Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak on behalf of the Bloc Québécois about Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Marine Act, the Canada Transportation Act, the Pilotage Act and other Acts in consequence.
I would like to begin by saying that the Bloc Québécois supports Bill C-23 in principle. Obviously, we will have the opportunity to improve it in committee and to call witnesses. We hope—and I am choosing my words carefully here—that this bill will increase the competitiveness of the St. Lawrence by maintaining and improving the port infrastructure required to develop the St. Lawrence—Great Lakes trade corridor, which will also promote intermodal transportation and benefit the environment.
Why do I say that this is what we hope? Because at first glance, we have to be careful. Our Liberal colleague mentioned that when the Liberals were in power, they promoted the Pacific Gateway. The Conservatives, in the person of the parliamentary secretary, said earlier that they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Pacific Gateway. They are preparing to announce a major investment in the Atlantic Gateway and Halifax. Yet we never heard any mention of the St. Lawrence—Great Lakes trade corridor in the speeches given by the parliamentary secretary and the Liberal member.
That is why I say that the Bloc Québécois hopes that the bill before us will lead to the development of the St. Lawrence—Great Lakes trade corridor, which is as important as the Mississippi is to the United States. This waterway, which flows directly into the heart of the Americas, must be taken into consideration. We hope that this bill will address part of this problem.
The primary goal of Bill C-23 is to amend the current borrowing system. Those who are watching us and are not familiar with this should know that currently port authorities are entities, independent corporations that have charters allowing them to borrow money up to a certain limit. As the parliamentary secretary was saying, the goal is to increase or eliminate the borrowing limit for large ports with a view to allowing them to develop.
I will give the example of the port of Montreal. It has become less important under the Liberals as well as since the Conservatives came to power, but it is nonetheless considered one of Canada's major ports. The port of Montreal does not do any borrowing at all. Introducing a bill to increase the borrowing capacity of the port of Montreal when it already does not borrow anything, is not going to help it develop.
As far as access to funding is concerned, it is true that port authorities currently are not able to receive subsidies. Just like airport authorities, they have to pay their own way and bill their clientele for expenses. Marine companies obviously have to pay fees to use ports. That is how ports generate revenues. They can contract loans in order to finance improvements made to the ports. That is the current situation.
Now, this bill would allow them access to funding. That is well and good, but I want this to be fair for all ports across Canada. When we talk about the Conservative government's investment in the Pacific gateway, we have to realize it was not for infrastructure within the confines of the ports, since this was not permitted by law. It was funding for improvements to railway lines and access points so that they could provide as many services as possible, to ship and receive merchandise outside the port limits.
Personally, I would like them to receive subsidies today. But if all the money always goes directly to the Pacific ports and there is nothing for the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes trade corridor, this bill will just create an even greater imbalance.
To date, the Pacific gateway program implemented by the Liberals and maintained by the Conservatives still has no equivalent in the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes corridor.
The Conservatives announced that the Atlantic gateway would be in Halifax, but once again, there is nothing for the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes corridor, which is, I repeat, the largest and most beautiful gateway in the Americas. That was the goal when it was created, but I will talk about the history later on. If the Bloc Québécois members are not vigilant, if all the money goes to the west and the Maritimes and there is nothing for the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes corridor, this bill will not have achieved its goal.
I will repeat some of the reasons. The port of Montreal does not borrow any money. Obviously, it is not money that it needs. All the investments should be made outside the limits or boundaries to facilitate intermodal and other types of transportation. However, if we do not end up seeing any of that investment and if the goal of this bill is to help the Pacific and Halifax ports, we will have failed.
I would like to clarify certain aspects of governance. Obviously, there is a need to review how port authorities and corporations are administered—and I think this is good for everyone. For the Bloc Québécois, it is also important that these investments be evenly distributed to all regions of Canada and that, among others, the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes trade corridor receive its fair share for once. This was not the case under the Liberals and has not yet been the case under the Conservatives, as we have seen.
We want to make something clear in this House: the St. Lawrence River has always been a major asset to Quebec's development and closely linked to the economic development of all its regions. Eighty percent of Quebec's population lives on the shores of the St. Lawrence and over 75% of its industry is found there. The strategic location of industries in relation to the St. Lawrence River means it can be used for nearly all international trade outside the United States.
I will repeat this, because it is important to understand. When considering the St. Lawrence Seaway in the North American context, the importance of its economic impact becomes even more obvious. Indeed, the St. Lawrence River provides privileged access to the heart of North America. It not only allows access to 90 million inhabitants and the industrial heartland of the United States, Canada and Quebec, but it also provides a shorter route for major European carriers. The distance between Montreal and Rotterdam is 5,813 km while the distance between New York and Rotterdam is 6,154 km.
This corridor allows faster entry into the heartland of the Americas. The St. Lawrence Seaway is underutilized, however. The total amount of goods transported via the St. Lawrence dropped from 130 million tonnes in the early 1980s to approximately 100 million tonnes 10 years later, only to hover around 105 million tonnes since. Thus, since 1980, the ports of the St. Lawrence have received less merchandise than the 150 million tonnes they are currently receiving in 2007. It was 25 million tonnes less than what was being transported on the St. Lawrence in the early 1980s.
Once again, while some ports have seen increased traffic, neither investments nor Canada's management of the ports file have allowed this important development tool to be used to full advantage. We do not want to hear that this tool is the same everywhere or that it underutilizes goods transportation. For example, over the past 30 years, carriage of goods by ship has grown by 600% worldwide. While traffic on the St. Lawrence dropped from 130 million tonnes in the 1980s to 105 million tonnes, maritime shipping increased by 600% internationally. Closer to home, the Mississippi River system, which competes directly with the St. Lawrence, saw traffic increase from 450 million to 700 million tonnes. Seaports on the east coast of the U.S. have also seen steady increases in traffic.
This is why I have just as much trouble understanding my Liberal colleague's point as I do the message we are getting from the parliamentary secretary who talked about economic activity, China and that fact that they are the ones asking for it.
Even so, I would emphasize that the east coast of the U.S. has seen a major increase in shipping, which did not happen on the St. Lawrence. What does that mean? It means that Canada has not paid attention to one of the most important trade corridors, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway, which borders Quebec, Ontario and the United States.
A similar trend is affecting traffic going through the St. Lawrence Seaway. After reaching a high of 70 million tonnes, the quantity of goods being transported via the seaway stabilized around 50 million tonnes per year. Once again, the seaway leads to the Great Lakes. As I said earlier, the shipping trade dropped from 130 million tonnes to 105 million tonnes on the St. Lawrence, and on the seaway that leads to the Great Lakes, it dropped from 70 million tonnes in the early 1980s to 50 million tonnes. Once again, this is due mainly to the fact that the St. Lawrence Seaway is not competitive, and this is because of Ottawa's failure to pay attention to marine infrastructure in Quebec, particularly along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence trade corridor. That is the harsh reality of it.
When the Liberals were in power, they decided to put all their eggs in one basket, the basket known as the Pacific Gateway, and neglected the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence trade corridor. The Conservatives are making the same mistake. They added the extra money needed for the Pacific Gateway and decided to establish an Atlantic gateway in Halifax. The money will go to Halifax and, once again, there will be nothing for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence trade corridor.
This bill, which allows the ports to borrow more money, will not solve the problem. All of the money invested in the Pacific Gateway is going outside the port areas per se in order to improve the flow of goods by rail and road.
The same should be done for the ports along the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. The same treatment, the same energy should be given to all these gateways by making the same kind of investment in them. What is being permitted today is investment within the area governed by each port authority. They are told that they can borrow more and that, henceforth, the government may provide direct subsidies.
Given that monies for gateways were given only to the Pacific Gateway—and now to the Atlantic Gateway in Halifax—there is nothing for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence corridor. If that is the purpose of this bill as well, then they have missed the mark.
That is why the only party to raise this in the House is the Bloc Québécois. We are proud to live in Quebec and proud of the St. Lawrence, which has always been the backbone of all Quebec and Canadian industries. We cannot help but notice the major retreat by the Government of Canada from making investments along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence corridor.
I would like to give a brief overview of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence corridor. The concept of the corridor is based on an obvious fact. The ports along the St. Lawrence must establish a common strategy for facilitating the most efficient transport of goods possible amongst themselves and towards the destination markets. It is also based on a second obvious fact. The competition is no longer among Montreal, Quebec City, Sept-Îles or the other St. Lawrence ports, or even those on the Great Lakes, for their share of global marine traffic. They are competing against the American ports, and that is the competition they must face.
The message I want to send is that we are not in competition with the east coast, the west coast, Halifax or Vancouver. As I was saying earlier about distances, it is shorter to get from Rotterdam to Montreal than from Rotterdam to New York. That means we have an obvious advantage: we are able to serve the heart of North America, the United States among others, Quebec and Ontario too. We are able to do so with this corridor if we work together, just a little, and if all the ports along the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes work together.
Merchandise should be transported as quickly and efficiently as possible. If there need to be transfers by road or by rail, the same service being provided in the Vancouver area should be provided in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence corridor. These same advantages have to be given to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence corridor so that the world's entire marine transportation market can benefit all the regions of Canada, which still includes Quebec.
We cannot help but notice that both the Liberals and the Conservatives have completely forgotten this large-scale corridor, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence trade corridor.
I do not want to keep repeating myself, but the bill introduced here in this House would provide the port authorities an advantage by giving them borrowing powers or allowing the government to give them direct subsidies, which was not allowed before. Again, there is the example of the port of Montreal. It does not borrow money and it does not have any debt. So, it is not the port of Montreal that asked for this. However, if there are subsidies, it wants to benefit from that as much as all the other ports in Canada.
It is very important that the government understand that because the stated goal is to give direct subsidies within the perimeter administered by the port corporations, namely the western gateway and the Pacific gateway, in the Vancouver area. The Maritimes gateway in Halifax will probably get subsidies as well. In any case, this money has to be allocated in a balanced way across Canada. I am not convinced that is the government's intention.
The Bloc Québécois will be in favour of this bill because it believes that the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes trade corridor is one of the most under-used marine corridors, considering its proximity and ability to serve Quebec, Ontario and the central United States. We believe that the corridor is under-used, that previous successive governments here in Ottawa were negligent and did not make the required efforts or investments to promote this development. Moreover, this St. Lawrence-Great Lakes corridor will also enable intermodal transportation, or more specifically cabotage, which is probably the greatest strength of the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes corridor right now.
We hope to be able to develop cabotage and intermodal transportation. We would like to be able to cover the short distance between Montreal and the Great Lakes and between Montreal and Sept-Îles. We would like to be able to use this vast corridor, as the Americans use the Mississippi, and ensure that all the required government investments will make it possible for all the infrastructure and ports along the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes to be able to fully develop intermodal transportation.
If that is not the government's intention, the Bloc Québécois will have the chance to ask questions of the government and the minister. It is all well and good to introduce a bill, but if it was done simply to develop the Pacific gateway, they should say so. They should be honest and say if there is a lack of money, if the ports of Vancouver and the Pacific can no longer borrow money, if they require direct investments and subsidies. They must say so because there will be an imbalance between the Pacific and Atlantic ports. We are creating our own competition, and there is nothing worse than that.
This is not the first time the Liberals and the Conservatives have made a mistake on this file. They adopt policies on the fly and they try to fix problems in the short term by putting one fire out and lighting another two. The Bloc Québécois wants to avoid doing that. We agree that ports should be allowed to change their borrowing regimes, which would enable large ports to borrow money in order to support their own development. We agree that there should be some funding now, which was not allowed before, and subsidies via infrastructure programs to help port authorities if they are in too much debt. All the same, we want to be fair to the west coast, the east coast and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence corridor.
If we do not say that in this House, that is what the Conservative Party will do. That is what the Liberal Party started to do by investing in the Pacific gateway. In the end the Liberals did nothing. The Conservatives are feeling a little uncomfortable and seem to want to invest. They announced funding for the Pacific gateway, but they did not give anything to Atlantic ports or Halifax.
That means zero minus zero plus zero for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence corridor. Absolutely nothing. Obviously, that will be very bad for Quebec's economy, as well as Ontario's, and it will also limit what we can do to develop trade with the United States.