Mr. Speaker, I want to begin by acknowledging that I am here tonight on the traditional territory of the WSANEC nation with respect and gratitude.
I also would like to split my time with the hon. leader of the Green Party of Canada, Annamie Paul, but I cannot because she is not elected yet, but she will be. I want to share that she comes from a strong union family.
We had our caucus meeting and discussed how we all feel, the three of us who are elected and the ones who will be elected later, about what we think about this back-to-work legislation. We will never support back-to-work legislation, never.
I am honoured to speak and take the time to stand clearly and firmly on the side of the longshoremen of the Port of Montreal.
Today is a day of mourning, when we remember those killed, injured or sickened on the job. This year, with this awful pandemic, our thoughts are with front-line workers who have done their jobs to protect our lives. We are so grateful to them.
How ironic that we should be marking this deeply sad and serious day in the House of Commons by debating special legislation to force longshoremen back to work with zero regard for their rights, including their right to strike. The right to strike is a constitutional right, yet here we are on this day of mourning, violating their fundamental right. To me, this is a supremely sad occasion.
I would like to tell a personal story. Thirty-seven years ago, I was working as a lawyer in Halifax, representing unions. Specifically, I worked for the Port of Halifax longshoremen. This might be hard to believe, but back then, the employer was the very same Maritime Employers Association. I am old now, but I will never forget my experiences with that group of longshoremen, who are still dear to me.
This is a complicated story, so I am going to tell it in English. There had been an accident at sea. The ship was tossed about in a big storm and it came to port all right, but its cargo was badly smashed. Everywhere one looked there was just a mess. The Maritime Employers Association, same employer, sent the workers in to clean up the ship. The collective agreement had said that if people are in a dangerous or hazardous work situation, they had to be paid time and a half. It also said the employer had the responsibility to provide protective equipment. Oh, no, not these guys. They did not bother providing any.
By the way, the Port of Halifax has a different employer association now, but this was about 1984 and it was the Maritime Employers Association. It was the longshoremen of Halifax. They sent them on board the ship to clean it up. In the hold there was raspberry jam that was smashed, a lot of Mumm champagne that was smashed, and they had a commercial chemical that is known for being hygroscopic. In other words, it absorbs moisture; that is one of its commercial benefits. I think it was potassium hydroxide, my memory may be faulty on that. Because this stuff in the hold was so hygroscopic, it absorbed all the moisture around it and became very caustic and toxic in an enclosed working space where my friends, I loved these guys, they were sent down there to clean up the hold.
What happened was that the reaction of the chemicals caused it to be really hot on their feet, through their boots. This will of course strike all of us here tonight at this late hour as an extraordinary tragedy, but it was so hot on their feet that they actually just smashed what bottles of Mumm that were not smashed already to pour the champagne on their feet to try to relieve the heat they were feeling. It was just awful. It was awful working conditions. They were not given any masks, so they were having trouble breathing and their feet were getting hot, and everything about the working conditions was appalling.
They worked in these conditions until the Environment Canada person showed up, who was in charge of accidents and toxic chemicals. He showed up appropriately dressed in full-on haz-mat, full-on moon suit, but the employers kept telling the guys to keep working in these conditions.
Fast-forward, we got into arbitration over this because the employers refused to pay what they were obliged to pay under the collective agreement. I will never forget the lawyer from the other side. I will spare mentioning his name because he has passed away and why bring abuse to him at this point; God rest his soul. The lawyer actually laughed at the workers during our arbitration. He said, “What, they need protection from raspberry jam?” Then I called my expert witness, Luke Tripp, the head of the Environment Canada contaminants program at the port at that point, and he laid out clearly, exactly how hazardous that was. We won that arbitration, hands down.
I have not forgotten my seething hatred for the Maritime Employers Association, I am sorry to say. Now it is many years later. They are all different people. They have probably all changed their tune. However, in this conflict I have no doubt where my heart lies. I cannot believe that we are in this situation where workers are being treated like this in 2021, that they would be provoked into this situation with so many arbitrary unilateral actions by the employers. It is really very distressing to imagine that we are passing legislation to force the wronged party back to work, and not standing up with the union.
We at the Green Party stand in solidarity with the Syndicat des débardeurs, and I want to say out loud, “So-so-so-solidarity! So-so-so-solidarity!"
Today, the longshoremen at the Port of Montreal are the victims of the employer's malevolent strategy. All the trials and tribulations the union has had with the employer are just awful. We will be voting on special legislation under a closure motion to force the longshoremen to go back to work without the protection of their constitutional right to strike.
I am very glad that in a life of lots of different kinds of jobs I had the chance to work in union-side labour law. However, I am overwhelmed by how many times this happens, and the same point was made by the hon. member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie. For those of elected in 2011, and I am just coming up to my 10th anniversary this Sunday, one of the first things we had was back-to-work legislation for CUPW, Canada Post workers, being forced back to work. Jack Layton led us in three days of filibuster to try to stop that from happening, and we were all the time hoping that there were some negotiations happening. That should be a rare instance; it is becoming all too common.
I do agree with my friend from Nanaimo—Ladysmith that it threatens to become not just a pattern but normal; it threatens to become a way of fundamentally undermining the rights of collective agreements and of ignoring the fact that we can get to negotiated solutions. I know it is tough. I have nothing but regard and affection for my friend, the Minister of Labour, but this is a terrible mistake.
We should not be doing this, because the employer clearly knew that it could provoke and make unilateral decisions that violated the collective agreement that it was still honouring. It has been a number of years without a collective agreement, but both sides were honouring it. Despite the strike last year, they have been working hard to keep the goods moving. That is a key point. The union has been working hard to keep goods being delivered. It has been trying. We know that on March 17, when the employer said the union was not bargaining in good faith, the mediator could not say that. The mediator said it was premature to make that conclusion.
Therefore, who was not acting in good faith? It was the same guys who sent the Halifax longshoremen into the toxic hold of a ship to clean up the mess and laughed at them. Everyone can see that I have not quite gotten over it. This is not a moment to force the longshoremen back to work. This is a moment to have someone pick up the phone and tell the Maritime Employers Association that this is not acceptable, that it provoked this and the government is not going to back it up, and that the government is going to make sure it moves heaven and earth to move those goods to other ports and find workarounds.
We are not a country that is known for being landlocked; we are known for having ports. It is not going to be easy if we let the strike go. It would not be easy to find a good berth for every ship heading into that port, but we have many more options than they did in the Suez Canal. We have ports in Quebec, ports in Halifax, ports in Saint John. We have ports on our east coast and ports on our west coast. Surely to God, there was a better solution than this.
I lament it deeply. I wish, in my heart of hearts, that we had not come to the place we are tonight. I know in Ottawa it is well after midnight and here in British Columbia it is getting on in time, but this should not have happened on April 28. This deepens the offence, deepens the damage and deepens what it means to workers across this country. I agree entirely with the union's press release that this action of back-to-work legislation strikes at the heart of collective bargaining and hurts every worker across this country.
Make no mistake about it. A country that does not have a strong trade union movement is a country that lacks in social justice, that loses ground on the very things we take for granted: that children do not go to work in factories, that there is such a thing as time off, that there is such a thing as a reasonable work-life balance. These are some of the conditions that the longshoremen were working so hard for.
I just want to say that I deeply regret the special legislation being passed on closure this evening. It is a bad decision by our government that goes against workers' rights, against unions' rights and against the Port of Montreal workers.
I want to say to all the longshoremen at the Port of Montreal that I am sorry, and I ask them to forgive us for not being able to stop our government from making this decision.