Mr. Speaker, I am extremely pleased to speak again on this bill, which has been around since last spring. I do so as the member for Trois-Rivières, a port city, and as the critic for regional development. I can tell you that regional development gets it in the neck with this bill. I do so also as an associate member of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, on which I have the privilege to sit and where I heard the complaints, claims and concerns of users, particularly of the St. Lawrence River and the seaway. They came to try to change the government's mind about this bill.
It seems to me that the federal government has for a long time been considering imposing fees on users of Canada's ports in general and of the St. Lawrence River in particular.
In fact, a few months ago, the government commissioned a study entitled IBI, pretending-according to the witnesses-to ask the users of St. Lawrence ports and of major Canadian port facilities for their opinion. These studies have been described as a farce, phoney consultation, pseudo-consultation and-to use the words of one witness-a study which is not worth the paper it is written on.
This gives you some idea of how well the users agree on this. The key concept in the government's intentions is user pay. Hearing witnesses such as these shows us just what collaboration there is between the two parties.
Clearly, the government has only one real objective: by the year 2000, to extract the tidy sum of $100 million from the pockets of the users, the ship owners who use Canada's port facilities. This amount will be recovered in three stages. The first involves navigational aids, and that is the one that is involved at the moment. The second, coming this fall, involves ice breaking, that is the use of icebreaking vessels, particularly in eastern Canada, on the St. Lawrence. The third will involve dredging the channel itself and whatever passages between the channel and the ports need dredging.
We have seen a great deal of arrogance, a great deal of arbitrariness, a great many decisions not necessarily based on true reflection and consultation. I would say that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans behaved badly in this connection. Not only did it not succeed in convincing the stakeholders that its position was justified, it did not even try.
It carried out no impact studies on the effect of charging user fees in future for services currently offered free of charge in the public interest. I must point out that some witnesses spoke of the devastating effects on the St. Lawrence and Great Lake ports' ability to compete with the American eastern seaboard, with Halifax-in the case of Montreal)-and even with ports along the Mississippi in the U.S.
There has been no impact study demonstrating the risks or benefits of charging fees. There may be long term benefits, but there do not appear to be any short term ones. No one even took the trouble to see what the effects would be.
There was no obligation felt to describe the services actually provided by the coast guard to these users, in order to convince users of the need to charge fees. All that was said was that the coast guard does this, that, or the other thing, in this or that part of Canada, and that starting on such and such a date, users will have to pay for unspecified services rendered.
Contrary to what was immediately requested by users, those who deal with the coast guard, there has been no effort on the part of the coast guard to systematically reduce costs and make this fee setting scheme more palatable, potentially more acceptable. If at least it could be said that the coast guard has made an effort, has been trying to do its part to reduce the deficit by collecting $180 million, has reduced its costs by X million of dollars, we would agree to join in. In no way has the coast guard tried to show its good faith or streamline its operations.
This is serious. But beyond the words, the speeches condemning this, there will be dire consequences. We have heard some troubling facts. I will give you a few examples. According to some users, and not the least of them, if I recall SODES made the following point.
SODES is made up of all the major users, namely the Canadian aluminum industry, the pulp and paper industry, the forest industry, the mining industry, the oil industry, everybody including St. Lawrence Cement, Irving Oil-that belongs to a famous family-and a lot of important people. Even the Canadian government, mainly through Industry Canada, belongs to this group. SODES
found that this will result in an increase of one dollar a tonne for services on the St. Lawrence.
The coast guard said that it was not one dollar, but rather 10 cents a tonne. If SODES is right, one dollar a tonne would be a disaster in terms of international competition. SODES must be wrong, because if it is not, one cannot help thinking this is a machiavellian plot to weaken the Quebec economy, and it might very well be. As a matter of fact, it is an issue which would deserve more in-depth scrutiny because if it were to result in a one dollar a tonne increase, this would mean that the cost of services currently provided would double.
Another troubling fact concerns the way the fees were set, given the competition between the various ports in eastern Canada. You must know that Montreal is a destination for container carriers whereas Halifax, a direct competitor of Montreal, is a port of call.
They had a choice between two ways of setting fees. One is based on the actual size of the ships. A 30,000 tonne ship is always a 30,000 tonne ship whether it is at sea or in port, whether it is full or empty. According to this method, there is an objective fee applicable to all ships and the price is always the same, since it is based on the size of the ship.
The other method, which is also used, is based on the volume of cargo unloaded at a port of call. As we said, Montreal is a destination and Halifax is a port of call. What method do you think the coast guard chose? One discriminates in favour of Halifax and the other one would set all ports on an equal footing. What method was chosen? The one discriminating in favour of Halifax, of course.
So all those containers unloaded in Halifax are taken into account when the fees are set. A more objective method could have been used, one that would have pleased all those people using the St. Lawrence and, I am sure you have guessed it also, that would have been a great help to Montreal's economy which in any case is flourishing because of the constant help it receives from the federal government, which of course decided a long time ago to appoint a minister responsible for the Montreal area, as Quebec did.
There is another element of some concern in the way these fees will be implemented. While we rely on a principle called "coast to coast pricing"-that is to say a fee structure applicable from one end of Canada to the other-the need to reduce the deficit, the mood of the time, the decision to impose a fee, all of Canadian from coast to coast to that point, except that for obscure reasons, it has been decided that Canada should be divided in three large regions: the West, central Canada-that is Quebec, Ontario, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence-and the East. We then have three large regions with, as you might have thought, different fees. We have three distinct societies each with its own fee structures for basically the same services.
An analysis has been done for Quebec, and the proposed fees, just for aids to navigation, will have "potentially devastating consequences", to use the expression of one of the witnesses. For a 25,000 tonne ship using the St. Lawrence Seaway and aids to navigation, the $112,000 will be per year. Can you imagine, when you have a fleet of 25,000 tonne ships how much more this will cost for aids to navigation only.
Therefore, when we talk about devastating effects, this government will never be able to claim that it did not know, it will never be able to say that the opposition did not do its job of raising awareness. We are warning the public that what is going on right now is of immeasurable proportion and will have devastating mid- and long-term effects.
This may seem comical, but we are talking about $112,000 each year for a ship that sails on the St. Lawrence, that goes to Montreal, for example, that uses a port on the St. Lawrence. The ship that sails on the St. Lawrence and goes directly to the United States without stopping in any Canadian port does not have to pay anything.
It will use navigational aids, ice breakers and so on. Until further notice, it does not have to pay a cent. It goes through Quebec and Canada and directly to the United States, and it pays not a cent. If there is any logic in this, it is in Canada's heavy dependency on its dear American neighbours. There is no other explanation for it. How can such an anomaly be justified? No user fees are imposed. This will, as you also understood, greatly increase competition between American and Canadian ports. American ports will not be penalized in any way, while Canadian and Quebec ports will be hit directly.
I would simply like to say, and I speak as the critic for regional development, we should be aware it is Quebec's regions that are affected. It is Sept-Îles and the area around it, Baie-Comeau, Port-Cartier, Quebec City, the Saguenay, Trois-Rivières-my region, Montreal, the south coast of Gaspé, Rimouski, Lauzon, Saint-Romuald, Sorel, the industrial park of Bécancour with its port in Quebec and, of course, Montreal. All these regions will be affected as 85 per cent of the Quebec population lives along the St. Lawrence. This bill and the proposed power to set fees would have a major impact on all the regions in Quebec.
That is why the people must be alerted. The media must examine this issue. As was pointed out earlier, they in no way tried to find out how much it would cost us to collect this $20 million. If it cost 25, 30, 40 or 100 million dollars, should we still go ahead with this? Could we not say, as we have always said, that we will make our services even more efficient so that foreign shipowners want to come to Canada, to the St. Lawrence? We should pay attention to
how we can compete with U.S. and other foreign ports, especially that of Philadelphia, which is very aggressive and very well positioned to compete with Montreal.
We should proceed very carefully in this area instead of barging in without any studies or analyses.
The second part of this fee implementation policy, as you heard from my colleagues earlier, deals with recreational craft. Registration will now be compulsory and owners will have to pay between $5 and $35 depending on the kind of boat. The government says it will consult with people but all it does is ask for their opinion and then forget about it the next day as it imposes measures that have nothing to do with the main purpose of this bill. The government's big excuse is public safety. How can the government argue that having to pay $25 for a canoe or a pedal-boat will make the owner more careful?
What is the relationship? The government's demonstration is flawed. In fact, having to pay a fee in no way guarantees that the owner will be more careful.
As for the user pay principle, there is no evidence in this respect either since in Quebec the coast guard operates on the St. Lawrence, Saguenay, Richelieu and Ottawa rivers but the fees-which are in fact a hidden tax-will be paid by people who own pedal-boats on small lakes north of La Tuque or in the Laurentians, where the coast guard has no business. People will now have to pay for a license to own a canoe. This has nothing to do with the coast guard. Let us call a spade a spade. The government should at least have the decency, instead of talking about safety, to say that they need money, that the cutbacks are not enough.
They say that the Coast Guard has not been able to cut its services first, to rationalize its operations, and so once again they are dumping on the little guy, forgetting that ten horsepower engines have to be registered free of charge, neglecting to perhaps make them pay a bit more. Do you know what the rate is per foot for the luxury boats that use the locks here, not far from Parliament Hill? Do you know what it costs for a thirty foot boat? The charge is 50 cents a foot, 15 cents to open the locks, the staff required, the maintenance and so on. When you can afford that kind of a boat, you can afford all that goes with it and should not be asking those on welfare or unemployment or earning minimum wage, which is worse yet, to help you pay because 50 cents per feet is too high a fee. Why not charge the actual cost to these people so that they assume the full consequences of operating a boat that size.
Another thing bothers me and that is, in its press release, the department's talk about the benefits of imposing fees on boats. My hon. colleague from Bellechasse, who is a lawyer by profession, will understand what I mean. As a benefit of the fee structure, the department lists, and I quote: "The establishment of a computerized system to store up-to-date information on boats allowing the organizations responsible for search and rescue operations and for implementing the act, to have quick access to reliable data, 24 hours a day. This system would greatly increase their effectiveness during investigations relating to theft and other offences, and to search and rescue operations. All those who use Quebec waters would benefit from this improvement".
No one, including myself, can be against virtue, but I think the government is coming up with some fine excuses to monitor people and find out where they are 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The same thing happened with firearms. I think this is a little too reminiscent of a quasi-police state in that there has been no debate. This is not necessarily wrong, but there has been no debate. The government makes its own little administrative rules and gives powers to ministers, deputy ministers, officials and police officers under the guise of controlling and getting information. Big brother was not invented by the official opposition, by the Bloc Quebecois. These departments should be cautious and think twice before imposing so many controls on the population. This is dangerous and it does not appear that any such reflection took place within the department.
I now come to the last point. As regards the negative impact of this possible fee structure, we mentioned earlier that outfitting operations could be seriously affected. They have many boats. If an outfitter has 50 rowboats, a fee of $5 to $35 per boat will result in high costs in the end.
The same goes for summer camps who must have pedal boats, canoes, kayaks, windsurfers, etc. Who is going to pay for that? Once again, the father who is sending his kid to summer camp will be told: "It will cost you $80 more because of the government's fees". We should not lose sight of that. That is what impact studies are for. When they are not made, bill are full of holes. One can wonder about the wisdom of this bill. But maybe they are so near sighted they cannot think of any other means. The impact on regional tourism development should also be considered. By increasing taxes all the time, Quebecers and Canadians who spend their holidays in their own country, Canada or Quebec, may very well feel like going on vacation elsewhere.
A person who has a cottage and consumes beer, grocery, bread, etc. and who buys gas in Canada and in Quebec deserves to be congratulated from time to time, instead of being encouraged to go to another country not too far away where prices are cheap.
Fortunately our dollar is low, but it could go up with such policies. What kind of strategy do we have to encourage tourists from Canada and Quebec to stay here? We find numerous ways of making life less pleasant and of reducing the purchasing power of tourists vacationing in Quebec and in Canada.
This bill is particularly appalling, because it strikes at big and powerful users and jeopardizes the economy of Quebec and the whole St. Lawrence Valley. It strikes, underhandedly, at the consumer, at families and at institutions like outfitters and summer camps. It is very disturbing in security terms and it implies, as I said, a certain control over the population, which is worrying for me. That is why I will, of course, vote against this bill.