House of Commons Hansard #55 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was cuts.

Topics

Foreign Affairs and International Development
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

Does the hon. member for Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke have the unanimous consent of the House to propose the motion?

Foreign Affairs and International Development
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

3:20 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

No.

The House resumed consideration of the motion.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

The hon. member for Trois-Rivières had the floor before question period. Five minutes remain for questions and comments.

Since there are no questions or comments, debate is resumed.

The hon. member for Laurentides—Labelle.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:20 p.m.

Bloc

Johanne Deschamps Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, today I rise to speak to the Liberal party motion on the Conservative government cuts affecting Quebec women. These cuts are made with disregard for the role of women in our society and the importance of giving them equal opportunities.

Since coming to power, this Conservative government has refused to accept any responsibility for the social problems affecting our society. The Bloc Québécois is opposed to the cuts that the Conservatives are preparing to make at the expense of Quebec women. I would like to dedicate my comments today to all women who fight inequality, poverty, violence, isolation and prejudice against women. Women are directly affected by the $5 million, or 20%, reduction in the budget of the Status of Women Canada announced by the Minister of Finance on Monday.

How can such an attitude be justified? There is only one word that applies in this case: irresponsibility. This government, which no later than Monday was telling us about its billions in surpluses, has the nerve—at the same time—to cut what it has also the gall to call fat. The President of the Treasury Board took this affront so far as to say that his government has adopted a strategy for saving a billion dollars, this year and next year. Those savings will be made on the backs of the most vulnerable among us because of the women’s programs and services that are being eliminated.

In the riding of Laurentides—Labelle, the Réseau des femmes des Laurentides and the organization La Passe-R-Elle, two organizations dedicated to women’s welfare, will have their efforts stymied by the Conservative decisions. The way that organizations funded under the Women’s Program have been treated in recent months provides eloquent evidence of what the Conservatives think about the status of women. The fact is that the work done by these organizations helps dozens of women, every day, who have been victims of violence or intimidation. These organizations cannot believe the government's withdrawal undertaken by the Conservatives.

The reduction in funding for literacy programs means that Griffe d'alpha in Mont-Laurier will no longer be able to provide the French language integration courses that it offered free of charge to new immigrants in the region. This is going to make it more difficult for these newcomers to integrate.

Our society will have to rely even more on the generosity of volunteers to make up for the irresponsibility of this government.

But there is more. The government eliminated both the volunteer support program and the court challenges program that helps minority language groups exercise their rights in the courts.

After eight months in power, the Conservatives are finally showing their true face, and it is the face of a party that gets its ideas from the ideology of right-wing groups that could not care less about the problems and concerns of minorities and of the disadvantaged in our society. This kind of management has nothing to do with the values and priorities of Quebeckers.

Since January 23, Quebeckers have been having to deal with a government that does not keep its election promises. In fact, I would like to remind this minority government that in the recent federal election, the Prime Minister himself acknowledged, and I quote, “—that Canada has more to do to meet its international obligations to women's equality”.

He also committed himself to taking concrete and immediate measures to ensure that Canada fully upholds its commitments to women on the international scene.

In October 2004, after an agreement was reached among the parties in the House of Commons, and at the initiative of the Bloc Québécois, the first Standing Committee on the Status of Women, composed of representatives of the political parties in the House, was created. The attitude of the Conservative government is an affront and negates all the efforts at consultation that this committee has made since it was created.

One by one, groups have appeared before the committee to testify that they are worried about how less and less importance is being placed on women’s concerns in the government’s decisions. Many of them were of the opinion that government action to fund women’s rights groups is a priority, and suggested that underfunding would make it more difficult to promote women’s rights.

Some witnesses were also heard on the need to re-examine the allocation of funds.

One of the chief concerns is the assurance of core funding for front line agencies, such as support centres for victims of sexual assault and spousal violence, as well as women’s networks.

Other witnesses have also talked about the importance of encouraging the federal government, when it is preparing policies and budgets, to take into account the effects these will have on women, suggesting that the role of Status of Women Canada be strengthened.

What do the Conservatives really think about the status of women? Not very much, if we look at their electoral platform, where the word “woman” can be found only twice. This shows that the Conservatives are not interested in the specificity of women’s lives.

The Conservative government has cut away the fat. It has slashed the assistance allocated to programs and services for women.

Poverty is a major issue for women, who are overrepresented in this respect, particularly mothers in single-parent families, older women, immigrants and aboriginal women.

The expression “low income” does not appear once in the Conservative Party’s electoral platform. This is upsetting, when we know that one in six women in Canada is poor.

The birth of children, the breakup of a conjugal relationship and illness are all reasons that may cause women to end up with low incomes over a long period.

Four single-parent families out of five are headed by a woman. Meanwhile the wage gap between female and male graduates goes on widening. Female graduates make only 71% of the earnings of male graduates.

Pay equity, maternity benefits and parental leave are not part of the Conservative platform.

As for public housing, the Conservatives basically emphasize tax incentives for builders in the private sector. There is nothing to help women regarding public housing or for dealing with violence against women.

While they acknowledge that there is violence in the streets and that no woman should have to live in fear, the Conservatives do not have anything to say about the thousands of women who seek refuge in safe houses and transition houses as a result of conjugal violence. They do not recognize the merits of these services and do not propose any investment to support them. Cutting away the fat—that is how they propose to deal with women’s problems.

In conclusion, the government preferred to take the approach of REAL Women of Canada, that conservative group that asks for nothing other than the abolition of Status of Women Canada.

An article that appeared in The Canadian Press is particularly eloquent:

The minister responsible for the status of women is not ruling out the possibility that this file [Status of Women] will be put on the chopping block of Conservative cuts, but she maintains that her government will continue to fight against inequality and the obstacles facing Canadian women.

This may not be enough to ease the fears of certain women's groups, but her comments contradict the position of organizations, such as REAL Women of Canada, which maintain that women no longer need help from the government to achieve equality.

The Bloc Québécois is very concerned about the cuts announced regarding Status of Women Canada and the position of women in the Conservative ideology, which supports an approach contrary to the values of Quebeckers. This government is reactionary and misogynous.

The Bloc Québécois team will continue to rise and defend the rights of women, the principles defended by the Beijing conference,and equity. Quebec will always strive to achieve the freedom of action and financial resources it deserves, in order to achieve the full powers that will allow it to develop alongside all other nations.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

NDP

Denise Savoie Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I want to raise one question that appears to be completely ignored by the Conservatives, that is the representation of women and other minority groups in the government. To judge by their numbers, this is not very important to the Conservatives. Yet, giving women access to power is a question of justice, a condition of democracy and it is not by slashing programs that seek to assist women in the pursuit of equality in various fields of our society that we will have more women in Parliament.

I wonder if my colleague has any remarks to make on this subject.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Johanne Deschamps Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my NDP colleague for having raised this question.

This is just another example of the manipulations that we are now faced with from this Conservative government which has just slashed its budget to achieve savings on the backs of women.

I believe that more and more we can see the true profile of this government, its right-wing ideology. It is also distancing itself from the commitments that it made during the last election campaign.

I remember the charm campaign they presented to women and workers in Quebec about the fiscal imbalance and Quebec’s role on the international stage. They also wanted to take charge of the concerns of workers and the unemployed.

Soon, the House will be debating Bill C-269, which seeks to improve the employment insurance system, a system that no longer meets the expectations of Canadian workers. Often, those workers are women. In some regions of Quebec, between 70% and 75% of women are employed in seasonal jobs. At every level and in every way, the government is backing down from the commitments it made during the election campaign.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:35 p.m.

NDP

Bill Siksay Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, I want to ask a question about political representation here in the House of Commons.

We know that in this Parliament the NDP has the largest representation of women among political parties in the House at 41%. In the last election, the statistics are pretty interesting: the NDP had 108 women candidates, which was 35% of the total; the Liberals had 79 for a total of 26%; the Conservatives had 38 women for 12%; and the Bloc had 23 women candidates in Quebec ridings for a total of 30.6%.

In the NDP we have a process that encourages women and minorities to seek nominations in the party. In fact, we cannot go ahead with an NDP nomination meeting until there is a representative of a minority community or a woman standing for the nomination. That is part of the process that our party engages in and this has resulted in our better record of representation of women, not that it is where we want to be. We want to ensure that we are at least 50% in the not too distant future. Tomorrow would be best. Today would be even better, but we are constantly working toward that.

I wonder if she could talk about what the Bloc is doing to encourage the participation of women in the political process in Quebec.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:35 p.m.

Bloc

Johanne Deschamps Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, I can readily answer my NDP colleague.

Within our party structure we have a citizenship committee, which considers this reality that the Bloc Québécois has also always put in the forefront. The Bloc has always acted to make sure that there is a strong representation of women within our party.

That is certainly not the case on the Conservative side. Proportionally, they have the smallest number of women members of any party in this House. One has to wonder what place women have in that party. What is the place of women on their scale of priorities? What is the role of women in this government?

This morning, the Prime Minister’s wife was promoting a literacy event. In the course of things, she was questioned by journalists, who asked her whether the government led by her husband had cut $18 million. She replied that in her opinion it is very important to be able to read. We see the paradox that is unfolding. Worse still, during this ceremony, she was accompanied by the President of the Treasury Board, who had the nerve to tell the journalists that he would be devoting his energies to teaching children to read, rather than to helping—

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Andrew Scheer

Resuming debate, the hon. member for Don Valley East.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

Yasmin Ratansi Don Valley East, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the member for York West.

In the wake of the $1 billion that the Conservatives recently cut from the programs aimed at helping people, such as jobless youth, illiterate adults, first nations, women, and those people requiring legal assistance through the court challenges program, I am pleased to rise today and speak to the motion before us. It reads:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government fails to recognize the many roles of women in Canadian society and the importance of providing all Canadian women with equal opportunity; and the House objects to the government's partisan and discriminatory cuts in federal support for women's programs and services.

Let us take a look at some of these cuts. There is $5 million cut from Status of Women Canada, or about half of its operating budget; $45 million cut from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, CMHC, for affordable housing programs; $55 million cut from the youth employment initiatives; $18 million cut from the literacy skills program; $10 million cut from the Canadian volunteer initiatives; $10 million cut from the international youth internship program; $6 million cut from the court challenges program; and $78 million cut from the visitor's GST rebate.

Canadians have experienced cuts in public service throughout our history when government piled up huge fiscal deficits. As an accountant by trade, I would always recommend restraint through tough economic times, to spend within our means, and to always pay off debt.

In fact, the former Liberal government recognized this in 1995 when we inherited a record $42 billion deficit from the Mulroney government. Tough decisions were made and eventually, when the Liberals turned the situation around, we made debt reduction a priority in concert with zero deficit policy.

Yet, that was a decade ago. Through sound Liberal economic policies, we now have an economy that is the envy of the world. The unemployment rate is at a record low and the deficit is history. The Conservative minority government, which has been in power for less than nine months, can hardly take credit for the Liberal record over the past 12 years of fiscal prudence and management.

That is why Canadians are perplexed by the fact that the government recently used a $13.2 billion surplus to pay down the national debt, yet the minority Conservative government found it necessary to cut $1 billion further in programs and services, and this to the most vulnerable in our society.

This smacks as nothing less than a meanspirited ideological agenda by the Conservatives. It is regressive, indeed an aggressive right-wing attack on our social services and national institutions. Even museums and libraries are a target as the finance minister carries out an ideological witch hunt through each federal department in Ottawa.

According to Wendy Desbrisay, executive director of the Canadian Literacy Movement, “This is a black day for us...we did not see this coming”. Neither did the Canadian people.

There are as many as nine million Canadians between the ages of 16 and 25 who do not have the literacy skills needed for today's workforce. This is morally reprehensible and it is reprehensible to simply abandon these people. It is economically irresponsible to cut Canadians loose simply because they cannot read. How can the baby boom generation retire with confidence when the productivity of succeeding generations will sink to all-time lows?

Indeed, it may interest members to know that the Prime Minister's wife was out today promoting literacy programs on the streets of Ottawa and mentioned the following: “You can't succeed in life unless you read...that's the number one thing”. Perhaps the Prime Minister should explain to his wife that he cut $18 million from the literacy skills program this week.

I am quite sure, therefore, that dinner conversation at 24 Sussex will be quite interesting this evening. For the Prime Minister's sake, I hope construction of the new doghouse has been completed on the grounds of the official residence.

Here is another meanspirited cost-cutting measure: $55 million in cuts to the youth employment initiative. Thousands of employers depend on this program to hire summer students every year. These are small and medium sized businesses that cannot afford to hire students otherwise. These cuts boggle the mind.

Even the tourism industry, which has still not recovered from the SARS crisis, was not spared. Eliminating $78 million from the visitor GST rebate program will discourage thousands of people from spending their vacation in Canada. This is especially perplexing when most other countries are enhancing their programs to attract visitors, in an international and highly competitive industry.

Here is another cut that lacks all wisdom: $45 million from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation that would have gone toward affordable housing. Again, the target is the most vulnerable people in this society.

The same applies to women. The mandate of Status of Women Canada is to enhance the full participation of women in the economic, social, cultural and political life of the country.

What message is the government sending? What are the priorities of the minority Conservatives? What is their secret agenda?

The Prime Minister prides himself on his unique communication strategy, that is, avoid journalists at all costs, but he does not in fact rule a majority. Sooner or later, this shaky minority government will buckle under the weight of a growing list of scandals and the disillusionment of the Canadian people. When that happens, the Liberal Party will be there to pick up the pieces and repair the damage to our national institutions and our international reputation.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro York West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to participate in this important debate today.

I would like to begin my remarks by reminding all hon. members of the continuing good work of Status of Women Canada. As chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to work with all of my colleagues from all parties as we advance the issues of women's equality that are so important.

I would like to outline a bit of the background of Status of Women Canada. It is a federal government agency that promotes women's equality and the full participation of women in the economic, social, cultural and political life of the country, something that we all want to see continued. Status of Women Canada focuses its work in three areas: improving women's economic autonomy and well-being, eliminating systemic violence against women and children, and advancing women's rights.

Status of Women Canada works to provide Canadians with strengthened and more equitable public policy by conducting gender based analysis and promoting its application throughout the federal government. It also supports research that brings the gender dimensions of policy issues into the public agenda.

Status of Women Canada also plays a vital role in supporting the work of women's and other equality-seeking organizations. It promotes women's equality in collaboration with organizations from the non-governmental, voluntary and private sectors. In promoting women's equality globally, Status of Women Canada works with other countries and international organizations and has a history of doing a substantive amount of very good work. We intend to continue working together to ensure that this continues.

Yet on Monday the government announced it would slash in half funding from the Status of Women's operating budget. The Conservatives, as a result of the excellent administration of our Liberal government, had a huge surplus and yet chose to make cuts to programs that have proven effective and necessary tools to help individuals and communities.

These funding cuts directly target women, aboriginals, those in need of affordable housing, and other groups for which the Conservatives have traditionally shown little concern or little respect, and for sure this is only the beginning of many cuts to come.

When it comes to improving the everyday lives of women in this country, the Conservative Party at best has simply chosen to ignore the serious and fundamental challenges facing gender equality issues today, and at worst has deliberately targeted cuts to turn back the clock on ensuring progress for women and upholding women's rights.

Instead of consultation, women's organizations received sudden and drastic cuts that appear to eerily mirror the goals of the radical radical-right lobby movements in this country, like REAL Women. Is this a coincidence? I think not.

Let us be clear. These cuts affect organizations that have been funded by the federal government for decades and affect large portions of their operational costs. The cuts target women and will have a sustained and negative impact on progress for women in this country. To say otherwise is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

Perhaps this is why the Minister of Canadian Heritage refused to come clean on these cuts when she was first asked about them. Perhaps this explains the months of apathy, subterfuge and denial from the minister to many of these groups that she refused to give an answer to.

Why, when asked about these cuts to grants, did the minister mislead these stakeholders, making promises she had no intention of keeping?

Why has the minister ignored the advice of her staff and internal reports in order to pursue a small-minded and vindictive agenda that speaks to the party's core anti-women base?

Let us look at who is affected by these cuts and ask what Canadians are to conclude from this so-called fat-trimming exercise. The issue is about much more than just money.

With a $13 billion surplus in hand, these cuts were deliberate and ideologically based. All Canadians have to do is look at the mandates of the organizations that were slapped in the face by these heartless acts: protecting and ensuring women's access to legal counsel; the protection of minority rights; the promotion of the social economy; enhancing efforts of community organizations dealing with poverty and abuse, and the list goes on.

Is this not the kind of work a national government should support? These callous cuts make it clear that advancing equality rights is not a priority for the new minority Conservative government, and to turn one's back on 52% of Canada's population is not standing up for Canada either.

Let us talk about the cuts to the adult literacy programs, another heartless act by the government. Literacy reaches far and wide. To foster a healthy, vibrant economy, we must ensure that our population has strong literacy skills. A recent adult literacy and skills survey revealed that 42% of Canadian citizens do not have the literacy skills to cope with the demands of our knowledge based economy and society.

If Canada is to maintain its place in the world, we must improve our literacy skills, especially for our most vulnerable citizens. How can the Conservative government justify cutting $17 million in funding from the adult learning and literacy skills program? It makes no sense. If we were in a very desperate situation and had to make the cuts we had to make in 1993 when we came in and had a $42 billion debt, it would be a different issue. We had to bite the bullet. That is not the case right now. We should be reinvesting that surplus.

The Conservatives' first budget also clearly demonstrated their complete disregard for women. Most women need early learning and child care to be able to enter the workforce. I am not talking about babysitting. There is great evidence to prove that early learning contributes immensely to the development of children and helps give children a better start in life. My government committed to giving every child a good start in life. Canada needs a high quality early learning and child care system.

The previous Liberal government invested $5 billion over five years for the creation of a Canada-wide system of early learning and child care, based on the principles of quality, universal inclusiveness and accessibility and with the developmental principle.

Ten provinces actually signed bilateral agreements to increase investments in early learning and child care. As a nation, we were moving forward with our plans to create a new national system. Sadly, the Conservative government has cancelled those agreements and has undone all of that good work.

Let us talk about the economic security. That is at the heart of women's equality. There is much more to be done. Almost half of our single, widowed or divorced women over the age of 65 live in poverty and 51.6% of lone parent families headed by women are below the poverty line. Women are still earning only 71¢ to the dollar of what a man earns. Women are clearly economically disadvantaged and it is time to continue to equal that out. We must work together to ensure a brighter future for our children and grandchildren.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Joy Smith Kildonan—St. Paul, MB

Mr. Speaker, as I stand here today I am rather shocked at the speech of the chair of the status of women committee, with its accusations and rhetoric. Clearly the chair herself has to know that Status of Women Canada continues to deliver results to Canadian women, with a budget of $23.4 million, $10.8 million of which is dedicated to women's programs. The program funding for women will not be and is not cut. To mislead the House in this way, to suggest that as soon as a Conservative government came in everything disintegrated, is an irresponsible move.

As vice-chair of the committee, I have to state in the House that I believe we need to be very respectful of all women, very respectful of making sure that we are accurate in what we say. Also, there is no mention in the House today of the 13 years of Liberal opportunity that was set out before the Liberal Party. The Liberals could have done all these things that today they are complaining about only a few months after the Conservative Party has become the government.

Clearly, those programs should have been implemented. Also, as a mother of six children and a teacher for 22 years, I know very well what it takes to develop small children in terms of their reading. It takes much more than the status of women committee. It takes people who are committed to the betterment of women and Canadians all across this nation.

I have a clear question for the chair of the status of women committee. All day I have heard criticisms of an organization called REAL Women. I do not know this organization and I have not spoken to people in this organization, but does the chair of the status of women committee not believe that every organization in our nation has an opportunity to voice its views and to be welcome to do that?

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro York West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think it is extremely important. In fact, the group the hon. member mentioned, REAL Women, is on a list of people who will come before us. I look forward to hearing from that group. Clearly its objective is to promote not the equality issues that we are talking about. Its status is to promote feminist policies, and that is what it is worried about.

Let me mention what we did as Liberals in some of those years when we were in office. Parliament established the Standing Committee on the Status of Women in September 2004. In October 2005, an expert panel, not a partisan panel, was created and provided advice that we needed to increase the funding for the standing committee. In 2000, parental benefits were extended to families for an extra year. We created the centres of excellence for women's health and the gender and health institute to work on health policy issues unique to women. We committed $32 million on an annual basis for the national crime prevention initiative and another $7 million for the family violence initiative.

The Liberals did many things to make sure that we were standing up for family values, to make sure there was sufficient money invested in families and women's issues and in making sure that our country had the skills needed to move it forward.

For the new Conservative minority government to put its marker down on issues like this by cutting the budget in half, regardless of whether it is $46 million or $23 million, is not the point. The point is, it was doing some good work. The message it sends is clearly, that is not the Canada that I want.

Opposition Motion—Status of Women
Business of Supply
Government Orders

3:55 p.m.

NDP

Denise Savoie Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, the Conservative government obviously believes, along with its advisers REAL Women, that the work on equity is done.

I thank my Liberal colleague for her comments on Status of Women Canada. I am aware in my community of the work it has done through networking and supporting women's groups.

The Conservative government does not seem to be aware that many women in Canada work full time and earn 71% of what men earn. Women are more likely to have precarious jobs that offer no security or pension. Women are disproportionately represented among the poor in Canada. There is a lot more work to be done to achieve equity in Canada.

In light of the comments of the President of the Treasury Board this morning pitting children against adults, I am wondering if the hon. member thinks the President of the Treasury Board should take a literacy course on illiteracy.