July 16, 2014 6:30 am

Aligning rail safety regulations with Americans’ is risky, short sighted: Opposition

The Conservative government’s recent, quiet move to conceal new rail safety rules from Canadians is part of a bid to align Canada’s policies with those of the United States, according to a spokeswoman for the transport minister.

/Matthew Brown/AP

The Conservative government’s recent, quiet move to conceal new rail safety rules from Canadians is part of a bid to align Canada’s policies with those of the United States, according to a spokeswoman for the transport minister.

The move — and the reasons given — do not sit well with the Opposition.

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“I don’t understand why the government keeps going in line with the U.S. without trying to look here for a way for us to make it safer,” said NDP transport critic Hoang Mai. “We have the capacity here to look at our own rules, look at our regulations, make comments and make sure the regulations are safer and stronger.”

READ MORE: What’s safer (and not) since the Lac-Megantic disaster

The change was buried inside the Conservatives’ massive budget bill, which passed into law late last month. About halfway through the 363-page bill is one sentence that repeals one provision of the Railway Safety Act — the section forcing the government to publish any proposed regulatory changes at least 90 days before coming into force.

Those 90 days begin the day the proposed changes are published in the Canada Gazette, the public journal of the government, and allow the public and interested parties to make arguments for or against the proposed change.

Now, only the final regulation will warrant being made public, in black and white.

READ MORE: Lack of rail safety data leaving Canada at risk for future incidents: report

“The government is fast tracking changes without allowing people to say if they think the changes are in the right direction,” Mai said. “It risks burying regulations.”

Granted, most Canadians likely do not read the Canada Gazette on a regular basis. Still,  it’s a matter of having new laws, proposed amendments and many other actions on the record

A spokeswoman for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt brushed off the change, saying it affects only “minor administrative-type amendments and responding to urgent situations.”

In a recent emailed response, Jana Régimbal wrote Transport Canada will still consult affected parties before amending any safety regulations.  To take part in those consultations, however, one usually must be invited.

READ MORE: ‘Significant weaknesses’ in Transport Canada’s oversight of rail safety: Auditor General

Following consultations with “affected stakeholders” on either side of the border, Régimbal wrote, the government will now be able to expedite changes “that facilitate the alignment of Canadian and U.S. regulatory regimes.”

This is not, however, the first time the Harper government has changed Canadian rules at the behest of the U.S. government.

Two weeks ago, a tax deal with the U.S. came into effect forcing Canadian banks to send sensitive financial information to the International Revenue Service.  Had Canada disagreed to do this, the government was looking at potentially harsh economic sanctions.

And as part of the wide-ranging Beyond the Border Action Plan, Canadian and American governments recently started sharing data about residents who cross the border from either side— a move privacy advocates have widely panned.

The changes to the Railway Safety Act means Canadians will not know about many regulatory changes — including those respecting maintenance, jobs “critical to safe railway operation,” preserving records and documents relevant to railway safety and those respecting the establishment of safety management systems.

“The government is fast tracking changes without allowing people to say if they think the changes are in the right direction,” Mai said.

The amendments would not give Canadians living in areas, like Lac-Megantic, Que., surrounded by train tracks along which dangerous goods travel a chance to voice concern before regulations are changed.

Barely more than one year ago, a runaway train carrying tanks of oil came barrelling into the centre of the small Quebec town. The unmanned train destroyed the downtown area, killed 47 people and contaminated waterways.

“In this way, they are moving in a way that is less transparent, more opaque. It’s a concern,“ Mai said.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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