Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this constitutional amendment which the Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada and Minister for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency put forward under section 43 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
I am one of the last members scheduled to speak. I hope that the parliamentary secretary of the government party will listen to what I have to say. While I will be going over some ground that has already been covered, toward the end of my speech, I will be voicing several opinions which subsequently will have to be analysed.
The amendment in question provides for a fixed crossing joining Prince Edward Island to the mainland to be substituted for the ferry service between Cape Tormentine and Borden. It should be noted that one of the terms of Prince Edward Island's entry into Confederation was that efficient steam service for the conveyance of mail and passengers be established and maintained between the Island and the mainland, winter and summer, thus placing the Island in continuous communication with the Intercolonial Railway and the railway system of Canada.
In 1873 the realization came about that the terms and conditions for admission into Confederation, namely the promise of efficient steam service, were not being adhered to.
In 1877 Ottawa agreed to pay a subsidy for the operation of a steam ferry boat. The Northern Light was put into service in the Northumberland Strait.
The idea of building a tunnel under the strait to maintain year-round communication was first bandied about in the early 1880s. However, with the introduction of ice-breaking ferries in 1917-18, the problem of ensuring continuous communication was resolved and the idea of establishing what we now refer to as a fixed link was abandoned for the moment. Only then were ferries pressed into service twelve months of the year.
The amendment in question provides for a fixed crossing joining Prince Edward Island to the mainland to be substituted for the ferry service between Cape Tormentine and Borden.
Let me start by saying that it is rather significant that we find ourselves having to debate a constitutional amendment, since the present government refuses to discuss any amendments to the Constitution which, as noted in section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982, is the supreme law of Canada.
In a famous ruling, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London compared the Canadian Constitution to a tree capable of growing within its natural confines. History has proven otherwise. It has taken more than a century for us to get around to debating here in the House the construction of a fixed link between New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
As much as we want to muzzle debate on the Constitution, the subject keeps coming up because it is part of an evolving process. A country is not frozen in time. It is constantly evolving. The constitutional amendment sought under section 43 of the Constitution Act, 1982, is an integral part of section 38 and subsequent sections which set out the process for amending the Canadian Constitution. We cannot help but recall 1982 and the painful memories it conjures up for Quebec. We cannot help but remember the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord and the rejection by all Canadians of the Charlottetown Accord.
This amendment put forward by the government shows us that constitutional talks cannot be relegated to the back burner and that it is impossible to artificially stop a process which, by definition, is constantly evolving.
This constitutional amendment will put Prince Edward Island in contact with the mainland through the establishment of a fixed link. And I am very happy for island residents.
Representatives of the federal government and Strait Crossing Development Inc., an international consortium, have signed a contract valued at $840 million for the construction of a bridge. It will cost approximately $800 million to build the bridge, while $40 million will go to cover interest charges during the three-year construction period.
Since the debate began this morning we have heard the same speeches. However, the facts cannot be disputed.
The proposed bridge will be 13 kilometres long. This superstructure will replace the ferry service between Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, and Borden, Prince Edward Island.
It is a fact that the province was given guarantees under the Constitution regarding links with the continent. Today, a ferry service is provided by Marine Atlantic, a Crown corporation. Responsibility for financing, building and operating a bridge connecting New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island was given to Strait Crossing Development, a Canadian company. The company will receive an annual federal subsidy of $41.9 million in 1992 dollars, this amount to be indexed for 35 years, starting in 1997. This works out to a total of nearly $1.5 billion. The company obtained financing through a private bond issue worth $660 million. The bonds have a triple-A rating, the best guarantee the banks can have.
Although I agree with this amendment, since we are bound by one of the terms of union under which Prince Edward Island entered Confederation in 1873, I nevertheless have some reservations about the project. The cost of the ferry service operated today by Marine Atlantic, a Crown corporation, is around $28 million. There are some substantial differences here. The bridge subsequently becomes the property of the federal government. The agreement provides that the federal government will acquire ownership of the bridge in 2032. In what condition will the bridge be at that point? That is certainly a question we can address in the House. Does the government have sufficient guarantees that the bridge will be handed over in good condition and that it will not have to invest in extending its useful life?
During the first year, tolls will equal the rate charged for the ferry, which is $11.05. Subsequently, increases should not exceed 75 per cent of the rate of inflation. The promoter will collect the toll fees. At this point, one wonders whether this is a firm commitment or whether the door is still open for renegotiating rates if traffic remains below the forecast levels.
Economic spin-offs will include about 2,675 person-years of work during construction, or 900 to 1,000 jobs annually with a construction season of about nine months. As we said earlier, 96 per cent of the labour force will be from Atlantic Canada. However, what will happen after completion of the project? Is it back to the vicious circle of unemployment insurance and welfare? Will tourist revenues be sufficient to prevent this?
The government admits that about 420 permanent employees with Marine Atlantic will lose their jobs when the bridge is opened to traffic and that only 60 jobs will be created. This means a net loss of about 360 jobs. Further costs are expected, including negotiating service allowances and funding for re-
training and relocation, if necessary. We do not have the answers to these questions yet.
It will cost $10 million to compensate fishermen. A federal-provincial agreement respecting the construction of the fixed crossing was entered into by the Government of Canada and the provinces of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.
Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick will each receive $20.4 million toward upgrading their road system. Is equal treatment to be expected for all of Canada? Finally, the communities of Borden and Cape Tormentine will receive a special development fund of up to $20 million.
Some 70 per cent of the construction materials for the bridge will be purchased in Prince Edward Island. The delivery of fish and farm products will no doubt improve. Tourism is expected to increase by 25 per cent. Are these estimates based on genuine studies, studies demonstrating the feasibility of this project? And the island's shipping industry will save $10 million a year according to the Liberal Party. I doubt it.
Of course, we must not overlook the effects of building such a structure will have on shipping, wildlife, fish, migratory birds, agriculture and ice.
God forbid that this project become another Hibernia, a project which has swallowed up in excess of $1 billion in public and private funds to date, for the federal government contribution to that project presented some fundamental flaws as the Auditor General pointed out in his 1992 report. He described the Hibernia project as high-risk due to the uncertainty of prices as well as technological and environmental factors. We hope that the construction of the bridge will not be plagued with the same problems.
With regard to the bridge project, Parliament and more importantly the public should be provided with quality reports throughout the project so that corrective action can be taken immediately, as required. A work schedule should be submitted to Parliament and a special House committee should follow the progress made in all areas-financing, construction per se, deadlines, environmental studies-and report to the House at specific times.
The Bloc Quebecois believes that taking these comments into consideration and supporting this amendment will take care of a long-standing request. I hope that the Prince Edward Island bridge project is built on solid ground because we will be the rightful owners of this infrastructure 35 years from now.
To be a good deal, this project must be accompanied by a comprehensive set of clear and measurable objectives; sufficient co-ordination of monitoring of industrial benefits must be put in place; environmental damage must be kept to a minimum throughout the project and the rights of the fishermen must be preserved during the entire process.
We, in the Bloc Quebecois, hope that the minister will take into consideration the points I have just raised and, in the near future, respond favourably in this House to the suggestion of setting up a special House committee, as major investments are at stake and it is essential to monitor carefully the use made of Canadian taxpayers' money and hopefully preserve steady, structuring and paying jobs for the young people.