which slowed down the speed at which trains can travel and the number of cars they could carry. Many farmers were unable to benefit from their record harvest and some had no choice but to leave their crops to rot due to the inability to transport them to markets in a timely manner.
I know we all want to ensure that such a situation never occurs again.
The previous government introduced Bill C-30, the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, as a kind of temporary stopgap to address this issue. But it was a temporary measure until such time as a more thorough and broad review of the entire Canadian Transportation Act was developed. I believe that this is what we have before us today in Bill C-49.
Another important aspect of this bill is the creation of an air travellers rights regime. I, like many senators in this chamber, travel here on a weekly basis by air. I am sure that you, like me, have all lived through particular circumstances. We represent a very captive focus group, shall I say, as to what air passengers’ rights should be and I am sure we will have great interest in seeing how these measures will affect our own air travel experience.
Many other jurisdictions like Europe, United States and Asia have a long time ago given themselves a rights regime for air travellers. I believe that this has been a long time coming.
As many senators know, over the years, our Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications has done very important studies on airports. In the context of those studies, having held several consultations and although our report focused on the efficiencies, funding and economic impact of airports, we also heard much testimony about the passenger experience.
Will this bill solve all of those problems? No. Sometimes situations are beyond the control of airlines and sometimes of airports. Sometimes airlines and their customers will sincerely disagree about whether a passenger’s rights were respected. Not all travellers will be inclined to pursue redress. However, I think that requiring airlines to set out service standards in clear language in the passenger tariff and mandating some consistency over how passengers are treated at different times and by different airlines is an improvement over the situation that exists today.
Currently, passengers are often confused about what their rights are. They have an impression that their complaints are being treated in an ad hoc manner and they are unsure where to turn if they feel they have been mistreated. It seems to me that greater clarity and consistency about the service standards will go some way in resolving complaints in a more efficient way.
Did the government get it right with this bill? Probably not. There is no one bill that would make everyone happy. For instance, I know that many of us have heard concerns about workers’ privacy with regard to this bill and the installation of voice and video recorders on locomotives. This will require some further study at committee.
Overall, however, I think this is a reasonable piece of legislation that may go some way toward modernizing our transportation statutes but which also merits careful scrutiny in committee and debate in this chamber.
I look forward to those provisions being explored and debated and hearing from stakeholders about their effects.
Senators, I look forward to our Senate committee’s study with the hope of making this legislation as good as it can be.
Hon. Terry M. Mercer (Deputy Leader of the Senate Liberals): Will the honourable senator accept a question?
Senator Dawson: Certainly, Senator Mercer.
Senator Mercer: I have been here a few years now and I’ve been on the Transport Committee almost since I arrived. I have not had more visitors, phone calls and letters about a transport bill since — well, forever.
One thing that I find curious about this bill is the extension of interswitching. And for people who don’t understand what interswitching is, it allows people to move materials from one place to another, from one railway to another.
The changes that are in Bill C-49 will allow American railroads to come into Canada, pick up products in Canada and ship them down through the United States on American railroads.
Some of that does happen, but the extension of the distance here would allow American railroads to take business away from Canadian railroads.
Now, here we are in the middle of NAFTA negotiations, and I’m getting to the question, Your Honour: Do you find it kind of curious, Senator Dawson, that in the middle of negotiations on a new NAFTA treaty with our American friends, without even talking about it, we give American railroads access to our markets with no reciprocity for Canadian railroads to be allowed to do the same in the United States? What kind of people are negotiating a trade agreement and not considering the effects of this decision outside of the NAFTA agreement?
Senator Dawson: Well, I’m sure the sponsor of the bill would be better prepared to answer this question, and even better than that, once it’s sent to committee, is having the witnesses. I take the expression from my two colleagues across the way, “No minister, no bill.” It means that the minister will have to come to committee and answer your questions, Senator Mercer, since I’m told that you will be sitting on the committee, which, I’m told, will be chaired by somebody other than me. I’m sure that you will have the opportunity to ask the minister. You’ll have the opportunity to receive the witnesses from the industry, and you’ll have the opportunity to invite people to come to the committee and listen to them as soon as the bill comes to the committee.
Senator Mercer: I fully intend to. I look forward to a vigorous debate on this, because anybody who thinks this piece of legislation is going anywhere fast hasn’t been paying attention to the number of issues that are in this bill.
I mentioned only one. You mentioned in your speech about the video recorders and sound recorders in locomotives.
To say the unions are upset is an understatement.
Senator Dawson, do you have any indication as to when the government would like to see this legislation passed?
Senator Dawson: Again, I would refer you to the sponsor of the bill, who is here. I don’t know if you want to ask him the question. I don’t know if it’s possible for him to answer, but I’m sure he’s better qualified to give you an answer on that. As I said in my question today, I know I’m probably the most Liberal of the independent Liberals, but I’m not a member of the government.
Hon. Frances Lankin: Would the honourable senator accept a question? Thank you.
I appreciate the comment you just made that you are not answering on behalf of the government at this point in time. This is an opportunity for us, however, to raise issues that, hopefully, the committee will examine, and I know that the new chair of the committee is listening attentively. Hopefully, this will form part of the inquiry.
I also raise the two concerns that have just been raised by Senator Mercer. With respect to the surveillance of engineers and conductors, this is very different than what we do with pilots. Certainly that information should be accessible to the safety board, but, with respect to employer grievance and disciplinary processes, that’s not allowed in other sectors. All of a sudden, something the rail line industry has been looking for for a long time is coming through a transportation policy in the guise of safety. Everyone supports safety. I would hope that the committee would examine that.
The issue with respect to the interswitching is incredibly important because, while it might happen now, on any American rail line coming into Canada for any distance, there is a switch of running crew at the border. If that switch no longer takes place, which is a potential consequence of this legislation, it has an incredible impact on jobs because it appears that there’s no reciprocity.
The other issue that I would hope would be looked at is , within the airlines, the definition of joint ventures and the request to allow airlines to go into joint ventures where it appears to be more of a merger and appears to be contrary to what our Competition Act would allow. I think there should be big questions about why we’re doing that because the impact on regional airlines and regional travel for many of us that don’t live in major centres is quite important.
I would hope that as you do a handover to the new chair, you would highlight some of these issues and realize that he is listening as well and that the committee would pursue them.
Senator Dawson: I’m sure he is listening attentively. It will certainly be brought up tonight at the creation of the committee, with the new steering committee and planning the study of this bill, whenever it makes it to our committee. Obviously, as Senator Mercer mentioned, there has been a lot of lobbying on this question, and I know most members have been informed. But I do believe sincerely that the process is the committee process, and that’s what we’re here for.
Hon. Ghislain Maltais: CN has sent a number of submissions to our offices regarding freight interswitching, because once the freight reaches its regular line, transportation rates are set by the government agency. CN is blithely complaining that this represents lost revenue. Have you received similar submissions?
Senator Dawson: Indeed, I have been made aware of the various aspects of this issue. We will have an opportunity to hear from experts in committee, to hear what the companies have to say about this bill. That will be the time to determine whether the proposed measures are satisfactory, and if they are not, we will continue our study.
I would also take this moment to congratulate you on your bow tie. I think it gives you a certain je ne sais quoi, and since it is a clip-on, you don’t have to fuss over it. However, I especially want to congratulate you on the cause you are championing. I will commit this very week to booking that exam as soon as possible.