Evidence of meeting #29 for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was vote.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

8:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Merv Tweed

I call the meeting to order.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. It is meeting number 29.

The orders of the day are pursuant to Standing Order 81(4), main estimates for 2012-13. They include votes 55 and 60 under Foreign Affairs and International Trade and votes 1, 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55, and 60 under Transport. They were referred to the committee on Tuesday, February 28, 2012.

Joining us today are members of the Department of Transport. We will introduce them as we move through.

Right now I will introduce Minister Denis Lebel, the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. We welcome you to the committee.

It's not your first time, as we know. You obviously understand the rules; you can present, and then we will go to committee members for questions.

Thank you for attending.

8:50 a.m.

Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean
Québec

Conservative

Denis Lebel Minister of Transport

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.

Thank you for inviting me to meet with the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to provide an update on the transport, infrastructure and communities portfolio, and to address our main estimates.

I am joined today by my colleague, the Honourable Steven Fletcher. We are very proud and happy to have him back. He will speak to you about the crown corporations under the transport, infrastructure, and communities portfolio.

I am also accompanied by Ms. Yaprak Baltacioglu, the deputy minister, and by Ms. Anita Biguzs, Mr. André Morency, Mr. Taki Sarantakis and Ms. Su Dazé. My thanks to them for being here.

I also want to thank the committee for its many contributions to various transportation issues. I look forward to continuing to work with you to build a transportation system that will serve Canada's current needs and help drive tomorrow's prosperity.

The funding that Transport Canada is seeking through these main estimates will help to achieve these goals.

Transportation has always been identified with opportunity in Canada: it connect workers with jobs, travellers with destinations, and products with markets.

However, the current global economic environment is volatile and uncertain, as you know.

Canada's future prosperity will depend to a significant degree on how effectively we're able to anticipate and respond to global pressures. Our government has long recognized this fact. We continue to modernize our systems and policies to support the transportation sector, a process that has benefited from the input from this committee.

A prime example of building Canada's transportation sector is the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor initiative. Linking trade and transportation, the gateway approach has brought together public and private stakeholders to address issues of efficiency, reliability, performance, skills and system bottlenecks.

The Gateway and Corridor initiative is revolutionizing the way Canada trades with the Asia-Pacific region. It has opened up opportunities for trade, not only in western Canada but right across the country. We are applying the lessons learned with the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor to other key gateway and corridor regions in Canada—particularly the importance of aligning systems and maximizing efficiencies.

One vital trade corridor we remain focused on is Windsor-Detroit. It's North America's largest border crossing and our busiest port of entry. We remain fully committed to developing the new Detroit River international crossing. We continue to work with the governments of Michigan and the United States to jointly develop a model for delivering this crossing. It is our intention to pursue a public-private partnership to design, build, finance, and operate the new bridge crossing. Governor Snyder of Michigan assured me that this project remains a top priority for his administration.

He too wants a seamless crossing to improve the connection between one of the premier manufacturing and consumer corridors in the world: the mid-west states, Ontario and Quebec.

I have received the same assurance from Secretary LaHood, the United States Secretary of Transportation, and from Ambassador Jacobson.

In keeping with this theme of gateways and corridors, I also want to talk about the new bridge for the St. Lawrence—another key trade artery and the most heavily travelled bridge in Canada.

Last fall I announced that our government will proceed with this bridge in Montreal. Work is progressing well on this major project. We have launched the federal environmental assessment and have issued two requests for proposals to hire environmental experts, financial advisers, traffic forecasters, and design engineers. Discussions with partners to determine the most efficient way to move this project forward are ongoing and will continue throughout the duration of the project.

In the meantime, the Champlain Bridge remains an important commuter route and trade corridor for the regional economy, handling nearly 60 million vehicles per year.

With an estimated $20 billion in international trade crossing the bridge annually, it is critical to our national economy.

The safety and security of the people crossing the existing bridge each day remain a top priority for our government. That's why, since 2009, our government has announced significant investments totalling $380 million to keep this important bridge safe for all who use it.

Another area where we have made significant strides is railway safety. As you know, I have introduced Bill S-4 to amend the Railway Safety Act of 2001. It is the latest in a series of actions we have taken to strengthen the performance of the rail sector.

My predecessor launched a full review of the Railway Safety Act in 2007 following several high-profile accidents during the two previous years. That was followed by an investment of $72 million over five years, announced in budget 2009, to ensure that Canadians can count on a safe and reliable rail transportation system.

Bill S-4 is the next important step in advancing this goal. The legislation has been in development for more than three years and incorporates input from government, industry and labour. In fact, the legislation has been dissected clause-by-clause by standing committees on two separate occasions. It was approved by all parties both times.

The proposed amendments to the act reflect recommendations from the Railway Safety Act review, as well as the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities' study.

This bill is about better oversight tools to ensure safety; enhanced safety management systems to build a stronger rail safety culture; and additional authority to help protect our environment. Recently, second reading for Bill S-4 commenced, and members from all parties again expressed their strong support for this important piece of legislation. After several years of analysis, consultation, and debate, I look forward to the timely passage of Bill S-4.

Freight transportation is another railway sector in which we have been active. We kept our promise by launching the facilitation process for the rail service review and by appointing Mr. Jim Dinning to head it. I am pleased that he has agreed to take on the challenge of holding the consultations that will lead to improvements in the quality of service provided by the rail companies.

This review of rail freight services was launched in order to ensure that Canada has the rail network it needs to support a robust economy. As always, our Conservative government will honour its commitments.

Mr. Chair, I would now like to turn my attention to Infrastructure Canada and the important work it does.

As a former municipal politician, I know how essential federal infrastructure investment is to municipalities, provinces and territories.

It means a stronger economy on both the local and the national level. It means more secure jobs for Canadians. It means that people have reliable public transit. It means cleaner water and air. It means more parks, trails, community centres, and other important things that make communities better places to live and work.

I'm proud of our government's unprecedented actions to make federal infrastructure investments a priority. We started with budget 2007 and the seven-year Building Canada plan, and we invested $33 billion, the single largest federal infrastructure commitment in Canada's history.

Under this plan, we are funding thousands of infrastructure projects across Canada—projects that will have lasting economic and social benefits in communities for years to come.

Our government continued building on this foundation in budget 2009 with the economic action plan. Among many other measures, it introduced an additional $5.5 billion in targeted and timely federal infrastructure funding for provinces, territories, and municipalities.

In October 2011, I had the pleasure of celebrating the successful completion of about 4,000 projects under the infrastructure stimulus fund. These are important projects that got the economy moving and created jobs.

Since we introduced the economic action plan to respond to the global recession, 610,000 more Canadians are working today, resulting in the strongest recent employment growth by far among G7 countries.

In an uncertain global economy, our government will stick with our low-tax plan for jobs and growth—a plan that is working and which serves Canadians well.

Our balanced approach will boost our efforts to achieve a sustainable and prosperous recovery and preserve our economic advantage now and in the future. Key to achieving this progress is our ongoing commitment to public infrastructure, which last year's budget made clear.

We continue to make great progress in implementing two important commitments for the Government of Canada.

The first is a permanent annual investment of $2 billion in the gas tax fund. I am so pleased that we have passed this commitment into law, and now municipalities can count on stable, predictable funding for their local infrastructure projects, year after year after year.

Second, our government is working with our key partners—provinces, territories, and groups such as the Fédération canadienne des municipalités—on the development of long-term plans for public infrastructure to extend beyond the expiry of the Building Canada plan.

Your committee recently tabled a report on transit in Canada. The result of this work will help inform our long-term planning. Even though provinces and municipalities are responsible for transit, the information gathered through the committee's study will be valuable.

In November I announced with the Fédération canadienne des municipalités' board of directors how this engagement process would unfold. As a first step, we are currently taking stock of all that we have accomplished together with our partners and what the tangible benefits of our funding has been.

In phase two, we are continuing to work with our partners along with academics, technical experts, and practitioners to do some of the important analysis. Our goal here is to build the knowledge needed to make informed decisions.

This will set the stage for the final phase. Similar to when we launched the Building Canada plan, we will engage our partners on the broad principles and directions in a future infrastructure plan. The end result will be a long-term plan that meets the needs of Canadians.

As all of this is going on, our government will continue to deliver on its previous commitments, including managing the effective close-out of our programs under the economic action plan, and seeing our Building Canada plan commitments through to successful completion.

I'm proud to be part of a government that continues to lead the way in investing in public infrastructure and in building a better national transportation network that benefits all Canadians.

That concludes my remarks. I will now ask Minister Fletcher to speak to you. I would be happy to answer any questions that members of the committee have.

Thank you.

9 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Merv Tweed

Mr. Fletcher.

Welcome back.

March 27th, 2012 / 9 a.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia
Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher Minister of State (Transport)

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Minister Lebel.

Members of the committee, it is a pleasure to speak to you today about the funding requests in the main estimates for some of the crown corporations in our portfolio. I welcome the opportunity to explain why these funds are necessary so that we can continue to provide essential services to Canadians.

In the interest of time, I'll only talk about a few of our crowns to give you guys the maximum amount of time to ask questions.

I'll start with VIA Rail and I'll talk about Marine Atlantic and Canada Post, which are certainly all critical to our competitiveness and economy. But there are other crowns you can feel free to ask questions about.

With VIA Rail, rail service is not only part of our Canadian heritage, we are investing to enhance passenger rail service and experience in Canada. Since 2007 we've announced significant investments for improvements to VIA stations, equipment, and infrastructure to provide faster and more reliable passenger service across the country. Nearly half of this funding was stimulus funding under the economic action plan.

In November I helped mark the completion of a major track improvement to part of VIA's Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto line. These upgrades improved the Smiths Falls-Brockville line, as we first announced in March 2010. They also include projects from Brockville to Ottawa alongside VIA's Montreal line to Côteau, Quebec.

Due to the completion of these projects VIA was able to launch a new Ottawa-Toronto express train that connects the two cities in less than four hours—three hours and 57 minutes, to be exact.

Moving from rail to sea, let's talk about Marine Atlantic. The ferry service the federal government provides between Nova Scotia and the Island of Newfoundland is a constitutionally mandated service and our government understands how important this service is to Canadians. That's why we have made significant investments to improve it. Since 2007 we have provided significant investment in Marine Atlantic to make it possible for the crown corporation to renew its fleet by chartering the MV Atlantic Vision in 2009. We also were able to acquire several other assets to make the Marine Atlantic experience more enjoyable, more efficient, and so on.

Budget 2010 included even more investments for fleet renewal and improved service to Atlantic Canadians and their families. These included a new terminal building in North Sydney and an upgrade at Port aux Basques and Argentia terminals. In fact, if I may, I actually went on this trip this past summer. In North Sydney I took the ferry across to Argentia, drove across Newfoundland, and went back from Port aux Basques to North Sydney. It must be one of the great road trips in the world. I highly encourage anyone to utilize that service on a recreational basis if you have the opportunity.

These investments reinforce the idea that the economic growth of Atlantic Canada is a key priority for our government. We understand that building a strong transportation infrastructure is an important part of the region's future prosperity. I can assure the committee that these investments are making a difference.

In November I helped dedicate the latest addition to the ferry fleet, the MV Highlanders, which joins her sister ship, the MV Blue Puttees . These are very spectacular vessels.

The new vessels have substantially improved Marine Atlantic's ability to provide on-time, reliable service, and Marine Atlantic has introduced initiatives to increase efficiencies while ensuring customers continue to receive good value for their money. The introduction of new fleet in 2011 and the replacement of a significant amount of shore infrastructure and equipment will allow Marine Atlantic to manage its operations more efficiently. Savings will begin to be realized in 2013, once the organization gains more experience with these new vessels. The balanced approach will boost our efforts to achieve a sustainable, prosperous recovery and preserve the Canadian economy's advantages now and in the future.

Finally, I'll go to Canada Post. As Canadian communities--large, small, urban, rural--all across Canada will attest, Canada Post provides a vital service. And good service is what Canadians expect. Because all Canadians deserve reliable postal service, we specifically made postal service to rural communities an integral part of Canada Post's universal service. We also maintain a moratorium on the closing of rural post offices.

In 2010 Canada Post began a $2.1 billion modernization initiative, which will make major investments in equipment, technology, and processes. This will allow Canada Post to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and we will continue to support Canada Post's efforts to ensure that all Canadians have the postal service they need and deserve. I'll note that the chair of this committee has brought forward a private member's bill that will help us improve the service to Canadians as well.

Mr. Chairman, these three crown corporations provide central services to Canadians. Our government is committed to ensuring that they have the resources they need to carry out the mandates. Securing the funding outlined in the main estimates is key to making this happen.

I'll stop there.

Shoot away.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Merv Tweed

Thank you, Mr. Fletcher.

Mr. Nicholls, seven minutes please.

9:10 a.m.

NDP

Jamie Nicholls Vaudreuil-Soulanges, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

First, I would like to thank the Aveos workers who are here in this room with us today.

Good morning, Minister Lebel. Thank you for joining us this morning.

The main estimates show a reduction of $17 million in air safety, a cut of about 7%. We are also aware that the closing of Aveos means that the maintenance of Air Canada aircraft is being exported. It is unacceptable that this government is allowing the maintenance of our aircraft and our air safety to be exported to El Salvador. It is essential that Aveos continue to guarantee air safety in Canada and that our aircraft be maintained here, under Canadian safety standards.

What is the government going to do to solve this problem? How does it justify the cuts to safety and how will it respond in the event of an incident in the air?

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Denis Lebel Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean, QC

My reply will deal with the decisions about the whole matter of Aveos. The deputy minister will set the record straight on the safety issue. Some of those things were actually not correct.

In this country, no government—certainly not ours—will allow safety in any area of transportation to be compromised. You are making statements that have not been confirmed. Yesterday we were taken to task for sending everything somewhere else in the country; now, you are saying that we are sending it overseas.

Since 1988, Air Canada has been a private company that makes its own business decisions. I do not always agree with Air Canada on those decisions, but that is how things are. It has been a private company since 1988 and, in 2004, it separated its operations and its other activities to create new companies. Since then, Aveos—the name was chosen in 2008, as you know—has also been an independent company, with independent union accreditations. Air Canada will have to accept the incorporating act, and we are going to make sure that it does.

As for the other comments about safety, stop scaring Canadians. Companies all over Canada provide very good services. No one has any doubt that Aveos employees provided a very good service. But their owners, the private individuals who own the company, have decided to suspend Aveos' operations. The government did not make that decision; business people made business decisions. So the employees working for those individuals have lost their jobs, and that is very unfortunate. Air Canada is a client of Aveos; it was not an Air Canada decision either. I am sure you will tell me that there are all kinds of issues involved with this, but those are the facts. In the government, as you know, we do not work with assumptions; we work with the legislation and with the facts.

I will ask the deputy minister to provide you with specific information on the matter you raised.

9:10 a.m.

NDP

Jamie Nicholls Vaudreuil-Soulanges, QC

Mr. Minister, when you pass legislation to make its workers go back to work, I question the government's impartiality towards this private company.

On December 14, 2010, Air Canada's Director of Government Relations told the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities that the company could not enforce the act because it does not enforce the statutes of Canada upon itself. Air Canada recognized that it is the government's responsibility to make sure that legislation is complied with.

How can the Conservative government not enforce its own Air Canada Public Participation Act itself?

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Denis Lebel Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean, QC

We do enforce the act, Mr. Chair, and it starts with the work of this committee. That is also why I think that an emergency debate with nothing but political speeches would not have moved things forward, because it would not have allowed any of you to ask questions to the people involved.

I made the decision to invite representatives from Air Canada, from Aveos and from the union here. They have appeared before in the past, but the situation was not the one we have today, namely Aveos' decision to shut its doors and the fact that the workers have unfortunately lost their jobs. So next week, you can ask all the questions you like to the people who are in a position to answer them.

9:10 a.m.

NDP

Jamie Nicholls Vaudreuil-Soulanges, QC

Mr. Minister—

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Denis Lebel Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean, QC

That said, your interpretation—

9:10 a.m.

NDP

Jamie Nicholls Vaudreuil-Soulanges, QC

Mr. Minister, air safety is a very serious issue—

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Merv Tweed

Please let him finish.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Denis Lebel Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean, QC

Thank you.

There are different ways of interpreting the nature of the incorporating act. You know very well that a decision was handed down last year, here in Ontario. Mr. Justice Newbould of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that Air Canada was in fact complying with its requirements under the act. You are saying something different. Personally, I prefer to put my faith in the legislation and on legal opinions.

In fact, in terms of the work that you are doing this week on this matter, we would be pleased to provide you with a legal opinion about the situation. We are just finishing it now. You can choose between your interpretation and that legal opinion. Certainly, everyone has their own opinion at the moment. For us, it is critical to ensure compliance with the act. That is what we are going to continue to do.

9:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Merv Tweed

Mr. Nicholls.