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Bill S-219, Canada Post Corporation Act

 

Hon. Michael L. MacDonald: Honourable senators, I am pleased to address Bill S-219, An Act to amend the Canada Post Corporation Act (rural postal services and the Canada Post Ombudsmen) introduced here on June 1, 2010.

The bill proposes to amend the Canada Post Corporation Act by introducing provisions to: resume rural delivery to every rural roadside mailbox that was serviced on September 1, 2005, except where the Corporation is of the opinion that doing so would pose an undue risk that could not be reasonably dealt with by relocating the mailbox or other measures at the Corporation's expense; require Canada Post to give six months written notice to customers of a change in rural mail delivery or other rural postal service; establish an ombudsman, as a Governor-in-Council appointment, with the power to request changes to policies and practices of the Corporation; and require the minister to undertake a review of the operation of these amendments every five years.

At the outset, I confess that this bill somewhat confuses me. When I first read it through, it struck me how similar the proposed amendments to the Canada Post Corporation Act are to actions already undertaken either by this government or by Canada Post.

For example, almost four years ago this government directed Canada Post to maintain roadside delivery to rural mailboxes that were serviced on September 1, 2005, while respecting all applicable laws.

Canada Post has been diligent in its response to the government's rural directive and in its efforts to meet its legal obligations for employee safety, as well as to address public concern about maintaining rural mailbox delivery. Since the directive, Canada Post has been busy assessing the safety of all rural mailboxes, of which there are some 843,000. While that is a large number of mailboxes, I should note that it makes up only 6 per cent of all addresses served by Canada Post across Canada.

As Canada's population grows and its cities expand, there are cases where once rural byways are becoming well-travelled highways. This has been making it difficult for rural carriers to exit and re-enter traffic lanes safely to deliver the mail. Some of these situations have involved vehicles coming around a curve and not having the time or room to avoid a stopped carrier vehicle. Unfortunately, in the last few years there have been numerous traffic accidents involving rural carriers. More regrettably, three rural carriers have been killed while delivering the mail.

To this point, Canada Post has assessed more than half the rural mailboxes using a traffic safety assessment tool developed with the help of third-party experts. Delivery to 89 per cent of the mailboxes that have been assessed has been maintained at the end of the laneway.

In the exceptional cases where delivery has been found to be unsafe, Canadians have worked with Canada Post to keep their local mail carrier from danger by moving a mailbox to a safer location, usually a few feet down the road or across the street.

It is only when a safe nearby location cannot be found that alternatives such as delivery to a community mailbox or to a post office box are considered.

Canada Post has been actively consulting with the communities affected, and many of us in this room have taken advantage of Canada Post's offer to do a ride-along to better understand the dangers and what Canada Post is doing to address them. I would encourage all senators to go and see the good work that Canada Post is doing.

Even though the opposition seems to have come to realize the importance of maintaining and assessing delivery to rural mailboxes, the bill before us would seem to indicate that they have come to that realization somewhat late in the game. Nonetheless, I am encouraged that there is general agreement on both sides that the rigorous assessment of rural mailboxes that is currently well under way is an important task.

However, the bill before us does not seem to recognize the legal responsibility that Canada Post has as an employer to ensure the safety of its employees in accordance with the Canada Labour Code and the Criminal Code. Similar to the 2006 rural directive, this bill proposes that Canada Post resume delivery to all rural mailboxes in service on September 1, 2005.

Where the bill differs from the rural directive is that it overlooks existing legislation such as the Canada Labour Code and leaves it up to Canada Post to determine if there is an undue risk to the resumption of such delivery. This creates a potential risk that Canada Post would be subject to a lesser obligation with the language "undue risk" versus the Canada Labour Code definition of "danger."

Such ambiguity may create uncertainty in interpretation and perhaps an uncertainty as to how to proceed in the case of a dangerous situation for employees.

Which legislation would be given precedence, an amended Canada Post Corporation Act as proposed by Bill S-219 or the Criminal Code and the Canada Labour Code? Although this is a question best left to lawyers to determine, without a doubt we should not be putting into force amendments to legislation that does not take into account such important pre-existing legislation.

The first provision also places the onus on Canada Post for assuming the cost of moving rural mailboxes in the exceptional circumstances where such a movement is required. As it now stands, residents own their own mailboxes. Such a change could make Canada Post vulnerable to liability in the event of injury during the movement. Also, there would be unwelcome financial implications for Canada Post for the relocation of unsafe mailboxes at a time when Canada Post is barely making a profit, despite significant cuts — including to its management ranks — in recent years. I must ask myself if residents who have already spent their own money to move their mailboxes would seek retroactive compensation from Canada Post. If so, imagine how this would play out and how time-consuming and expensive this would be for Canada Post.

The second provision proposed by Bill S-219 is that Canada Post provide six months' written notice to customers of a change in rural mail delivery or other rural postal service. The Canadian Post Service Charter announced by this government scarcely more than a year ago, in September 2009, already requires a 30-day consultation period. Would such an extended consultation period lead to better service? I do not know why anyone would think it would. I can tell honourable senators that a consultation period extended from one month to six months is likely to constrain Canada Post's operational flexibility to respond quickly to unforeseen circumstances affecting infrastructure, such as a fire at a post office, or affecting its personnel, such as the unforeseen retirement of a post master. What if there is a new directive from a health and safety officer? Canada Post, like other employers under federal jurisdiction, must comply immediately.

On the subject of the Canadian Postal Service Charter, I would emphasize that this is another important initiative of the government. This government supports Canada Post and has committed to all Canadians, both rural and urban, to continue to have a universal, effective and economically viable postal service. That is why, in April 2008, the government established an independent review panel to examine Canada Post and its ability to continue to deliver on its legislated mandate, which is to provide universal service across Canada in a financially self-sustaining manner.

This is also why the government acted quickly, after receiving the advice of that independent review panel, to take the necessary action to ensure that Canada Post could continue to deliver on its mandate.

In September of last year, the government introduced the Canadian Postal Service Charter outlining our expectations for this Crown corporation. Canada Post will provide postal services that Canadians can count on. It will maintain rural postal services and it will protect Canadians' mail.

This is the first time that the expectations of Canadians for Canada Post have been clearly established by the federal government. This government has stated clearly in the Service Charter that it believes that postal services to rural regions are an integral part of Canada Post's universal service. The Service Charter specifically requires community outreach and consultation when Canada Post is forced to change delivery, such as permanently closing or moving corporate post offices. This provides both the corporation and the community an opportunity to work together to explore the available options to meet the community's postal needs and find the appropriate solution.

Over the course of the recent review of Canada Post and following the release of the report of the independent panel, the government received significant feedback from rural residents, local councils and rural interest groups on the importance of the postal system for rural communities. The Service Charter responds to this feedback and addresses the concerns of rural Canadians by ensuring a universal postal service. Unlike the intent of this bill, which seems to unduly favour certain Canadian regions over others, our expectation of service is a national one, not one affected by region or proximity, but rather one that ensures that everyone everywhere has access to the same services.

The third proposed provision of Bill S-219 is that a Canada Post Corporation ombudsman be established as a Governor-in-Council appointment with the power to request changes to policies and practices of the corporation. As most honourable senators are already aware, Canada Post already has an ombudsman. In fact, Canada Post's ombudsman was awarded one of the prestigious Canada Awards for Excellence by the National Quality Institute on September 13, 2010. The ombudsman's office, led by Nicole Goodfellow, won the Gold Trophy for quality in the Public Sector - Small Organizations category. The Canada Awards for Excellence is an annual awards program to recognize business excellence in quality, customer service and a healthy workplace.

Canada Post has had an ombudsman in place since 1997. The ombudsman works independently of Canada Post staff and management, and reports directly to the corporation's board of directors. Over the past few years, for example, the ombudsman has dealt with over 7,000 complaints a year. Although the number of complaints sounds large, Canada Post receives very few complaints relative to the millions of customers it serves each and every day.

The bill calls for a Governor-in-Council appointed ombudsman who would be part of the public service and who would have the power to change Canada Post's administrative policies. Such a change would increase the perception of government control and conflict with the accountability role that has, in the Canadian tradition, been conferred on the Crown corporation's board of directors. It is the fiduciary duty of the board of directors to oversee the management of the corporation and to act in the best interests of the corporation. The appointment of an ombudsman with the power to change administration policies could diminish the board's ability to fulfill its duty.

The last proposed provision of Bill S-219 requires the minister responsible to Parliament for Canada Post to undertake a review of operation of the proposed amendments every five years. This provision is very similar to the requirement of the Service Charter that the government review the Canadian Postal Service Charter every five years after its adoption to assess the need to adapt the charter to changing requirements. Since the Service Charter was informed and developed following the independent strategic review of Canada Post in 2008, it is much more comprehensive in the expectations the government places on Canada Post than is the bill before us now.

It should be obvious from the actions that have been taken over the past few years that the government and Canada Post are keenly aware of the concerns of rural Canadians and the importance of providing reliable postal services to them.

As is stated in the preamble of the Service Charter, the Government of Canada is committed to ensuring transparency in how Canada Post provides quality postal services to all Canadians, rural and urban, individuals and businesses, in a secure and financially self-sustaining manner.

Since virtually all of the measures called for in Bill S-219 have already been taken by the government or the Canada Post Corporation, and since the provisions proposed by the bill may even conflict with existing law and compromise rural postal delivery, this bill should not be supported.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify the government's position on this bill.