Mr. Speaker, it is with some reluctance that I join this debate, simply because the need for this in this day and age should not still exist. One would hope in 2007 that reasonable minds using legislation that this country has agreed to would be able to resolve disputes, yet somehow we find ourselves in this situation. Workers are conducting a legal and authorized action. They have serious and legitimate concerns, health and safety and otherwise. Many members of Parliament would also wish to have the ability to affect their immediate environments in their workplace, the ability to make sure that safe and fair working conditions are applied here. Certainly any of the MPs in their own self-interests would wish for the same thing. Yet here we are facing a forced negotiation at the end of a gun barrel, Bill C-46 it is called. I think there are a few terms we have to establish before we can even move further beyond.
The actual name of this bill that has been cobbled together quickly by the government is an act to provide for the resumption and continuation of railway operations.
I have tried to find in the title or the substance of the bill some mention of the main issue that has been brought forward by everyday average ordinary workers on the line, which is around rail safety based upon evidence, audits, that have been done by the government itself. Safety is the issue. Safety is one of the critical issues that has been brought forward as a reason for this dispute and this draconian piece of legislation that was introduced to stop the dispute does not mention it in the title. It would be interesting if the title were an act to provide for the continuation of safe railway operations, but the government could not do that because right now the operations are not safe. There would be no resumption of any type of safe operations because we have the audited reports that say otherwise. The records have become worse as the profits of the company have gone up.
Surely there is a way to operate a rail system in this country that is both safe and profitable, but it seems that unfortunately or otherwise that CN does not feel that those two things can actually go together and exist in harmony. It will tell us that they do but then we see a news report of another train off the tracks lying beside or in a river, and we know that not to be the case. There has been an explosion of unsafe rail practices and we also know it because the workers have told us so.
There is another term that is important for us all to realize. Because I was not sure, before entering into this debate I asked some of my colleagues what to call the company, CNR or Canadian National Rail. It has since changed its name. It reminds me of Kentucky Fried Chicken having to change its name to three letters, KFC, in order to avoid any association with chickens because it was not actually serving chicken any more. In this case, we cannot call the company Canadian National Railway because it is no longer Canadian.
Not only did it change its name, which is well and good and perhaps it was for brevity's sake, and there are a lot of syllables when we spell it out, but it forbade the workers from actually referring to it as Canadian National. They have to refer to it as CNR, and are not allowed to call it Canadian any more.
These are small but important things and are symbolic of what we are seeing take place in an industry and an operation that is at the very heart of this country. It is one of the few things that Canadians can absolutely hold on to and identify with. Different from others was the creation of this majestic dream, and it was dreamt up in this very place, to create a national railway system to connect us from coast to coast, as part of our national identity. It enabled the west to open up. It enabled all Canadians to be part of this massive country. This experiment of some peacefulness between the French and English cultures was critical.
We know the historical roots. We can walk into the foyer just outside the House of Commons and look above the sculptures. Represented there as one of the primary industries of this country is the rail industry. Clearly, it is in our DNA. It is in the very soil of our country.
Here we have an operation which by all accounts, by the audit reports, by the workers working on the line every day and by the communities that live beside those lines is no longer a source of pride. It is a source of worry. It is a source of contention, controversy and conflict.
I need to talk for a moment about my riding of Skeena—Bulkley Valley in the northwest corner of the province of British Columbia. It has one of the increasingly most important rail lines in the country. It is part of the government's laudable efforts to open up the Asia-Pacific Gateway. It is receiving a significant amount of funding that we negotiated with the previous government and ensured with this government. We are proud of being able to leverage that funding for the container port in Prince Rupert. There is also some significant funding by CN itself along the rail.
Here is an interesting thing to note. There are hazardous products that travel along this rail line that stretches right across northern British Columbia. Some months ago CN sent a letter to all of our predominantly volunteer fire departments. CN said that if there was any major spill of toxic chemicals along the line, the volunteer fire departments, which neither have the equipment nor the training to deal with such a toxic spill, should just hold the fort for 12 hours until CN got a skeleton crew up there to deal with it. This is in a letter. CN actually put it in black and white and sent it out to these noble volunteer fire departments and said that just for their information, CN would show up half a day later, once the train was in the river or on the side of the tracks. This is what a so-called responsible corporate citizen is offering to people who live cheek by jowl, right beside many of these lines, whose livelihood depends on the conservation of our environment, particularly the rivers.
Those who have visited the northwest have seen some of the most stunning scenery right from a passenger rail car because the rail runs right on the very edge of many of our most stunning and magnificent rivers. The road is on the other side. The access to these places, unfortunately, I have to say, once a train derails, based upon anecdotal and the audited experience of this company is seriously impeded.
There is no mention of safety in this bill. There is no mention of the technique being used, this heavy-handed approach that allows for final offer selection. The two sides present their cases and an arbitrator will then pick one or the other. It is a system that can or cannot work, depending on the various labour disputes.
Clearly, by not mentioning any aspect of safety in the bill, the government is sending a clear signal to the company that it does not have to negotiate on the safety concerns of the workers and the communities that they have placed in the public eye. That is not a concern to the government and it certainly will not be for the company when it is negotiating. And the legislation does not name an arbitrator.
It is important to understand that once this legislation passes and it seems doomed to pass, if I can use that term, because the Liberals, Conservatives and the Bloc for some bizarre reason have decided to ram it through by invoking closure and that is democracy in action, but once this bill passes, the government can pick any arbitrator it wants, anyone. It allows anybody to finally decide upon a contract that will be imposed upon the workers in the company.
For those who have followed labour disputes across the country and the history of CN and the UTU, this is not a combative organization. I have met with the workers in my riding, both formally and informally. I met them around a coffee table just a few days ago when I was in northern B.C. I sat down with a worker, an honest, hard-working average Canadian who is just doing his job. When this labour dispute first came up in February he had had enough. He had been working on the rail for 25 years.
Anyone who has spent a day on the rail will have a sense of the working conditions. The workers work 12 hours, maybe 16 hours plus. There is forced overtime. Rattling around on the rail is hard work. The workers all knew what they signed up for and they are willing to do it, but that worker had had enough. Time and time again he had gone to his supervisors and pointed out a safety concern and said that a piece needed to be replaced because it was broken and it was part of the safety system, and he was told to just leave it be, leave well enough alone.
No longer was there a culture of care and concern that had been built up in that organization over many years to ensure that no matter what the trains would run on time and they would also run safe. That can no longer be said. That is a tragedy not just for the symbol of what CN and rail are for this country, but it is also a tragedy on other levels, and I would like to talk about a couple of them.
We have talked much about the environment and the litany of derailments. Oftentimes CN does not have to prepare any kind of a manifest. There is no legal obligation to tell communities down the line what type of products will be moved through those communities.
We have all been around this country and know that some trains move right through the very heart of communities. There is no manifest created and some of these substances are of the most toxic nature imaginable, the belief being that it is better to move them by rail than by truck, because the incidence of accidents traditionally has always been lower by rail. If a toxic substance has to be moved from a chemical plant, as is often the case, or the oil and gas industry, to another site, it is best to do it by rail, as the chance of an accident or incurring any sort of harm to the environment or human health is lower.
Can we still safely say that? On March 12, 2007, some 3,000 VIA Rail passengers were affected. On March 10, 2007, CN's main freight line through central New Brunswick was disrupted because of a 17 car derailment at Plaster Rock. On March 1 there was a grain spill from a CN freight train derailment in Pickering. In February 2007 there was a hydrochloric acid spill. On January 14, 2007 in northern Ontario there was another derailment and 30 cars went into a swamp.
Time and time again, when dealing with issues of the environment, we know it is always easier and cheaper to not have the pollution happen in the first place. Here we have a clear case of what it would mean to have a little more protection, a little more understanding up front about the types of chemicals and noxious substances that are being moved, and how much better it is from every measurement to make sure that they do not tip out somewhere along the way, never mind the human concern.
I was in Sudbury recently and there had been another derailment north of that town, reminiscent of one that had occurred the year before. All sorts of noxious substances were being pumped out of the river and lakes systems. I talked to the member of Parliament from that area. The people in Sudbury have done so much to try to remedy the damage done by previous historical practices in the industry. We all know about the moonscape and that NASA uses the area around Sudbury as a practice area for its astronauts. The damage had been severe in terms of the environment. Sudbury has dedicated itself on many levels to clean up the mess, and once a year there are trains tipping into its river and lake systems.
Canadians are concerned and they have a right to be concerned. I would hope there is not a member of Parliament who would dispute the right of Canadians to be concerned when they read their papers and turn on the evening news and see that another train has tipped over. The workers have come forward and said where they think the problems are, and they are ignored by the company.
An audit was ordered by the previous government as a third party investigation into what was happening, with no vested interest, so the union bashing going on by some of the government can stop. It was a third party audit which the government conducted in 2005. It finished in 2006 and then the government sat on it. It was not until a journalist with the CBC filed an access to information request that the findings were released.
One would have to suppose that if the audit had said that things were fine, that the Canadian public should not worry, that everything was all right, the government would have trumpeted it out. It would have had a press conference, announced it and given every detail of how wonderful it was, but we know that is not what the audit said. The audit came out with findings that 54% of the locomotives showed serious defects. More than half of the things that are responsible for moving and stopping the trains that are going through our communities, and in British Columbia in particular, up and down mountains showed serious defects.
That is why the government sat on the audit. That is why the government has now removed from this bill the concept of triggering any sort of negotiation around safety for workers. We have to understand that the whole concept of workers' safety, the whole concept of safe locations in which to work in this country, was one that initially was resisted by industry as an extra expense when it was done years ago. It has now been adopted and it is trumpeted by industries, the progressive ones in particular, that they have a safe working environment.
The lumber mills in my community, the good ones in particular, show on their signs that visitors are welcome to such and such a lumber mill, and they show many safe days and accident-free days they have had because they know it is good for business. They know it is good for worker morale when people are not getting hurt. They know it is good for absenteeism, obviously, when people are not getting hurt, and just ethically it might be a good thing, too, to not have a system or workplace set up where people are likely to get hurt.
We have had an audit come back that says the crossings and some of the bridges had faulty beams. Workers died two years ago in British Columbia because a bridge failed. Workers were coming to me prior to this saying that people were going to die. They said this flat out because they had looked at the trusses. They had looked at the structure of the bridges. They had known the upkeep had not been done, but who was watching the henhouse? Clearly it was the fox.
The reason for this legislation, the reason to force these folks back to work even though the Labour Relations Board has said that this is a legal and legitimate strike, has often been talked about. One assumes that the company thought it had this in the bag, that it could just go to the Labour Relations Board and it would order the workers back from strike immediately.
Even though this is a legal strike, it has been rolled out time and again that this is an economic catastrophe waiting to happen. Even if the government and the official opposition had the courage to stand up and speak to the legislation, which they do not, it has been pointed out by the few who have that this is an economic catastrophe waiting to happen in this country and that we need to force these workers back to work and impose a contract on them so that Canadian business can move again, because we are an exporting nation.
We would contend that this short term, poorly managed fix will lead to economic disaster in the medium term and the long term, as there is a clear indication to the railway to continue with business as usual.
A lot of the shippers in my region are completely stressed out. These are people who need to get their products to market. The cashflow is essential to their operations. They work on very fine margins and they want products to move.
However, they have also lamented to me over the last number of years that they cannot get reliable service from CN. When a train goes off the tracks, guess what? They cannot run another train right by it. There are days and days of delay and then an investigation, and then the train has to be fixed in the shop and there are fewer cars on the tracks.
It causes problems, but clearly someone within this organization has done the calculation and has figured out that it is worth the cost of business and that there are all the so-called savings they make by having people work longer and longer hours. We know as a result of studies that, like a student studying or a worker in any workplace, once past a certain point, effectiveness and clarity drop off demonstrably and in a significant way.
As soon as people go beyond the 8 to 12 hours, their ability to pay attention, to focus and to do as good a job as they were doing in the first 8 hours goes down. What CN wants to do is continue pushing people the limits of what we know to be safe when it comes to the people who are at the switch. Right now those workers are meant to be away from home for as many as 40 hours a week or 160 hours a month. CN wants them to be away more. CN wants them to work longer periods each and every day. They are working 16 hours right now. I am not sure exactly where CN would like them to go, and how someone in their 17th hour of work is meant to be performing as well as in their first or eighth seems ridiculous. It even seems counterintuitive.
A number of Canadians would be quite worried if they knew that train carrying hydrochloric acid and barrelling through their town in the middle of the night was being driven by someone in the 17th or 18th hour of work, someone who has been doing that consistently over the last number of weeks and months. How is the government meant to assure Canadians that everything is okay, that these workers are not asleep at the switch, so to speak?
When it comes to our environment and the idea that in this day and age we will knowingly operate an unsafe system and keep pushing the boundaries into places that have been proven through the government's own audit not to be safe, it is intellectually dishonest. As for the idea that somehow the government can paint itself green and run about the country claiming some sort of adherence to environmental principles and priorities when at the same time it is taking actions like this, actions that threaten exactly the heart of the clean air and clean water it purports to be defending and are unable to do so, it is intellectually dishonest. It is intellectually dishonest of the government, the Liberals and the Bloc to suggest that they are doing their jobs in this case.
A lot of MPs are pushing for this heavy-handed tactic and are trying to position one set of working families against another. It is a good old tactic that does not die out easily. The workers in my region of northern British Columbia are very much connected to the same people. The rail workers are exactly the same folks whose kids are in soccer and who go to Rotary and all the rest of it in our communities, exactly the same as the people who need to ship the product, the same workers who are just down the line at the mill or at the smelter looking for consistent rail service in order to feed their families. They are deeply connected.
They understood back in February when the strike first erupted, as they do now, how serious it is when they say that things are this unsafe and that the relationship between the company and the workers has broken down so much they are seeking to strike. They understand the consequences more than any member of Parliament does and certainly more than any of the fat cats on the frontbench of the Conservative Party do. They understand deeply what the consequences are of their actions and they are committed to them. Eighty per cent voted to reject the very deal that the government now wishes to impose on them.
It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that using such a technique somehow will allow for any sort of labour peace or harmony in the workplace or betterment of service, whether it is the protection of our environment and Canadians' health from fewer derailments or better service by just being on time and actually picking up the freight that CN, not Canadian National, has promised to.
This is going to be trumpeted by the government and those supporting it as a salient approach and a quick fix to getting the rails back on line and the trains running on time. What I will suggest to the House, to Canadians and to people in my riding is that we need labour peace. We need a drastic improvement in the way CN operates, the way it treats its workers and the way it treats the safety of Canadians on either of these rail lines, because the situation cannot go on as it is, and this bill exacerbates it. That is why I am proud to be here as a New Democrat opposing it to the nth degree.