Mr. Speaker, it gives me pleasure to rise and speak to Bill C-38, which is being given third reading today.
Initially, I very much want to thank the members of this House for their co-operation in ensuring passage of this short but important bill, which was debated in this chamber at the end of October and was referred to committee immediately. I want to express my gratitude to the committee members who agreed to deal with the bill so expeditiously.
Bill C-38 has but one purpose, which is to amend the Air Canada Public Participation Act to eliminate the 15% limit on ownership by any person of voting shares in Air Canada.The bill does not try to resolve all the longer term issues relating to Air Canada that were raised during debate on second reading.
The proposed legislative changes will provide our national air carrier with one of the key tools it needs as it attempts to regain its financial health, which has been severely strained by a number of events this year. Even before September 11, it had become quite apparent that Air Canada was going to have to make some significant moves to address its weakened financial situation.
The carrier’s efforts to integrate Canadian airlines; the high fuel prices; declining passenger demand; and the severe slowdown in the economy; have all had a significant impact on Air Canada.Air Canada has stated publicly that it needs new equity and it has taken, and continues to take, measures to acquire a considerable amount of non-voting equity.
However, for those investors who may have wanted to have some say in the direction of the company, there has been the legislated limit on voting shares along with the companion prohibition on association between the holders of those same voting shares. Taken together, these measures were designed to ensure that individual shareholders could not act in concert to take control of the airline and thereby nullify the concept of a widely held company.
A 10% restriction was in place until last year, when Bill C-26, the airline restructuring legislation, came into force on July 5, 2000. Bill C-26 had in it a section that amended the Air Canada Public Participation Act by raising the individual limit on the holding of voting shares to 15%. The prohibition on association was not changed.
In the lead up to Bill C-26, both the House of Commons and the Senate Standing Committees on Transport held extensive hearings to assess the views and concerns of the airline industry in Canada. In their separate reports, both committees recommended that the limit on individual voting share ownership in Air Canada be raised to 20%. The government agreed that the limit should be raised as a means of encouraging investment in Air Canada, while still preventing a single shareholder from gaining effective control.
The government’s view, at the time, was that 15% was the appropriate threshold, and it is this new limit that was ultimately accepted and entrenched in law. In coming to the decision to remove the limit, we have been told by a number of persons that any limit can act as a disincentive to an investor with serious intentions of having a say in the management of the company.
The events of September 11, 2001 have had devastating consequences for airlines around the world. Passenger traffic has fallen significantly and short and long term financial difficulties are forecast for our entire industry. Regrettably, we have already witnessed the bankruptcy of Canada 3000, our second largest air operator.
Air Canada has been forced by the effects of the terrorist attacks in the United States to re-examine its entire operation, even more profoundly than had been previously announced. It needed to adjust the services it offered to reflect demand.
It has had to reduce costs wherever possible. This has meant extremely difficult decisions had to be made by Air Canada’s management, including laying off close to 9,000 employees.
As we know, the government did not feel it could hold the carrier to its commitment of no involuntary layoffs or relocation, which had been negotiated in the context of the acquisition of Canadian Airlines. Clearly when all other major carriers were facing similar traffic and financial problems in the wake of September 11, Air Canada could not be forced to retain all its staff on the basis of that commitment.
To reduce the layoff impacts, the company has been working with Human Resources Development Canada to ensure its employees can benefit from any existing federal programs, including work sharing to reduce layoffs.
The carrier has also eliminated some routes from its network and has scaled back on the number and size of aircraft used on other routes.
Air Canada has benefited, along with every other Canadian air carrier, from the government initiatives that were instituted to help the industry cope with the severe economic fallout from September 11.
The government provided an indemnity for third party war and terrorism liabilities for essential aviation service operators in Canada. It took this action, as did other governments around the world, to ensure our carriers would be able to keep operating.
In recognition of the closure of Canada’s airspace, the government implemented a $160 million program to compensate the more than 1,300 businesses providing air transportation for passengers and cargo and offering specialty air services.
A great many Canadian carriers have already filed their claims under the compensation package and a number of carriers have already received their initial payments, including Air Canada.
Reagan National Airport’s unique geographical location has resulted in authorities in the United States imposing more stringent security requirements than at other American airports. The requirements include aircraft size specifications, dedicated crews, and trained, armed security personnel on board flights operating to and from the airport.
In order to re-establish Air Canada’s important flying rights into that airport from Toronto and Montreal, the government authorized the presence of armed RCMP officers on Air Canada flights to the U.S. capital. It also has made the necessary provisions to allow armed U.S. air marshals on U.S. flights to enter Canada without difficulty.
The decision to amend the Air Canada Public Participation Act, at this time, is designed to provide additional assistance to Air Canada in its attempts to return to financial stability.
Let me assure the House that the board of directors of Air Canada supports this change. The matter was discussed with the chair and Air Canada has stated publicly that it supports the government’s decision.
The government is confident that this measure offers the private sector greater opportunities for investing in Air Canada that could contribute to the successful restructuring of the company.
Moreover, in the committee hearings held during the first week of November, there was not one witness who voiced objection to the elimination of the 15%. It will provide new freedom to invest in Air Canada and should attract new capital for the airline.
With the enactment of this bill, Air Canada will find itself on the same footing as the rest of the air industry with respect to individual share ownership there will be no limit except for the 25% limit on non-residents which is a very different issue.
On this point, I must emphasize that Bill C-38 will not, in any way, result in a change in the government’s position on foreign ownership. This government remains committed to ensuring that Canada’s airline industry is run in Canada, for Canadians, by Canadians. Consequently, the government’s longstanding policy of a 25% limit on foreign ownership of voting shares, which applies to all carriers and not just Air Canada, remains unchanged.
This is a bill with only three sections. The first removes the 15% limit and the prohibition on association. The second renders null any other corporate documents that addressed the 15% limit. The third deals with when the changes will come into force.
The legislative changes which will be enacted as a result of this bill are in the interests of airline passengers and all of those who believe that our national air carrier, the world’s 11th largest airline, should continue to be the great carrier that it is.
I therefore encourage members to give it swift passage on third reading.
I want to thank all the members of the Standing Committee on Transport for their extremely constructive work. While this bill has its limits, it solves a major financial problem for Air Canada's future. I am convinced that all the suggestions made in committee, both by its members and by all the witnesses that appeared before it, will give us an even better perspective on the future of Canada's transport industry.
I am convinced that the huge amount of work that will have to be done in the coming year as part of the overall re-examination of everything that relates to our transportation industry will allow us to integrate several suggestions that were made before the committee during the review of this bill, which, while being very restrictive from a financial point of view, allows us to expand our perspective regarding many issues that exist within the department. It goes without saying that we are there to make corrections as problems surface.
Therefore, I am very pleased to take part in this exercise, along with all the committee members. Incidentally, in the next few days we will travel to Washington to continue to strengthen our co-operation with the Americans regarding extremely important measures to make our fellow citizens feel safer and to make changes that will be increasingly more substantial.
Again, I thank all the members of the committee and of this House for their interest in this bill, which is substantial even though it only has three clauses and which will allow Air Canada to be financially sound.