Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Motion No. 550 put forward by the member for Sydney—Victoria.
I find it rather interesting that we are talking about a motion that deals with what we ought to have done, but it does not actually include anything that says how we should have done it. Be that as it may, it would have been helpful if the member had actually put in some of the amendments we tried to get through the agriculture committee that talked to how to make the system work, because ultimately, it is about trying to make the system work.
I do applaud the member on his efforts at least to hold the government to account to some degree, but it would have been nice if it actually had some real teeth in it. Something we had talked about was that it should have the fines that were there in the first place.
If we had done that, perhaps it would have been doing something rather than what the government eventually did in a sort of clandestine way when they literally changed the numbers. What was supposed to be a fine per incident turned out to be a fine per week, which I found rather unusual and slightly disheartening.
We helped the government with the legislation. I know that the other side has a hard time believing we help with these things, but when it comes to Bill C-30, we did help with that legislation. We tried to move it along swiftly, because we understood the plight of prairie farmers coming out of the winter of 2013. It literally was a bumper crop. It was stuck on the Prairies, because according to the railroaders, it was too cold for them to move grain. The rail system seems to not work in a Canadian winter. It was almost as if somebody had brought some folks up from Florida, with no offence to the good folks from Florida, and transplanted them into Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba in the middle of winter, and they did not know what to do because it was cold. The railroaders decided that was an excuse for them not to do what we felt they ought to be doing.
Unfortunately, the folks who suffered the most were the farmers. Ultimately what we saw was the price for them was not as lucrative as it may have been if the grain had actually been moving.
This speaks to the whole sense of how the system operates and how it should operate, and who is responsible to make sure it does operate. Clearly, it was not operating.
Many times we asked the minister in the House why over 40 ships were sitting in the port of Vancouver waiting for grain that was stuck on the Prairies. It was costing literally thousands of dollars a day.
The port manager at the port of Vancouver said that they were like car jockeys, except the problem is they were working with big ships. They are brought out of anchor, put at the dock, and when they find out there is no grain being delivered, the ship has to be moved off the dock because another one wants to come in. He said that every time an anchor is pulled up and a vessel comes in, it is a $10,000 move. That is a heck of a lot more money than someone who jockeys cars for a living, which might be $10.
Those were issues facing the farmers. That cost ends up going back through the system, and it is the farmers who pay, because they get less for their grain. At a time when they should have been getting a good price, in fact one might say they should have been getting a great price, they were getting less because the system was not working.
There are farmers who fill their own hopper cars, what the trade calls producer cars, which is simply a small railroad somewhere owned by a group of farmers who got into a co-op and decided to pool their resources. They get the short-line railroad and bring the cars down to the main line. When they put in orders for producer cars, they were not seeing any. They were being told that they should just truck their grain to an elevator. The problem was the elevators were full. The elevators were saying not to truck it to them because they had no space.
It ends up being stored. Many farmers had contracts. The government was always good about talking about forward contracts, that if they were forwarded out, they could make some money. The problem was they had forward contracts, but that time would come and go, and they could not move anything, because there was no room in the elevator. The elevators were still full because the railroaders were not getting an opportunity to move the grain, because of the cold winter, they say.
Ultimately, the folks who paid in all of this were indeed the farmers on the prairies.
We saw the order in council come through, and then Bill C-30 came forward. We tried to work with that. We tried to push some amendments on what the fines should be like. We actually agreed with Premier Brad Wall. We thought we should double the fine. The government proposed $100,000. We thought it should be $200,000. We actually agreed with the Premier of Saskatchewan. Many people out there would probably not believe that we would agree with Premier Wall on that particular issue, but we did.
We also pushed forward a number of amendments on how we could have some sort of transparency in the system so that farmers could follow whether the ship was in port, whether the grain was moving, where it was stuck, what the final price was, and why the farmers got a particular price when they sold to the elevators.
Many of us in the agricultural field know that there is a set price for grain travelling west to the port of Vancouver. The railroads charge a set price, so it is easy for farmers to calculate if they know the final price at the port destination. Farmers can calculate how much it cost to send it to the elevator, how much it cost for the elevation of it, and how much it cost to transport it.
Some reports, one of which came from a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said that the farmers were basically losing $160 per tonne because of the way the system had plugged up. That being the case, the opportunity for farmers to take a bumper crop and turn it into a bumper financial crop was wasted because of what happened with the railroads.
The motion talks about making sure that this does not happen again, but what we need to see is that the government makes sure it does not happen again. We need a system of fair rail and a system that allows those who ship to make the railroads accountable.
I talked about agreeing with Mr. Wall, but I suggested in an amendment at committee that we should have open rail. Two companies in this country do not want open rail, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, which I find ironic, because they do not mind asking the United States for open rail. They do not want to see competition. We actually think that if we had competition in the system, if we had transparency in the system, like they do in the U.S., where they can actually tell what the grain price is at the port of Seattle, farmers would know if they were not getting a fair price. It would give them more leverage and more information, and information in the marketplace is important when they make those final decisions to sell now or sell later or to contract it. Ultimately, we have seen a system that does not function well for farmers.
Another amendment we pushed was to make sure that now that we have to move a million tonnes, it will be fairly distributed. What we saw justified our fears. The railroads figured out how to turn it around fast. Basically they chose the elevators closest to the western port of Vancouver, and the rest, who were further east, suffered.
Many of us who have kids or grandkids who like Cheerios will remember that the Cheerios factory was going to shut down. Why did that happen? It was because the oat farmers in this country supply all the oats needed in the United States to make Cheerios. However, there were no trains moving north-south. They tried to take the shortest route back and forth through the western corridor and did not run north-south at all.
I spoke to an oat farmer not long ago. He said that there is still an issue trying to get trains to come and serve them. Clearly this is a government that did not actually get the job done, even though we had Bill C-30. We suggested that they do not sunset the clauses in it. The Conservatives decided that they would sunset the clauses in it.
I would say to the government that if it is to do a rail review, it should not worry about the carrot; it should get out the big stick. If it is to bargain with two railroads, they will bring big sticks, and if the government does not bring a big stick, it will lose.
Then again, there will be an election, and by that time, we will have the big stick, when we sit over there. We will make sure that the railroads deliver service to farmers across the prairies and that they get the service they deserve.