Auditor General takes aim at safety regulation in latest report

The truly horrible derailment in Lac Megantic and the XL Foods recall saga are two significant events that shook Canadians’ faith in our regulatory system in the last year.   The federal agencies that oversee the regulations, Transport Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), were among the subjects covered in this week’s Auditor General (AG) Report which found deficiencies in both. 

According to AG, Michael Ferguson, there are persistent and critical gaps in rail safety oversight, and continuing problems in the food recall system.    He tells us that twelve years after deregulating rail safety through the Safety Management Systems regime, the federal government cannot ensure the safety of Canada’s railways.  We also learned that the documentation process relating to food recalls is slow and incomplete.  Perhaps most damning for the Conservatives was Mr. Ferguson’s charge that even when the federal government has identified a problem, it is taking too long to address it and implement solutions.

For the CFIA, the AG said that, although there could have been much more illness associated with the XL recall, we cannot view that as a success and should see it more as a case of getting lucky.  The government claims the findings related to the CFIA are all administrative and brushed them aside with assurances that all will be right by the spring.   They should be viewing the gaps in the flow of information and the cohesiveness of the system a little more seriously since they  could actually have an impact on the time it takes the government to issue a food recall. 

They also may want to consider how the deregulation process is going with Transport Canada and tighten up CFIA now, instead of allowing a longer trail of mismanagement and recalls to build in the absence of action.  That is because the regulatory changes at CFIA are relatively new when contrasted with the longer record that deregulation of rail safety has built over a full 12 years.  

That record is characterised by a lack of oversight, inadequate inspections, and missing quality assurance.  After such a long period of time these can no longer be explained as the by-product of a department getting up to speed but must be seen as systemic problems that threaten public safety.   Proof of that is found in the AG’s claim that Transport Canada doesn’t even know whether its current workforce has the competencies (training) to oversee the safety management systems and the fact that many of the planned safety audits were never completed.

Clearly, completing only 1 out of 4 planned rail safety audits makes rail safety a matter of hoping and guessing.  At risk are communities all across Canada and if Lac Megantic wasn’t enough to put that into perspective, nothing ever will be.   Ensuring our food is safe to eat and our rail ways are safe are basic responsibilities for the government.  The Conservatives are going to have to take some of their focus off scandal management and attend to their basic responsibilities. If not they are knowingly putting Canadians at risk.