Mr. Speaker, I was surprised by the fact that 40-minute speeches can be followed by questions and comments. That is why I have rushed back to my seat.
First of all, I am pleased to indicate that I agree in principle with Bill C-17, which eliminates the two remaining monopolies in the telecommunications field, that is Teleglobe Canada and Telesat.
On the other hand, the government is using this bill to give additional regulatory powers to the CRTC, and supplementary legislative powers to the minister and the governor in council.
This second aspect is indispensable because it must be clearly understood that this liberalization of telecommunications in Canada makes Canada and Quebec—and I stress the latter, because as a result Quebec has been stripped of all power in this area—two of the countries most open to competition. And that competition is being carried out right under the nose of a giant. That giant is the United States, a country which makes massive use of international communications and one in which giant production companies with networks have a very strong presence.
This is why, in addition to these provisions, Quebec has supported—and the Bloc is also pleased about—the fact that, in negotiating the basic telecommunications agreement with the World Trade Organization, Canada insisted on preserving Canadian majority ownership and limiting direct and indirect foreign ownership to 46.7%.
This then is support for the underlying principles. However, this bill also provides an opportunity to express three major concerns, questions and proposals.
Naturally, this liberalization comes with promises for business. Teleglobe had five years to prepare to face the international competition, and the loss of its market in Canada is amply compensated by an increase in its market share in the United States, first, and then in Europe and no doubt in developing countries. We will come back to this, if time permits. This liberalization is therefore favourable and suits business.
As for the two other benefits that are supposed to result, namely access to WTO regulatory mechanisms—which has at times proven to be an advantage, albeit a less certain one—and promises to consumers that rates will drop as competition increases, recent events in the telephone and satellite telecommunications sectors show that this is not a sure thing. So we invite the minister and the CRTC, who have given themselves new powers, to exercise them to ensure this liberalization, this globalization, not only benefits business, but also takes consumer interests into account. This is the only condition that will ensure the government has the support it needs.
We are seeing a sort of revolution in the telecommunications field of the sort they went through at the end of the 19th century with the industrial revolution. Without a minimum of targeted and well-thought-out regulation, this revolution will take place at the expense of those who can afford it the least. Fortunately, this is not the 19th century; therefore, while creating a favourable environment for business, the government and the CRTC will have to protect consumers and ensure access to services at affordable rates.
This is not the only question we want to raise, effectively I hope. There is also the question of privacy. I would like to point out right off that there is a great deal of documentation on the subject. I will conclude with a comment, by saying that government ministers across the way have promised to introduce legislation on privacy. But we are continuing to build this information highway that creates extreme risk conditions without giving ourselves the legislation required to ensure people's privacy, which may result in Canada becoming a country with which the European Union for example will not exchange confidential information, especially since it already feels that Canada does not properly protect this kind of information.
I will try to read in the most lively fashion possible excerpts from a few documents. Rather than paraphrasing, I will quote directly what Paul-André Comeau, Quebec's privacy commissioner, said on this issue.
“In Canada, the federal government and some provincial governments have established legislative frameworks setting out the principles that define the protection of personal information held by government institutions. But, he said, the main designers and owners of the new information systems are currently consortia largely made up of private businesses. It is these businesses which will soon—this was in 1994, so we are there now—with the implementation of the information highway, be in possession of all sorts of information on people. This information will circulate, it will be disseminated and spread in such a way that it may be difficult for people to protect the data relating to them”.
He goes on to say: “To protect privacy, voluntary codes of ethics are often suggested. Such codes are less restrictive than the regulatory framework, especially for businesses. Yet, as interesting and useful as they are, these codes have flaws, a major one being that businesses refusing to comply with the code leave people totally unprotected”.
Paul-André Comeau then cites the Quebec legislation: “In this respect, Quebec serves as a model and a beacon in North America. The Quebec experience, still in its early stages at the time—which is no longer the case, although Quebec continues to be proud of this legislation—shows that it is possible to protect people's privacy and their personal information in the private sector, without adversely affecting the competitiveness of businesses and creating obligations that would prevent them from operating”.
Paul-André Comeau is certainly not the only one who spoke highly of the Quebec law and who stressed the need for Canada to adopt similar legislation. In their report, the Fédération nationale des associations de consommateurs du Québec and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Canada state that Canadians are quite concerned about the collection and use of personal information. People feel there is less control over personal information. Canadians are particularly concerned by the transmission of personal information between various organizations, especially private businesses.
Consumers want to know and control how their personal information is being used. The technological changes must not impose a new burden on individuals seeking to protect their privacy.
Why am I raising this issue in the context of the legislation on Teleglobe and Telesat? Because it is precisely through this information highway, through the Internet and the Intranet, through old-fashioned telephone lines and numerous new means of telecommunications, that information about people's private lives may be collected in the form of data banks that, if not protected, can seriously compromise people's privacy.
Naturally, businessmen are doing business and are concerned with maximizing their companies' competitiveness. But the role of the Quebec National Assembly and of the House of Commons of Canada is to take account of these concerns, to have a vision, to know to what extent this information highway is transmitting data in Canada through Quebec and towards other countries, to what extent this electronic highway, this series of networks requires that a way be found to protect confidential information.
I would like to add that at the level of the OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, there is a great concern for another related issue, and that is to ensure that Internet can be used to safely conduct business.
It is of course extremely important to find means to ensure reliability. Otherwise, Internet will not develop to meet all the expectations it is giving rise to today. But the same thing can be said about the protection of personal information. It must be remembered that when the Internet is used, there are always traces of these operations. These traces are numerous and varied on all existing systems.
It should be noted that the hon. member for Mount Royal was chair of a committee that submitted a report dated April 1997 and entitled “Privacy: where do we draw the line?”.
This report stated, last spring:
Throughout the country, people are calling for a comprehensive and uniform package of rules to protect personal information. The scope of this legislation should be as wide as possible. Therefore, this committee believes that it should apply to Parliament and also all federal government departments, agencies, crown corporations, boards, commissions and government institutions and to the federally regulated private sector. The participants at our public discussions stated repeatedly that the voluntary application of codes of practice for the protection of personal information does not work.
The committee recommended that the Government of Canada introduce new legislation that would replace the current act. This legislation would comply with the requirements of the Canadian Charter of Privacy Rights and would apply to all departments and also to all the industries and companies subject to the act. This legislation should be enacted by the year 2000.
I would like to add this little part that I find very important:
As we are advancing on the information highway, most of our daily activities leave an electronic trail that many data banks can register.
It is obvious that current legislation in Canada is inadequate and that this situation also affects Quebec citizens in their international relations. An important player also added his voice to all these concerns, and this is the Privacy Commissioner, Mr. Bruce Phillips, who, in his 1996-97 annual report, reminded us of the promise made by the then Minister of Justice that legislation would be introduced to protect privacy in a concrete and binding manner in the private sector.
He stated “The Commission has been calling for such an initiative for a long time”, and he added, referring to the report by the hon. member for Mount Royal, “that the committee devoted almost a full year to the review of the impacts on privacy of new technologies”.
I could continue, but I believe that this act provides the opportunity to state clearly that further development of the information highway can only be welcomed if we succeed in implementing ways to protect privacy.
As I said, the introduction of this bill affords an occasion not only to rejoice that a number of businesses are being given the opportunity to be competitive not only in Canada but on the world market as well, but also—and I will word it this way—the market and the competition alone, I repeat, the market and the competition alone, are not sufficient to ensure access for all at a reasonable price, as two recent examples have shown: the telephone situation and the bankruptcy of Alphastar.
The minister, the government, the CRTC, cannot do otherwise than to listen to businesses. I understand this, because we are aware that, on the world scale, the biggest Quebec companies are only middle-sized or sometimes even smaller. So, yes, businesses need to grow and this brings considerable challenges.
It is impossible, however, to believe that our businesses' competitiveness comes solely from the pockets of consumers, and often from the most disadvantaged among them. We must therefore continue to make telecommunications services available, and to increase access to them. This bears repeating.
International services, and all other telecommunications services, must be not only accessible, but also affordable. They must be affordable. The minister, the CRTC, the government and the governor in council must face up to their responsibility for issuing operating licences to businesses that could not be economically viable. You will realize I am referring to the experience with Alphastar, which I shall return to in a moment.
It is true that the bill contains good news, but if the minister intends to exercise the powers he is giving himself, as set out in clause 6, there will be an amendment to the Telecommunications Act to permit increased charges to set up a fund to promote uninterrupted telecommunications services. We should note clause 8 too. It gives the bill teeth, if the minister or the CRTC or the government so want, to enact new statutory or regulatory provisions. My understanding is that these provisions will prevent a repeat of something like Alphastar.
I will take the liberty of pointing out that telephone companies denied by the CRTC the increased revenues resulting from the rate increases they sought won their case with the government, which, rather than doing what the CRTC asked, that is, reducing long distance rates, let them keep the whole amount. We might think there was talk of investments.
However, it is to be noted that they used it to increase dividends to 12.5%. All this is complicated. We know that telephone rates have increased tremendously. In the Montreal region, they have gone from a little over $12 in 1992 up to $21 now, and if the government agrees with the applications being made the rate will climb to $27. I am talking about Montreal.
The hon. member for Rimouski—Mitis made strong representations to ensure that, in northern Quebec, telephone companies, which used to be managed by the Quebec company, would no longer be able to significantly raise telephone rates and keep the resulting profits. What the hon. member asked, and this is absolutely indispensable, is that while a competitive market should be allowed, companies interested in providing services should all be subject to the same regulations and requirements.
Companies are once again before the CRTC. There is a movement in Quebec and across Canada asking that this new application be rejected by the CRTC. The minister has the authority to tell the CRTC that it is better for basic services to continue to mean something and that, consequently, their costs should not be increased.
In the spring, our former critic who will have the floor after me, was already saying that telephone costs should not be increased until it was demonstrated that such a measure would not change the meaning of basic telephone services. Current rates are taking us away from the basic rate.
The government claims that the number of telephone users has not diminished, that there have not been a large number of cancellations. What I am about to say is true in the case of small and medium size businesses, which won their case but could still be subject to rate increases, but it is even more true for low and very low income people. The telephone can be considered as something so indispensable that if people's income is reduced, some will go so far as to deprive their children of food to keep their telephone. So, when considering what a basic telephone service is, it is not possible to keep talking about increases strictly in the context of national and international competition.
Yes, it is important for businesses to have conditions that will help them, but this is impossible. We must look at the overall picture, and it cannot be done. As I said earlier, I am pleased to see that the government wants to create a fund to subsidize, if need be, regions where costs would be greater, so that a basic communication service, including not only telephone but also basic telecommunications services, would be maintained.
It is essential, again, so that the population will know, that such “economic modernization” not be undertaken at their expense. Why should we want to compete in Europe? Why should the government say “I am allowing businesses to compete in the United States and Europe”, if this results in penalizing the average consumer or the consumer with a small income?
This is the issue that parliamentarians, the House of Commons, the National Assembly must address.
Also, when things like the Alphastar case are involved, the government cannot stand idly by and let the market make the rules. Satellite communications today are still considered important because there are areas in Quebec that do not have access to cable and where there are no digital telephone lines. Therefore, they do not have access to Internet and cannot rely on communications that elsewhere are basic commodities. There are self-employed workers and also small businesses who depend on these. It is always possible for them to be connected, but then they have to pay long distance charges, and this makes no sense.
So satellite communications for access to television are important, but the minister has instructed the CRTC by an order in council not to consider economic viability when awarding licences to businesses. The result was, as observers had foreseen, that Alphastar, which had 6,000 subscribers in Canada, went bankrupt. People were left with lovely dishes with which they could decorate their gardens, but which had cost them hundreds of dollars, and also with subscriptions that also cost them hundred of dollars and which are now useless.
The market cannot ensure fairness in all cases, and in this case, consumer protection required that there be basic safeguards.
With this bill, the government is creating appropriate mechanisms and we sincerely hope that it will use them.
Finally, there is another grave concern that I would like to address in relation to this bill. I just spoke about the lack of powers in Quebec in the area of broadcasting and telecommunications.
I think it is worthwhile to take a few minutes of my colleague's precious time to go over this. We are always well advised to ensure that our colleagues better understand Quebec, of which they often get tired, but whose demands are always based on the fact that Quebec is a people and a nation. Binational countries are rare in this world, and many of them have not succeeded in holding together—binational or trinational if we consider first nations, as we should.
I would like to remind you that communications are a field that Quebec claimed very early, I would say from the very beginning, when it first appeared, and it was not a bad separatist who did so, at the time.
Way back in February 1929, Alexandre Taschereau, the Liberal premier of Quebec, introduced a bill to give Quebec exclusive jurisdiction over the emerging broadcasting industry. Those were the days, before the CBC, when broadcasts were often drowned out by all sorts of interference. Liberal premier Taschereau, who was no doubt a federalist, a staunch federalist, claimed exclusive jurisdiction over broadcasting and wanted Quebec to operate its own radio stations. This eventually lead to the creation of Radio Quebec.
Around the same time, in Canada, there was a royal commission on radio broadcasting, the Aird Commission. It tabled its report in the fall of 1929 and recommended that exclusive jurisdiction over radio broadcasting be given to the central government. Its model was based on the BBC, a publicly owned network.
Who was asked to settle the issue? The supreme court, in 1931. What do you think it decided? Naturally, it decided this was an exclusive jurisdiction of Canada, but the Government of Quebec, not satisfied with this ruling, submitted the matter to the Privy Council, which upheld the supreme court's decision in 1932. The first Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act was passed in May 1932, and, in 1936, the CBC was born.
In 1945, after the war, Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec, in the middle of a fight against university subsidization—at the time, Duplessis did not want Quebec universities to receive federal subsidies—contended this was an area under provincial jurisdiction. Duplessis then proceeded to legislate, to introduce a bill, to establish a provincial radio broadcasting service. Radio Quebec was born. In September 1973, Robert Bourassa, a Liberal premier, and more of a federalist than Duplessis, said shortly after being elected:
In cultural matters, the decision making centres we need for our own cultural security will have to be transferred, particularly in the telecommunications sector. Here again, it is a simple matter of common sense, because we cannot leave it to an anglophone majority to ensure the cultural security of a francophone minority.
That was what Robert Bourassa said. Jean-Paul L'Allier, his Minister of Communications, said:
It is up to Quebec in the first instance to develop a global communications policy. This policy is indissociable from the development of its education system, its culture and everything that comes under Quebec's domain.
There was nothing in Meech or Charlottetown on this issue, but it continued to be discussed. In 1994, we know that the supreme court ruled against Quebec with respect to telephone services and the Régie des télécommunications du Québec ceased to exist.
I mention this today because the information highway, this telecommunications revolution, is drawing the highway ever closer to its contents. If the medium is the message, what can we say about the present information highway and the relationship between the road and what travels on it, roads that are closed and small roads that are open?
To recap, we agree in principle with this bill, which will end monopolies. We are all the more in agreement because the government is giving the CRTC, the governor in council and itself greater regulatory powers to ensure that there are controls over how this liberalization takes place.
However, this bill is an opportunity for us to insist, and we are going to keep coming back to this, that there be legislation to protect personal information, in order to assure consumers that this liberalization that is supposed to provide the necessary conditions for businesses to position themselves on the market does not come about at the expense of those at the low end of the wage scale and of outlying regions, or take consumers for a ride, as happened in the case of Alphastar.
Finally, it is an opportunity for Quebec to say that it will need this jurisdiction for its culture, and the only way we have found to advance this to date is by seeking our sovereignty.