Mr. Speaker, the Bloc Quebecois agrees with the principle of the CN Commercialization Act, and, in particular, we appreciate the fact that provisions in it guarantee the bilingualism of the institution and the maintenance of its head office in Montreal. There are, however, six points on which we oppose the bill, and I will first list them for you, before I go on to examine them in detail point by point.
The six points are as follows. The first is the excessive power the bill gives the minister to use public funds to pay off part of
CN's debts and to give CN consideration for any assets outside the railway system the minister wishes to transfer.
Second, we do not agree with the fact that the bill does not protect the interests of CN workers once the company passes into private hands.
In the same vein, we disapprove of the fact that the bill makes no provision for the retirement fund of CN workers. We also cannot accept the lack of provisions preventing foreign takeover of the company.
Fifth, we object to the fact that, through clause 16, the SLRs, because of their connection with CN, could, in the future, come under federal jurisdiction, whereas they are generally under provincial jurisdiction.
Furthermore, we do not agree with the fact that there is no guarantee CN's successors will carry out their obligations to repair the Pont de Québec, which is an historical work and of economic interest. There is, moreover, no guarantee that CN's successors will do it any better than CN has done it itself since its acquisition by the federal government.
Here, then are the six points one after another. First, the bill accords the minister excessive power to use public funds in order to pay off part of CN's debts in order to make the company a more attractive buy and in order to give CN consideration for portions of assets the minister would like transferred.
We find these powers truly outrageous. They are to be found under clauses 6 and 12. I will not quote the whole clause, but only parts of it: "The Minister may, at any time, while CN is a Crown corporation, direct CN to transfer property, on such terms and conditions, including consideration, if any, as the Minister considers appropriate"-he is the one in charge-"and CN shall forthwith comply with the direction".
I will now read a short quote from clause 12, which goes along the same lines: "The Minister, with the approval of the Minister of Finance, may enter into an agreement or other arrangement with CN or any other person respecting the acquisition, holding, service, disposal or discharge of or other dealing with any debt or obligation incurred by CN", this is somewhat excessive, "and pay out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund, or from the proceeds of any sale of shares, amounts in respect of any agreement or arrangement referred to in paragraph (a) or (b)".
We were and are still very much opposed to these provisions, but our proposed amendments were defeated. Motion No. 8, which I drafted myself, was in opposition to them. It said that no such agreement regarding the disposal of debt or the transfer of property may be entered into unless the following conditions were met, and here are a few of the most important ones: not until the minister has laid before the House of Commons a proposal that the agreement be entered into, and the House has concurred in the committee report. This was aimed at giving the House, rather than the minister, the authority to approve this kind of transaction.
We also proposed that the transfer of assets be conditional on either the approval of the House or the favourable opinion of the auditor general to transfer to the minister assets with a value exceeding one million dollars, or to transfer to a third party assets with a value exceeding ten million dollars. These amendments were voted down. Therefore, the minister retains this outrageous power to use public funds as if they were his own.
The second point we take issue with is that there is no provision protecting the interests of workers in those corporations that would be purchased by the minister, or transferred to the minister to be sold later on. In the case of companies that have formed an organic bond with CN and receive orders from it in some cases, if that bond is severed, we will have to make sure they remain viable and the jobs are protected. Nothing of this sort is mentioned in the bill.
We do not want to presume the worst about buyers' intentions, but someone could buy a company just to close it in order to eliminate a competitor and then the jobs would be lost. To prevent this, my colleague, the member for Beauport-Montmorency-Orléans presented the following motion which was defeated. Briefly it said that the minister could not sell any subsidiary or part of the operations of CN, unless CN and the purchaser had given the minister written undertakings, in terms satisfactory to the minister, that all reasonable steps had been taken to ensure that it would continue for a reasonable period as a viable operation and that the interests of the employees affected by the sale would, so far as is practicable, be maintained after the sale. That motion was defeated, therefore the workers have no protection whatsoever.
Third, on a similar issue, we see nothing here that would protect the CN employees' pension fund and on that point my colleague, the member for Beauport-Montmorency-Orléans, also presented Motion No. 11 which naturally was also defeated. It said that the pension plan for employees of CN known as the CN Pension Plan shall continue to exist and be funded and be administered by the CN Pension Board in accordance with the rules in existence immediately prior to the coming into force of this act. This amendment to protect the pension fund was defeated.
Fourth, we object to the fact that there are no provisions which will really prevent foreign interests from acquiring the majority of shares and therefore the control of CN. To support what I was saying, I am referring to clause 8 of the bill, from which I will quote.
"8.(1)The articles of continuance of CN shall contain a )provisions imposing constraints on the issue, transfer and ownership, [-]to prevent any one person, together with the associates of that person, from holding, beneficially owning or controlling [-]more than fifteen per cent of the votes-''
This provision is excellent, in principle, except that in the laudable intention of not reducing unduly the number of potential buyers in a market which is already rather limited, there is a provision that allows various persons, individuals or corporations, belonging to a group, to take less than 15 per cent each, even if the total for the group is over 15 per cent, provided that they submit a statutory declaration saying that they will not act in concert with respect to their interest in CN.
This is a good provision and we agree with it as far as Canadians are concerned. However, we disapprove of its application to foreign interests, because we are not convinced that CN directors will be able to make sure that foreign persons will abide by their declaration. We proposed, in an amendment, that this provision be restricted to Canadians. Of course our amendment was defeated.
Fifth, clause 16 which I will quote provides, intentionally I imagine, that a local railway created with a financial contribution from a CN buyer would come under federal jurisdiction, even though the others are under provincial jurisdiction. Here is what clause 16 says:
"The railway and other transportation works in Canada of CN, of every subsidiary of CN and of every corporation formed by any consolidation or amalgamation of any two or more of those corporations are hereby declared to be works for the general advantage of Canada."
We do not accept the principle of federal jurisdiction over a local railway created in partnership with CN. Against that we proposed Motion No. 15 from which I will quote. This provision concerning federal control does not apply to:
(a) any activity of CN within a province that operates under an agreement that subjects the activity to the jurisdiction of that province, or
(b) any work, subsidiary or corporation owned by CN that is situated or operates only within one province.
So, this provision putting short line railways under federal control could only apply to short line railways operating in more than one province. This amendment was rejected, just like the others.
The last provision concerns the Pont de Quebec, in Quebec City. You know that when it was first built, this bridge was considered the eighth wonder of the world and that it has not only an economic value, but it is also very interesting in terms of heritage. It seems to me that the Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Minister of Transport and the Minister of Public Works should show some concern. I saw photos of the bridge in its present condition. In fact, it does not put people at risk, but it is really regrettable to let an asset such as this one fall apart.
The federal government, which was the owner, was responsible for it, and then it transferred it to CN which should have taken all the necessary measures to repair this bridge as quickly as possible. It did not do so.
We would have liked the bill to stipulate explicitly that the buyer of the part of the assets of CN including this bridge would have the obligation to repair it urgently within a specified time frame. This is the purpose of motion No. 14 which says:
That Bill C-89 be amended by adding after line 3, on page 8, the following new Clause:
"15.1 The Minister shall, no later than January 1, 1996, conclude an agreement with CN providing for CN to repair, renovate and maintain the Pont de Quebec in Quebec City and to commence work under the agreement no later than May 1, 1996".
It will come as no surprise that this amendment was rejected. So they were all rejected, and we are left with legislation that allows the minister to use federal funds as he likes, to have assets transferred to him or to pay debts incurred by the CN.
The legislation does not protect the workers. It does not protect the CN pension plan. It does not give any real and verifiable protection against external control. It does not protect the future short line railways from an eventual take over by the federal government if ever there were joint ownership with the CN. The legislation does not give any guarantee at all respecting the Pont de Québec. It is an antisocial measure that totally disregards the rights of this House; it is insensitive to the fate of this historical bridge and would make short line railways come under two jurisdictions, some being under provincial jurisdiction and others, under federal jurisdiction.
In spite of what I mentioned earlier, in spite of the fact that it does guarantee bilingualism and keeps corporate headquarters in Montreal, we find that it is a bad bill and we will vote against it enthusiastically.