Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-58 on behalf of the Bloc Québécois.
I will summarize this briefly for the benefit of our constituents who are listening. The main purpose of this bill is to clarify the Transportation Act and strengthen the existing provisions that protect shippers against any abuse of the commercial power of the railways. It relates mainly to western Canada and has to do with grain producers and grain transport. Although this has less to do with what goes on in Quebec, the Bloc Québécois stays informed about various situations across Canada. We are always interested in participating in the debate so that we can stand up for anyone who is oppressed by the commercial power of the railways, as an example.
Today, we have two fine examples of this. Earlier, the representative of the government who gave a speech about Bill C-58 said that the bill was one of three pieces of legislation to modernize the Transportation Act. Today, we discussed Bill C-11. The idea was to modernize the Transportation Act in relation to the noise pollution and vibration produced by the railway companies. The Conservative government has caved in to the power of the railway lobby. The lobby had its standard bearer, the Senate, which decided to carry the torch for the interests of the poor little railway companies.
And the end result is that the government supported an amendment to the bill that had been passed unanimously, Bill C-11. In committee, the noise pollution provisions and the bill had been supported unanimously, clause by clause, by all parties.
Today, the Conservatives have caved in to the Liberal position adopted in the Senate. I hope that we will not see the same thing happen with Bill C-58, that we will not see the Conservatives caving in to the Liberal majority in the Senate if the Senate decides to amend the bill.
Bill C-58 is an attempt to strike a better balance between the power of the railway companies and the people who produce and ship products, including grain producers, who do not own the rails and who have to get their hopper cars to destinations all over Canada. They feel oppressed by the railway companies.
The purpose of this bill is to strike a balance. The proposed amendments respond to the concerns of shippers, and particularly western Canadian grain producers, about prices and railway service, while also providing the railways with regulatory stability. The amendments to Bill C-58 will deal with arbitration, charges for incidental services, notices of changes of tariff, sidings for producers' railway cars, leased railway lines and obligations in respect of the level of service. It is time we had some balance, in the interests of those who use the railway system, including grain producers, to get the railway cars that belong to them to their destinations.
The Conservative government and the Liberals have this strong tendency to let the free market do as it wishes. In such conditions producers are over-exploited. That is what this bill seeks to correct. When we refer to the various amendments, we refer, among others, to arbitration. The objectives of the Transportation Act, prior to these amendments, require that the Agency take into account the matter of substantial commercial harm. Bill C-58 proposes that the reference to substantial commercial harm be removed because whenever we hear from the railway companies there is always some substantial commercial harm. In the end, those who do not own the rails lose every time. The railway companies always succeed in proving substantial commercial harm where there is none. That will now be subject to arbitration, which will be a means of settling disputes between a shipper and the railways involving the rates and conditions of transportation service.
If merchandise is shipped by railway under a confidential contract, the matters subject to confidentiality cannot be submitted to arbitration without the consent of all parties. Still, there are some safeguards. It will be possible to make a joint submission for arbitration to settle a dispute concerning the rates and conditions for movement of goods, where the matter submitted to arbitration is common to all the shippers.
Finally, all those who are experiencing the same problem will have recourse to arbitration. They can join in a class action and the Transportation Agency can hear the case and render a decision.
The bill also provides for suspension of any arbitration proceedings if the two parties agree to accept mediation. In fact, this will also encourage use of mediation. That is one reason the Bloc Québécois is in favour of these amendments.
The rates charged for incidental services will be discussed. The railways earn most of their income from the rates charged for transporting goods, such as the carloads of grain from the Prairies to Vancouver, but charges also have to be paid for services that are incidental to the conveyance of goods or that are not directly related. These are known as incidental or associated charges; the cost of parking, additional charges to a shipper who requires more than the scheduled time, the cost of cleaning and or stocking cars and weighing the goods are examples of incidental costs.
In recent years, the rates charged by the railways have become a burden to shippers. However, the means of dealing with this problem are limited, since arbitration does not apply as a distinct remedy for incidental charges or associated conditions. The act will be amended to permit the agency to investigate a complaint from any shipper who is subject to a general application tariff that provides for rates and conditions. Finally, incidental charges invoiced by the railways could be subject to arbitration.
There is also the notice of change of tariff. The act defines the tariff as being a schedule of rates, charges, terms and conditions. At present it requires that the railway publish any changes to this tariff at least 20 days before raising rates. Such notice is not required for rates pertaining to incidental services or related conditions in the section on tariffs. This will be amended. The act will be amended so as to extend the period of notice from 20 to 30 days so that shippers can receive sufficient notice of any increase in the rates for transportation. Notice is therefore extended and incidental charges will be included.
There are also the sidings for producer cars. During the consultations, some parties asked for tighter regulation on abandonment of sidings used for loading grain or loading producer cars on the Prairies. Sidings are not subject to the provisions of the act on discontinuing a line. Complaints about the closing of sidings used for loading cars arise in part from the fact that shippers do not know which sidings are in service, since at present the railways are not required to inform those concerned.
The act will be amended so as to require the railways to publish the list of sidings available for loading grain producer cars and to give 60 days’ notice before putting a siding out of service.
All this means that, on their own lines, the railway companies used to operate as though they were the only ones using them. That was the problem. As far as I am concerned, the federal government failed in its original mission. Over the past 20 years, it has got rid of all the railway tracks that belonged to it and transferred them to private companies: to Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. Today we realize that that has created a problem. The people to whom they were transferred, often for paltry sums, are today making incredible profits. In the end they regard this asset as their own. When the time comes to make the rails available to other users, they know that tracks cannot be laid just anywhere. There needs to be a corridor across Canada and such a thing cannot be created on a whim. The government, as far as I am concerned, made a mistake in this regard. It should have kept them.
There is also the example of the bridge at Quebec City that we are having so much difficulty getting painted. The Quebec bridge belongs to Canadian National and it says it does not have the money to get it painted. That does not matter very much. The Liberals tried legal proceedings to force CN to paint the Quebec bridge, especially in view of the 400th anniversary. It will be great to show visitors Quebec, the oldest city in America, with a rusty bridge. But that is how it is.
When the Liberals were in power, they fell flat on their faces. They could not get anything done and instituted legal proceedings. The Conservatives, thinking themselves more intelligent, said that they would set the legal proceedings aside and change the legislation. But no, the minister had to do the same thing six months ago. He too launched legal proceedings to try to force CN to paint the Quebec bridge. I predict that it still will not be painted in 2008. They will not get it done, unless they pay what CN has been asking since the very beginning. If they want it painted, they should get out their money and pay for it. That is the hard truth.
Today, once again, the federal government has given up. The free flow of goods and services between the provinces is a federal responsibility. This always makes me laugh because we have been trying for decades to get a new bridge built right here between the Quebec Ontario banks of the river. I have always wondered what use a Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities is if we cannot get goods, services and people moving freely between provinces. No new bridge or new infrastructure is being built to join the two banks.
The federal Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities cannot serve as an referee or as anything at all. He dare not get involved because he is powerless. The problem today is that they are trying to give some powers by means of the Canada Transportation Act. It is good that we are here because one day they got rid of the railways and now they are forced to regulate a bit or else the railway owners are going to decide to operate their way and, often, raise rates without warning. That is what we are telling the House now.
In all these regards, it is evident that the Bloc Québécois is very sensitive to the problems of farmers, including western grain growers on the prairies.
We have always been very sensitive to the problems of Quebec farmers. That is why we always defend supply management so staunchly. If the Conservative government defended the supply management interests of Quebec farmers as fiercely as it defends the transportation of grain in hopper cars, they would probably be doing pretty well. The problem is that there is always a double standard in this country. There is one standard now for western farmers and another for eastern farmers, especially those in Quebec.
We in the Bloc Québécois do not make such distinctions and when we feel that our constituents are being exploited by private enterprise, we do not hesitate to take action. That is why the Bloc Québécois will support Bill C-58 in order to help the western grain producers and shippers.