Campaign heats up to reform Vancouver port

Concerns about rising rents prompt Western Grain Elevator Association and prairie provinces to lobby feds for changes

The Western Grain Elevator Association has stepped up its push for governance changes at the Port of Vancouver.

Executive director Wade Sobkowich said efforts to lobby the federal transport minister for legislative change have not worked.

A campaign backed by the three prairie provinces is underway.

The WGEA asked former transport minister Marc Garneau in January 2020 to intervene to stop escalating rent that is costing grain terminals millions of dollars. In 2020, rent went up between 13 and 30 percent for some companies.

The organization asked for changes in governance, citing prairie shipments that account for more than 85 percent of the export value going through Vancouver.

The Prairies have just one representative on the 11-member board.

Port modernization, including governance, was in Garneau’s mandate letter and remains so for current minister Omar Alghabra.

“Through the Ports Modernization Review the government of Canada is considering a number of governance reforms to Canada port authorities to support the competitiveness of Canada’s economy by facilitating the movement of goods through our key gateways,” said the minister’s press secretary, Allison St. Jean.

She noted that port authorities operate in a commercial and arm’s length manner but must comply with the Canada Marine Act.

“They have both the flexibility and responsibility to determine the strategic direction of their operations and make commercial decisions,” she said.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority said in a statement the governance issues raised by WGEA “are dictated by the Canada Marine Act and therefore beyond the control of the port authority.”

The statement said the port operates under the act and must protect the environment and consider local communities while enabling trade.

“It’s a complex mandate that requires balancing many opposing interests of a broad range of stakeholders, ultimately having to make decisions in the best interests of Canadians generally,” the authority said.

The prairie premiers have written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking that the board be reconfigured to include two members from each of the four western provinces, two appointees from the federal government and one from the municipalities bordering the port authority.

Alberta agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen said the Prairies ship nearly 99 million tonnes through the port yet are represented by just nine percent of the board.

“Provinces should be fairly represented to ensure that the specific needs of each region are reflected in our world-class export infrastructure,” he said.

Sobkowich said Ottawa must address these issues now.

“We really need to put pressure on Ottawa to take this seriously. We’re worried we could end up with a bill that just does some minor tweaks or some amendments to the Canada Marine Act that are minor in nature, that are included in an omnibus bill, and… we won’t have the opportunity to get fundamental legislative change to ports’ governance for 10 or 15 years. Now is the time for us to make our concerns widely known,” he said.

The WGEA says the port oversight system lacks accountability compared to rail or air transportation.

“There is no avenue for appeal and there aren’t checks and balances in place,” Sobkowich said. “Canada’s ports are of extreme strategic importance to not only the grain sector but to the western Canadian economy and they have sole decision-making power.

“They make decisions that have very significant and widespread implications.”

David Emerson, who conducted the Canada Transportation Act review several years ago, told a 2017 senate committee meeting that governance change is required.

“I think there is inadequate governance in relation to deployment of capital, there’s inadequate governance when it comes to make sure that there is a recourse to a regulator where there is abuse of monopoly power… frankly I wouldn’t give them any more access to money until you clean that up,” he said.

The port modernization review began in 2018 but Sobkowich said an update released last fall failed to address any of the WGEA’s concerns.

That update said participants had different views on how boards were configured and selected.

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