Madam Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate on Bill C-68, an act to support development of Canada's Pacific Gateway.
This bill provides a policy and management framework for the future development of Canada's Pacific gateway. This new concept of Pacific gateway sounds interesting to us Bloc Québécois members, because it involves a global vision of the chain of transportation and requires a significant improvement of the intermodality between the various means of transportation.
So, the Bloc Québécois supports the principle of this new approach in the transportation sector. This is an approach that we have been advocating for a number of years.
Intermodality has the advantage of combining the strengths of each transportation mode, to make the whole network more effective, both in terms of speed of delivery and consumption of energy. In this regard, the marine-rail combination is particularly effective. It helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while also reducing traffic on our highway system.
The federal strategy recognizes the importance of establishing real cooperation among stakeholders in order to define a consistent transport policy, and this is a good thing in itself. Indeed, in order for integrated management of our transportation network to be effective, there must be a coordinated approach by a number of players, including transportation groups, the private and public sectors, and experts on safety and trade relations.
It is also essential not to manage in silos but, rather, to integrate the various components, namely highway, rail, marine and air transportation, into an organized structure.
In his speech, the Minister of Transport indicated that Transport Canada is currently developing a strategic framework on gateways and corridors. This framework will be used for future initiatives designed to adapt the gateway approach to other regions. So, the gateway concept could potentially be applicable to the St. Lawrence River, and this is why the Bloc Québécois is taking a particular interest in this bill, since the federal government might decide to duplicate, in Quebec, the approach advocated in western Canada.
International shipping activities on the St. Lawrence River are critical to Quebec's economic development, and they require an integrated and consistent strategy. Therefore, it would be a good thing to eventually apply such a global vision to the St. Lawrence River, which is also a gateway for international trade in Quebec, central Canada and the U.S. midwest.
I would like to take this opportunity to remind hon. members that, in recent months, the Bloc Québécois conducted extensive consultations in all the regions of Quebec, with a special focus on the St. Lawrence River and its economic development potential. We found out that marine transportation industry stakeholders all hope for an improvement of intermodal links between marine and other modes of transportation, and rail in particular.
These consultations also made us realize that an integrated management policy for the St. Lawrence River was urgently required. The federal government's silo management, neglect and lack of vision have significantly hindered the economic development of the river. The concept of a gateway is a step in the right direction, at least for transportation activities. Real integrated management, however, requires that other considerations, such as environmental considerations, be factored in.
Therefore, while we support the bill in principle, I will make a few comments and express serious concerns about the structure that is proposed in the bill and the process for appointing directors, as this structure would be totally unacceptable to Quebec.
One of the key elements of this bill is the establishment of Canada's Pacific Gateway Council, a new advisory council which, as stated in the bill's summary, will be tasked with providing advice and analysis to maximize the effectiveness of the Pacific gateway. More specifically, the council's primary responsibility will be to advise the federal government on how to use the $400 million that will be invested in western Canada's transportation infrastructure over the next five years.
The wording of the bill is surprising, to say the least. The structure of the council is defined very precisely, while far more important bodies such as the Competition Bureau, are far less precisely defined in their enabling legislation. Yet the bill has nothing to say about its real mandate.
One of my main reservations has to do with clause 6, which sets out the membership of the council. All members are appointed by the federal government. All chosen by Ottawa, including the 11 provincial representatives. What justification can there be for this federalist vision of wanting to control everything? It is all the more surprising because the policy statement refers to the promotion of strategic partnerships and collaboration between governments and stakeholders. This federal desire to control the composition of the council would certainly appear to cast doubt on its representative nature.
Why are the members not appointed by a process that requires the participation of their community of origin? How can there be any reference to partnerships and collaboration if the community cannot be trusted to select its representatives? The most amazing thing is that clause 6 even specifies that the representatives of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan will be appointed by the federal government. How then can they talk of a shared vision of integrated intermodal transport? In addition to the clause on Ottawa's appointment of the provincial representatives, the bill has nothing to say about the role to be played by the provinces in implementing this national strategy. The information document that goes along with the bill is no clearer. Important questions on the decision-making capacity of the provinces as far as allocation of these vast sums remain unanswered.
Once the council submits its recommendations to the federal government, what is to prevent it from making decisions unilaterally? Can a province reject a decision it does not like? Is the role of the provinces limited to sending to the council a representative appointed by the federal government? There are no answers to those questions. Everything would indicate that the strategy would be imposed on the provinces rather than developed in partnership with them. This aspect of the bill could bring the very effectiveness of the council into question. Given its important mandate, we would prefer an independent and unifying agency. This is not what we are seeing. We fear this agency will become a refuge for Liberal Party friends. You can understand—once bitten, twice shy. We have to make sure that, when the federal government proposes such development strategies, it does so in respectful partnership with the stakeholders in the community and the provinces.
Another aspect also open for discussion is the number of meetings the council is to have. According to clause 8 of the bill, the council must meet only twice a year, and its members' mandate is part time only. That strikes us as very little, given the examinations and recommendations expected of it.
To help it in its work, the council will create two committees with the task of supporting it by supplying it with analyses and advice. The committees are the pacific Gateway Transportation Advisory Committee and the Pacific Gateway Opportunities Advisory Committee. I have concerns about their roles. Is there not a player overlap and surfeit?
Another important aspect of this bill is its impact on trade with Asia, including the impact of Asian exports on traditional industries. The Bloc Québécois has concerns about the potential impact of rapidly increasing trade with Asia. This part of the world is essentially a pool of cheap labour producing quantities of consumer goods for a fraction of the cost of their production in Quebec or Canada.
As a result, in traditional industries such as furniture, textiles and clothing, many companies are having difficulty competing with these new producers. This is the reason for the many plant closures and the resulting flood of layoffs.
We are not opposed to an increase in trade with Asia. However, we feel that the federal government must be aware of the impact on workers in traditional industries. Companies must be given time to adjust to the new economic circumstances and assistance programs must be put in place in the most vulnerable sectors.
This is, moreover, something that we have been calling for more than a year for the textile and clothing industries, but the federal government has turned a deaf ear. It is this refusal to recognize reality, combined with the desire expressed in this bill to open up precipitately to the economies based on cheap labour, that worries the Bloc Québécois. The increase in trade with Asia is not inherently bad. However, we need to bear in mind the negative impact on the workers in traditional industries.
It is vital that the federal government provide better support for companies in this industry to enable them to adjust to the new economic realities. In western Canada, British Columbia is the gateway for trade with Asia. The goods arrive primarily through two ports, Vancouver and Prince Rupert, and are then shipped to the centre of the continent along the road and rail corridors.
The rapid growth of trade between Asia—primarily China—and Canada is producing increasingly frequent congestion in the transportation network in western Canada. Although the Port of Vancouver is operating virtually at full capacity, the main problems with congestion are currently occurring in the road and rail networks of British Columbia and Alberta.
The effects of the congestion can be felt as far as the head of the network. Because of delays in the Port of Vancouver, goods have recently had to be diverted to other ports on several occasions. This has generated concerns among shippers about the future reliability of the transportation infrastructure on the west coast. It is worth noting in this connection that the British Columbia ports are in direct competition with the American ports, which will soon be enjoying massive investment, since the United States government has announced its intention to invest $286.5 billion over five years in its transportation network to increase trade flows.
There is no doubt that every effort must be made to maximize international trade flows and to become even more competitive in world markets. It is thus essential to develop a strategy to increase the efficiency of the transportation network, specifically by encouraging intermodal freight movement. This is a laudable principle, but a number of questions remain. We must ensure that the structures we put in place address the needs of the various players.
The federal government’s strategy must not be limited exclusively to western Canada. There are also gateways in Quebec. The St. Lawrence must be recognized by the federal government as a strategic engine of economic development. The trade prospects for intermodal transportation are just as important for Quebec as they are for western Canada.
I would remind the Minister that the St. Lawrence exists and that it has extraordinary development potential. I would urge the Minister of Transport to address the needs of industry in terms of investment for Quebec, to safeguard its competitive position in international trade.