Skip to main content

With the long, harsh winter over, CN says it is moving grain to at record speed.ANDREW WALLACE/Reuters

The head of one of Canada's major railways is firing back at the Conservative government, saying Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has "lost perspective" and is vilifying railways in responding to the Prairies' multibillion-dollar grain backlog.

Canadian National Railway Co. chief executive officer Claude Mongeau made the comments Wednesday to a Senate committee considering Bill C-30, aimed at easing a backlog largely the result of last year's bumper crop and an unusually harsh winter.

The bill sets minimum levels of grain that rail companies must ship each week, opens up Canada's rail lines to some foreign competition and creates a provision that allows grain shippers to seek cash compensation from railways in certain cases.

Railways firmly oppose the bill, arguing it won't actually lead to more grain being shipped and will create new bureaucratic headaches. But Mr. Ritz has largely blamed railways, and Mr. Mongeau fired back Wednesday.

"During the winter, there was a tsunami of finger-pointing looking for the culprit and we lost control of the agenda. Because it was more important to find the culprit than it was to look at the facts," Mr. Mongeau said, later adding: "I think the minister's lost perspective and has gone too far."

Railways are already shipping record levels of grain and should be congratulated, he said.

"There's no point blaming the railroads for a tough winter and imposing legislation that's not well thought through," he told reporters afterward. "Instead we are positioned as the culprit and we have been punished …[with government saying], 'We're doing something, we're going to legislate.' It's not helping move more grain."

Conservative senators took issue with his testimony – "If I was the minister of agriculture, I don't think I'd take this very well," Jean-Guy Dagenais said – and the committee chair asked for more "parliamentary language" from the rail executives.

"It's useless to complain. You should take the necessary steps to deal with this," Conservative Senator Ghislain Maltais told Mr. Mongeau. "… If the minister decided to come down with legislation it's because there was a problem to solve."

Others pointed a finger at CN in testimony Wednesday. Ken Eshpeter, CEO of the small Battle River Railway, said CN failed to adequately respond to the cold winter, while Rick White of the Canadian Canola Growers Association said the backlog has "clearly demonstrated that the railways operate in a privileged position."

Last year's bumper crop of 76 million tonnes left railways under pressure to ship 50 per cent more grain for export than in an average year, they say. Mr. Mongeau said Mr. Ritz's office was still, as of last fall, substantially underestimating the harvest. A cold winter forced railways to run shorter trains, but they've since ramped up shipments again to record levels.

"It's not a government order, it's the fact winter broke away. We're moving a new record," Mr. Mongeau said.

Bill C-30 has passed the House of Commons and is expected to become law soon. Mr. Mongeau said he expects his testimony won't change the bill, but wanted to seize the chance nonetheless.

"You take the forums that you have," he said.