Madam Speaker, this is an important issue. Canada's railways play an important part in our nation, not only for their value of moving goods and people, but as part of our cultural identity.
We all know the story of the last spike and how the government worked with the Canadian Pacific Railway to build our first transcontinental railroad in 1885. That silver spike was driven into the railbed in Craigellachie, just a few kilometres west of my riding of Kootenay—Columbia. At that time, rail was the most efficient way to transport goods and people from one end of the country to the other. That is why the government played an important role in funding and building the railway.
Sir John A. Macdonald's government was brought down due to his accepting bribes from CPR for helping with the railway, and he was re-elected in part due to his promise to complete the railway. After it was completed, it became popular to take the train across the country to see its sights, staying at many of the fantastic hotels that the rail company built to house wealthy guests, including Glacier Hotel in my riding.
At that time, safety may not have been as important as it is today. It is said that Agnes Macdonald, wife of then Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, was so thrilled with the sight of the mountains that she road the train's cowcatcher all the way through. That must have been a “mooving” experience, for sure.
Today we have a very different situation. The railroads are privately owned, but responsibility for their safety lies with the Government of Canada and the federal Department of Transport. However, that responsibility is currently one way. The government can order a railway to close or alter a crossing, but it cannot order the railway to create one, and that is what this legislation is about.
Bill C-322 would grant the Minister of Transport the powers to require the construction of crossings on a rail line. Why is this important? It is important because the situation right now is untenable. Canadians, including individuals and businesses, have demonstrated that they sometimes have legitimate requirements to cross railways at locations other than currently regulated road crossings. However, the rail companies refuse to allow the crossings and they refuse to make them safe.
This is especially true where rail lines run along rivers and lakes. In order to reach the waterway, people are sometimes given the choice between taking an extremely long detour or crossing the tracks illegally and unsafely. In my own riding of Kootenay—Columbia, we have a situation like this. The Kicking Horse River is an offshoot of the mighty Columbia River. It gets its colourful name from an incident in 1858, when Dr. James Hector, a member of the Palliser expedition that was exploring the area, was kicked and knocked out by a horse while trying to lead it across the fast-moving water.
Whitewater rafting in the Kicking Horse River outside of Golden, B.C., is some of the best in the world. Every summer, as many as 40,000 people, assisted by a number of successful companies, load onto rafts to challenge the rapids. The sport brings valuable ecotourism dollars into Golden and provides dozens of jobs, particularly for our youth. To get to the water, rafting companies carefully lead groups across the railway tracks to the lower canyon. They have been doing so for over 40 years without a single accident. Last year, CPR told them that their activity was illegal and stopped rafters from crossing the tracks, citing safety.
I will read to the House a statement from CP issued in early June 2016: “CP cannot support rafters accessing the Kicking Horse River at this location...as it poses a significant risk to their own safety as well as the safety of CP crews and the freight they are transporting.” Subsequently CP put up a metal gate barricading the crossing, and threatened to charge anyone who “trespassed”, their word, to get to the river.
Let me repeat: rafters have been crossing the tracks there for 40 years without a single accident, and now millions of dollars are potentially being lost to this rural seasonal economy because the company has decided not to create a safe crossing.
Last summer, two companies began helicoptering people across this newly closed access, adding hundreds of dollars to the cost of family rafting vacations. There was nothing that the federal government or provincial government could do about that, until now. Bill C-322 would allow the minister to order CP and other railways to create safe crossings in special situations like this. If rail companies are concerned about safety, the solution is not to ban crossings but rather to make them safe.
Now, one may wonder why CP would not create a safe crossing to allow access to the Kicking Horse River. Initially it said it would—but only if the federal or provincial government paid for it. That is right. This company, which earned over $6 billion in 2014 and made a profit of almost $540 million in the first quarter of 2016, said the taxpayers should be on the hook for it to build a crossing over its own tracks. This is unacceptable, and it is worrisome.
Level crossings must be built in strategic locations so that pedestrians, cyclists, and even whitewater rafters can move around safely. The improvement of active transportation and the mobility of people are important priorities across Canada. It should be a no-brainer for every member of the House to support this legislation.
Unfortunately, the government is hiding behind obsolete regulations that prevent the minister from ordering the construction of new crossings, while he already has the power to order them closed. The government seems to be unwilling to take on the responsibility to give Canadians freedom of movement, to save Canadian lives, to force some companies to act in a way that favours small communities, to provide safe access to Canada's rivers and lakes across railroad tracks, which surely should be a fundamental right for every Canadian.
I do not want to encourage anyone to illegally cross railway tracks. That is what government inaction would have people do. We want to make sure such crossings are legal and safe where they are needed.
Across Canada, unregulated crossings cause twice as many accidents and fatalities as regulated crossings, and in some places hundreds of people cross railway tracks every morning. Of course, decades ago, kids in Saskatchewan would walk the railroad tracks to get to school. That may happen to some degree today as well.
By one count, on May 15, 2012, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., 289 pedestrians and 81 cyclists crossed the railway right-of-way in Mile End between Saint-Dominique and Henri-Julien streets in Montreal. Every one of these Canadians could have been fined a minimum of $287 under the Railway Safety Act. Under current laws, these were trespassers, and what they were doing is dangerous.
The lack of safe crossings jeopardizes public safety and causes mobility issues in our communities. New Democrats have introduced this bill because we want to improve security for all Canadians, whether they are walking, cycling, driving, whitewater rafting, or just trying to access rivers and lakes near their homes.
Who else is supporting this legislation? There have been a number of groups, of course. They include whitewater rafters in British Columbia, the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, BC Healthy Living Alliance, Saskatoon Cycles, Canada Bikes, Citizens for Safe Cycling, Walk Toronto, Cycle Toronto, Ontario By Bike, Jane's Walk, Vélo Québec, Piétons Québec, the Outremont Pedestrians and Cyclists Association, and a variety of municipalities, cities, and businesses.
I invite members to join me in supporting this legislation, which simply gives the transport minister powers to create safe crossings where they do not already exist. It is in the interest of communities, in the interest of Canadians, and in the interest of safety.