Mr. Speaker, I will share my time with my hon. colleague from Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert.
I would like to begin by wishing all of my constituents and colleagues a happy new year since this is my first speech in the House this year. I would also like to congratulate my colleague from Trinity—Spadina for her tremendous and brilliant work on this issue. I am sure that we have her to thank for the fact that the Conservative government decided to do something about this issue.
I would like to go over some facts and talk about why this bill came into being.
Rail transportation is the backbone of Canada's economy because 70% of our goods are shipped by rail. That is why it is critical that rail transportation services benefit both rail transportation companies and shippers.
The cost of rail transportation is also hurting Canadian shippers. Unfortunately, Bill C-52 is silent on the issue of rates because the government ignored the demands of a number of groups of shippers.
Canada's trade deficit continues to grow. It hit $2 billion in November. We cannot allow Canada's products to lose more ground competing on the world markets.
Rail transportation is essential not only to competitiveness, but also to the domestic economy. We also need rail transportation services to help keep trucks off the roads and to curb our greenhouse gas emissions. Although railways still make up a considerable proportion of surface transportation, frustrated businesses are turning to trucks when possible, and that is devastating to our environment. That is important to note.
We must also look at the economy as a whole, since Canada's trade deficit is increasing. As I mentioned, it reached nearly $2 billion in November, and our economy cannot afford to lose even more ground in light of the global situation.
The Conservatives' reluctance in the past to do anything for Canada's rail shippers shows their overall attitude towards rail transportation. Whether it is their inaction on new railway safety measures, cuts to VIA Rail Canada or their opposition to bringing high-speed rail service to Canada, the Conservatives refuse to give Canada's railway network the attention it deserves.
The Conservatives are taking a piecemeal approach to this country's transportation infrastructure that shows a lack of interest and a lack of investment. This is the case in my riding, which used to be a railway riding. It no longer is and we have to wonder why. One answer is the clear lack of investment to keep these railways running. Railways and their tracks are increasingly being sold off, when they could be used for other purposes, such as public transportation.
Instead of letting things go and making only occasional investments here and there, Canada needs a comprehensive approach to transportation that is based on a national public transportation and railway strategy. For years, farmers and other businesses have been paying the price for the poor quality of rail freight services, and have not managed to get Ottawa's attention.
The NDP's position is simple. We support businesses and exporters. We are determined to get them the transportation services they need and deserve.
Even though Bill C-52 does not follow through on certain demands from stakeholders, it should receive our support. I am rising in the House today because shippers are happy with it, more or less.
Now it is up to us to fill in the gaps, strengthen this bill for shippers and underscore the NDP's participation throughout the process. As I mentioned earlier, the member for Trinity—Spadina has done some excellent work on this issue.
We will keep working to ensure that we improve our country's rail transportation system and use it for what it was intended: to meet economic and environmental needs.
Unfortunately, Bill C-52 will cover only new service level agreements, and not those that already exist. Many shippers will have to continue to cope with unreliable and unfair service without any access to dispute resolution if their existing service agreements are violated.
Arbitration is available only for shippers who are in the midst of negotiating new contracts. Instead of offering fast, reliable conflict resolution for all shippers, as the NDP is asking for, Bill C-52 is offering a limited arbitration process for a small group of shippers.
The proposed arbitration process may be too costly for shippers. The burden of proof may be unfair if they have to prove that they are in need of services from the railway.
Certain shippers also wanted to tackle the issue of tariffs during the legislative process, but unfortunately the Conservatives made it clear that they would not address that issue until the next legislative review of the Canada Transportation Act in 2014-15.
Obviously, shippers agreed to look at tariffs at a later date and to focus on problems with service level agreements.
It is worth repeating that the mining sector is the second-largest employer in aboriginal communities, after the public service.
Improving rail freight transportation services for mining companies could also be of economic benefit to aboriginal people in certain areas of the country.
The whole question of rail freight is particularly important to rural areas. I come from a rural area. The industries that will be most affected by this are in western Canada, in British Columbia, as well as in Quebec and, to a lesser degree, Ontario. This represents both a challenge and an opportunity for everyone and for parliamentarians to really effect positive change for people in rural areas.
The Prairies are very sparsely populated, for instance. However, this matter is important to the small towns and rural communities of the Prairies, and those are the main groups we should be reaching out to.
Nearly 100 communities depend on the forest industry for their survival. That is the case in my riding, where most forestry-related transportation is done by truck. Why not invest in the railways that exist in my riding to transport lumber?
My colleagues and I would like to see penalties included in the agreements in relation to service levels, in order to compensate shippers for service disruptions, damages and loss of productivity.
Shippers are also afraid, and I agree with them, that this bill will not apply to rail shipments from Canada to the U.S. Why not?
In closing, this is an important piece of legislation. It needs improvements. Of course we hope this government will keep an open mind and accept many of our recommendations.