I move that the committee call as witnesses those contractors available that were engaged in the construction of Great Slave Lake Railway and were subject to the invoking of clause 16 of their contracts by Canadian National Railways.
Considerable discussion ensued related to the wording of the motion, the need to appear, etc. In this regard Mr. Allmand noted:
We should not entertain these grievances under this particular motion because these contractors, whoever they may be, whether individuals or corporations, might have made a claim through the courts, which is the usual way when one is not satisfied under a contract. The usual procedure is to make a claim in court. I do not know at this particular time whether any claims have been made in court; whether there are judgments on these particular claims or whether there have been settlements made out of court. Maybe they did not make claims before the court; maybe for some reasons they were prevented.
Mr. Horner spoke to Mr. Allmand's recommendation to turn down the recommendation, as follows:
Secondly, I would like to suggest that the whole difficulty arises out of something that was not the contractors' fault. It was not the railway's fault either. It was practically an act of God: the weather conditions were the biggest trouble. Surely, contractors or the Canadian National Railways should not be held responsible. We should hear the problems that the weather conditions brought about, without forcing these people who, as I understand their case, are nearly bankrupt anyway. I sincerely want each member of this committee to look at this problem. If they tendered low and lost their shirt, then you and I can justifiably say, well, the next time they will tender wisely. But in this case it was not a case of tendering low; it was an act of God-building a railroad in severe conditions through what we might call a hinterland, an area which is not settled, an area which nobody really knew the conditions, and then, on top of all that, adverse weather conditions during the construction of the railway.
He went on to state:
Mr. Chairman, it is only fair and just that we at least hear their case. If we decide that it was not because of weather, but through faulty construction or faulty management of their contracts, then I do not think we should be held responsible for bailing them out, nor should the government, no matter which government. If we find that it was because of adverse management direction under clause 16 of the contract, or because of adverse weather conditions, perhaps we could give them a sympathetic hearing at least, and maybe a sympathetic answer. With regard to Mr. Allmand's third point, Mr. Chairman, that this whole question may go before the courts, I urge this committee to give serious consideration to that problem. If these contractors are in as severe a position as they say, they are facing bankruptcy. They cannot afford to go to court.
Some hon. members of the committee went on to speak about this, and Mr. Nesbitt said:
-it is quite evident that the House leader, Mr. MacDonald, has been apprised of the matter and has made certain commitments in the House. There seems little doubt that this matter would be heard and witnesses called to hear both sides of the story. It is my understanding that the minister might have some reservations in setting an unfortunate precedent where every person who had a 25-cent claim against the railway or the government might want a hearing, or that it would open the flood-gate in the future, but I do not think that could happen and I think this committee could, perhaps, make that quite clear. This would not set a precedent as there are very unusual circumstances in this case. There are many millions of dollars involved. It has been apparent that the cause of the thing was not necessarily the fault of the railway at all, but was caused by unforeseen acts of God, as I believe the term is, although I do not know why the Almighty should be blamed for some of these unfortunate things. However, that is in fact what they are, and there certainly have been commitments made that the committee would hear the whole matter.
To sum up briefly-