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Senator Plett Speaks on the Message Received by the Senate from the House of Commons Regarding Bill C-49

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Bill to Amend—Message from Commons—Motion for Concurrence in Commons Amendments and Non-Insistence Upon Senate Amendments for Bill C-49

Hon. Donald Neil Plett: Honourable senators, let me add my voice to what has already been said this afternoon by Senator Mercer and yesterday by others.

While I have been very outspoken on this matter and have been very active on this file, I have not yet had the opportunity to speak to this legislation in the chamber. With that said, I would like to get a few points on the record and in some of them I will be repeating what Senator Mercer just talked about.

Many of us have had a difficult time with this legislation because it is one of the most egregious omnibus bills that can I recall. The bill included absolutely time-sensitive, non-controversial urgent provisions needed for the grain industry, combined with controversial changes affecting industries and sectors that are entirely unrelated to the grain industry. This bill contained provisions setting forth guidelines for the air passenger bill of rights and it dealt with safety provisions in trains.

These are all issues that are deserving of individual scrutiny and study, yet we were not afforded that opportunity. It has already been said that this legislation amends 13 acts of Parliament — thirteen, honourable senators.

For those who are not quite as familiar with the predicament the grain industry found itself in, allow me to elaborate.

In 2014, I had the distinct pleasure of sponsoring Bill C-30, the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, which mandated the timely transportation of grain. Both CN and CP opposed this legislation but when mandated to do so, they were able to move our Western Canadian grain farmers’ product to market.

This had a profound impact on our farmers. When the provisions expired, the government extended the requirements for another year. The act was sunsetted as of August 1, 2017. The negative impact this had on grain farmers was astronomical. However, rather than extending the provisions again, which they were perfectly entitled to do, the government held these hardworking farmers to ransom by incorporating these imperative provisions into a controversial omnibus bill.

Honourable senators, there were farmers in my office with tears in their eyes, telling me, “Please, pass this bill quickly. We simply cannot afford to lose another crop year.” Meanwhile, the railways were also in my office explaining that they provided good service when they were forced to do so through legislation, and promised that they would again provide good service if mandated by law and by the government to do so.

If the government wanted a more permanent solution to help the grain industry as proposed in the legislation, they could have simply extended the provisions until the passage of the legislation. But no, they played politics at the expense of the grain industry. Honourable senators, this was dirty and entirely unfair.

We were promised in the last election, over and over again, that this government would not be bringing forward omnibus bills. It was also explicitly stated on pages 30 and 75 of their election platform. And yet here we are, and we have yet another broken election promise.

We were told last week that we were not supposed to defeat legislation if it represents the fulfilment of an election promise. Yet now we are being asked to endorse legislation that is in direct contradiction to an election promise.

The Leader of the Government in the Senate told us that, instead, our job in the Senate is to amend legislation. Yet when his representative, Senator Mitchell, came to committee, he opposed each and every amendment that was proposed at clause-by-clause stage.

Needless to say, I am extremely frustrated with how the government has handled this issue at every step of the way. Our committee, however, did an outstanding job studying this legislation as best we could given its all-encompassing nature and our time constraints. The committee and, subsequently, this chamber passed 18 amendments, which may seem like a lot, but again, considering there were 13 acts of Parliament at play, I believe the amendments were very reasonable.

In committee, with the help of other senators, I moved an amendment related to railway interswitching, and I was pleased that after repeated rejections of this amendment at every stage in the House of Commons, and including the minister stating explicitly at our committee that the government would not support this amendment, the government eventually succumbed to political pressure and accepted the amendment. I would like to thank the members of our committee for their support of this amendment. This amendment is a huge win for the grain industry.

Allow me to explain the amendment and its importance. While Bill C-49 had a number of helpful provisions for the grain industry, there was a serious problem in the details of the new long-haul interswitching provision. Through the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, we temporarily enacted extended interswitching to 160 km, which was a simple mechanism that gave shippers, for the first time ever, some competitive options in rail service when shipping grain. Giving shippers and value-added processors the option to interswitch traffic to a competing rail carrier gave them tremendous leverage when negotiating rate and service with their serving carrier.

Rather than maintaining this very effective mechanism, the government, through Bill C-49, introduced long-haul interswitching, a complicated and cumbersome mechanism by comparison that would have been useless to certain shippers.

The most serious problem with the LHI mechanism is that it stipulates that shippers who either have an interchange within 30 km of their facility or who are dual-served by two railways at their facility cannot apply for the long-haul interswitching order, regardless of whether that interchange or dual service is going in the right direction of the shipment.

If the purpose of the mechanism is to create competitive options, this prohibition clearly goes against the spirit of providing for competitive options if the only option you have isn’t going in the right direction in which you want to send rail cars.

Let me give you an example from my home province of Manitoba. Consider the value-added oilseed processing facilities or grain elevators located in Southern Manitoba. As my colleagues will know, and as has been stated here today, value-added oilseed processing on the prairies is a burgeoning success.

In the last 10 years, canola and soybean processing has more than doubled and is now responsible for $7.8 billion of economic activity for Canada every year. Not surprisingly, for a perishable product like canola oil, the vast majority of which is exported, responsive and efficient logistics are imperative.

It’s for this reason that competitive options for rail freight service are a game changer for all grain shippers, but for value-added oilseed processors in particular.

Unfortunately, an oilseed processor or grain elevator located in Southern Manitoba, for example, looking to move a product for export through Vancouver or Thunder Bay would ideally need access to the Winnipeg interswitch, where alternative rail lines would potentially compete for the facility’s traffic. However, if the facility happens to be located near the interswitch at Emerson, Manitoba, which is located to the south, right near the U.S. border, the facility would be disqualified from making the interswitch in Winnipeg.

Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to use the Emerson interchange if the traffic were trying to go to, say, Eastern Canada. Clearly this doesn’t give the facility a competitive option for any of their product they may want to send west or east. Under the legislation, as it was drafted, this is exactly the scenario a facility in this location would face.

Grain shippers, oilseed processors and farmers who appeared at committee all supported a very simple technical amendment to address this issue. By inserting the wording into the provision that allows the nearest interchange point to be “in the reasonable direction of the shipper’s destination,” this clause could give all shippers some real, competitive options.

The grain sector was obviously disappointed to see the Liberal government shut down this amendment at every possible opportunity in the other place, but have been thrilled that the Senate was able to realize this important change.

Another amendment, which I was thrilled to be involved in and jointly sponsor with Senator Griffin, was to add soybean to the Maximum Revenue Entitlement protection of farmers. The Maximum Revenue Entitlement, or MRE, is an important protection for farmers who ultimately bear the cost of rail freight. Exorbitant rate hikes are a natural consequence of a system that operates in a near monopolistic environment, and farmers need this protection. For no justifiable reason, the government elected, in this bill, to exclude soybean and soy products from this protection.

When the MRE was first established in 2000, soybeans were barely grown on the Prairies, and, therefore, it was not included in the original schedule listing the eligible crops.

Since then, soy has become a major economic generator in the Prairies, particularly, again, in my home province of Manitoba. Over the last four years alone, seeded acreage in Manitoba jumped 80 per cent, with close to 2.5 million acres of soy sown in Manitoba this year. Soy is becoming a huge agriculture success not only in Manitoba but across the country, now contributing $480 million to Canada’s GDP annually, and is linked to thousands of jobs. I am very pleased that the government accepted this amendment and thank Senator Griffin for her leadership on this issue.

Since the government tabled their response to our amendments, I have received countless emails, letters and phone calls from the grain industry urging us to please pass this legislation without further delay. I completely understand their urgency. These farmers need this legislation enacted as soon as possible to survive this crop season.

However, there are a few amendments that we passed that the government rejected for no apparent reason. For example, Senator Griffin proposed another amendment related to long-haul interswitching. It has become apparent that the Maritimes have been quite literally ignored when it comes to rail service. Under Bill C-49, as it stands, long-haul interswitching is not an option for shippers from Western Canada to Maritime ports due to the nearest interchange to Saint John or Halifax being in Montreal, in the centre of the Quebec-Windsor long-haul interswitch exclusion zone, and the only rail carrier from Quebec City to the Maritimes is CN. Our committee heard from Canpotex, who made it clear that the lack of competition for rail service will make Maritime ports less attractive.

Senator Griffin’s amendment, which was a modest solution, exempted shipments destined for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia from the Quebec-Windsor corridor LHI exclusion zone. This would eliminate inadvertent regional disparity, and it mirrors the existing exemption for shipments originating from northern Quebec. This amendment would provide shippers destined for Saint John or Halifax with competitive rail options, making these ports more attractive. We have not yet heard a reasonable objection to this amendment, and it is truly beyond me why the government would have rejected this very sensible and impactful amendment.

Another great amendment that was accepted unanimously at committee was proposed by Senator Mercer, and it dealt with the proposed tarmac delay regulation. Most airlines have a policy of a 90-minute maximum tarmac delay, and the government’s proposed regulation would be to double that to a maximum of three hours.

The government stated that when private airlines stipulate their 90-minute maximum, it always comes with a list of exceptions. Similarly, the government would have had every opportunity to stipulate exceptions, for instance, when it comes to safety hazards. However, they rejected this amendment and left the tarmac delay provision at three hours, despite the advice of nearly every affected institution. This is completely nonsensical.

Dr. Gábor Lukács, from the Air Passenger Rights organization, testified at committee and described the inhumane nature of a three-hour tarmac delay. He states:

Imagine this committee being held captive in a metal tube with wings for 3 hours with scores of other people, with limited or no food or water, possibly clogged toilets, limited fresh air or heat, and absolutely no say in the matter.

I have two minutes left, Your Honour.

The Hon. the Speaker: Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Plett: Dr. Lukács continued:

You would never impose that even on your worst enemies.

Yet, in part, that is what Bill C-49 seeks to inflict upon Canadians.

The Bill seeks to double the length of time passengers may be confined to an aircraft without water and food, from the current 90 minutes to 3 hours.

This is not only inhumane, but also unreasonable.

The current 90-minute rule is binding. An airline that breaks the rule can be fined. For nearly 10 years, passengers and airlines were both content with the current 90-minute rule.

Please, keep the current 90-minute rule . . . .

Colleagues, airlines and, in fact, the Government of Canada need to remember that airlines are a service industry, and their customers do not just pay but pay a significant amount of money in order to take a flight. The idea that the government would be intervening and making regulatory suggestions to decrease the level of service to paying travellers is beyond unacceptable.

So now, with the urgency of this legislation for the grain farmers with the crop season approaching, we are being forced to overlook other areas of this legislation that deserve more scrutiny. There are other industries, like the air sector, for instance, affected greatly by these changes. Yet, we must proceed with this bill quickly, or the farmers will unquestionably lose another crop season. They simply cannot afford that.

Colleagues, clearly the way this legislation was proposed and has been handled is appalling. While the government has put us in a difficult position on this bill, I firmly believe that we need to continue to stand up for air passenger rights, and we, colleagues, need to continue to fight for regional fairness for Atlantic Canada. If the government will not do it, we need to find other measures in the Senate to make sure that these matters do not fall by the wayside.

With that said, like Senator Pratte, I will turtle and not stand in the way of this bill moving forward promptly so that our hard-working Western Canadian farmers can finally get their crop to market.

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