Mr. Speaker, I will start by thanking the member for Cypress Hills—Grasslands, who, during his speech, gave the House a demonstration of how to strain the limits of relevance. One is compelled to think that he perhaps sought out private tutoring from the member for Winnipeg North, but I am confounded as to why.
On the substance of the matter, I would like to point out, in response to some of the arguments made by the member for Cypress Hills—Grasslands, that this is not just a Montreal issue. For instance, there are people from Toronto who are behind the bill and who signed the petition. One said, “Railway lines act as Berlin walls, separately east and west in Toronto. Given the infrequency of trains, they routinely cross safely after railway fence holes have been cut. Legal crossings would make them even more safe while removing the inconvenience of cycling to an opening only to find it's been closed off by the railway. It would be good if the city could put these crossings on an official map.”
Therefore, there is support in places other than Montreal for this.
We know that illegal crossings mean double the number of deaths and casualties compared to legal crossings.
We are talking about giving power to the minister to make that decision. That would not require the minister to make imprudent decisions. That would not require the minister to make those decisions without consulting stakeholders, including the railway. It would just empower the minister and give some leverage, frankly, to communities that would now have a clear place to go to get decisions on having legal crossings put where they feel they need to be put, in consultation with the railway, and to get it done.
Part of the problem right now is that it is not clear who has the authority to get this job done. In fact, that lack of clarity has been promoted and put into evidence by the government itself during the debate on this bill. Initially it said that the minister already had the power, yet today it seems to be silent on the bill in the face of the New Democrats providing a legal opinion that it is actually quite unclear whether the minister actually has that power. We are seeking clarity. If the government wants to be open and transparent, the cornerstone of openness and transparency, at the end of the day, is clarity.
We want to be clear where the power exists to compel the railway, in certain cases, to create these crossings if they do not already exist. We know that communities are asking for crossings. They have made the case for those crossings, yet they are being frustrated, because at the end of the day, practically speaking, if not legally, although we suspect legally as well, the ultimate decision lies in the hands of the railway. That is not right, because there are going to be times when the economic interests of the railway clash with the safety interests of communities, and it should not be the railway that is the ultimate arbiter in those conflicts of interest.
We see that in other communities as well on similar issues. The reason I raise this is that there is a theme with respect to the government's treatment of the railway. For instance, in my community, there has been a serious issue for the residents of Mission Gardens, who have seen a unilateral change in the staging practices of CN behind their homes since an underpass was built for Plessis Road. That has meant that there is pretty much a straight shot between the Transcona Shops and Symington Yards, so the railway has decided to use that as a place to build trains.
Yes, people lived on a main line of the railway. They were quite conscious of the fact that it would mean there would be through traffic back and forth, and they lived with that quite happily for 30 or 40 years. They are now in the very different situation of the railway slamming cars together, building trains. They are getting cracks in their foundations. Their windows are beginning to break. Pictures are falling off the walls. There are diesel fumes in their homes and there is constant noise, which they never had in 40 years of living in that neighbourhood. It is a very significant change to the way they enjoy their properties. It could mean a significant change to the values of their properties in that neighbourhood.
They have been seeking justice from the railway on these issues and on rail safety issues, which is another speech, such as things going on in the Shops and in Symington Yards and trains being used when the machinists and mechanics who look after those trains are saying that they are not safe.
At the end of the day, all of this ends up coming back to the railway itself, because successive Conservative and Liberal governments have taken the approach that they should be hands-off and let the industry regulate itself.
The fact of the matter is that is failing people when it comes to safety on the railway. It is failing people in my community, who have now had their homes, their life at home, and their health affected by a decision of the community. They are trying to go through the CTA process, but it is frustrating and they are up against an army of corporate lawyers. They are being told, and I think this speaks somewhat to the point that the member for Cypress Hills—Grasslands was making, that they should empower local communities.
Local communities are trying to take on the railway. The fact is they do not have the leverage or the support to be able to get that done. That is part of the real frustration. Part of the motivating spirit behind this bill is not about big government; it is about Canadians being able to use their government to get the leverage they should have over major players in their neighbourhood that decide when traffic is stalled, how much noise is in their neighbourhood, and also, in the case of people in Mission Gardens, damage to their homes.
This bill does take the right approach, because it says that the lines of accountability should be clear. It says that Canadians should be able to organize collectively and ask their government to act on their behalf, and to do it with all the leverage of other Canadians who are experiencing similar issues in communities from coast to coast to coast behind them to get action and to get results, instead of always circling back to the railway and then finding out, no surprise, that the railway is not going to budge an inch. The railway has decided what makes more money for the railway, and what is more convenient for it. It does not particularly have to care about what that means for the community around it.
Now, when it is easy for the railway, sure, it is happy to do some community things. I am not suggesting the railways do not do anything for the community. CN has been a sponsor of a number of good projects in our community, whether it is infrastructure projects or community events. However, when it comes down to these issues that conflict directly with the railways' economic interests, that does not mean they always get to win. It certainly does not mean they should get to be the final arbiter of whether or not they are going to win, because it is a clear conflict of interest.
Whether it is major changes to the staging operations that affect the health and safety of Canadians, whether it is whether or not to install a new grade crossing, the minister already has the power to close or modify grade crossings. The idea that we would add to that power, the power to also require a new one, is not some new institution of big government. It is simply a logical expansion of the powers that already exist for the minister, powers that the minister himself or his representatives at various times have claimed that he already has. We are just saying that we should make that more clear, so that there is no question that these decisions ultimately come back to the minister. When Canadians are seeking justice in their community, they will know who to go to and who has the power to do that and to stand up to the railways when they are not willing to listen.
This is a very reasonable tool to give to the minister. It involves discretion. It does not say that anytime someone puts up their hand and says they would like a legal crossing the minister is required to do it. Of course the minister is going to consult with the railway. However, we hope the minister, in a way that the railway is not required and would not feel the need to consult with the community, is going to feel that obligation. We hope the minister would go out and talk to Canadians who are concerned about the operations of the railway in their community, and be able to make an impartial decision, rather than this kind of “leave it to the railway” attitude.
I know a number of guys who work in the yards and the shops close to home. I have seen some pictures of what goes on in the yards and the shops, and I can say that there is a need for more hands-on oversight of certain kinds of questions, particularly with regard to safety. This is a safety issue we are talking about today. Someone has to step in. This sort of trusting that the railways are always going to do what is in everyone's interest is just not the case.
Anyone who has been in a business is going to know that there are different kinds of conversations that have to be had within a business. There is a role for the business leadership. Their role is to maximize profit for their shareholders. That is their legally mandated role. It is not to optimize safety within communities. They are always looking at the bottom line.
I understand that. That is the way our system is set up. I might think there are problems with that and that would be a debate for another day. However, given the current structure of companies and what they are expected to do, and us knowing that, I think we have an obligation to make sure there are measures taken to have an independent third party with the ultimate authority to make those safety decisions. We are putting those companies in a conflict of interest, between their obligation to maximize return for their shareholders on the one hand and our desire to see Canadian communities as safe as possible on the other. Sometimes that is going to mean the railway forking out some extra cash to put in a crossing, and the consequences it means for its operations, a delay here or there.
If we think that is reasonable to ask of them, then we should have the power to do it. The bill would give us the power to do that through the Minister of Transport. That is why it is a good idea.