Honourable colleagues, I would like to add my voice in support of the inquiry brought forward by Senator Downe.
I’m a lifelong Prince Edward Islander, and I agree completely with Senator Downe that we Islanders are grateful for the bridge and the access it provides us to the mainland. I remember well when the ferry was the only means of transport to and from the mainland. Organizing our lives around the ferry schedule or the weather was not always easy, especially when it was for medical treatment or appointments that had taken weeks to arrange in the first place. Waiting in line at the ferry docks and heaven forbid missing your planned ferry or Mother Nature getting in the way via snow, sleet or wind were all common occurrences and made life difficult, especially in the winter months.
Prince Edward Island is tiny by Canadian standards. Our population is barely 150,000 people, but the Island is no less of a province than Ontario, Quebec or British Columbia.
The population of greater Montreal alone is over 4 million people. Our entire province is just 0.4 per cent of Canada’s second-largest city. Our tax base is minuscule in comparison. On paper, to those crunching the numbers here in Ottawa, it may seem perfectly reasonable to deal with one bridge differently than another, even if both of those bridges are federally owned.
According to Infrastructure Canada’s website, the anticipated traffic and trade crossings per year on the Champlain Bridge will be approximately 50 million vehicles. This includes the 11 million commuters travelling into Montreal from the suburbs.
In contrast, it is estimated that local traffic — Islanders travelling from and to home — would be 900,000 crossings annually. Tourists in the summer months, buses and commercial tractor trailers bring the total number of crossings to about 1.5 million annually. That’s 50 million versus 1.5 million. I get it. Numbers don’t lie.
I’m not a cynic. I don’t want to believe that the decision relating to a lack of tolls on Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge is a political one. But the Confederation Bridge and the Champlain Bridge are both federally owned. While the Champlain Bridge is needed for the sprawling Montreal population, the Confederation Bridge is required constitutionally. Prince Edward Island agreed to join Confederation in 1873 in part because Canada promised a year-round link to the mainland. The Confederation Bridge is that link. But a cynic might conclude that the optics of the inequity between the Champlain Bridge and Confederation Bridge might be based on something other than the government’s claim that Montrealers are getting a replacement bridge.
The Confederation Bridge replaced the constitutionally mandated ferry; it was not an add-on. This isn’t apples and oranges; it’s oranges and oranges. If the replacement argument works for Montrealers, the same argument works for Islanders.
Senator Downe eloquently outlined the disparity and unfairness of the financial burden being placed on Islanders versus people in other parts of Canada. He also outlined the costs associated with the various bridges. I won’t repeat all the numbers, but I will stress that Islanders pay $47.75 to leave the Island. Islanders are also taxpayers. So the federally owned Champlain Bridge costing $25 million annually to maintain upon completion, using federal tax dollars, is also being paid for by Islanders. Simplistically speaking, that would be $47.75 each time an Islander leaves P.E.I., plus who knows how much more each April at tax time.
The Mi’kmaq people of Prince Edward Island have inhabited the land for more than 10,000 years. When the French and English settlers began arriving in the early 1700s, we engaged in friendship treaties with them so we could live together amicably. I’m very much of the same mindset as my ancestors.
I’m not unreasonable, and I don’t think Islanders are unreasonable. The convenience of the bridge far surpasses the uncertainty of ferry travel. But I read Senator Downe’s speech carefully. I also reviewed the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s report that Senator Downe commissioned in 2016. There are ways to deal with this.
My concern is the disparity between regions in Canada. Our geography is massive. I understand fully the need to deal with regions and population centres differently. I concur with Senator Downe that the decision relating to the Champlain Bridge has perhaps unwittingly, in my opinion, engendered resentment among Canadians and regions.
As a former Mi’kmaq chief and negotiator, I always break down a problem into the most basic components and try to identify what exactly is agreeable to both parties and what exactly needs to be done or discussed in order to reach a compromise.
Islanders agree with the government that the Confederation Bridge is necessary for the economic and lifestyle well-being of Islanders and the improvement of tourism and trade for P.E.I. Islanders and the government agree that the bridge has dramatically improved the daily lives of Islanders.
Islanders and the government disagree because it appears that one area of Canada is being treated differently than another based on a random decision in what can be argued is an identical situation.
The PBO report commissioned by Senator Downe offers some ideas worth discussing, whether it be a tax credit for Islanders in order to offset the burden of the current toll cost, lowering the toll and extending the period of payment, or the cost to taxpayers of removing the toll completely.
In the current political climate and the varying opinions on all matters great and small, there is plenty of fodder for discussion and disagreement on issues far more weighty than whether a toll is imposed on a bridge. This issue should not be one where Canadian citizens feel marginalized or ignored, depending on where in the country they reside or whether their voices are as compelling as voices elsewhere. The federal government should not be putting itself in a position where it is perceived that favouritism is being extended to a far more populous voting base.
I will give the government the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was never their intention, but I also expect the government to open the discussions regarding these problems so that Islanders can know for certain that their concerns are being recognized and addressed.