That, in the opinion of this House, the government should consider the advisability of taking into account safety concerns and local economic spin-offs before proceeding with any further privatization of Marine Atlantic services between Cape Breton and Newfoundland.
Madam Speaker, I rise today on this issue because it is of considerable importance to the people in my riding who live in and around the port of North Sydney, an historic port and an area which I believe was once the fourth most important port in Canada.
Today, unfortunately, the towns of North Sydney and Sydney Mines are in a difficult economic situation for a number of reasons. Partly it is because of the dependence on the coal industry in the town of Sydney Mines. As a result of the decline in the coal industry there has been a decline in the port facilities and shipping in the town of North Sydney.
Of crucial concern is the link between North Sydney and Port au Basque, an historic link which has existed for close to a century when North Sydney was the gateway to Newfoundland.
I left Cape Breton early this morning. I would be remiss if I did not comment on the weather, which was sunny and clear and with no snow on the ground. As I had an opportunity to fly over the island, it afforded me a chance to look down on the town of North Sydney and the tremendous waterways and the ocean that form the coastline of Cape Breton. Historically that coastline has been a source of tremendous wealth and development, not only for Cape Breton but also for Canada. When the Europeans first came here they arrived on that coastline. In fact, the first fishing boats came to North Sydney as early as the 15th century and began what was to develop into a tremendous trading port.
In 1834 the British based General Mining Association built the first coal shipping pier in North Sydney. It also built the first iron railway in North America which ran between Sydney Mines and North Sydney, allowing the mined coal to be transferred to the ports for shipment.
By 1850 North Sydney was a major, busy centre of activity and by 1880 there was a bank, a jeweller and the development of a town.
North Sydney was a major port in what was then the province of Cape Breton. There are those on the island who think perhaps we should return to those days. However, at that time we were still a separate province, not annexed by the province of Nova Scotia.
In 1885 North Sydney sought incorporation as the first municipality on the island. As I have indicated, in the 1870s it was the fourth largest port behind Montreal, Quebec and Halifax. In approximately 1889 it became the gateway to Newfoundland. It became the mainland terminal for ferry service to that province although it was not a province at that time. On June 30, 1889 the first ship left from Port aux Basques with 50 passengers and arrived in North Sydney.
That pattern has been repeated for 100 years. It is a pattern guaranteed to the province of Newfoundland under the terms of Confederation; that there would be established a transportation link to connect the island of Newfoundland to the mainland of Canada. The town of North Sydney prospered as a result, as did the town of Port aux Basques. Many sailors, many fishing and trading vessels made that port their home. In both communities there was the development of hotels and restaurants, ship supply stores and many merchants to provide for the needs of those sailors.
During World War I the port of North Sydney again played decisive role. We can still see the remnants of battalions. That repeated itself on the 1940s where North Sydney was an assembly port for the ships loaded at the “Saint River” ports before they crossed the ocean. In 1941 there were over 400 ships anchored in the port of North Sydney.
That brief historical outline will indicate the importance of shipping and the shipping trade to the town. It is no secret that over the last number of years, with the decline in the fisheries and with the decline in the coal industry, the town of North Sydney has suffered a tremendous economic burden. Despite that the people of the town are resolute. They have continued to thrive. Some of the businesses have been there for 100 years. They are family businesses. One bank remains committed to the town. The town has not prospered but it has endured and made the best of a bad situation.
There is tremendous uncertainty in that town today. Those who come from not quite as economically advantaged parts of Canada as others will understand that when there is uncertainty in a town like North Sydney, it has tremendous ramifications on investment and on the social fabric of the town. That uncertainty derives from whether Marine Atlantic will continue to be an economic presence in that town.
The reason for the uncertainty is many fold. In part there are rumours, as there always are in certain towns where there is one major employer, of downsizing, of privatization, of alternate routes. There is concern that the head office of Marine Atlantic, which is now located in Moncton, may become the centre for reservations which employ a number of people in the town, and there is a concern that there may be a decline in activity.
That kind of uncertainty spreads throughout the entire island. When I talk about the town of North Sydney it is important to understand that it is perhaps a 20 minute drive from Sydney which also benefits from any economic activity in that port.
The government has not clarified what the minister of transportation intends to do with the whole Marine Atlantic enterprise. I point to section 140(1) of Bill C-9 which may not seem terribly important to anyone who is not from North Sydney. The section allows the minister to enter into agreements with any persons, including the government of a province, in respect of the continued services of Canada's constitutional obligations, which is a direct reference to the ties to Newfoundland.
Section 140(1)(b) ensures “the continuation of services similar to those provided by Marine Atlantic Inc. before the transfer, sale or disposal on the terms and conditions that the minister considers appropriate, including by making financial contributions or grants or other financial assistance”, and in section 140(1)(c) “the assets of Marine Atlantic Inc. that are transferred, sold or otherwise disposed of under subsection (2)”.
In addition section 140(2) indicates “Marine Atlantic Inc. is authorized to transfer, sell or otherwise dispose of all or substantially all of its assets used in any major business or activity of the corporation, including the shares of a subsidiary”. To the people of the town of North Sydney this heightens the concern they have surrounding the enterprise.
To illustrate the importance of the Marine Atlantic to the general area, let me indicate what was spent from 1995 to 1996 by Marine Atlantic in the town of North Sydney. I will not read the entire list, but I will read those in a community as desperate for economic growth as we are in Cape Breton: Lingan Builders Limited, $36,000; Ojolick Associates, a local architect, $35,000; Professional Upholstery, $3,300; R&A Paper Products, $31,700; Clover Produce, close to $300,000, because it provides much of the foodstuffs for the ferry service that travels back and forth; Convention Cape Breton, $17,000; Ryan Wayne Carpet Sales, $63,000; Standard Office Supplies, $11,400; and the list goes on to indicate the kind of impact the enterprise has on the community.
All these companies are small, locally run businesses in the towns of North Sydney and Sydney. They all employ three to four people from the community in solid jobs. The loss or the downsizing of Marine Atlantic would have a tremendous impact on the local economy.
When we have sought clarification from the government on what its plans are for Marine Atlantic so that at least the people in the community can make their plans, we have not received any clear message. I can cite correspondence between me and the minister and between my predecessor and the former minister wherein requests were made on the future of Marine Atlantic. The responses continue to be somewhat vague. I could illustrate that by reading an example into the record.
On March 20, 1997 the Canadian Auto Workers, which is the union that represents many of the workers, sought from the then minister of transport some clarification. The letter stated:
Rumours—cause much stress for the employees of Marine Atlantic. We, Mr. Minister, as the executive of the unions representing 1,300 Marine Atlantic employees in Atlantic Canada,—are asking you to respond to us as quickly as possible to advise us of the facts.
The response was anything but clear. It stated:
Notwithstanding the foregoing, it is expected that Marine Atlantic will continue to operate this service with the aim of reducing costs and increasing efficiency. Please be assured that you will be informed if there is any change of circumstances concerning the future of Marine Atlantic as an ongoing concern.
There was a commitment in the letter to maintain the constitutional requirement of service between Newfoundland and Cape Breton. However the matter of privatization was not clear.
I will read from a pamphlet given out by Rod Morrison, president and CEO of Marine Atlantic, to the workers. The date on it was some time after the letter to the minister. He stated in the pamphlet:
There is absolutely no truth to these damaging rumours and I want you to know the Government of Canada has not given me any direct or indirect indication that privatization is imminent.
He went on to state something that was important:
We have the best people, the best ships, the best technology and, with a continual commitment towards efficiency, I am satisfied we will remain as the operators.
Notwithstanding I wrote to the current minister requesting clarification and the response I received was:
As to the location of the—head office, MAI is currently examining all options and will put forward a recommendation in due course. Any proposed relocation will, however, be based on commercial considerations—
The people in North Sydney and Sydney Mines are under very real stress as a result of the unclear position of the government.
Last weekend when I was in my riding it was raised by two constituents. I was not in the town of North Sydney. These were people I met in Sydney while I was at a meeting there. They talked about the impact on their families. It is important for us to know exactly what direction the government will be moving in this regard.
Another aspect I have asked the government to consider in this motion is the safety impact. Currently Marine Atlantic has a good safety record, one of the best in North America, because there is a strong unionized workforce, a satisfied workforce, and it has been operating the transportation link for near 100 years.
In closing I ask the government to consider the advisability of taking into account safety concerns and the local economic spinoffs before proceeding with any further privatization of the service between Newfoundland and Cape Breton.