Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
The committee's Conservative and NDP members called for this emergency meeting because farmers need the government to take action now. We are united in our willingness to find immediate and long-term solutions. I am convinced that the committee's Liberal members also have the willingness to find a solution.
The situation is disastrous. When the government began an ideological battle by introducing Bill C-49, an omnibus bill from the Minister of Transport, all the observers warned it of the dangers of a new crisis.
We have all seen the figures. Between the two of them, CN and CP fulfilled 32% of hopper car orders last week. CN fulfilled 17% of the orders, and CP fulfilled 50% of them. Combined, last week marked the worst performance so far for the 2017-18 crop year.
Farmers are forced to absorb demurrage fees. We don't often use that term. I will give the definition of “demurrage”, for those who are not used to hearing that word. Demurrage fees must be paid by the charterer to the ship owner, in a voyage charter, when the time it takes to load or unload exceeds the laytime set out in the voyage contract. It's good to use the proper term.
In order words, the grain remains in elevators.
We learned that there are 35 vessels in the Port of Vancouver, we think for grain. Another five are waiting in Prince Rupert. With every unfulfilled order, Canada's reputation as a reliable trading partner is taking a hit. To quote an editorial:
Increasingly, our reputation among global customers is that of a supplier with aging and inadequate transportation infrastructure which fails to deliver its products on time, whether it’s canola or crude.
This has very real implications at a time when we want to expand market access, maximize our crops' yield, and increase our exports.
Every unfulfilled order undermines the reputation of reliable partners for Canada.
Unfortunately, the Liberals have ignored our advice to pass a separate bill on grain transportation and have not extended or made permanent the provisions of the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act. So protection for grain producers disappeared on August 1, 2017. Consequently, as predicted by the official opposition and a number of observers, a crisis occurred. It did not take two years; the first winter following the end of protection ensured by Bill C-30, a crisis situation arose in grain transportation.
Allow me to read a few excerpts of comments made on June 5, 2017, at second reading of Bill C-49, since that's pretty important.
My colleague Kelly Block, who is the transportation minister within our shadow cabinet, took the floor to speak to this omnibus bill. If people are still unsure that it is indeed an omnibus bill, here is how Minister Garneau himself described it, on June 5, 2017:
Specifically, the bill proposes to strengthen air passenger rights; liberalize international ownership restrictions for Canadian air carriers; develop a clear and predictable process for approval of airline joint ventures; improve access, transparency, efficiency, and sustainable long-term investment in the freight rail sector; and, increase the safety of transportation in Canada by requiring railways to install voice and video recorders in locomotives.
That is how the minister himself described Bill C-49. You will understand that we are far from Bill C-30, which focused only on grain transportation.
That is one of the reasons why the consideration of Bill C-49 is taking so long: the government wanted to make an omnibus bill focusing on several different topics and concerning a number of stakeholders. It was clear that its consideration would take time.
My colleague Mrs. Block reiterated the following, during the study of Bill C-49, at second reading:
Furthermore, when I introduced a motion in transport committee last week calling on the committee to write to the Minister of Transport and his government House leader to ask them to split the bill into the following sections, rail shipping, rail safety, air, and marine, to provide an enhanced and possibly expedited scrutiny, every single Liberal member voted against it without even a single comment as to why.
In short, on June 5, 2017, we already asked that Bill C-49 be split, so that we could study the protection of western grain producers more quickly.
The Conservatives responded positively to the request of their Liberal colleagues from the transport committee to expedite the study of Bill C-49. The Conservatives agreed to return to committee a week before Parliament resumed. NDP members were also in attendance. If I remember correctly, they were also fully prepared to review the bill and to dedicate a whole week to that study in order to expedite the process. After the summer break, all the committee members came here and spent a week discussing Bill C-49. We knew it was important.
However, there was a major issue. When we were studying Bill C-49, the provisions in Bill C-30 had already expired nearly two months before. So the protection was already gone. Those are the arguments my colleague Kelly Block reiterated when the committee studied Bill C-49.
Let me draw your attention to another excerpt from Mrs. Block's comments:
In the fall of 2016, the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities undertook a study of Bill C-30 and held a number of meetings on the merits of these measures and whether they should be allowed to sunset. We were assured that if we lived with this extension, these issues would be dealt with by August 1, 2017.
Unfortunately, the government did not keep its word. It did not ensure that those provisions would be dealt with by August 1, 2017.
Mrs. Block concluded her comments with the following:
In conclusion, this much is certain: the key measures in Bill C-30 will be allowed to sunset on August 1, before this legislation receives royal assent. The Liberals have had nearly a full year to get new legislation in place but failed to do so, and shippers will suffer the consequences.
On June 5, 2017, she predicted that this would happen. Unfortunately, we are now facing that situation.
The Liberal government and railway companies have been inactive since August. It was business as usual for everyone. It was only yesterday that the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food bothered to take the first step to resolve the crisis: he wrote a letter with the Minister of Transport asking railway companies to prepare a plan to resolve the crisis and to post that plan on their websites by March 15. However, since the consequences of this crisis are being felt every day, last week we asked the government to act now, to implement the necessary tools and use its power to resolve this crisis as quickly as possible.
It seems that the calling of this emergency meeting had the positive effect of getting things moving. The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food has at least written a letter. This is a step in the right direction, but we have to go much further. We were expecting the minister to call a Cabinet meeting to adopt measures and make things happen, so that this crisis would be resolved immediately. The presentation of a plan and measures to ultimately find a solution should not be endlessly postponed again. The crisis is happening now.
This leads us to conclude that the government, aside from this letter, is once again relying on luck and the good faith of railway companies, instead of taking action and implementing the necessary measures to ensure that grain is shipped to markets, that farmers are paid and that this season's exceptional crop yields would not be compromised owing to a lack of planning by those who have the power and the tools to take action.
It's simple: the Liberal government must take immediate action to address the backlog in grain delivery and provide the tools needed to hold railway companies accountable for inadequate services. Inaction is costly. Talk to the president and chief executive officer of CN about that, as he lost his job because CN had not managed to provide a quality service. CN clearly indicates in its press release that it fired its president and chief executive officer for that reason.
If CN has realized that it should have taken action earlier, I don't understand how none of the advisors and other employees who are working at the offices of the Minister of Transport and the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food saw this crisis coming. Will a minister have to be fired for inaction—