Good afternoon, everyone. I call to order meeting number 27 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.
As many of you know, once again today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format pursuant to the House order of January 25, 2021. The proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. So you are all aware, the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I will point out a few rules to follow.
First off, members and witnesses may speak in the official language of their choice. Interpretation services are available for this meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of either “floor”, “English”, or “French”.
For members participating in person, proceed as you usually would when the whole committee is meeting in person in the committee room. Keep in mind the directives from the Board of Internal Economy regarding masking and health protocols.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. If you are on the video conference, please click on the microphone icon to unmute yourself. For those in the room, your microphone will be controlled as normal by the proceedings and verification officer.
As a reminder, all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute. With regard to a speaking list, as always, both the committee clerk and I will do the very best we can to maintain the order of speaking for all members, whether you are participating virtually or in person.
Members, pursuant to Standing Order 81(4), the committee will now commence its consideration of the main estimates 2021-22.
It's my pleasure now to introduce and welcome our witnesses.
Appearing for the first hour, from 3:30 to 4:30, we have the Honourable Catherine McKenna, Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, as well as the person I would call her right arm and sometimes both arms, Kelly Gillis, the deputy minister of Infrastructure and Communities.
Kelly, it's great to see you again.
For the second hour, between 4:30 and 5:30, we have witnesses from the Office of Infrastructure of Canada. Kelly Gillis, the deputy minister of infrastructure and communities, will continue to be with us, as well as Nathalie Bertrand, assistant deputy minister and chief financial officer, corporate services; Glenn Campbell, assistant deputy minister of investment, partnerships and innovation; Alison O'Leary, assistant deputy minister of program operations and communities and rural economic development; and Gerard Peets, assistant deputy minister of policy and results.
With that, welcome to all of you. It's great to have you at the committee.
We're going to start off with Minister McKenna.
Minister McKenna, you now have the floor for five minutes.
Thank you very much to the chair and to committee members. It's great to be back in front of the committee.
I want to start by recognizing that I am on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe peoples. I am in my house, so hopefully there will be no interruptions. You never know.
I am certainly very pleased to be here to talk about the government's commitment to building back better, which is especially relevant as today is Earth Day. Happy Earth Day to everyone.
As I say, it's really about building the future we want. Infrastructure is a key role, and I'm here to talk about main and supplementary estimates to advance the government's national infrastructure plan. Of course, I'm very happy to be joined by Kelly Gillis, my deputy minister.
Well, COVID-19 has certainly reshaped so many aspects of our lives, including how we do committees, and of course, how we get around in our communities and how we connect with each other. The good news is that we will get through the pandemic, but as we do that, we need to think about ways to build back better.
We must build the Canada we want, with good jobs, a sustainable economy, cleaner air and more inclusive communities where people want to live, work and raise their families.
This week, tabled budget 2021, a plan that will help us conquer COVID-19 in the short term, punch our way out of the COVID-19 recession in the medium term, and build a more resilient and cleaner Canada.
This plan will help parents, particularly women, return to the workforce with more affordable and accessible child care, reaching $10 a day in the next five years. I don't have to tell any of the parents here how important that is.
It also invests in bold climate action, building on what we have already done and setting us on a path to reaching net zero emissions in 2050.
Today, on Earth Day, we acknowledge just how important climate action is, but I would say that in my role, I think about it every single day and about how infrastructure needs to help us tackle climate change and build more resilient communities.
Whether it's assessing the climate impacts of new roads and bridges or electrifying public transit and retrofitting buildings to become more energy-efficient, as we build back better we need to continue our fight against climate change. Every infrastructure decision is inevitably a climate decision too.
Infrastructure investments help create jobs, drive economic growth, tackle climate change and build more inclusive communities. To do this successfully, we're seeking $6.8 billion in the 2021-22 main estimates: $4.3 billion in grants and contributions to support 22 infrastructure programs, and $2.3 billion for the gas tax, now renamed the Canada Community-Building Fund, which I think is a far better name—assuming I got it right—all to ensure that communities across Canada have the money they need when they need it.
We're also seeking an increase of $2.2 million through supplementary estimates (C) for 2020-21. This funding will support the recent approval of the “Strengthening Stewardship of Canadian infrastructure: Long-Term Resourcing Strategy” Treasury Board submission, which granted Infrastructure Canada permanent operating funding. I can't tell you how excited that makes me, because we definitely need permanent operating funding.
I can see my deputy smile.
The additional funding will enable the department to meet existing obligations, maintain operations, and meet the evolving infrastructure needs in Canada, including driving to net zero by 2050.
This is what I want to talk a little bit more about today.
To be honest, I've always hated the word “infrastructure”, and I'm not the only one. John Baird, former minister of infrastructure, agrees with me. It's a made-up, bureaucratic word that undersells the final product. Talk to someone about their new community centre or about finally being hooked up to high-speed broadband or taking an electric bus, and you realize it is so much more.
It determines our quality of life and is critical for our economic growth, job creation and combatting the effects of climate change. Especially now, as we look towards recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 strengthened our resolve and spurred us to do more, to do it faster, and to do it more strategically.
We've accelerated project approvals under the Investing in Canada infrastructure program, and since March of last year, we have approved nearly 3,100 projects, representing a federal investment of more than $4.1 billion. These are projects in communities across the country.
This serves as a testament to the progress we're making with our Investing in Canada plan. We know the plan is working. Canadians know the plan is working: they see the progress in their communities. The federal government has invested more than $81billion for more than 67,000 projects, with 90% of them completed or under way. This means that 40% of the way into the plan, we've invested more than 40% of the funding.
But it's about more than the plan. We are doing so much more that is being counted under the Investing in Canada plan. We're moving forward with universal broadband, green and inclusive community buildings, and many other initiatives that were not part of the plan's original design, initiatives that help address issues raised by the pandemic, such as the COVID-19 resilience stream, the Canada healthy communities initiative and new funding for ventilation, the latter of which will reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission by funding projects to improve ventilation for schools, hospitals, and other public buildings.
And initiatives that are helping us reach our climate targets, like the investments we're making in public transportation.
On February 10, and I announced a federal plan to invest nearly $15 billion for new public transit infrastructure over the next eight years. This funding includes a long-term strategy to deliver $3 billion annually for public transit beginning in 2026-27. Since then, I've announced additional details around Canada's approach to public transit funding, including investments in 5,000 zero-emission buses and in such active transportation as cycling and walking paths, rural transit and more.
But we can't just build back better; we have to build back smarter. That's why we launched engagement on Canada's first-ever national infrastructure assessment. We will rely on experts, data and evidence to identify Canada's infrastructure needs and priorities out to 2050.
Thank you very much to my critic for his question.
We provided the Parliamentary Budget Officer with an itemized list of more than 33,000 projects that we fund directly; another 20,000 projects that we support through block funding, such as the gas tax fund; and some CMHC projects.
Let's be clear. Part of the challenge was written by the Conservatives themselves. If you look at the 10-year agreement the Conservatives signed on the gas tax fund in 2014, it does not require provinces to provide detailed reporting on each project or its outcomes. In fact, Quebec isn't required to do project-by-project reporting at all.
I want to thank my team, including Kelly, the deputy, and the whole Infrastructure Canada team, who had to go across government, make sure that we reported on projects and find projects in the provinces so that we could properly report.
We need to fix this. That's something I am committed to, because we obviously need to get a full accounting. However, I can tell you that if you go to any city or town across the country, people will tell you how much these projects are making a difference in their communities.
Congratulations on getting the Canada Games. I think I heard you are getting them. That's pretty awesome. I think that will mean some infrastructure investments and also some good news across Newfoundland and Labrador.
When the pandemic hit, it was pretty clear to me that we needed to adjust our programs. We needed to make sure we were providing support to provinces and municipalities, sometimes in areas that we don't normally fund.
We created the COVID-19 stream, which allowed provinces and territories to allocate 10% of their money under the Investing in Canada infrastructure program to things like investing in ventilation in schools and long-term care and hospitals.
We don't normally do that. That's provincial jurisdiction. However, these are obviously critically important investments. In fact, just a few weeks ago, or maybe it was last week—in the pandemic I lose track of time—we announced investments in schools across Ontario to improve ventilation. That's critically important. I think we all recognize that we need kids to be back in school, but we need it to be safe. We invested in public long-term care facilities in Ontario also. We have seen the huge challenges there. It also means investments in active transportation, in projects that mean people can get out in nature. We recognize that's critically important.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that we also doubled the gas tax, the building Canada communities fund, to support municipalities directly. We know they need money. It has been an expensive and challenging time through COVID-19, but we want them to continue building infrastructure.
We're going to continue making investments that will help Canadians get through COVID-19, help municipalities and provinces, but of course then build back better.
The sustainable development goals are critically important. My department reports, like all departments, on the sustainable development goals in relation to the projects and the programs under its department, but we do it to ESDC.
I was actually involved in this as Minister of Environment and Climate Change. We had to report on Canada's progress on the sustainable development goals, which included progress at every level of government. It is not just the federal government, but every community. Everyone has to weigh in.
In some ways it is a bit strange to put the onus on us. We actually have a department that is required to report, including to the UN, on how we are tracking progress on the sustainable development goals. However, my department does track its projects and how we're contributing to sustainable development goals.
As to the reporting in the Auditor General's report, I think my deputy can explain how many departments, how many programs and how many projects. That's a separate type of reporting. However, for the reporting on SDGs, we should be clear: Our government is reporting across government, for every department, to the United Nations, which is critically important.
First of all, thank you very much to my parliamentary secretary.
I know you've worked so hard. We launched Canada's first-ever active transportation strategy, which is incredibly important, but we also created a separate fund for active transportation. That really is historic, and it's a recognition that when you build public transit, you need to be also thinking about how you get the people the extra mile so they can take public transit, whether they do it by cycling or by foot or electric bike or scooter or skateboard.
I think there's been a real reflection and recognition by Canadians about how important active transportation is, how important it is to be able to get out and around by your own human power. I know when I go to municipalities across the country, rural or urban, they talk about how they want to have more cycling paths, how they want them to be safer so that more people choose cycling, how they want to get people active and how there are health benefits.
Huge kudos to you. I know you've been doing a lot of outreach on the active transportation strategy. You're really the expert on this. You did a really good job of advocating with so many advocates across the country who recognize the importance of cycling, active transportation, and people being able to get around, including if you're in a wheelchair. We need to make things more accessible to everyone.
I'm really excited about this. I know there is tons of excitement about the new active transportation strategy and fund that you're working on.
My question is for the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities.
In an interview with Radio-Canada, the hon. member mentioned that the government could decide in two, three or four years to reinvest in VIA Rail for the HFR project. It would be a way of promising the HFR, or at least making it look like the government still intends to carry out the project.
However, when a government believes in a project and commits to it, it doesn't drag it out for 10, 15 or 20 years. Normally, you start to see results after two, three or four years. We've seen that with many other projects. In the case of the HFR, it seems to be going around and around. At the end of the day, it's a non-starter.
Madam Minister can you just tell us how many elections you intend to use the HFR like a rattle, instead of being honest with us and telling us that you won't be carrying out the high-frequency rail project, that you promised to win votes in the last election?
Thank you, Ms. Gillis. I have to move on.
Thank you, Mr. El-Khoury, and thank you, Ms. Jaczek.
Members of the committee, I was going to continue on down the list from the first round into the second round, but when I look at our timing and how we have to at least take 10 minutes to look at the main estimates and the votes attached to them, what I'm going to do is go down the list from the second round.
Mr. Iacono, I'm going to have to bump you into another section with Mr. Fillmore and proceed from there. I'm doing this in respect of time. Hopefully you don't mind. I want to get to Ms. Jaczek to give her an opportunity to speak, because she's further down on the list, as well as others who are on the list, including Mr. Barsalou-Duval and Mr. Bachrach. I hope I can get them their time as well.
What I'm going to do now is go to Mr. Barsalou-Duval for six minutes, followed by Mr. Bachrach. He will be followed by Mr. Soroka. Then we'll go over to Mr. Fillmore, and I'm asking Mr. Fillmore if he can split his time with Mr. Iacono so that we can get that satisfied. We're going to be tight on time from there.
Mr. Barsalou-Duval, you have the floor for six minutes.
I'll just say thank you to Mr. Kram. The letter was a very good letter. I know that Ronald McDonald House is seeking enhanced funding across the country. They are getting projects funded. They had one funded in my riding here in Halifax, for example. Thank you for raising that. We can follow up later.
Ms. Gillis, first of all, I want to thank you and your team for all your incredible hard work and dedication. Because of your work, there are Canadians across the country who have jobs. There are communities across the country that are having their infrastructure renewed. I give a sincere thank you to you and your team for helping that happen.
When we look at the 10-year agreement that the Conservatives signed on the gas tax fund in 2014, we see that it does not require provinces to provide detailed reporting on each project or its outcome. In that context, I'm saddened to see that the Conservatives are trying to drum up false claims, as we've heard in the first hour, that there are missing projects.
I know it took a lot of work for you to correct the lack of reporting in the Conservative programs. I'm wondering if you can clarify that there are, in fact, no missing projects, and that they're all accounted for.
Thank you, Ms. Gillis. Thank you, Mr. Bachrach, and thank you to all members today and to all the witnesses.
Minister McKenna and your entire team, thank you for coming out and giving us your time today. It was a great meeting, with lots to be chatted about. We got a lot of great answers.
Before I adjourn, I want to remind members, as I did last meeting, about the reports that were distributed for the aircraft certification study. Once again, if members have any suggestions or edits, it would be very helpful if you could submit those to the clerk so we can have them in writing in both official languages when the committee begins consideration of that draft report.
On the topic of reports, the analysts will soon be drafting the report on the study of the Canada Infrastructure Bank. It would also be helpful for the analysts if members can submit their drafting instructions to the clerk before that happens.
With that, I'm hoping that those who didn't submit yet would do so to expedite these processes through the committee stages. That way we can fit some more studies in, and with that, fit some more reports in.
Members, once again, thank you. We'll see you next Tuesday.
Now it's my pleasure now to adjourn the meeting.