Funding slashed for all safety programs at Transport Canada

An aerial photo provided by the RCMP shows the crash site of Air Canada flight 624 at Halifax Stanfield International Airport. RCMP

OTTAWA —The Conservative government is slashing funding for all safety and security programs at Transport Canada, with a significant chunk coming out of safety oversight initiatives, planning documents show.

The amount of funding set to be clawed away varies between programs — the budget for transportation of dangerous goods is going down 32 per cent while the budget for aviation safety is dropping 9.2 per cent, for example — but all are seeing decreases, just as the wreckage of Air Canada Flight 624 was pulled off a runway in Halifax and the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic continues to rebuild.

Other programs dealing with cuts include marine safety (23 per cent), rail safety (4.3 per cent) and motor vehicle safety (8.8 per cent). All percentage differences were calculated using the department’s forecasted spending for 2014-15 and planned spending for 2015-16.

READ MORE: New photos show aerial view of Air Canada flight 624 crash site

New Democrat transport critic Hoang Mai, who is also vice-chair of the House of Commons transport committee, said he finds the cuts very concerning.

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The committee recently completed a study into transporting dangerous good through rail, marine, air and road.

“What we found was there was a problem regarding oversight,” Mai said. “And we know there are more problems regarding the increased amount of dangerous goods going through our cities … So when we see cuts to safety across the board, it’s really troubling.”

In the departmental planning document, tabled late Tuesday in the House of Commons, the department chalked up the decreases across the board to funding transfers, “internal reallocations” and one-time severance payoffs in 2014-15; the drops in funding for transporting dangerous goods and marine safety were attributed to spikes in activity in 2014-15.

Even with that in mind, though, the funding levels for aviation, marine and motor vehicle safety programs are down from 2013-14 levels —and all will be further cut at least until 2017-18, the planning documents reveal. Transport Minister Lisa Raitt’s office told Global News none of the cuts target “front line safety or security.”

Transportation safety was thrust into the national conscience when an unmanned runaway train hauling 7.7 million litres of crude oil barrelled into the heart Lac-Megantic. The brakes on the train had given out, setting the tanker cars plowing toward the town centre at more than 104 kilometres per hour. The cars derailed and exploded, killing 47 people, destroying the downtown area and contaminating waterways.

READ MORE: Lax safety measures, poor training led to fatal Lac-Mégantic rail disaster

Since that tragedy, Transport Canada has pledged to hire more inspectors and implemented regulations to address safety concerns related to transporting dangerous goods by rail —a mode of transport expected to increase considerably in the coming years.

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Given recent accidents and tragedies, it’s “deeply worrying” the Conservatives are cutting funding to these programs, Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland said, adding the cuts suggest the government doesn’t take safety seriously.

“The government is responsible for ensuring proper oversight and that safety regulations are enforced,” she said.

Drilling into the figures made public this week showed rail safety programs are set to experience a two per cent decrease between 2015-16 and 2017-18, the entirety of which will come from “rail safety oversight.”

According to the department, that part of the program deals with inspections and audits, helping ensure the rail industry complies with federal safety regulations.

“What we’re seeing is a move to allow industries to self-regulate and self-inspect,” Mai said. “The Transportation Safety Board has already said the government isn’t doing enough to make sure companies are following the rules.”

The oversight budget for motor vehicle safety will also go down between 2015-16 and 2017-18, as will the envelope earmarked for motor vehicle safety regulatory framework (the policies, regulations and standards applied to manufacturers).

Speaking about those cuts, Mai was reminded of the massive 2014 GM recall that saw thousands of faulty ignition switches linked to dozens of deaths — two of which were in Mai’s home province of Quebec.

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“It took a tragedy like Lac-Megantic for us to realize how problematic some of the oversight was,” he said. “Canadians haven’t seen a tragedy like Lac-Megantic happen on the roads or waterways … let’s not wait until after a tragedy to realize we should not cut safety budgets.”

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