This week, Terry Engler, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 400 Marine Section, writes on his concern about the lack of regulatory muscle to ensure safe operations on Canadian coasts and waterways. It’s an important concern: while the government of Canada has spent millions of dollars on public relations and commissioned studies that prop up the status quo, Canadians themselves remain unconvinced when we talk about marine safety and the protection of Canada’s coasts.
We have watched the Canadian Coast Guard cut back on its search-and-rescue bases in Newfoundland and close its critical Kitsilano station in Vancouver. We saw an inadequate response from coast guard on the Marathassa oil spill into Vancouver’s English Bay. We watched the closing of Marine Traffic and Communications Services offices in B.C., including the one located in the busy centre of Vancouver’s harbour.
We have seen what lax regulations and enforcement mean in other industries as well. The memories have yet to fade from the horror of Quebec’s Lac-Megantic train-derailment disaster two years ago that claimed at least 42 people in a crude-oil inferno — or from the listeriosis disaster in Ontario five years earlier, when 22 people died after eating contaminated cold cuts processed at a meat plant where federal inspectors had spent less than two hours a day in the months prior.
We think it is important to listen carefully to the voices of people like Terry Engler, who has so much experience on the operations, labour and regulatory side of Canada’s marine industry. It’s important to pay attention — and to understand that Canada’s maritime workers have more in common with other Canadian citizens than with the corporate interests that seem to rule our government.
I worked as a cook and cook/deckhand in the marine industry from 1976 through 2000. Since then, I have served as president of ILWU Local 400 Marine Section, representing unlicensed seafarers on board towboats. I have participated both regionally and nationally since 2000 in the Canadian Marine Advisory Council (CMAC, a national advisory stakeholder council for policy and regulatory issues). I was an active participant in the development of the Canada Shipping Act 2000. I have also led negotiations for all of the Local 400 collective agreements since 2000. I believe that this experience gives me an important perspective on the marine industry in B.C. in the past and going forward.
In 2000, when I first attended CMAC and began to engage in consultations on the regulations that govern the marine industry, labour’s position was to increase prescriptive regulations and enhance their enforcement. But union voices were unfortunately not unified at that time, and the federal government was able to simply ignore the differing union positions. Industry demanded less regulation (so-called “red tape”) and, given that the government of the day was becoming more conservative, it agreed to move to “best practices” as industry demanded.
“Best practices” is simply a new term for “self-regulation” – which, history has shown, does not work in the long run. Companies will follow best practices when their business is doing well but if they have problems, they will cut corners and do whatever is necessary to try to make the profit that their owners demand. Governments enacted regulations in the first place because because business made it clear that it would pollute the world and harm workers and citizens if polluting would lead to higher profits.
Governments had no choice but to bring in regulations to protect their citizens, communities and their sovereign territory. There are no shortages of examples of this historic reality — from Minimata disease caused by mercury from pulp mills in northern Ontario to the Love Canal’s chemical disaster in upstate New York, to the tar-ponds coal contamination in Nova Scotia, the Exxon Valdez crude-oil spill in Alaska and the acid residue from the Britannia Beach mine in B.C. All of these disasters were caused in part because there were no regulations
— or because there was no enforcement of existing regulations.
Employers have convinced our right-wing governments that regulations are “red tape” and that the “free market” will protect us all. But if you pay attention to history, it is obvious that without regulation, the “free market” will result in disasters that will harm workers, the public and the environment.
Transport Canada, the regulatory body covering maritime issues, has in the past 15 years agreed to industry’s demands to allow self- regulation. It has also cut the number of inspectors on the ground, and even gone so far as ensure Transport Canada owns none of its own vessels – which has led to a bizarre situation in which Transport Canada must hire a vessel from the RCMP or other party to do marine inspections unless the vessel is secured at a dock.
I know that most Transport Canada inspectors and bureaucrats are hardworking and want to make a positive difference, but the federal government has been cutting funds to all departments that enforce regulations. The ruling parties are proponents of the unfettered “free market” and will blindly follow that mantra, no matter the consequences.
We have a particularly challenging problem in B.C. because the environmental movement has declared the province ground zero in its campaign against the carbon economy – even as the federal and provincial governments have decided that oil and natural gas (the carbon economy) are the basis and future of our economy. I consider myself to be an environmentalist; I want my children and their children to have a clean environment. But they will also need to have good, living-wage paying jobs to support a good life — and we have lost too many of our good-paying industrial jobs to globalization.
I know that we can increase marine traffic in B.C. safely, but doing so will require a strong regulatory regime and a robust inspectorate. How do we get there when our governments promote “best practices” and self-regulation and cut their inspection budgets?
Clearly, we need to work to elect a government that reflects our views and understands that we need regulations and enforcement to protect us from the vagaries of the free-market system.