Masse and Comartin in the House on Bill C-3 and border crossings

From Hansard

Mr. Brian Masse (Windsor West, NDP): Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak today to Bill C-3, a significant bill relating to bridges and tunnels that connect our country with the United States. Bill C-3 is actually a part of a former bill, Bill C-44, which was a package of three other elements that have been left behind at the moment to deal with this significant and important issue. I give the government credit for doing so. It is important that we recognize that this bill has a high priority.

I would like to note that I will be splitting my time with the member for Windsor—Tecumseh, who is also affected by this issue. Windsor West, Windsor—Tecumseh and Essex County have significant border infrastructure issues that have affected not only our community but the county and even the country.

In fact, 40% of the trade with the United States happens along two kilometres of the Detroit River on a daily basis. There are four border crossings in the Windsor West corridor that are involved in the transport of goods, services and people on a regular basis. They have significant impacts not only on the health and vibrancy of the constituents in my riding but also on this country's ability to trade with the United States.

I am pleased that there are many elements in this bill coming forward. It will be important to add some accountability at the border that is not there at this point in time. In fact, there are 24 international bridges and tunnels that connect the United States and Canada. There is really just organized chaos in terms of the way they are actually run and administered right now. A few have some very good best practices. I would point to Niagara Falls and the Fort Erie-Buffalo region that have border commissions and actually have oversight, operation and public ownership, which is critical to the oversight and governance.

Members of the public who are watching this debate today and others across Canada may not realize how at risk we are in terms of the corridor in my riding and the influence of 40% plus of trade that is done on a daily basis. In the Windsor-Detroit corridor there are currently four different border crossings and there is no oversight whatsoever. There is a complete void in the aspects of safety, security, best practices, and has actually put the community at risk.

Currently, a fifth border crossing is under examination. The first of the four others is an international tunnel owned by the city of Detroit and the city of Windsor. The city of Detroit has decided on a long term lease on its side of the tunnel. The city of Windsor actually owns and operates the tunnel after it was in the private sector for so many years. It was rundown and the municipality had to fight to get it back.

Since that time, we have kept fares low, put investment back into public infrastructure and increased the safety aspect of it which we did not have previous knowledge of because it was once again private infrastructure. Without Bill C-3, there are very little safety regulations, inspections, and empowerment from the federal government to look after those jurisdictional items that are so important to infrastructure.

The Ambassador Bridge is the second crossing. In terms of transport trucks and cars, this is the busiest bridge in North America and processes the most trucks in the world on a regular basis. Almost 40,000 vehicles traverse the corridor. The vast majority, I think 34%, use the Ambassador Bridge.

In that capacity, a private American citizen actually owns the Ambassador Bridge. The most important infrastructure, which is 75 years plus, is owned by a private American, and has the highest fares in the region by far and the least amount of accountability because there are no laws of governance. Lastly, I would argue, it has caused considerable grief in the community because of a lack of planning and oversight, not only in terms of the operation of the site itself but also the previous government not increasing trade corridor expansion.

The third is a rail tunnel operated by CP Rail. This is a significantly old infrastructure. I believe it is close to 100 years old. It has two rail tubes. There is a proposal for regeneration, which is beneficial for the rail aspect, but at the same time there is a private proponent that is looking to expand border capacity called the DRTP, which is the city is universally opposed to.

The fourth and last is a ferry operator that transports hazardous waste materials. I am going to use that as an example of the lack of oversight we have in terms of the border and more importantly some of the things that have been happening that this legislation is going to address.

One of them is in regard to a newspaper article. I have asked for an investigation from the government. I have yet to receive a response from the minister's office. The office called back asking for a second copy of the letter I sent but it has not actually dealt with it yet. It is a very serious issue. It is about chemicals and hazardous materials that are crossing the Ambassador Bridge and that is not supposed to be happening.

The Ambassador Bridge goes across the Detroit River which is connected to the Great Lakes ecosystem. From the legislation on the United States side, which is different from the Canadian side, certain chemical materials are not supposed to be traversing over the Ambassador Bridge. They are supposed to go to a ferry operator operated by Gregg Ward, which is down river by about two kilometres. His company has received grants and awards from the Homeland Security Department because of the types of operations it has on site to ensure the goods and materials cross safely.

There has been a public spat between the Ambassador Bridge and some of its operators. The headline of a Windsor Star article reads: “Bridge OKs risky cargo: Letter of permission given to chemical company”. The article then states:

The Ambassador Bridge is telling its toll collectors to wave through trucks carrying hazardous cargo in violation of a U.S. ban, according to a document obtained by The Star.

It goes on to say:

Bridge spokesman Skip McMahon claimed last week he was unaware of any such shipments.

But a representative of another firm, Harold Marcus Ltd., a Bothwell-based transportation company, said it uses the crossing almost daily to import alum.

The representative said the company did so with the bridge's blessing and said other companies are also granted permission to haul hazardous cargo across the bridge. The Windsor West MP is calling on the federal Public Safety Minister to investigate the reports.

We are yet to hear about that. That is on a daily basis. We know that there is no accountability on this aspect of the file and we have to sit and wait.

This has significant implications because if there were a spill or accident, there would be very little that could be done. That is why we agree that Bill C-3 must have some regulations and oversight to ensure that federal officials can examine and do best practices. Not only could an accident just happen but we do not have the capacity to respond to it. We know our fire department has very limited operations in terms of going onto the Ambassador Bridge and the hazardous material would then go into the Detroit River and contaminate it.

It is also not reducing some of the chemical exposures that we have through our corridor. This is why Bill C-3 is very important. It is one of the elements that we believe should go forward.

I would also like to note some of the failings in Bill C-3. We are concerned right now that the ministerial powers on connecting infrastructure seem to be very dominant in the bill. That is one of the things that we would like to examine, ways that we can actually have some type of involvement from a municipal aspect, so the infrastructure relationship in the corridor can be softened.

I know that in my municipality of Windsor West there may be an imposed solution in terms of connecting the Ambassador Bridge to the 401 because ironically it was a provincial Conservative government and a Liberal federal government that ended construction of the 401 in a farmer's field because they were fighting. It is about eight miles short of the Ambassador Bridge crossing, so we actually have the 401 in the busiest part of this corridor stop in a farmer's field and then it connects to a city linking road because those two governments could not get along. As a result of that we still have backups. There are a number of different problems related to schools, churches, businesses and institutions that have built up along there. They will need compensation if there is going to be any type of shift in the type of landscape.

In summary, we support the bill as an important step forward. There are many aspects that I would like to get into but I cannot. I wanted to highlight the need of this to the general public of Canada. There is such a significant degree of infrastructure problems in Windsor West. There are risks associated as well with having a private infrastructure connecting Canada and the United States as a business conduit as opposed to what it should be, and that is a social, economic conduit between our two countries.

Instead of raking in profits between these two transportation link elements, we should have a high degree of accountability, security and scrutiny with the lowest cost possible for the free flow of goods, services and people. That can only be done with public infrastructure oversight. The government is tabling a piece of legislation that will have some benefits. We are cautious on a few elements and we are looking forward to working on those in committee.

[Translation]

Mrs. Vivian Barbot (Papineau, BQ): Mr. Speaker, with regard to transportation beyond our borders, one element of Bill C-44 has disappeared. I am referring to advertising of airline ticket prices. We felt that this was a perfect opportunity for greater transparency in ticket sales. In other words, the agency should have the authority to regulate advertising so that hidden charges, especially taxes, are included in the ticket price. Various consumer associations called for this.

There was also the issue of sales of one-way airline tickets that were conditional on the purchase of a return ticket. The former bill required that contract terms and conditions be posted on the Internet. This measure also helped the airlines because they could know exactly what to expect.

Consumer associations called for these measures. I would like to know what the hon. member thinks about this.

Mr. Brian Masse: Mr. Speaker, I have been working on a number of different consumer bills. We should actually have the appropriate pricing available for consumers on a regular basis.

As we are speaking to this piece of legislation, one of the interesting things that has been happening in my corridor has been the marketing of a border crossing. The government has still failed to do this. It is following in the same footsteps as the previous administration, saying that it will have the next border crossing publicly owned and operated.

We have had chaos in our area where the DRTP, a rail tunnel consortium of Borealis and OMERS, has been pushing its agenda on people and we have been fighting that. Regarding Ambassador Bridge, the private American infrastructure has been calling for twinning against the wishes of the city of Windsor.

An incredible amount of advertising goes on. It is interesting because the Ambassador Bridge receives $13 million a year for customs officials who operate on site. They just have to take in the tolls. Toll takers are part of the expense operation. It is very limited in terms of expenses.

It is a shame because we have had billboards that say, “Stop the misery” as it relates to border infrastructure clogging our area. We have had full page ads and TV commercials. Private proponents pushed this solution on the community as opposed to finding the right solution, funding it publicly, administering it publicly, and ensuring it is there in perpetuity for the future.

That would be a great economic investment strategy for those who are looking to invest in Ontario because they would know the government is serious about lowering costs, and having greater scrutiny and security as opposed to allowing these two private firms threatening the Ontario economy with the confusion, legal wrangling, and the threats that they continually pose to our community.

Hon. Larry Bagnell (Yukon, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, the member complimented the government on bringing forward, again, the Liberal bill with the same points.

However, I want to talk to the hon. member about the United States initiative related to passports, which will affect both our border crossings. I appreciate that it will be worked on by the government and that the border caucus will meet with the ambassador and the chair of the Senate committee responsible for that bill. I thank everyone who made that happen.

I was in Washington last Thursday meeting with a couple of representatives, congressmen and senators, about that bill because it affects my riding. I have three crossings with the United States. It will definitely hurt trade and tourism in my riding, as well as hunters and fishermen et cetera who cross the border constantly.

I would like to ask the member, what effect will that have on his riding?

Mr. Brian Masse: Mr. Speaker, it will have a major impact, not only to my constituency but there will be billions of dollars lost across the country. That is why the New Democratic Party is calling for a national tourism strategy.

First, we have to continue to fight the implementation of this policy. There are actually progressive persons in the United States doing so in Congress and the Senate. Second, we must have a national tourism strategy to lower the cost of passports, increase the use of them, and get people on the U.S. side to do the same. Those are things we should be doing now. We should also be promoting awareness. There should be an implementation schedule and a demand that the Homeland Security Department peruses the study on how to offset the effects. These are the things we should be demanding. The government is sleepwalking into this, just like the previous administration.

Mr. Joe Comartin (Windsor—Tecumseh, NDP): Mr. Speaker, this is the first opportunity I have had to give a speech since the 39th Parliament started, although I have been up on my feet on a few other occasions. I want to acknowledge and thank the constituents of Windsor--Tecumseh for their support. It is extremely humbling. I pledge to them, as I have each time, to do my very best to represent them here in Ottawa.

The bill is one that is way overdue. It is interesting to hear the Liberal side taking credit for this, but the reality is that we did not get the bill from them. We did not get the provisions of the bill that have been badly needed in my community, in the city of Windsor and the county of Essex, for a very long period of time. This became extremely accentuated after 9/11. When 9/11 occurred, we sat for the first 24 to 36 hours with literally kilometres of delays at our borders. Part of this was that we did not have a legislative infrastructure. The federal government could have moved much more effectively had it had that legislative infrastructure to control the problems that we were confronted with on that occasion.

That has now been repeated over the last four to four and a half years, repeatedly, and it is a problem that our city and our province of Ontario are suffering from, but so is the federal government in terms of tax revenue, efficient administration of our border crossings and our relationship at the international level with the United States.

The provisions in the bill are fairly general. It will be attempting to provide a legislative framework and then follow that with what I hope and expect, for my riding and my constituents, will be a very detailed regulatory body of rules that will in effect allow for an efficient, proper administration at our border crossings.

We in our city and county have the distinction of having more trade and more passengers, both vehicular and rail, than any other place in the country. We are the key crossing, as the House heard earlier from the member for Windsor West. Almost 40% of all the trade between Canada and the United States occurs in one of those four crossings in the Windsor area, through rail, ferry, the tunnel for passenger cars and some trucks, and the bridge.

As most members of the House know, at least the members who were here in the last Parliament, we have been struggling for a good number of years to reach a final consensus on a new crossing, on where it should be located, how it will be funded and how it will be owned and managed. This bill would have helped significantly had it been law, with the regulations along with it, to expedite that process.

It is actually interesting to watch on the U.S. side how on several occasions their authorities, both at the state level and the federal level, were able to intervene and speed up the process. We did not have the ability to do that. At the federal level well over 10 years ago, if not closer to 20, the U.S. changed its legislative framework to make it possible to effectively and efficiently deal with border crossing issues. This legislation would accomplish that assuming the regulatory framework is put in place.

It will deal, as the encompassing legislation allows for, with the regulation with regard to the management and operation of crossings and the roads and streets running up to those crossings, which is a fairly important feature in the bill because it is not a provision within our existing law at all. What is also very important is that it will, for the first time, significantly control the ownership and change in ownership of border crossings.

Mrs. Maria Mourani (Ahuntsic, BQ): Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the hon. member on his speech. I would like to know what he thinks of the fact that the government will establish guidelines on approving the construction of new bridges and tunnels and the alteration of existing ones.

Does he think that these guidelines should be established in cooperation with the provinces, taking into account, among other things, the particularities of the provinces and the landscape and especially the environmental impact.

Mr. Joe Comartin: Mr. Speaker, I thank my Bloc Québécois colleague for her question.

[English]

The basic answer is yes. We would be very supportive of having significant input both from the provinces and from the territories, which at some point will become an issue, but also from the municipal level of government. In our community, quite frankly, the input from the City of Windsor and the County of Essex levels of government would be at least as significant as it would be from the Province of Ontario, because of the impact that the border crossings have on our city and county and also because of the level of knowledge and expertise that resides in that level of government.

[Translation]

The other problem there is with some provinces is that they do not have the infrastructure in place to help us and to allow the federal government to discuss and sign agreements with them. They are not prepared at this point. The provinces of Quebec and Ontario can do so, as can certain other provinces.

[English]

Mr. Brian Jean (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I want to assure the member for Windsor--Tecumseh as well as the member for Windsor West that as a government we are listening. I think they know me and they know that the members of this side of the House are very interested in listening to all the stakeholders.

Indeed, they will also take note of the fact that the government House leader has four international bridges in his riding and speaks about the GDP and the safety and security of bridges. As well, they will note that our member for Essex talks about aging infrastructure and the additional capacity that is necessary.

The member for Windsor West compared us to the previous Liberal government. I am curious about his expectations. In 80 days we have solved the softwood lumber issue and brought in an act that is going to clean up government. I am wondering if the member believes there are other priorities that we could also accomplish. We did not have 13 years like the previous government did; we had 80 days to accomplish the great things that have already been done through this Prime Minister. He talked about some of the number one issues that he sees. As far as the minister's discretion is concerned, I wonder if he would go into more detail on how he would see that taking place in the future and how he would see some tightening up.

Finally, I would like to say for both members that I would be more than happy to listen to any input they have on this particular bill or any other bill within my portfolio. I would be happy to recommend that to the minister as well, especially if they are getting that from the people they represent, which is the most important thing we can do in this House.

Mr. Joe Comartin: Mr. Speaker, we appreciate the overture to continue the dialogue. I do have to say to him that we are concerned that the issue around ministerial discretion has not been more clearly addressed. The previous Liberal government had it in very similar terminology; it may have been exactly the same terminology. The member for Windsor West communicated our concerns quite strongly. I know that the mayor of the city of Windsor has communicated his concerns to the government. I am a bit disturbed that we have not seen any alteration.

What we are really looking for is that there be a confirmation, a very clear guideline, about how that discretion would be exercised if there is to be any deviation from the regulations, and we would want to see clear regulations as to the process by which the minister would be exercising his or her discretion. From the legislation we have now and, quite frankly, what we had from the prior government and from the department, there has been a lack of any type of positive response to those kinds of concerns. I would ask them to do this. I do not think it is unreasonable to say that there has been enough time and the government could be looking at this.