Mr. Speaker, the House of Commons is being called on today to approve or reject a government motion to amend the Constitution of Canada under section 43.
This section enables the House of Commons and a particular province to amend the Constitution on various points which, in my opinion, are very diversified and wide-ranging. It would have been interesting if the Canadian government and the provinces had found enabling procedures for Quebec when it wanted to endorse the 1982 Constitution Act through the Meech Lake Accord, in order to become an equal partner.
During this speech, if I may, I would like to go back to the Constitution, because that is what we are dealing with here, despite the fact that the Prime Minister does not want to talk about it any more. I would now like to raise some issues relating to Bill C-110, that passed third reading in September 1993.
Some Islanders have been worried about the fixed or mobile link with Canada's mainland for many years, ever since Prince Edward Island joined Confederation. Others prefer to keep the island as it is and to lead quiet lives in the country of their ancestors.
Our fellow citizens in Prince Edward Island wanted a link with the mainland so badly that they decided a few years ago to settle this issue in a plebiscite. This plebiscite, held in January 1988, showed that a majority favoured the establishment of a fixed link between the Island and the mainland.
No one in the government or the Official Opposition is against the will of the population. But let us not forget that this will is as valid for the people of Prince Edward Island as it is for those living on Vancouver Island, the Magdalen Islands and even Newfoundland, if bridge technology allowed it.
Unfortunately, there are prerequisites to the implementation and development of megaprojects. Allow me to point out five prerequisites I regard as essential. First, the projects must be carried out legally; second, we must have the necessary financial resources; third, the environment must be protected; fourth, this megaproject must benefit the population and help to create jobs; finally, we must ensure that all Canadian citizens can be treated the same way.
I would like to see if the conditions I just listed are met by this project.
As far as legality is concerned, as I was saying at the beginning of my speech, part of the population, in a plebiscite, authorized the Prince Edward Island provincial government to go ahead with the project. But the other side, brought together in the Friends of the Island Coalition, strongly objected to this project for different reasons. First, the dangers for the lobster and scallop fishery, migratory birds, the environment and the Islanders' tranquillity.
We must not dismiss this group which opposes this project. It applied to the Federal Court, which issued an order requiring the Minister of Public Works to conduct an environmental assessment pursuant to section 12 of the Order in Council in relation to the developer's detailed construction plan, before making any final decisions which may have irreversible environmental consequences.
On April 22, 1993, the specific environmental assessment prepared by Jacques Whitford Environment Consultants for Strait Crossing Inc., at Ottawa's request, was presented.
Although this study shows that this project is not harmful to the environment, as we agree, the Friends of the Island do not accept the decision and have appealed. The Court of Appeal upheld the lower court's decision, which apparently means that the project is now legal, but we must raise questions about its morality. The opponents will watch everything the developers do as they carry out the project.
Now let us talk about the financial resources. A few weeks ago, Canada's national debt passed the $500 billion mark, not counting provincial and municipal debt. I will be very brief in my financial evaluation. The federal government now pays Marine Atlantic around $21 million a year for the cost of the ferry service between Prince Edward Island and the mainland. The ferry service is adequate and fits in with the local environment very well.
Several years ago, the federal government announced that it was considering building a fixed link under one main condition: that the costs not exceed the price of the ferry service for the same period. Yet, the federal government is about to give to the private sector an annual subsidy of $42 million, in 1992 dollars, for the construction and management of the bridge, over a period of 35 years. This represents close to $1.47 billion, in constant dollars, for the whole duration of the contract. From that angle, no one can claim that the fixed link project is self-financing. Can Canada afford to spend $21 million a year, this on top of what it is already paying for the ferry service?
We are not opposed to the principle that Prince Edward Island is entitled to a ferry service subsidized by all Canadian taxpayers. In fact, this commitment greatly facilitated things when PEI joined Confederation; it was an historic constitutional compromise.
We do not oppose the fact that the federal government continues to fully respect this constitutional right, although I must point out that this same government was not as generous in the past when dealing with Quebec's historic constitutional rights. Remember what Mr. Trudeau did in 1982. It is because of episodes like this one that Quebec is irreversibly headed for sovereignty.
Moving on to environmental concerns, in spite of all the studies conducted and the approval obtained from both the trial and appellate divisions of the Federal Court, there is no question that during construction and most likely afterward, the lobster and scallop fisheries will be disrupted because of the underwater movements resulting from the construction of a fixed link. The proof is that plans have been made to set aside $10 million every year to compensate the 240 fishermen affected by the construction of the bridge. We are only talking here about the construction phase. What will happen to the fishery once the fixed link is in operation? Will the government have to continue paying the $10 million in compensation? Are the fishermen supposed to rely on unemployment insurance to get by? Will they be joining the growing ranks of unemployed fishermen throughout the Maritimes and Quebec?
I would now like to examine the issue of job creation and the benefits to be derived from this megaproject by the residents of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. During the construction phase, more than $1 billion will be invested and normally, this should result in the creation of temporary jobs and bring about some semblance of prosperity.
Initially, the project backer will have to bring in workers from across North America. This is the case with of all megaprojects. Since this is a pan-Canadian venture, we are counting on Quebec construction workers to figure prominently in bridge construction activities. Quebec workers-and there are many of them in my riding of Beauport-Montmorency-Orléans-are known for their skills and willingness to work on megaprojects. Need we remind people that Quebecers worked on some of the largest hydroelectric projects in North America, if not the entire world. I am confident that initially, the unemployment rates in both provinces affected will decline substantially. However, the question we need to ask is this: Does the Government of Canada
and do the residents of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick want temporary jobs?
The municipal infrastructure program provides for the creation of temporary jobs across Canada, including the two provinces just mentioned, the aim being to get the economy going again. However, we cannot continue to let people dream, and then leave them to fend for themselves when the temporary jobs end. Creating temporary jobs causes no great harm, but eliminating permanent jobs is downright criminal.
Currently Marine Atlantic employs 420 persons on a permanent basis. These jobs have been around since 1917. Upon completion of the bridge over the Northumberland Strait, there will be a net loss of 360 permanent jobs. The company will need only 60 people to operate the bridge. Of course this does not include all the jobs lost in the shipyards in the Maritimes and Quebec, including MIL Davie in Lauzon, which builds and repairs the ferries that connect Prince Edward Island with the continent. What are we going to do with these 360 people? Negotiate allowances? Invest in skills upgrading and relocation allowances, if necessary? That is a problem we will have to consider when we vote on this motion.
I mentioned the loss of 360 jobs, but I did not mention the potential loss to the communities in Borden and Cape Tormentine which will see a significant drop in economic activity. A special development fund of up to $20 million will be created to help them. However, $20 million can provide relief only for a limited period of time. Then what will happen to these people? And this amount adds to government spending.
A final criterion: fair treatment of all Canadians. As I see it, we have a mandate to be fair to the people we represent. Although the construction of this fixed link is financed partly by the private sector, the Government of Canada is committed to paying an annual contribution of $41.9 million in 1992 dollars, indexed for a period of 35 years, which, as I mentioned before, works out to a total of $1.47 billion.
This subsidy enabled Strait Crossing Finance Inc. to obtain financing through a private bond issue worth $660 million. The bonds have a triple-A rating, the best guarantee that can be given to the banks. Furthermore, the government agrees not to retain from the subsidy money owing from debtor companies in the case of tax default, for instance, so that potential investors enjoy the same guarantees they would have in the case of government bonds.
Once again, I would like hon. members to remember when they vote on this motion, that we were sent here by our constituents to ensure all citizens are treated fairly. If other provinces have a similar request, are we in a position to give them the same treatment? We do not have to amend the Constitution to have an ultra high speed train in the Quebec-Windsor corridor. One could say the same about giving the Magdalen Islands a new ferry from MIL Davie Shipyards in Lévis. When these items are tabled in the House, we should be as open-minded as we are today about the bridge between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, and our decisions should always be based on the five principles I just described.
I want to say that this House should always be very circumspect when deciding how taxpayers' money will be spent. I am convinced that partisan considerations are inappropriate when discussing projects that will be part of our legacy to future generations.
As the Official Leader of the Opposition said this morning, the House of Commons should take into account the democratic choices made by people in a plebiscite or a referendum.
In concluding, I would like to say the Bloc Quebecois is always glad to talk about the Constitution.