Mr. Speaker, I think members will agree that it would be bordering on rude and untimely for the government to stall the debate we will be holding in the next few minutes and hours, since this issue is of exceptional importance to the fisheries.
When we talk about fishing, it is true that we are talking about resources, fishermen, businesses and people who work in this field. But it is the small craft harbours, the infrastructures and the wharves that hold everything together. In fact, the wharves are absolutely essential to the fisheries. We recently discussed this in the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, and we tabled a preliminary report before the holidays, aimed at influencing the budget that will be presented on February 26.
The situation is more than urgent; it has become scandalous. To give you an idea, I would say that we are at the point of wondering whether the wharf is attached to the boat or the boat is attached to the wharf. If we are wondering that, then the situation must be very serious. It just goes to show the state of our infrastructure in Canada and in the regions I represent, the Gaspé and the Magdalen Islands. We know very well that there is a lot of fishing in these areas, and for some parts of those regions, fishing accounts for a significant number of jobs.
For example, in the Magdalen Islands, six out of 10 jobs are in the fishery. In the Gaspé, it is three out of 10. Along the lower North Shore, it is eight out of 10. That shows how important this is. It is clear that this issue is of fundamental importance to each of these communities, be they in the Maritimes, in the west, in British Columbia, or even in northern Quebec or Nunavut. We know that many coastal communities have the same basic need for adequate infrastructure: transportation infrastructure, infrastructure that can help them access high-speed Internet, infrastructure that enables them to watch us and hear what we are talking about today. They also need infrastructure such as small craft harbours and wharves. If there are no wharves, there can be no fishing, and if there is no fishing, there are no jobs.
Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to tour maritime Quebec. I went to the North Shore, the lower North Shore, the lower St. Lawrence, the Gaspé, and the Magdalen Islands. The tour ended with the annual convention of the Quebec Fish Processors Association in Quebec City. At the convention, it was clear that for some communities, fishing grounds represent borders that protect access to a resource. The people of Newfoundland have a protected fishing territory along the west and north coasts, all around the islands. Quebec has the same. That is why the people of the lower North Shore should be treated fairly, but they are not being treated fairly.
I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the terrible state of their infrastructure. It is scandalous and shameful, particularly given that the government records budget surpluses of around $11 billion to $13 billion in good years and bad. That is $11 thousand million, $13 thousand million. That is the reality of the situation. The government over there must do something. This is not about agreeing to a request. This is about being a good and responsible manager.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is responsible for the fisheries and the infrastructure and, therefore, it must help. It has a duty to provide good quality facilities in good working order to the people who live off the fishery and who need them.
This report was tabled in the House of Commons in mid-December. It says the situation has reached such scandalous proportions that the cost of rehabilitating the wharves that are considered essential has risen from about $400 million in 2004 to at least $600 million now.This shows that the government is not meeting its responsibilities. When a roof starts to leak and nobody repairs it, eventually it will collapse. That is exactly what is happening here.
There are many other aspects to this as well, including the people who do volunteer work. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has an annual budget for small craft harbours of about $100 million and another 25% of this—or $25 million—is provided by volunteers. There are harbour authorities in most communities and the volunteer board members do a very careful, responsible job of taking care of the facilities. They enable the government to save $25 million.
What do they get in return? They do not get the recognition they deserve. That is why a significant amount needs to be invested right away on February 26. The volunteers in these harbour authorities are not only frustrated and sickened by the situation but worn out as well. Ultimately, they bear the brunt of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ disinterest and lack of action. They are on the receiving end of the frustration expressed by the main users. In addition, these volunteer members of harbour authorities are also users themselves. They donate their time and sometimes even their money to help their communities help themselves and do what needs to be done.
Unfortunately, the government’s response so far has been so inadequate that the people in some harbour authorities, such as the one in L'Étang-du-Nord on the Magdalen Islands, are so disgusted they think it does not make sense any more and are thinking of quitting—and they are not the only ones. That is the reality. When a director of a corporation called the Administration portuaire du havre de pêche de l'Étang-du-Nord feels forced to sound the alarm and threaten to quit and just give up because he does not have the necessary support, it is both a cry of alarm and a heartfelt sob. That is why the government must respond.
I know that when the committee travelled to the region, we were able to see for ourselves. Sadly, we are forced to raise this issue year after year, just as we have to keep talking about the shrimp crisis in Quebec. People are being held hostage. Negotiations between processors and fishers are at an impasse. The plant workers are being held hostage. They never know from one year to the next whether they will have a job, when they will have work or whether they will be forced to take to the streets and demonstrate to get what they want. There is that as well.
These are the sorts of situations we see everywhere, and they are the result of the policy of inaction and the laissez-faire approach of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. That is why the department needs to be shaken up. It must recognize that action is urgently needed, especially on the issue of small craft harbours. If no action is taken, then like that leaky roof that has not been repaired, everything will eventually collapse. And that has happened. In Saint-Georges-de-Malbaie, for example, there was a beautiful wharf that, over time, was allowed to deteriorate from wave action. Finally, when the situation became critical, a solution was found in the form of pontoons used for mooring.
Things reached a point where, last year, these people had no infrastructure. They finally had to go with mooring floats, thanks to eleventh-hour assistance from Quebec City. It is being called a temporary solution. It is not permanent. This is no way to treat people who depend on a resource for their livelihood and are proud and happy to be able to do so, who have done so for generations and who are now wondering whether they have a future in fishing. The question has come up.
The question has come up so often that other questions come to mind as well, and I am saying this in a non-partisan way. Even before I got into politics, I realized that sovereignty would benefit Quebec when it came to issues such as fisheries. The federal government has responsibility for fisheries, but the situation is in total disarray.
Who arbitrates when Quebec and New Brunswick fight over herring in Chaleur Bay, when Quebec and Newfoundland have a dispute over halibut or cod, or when Prince Edward Island has a conflict with New Brunswick or Nova Scotia? The federal government. But things are deteriorating, because the federal government is looking at the situation with the eyes of an administrator or manager who is not necessarily kindly disposed toward Quebec.
Furthermore, the small craft harbour situation is getting worse. These people deserve better than what they are getting now.
Over the past few months, we have had the opportunity to meet with representatives from port authorities such as the Etang-du-Nord group and others. Furthermore, in my riding I personally meet with people from port authority after port authority and I can tell they are simply at the end of their rope. Not only do they want to be recognized for what they are doing, although everyone can see it, but that recognition needs to come with some concrete action, namely money.
It is as simple as that. It is not a matter of having money for the sake of it. We are not talking about helping the oil companies make more profits, so that Exxon and Exxon Mobil, who are making $100 million in profits a day, can say there is a catastrophe and that next year they want to make $150 million a day. That is not the issue.
The issue is about communities at the end of their rope trying to hang on to what they have paid so dearly for, realizing that their infrastructure is disappearing with the wind, the tides and the waves.
As I have said to many people and as people have said to me, a village's wharf is its heart and soul. If we must, we can always replace the heart, we can always mend it or put something else in its place, but when a soul is lost it is lost forever. The same is true of the wharf, since it is the soul of the village. I know very well that many of my colleagues know exactly what I am talking about.
Nonetheless, people throughout Quebec and the Maritimes are sending us a message of despair. They are in a situation that requires concerted action. This situation requires massive funding.
As I was saying, $100 million is invested in this every year and we see the situation deteriorate year after year. We went from needing $400 million to needing $600 000 million or more. This shows how far things have gone. That is why money needs to be invested there. We are talking about investment, not spending. We are talking about investment in the present and in the future.
Just imagine the positive message people receive when we listen to them, understand them, when we act and try to get things moving in the House of Commons, so that there is some actual forward movement by the government on this file. Now and in the future, it is important that what is done be more than just vigorous and on a large scale, that it respond to needs. And the needs are enormous. As I said, it is more than a question of infrastructure. It is not about a stretch of road that is missing somewhere and can be otherwise repaired. If there is no wharf, there is no unloading; if there is no unloading, there is no fishery; and if there is no fishery, there are no economic spinoffs. At the same time, we are losing an important aspect of our history and heritage.
I am talking about fishing in the context of wharves, but a wharf is more than just a fishing infrastructure. It is also a gathering place. People who live in communities like mine or who have had the opportunity to visit one know that wharves can also serve other purposes, commercial ones, for instance, as is the case in Anse-à-Beaufils. Ferry operators run the ferries that shuttle between Percé and Bonaventure Island, passing by Rocher Percé. Those people need an infrastructure to be able to berth. To some degree, they have such an infrastructure in Anse-à-Beaufils and Percé. They have that need. Thus, they can be used for commercial purposes, for tourism and also for pleasure.
It is therefore a relatively complex set of functions affecting various activities. A wharf in a community may revive the town and give it hope for the future. Obviously the wharf itself must be in good condition. If an institution, an infrastructure, a house, a restaurant or some other facility is deteriorating day after day, people will say we have to let it go, it is not worth it. People might even think that it should be demolished.
Is this the Conservative philosophy, or ideology, that explains its failure to do anything about small craft harbours? The answer is self-evident. I would like to think it is not, because that would be an affront to the community. It is an affront to people for whom good quality infrastructure is essential. We must not end up with people like those in Étang-du-Nord or elsewhere saying that the only solution is to let it go. Neither I nor the party I represent, nor the people who care about this situation, have any intention of giving up and abandoning these communities when they urgently need this infrastructure. That is why it is important to keep raising this question, day after day, session after session.
The positive side of all this, given how we have taken up this battle in recent months and years, is that we are starting to see some recognition of the situation. I recall that the first few times I talked about small craft harbours at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans I was told that the universe was unfolding as it should. This was paradise, or close to. In other words, no one saw the problems. Today, the problems are being recognized. In order for that recognition to be genuine, responsible and complete, there must be action to go with it. Ultimately, that action consists of the preliminary report submitted by the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans. That committee examined the subject for several months, and in fact for several years. The members came to the conclusion that action was required, in the form of massive investment in small craft harbours. There is no other way. To say otherwise is to lull the population and is disrespectful to the people in these communities.
I repeat: it is disrespectful to the people in these communities; it is disrespectful to their entire history; and it is also disrespectful to the future that that history may hold.