The Senate yesterday blocked passage of a rail bill with demands that cabinet heed shippers’ rights. The close vote marked only the fifth time since 1960 that senators insisted the Commons rewrite legislation.
“Our role as Maritime senators is firstly to look out for the interests of our provinces,” said Senator Diane Griffin (Independent-P.E.I), chair of the Senate agriculture committee; “There is no reason that just because we’re the little ones at the end of the country that we should be treated like the little kid and bullied.”
The Senate transport committee on March 27 amended Bill C-49 An Act To Amend The Canada Transportation Act to compel railways to disclose confidential cost data in arbitration, and allow for competitive Atlantic freight rates by permitting shippers to gain interswitching rights east of Québec City to the Port of Saint John. The Canadian National Railway Co. monopolizes Atlantic freight lines.
The Commons dismissed the Senate amendments May 3. However, in a surprise motion, Senator David Tkachuk (Conservative-Sask.) yesterday urged senators to reject the Commons veto. “The railroads have no competition,” said Tkachuk. Senators passed the motion by a vote of 43 to 39 amid warnings the amendments would upset railway managers.
“Everybody knows Canadian National is the only Class One railway serving destinations in the Maritimes,” said Senator Peter Harder (Ont.), Government Representative in the Senate. “Providing access to long-haul interswitching to shippers in the Maritimes must be balanced against the potential risks of the future viability of CN services in Eastern Canada, which are critical.”
“Why should Maritimers have to pay more?” said Senator Griffin; “This is fundamentally a question of respect. Why is the Maritime region the only region where the economic interests of a private company outweigh the interests of the provinces?”
On only four other occasions since 1960 has the Senate blocked passage of a Commons bill by insisting on its amendments: a 1961 tariff bill; a 1969 Pest Control Products Act; a 2003 Criminal Code amendment on cruelty to animals; and the 2006 Federal Accountability Act. Each time, cabinet either accepted the Senate amendments as final, or prorogued Parliament to kill the bill.
‘Embarrasses The Government’
“Why insist?” said Senator André Pratte (Independent-Que.). “Is it just to embarrass the government for a couple of days? I don’t think it’s worth it, really.”
“If you are willing to fight on it, then let’s fight until there’s a constitutional crisis,” said Pratte. “The regional rights, as important as they are – I don’t think they reach the threshold of creating a constitutional crisis.”
Atlantic senators including Conservatives, Liberals and Independents yesterday protested Maritime shippers were disadvantaged in being unable to contract alternative rail service east of Québec, and that all shippers were entitled to greater disclosure of railways’ actual costs.
“For as long as I can remember, Atlantic Canada has been fighting for equal treatment,” said Senator Michael Duffy (Independent-P.E.I.). “The railways want to keep the status quo.”
Shippers in testimony last February 6 appealed to the Senate transport committee to compel greater disclosure of rail costs and rates in arbitration hearings. “We are totally at their mercy when it comes to rates and it makes it difficult for our shippers to compete,” said Perry Pellerin, president of the Western Canadian Shortline Railway Association.
Senator Rosa Galvez (Independent-Que.), sponsor of the amendment to force railways to disclose costing, said the provision was crucial. “Arbitrators should have access to all relevant rail costing information that is necessary to due proper diligence,” said Galvez; “This will reassure everybody that transparency will become a reality.”
Transport Minister Marc Garneau did not comment on the Senate vote. Garneau had demanded senators pass the legislation five months ago without any revision. “We’ll never get anything accomplished,” said Garneau.
By Tom Korski