Ag committee holds grain movement meeting

An amended Bill C-49, enacted as soon as possible, is the best hope for prairie grain shippers at this point, witnesses told the House of Commons agriculture committee March 19.

Railways and shippers may disagree on the reasons for the current grain backlog, but all of them say the transportation legislation, with some key changes, is needed going forward.

The committee heard from railways, farmers and stakeholders during a four-hour meeting that was interrupted by a vote in the Commons. Bill C-49 is currently in the Senate and is expected to go to clause-by-clause vote later this month.

Rick White from the Canadian Canola Growers Association said the bill is designed to balance the interests of shippers and railways, and while measuring its success might take a while, it still represents progress.

“CCGA encourages the Senate and government to work together to ensure Bill C-49 passes and becomes law as soon as possible,” he said during testimony.

“This is the long-term fix for the problem that we have today. We need it passed.”

However, amendments are required to make it useful, added Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnet and several others. They say it must contain tools that could have prevented the current backlog.

“As it is currently written it does not, as confirmed by many industry players including (Canadian National Railway) at the CFA annual meeting when they said the passage of C-49 would not have avoided the current crisis,” he said.

“They went on to say that only end-to-end data collection, analysis and fact-based decision-making could solve the problem. This sounds like a ringing endorsement to give the (Canadian Transportation Agency) own-motion authority.”

Giving the CTA more investigative power was one of the main recommendations of a review after the 2013-14 backlog, but it wasn’t included in Bill C-49. Bonnett said if it had been in place, it would have helped prevent a repeat of that situation.

Tyler Bjornson, a consultant speaking on behalf of the Western Grain Elevator Association, spoke to the need for changes to the bill’s long haul interswitching provision.

He said it is more bureaucratic and difficult to use than the extended interswitching previously in place.

“We are concerned that the grain sector will not be able to leverage its use properly (without amendments”,” he said.

As the bill is written, an elevator served by both railways or located within 30 kilometres of an existing interchange would be excluded from the provision.

“If those two rail lines are headed in the relatively wrong direction … that elevator for all intents and purposes is still captive,” Bjornson said.

That would leave 75 percent of all of Canada’s value added grain processing facilities unable to use the option, he said.

Tisdale, Sask. farmer and Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan vice-president Ian Boxall said his family has three-month-old grain contracts still undelivered because of poor rail service.

Fertilizer deliveries have had to come extra distances by truck and farmers are paying the bills for all of this, he said.

“We need all parliamentarians from both the House and the Senate to come together and pass Bill C-49 now,” he said.

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