Mr. Speaker, I move that the third report of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, presented on Monday, June 2, be concurred in.
I take a keen interest in today's debate, and I must say I am very angry, because this is a crucial issue for the economic future of my riding, Laurentides—Labelle, and it concerns the whole Laurentian region.
For several months, the people in my region have been discriminated against by the federal government. I am enormously concerned about the future of the Mont Tremblant International Airport in La Macaza and the future of the entire Upper Laurentians area. The airport's short-term survival is threatened because of the inaction, laxity and inertia of this Conservative government and the incompetence of the Minister of Public Safety.
Before I talk further about what I would call unfairness and discrimination regarding the Mont Tremblant International Airport, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to my colleague, the member for Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, for his support and solidarity on this issue and for introducing a motion in the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security that reads as follows:
That the Committee recommend that the Rivière Rouge Mont Tremblant International Airport (YTM) be recognized as an airport of entry into Canada, without customs charges being imposed for regular commercial flights, as is the case with the airports in Montreal and Quebec City.
I would like to say how important, or should I say how urgent, it is to find a solution to the discrimination by the Canada Border Services Agency against the Mont Tremblant airport. The imposition of customs charges on this airport by the agency means that the airport is the only one in Canada that has to pay customs charges on its regular flights.
The airport authority is faced with an impasse that could result in the short-term closure of this important economic development tool. It will be a real disaster for the Laurentian region if the airport closes. This Conservative government must realize how hard this region has been hit by the forestry crisis.
Forestry was—I repeat, was—the main industry in the regional municipality of Antoine-Labelle. In the past two years, the vast majority of the sawmills in this area have had to close, leaving some 1,500 people jobless. This is a tragedy for a single-industry region.
Despite the Bloc Québécois' repeated calls for short-term solutions to the problems forestry companies face because of factors such as the softwood lumber crisis and the higher dollar, the Conservatives have turned a deaf ear, preferring to give priority to their friends in big oil.
To minimize the negative impact of the forestry crisis, local elected officials and various stakeholders from the Laurentians region got down to work and redoubled their efforts to come up with an economic recovery plan.
Several projects to diversify the economy of my region have emerged from this plan. Over the years, the Laurentian region has forged a reputation for itself in becoming Quebec's top year-round vacation destination. Visitors flow in from around the world to be charmed by its unique scenery and its tourist attractions. Since the early 1990s, the town of Mont-Tremblant has shown unprecedented vitality with the development of the Tremblant tourist area.
The Laurentians boast the highest concentration of downhill ski centres in North America and are also the destination of choice for snowmobiling in Quebec. With its nearly 10,000 lakes and rivers, the region attracts its highest tourist traffic in the summertime.
Numerous hunting and fishing outfitters, national parks and wildlife preserves, forests, fishing, hunting, the Symphony of Colours festival in the fall, cross-country skiing, dogsledding, biking and other activities are all features that attract tourists from abroad.
Each year, thousands of visitors from Europe, Asia and the United States travel to the Laurentians for a vacation at an outfitter's camp, a tourist concept which has evolved over the years to meet the expectations of foreign guests.
Needless to say, the second largest economic sector in the Upper Laurentians is none other than tourism and the Mont Tremblant airport is among the most important economic engines driving the economic vitality of my region.
The Mont Tremblant airport is the key to the Laurentians. It is an important tool that brings the entire world to our door.
To make it easier to understand this major issue being discussed today, I would like to provide a brief background on the trials and tribulations the airport authority has encountered. These difficulties jeopardize any new agreement with airlines and travel wholesalers from Europe, the United States and South America that might want to offer the Laurentians as a travel destination to their clientele.
The airport was created in 2003 by a consortium of municipalities, CLD, CFDC and private shareholders. It was certified by Transport Canada for regular commercial flights.
Canada Border Services Agency officially designates the Mont Tremblant airport as a point of entry to Canada that can clear international flights.
The authority also receives financial support from Economic Development Canada for infrastructure in order to meet the agency's security standards. To date, the airport authority has invested several thousands of dollars in installing equipment to clear international passengers.
In July 2007, the Mont Tremblant International Airport signed a contract with Continental Airlines for daily flights from New York. In light of that agreement, the airport president is launching a series of representations with the Canada Border Services Agency and is also calling on the office of the Minister of Public Safety for a meeting to discuss the customs charges.
Despite multiple requests, there has been no response and in December 2007, the day before the first flights from the United States were due to arrive, the Canada Border Services Agency bullied the airport president into signing contracts obliging him to cover the customs charges or no flight could land at the airport. That is how the Canada Border Services Agency conducts its business: under a cloud of threats, with no ethics or respect.
It is easy to understand that the authority's hands were tied and that it had no choice but to sign the agreement so that all the reservations that had been made well in advance at accommodation centres and tourist bureaus in the region would not have to be cancelled. Not signing would have been economic suicide for the entire region. The contract signed under duress committed the airport to paying $1,093.68 for every plane that lands on its runways. That is nothing less than extortion.
The airport authority is obviously unable to pay such steep amounts, and worries that when these charges are passed along to customers, they may change their minds about vacationing in the Laurentians and choose less costly destinations. Passing these charges along to travellers means that the cost of travel packages goes up, and therefore fewer people will visit.
In January 2008, we did some research and realized that this airport is the only one of its kind in Canada paying customs charges for regular commercial flights.
The Minister of Public Safety informed the president in writing that the agency does not provide after-hours services without recovering its costs. He clearly did not understand the president's requests, since the airport is asking for an exemption from the charges for regular commercial flights, not those outside regular hours. The minister also explained that the agency is conducting a core services review, and that it is examining options. He proposed a meeting with a representative at his office to discuss the issue.
In February 2008, the Canada Border Services Agency invoices were piling up. ThePrime Minister's office was contacted to once again explain how important this airport is to the economy of the Laurentians and the surrounding regions, that it acts as a gateway to Quebec, and that tourists arrive every day to spend significant amounts of money, which obviously results in considerable economic spinoffs for the government.
Since December, over 3,500 foreign visitors have flown into the Mont Tremblant International Airport. Economic spinoffs are estimated to be over $1 million, and the agency's bill for the most recent months of operation amounted to $100,000. To date, all efforts have been in vain, and no concrete solutions have appeared. The current impasse involving the airport is threatening potential contracts with other transporters.The airport authority will be facing the same problem.
I personally asked the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, the lieutenant for Quebec, about the exorbitant customs charges imposed on the Mont Tremblant International Airport. I asked him whether he realized that his government's inaction was causing irreparable harm to the development of the tourism industry in the Laurentians. The minister refused to answer, and in the end, his colleague, the Minister of Public Safety, gave me a stock answer about how the fees are the same across the country. Actually, he singled out Rigaud, but Rigaud does not have an international airport. The minister's answer was not really an answer. That was when I realized that the minister had no concept of the problem facing the airport.
In April, the airport general manager and I met with Joel Bernard of the Minister of Public Safety's office. We got the same stock answer: the agency is reviewing its services; it would be difficult just now to exempt the Tremblant airport from the customs charges currently in force; and the minister would not want to set a precedent in this case.
Nobody is asking the minister to set a precedent. All we want is fairness. The solution we proposed to the minister is simple and would solve the airport's problem by changing its service code to AOE-50, clearance of 50 passengers, just like the Montreal and Quebec City airport. That would correct the injustice perpetrated against the Mont Tremblant International Airport.
Once again, we believe that if the minister wants to, he can deal with this file quickly without setting any precedents for other Canadian airports.
Only two Quebec airports have that service code, while in Ontario alone, there are ten or so.
Despite the general manager’s desire to find a practical solution, the problems mounted. On May 14, 2008 and without any prior notice, the Canada Border Services Agency seized the airport’s bank accounts because the airport still could not pay the customs charges. Unable to continue under the circumstances, the general manager indicated that he would shut the airport down entirely on May 15 at midnight. The debt has now risen to $95,000 for the last six months.
I repeat: more than 3,500 people have used the airport, helping this region maintain a reasonable level of economic activity despite an unemployment rate of more than 10%.
Does the minister’s inaction and indifference indicate Ottawa’s deliberate intention to force our airport to close? How can they explain the fact that Ottawa provides free customs services to about 10 airports in Ontario but only two in Quebec, in Montreal and Quebec City?
Faced with the threat of closure, the community reacted strongly. There was an outcry in the media. A number of local decision-makers came together and even the Minister of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade in the Quebec National Assembly, Raymond Bachand, contacted the public safety minister to ask him to intervene quickly. But nothing was done and nothing changed.
In the meantime, all the elected officials in the region, the county wardens, mayors and members of Parliament and the National Assembly, requested a meeting in the offices of the Minister of Public Safety. Just a few hours before the meeting was to occur, the minister did an about-face and told us he preferred to keep politics out of the meeting and just wanted to see the airport manager. Another fine demonstration of this minister’s lack of transparency.
But now it is time for some political choices to be made. In the days following the minister’s refusal, a delegation of elected officials from my riding came to Ottawa anyway in the hope of meeting with the phantom Minister of Public Safety.
Once again, he declined their invitation. What a lack of respect for my constituents. The leader of the Bloc Québécois did meet with them, though, and said he backed them fully. Ever loyal to its values and convictions, at least the Bloc is still defending the interests of Quebec and its regions. That is why we introduced this motion condemning the minister's scandalous lack of action regarding our airport.
This motion condemns the contempt and arrogance the government shows for Quebec, the regions of Quebec and my riding. Is this simply the result of an incompetent bureaucracy, without clear political direction, flying by the seat of its pants when it has to make decisions? It is impossible to know because the government refuses any and all meetings with the elected officials of my region.
Even the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities and the Conservatives’ Quebec lieutenant refused to meet with them, on two occasions. On May 26, in response to these repeated refusals, I again put my question to the Minister of Public Safety, to get him finally to take the problems caused by the unfair customs charges at the airport seriously.
Once again, I got an unacceptable and incoherent answer from the minister, suggesting that options were being studied and that the code assigned to the Mont Tremblant International Airport was similar to the code for 200 airports in Canada. He even claimed that his department had acted speedily on this issue. I am still trying to find out what he was talking about and what actions have in fact been taken by his department in this matter. Nothing! There have been nothing but vague replies full of falsehoods.
The Mont Tremblant International Airport is unique in its class. It is an airport used mainly for tourism. It is the only airport that pays customs charges for regular commercial flights in Canada, period.
If the government does not want to contribute to economic development in the Laurentians, that is its political choice; but for the government to impede that development by sticking spokes in the wheels is unacceptable. In the face of this blatant injustice, every politician in Quebec supports what we are calling for, and the three opposition parties in Ottawa supported the motion to resolve this imbroglio.
The current impasse involving the airport is threatening potential contracts with other carriers from Europe and Mexico, which are currently negotiating with the airport authority. The authority finds itself handcuffed and held hostage, caught in a vicious circle. As long as the $1,100 fee is charged every time a plane lands, it will be impossible to sign any new commercial agreements. The airport is unable to bear those costs.
Since the Conservatives came to power over 24 months ago, we have witnessed the serious damage and setbacks the regions of Quebec have suffered, all because of their incompetence and a profound lack of leadership and vision. Yes, sir!
They are so blinded by their ultra-conservative right-wing ideology and their obsession with national security that they are paralyzing the entire machinery of the government. The minister keeps saying that options are being studied, when designating the Mont Tremblant International Airport AOE-50 is obviously the fastest and most effective solution to the problem.
Will the Minister of Public Safety have the courage and the backbone to stand up and finally make a decision that will get us out of this quagmire? Is he finally going to pull his head out of his ideological straitjacket and realize that every region of Canada has its own particular character and that not everybody lives off oil?
My region until recently lived off the forestry industry, and I would note in passing that it has not received the assistance that was expected from the federal government in connection with the crisis in recent years.
It now relies in large part on the tourism and agri-food industries. The Mont Tremblant airport is the cornerstone of what has become essential diversification, given this government’s mismanagement of the forestry crisis.
My final point is that these great politicians with their dubious principles should take careful note of the fact that we will not be abandoning our demands and we will be doing everything possible to remedy the situation.