Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Timmins—James Bay.
I am pleased to rise in the House to share my support, along with so many of my colleagues in the NDP, for Bill S-4, An Act to amend the Railway Safety Act and to make consequential amendments to the Canada Transportation Act.
This bill seeks to amend the Railway Safety Act in order to improve the Department of Transport's oversight capacity by requiring that railway companies obtain a safety–based railway operating certificate indicating compliance with regulatory requirements.
The bill strengthens the department's enforcement powers by introducing administrative monetary penalties and increasing fines.
The bill also enhances the role of safety management systems by providing for the identification of an executive who is legally responsible for safety and for protecting railway company employees who voice serious safety concerns against reprisals.
The bill also clarifies the authority and responsibilities of the Department of Transport with respect to railway matters, expands regulation-making powers, and clarifies the process for rule making by railway companies.
As my NDP colleagues have said, it is clearly a positive and long-awaited bill. I know that in the last Parliament, my NDP colleagues, the critics and those who are very familiar with the railway industry file fought hard not only to improve safety, but to urge the government to act in order to develop a safer rail transportation system for all Canadians.
As I noted, we in the NDP support the bill, but we also wish these changes had been implemented before and that there was a real understanding of the sense of urgency to ensure rail safety in our country.
In discussing the well-being of rail transport, the safety aspect is critical and we must act on it, but that is only one side of the coin. While we have seen the government hesitate and delay when it comes to making these critical implementations, it has actually acted in a way that serves to weaken our rail system.
VIA Rail funding is being cut by almost $200 million, as indicated in the last budget, something that I and my colleagues in the NDP believe is a crying shame. We all know how critical rail transport is to our country, to ensure our urban areas and our rural communities stay connected. We know how critical the maintenance of the rail line is when it comes to not just transporting people but also goods across our country. As we see VIA Rail, an institution that belong to Canadians, an institution we are proud of, receive such major cuts in funding, the only thing we can conclude is there will be a reduction in both services and quality of services.
This is not the first time this has happened. Unfortunately, in recent decades federal governments, the Liberal government previously, and now the Conservative government, have turned a blind eye to rail service in Canada. I know this well from the region of the country that I come from, having been born and raised in Thompson, Manitoba. Many people notice that on VIA Rail map the only line that goes straight north in the west is the one that reaches up to Churchill, and it goes through my hometown of Thompson.
We know that years ago, when the Liberals privatized the line, it had already needed repair for some time. Of course, we were hoping the government would do the right thing and invest our own taxpayers' money to fix such a critical link between our communities. In fact, it chose to privatize it, sell it out to an American company, a company that has taken far too long to make the kinds of commitments to maintenance required on the track.
There have been some signs of hope with respect to the work of this company. Federal and provincial partnerships have supported the work along the way. At the end of the day, the fact that the government privatized this line leaves it out of our hands. What that essentially means is a reduction in the quality and dependability of service for people in a part of the country who do not have more choices than to use the rail service.
I am honoured to represent people who live and work on the bay line in communities like Ilford, Thicket Portage, Pikwitonei, War Lake First Nation, which are between Thompson and Gillam, and on to Churchill, and actually have no all-weather roads. People in these four communities I just mentioned depend entirely on the rail service for getting back and forth to medical appointments, making sure they have foods coming into their communities and making sure they can bring in materials to build homes and infrastructure in their communities.
This is no small issue. This is the only link for these communities. It is deeply disturbing to see the way in which the government has turned its attention away from communities, not just in my riding but in rural Canada in general, when it comes to rail service.
I would like to note there are a number of other communities I represent in northern Manitoba that are also isolated. I have heard from many people, whether they are in Oxford House, Garden Hill or Berens River. I have heard from elders who know what it was like for communities that were isolated to receive the rail line. These communities that are still isolated are asking what some of the options are, so they can have year-round sustainable transportation, something like a rail service.
I have to say that in many cases they have lost hope, given the government's reluctance to come to a solution with respect to the needs they have for transportation. Fortunately, we have a provincial government that has stepped in and made a real commitment in partnering, especially with the southern first nations for the time being, in building an all-weather road. However, the same cannot be said for the federal government in building sustainable transportation. Fundamentally, as the federal Conservative government pulls away from rail transportation in rural Canada, it is pulling away from the quality of life rural Canadians ought to have.
When we speak of something like VIA, community owned railways or producer cars that communities may own as well, these are things that belong to all of us. What we are saying is the federal government should be there to work with communities, our urban centres and everybody around the table to ensure we have a dependable rail service, quality rail service and safe rail service.
I would like to point out that whether it is on its actions on the Wheat Board or its continued effort to cut away from the basic services rural Canadians need, the government is turning its back on rural Canadians, many Canadians who see rail as the way to the future.
I would say in closing that I am proud of the work our party does to stand up for not just rail safety but rail service in general. I hope we can send the message loud and clear that when it comes to representing rural Canada and Canadians who believe in rail service, we in the NDP are the ones doing it.