Question Period
(31 March 2015)

From Hansard - 31 March 2015

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Grain Transportation

Ms. Sproule: — Mr. Speaker, the federal government has decided to remove the pressure from the big rail companies to ship our grain, and this Sask Party government told the federal government that’s just fine. How can the Agriculture minister possibly justify that?

Hon. Mr. Stewart: — Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and I thank the member for her question. We’ve not asked for the minimum standards to be continued after the end of this month. However we have asked the federal government, and I sent letters to both ministers Ritz and Raitt last week to this effect, that the federal government continue to monitor grain shipments very closely and ensure that the railways continue to deliver grain in a fashion that will bring our carry-over down to reasonable levels by the end of the crop year.

Ms. Sproule: — Mr. Speaker, it’s pretty clear the only way to get the railways to react is to put pressure on them, and this government has abandoned that approach. The Ag Transport Coalition says:

The number of hopper car orders not filled by CN and CP has continued to increase each week since the beginning of the crop year; overall, unfulfilled orders have levelled off at about 10 per cent of total shipper demand in recent weeks, indicating that the railways are not making up ground for prior weeks’ shortfalls.

To the minister: how on earth does it make sense to take the pressure off of the big rail companies at a time like this?

Hon. Mr. Stewart: — Thank you, Mr. Speaker. We’re still hearing issues from producers about small shippers, processing plants, shortline railways, branch lines not being properly served and, Mr. Speaker, this is partly a function of the minimum weekly shipments that have been imposed through the legislation. We all recognize that in the industry.

The legislation achieved or was supposed to achieve . . . It got rid of the backlog. Shipments, if they continue in the way they have, the backlog will be quite small by the end of this crop year, down below 10 million tonnes, Mr. Speaker, and hopefully the railways can then stop picking the low-hanging fruit of only taking unit trains off of mainlines and start to serve the rest of our shippers as well. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Ms. Sproule: — Mr. Speaker, rather than taking the pressure off the railways, doesn’t the minister agree we should be actually increasing the pressure?

It’s not just the Ag Transport Coalition that’s expressing concern about the performance of the big rail companies. The Western Grain Elevator Association agrees with the Ag Transport Coalition. Just a couple of days ago they said, “Demand for rail cars is exceeding the supply of rail cars for grain.” Yet the Sask Party government sends off a letter to Ottawa saying it’s time to start doing the big rail companies some favours by taking away the pressure to ship grain.

To the minister: did the CN [Canadian National] and CP [Canadian Pacific] lobby the Sask government for that letter?

Hon. Mr. Stewart: — No, no. I can honestly say that I haven’t had any contact from the two railways for some time now since the meeting that we had with Hunter Harrison some months ago.

I would say that the legislation is a temporary measure that was designed . . . The minimum shipments were designed to end at the end of this month, Mr. Speaker. The CTA, the Canada Transportation Act, is in the process of being reviewed. That is the greatest opportunity that we have to fix this problem, this railway problem, permanently, Mr. Speaker. I don’t know that we can say it’s the chance of a lifetime, but it’s certainly the chance, the best chance we’ll have in a long time to fix it, and the railways have been performing. The carry-over will be quite low at the end of the crop year, and I think we need to find ways to motivate the railways to do this without legislation.

Ms. Sproule: — Mr. Speaker, this government’s approach to the big rail companies is appalling. When a new report from APAS [Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan] and Sask Wheat, Sask pulse, SaskBarley said the big rail companies have overcharged grain producers at least $2 billion over the last seven years, what did the Sask Party government do? They said they’re not really concerned about that. Now we have the Sask Party government scheming with Ottawa to take the pressure off the big rail companies to ship grain despite the fact that CN and CP have not even come close to meeting the need.

To the minister: will he admit he made a mistake, and will he call on the federal government to extend those minimum volume shipping requirements today?

Hon. Mr. Stewart: — Well, Mr. Speaker, on this side of the floor, we’re more interested in finding workable solutions to the problem than in just simply standing up to grandstand in question period. Mr. Speaker, the minimum weekly delivery requirements required under the Act only service mainlines proper, and it has dispensed with the backlog. That’s all it could be expected to do.

It’s impossible to develop legislation that can force railways to serve every shipper because it’s just there are just too many variables, Mr. Speaker. That can’t be done through legislation. We have to develop a proper Canadian transportation Act with the right motivations in it to encourage the railways to do this, and now is the time to do it. This is the opportunity, not the time to grandstand about how we need to clean things up or change things or legislate railways to do something that they’re not properly motivated to do, Mr. Speaker. It’s time to work with the railways and the industry.

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