Alberta grain producers call on Ottawa to speed new transportation legislation

Alberta grain producers are advocating for changes to new transportation legislation, which they say will help reduce a serious backlog of deliveries.

'If we lose markets, that's a terrible outcome — and all we needed is rail service to get it to the port'

The railway is a lifeline to market for grain farmers in remote areas of northern Alberta, says Alberta Wheat Commission director Warren Sekulic. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Warren Sekulic is paid on delivery.

When his 3,000-ton harvest of wheat, peas and canola isn't delivered, he isn't paid.

For the lifelong farmer near the village of Rycroft, Alta., it's that simple.

That's why Sekulic travelled nearly 4,000 kilometres to Ottawa on Monday to advocate for changes to Bill C-49, proposed legislation to amend and modernize the Canada Transportation Act. 

As a farmer in northern Alberta, Sekulic said he relies on railroads to get the products of his fourth-generation farm to markets.

Roughly one-third of the railway shipments he contracted for last year's harvest were delayed. 

"That's a significant impact on my cash flow, my ability to pay my bills, my ability to pay my rent," Sekulic said. 

"It's causing some concern among our buyers, that we aren't a reliable supplier of our grain. If we lose markets, that's a terrible outcome. And all we needed is rail service to get it to the port."

Sekulic, a regional director of the Alberta Wheat Commission, said it's an issue affecting grain producers across the province.

He said Bill C-49 needs to be amended and passed as soon as possible, to help farmers get their upcoming harvests to market. 

Warren Sekulic, director of the Alberta Wheat Commission, says one third of his contracted deliveries were delayed after the 2017 harvest. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Sekulic travelled to Ottawa with what he calls Team Alberta — representatives from the province's pulse, canola, barley and wheat commissions.

The team met with senators and members of Parliament over three days to talk about Bill C-49. The proposed legislation includes changes to air and railway transportation nationally.

"There's lots of good things in it," Sekulic said. "With the changes that we're asking for, we think that it could be quite a significant win for us."

Long-haul inter-switching

The Alberta Wheat Commission is especially interested in changes to long-haul inter-switching, the ability to change carriers along a railway line, he said. 

Under the proposed legislation, a shipper can apply for a long-haul inter-switching order against a railway company that isn't meeting its contractual obligations.

The legislation applies when a shipper has access to only one railway company at the origin or destination of the product being transported, and when there is more than one company operating on the connecting route.

"Our shippers tell us that just the threat of the inter-switch actually significantly increased the performance of the railways," Sekulic said. 

Just the prospect of having competition in the system will move grain better, and if grain moves better throughout the system, it benefits everyone.- Warren Sekulic, Alberta Wheat Commission

"Just the prospect of having competition in the system will move grain better, and if grain moves better throughout the system, it benefits everyone."

Sekulic said the wording of the amendment needs to be changed to put more pressure on railway companies.

For instance, Bill C-49 states shippers can apply for a long-haul inter-switch at the nearest opportunity. Sekulic said that's useless if the interchange doesn't connect to a route leading to the shipping destination.

Instead, he said shippers should be able to apply for an inter-switch at the nearest interchange that will allow a product to get to its intended market.

"There's no competition in the system right now, and the grain is captive and they know they'll get to it eventually," Sekulic said about Canadian railway companies.

"They're the backbone and the bottleneck of our system right now, so we really want them to perform to the maximum of their ability. It's good for everybody."

Warren Sekulic produces about 3,000 tons of wheat, peas and canola annually on his fourth-generation farm near Rycroft, Alta. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Bill C-49 passed its third reading in November 2017. Sekulic said the proposed legislation needs to be expedited, to take effect before fall.

"We sure don't want to be going into harvest next year still without any rail legislation," he said. "It'll be really tough on farmers ... so we really need to get this passed."

Bill C-49 before Senate

In a written statement, Transport Canada said the proposed freight rail measures in Bill C-49 are meant to support a transparent, fair, efficient and safe rail system across the country.

"The proposed amendments aim to sustain the commercial orientation that has helped make Canada's railways among the world's most efficient and Canadian rates among the lowest in the world," the emailed statement said.

"In particular, the amendments promote fair access to dispute resolution processes, system efficiency, long-term investment, and transparency."

The department confirmed it is aware of the advocacy in Ottawa by the Alberta Wheat Commission and acknowledged the "critical importance of an efficient and reliable rail system in moving Canadian grain to market."

Bill C-49 is before the Senate, which is considering the proposed amendments to the Canada Transportation Act.

Transport Canada said it supports a quick passage of the legislation, but added it "understands the Senate has an important responsibility of reviewing the bill."



Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.