Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to join my colleagues in speaking to Bill C-52.
Because I represent a rural region, this issue is very important to me and my constituents. I thank my colleagues who spoke before me and who have done a good job of highlighting these very important aspects.
If the bill is enacted as it now stands, it will require a railway company, on a shipper’s request, to make the shipper an offer to enter into a contract respecting the manner in which the railway company must fulfill its service obligations to the shipper.
Bill C-52 also provides for the creation of an arbitration process to establish the terms of such a contract, if the railway company and the shipper are unable to agree on a fair and equitable agreement after lengthy negotiation.
The bill comes in response to numerous pleas from shippers all over Canada and the hard work and unflagging efforts of my colleague from Trinity—Spadina, whom I would also like to congratulate.
After years of discussion, through both the panel of experts and consultations with stakeholders, and after my colleague’s bill was introduced last year, the Conservatives realized they had a duty to present this bill, at last. It is an attempt to respond to the complaints from rail shipping services customers who are being offered poor service by the biggest companies, which have a virtual monopoly over the market.
It is really high time that this government examined the problems in this situation, because the difficulties experienced by shippers everywhere in Canada are quite real and have a direct impact on the economy, particularly in rural regions.
In Canada, as several of my colleagues have said already, over 70% of freight is shipped by rail. However, a study of rail shipping services shows that 80% of shippers are dissatisfied with the services they receive. This is probably because 80% of the commitments the big companies made to them were not honoured. Clearly there is a problem and it is time for the government to take action.
Here we have the rough outline of a bill; there is still much to be done.
At present, the situation is hard on the shippers. Rail freight customers have trouble obtaining fair and reliable service. Some customers cannot even obtain contracts with a major railway. Some with contracts have other difficulties, such as serious delays, the insufficient number of railcars available to transport all the goods their industry requires, or the countless interruptions in service that decrease their profits and may eventually result in lost jobs.
The fact that shippers often do not have a choice of carrier is also a serious problem. They have access to CN or CP, but not always to both. Those who have a choice between the two companies still have to pay too much, especially small businesses in rural ridings. Such small businesses often are just getting by and then have to pay these fees. That makes it very hard for them.
The situation I have described affects many sectors of the economy, including natural resources, agriculture and forestry. To a large extent, these industries produce goods for export, but they are at a great disadvantage because of the poor quality of the rail services they depend on.
The cost of services, the major gaps in the rail network and the way the system operates are all detrimental to Canada's overall competitive position on the world's markets, in addition to causing job losses and costing our economy hundreds of millions of dollars.
The most seriously affected industries are found mainly in the rural areas of the Canadian west, and in British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario. It is a widespread problem and will affect thousands of people across the country. They need the government to act quickly and they need legislation that goes further than Bill C-52 does currently.
I think of my riding, Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier, where a number of large businesses employ thousands of people all over the area. Although they are located far from the major urban centres, they are served by rail lines—for freight, at least.
I think of the many small and medium-sized businesses all across my riding, and some large firms as well, such as Alcoa in Deschambault-Grondines, Ciment Québec in Saint-Basile or Graymont in Saint-Marc-des-Carrières.
At one time, the Bowater plant in Donnacona was served by a rail freight line. Now, unfortunately, the business has shut down. It has declared bankruptcy and limited the former workers' access to pensions. That is another matter we can debate at another time, I hope.
As I said, these businesses represent a large part of my riding's economic activity. They need good-quality, reliable rail services in order to plan their freight shipments, to be efficient, to grow and to contribute to economic growth and development in the region.
I also think about the farmers who depend on railways to ship their produce all across the country. I think about the forestry industry. which has been such an important part of the economy throughout the region, particularly in Saint-Raymond de Portneuf, Sainte-Brigitte-de-Laval, Lac Beauport and Stoneham-et-Tewkesbury. This industry has been neglected by the government and, on top of that, suffers from the problems affecting the railway network.
As I mentioned, Bill C-52 is a step in the right direction. It has some good elements in it. This is why I will be supporting it at second reading, so it will be sent to committee where it can be considered and improved.
Among other things, some consideration must be given to the safeguards that Bill C-52 sets out. These safeguards will not cover existing contracts between shippers and railways, which will leave many clients with no recourse. A few shippers will be able to benefit from certain safeguards when they negotiate their new contracts, but all the others that have already signed contracts with the big companies will have to endure the unfair treatment that already exists. They will have very few options, just the very limited ones available now.
In addition, the arbitration process set out in Bill C-52 must also be given further consideration. The process is very limited and is likely to be prohibitively expensive for the shippers. They will not necessarily be able to go all the way to the end of the process and defend themselves against big corporations, which often have many more resources. This aspect of the bill must therefore be re-examined.
Another troubling element is the fact that Bill C-52 totally ignores the issue of the high rates that shippers are charged by transportation companies. This has been one of the most important demands by shippers for years now. As I mentioned, they have to deal with a virtual monopoly, and sometimes even with a real monopoly because they have no options, aside from one of the two main railway companies in their area. Small shippers and small companies that need railway services have practically no bargaining power. They have to accept the rates they are charged without being able to fight back against the railways. This issue has been ignored by this government for many years now. It is still ignored in the bill that is before us today at second reading. I hope the Conservatives will support the amendments that the NDP will be putting forward, because it is high time that action was taken.
Canada’s trade deficit is increasing. If I am not mistaken, it was $2 billion in November. We are losing ground on international markets, but the Conservatives continue to drag their feet when it comes to rail transportation. We need to go beyond Bill C-52. We need to protect our shippers, and we must also provide our country with a genuine nation-wide strategy for rail transportation, both for passenger and for freight transportation.
In my riding, only one municipality has rail service: the municipality of Rivière-à-Pierre. It is located in the northwestern corner of the riding, on the rail line that goes to Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean. These trains provide services primarily to hunters who go out into the wild and enjoy nature up there. There are very few passengers. The government must take action.
Let us start with Bill C-52, but let us go further and develop a real strategy for the railways.