Senate holds up transportation legislation

Canada’s transportation modernization act won’t get through the Senate before Christmas, leaving grain shippers to cross their fingers and hope the weather and railways co-operate this winter.

Statistics Canada last week released 2017 production estimates showing larger than expected canola and wheat crops and a 93 million tonne overall crop.

No one wants a repeat of the 2013-14 winter when a large crop, harsh weather and lack of railway power caused a transportation nightmare and $5 billion in losses.

The previous legislation enacted after the backlog, the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act, ensured extended interswitching and minimum railway volumes, but it expired July 31.

Bill C-49 contains a new long haul interswitching mechanism and other provisions, but it won’t pass now until spring.

Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett said the government could reinstate the former legislation to give farmers peace of mind.

“What is the hammer to make sure that there’s performance taking place?” he said.

“If there’s going to be a lengthy delay like that, that would be one of the things we would be looking at.”

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart also said there has to be some protection.

“We have a large crop that is ready to move, and if this bill isn’t passed until the spring, our farmers and grain handlers will need to ensure that there are interim measures put in place,” he said.

The government had hoped Bill C-49 could be passed and in place before Christmas. The bill went to the Senate Nov. 2 but just moved to the transport committee Dec. 8 amid pressure from transport minister Marc Garneau and others.

The committee’s first and only scheduled meeting, as of Dec. 11, was for Dec. 12.

When asked last week if it was possible to push the bill through before the House of Commons adjourns Dec. 15, Conservative Senator and transport committee chair David Tkachuk said: “Not going to happen.”

He said there are just too many parts to the complex bill, which aside from grain measures includes the airline passenger bill of rights and video and voice recorders in locomotives. He said the government knows it takes bills up to five months to get through the Senate.

“I told the minister when he asked me about this two weeks ago, ‘look it, I have no interest in holding up the bill, but I have no interest in rushing through the bill. We have so many interest groups on this bill that want to testify.’”

That was Nova Scotia Senator Terry Mercer’s point when he rose to debate the bill last week. The deputy leader of the Senate Liberals said the 67-page Bill C-49 would amend 13 acts.

“The undue pressure being applied with regard to this bill and other bills in the Senate is unwarranted, unnecessary and quite frankly disrespectful,” he said.

Grain industry leaders are anxious, however.

Wade Sobkowich from the Western Grain Elevators Association said shippers want to take advantage of new measures in Bill C-49 such as service level agreements with true reciprocal penalties.

“Shippers have been without extended interswitching for over four months and we are anxious to put long haul interswitching to use,” he said.

Mercer said that extending the previous legislation would have been simpler than including it in an omnibus bill.

“If this government was so concerned about the movement of grain, why did they not extend the previous legislation, like they did once already?” he said.

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