Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise on Bill C-64, which was introduced by the government and seeks to amend the Pilotage Act. I am glad to be taking part in this debate because it is important to look at the whole pilotage situation and understand how, in 1972, we came to have a Pilotage Act whereby our territorial waters are protected by qualified pilots who take charge of ships entering our waters.
I was saying earlier to the parliamentary secretary that we have to be careful when we open up the Pilotage Act, because in solving monetary problems, we may be threatening the security that has been in place for decades to protect our waters. This is especially important because there is more and more traffic in our territorial waters.
When I think of Quebec, I think of the St. Lawrence River and the St. Lawrence Seaway that leads to the Great Lakes. This is important, because there are more ships and boats plying these waters, pleasure craft and other vessels. We decided finally to protect the security of marine transport by ensuring that the pilots who take charge of ships and large marine craft trading in our waters are fully qualified and know the St. Lawrence River and Seaway like the back of their hand. It is impossible to completely avoid marine catastrophes or accidents, but the pilots have to know what they are doing and not just use the equipment. For years, people have been trying to have us believe that there is sophisticated electronic equipment. But there is no substitute for human experience when it comes to protecting the safety of our waters in conditions such as high winds and groundwater movement.
This is imperative for the Bloc Québécois. No law can jeopardize that safety, having foreign ships piloted by our own marine pilots who know the St. Lawrence, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. That is the objective we must never forget and never jeopardize. When I meet with marine pilots and marine pilots' associations and they tell me that this bill could jeopardize the entire pilotage system, then I have a problem with this. As I was saying, I have a problem with this because there is more and more marine traffic and the water quality of the St. Lawrence, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes is even more important because most of the cities and towns along the river and the seaway get their drinking water from this wonderful navigable waterway, the St. Lawrence, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. We cannot take any chances.
I listened closely to what the parliamentary secretary was saying and I know that there is a money problem, among other things, within the pilotage authority, in the Laurentians. In the past few years, the Laurentian Pilotage Authority has had some financial problems that could have been resolved and may be resolved in the coming weeks. Obviously, I know that the boards of administration of these authorities have pilots on them and also employers, shipowners and stakeholders.
We have been talking about the Laurentian Pilotage Authority's deficit for years. I think there will end up being some agreement since the shipowners have realized that the contract that was negotiated a number of years ago may have benefited them. I should point out that there are four authorities across Canada. Everything is going well for the other three, but for the Laurentian Pilotage Authority, there may have been a negotiation that benefited the shipowners. In my opinion, that is where the government could have stepped in. Not with a bill to change everything that is happening in the other authorities, but to be able, through negotiations, to put pressure on the shipowners.
He should have pointed out that there was a deficit at the Laurentian Pilotage Authority. It has difficulty hiring pilots and covering expenses. Pilots put in hours but are not paid because of the lack of money.
Personally, I thought that the Conservative government would have pushed the issue. On the contrary, it has made an amendment to the legislation that runs the risk of jeopardizing all the other pilotage authorities.
Having been the Bloc Québécois transport critic from 2000 to 2004—and also since the 2006 election—, I know that shipowners are constantly trying to have the pilotage system abolished.
The government must keep in mind that it must protect, for reasons of marine safety, the quality of the waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes, and also the Pacific waters around Vancouver. Safeguarding water quality is just too important.
Cities located along these navigable waterways draw their water from them. We must ensure that we never jeopardize this pilotage system. The objective of shipowners is to succeed in abolishing the pilotage system by any means. They claim that with today's electronic equipment there is no longer a need for these pilots. Thus they can save money.
At this time, we cannot abandon the pilotage system because of the extent of marine traffic, not only merchant ships and freighters but also pleasure craft.
Let us look at what is happening on large bodies of water flowing inland in other countries, such as the Mississippi in the United States and others in Europe. They all have pilotage systems. It remains the best way to ensure that people with a thorough knowledge of the waterway take charge of the vessels. They know the winds, the waters and the groundwater movement. They know that, with torrential rain, sand accumulates at certain spots in some parts of the St. Lawrence River and that it shifts after a few days. The pilots are familiar with the geomorphology.
To become a pilot and to be a member of a pilotage association, you must take courses and pass the exams. That has been the case since pilotage associations were established. They are our best safety measure, even though they do not come with a 100% guarantee.
It is true that there have been some accidents. We are not the only ones in the world to do this. Everyone with major waterways entering their land is protected by pilots. I will repeat this for the Quebeckers and Canadians listening, these pilots take charge of foreign ships.
As soon as these ships enter the St. Lawrence River, the pilots take charge. Each pilotage authority leads them to a particular destination. For example, if they must get to the Great Lakes, the pilots take them to the Great Lakes; if they must get to Quebec City, the pilots take them to Quebec City. If they must get to Montreal, another pilotage authority sets out from the mouth of the St. Lawrence and goes to Quebec City. There is also one from Quebec to Montreal. Then, another one takes over from Montreal to the Great Lakes. They exist in western Canada as well, in the Pacific. This ensures better safety.
I hope the government has understood this. We need to try to fix an administrative or monetary problem that was perhaps created by the industry. I am not accusing anyone, but this was allowed to deteriorate. Maybe it suited the shipowners that the Laurentian Pilotage Authority was not working, since this proved that the whole system did not work. I have a hard time accepting that. I am not sure that the shipowners are thinking about the interests of the people in the area and people in general when the time comes to make business decisions. It is their personal interests at stake instead of public interest.
We must bear in mind that history tends to repeat itself. Some businesses, even some Canadian businesses, fly all sorts of flags, in order to pay less taxes. I hope Canadians understand that the only thing these shipowners are thinking about is their bottom line, and not public interests.
The Conservative government must therefore stop protecting the shipowners' lobby because these people are thinking only of their own interests. Since becoming the transport critic for the Bloc Québécois, I have noted that the stated aim of these shipowners has always been to do away entirely with the whole pilotage system. They see it as an additional expense. Clearly, when their ships enter the waters of the St. Lawrence, making their way towards the Great Lakes, these ships are taken under the responsibility of specialized pilotage authorities and they must pay the pilots' wages. That is how it works. Each pilotage authority has its own pricing agreements, whether it is by the tonne, by the hour, or whatever the case may be.
As for the Laurentian Pilotage Authority, over the past few years, contract negotiations have been concluded to the detriment of pilots and to the advantage of shipowners. A good balance has never been achieved. The shipowners were the winners and the Laurentian Pilotage Authority has slowly been losing money. No one has been willing to say that the fees should be adjusted to allow it to get by. Why? Simply because there are more ships, and there is more transport and traffic, so this requires more pilots. In the manner in which the contract was negotiated, every time a pilot piloted, the authority was losing money. This explains why the deficit is higher than expected, and the government knows this.
With this bill, we hope to correct an administrative mistake, an economic mistake, a financial mistake. We run the risk of jeopardizing the entire pilotage system, which is protected by legislation adopted in 1972 that has never been reopened since. Why? Because it is too important.
The problem is that every time we try to touch this legislation, the pilots feel that the shipowners are trying to do away with them. The fact is that for shipowners, pilots are an unnecessary expense. But for the people living along the St. Lawrence River, the St. Lawrence Seaway or the Great Lakes, pilots are the best way of protecting their drinking water and their safety. Pilots prevent environmental disasters such as spills of oil, hazardous goods or anything else that could pollute the waters. We need pilots who can take charge of all foreign ships entering our waters and guide them through our beautiful waterways. Pilots are our best guarantee of safety.
Nothing is ever guaranteed 100%, but these pilots are trained, have diplomas and certificates and are supervised by the pilotage authorities. They know their area's geomorphology. For example, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec City, there is a pilot who knows that area. Another pilot will take ships from Quebec City to Montreal, and another from Montreal to the Great Lakes.They know their area, and each one has a particular specialty. This safeguards the waters of the St. Lawrence River, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes and protects the quality of those waters so that they are not polluted by disasters or shipping accidents.
Hon. members have no doubt grasped that the Bloc Québécois will always be opposed to this bill, especially since the pilots' associations have told us that they are opposed to the bill.
The government must continue negotiating, and I hope that in the coming weeks an agreement will be reached and the government will make shipowners understand that the Laurentian Pilotage Authority situation must be resolved. Clearly, the problem is contractual and financial. The government has many other ways of exerting pressure on shipowners with a view to striking a balance. I hope that an agreement will be reached in the coming days and weeks.
Once this is resolved, the bill that was introduced today will no longer be necessary. In fact, it goes without saying that no pilotage authority should ever have a deficit. That is all well and good. The problem is that we have to make sure that everyone at the table understands that. We do not need legislation for that. They just need to sit down and strike a balance. We need the necessary revenue in order to pay the marine pilots who will take charge of the ships and so forth. That can be done without amending the legislation. All we need is people who want to sit down at a table, negotiate, get along well, and a government that wants to put pressure on the shipowners.
We do not need a government that gives in to pressure from the shipowners to abolish the legislation in order to get what they have been wanting for decades, the abolition, for purely financial reasons, of the pilotage system that guarantees our safety.
The Bloc Québécois will vote against Bill C-64. The members from the Bloc will be in committee to put forward amendments or to remove from this legislation everything they do not agree with. Much of what is in this bill should be taken out. We will see what happens.
Nonetheless, one thing is certain: what I heard come out of the mouth of the parliamentary secretary is not reassuring. The parliamentary secretary said that he was listening to the stakeholders. He was not listening to the stakeholders; he heard the stakeholders. He did not listen to them because the pilots said that was not what they needed. They did not need an amendment to the legislation, they needed the government to put pressure on the shipowners to resolve the problem of the Laurentian Pilotage Authority. That is all they needed.
There is nothing that reassures us in this bill. For a number of years we have gone to great lengths to ensure that this system was the best, not for shipowners, not for pilots, but for the safety of the people living along the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. We must ensure their safety and the safety of those navigating the waters. Many pleasure craft navigate these waters. We must also ensure the quality of the water, since a number of towns get their water from the St. Lawrence River, the Seaway or the Great Lakes. We must ensure the water quality. We must go a little further and tell the shipowners to stop thinking about the bottom line and start thinking about the people living along these great waterways, so that they can have an adequate and acceptable quality of life.
When we look at things objectively, we can see that everyone's problems must be set aside to focus on the public interest. Public interest requires an authority, a pilotage act and healthy pilotage authorities. At all times, we must take charge of foreign ships, those entering our waters whose pilots do not have the proper accreditation. Pilots must also have completed the course, been accredited and have the necessary licences to navigate these ships in our waters.
As I have already explained, each entity has its own accreditation. For example, from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to Quebec City is one accreditation. From Quebec City to Montreal is another, and from Montreal to the Great Lakes yet another. There is also one for the Pacific, in Vancouver. This is the best way of going about it. Canada is not the only country with such a system. This system is used on the Mississippi, in the U.S., and in other European countries where there are major inland navigable waterways. They all have this protection. We must ensure that local pilots who are familiar with the waters take charge of foreign vessels. We must keep this system even if Canadian companies tell us that these are our own ships. Canadian companies often fly under the flag of a foreign country and want the least expensive pilot. They do not care if the pilot is from Liberia or another country.
This bill definitely does not protect our citizens. The Bloc Québécois will vote against this bill.