House of Commons Hansard #10 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was quebec.

Topics

The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-284, An Act to amend the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act (Canada access grants), as reported (with amendment) from the committee.

Speaker's Ruling
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

There are three motions in amendment standing on the notice paper for the report stage of Bill C-284. Motions Nos. 1 to 3 will be grouped for debate and voted upon according to the voting pattern available at the table.

I wish to inform the House that the motions seek to restore the original title and provisions of the bill that had been removed in committee.

I draw members' attention to the fact that according to our practice Motion No. 2 would ordinarily be irreceivable if not accompanied by a royal recommendation. However, it was selected since it proposes to restore one of the bill's clauses which was deleted in committee.

That being said, members will recall my ruling of November 9, 2006, in the Debates at page 4979, if anyone wants to look for it, identifying Bill C-284 as requiring a royal recommendation. This ruling would remain in effect should Motion No. 2 be adopted to amend this bill.

I shall now propose Motions Nos. 1 to 3 to the House.

Motions in Amendment
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

Geoff Regan Halifax West, NS

moved:

Motion No. 1

That Bill C-284 be amended by restoring the title as follows:

“An Act to amend the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act (Canada access grants)”

Motion No. 2

That Bill C-284 be amended by restoring clause 1 as follows:

“1. The Canada Student Financial Assistance Act is amended by adding the following after section 14:

CANADA ACCESS GRANTS

14.1 (1) The Minister, an appropriate authority or a body authorized by the Minister for a province, may make a Canada access grant to a qualifying student if the student

(a) has a permanent disability;

(b) meets the criteria set out in subsection 12(1); and

(c) is not denied further student loans under section 15 of the regulations.

(2) To receive a grant under this section, a qualifying student shall provide, with the loan application, proof of their permanent disability in the form of

(a) a medical certificate;

(b) a psycho-educational assessment; or

(c) documentation proving receipt of federal or provincial disability assistance.

(3) The amount of all grants made under this section to a qualifying student in a loan year shall not exceed the lesser of

(a) the qualifying student’s assessed need; and

(b) $2,000.

14.2 (1) The Minister, an appropriate authority or a body authorized by the Minister for a province, may make a Canada access grant to a qualifying student if the student

(a) meets the criteria set out in subsection 12(1)

(b) is enrolled as a full-time student in a program of studies of at least two years that leads to a degree, certificate or diploma at a designated educational institution;

(c) first enrolled in that program within four years after leaving secondary school;

(d) has never previously been enrolled in a program of studies; and

(e) is a person in respect of whom a national child benefit supplement, or a special allowance under the Children’s Special Allowances Act, is payable or would be payable if the person was less than eighteen years of age.

(2) The amount of a grant made under this section to a qualifying student in a loan year shall not exceed the least of

(a) the qualifying student’s assessed need;

(b) 50% of the student’s tuition; and

(c) $3,000.

(3) In this section, “national child benefit supplement” means that portion of a child tax benefit determined under the description of C in subsection 122.61(1) of the Income Tax Act.

14.3 (1) The Minister shall pay to the appropriate authority or other body authorized by the Minister for a province the amount the authority or other body requires to make Canada access grants to qualifying students for a loan year under section 14.1 or 14.2.

(2) Each appropriate authority or other body shall provide to the Minister at the end of each loan year, or on request of the Minister during a loan year, an accounting of all grants made to qualifying students by that appropriate authority or other body during that loan year or other period identified by the Minister.

(3) An appropriate authority or other body shall repay to the Minister any money provided for a loan year that is not given as grants in accordance with section 14.1 or 14.2. The overpayment becomes a debt due to Her Majesty in right of Canada on the day after the last day of that loan year.”

Motion No. 3

That Bill C-284 be amended by restoring clause 2 as follows:

“2. Sections 40.01 to 40.03 of the Canada Student Financial Assistance Regulations are repealed.”

He said: Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to rise in the House to debate the report stage of my Bill C-284. Let me recap for a moment for members the intent of Bill C-284.

The purpose of the bill is to extend to all four years of university the Canada access grants for students from low income families and students with disabilities. They now receive these grants in the first year of university. That is the intent of the bill: to make this program available for all four years of university to these students who are in need of assistance.

Many members of the House are aware of the demographic challenges the country faces, particularly in the coming decade or two. As the members of the House of Commons human resources committee have heard over the past year or so in their study on employability, and I was a member of that committee last year, many sectors in our country are facing shortages in the coming years in terms of skilled workers.

Some are already facing those shortages. Certainly members from Alberta are aware of challenges some employers there already have. I can tell the House that as well there are employers in Nova Scotia who are facing challenges in getting the people they need with the skills they need.

It is a problem all over the country. We heard from industries that are facing shortages over the next 10 to 15 years, shortages in the order of 100,000 or more people that they will need and do not believe they will have in terms of the numbers of people being trained now and what will be needed in the future.

That creates a real problem for our country in terms of productivity. If our businesses and organizations do not have the skilled people they need to perform the jobs that are now being performed, they are going to have a real problem being as effective and as efficient as they are today, let alone that they need to be in the future. That productivity challenge is one that is closely connected to the human resources challenge, the human capital challenge, we face in the country in terms of demographics.

One of the things we also heard in that committee was that many people in Canada are not able to take part in and benefit from the strength of our economy because of obstacles they face, whether it be because of low income and an inability to go to university or because of other kinds of problems. They may have disabilities and there may be obstacles to working. They may need assistance with a few little things that an employer might do in the workplace to make it possible for a person with a disability to work there and in fact make a great contribution. We have seen cases of employers who have made those changes, who have adapted their workplaces, and people have made tremendous contributions to their organizations or businesses.

That productivity issue is an important one. We need to make sure that no one in our country is left behind. That is why it is so important that we invest in our human capital and in education and make sure that no one in our country misses out on the chance to go to university or a community college. I hope that members in all parties agree.

I hope that all the members in this House will acknowledge that the government should make it a priority to ensure that there are no barriers to education and that people have the opportunity to take advantage of the inherent benefits of Canada's prosperity. This is very important.

In a country with great resources like Canada, it would be helpful for most Canadians to realize that if a person obtains the necessary grades to attend university, community college or CEGEP, it must be possible for them to do so.

In other words, I think Canadians would agree that in a country with our tremendous financial and human resources, if students have the marks to get into university, they get to go. That is the way it should be in this country. If students want to go to university and they have the marks, they should be able to get in.

Post-secondary education holds the key for us in developing the best trained, the most highly skilled and the most innovative Canadians. It is very important that we have these people. It is very important that we maximize the potential of Canadians. It is imperative that we nurture in this country a culture of education, whether it is by supporting the measures contemplated by the bill or whether it is in other ways, by encouraging people to recognize how important knowledge is and how important learning is.

We all remember what it was like when we were kids. Sometimes, unfortunately, among children, the kids who do the most to pursue knowledge, who are sometimes the best students, are treated negatively by other students. They are called “geeks”, for example, or other names of that sort, such as “professor”. When they are in grade four or five, it is a negative connotation, unfortunately, and we need to change that.

I do not know how we do it, but we need to change our society so we recognize that young people who are learning and gaining knowledge and others who have a lot of knowledge are critical for our economy. Those are the people who lead us to innovate. Those are the ones who do important research, who provide for our economy the innovations that make us competitive. These people have the knowledge and skills that can give us a better quality of life, so it is important to nurture that culture of education.

The timing for a bill like this and for the measures included in this bill could not be better. I know that many members sat down last week with representatives of student groups across the country to talk about facing educational challenges in our universities and community colleges. I had the pleasure of meeting with a bright young student from Nova Scotia, who kindly gave me a copy of a recent poll done in my province on post-secondary education. The poll addresses issues such as tuition fees, access to education, and debt.

Unfortunately, the average university tuition fees in Nova Scotia are currently $6,571. That is the average tuition for universities in the province and it is the highest average in Canada. It is actually a little bit less than it was last year, but unfortunately, other costs such as housing, room and board, books, et cetera, have gone up to compensate for that slight decrease we have seen.

Not surprisingly, 89% of those polled in my province supported a reduction of tuition fees for students in Nova Scotia. The fact is that the high cost of tuition is having a dramatic impact on enrolment. For example, the number of undergraduate students at Acadia plummeted by 10% this year.

By the way, that university is in the middle of a labour dispute, which I hope is quickly settled, not only because my daughter is a student there. While we like having her at home, it is important that she get the benefit of an education and maximize her time.

That drop in the number of undergraduate students at Acadia is the biggest drop in the Maritimes and that is a concern. We are seeing students go to Memorial University of Newfoundland because the cost of tuition there is much lower. It is obviously attractive to go there, but that means it is a challenge for the excellent universities we have in Nova Scotia.

On the question of access, an amazing 90% of Nova Scotians polled were concerned that young Nova Scotians will not get to go to a publicly funded university or community college even though they are qualified. In other words, although they get the grades, they do not get to go. People are worried about that. Obviously something needs to be done.

Bills like this, and the measures contemplated by the bill, are an excellent place to start. In committee, we tried to make some technical amendments and so forth. There were concerns brought forward by government members in relation to technical issues. At the committee stage, the various clauses in the bill did not pass, unfortunately, but we knew at the beginning, as you ruled, Mr. Speaker, that it required a royal recommendation, which means that when a bill contemplates spending efforts a minister has to rise and indicate support from the government for those efforts. Otherwise, the bill cannot go all the way to become law.

The important thing is that the bill has been before the House for a year and a half and the government has had all kinds of time to bring forward the kinds of measures suggested by the bill. There is no excuse for not doing it. There is no excuse for the government not doing it on its own. I think that is very disappointing.

I was pleased last year when a member from the NDP said that Bill C-284 “represents the most progressive and effective way of putting money directly into the hands of students who do not have the means to pay their tuition fees. I should add that the NDP also wanted to see some improvements to Bill C-284, and we did work together to try to make amendments and to make those improvements.

However, that is a far cry from the attitude of those across the way on the government side. Last year they pumped up their chests and trumpeted their meagre measures to address the current situation facing our students, and we will probably hear about that in a minute.

I hope that the discussion today reminds the government of the importance of bringing forward the kinds of measures that are considered in this bill to help those low income students, students with disabilities, students in need, to get the access to education that they need so much.

Motions in Amendment
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Blackstrap
Saskatchewan

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

Mr. Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to speak to Bill C-284, An Act to amend the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act (Canada access grants), as put forward by my hon. colleague from Halifax West.

I believe, as all members in the House do, that if our star is to shine brighter in the 21st century than it did in the 20th, support for our students is paramount.

The Minister of Finance has begun implementing a five point plan called Advantage Canada that will ensure that the prosperity and potential of Canada and all Canadians is met.

One of the five key points is a knowledge advantage. A knowledge advantage seeks to create the best educated, most skilled and most flexible workforce in the world. Success moving forward requires nothing less. A direct support for students, to students, parents and post-secondary institutions is just one of the ways this government will bring about a knowledge advantage, which is why this government has invested over $8.4 billion this fiscal year to support post-secondary education through transfers, direct spending and tax measures. Starting next year this government will invest $800 million more per year in our post-secondary education system. That is a 40% increase in one single year.

We are also providing $1 billion to provincial and territorial governments through the infrastructure trust fund to rebuild and renovate campuses across the country. After years of Liberal cuts to post-secondary education which resulted in tuition and student debt loads rising to historic levels, these funds are necessary but they alone are not the answer.

This is why this government has acted to provide direct support to students. We are committing substantial tax relief to help students and parents with the cost of text books. It is why we have exempted scholarships and bursaries from income tax. And it is why we committed $35 million over two years to expand the Canada graduate scholarships program.

We also recognize that not all parents are able to contribute to the cost of their children's education. Therefore, this government has cut the amount that parents are expected to contribute to the children's higher education, because ability to pay cannot be a barrier to access. This is our record and it is one that I would put up against the Liberal record of cuts and inaction any day.

Our work did not stop there. This government recognized that the Canada student loans program was in need of a review. We need to see if it is meeting the needs of Canadians, which is why in budget 2007 we announced a long overdue review. As many in the House are aware, the review is currently ongoing. Online consultations with Canadians have just concluded. The result of the review will be announced in budget 2008. It is important that the results of the review be examined by the minister and by the House before drastic changes are made to such a valuable program.

Under the previous government's watch, tuitions skyrocketed, attendance stagnated and infrastructure crumbled. The Liberal record is one of cuts. The Liberal record is one of inaction on the post-secondary file. This government can and must do better. Unfortunately, the bill does not aspire for better. Like so many other bills being proposed by the official opposition, this bill is fatally flawed and there are many reasons why we cannot and will not support it.

From the outset the bill was poorly conceived and drafted. The provinces and the territories, the vast majority of which are responsible for the implementation of this program, have openly admitted that they are years away from being able to implement the proposals put forward in the bill. The provinces have been asked if they support the bill and they answered with a resounding no.

This government received a mandate from Canadians 20 months ago. Canadians spoke and said that the days of the federal government imposing its will on the provinces was over, that a new age of open federalism and cooperation with the provinces had begun.

The mandate has been reaffirmed with the passing of the Speech from the Throne and I would like to thank my Liberal colleagues for providing the Prime Minister and this government with that mandate. We will work with the provinces; we will not work against them.

As it stands now, the province of Quebec and the two territories that administer similar programs of their own have the right to opt out of this program and receive transfers of alternative payments so long as they can prove to the minister that their programs are substantially similar and that the money will go directly to post-secondary education.

The proposals that have been put forward in this bill effectively remove millions from the education purse of the provinces and the territories. A little due diligence on behalf of my hon. colleague from Halifax West and by his Liberal colleagues would have brought this to light. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

We will not support the Liberal record of taking money out of post-secondary education even if the members of the Liberal Party do. Those types of changes just do not make sense to me or to Canadian students.

These issues were examined in detail at committee stage of this bill. My colleagues on the human resources committee exposed the fact that instead of providing money for education, this bill stripped it away. We exposed the fact that not a single province has come forward in support of this bill. We discussed the fact that even if we wanted to implement the proposals outlined in this bill, the provinces that actually do all the work have said that they do not want it and that they are years away from being able to do it. It was for these reasons this bill was all but defeated at committee stage.

I thought that consensus had been reached. I thought we came to the conclusion that this bill was bad for the country and that it was bad for students. Even members of the Liberal Party openly admitted that they wished this bill would simply disappear. Therefore, everyone can imagine my surprise on Friday when I saw on the notice paper that my Liberal colleagues had moved a motion to reinstate this bill, flaws and all. Given the track record of the previous Liberal government, a record of $25 billion in cuts to, among other things, post-secondary education, perhaps my surprise was misguided, but regardless, I cannot support the passage of this bill.

In closing, I would like to again say that this bill is seriously flawed. It seems that enshrining Canada access grants in legislation would slow the program down and make it less responsive to changing circumstances as it would be harder to make changes such as increases to reflect the cost of living.

The alternative payments formula is based on Canada student loans, the net cost for loans and payments to individuals as per grants set out in regulation. By enshrining the grants in legislation, the grants would no longer be included in the calculation of alternative programs.

This bill is fatally flawed. The member who introduced this bill has obviously not done his homework. If he had, he would have understood that this bill simply cannot be supported by any good governing party no matter what its stripe. However, I thank the member for trying.

Motions in Amendment
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Bloc

France Bonsant Compton—Stanstead, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today as part of the debate on Bill C-284, which proposes to amend the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act.

Education is the cornerstone of the development of societies throughout the world, and the Quebec nation is no exception. The evidence of this is that a number of years ago, Quebec implemented a very successful education policy.

I would like to remind this House that just 40 years ago, Quebec had the lowest enrolment rate in North America. In 1960, only 63% of students entering elementary school finished grade 7. Just 13% of francophones finished grade 11, and only 3% went on to university. During my childhood in Waterville, despite the creation of the Université de Sherbrooke in 1954 and the presence of Bishop's University in a neighbouring city, it was rare to come across a university graduate. Now, my younger colleagues and my daughters have had the opportunity to go to CEGEP or university, and it is common practice in many places.

This fall in Sherbrooke, nearly 22,000 students were enrolled at our two universities, not to mention another 8,000 students at our post-secondary training centres. To achieve this level of education in our region and everywhere in Quebec, Jean Lesage's government and those that followed made a radical policy shift to improve access to education. Thanks to its three-pronged approach—increasing funding for post-secondary studies, maintaining low tuition rates and instituting an effective loans and bursaries program—Quebec's government made extraordinary progress in a short period of time. Today, enrolment rates in Quebec are on par with Canada's in some fields and higher in others.

For example, recent statistics show that 69% of young people in Quebec who have completed high school also have a post-secondary diploma or a university degree, compared to 63% in Ontario, 61% in the Atlantic provinces and 54% in western Canada. Despite such impressive efforts, Quebec is still trying to do even better. The only things missing now are the financial and governmental tools currently under Ottawa's control. These include control over income taxes, research funding programs, training programs and access to international forums. Someday, these tools will be in the hands of a sovereign Quebec, but in the context of today's debate, the main problem is that the federal government keeps trying to encroach on jurisdictions where it does not belong without giving full, unconditional compensation to Quebec and the other provinces that want it.

While Quebec is still trying to outdo itself, the federal government, be it Conservative or Liberal, prefers to create its own specific programs, ignoring the unique features of Quebec's education system. Today's motion by the Liberal Party to increase federal student financial assistance is yet another example of this centralizing vision. In fact, this is a typically Liberal debate, just like the debates we became accustomed to during the 13 years the Liberals were in power.

The solution is simple, though. The federal government should stay away from education and, by extension, from investments in access to post-secondary education, especially if it wants to limit the federal spending power. As I said earlier, Quebec has made great strides in education in the past 40 years, and our loan and bursary system is now recognized the world over. As in many other areas, Quebec is leading the pack in student financial assistance. During the debate in committee, the Bloc Québécois proposed amendments that would have recognized the difference between Quebec's loan and bursary system and the system Canada wants to introduce.

We proposed that Quebec be allowed to opt out of the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act with full compensation and no strings attached, but the committee chair ruled that these amendments were out of order. This is the same chair who, along with his government, has talked about open federalism, respect for Quebec's jurisdictions and limiting the federal spending power. I question his sincerity.

We in the Bloc Québécois recognize that most of the provinces have not developed the sort of services and programs Quebec offers. That is why we proposed to include a clause in the bill that would have recognized Quebec's efforts and allowed it to opt out unconditionally and with full compensation.

Because our amendments were rejected, Quebec will not be compensated for the excellent initiatives it has put in place. We are getting used to that. Previously, the issue was child care centres, and now, it is the loan and bursary system. It is easy to conclude that the Conservative and Liberal governments are using every means possible to try to standardize all the programs and services for Canadians, despite obvious interference in areas of jurisdiction that do not concern them.

The other reality is that the Quebec nation is distinct and has made its own choices. If the other provinces would like to follow the example of certain programs and services developed by Quebec, they are entitled to do so. It comes under their areas of jurisdiction. We would even encourage them do so, for it is true: we have very effective programs.

At the risk of repeating myself, in Quebec, we are always striving to outdo ourselves. We believe that, in order to broaden the Quebec loans and bursaries system even further, the easiest and most effective solution, apart from sovereignty, does not involve further interference on the part of the federal government. The easiest solution remains, for now, a substantial increase in transfers to Quebec and the provinces in the areas of education and social services.

Because of the fiscal imbalance, which was created by Ottawa, the federal government now thinks it has to help students financially, so they can access post-secondary education. However, by restoring transfers to the provinces for education, the federal government would never again have to introduce an initiative such as the one before us here today.

Despite the increased transfers in budget 2007, there is still a $3.5 billion shortfall in education for the provinces for 2008-09, and more than $834 million for Quebec alone. Unfortunately, it seems that Ottawa is ignoring our proposed solution of significantly increasing transfers, even though it has achieved consensus, not only in Quebec, but also amongst the provincial governments.

For the Bloc Québécois, when it comes to social services and education, we believe that Quebec and the provinces must determine their priorities themselves. In short, under the circumstances, the Bloc Québécois will not support the motion tabled here today by the Liberal Party.

Motions in Amendment
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

NDP

Pat Martin Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to enter into the debate on Bill C-284 on behalf of the New Democratic Party caucus and on behalf of the critic for post-secondary education, the member for Victoria, who was unable to be with us today due to surgery, but I am proud to represent her views. I will begin by recognizing and paying tribute to the admirable work she has done on behalf of post-secondary education on a regular basis since she came to Ottawa to represent the riding of Victoria, B.C.

I also would like to recognize the efforts of the member for Halifax West and his stubborn determination to see this issue through, in spite of some very adversarial treatment, I am told, at the committee stage.

Mr. Speaker, I think you would agree with me that the way this bill was dealt with at committee was not in keeping with what we would consider honourable parliamentary practice. It was reported back to the House with all clauses deleted. Can you imagine?

The job of committees is to add to, complement and improve bills that are put in their charges. As members know, when a bill leaves the House it is in the hands of the committee to do with as it will. The dominant members of that committee, the Conservatives and the Bloc in this case, eliminated every clause of the bill. How is that improving the bill? How is that a sincere and genuine attempt to add to this important issue?

If I were the member for Halifax West, I would be some peeved if my efforts had been dealt with in such a cavalier fashion. It is not the way we are supposed to do business around here.

What we are faced with today is a motion by the member for Halifax West and, I believe, the member for Mississauga South who are trying to reintroduce the same clauses that were deleted, one by one, in a very cavalier and heavy-handed fashion at the committee.

If one were in favour of the original bill, as was my colleague from Victoria and the NDP caucus, we support this effort on the part of our Liberal Party colleagues to reintroduce those same clauses in this very worthwhile initiative to provide access grants to more post-secondary education students, to not only reinstate the policy that was put in place in August 2005, which gave tuition to students from low income families in the amount of $3,000 in their first year of post-secondary education, but actually to augment that and to give that same level of grants to students from low income families for every year of their first university degree, if I understand the bill correctly.

Even though I know my colleague from Victoria was careful to point out that this would not fill the gap in post-secondary funding, it is the first idea that we have seen to take any meaningful steps toward improving legitimate access and bringing down the overwhelming, crippling debt load that too many post-secondary students are carrying today.

Naturally, we would support this bill as one step, hopefully, in a multi-faceted approach to expanding access to post-secondary education. Again, it confuses me as to why the Conservatives would treat us in such a way.

Let me expand again on some of the difficulties that I have with the process here. If the Conservatives had the votes to defeat the bill in the House at some stage, why would they take this back door approach to undermine and to scuttle this bill at committee by deleting every clause? I would put it to the House that the only reason they would take that avenue of recourse is that they are ashamed and embarrassed to stand in the House of Commons and vote against such a worthwhile and fair initiative to help students.

In the days and months preceding an inevitable federal election, the Conservatives do not want to be standing in their places, sitting on a multi-billion dollar surplus, I might add, and, in such a miserly way, deny the students of the poorest of poor families the ability to achieve post-secondary education. That is the only reason.

The Conservatives must have looked it up in the anarchist handbook that they use at committees on how to sabotage and undermine the activities of committees. They must have looked at page 32 of that anarchist handbook and decided that if all else failed, they would buy off the Bloc, delete every clause, clause by clause, and then report back to the House with a blank piece of paper. That is a pretty dirty trick. I believe it undermines the integrity of the House and the integrity of committee work generally.

I heard a wise man say once that education is the greatest social equalizer that we have. Post-secondary education in this country is the only reliable means to go from poverty to middle class and beyond in a single generation.

This bill specifically targets lowest income families. If I understand the point made by my colleague from Halifax West, to be eligible for this, total family income must be lower than $36,000, which is a very low threshold. A family whose total family income is well below the national average of $36,000 needs assistance if their children are going to get into post-secondary institutions. If students have to rely totally on loans, and this is one thing I find fault with the previous Liberal government, the burden of tuition has gone up such a degree that they will be carrying a debt the size of a small mortgage by the time they graduate.

Every year that the Liberals were in power, the average student debt rose by $1,000 per year. In other words, if the average debt was $15,000 at the start of the Liberal tenure, by the end of it a student was carrying $28,000 in debt. At the same time, transfers to the provinces for post-secondary education through the CHST were slashed in 1995 from $20 billion a year down to $11 billion a year, leaving the burden once again on the provinces and then on students.

I am proud to say that in my own home province of Manitoba, since the NDP formed government in 1999, there has been a tuition freeze every year. This is the ninth or tenth year in row that tuition has been frozen. Manitoba now has the second lowest tuition in the country, and access has never been greater.

Nobody can deny that there is a direct correlation to tuition fees and the degree of participation in post-secondary education. If one needs any graphic empirical evidence, they can look at the great socialist province of Manitoba where everyone virtually can achieve post-secondary education, or money at least will not be a barrier.

While I am critical of the Liberals' approach to post-secondary education in the time they had the opportunity to make it more accessible, I cannot help but recognize and applaud the efforts of the member for Halifax West to do something for Canadian students who are staggering under this crippling debt load.

I find it very regrettable that the debate today is on the motion from my colleague from Halifax West to reintroduce the clauses that were eliminated and deleted from his bill at committee stage. A legitimate amendment at committee stage adds to, compliments, or changes the character of a clause. It does not simply delete everything from the title on down. That is dirty pool by anybody's standards and shows again how vulnerable the Conservatives and the Bloc would be if they had to stand up in the House and vote against such a laudable notion as accessible post-secondary education in the days and weeks leading up to a federal election, especially when they are sitting on a record budget surplus, the likes of which we have never seen before.

If those members cannot find a couple of shekels to help post-secondary education and to help students access post-secondary education, then they can explain that to the general public during the next federal election.

Motions in Amendment
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to the bill that was brought forward by my colleague, my friend from Halifax West. I want to commend him. He has a particular interest in this. He has long been interested in post-secondary education and has been a champion of it. He now has one daughter who is going through it at great expense. He has more on the way, so he might have a particular interest.

The bill has to do with Canada's most needy. I do want to associate myself with some of the comments made by the previous speaker from the NDP about the process. However, I would be remiss if I did not indicate that the chair of our committee, who is a Conservative, has been a very fair minded chair and I think has run his meetings better than Canadians might have heard some other committees being run, so I commend him for that.

The biggest challenge we face domestically, I believe, is the issue of productivity. When we talk about productivity, we have to talk about human resources and human capital, as my colleague from Halifax West spoke of earlier. We have to talk about education.

Most Canadians would say that if we are talking about productivity in Canada, we should talk about education, but surprisingly, the government did not in the Speech from the Throne. I would like to just read the entire part of the Speech from the Throne that dealt with education. This is quite staggering. It says: “--families worry about the rising costs of higher education”. That is it. There is no answer and no further comment.

That is hardly startling information. Bill C-284 would be a very effective way to deal with that. It would be a very good start for helping Canadians who need help the most.

The Canada access grants, a Liberal initiative, provide financial assistance to low income persons and persons with disabilities who were traditionally shut out and very underrepresented in university, community college and all post-secondary institutions.

In supporting the bill, Amanda Aziz, from the Canadian Federation of Students, who is a very effective advocate for post-secondary education, said, “The research is clear: low-income students are under-represented in Canada’s universities”.

One would hardly think we could argue with that. All the evidence indicates that low income persons, persons with disabilities and aboriginal Canadians are those who do not get to take part in the richness of Canada because they do not have the opportunity to access education.

Canada access grants is a great program. The problem is that it only extends to one year. Of course, this piece of legislation would have extended those grants to all four years. Persistence, that being the ability of students once they are in university to stay in university, is a big issue for low income Canadians. The bill would have helped that immeasurably.

It is not that new. In 2005, in the economic update of the previous Liberal government, it was in a piece of legislation that came before the House: $550 million over five years to provide grants for post-secondary education to an additional 55,000 students from low income families. It went further, back in November 2005: $2.2 billion over five years to help make post-secondary education more affordable for low income and middle income Canadians.

There was $210 million to encourage graduate studies, $150 million specifically for Canadians to study abroad, $1 billion for a post-secondary education innovation fund, $3.5 billion for increasing workplace and employer led training, and $65 million over five years to improve labour market information available to Canadians.

This is not the first time we have had the opportunity to actually do something for Canadians who need it the most. The response of the government was to refuse a royal recommendation to the bill and to not want to do anything about it. That is a shame.

Instead, what we see from the government is tax changes, tinkering with the tax system. I would like to quote the Canadian Federation of Students again who say:

The net benefit for a student enrolled full-time for eight months is expected to be a mere $80, less than the cost of one textbook per academic year.

That is not much. George Soule, the national chairperson in 2006 of CFS, said, “Tinkering around the edges of the tax system is not going to increase access to college and university”.

That is really what we need to do in Canada. We have to find a way so that the entire nation can benefit economically, but from a social justice point of view in order to provide an opportunity for Canadians so they can maximize their human resources potential. Surely that is an admirable goal that we would all support.

If the government is not going to allow Bill C-284, in its original form, to be adopted, let me at least make a couple of recommendations tied in with that which would make sense.

Number one, the Coalition for Student Loan Fairness had an active summer. Julian Benedict was heard quite often talking about the problems. There was an article today in the Globe and Mail that talked about the allegedly heavy-handed tactics of the Canada student loan program harassing students.

The Coalition for Student Loan Fairness put out eight recommendations this summer. I think some of those recommendations are entirely reasonable. I would certainly associate myself with many of them. I think many Liberals would support a large number of these recommendations.

Student debt has unquestionably risen in the last 15 to 20 years. It is out of control for many Canadians. Even though the federal government introduced programs like the millennium scholarship, Canada access grants, learning bonds and a whole host of other initiatives for students, student debt has risen.

Now that we are in a time of surplus, a time of great wealth, we should be looking to assist students. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Canadian students are coming out of university with huge debts and facing an inability to deal with that debt and, at the same time, are trying to start their career, maybe buy their first home, get married, or even buy a car, When they already owe $25,00 to $40,000, a small mortgage without a home, it is hard to even think about investing in other things. I think the government should take a realistic look at student loans.

The other thing is the Millennium Scholarship Foundation. The problem with the millennium scholarship is the same problem that we had with Canada access grants. It is the problem we had with the Canada student summer jobs program. The problem is that it works, but it is a Liberal initiative that works.

We saw what the Conservatives did with the summer student job program. They tore it apart and then tried to put it back together piecemeal, on the fly. People were still left out. There were less students hired this summer than the year before. At a time of increasing surpluses, we do less for students. The Millennium Scholarship Foundation is an opportunity for this government to reinvest in students.

This year a group of seven student associations, some of which had not always been fans of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, did a study on this and released a paper called “Sleepwalking towards the precipice: the looming $350 million hole in Canada's financial aid system”. On page 1 of the paper, it states:

Eliminating $350 million from the Canadian financial aid system will have a disastrous impact on the accessibility and affordability of a post-secondary education in Canada.

That is the $350 million that goes to students. Some people have always said the millennium scholarship is not a needs-based program and part of it is in fact merit-based. However, on page 3 of this report, it states:

The Millennium Bursary program is the Foundation’s main grant program. 84.8 per cent of the Foundation’s grant funding goes towards the Millennium Bursaries, which helps to ensure that high-need students are able to access and continue their post-secondary studies.

High-need students receive 85% of the funding. “It's a foundation”, some people say, “That's not accountable”. On page 5 of the report, it states:

The Foundation is fiscally efficient and has lower administrative costs than government departments, ensuring that students receive the maximum benefit from federal funds.

By the way, the millennium foundation, which is based in Montreal, works with all the provinces and territories of Canada.

The Millennium Scholarship Foundation is the ideal way for the government, along with Canada access grants, to invest in the Canadians who most need assistance.

We are not a country that can afford to take that many chances. We have been a great nation. We have educated our people very well. We are now facing huge challenges. China, India and Brazil, all the emerging nations of the world, are investing in post-secondary education. Canada has done well in the OECD rankings, but we are getting warnings from it that we are not doing as well as some of the European nations in investing in our students.

The most important thing we can do to improve productivity in Canada is invest in Canadians. The most important way to invest in Canadians is to invest in equality of opportunity for all Canadians. The way to invest in equality of opportunity for all Canadians is the bill that my colleague, the member for Halifax West, brought in and to reinvest in programs like the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, so that not only economically for the nation but socially for every Canadian education becomes the priority that it should be and is not under this government

Motions in Amendment
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

Dean Allison Niagara West—Glanbrook, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am grateful to speak today to Bill C-284. I look forward to the opportunity to speak about our government's record, especially when it comes to education and students. Over the past 20 short months, our government has stood up for post-secondary education and for all Canadian students. What we have done is really worth talking about.

Before I do that though, I offer my congratulations to the member for Halifax West. I know this issue has been very important for him. It is something he has been interested in over the years.

I also appreciate what the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour had to say on how our committee works. It is not without any issues. All committees struggle a little with a minority government and how we can move things forward.

From what the member for Winnipeg Centre had to say, unfortunately he has not had a chance to participate in any of our committees. I know we have talked about the anarchist handbook and all these kind of crazy things that go on. We do have a lot of things going on in committee.

We had been working on the employability study, which has been very important. We had to put that on the sideline because of a lot of private members' business and work came to the House, which I understand takes priority. When we start back with committees in the next week or so, I am hopeful we will have an opportunity to continue on with that employability study, which, once again, touches on education. It also touches on a lot of other areas, such as how we can become more productive as Canadians as we deal with this vast geography.

While I would say there has been no such thing as the anarchist handbook for committees, I suggest to my NDP member that he look at the committees for dummies book. Maybe that would be more preferable in terms of how he could figure out the way committees work. We have said that not all committees work as easy as they can because of a minority government, but our committee has been able to get some good work done.

As my colleague from Blackstrap mentioned a few moments ago, the government has brought forward a plan called “Advantage Canada” under the Minister of Finance. That is an important plan. As we move forward on the issues of education, it is important to move forward with a master plan that will address all issues and that will take Canada in the right direction.

I think it is fair to say, and we should say it for the record, that there were many years of Liberal cuts and inaction on this file. I believe an ad hoc proposal and really no cohesive vision for post-secondary education presents a challenge when we have a strategic plan that will help us get where we are heading.

The government has had a record of which to be proud. We support parents and students. The government is supporting the provinces and also post-secondary education. This is why we have provided direct support to Canadian students and to parents. It is why we have committed substantial tax relief to help students and parents with the cost of textbooks. It is why we have exempted scholarships and bursaries from income tax. It is why we have committed over $35 million over two years to expand the Canada graduate scholarship program, a program that will help an additional thousand students every year move on to graduate studies.

The government recognizes that not all families can afford to help their children with the high cost of a post-secondary education, a cost that has doubled and even tripled under previous governments. This is why we have cut the amount that parents are expected to contribute to their children's education before they are eligible for student loans.

We believe that all students who want to attend university and who have shown they will work hard, study and do well deserve the chance to go, regardless of how much money their parents make.

It is no great secret that the previous Liberal government cut more than $25 billion from the Canadian social transfer to the provinces and the territories, which pay for things such as post-secondary education. Now the Liberals claim to realize that education is important in Canada, that they know how to assist students with their education and that now they suddenly have found answers they did not have before.

I think Canadians do know better. Canadians know the Conservative government has been working to restore the funding that the previous government cut. Canadians know the government is making meaningful investments in post-secondary education by investing more than $8.4 billion this fiscal year through transfers, direct spending and tax measures. The government has invested over $800 million more per year for post-secondary education through transfers to the provinces. This represents a 40% increase in a single year.

We are also providing $1 billion to provincial and territorial governments through the infrastructure trust fund to rebuild and renovate campuses across the country. It is important to note that for many years there has been crumbling infrastructure around the country. The $1 billion will go a long way to providing what is necessary for spaces and infrastructure on college and university campuses.

Under the previous Liberal government, tuition skyrocketed, attendance stagnated and infrastructure crumbled. We are working to fix these problems. That is why the government announced a long overdue review of the student loan regime in budget 2007. The review will be completed shortly and the results will be announced in budget 2008. As my friend from Blackstrap stated earlier, it is important that the minister and the House have time to examine this review before changes are made to such an important program.

Unfortunately, the bill does not help the government achieve the goals of a stronger, more accessible post-secondary education system. That is why I will vote against it.

As all members in the House know, it is the responsibility of the provinces and territories, which want to take part in the program, to do the ground work, and I believe my Bloc colleague mentioned that, and to implement the program and deliver it to students. Yet, one of the challenges with the bill is the lack of consultation with the provinces and the ability for them to get on side to support this initiative.

During the committee process, not a single province came forward to support the bill, not that provinces would not be supportive of more money if they did not have to be accountable for how it was spent. However, they were not ready to implement the bill for several years. The provinces have been asked and, at this point in time, their responses have been that they are not in support of the bill.

One thing we have been doing as a government is talking to provinces, trying to work through proposals as we look at different areas in which we would like to participate, areas that we would like to help out. Probably a better way to look at how we can work with the provinces on these issues is to consult and work forward. Any proposals we would bring forward to the House would have the support of the provinces. It is especially important, as the Bloc member mentioned earlier, because it is a responsibility of the provinces to implement such programs. With good consultations, we can work forward as we have been doing.

The provinces should be consulted and they were not on this bill. We will not impose the will of the federal government on the provinces, especially in areas that are not our own jurisdiction.

During the committee review process, it also came to light that the bill would strip millions of dollars from the provinces and territories, moneys that the provinces could use to pay for universities and colleges. I think that is where our Bloc colleagues said that they could not support the bill. They realized that this would take money out of particular programs at which they were already looking. The bill could be perfect in other aspects, but we cannot support it because of this oversight.

The government has also made it clear that we will not support any initiatives that takes money out of the provincial pockets. Once again, we do not want to take money out of existing programs to pay for this, especially when that money is used for post-secondary education.

I appreciate that private members' bills cannot be expected to be perfect in every sense, but we do not want to look at taking money out provinces, such as Quebec and the territories, to pay for the program, a program of which every province has indicated to us they are not in support.

These are not the only problems with the bill, but adopting these proposals will severely limit the flexibility of the government to make timely changes to the programs when the need arises. It is important that we look at a framework, as we have with the Minister of Finance and “Advantage Canada”, that we look at it holistically and that we look at how we can move forward and be more productive as Canadians. We realize education is important. Certainly the future of Canadian students is very important. This is why we need to ensure that all the money and the tools are available to them.

The government cannot support the program, which takes money from the provinces and territories. We cannot support the program as a result of a lack of consultation with the provinces. Therefore, we will not support the bill.

I understand the motivation of our colleague who entered the bill, and I believe those were noble. However, we will have to look at another way to make this happen.

Motions in Amendment
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

Resuming debate. The hon. member for Cape Breton—Canso is recognized for ten minutes, of which there will be only two minutes today and eight minutes at a future date.

Motions in Amendment
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, in the two minutes I have, I congratulate my colleague from Halifax West for bringing this important private members' business forward. It is something not only for Nova Scotians. We recognize we pay the highest tuitions in the country right now.

We are very proud of our post-secondary institutions. They have continued to lead the way in research in many areas. They continue not only to score well in Maclean's rankings, but they continue to be respected from coast to coast and internationally for the great job that they have done as well. However, because of the cost of tuition, more and more students have to make a decision as to whether they can pursue a post-secondary education, and truly that is unfortunate. By bringing this forward, my colleague is allowing this debate to take place here on the floor.

One thing we do know is that an $80 tax deduction for the purchase of books does not make too much difference when we look at $6,000 to $8,000 in tuition fees at one of these institutions. We have to do more for our students and for young Canadians so we can continue to build our economy and allow those young people to take part in that economy.

The discussion taking place today is a positive one. I look forward to adding more in my subsequent eight minutes at a later date.

Motions in Amendment
Canada Student Financial Assistance Act
Private Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

When Bill C-284 returns, there will be eight minutes left for the hon. member for Cape Breton—Canso.

Opposition Motion—Federal Spending Power
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:05 p.m.

Bloc

Vivian Barbot Papineau, QC

moved:

That, in the opinion of the House, given that the Prime Minister has promised to eliminate the fiscal imbalance and that this imbalance cannot be eliminated without the elimination of the federal spending power in areas that fall under the jurisdiction of Quebec and the provinces, the bill on federal spending power that the government will introduce should, at a minimum, provide for Quebec to have the right to opt out with no strings attached and with full financial compensation from any federal program, whether existing or not and cost-shared or not, which invades Quebec's areas of jurisdiction.

Mr. Speaker, the wording of this motion may seem complicated but the basic message is quite straightforward.

Is it normal for the federal government to spend in any area, without regard for the division of powers in Canada?

Is it normal for Quebec to be forced to accept federal priorities and requirements, even in those areas where it is supposed to be completely autonomous and sovereign?

Is it normal for Ottawa to collect 50% more taxes than needed to carry out its own responsibilities and for Canada to use this money to dictate to Quebec how to organize its own society?

Is it normal for Ottawa to take up so much space that the Quebec nation does not even have the capacity to tax in order to carry out projects that it chooses, simply because the glutton next door takes up the entire tax base?

Well, no, none of that is normal.

As Robert Bourassa said in 1970:

Quebec continues to believe that this federal spending power in areas that come under exclusive provincial jurisdiction ought quite simply not to exist, and the federal government would do well to quite simply renounce it totally.

Today's debate goes to the heart of a historic and longstanding dispute between Quebec and Canada. In 1867, English Canadians wanted a centralized Canada where the central government could dictate the priorities for the entire country—including Quebec—and in all areas. John A. Macdonald's speeches in this regard are eloquent.

Today we find the same discourse among those defending the federal government's spending power and its authority to set priorities in all areas. However, in 1867, Quebeckers did not wish to be controlled by the neighbouring country. They would never have accepted that Canada dictate how to organize their society, nor will they do so today. For that reason, the Constitution of 1867 provides for a distinct separation of powers and Ottawa does not have the right to legislate in Quebec's jurisdictions.

Like all nations, we have the right to control the development of our own society. Otherwise, Quebec would never have joined the Canadian federation. At that time, Quebec nationalists sincerely believed that they had obtained all of the autonomy that was needed for Quebec to be in charge of its own development.

In its editorial on July 1, 1867, the newspaper La Minerve wrote: “As a distinct and separate nationality, we form a state within a state, with full enjoyment of our rights and a formal recognition of our national independence.”

And yet the promise that was made to Quebec is constantly being broken. Ottawa cannot legislate in areas under Quebec’s jurisdiction? No matter, it will do it by the back door.

By occupying the tax field as it has done, Ottawa has acquired far too much financial latitude. And with money comes the power of money, let us not forget. And so, because the National Assembly of Quebec is the only body with the power to legislate in certain areas, Ottawa need only hire it, with the money from the fiscal imbalance, and it can then insinuate Canada’s priorities into Quebec.

Quebec’s legislative autonomy is just some minor problem that it can easily circumvent. It is simple, it is logical, it is even brilliant, when you think about it, but it is unacceptable. The Quebec nation will never agree to be relegated to the status of a subcontractor for the nation next door, never!

“I, for my part, have a great deal of difficulty in reconciling the values underlying the Canadian federation with the idea of a federal spending power that is in no way subject to the division of powers.” I am not the one who said that; it was Benoît Pelletier, the Quebec Minister for Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs, who said it on March 24, 2004. He is a true blue federalist, let us not forget.

What I am talking about is not some abstract idea, it is a question of dignity. Imagine a couple in which one spouse has a higher income than he or she needs to cover his or her share of the family responsibilities, and the other spouse does not have enough income to cover his or her share, even the essential needs. That is what the fiscal imbalance is. Imagine that the first spouse, being a fine fellow, says to the other: “Listen, it is not such a bad thing if your income is not enough for you to cover your responsibilities. I am going to transfer money to you. Of course, because it is my money, I am going to decide what you will do with it.” And that is what the transfers for health care, education and social programs are.

And as if that were not enough, imagine that the richer member of the couple decides to interfere directly in the other spouse’s affairs, to go to the store to buy that spouse’s clothes according to his or her own taste, to order directly for the other spouse at restaurants and go over that spouse’s head to speak on his or her behalf to the spouse’s friends. Ultimately, the less fortunate spouse has no decision-making power left, has no authority over his or her own life, because it is the other spouse who is using that spouse’s money to control him or her completely. That is what the spending power is.

It is transfers that reduce Quebec’s autonomy and multiple instances of federal interference in its affairs. It is its scholarships or research grants, or its inappropriate involvement in health care. It is transfers to families, whether in the form of the child tax credit or the Conservatives’ $1,200. It is the Mental Health Commission announced this fall.

The fiscal imbalance and the power to spend in areas under Quebec’s jurisdiction are two sides of the same coin; they prop each other up and they prevent the Quebec nation from controlling and organizing its own society based on its own needs and its own priorities.

So long as Ottawa has enough money to intrude into jurisdictions that are not its responsibility there is still a fiscal imbalance. When I hear Conservative members say that the fiscal imbalance has been resolved, I can only think that they do not understand it at all. If the controlling spouse I just mentioned decided to give his or her partner more money, would that mean that the imbalance in the couple’s incomes had been resolved? No. In fact, the spouse with more money would have even more power over the other spouse, while the spouse with less money would have even less decision-making ability over his or her own life.

In the last election, the Prime Minister said that the fiscal imbalance had to do with more than just money. I think he was right. He also said that the federal government’s excessive spending power had given rise to a paternalistic, domineering federalism. I agree with that too. Ultimately, the fiscal imbalance and the spending power are about power.

Will it be Quebeckers or Canadians who have the power to steer the way in which Quebec develops? That is what we are discussing today because we are giving the Prime Minister an opportunity right now to show that his words actually mean something, that open federalism is more than just an election slogan, and that his promises to Quebec are not just a fraud.

I am pretty skeptical though. It is obvious that the Prime Minister loves power and does not like to share it. He has picked fights since the election with all the checks and balances in society: journalists, judges and various organized groups—through the elimination of the court challenges program—the parliamentary committees, whose work he has tried to sabotage, and the Senate, which he has been criticizing.

This fall it is the representatives of the people whom he is trying to dragoon: either the hon. members agree with everything he says or else he will order the dissolution of the House.

This Prime Minister has picked fights with all the checks and balances. All of them. Within his own party, he exerts total control, reducing his members to silence and forbidding his ministers to spend anything on programs that his office has not approved.

Ever since he was elected, he has not shared a gram of his power with Quebec. He guards it jealously, including the most important power of them all: the spending power. We will see when the time comes for a vote whether open federalism is more than an empty slogan.

The spending power is more than just a symbolic issue. It hampers the development of Quebec. For example, as everyone knows, I used to head up the Fédération des femmes du Québec in the early 2000s. Twenty-four years ago, the Fédération des femmes du Québec asked that a real family policy be instituted with real parental leave. Five years later, the Government of Quebec bought into the idea but Ottawa had already intruded into this jurisdiction through employment insurance.

When Quebec asked the federal government to transfer money so that the province could set up a real parental insurance plan, Ottawa said no.

A few years later, Quebec took another stab at receiving approval for a socio-economic summit of all sectors of Quebec society. Ottawa again said no.

Then there was a unanimous resolution at the National Assembly. Ottawa again said no.

Quebec then went ahead and legislated its own parental insurance plan, which would come into effect as soon as Ottawa transferred the money. Ottawa again said no. There was consensus in Quebec in an area exclusively under its own jurisdiction, but the answer was no.

It took having a minority government in Ottawa being hounded by a strong group of Bloc Québécois MPs for Ottawa to finally say yes.

Anyone who wanted parental leave to have children in the early 1990s had to wait until their child finished university before seeing this program implemented. That is another aspect of spending power.

I could provide more examples of this ad nauseam. For 42 years now Quebec has been hoping for Ottawa to stay out of regional development and implement a real policy.

The same is true for culture or university research where Ottawa invests more than Quebec, and for the promotion of French, which has to compete with federal spending that would make Quebec bilingual.

Is it any wonder that a wave of cultural insecurity and identity crisis is currently going through Quebec? There is not a single area left where the people of Quebec can decide what is best without any interference from Canadians.

Three years ago, Canada controlled 18% of the Quebec government's budget. With the increases in transfers, Canada now has control over 22% of Quebec's budget. In three years, it will be 25%. And the fiscal imbalance is being corrected? No, it is getting worse.

This brings me to the Speech from the Throne. What did the Speech from the Throne say about the spending power? There are words, but they are devoid of meaning.

The government's commitment is limited only to new programs. It is already spending $55 billion in areas not under its jurisdiction. Ottawa is spending almost the equivalent of Quebec's entire budget in areas under the jurisdiction of Quebec and the provinces.

It says, “Just forget about all that, would you?” Well no, we will not forget about it.

As if this was not inane enough, the Speech from the Throne does not even limit the federal spending power in all new programs in Quebec's areas of jurisdiction. Instead, it deals only with new cost-shared programs.

There are no cost-shared programs left to speak of. There is the agricultural policy framework, but agriculture being a shared jurisdiction, the commitment made in the throne speech does not apply to that program.

There is also the infrastructure program, but Quebec has already obtained the right to choose projects. Since Quebec already has control over these, what will the Speech from the Throne change? Nothing.

Apart from that, there are no cost-shared programs left.

There are conditional transfers, but without any real cost sharing. In addition, there are instances of direct interference where costs are not shared. Had such a commitment been made in the 1940s, it would have been meaningful, Today, however, it comes three generations too late. This Speech from the Throne is empty, completely empty.

Last year, the House of Commons recognized the Quebec nation. It was about time. But what does Canada do now that it has recognized that we exist? That is what we are addressing today. Nation is a fine word. Recognizing a nation is like recognizing a person: there are rights that come with that recognition.

Like people, nations have fundamental rights, the most fundamental of which is the right for a nation to have control over the social, economic and cultural development of its society. That is called self-determination, a right that every nation may exercise from within or, if that is impossible, by achieving independence.

This is a fundamental and inalienable right because it answers a natural and irrepressible impulse. The Quebec nation exists. It has a culture, values, concerns, plans, aspirations and interests which are its own. It think there is agreement on this, since the House recognized it last year.

However you cannot, on the one hand, recognize that the Quebec nation has the right to make choices different from those of Canada, and on the other deny that right to Quebec by maintaining the federal spending power. That power is the negation of my nation.

I realize that today, as in 1867, Canadians want the central government to be able to set the directions and priorities for the entire country in all fields. After all, the provinces recognized Ottawa as having the role of leader on social development by signing—without Quebec, I would emphasize—the social union framework agreement. Somewhat like the night of the long knives, but in broad daylight.

I know very well that the chances are slim that Canadians will agree to put a total stop to federal spending in areas of provincial jurisdiction. That would be in keeping with the promise made to Quebec 140 years ago, but not in keeping with their vision of Canada.

It is for that reason that today’s motion proposes a compromise, in saying that Ottawa should, at a minimum, grant Quebec the full right to opt out from any federal spending in a field which invades provincial areas of jurisdiction. Canadians can continue to deny the spirit of the pact creating the federation as much as they want in their own particular province, but not in Quebec. All they are losing is the power to keep Quebec under their tutelage. Is it all that dramatic? In spite of everything, I know that we are clashing with the centralizing visions of the Liberal Party and the NDP. I know that we are clashing with the Prime Minister’s desire to keep his power for himself alone.

That is why I am now issuing an appeal to Quebec MPs from all parties. Today’s motion is consistent with what has been demanded by every Quebec government since Duplessis, on the left and the right, sovereignist as well as federalist. It is consistent with the unanimous resolutions adopted by the National Assembly of Quebec for decades, calling for the full right to opt out from every instance of federal interference.

Whether those hon. members here in this House be federalist or sovereignist, red, blue, yellow or green, native or adopted, it matters little to me: they are Quebeckers, and their first duty is to represent and defend the people who elected them to speak on their behalf. There is a consensus that, in Quebec, Quebec comes first.

Today I am asking these hon. members to move beyond partisan quarrelling. Taking action to put a stop to Canadian interference in the internal affairs of Quebec by use of the federal spending power can return the power to control the development of Quebec to Quebeckers, at least in part.

I can imagine what it is to be imprisoned in a pan-Canadian party where Quebeckers are a minority. I presume that their boss is counting on them to defend the interests of Canada in Quebec, rather than vice versa—

Opposition Motion—Federal Spending Power
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Royal Galipeau

I regret to interrupt the member, but I have been giving her several indications. She should know that, when the Speaker stands up, she must sit.

Questions and comments.

Resuming debate, the honourable Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.

Opposition Motion—Federal Spending Power
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

Pontiac
Québec

Conservative

Lawrence Cannon Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, welcome to the Bloc Québécois' grand parliamentary theatre.

The Bloc wants to talk about the powers of the federal government. They want to eliminate the fundamental powers long used by the Parliament of Canada. But which political party will never be in power? Which political party is unable to use any power except the power to block and criticize? The Bloc, of course.

The Bloc is the anti-power party or the party of powerlessness. The Bloc members dream of making the federal government as powerless as they are. They want the federal government to abdicate its responsibilities and to be happy with making empty statements or issuing phony ultimatums, just like they do. They want a government living in a make-believe and impossible world.

I want to say very clearly to the Bloc members that we will not follow them on this path. We will not eviscerate the Government of Canada just because the Bloc members are allergic to any federal collaboration with the province of Quebec. According to the terms of the motion put before us, the Bloc is saying that the bill on federal spending power that the government will introduce should, "at a minimum, provide for Quebec to have the right to opt out with no strings attached and with full financial compensation from any federal program, whether existing or not and cost-shared or not, which invades Quebec's areas of jurisdiction."

Because of its natural naivety, unless it is its innate anti-federalism, the Bloc seems to think that the federal government's power to launch new programs is in itself an evil, a kind of perverse conspiracy against Quebec. The reality is that, over the years and throughout our common history, the federal spending power has proven to be a major social development factor. It has enabled us to establish, in concert with provincial and territorial governments, nationwide social programs, such as medicare. It has also played a key role in promoting equal opportunities for all Canadians. Finally, it has helped ensure that our fellow Canadians have access to basic social programs and services that are of similar quality, regardless of where they may live.

The founders of our country had the foresight to build a flexible federal system, so as to accommodate diversity and equality right across the country.

As the Prime Minister said in this chamber in reply to the Speech from the Throne:

In fact, the federation of 1867 created one of the most solid political institutions in the world, unbroken by tyranny or conquest, unbroken by social disorder or economic chaos. And we mustn’t forget that Canada—a country born in French, a country with two languages and a multitude of cultures, which will soon be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of its first capital, Québec—is one of the biggest success stories in history.

Of course, I do not argue that Canada is perfect, and so we are committed to reforming it for the better. Our government has worked hard to respect the federal division of powers, to strengthen long-neglected federal jurisdictions, and to work cooperatively with the provinces.

As the Prime Minister also stated:

In the next session, in accordance with our government practice, we will be introducing legislation to place formal limits on the use of federal spending power...in areas of provincial jurisdiction without provincial consent and to provide for opting out with compensation....

We will also act within the federal jurisdiction to strengthen Canada's economic union, which is a fundamental responsibility for the national government, one that it must take in the interests of all Canadians.

The sudden elimination of the federal spending power, as proposed by the Bloc Québécois, could have serious consequences for all Quebeckers and for other Canadians. Completely eliminating the federal spending power would also result in the elimination of federal health, education and equalization transfer payments, among others.

The Bloc Québécois is up to its eyeballs in contradictions. We have often seen it urging the federal government to pour more money in Quebec, for various projects. But today, it wants to eliminate federal transfers. To be a Bloc Québécois member must require a lot of flexibility, and even being able to do acrobatics. It is true, as I mentioned in this House last Monday, that the federal spending power, which is not mentioned anywhere in the Canadian Constitution, has been haunting federal-provincial relations for generations.

However, ever since we were elected, we have made it clear that we want to restrict the use of the federal spending power. As the Prime Minister said in Montreal, on June 20, 2006: “No proposal goes through our federal Cabinet unless we are assured it respects the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments”.

Open federalism means restricting the federal spending power which, as we know, was used so excessively by the federal Liberals.

In addition, the Speech from the Throne stated that “Our government believes that the constitutional jurisdiction of every level of government must be respected”.

I should also point out that respecting the constitutional jurisdictions of each order of government has been a fundamental principle of the Conservative Party since its creation. This is why, guided by our vision of open federalism, our government will introduce a bill, as the Prime Minister said, to place formal limits on the use of the federal spending power for new shared-cost programs in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. This legislation will allow provinces and territories to opt out with reasonable compensation if they offer programs compatible with the national objectives.

Our will to restrict the spending power is the direct result of a concern that has been strongly expressed by all Quebec governments from Duplessis to Lévesque to Charest. The leader of the Bloc Québécois himself recently asked whether the rumours are true and the federal government will take action to limit the federal spending power in Quebec's areas of jurisdiction. The answer is yes, but, true to form, the leader of the Bloc Québécois has changed his mind. Now, he does not want to limit the federal spending power as his party has been calling for since 1990; he wants to dispense with limits altogether.

As I said on Monday, the root cause of the problem, of this abuse of the federal spending power, will always be the fiscal imbalance. In other words, if the federal government did not have disproportionate revenues compared to those of the provinces, it would probably be less inclined and, more importantly, less able to get involved in areas other than exclusive federal jurisdictions. This is precisely why we wanted to restore fiscal balance within the federation, as early as in the 2006 budget.

We in the Conservative Party provided $26 billion in tax relief, and then we reiterated our support to long term and predictable funding for health care. We also made new, major investments in infrastructure. Moreover, we provided funding, to the tune of $3.3 billion, to the provinces and territories to alleviate short term pressures in the post-secondary education, affordable housing and public transit sectors. We also put in place measures to increase the federal government's fiscal accountability and budgetary transparency and we clarified the governments' roles and responsibilities by targeting spending in areas that clearly come under federal jurisdiction, such as defence and security.

Budget 2007 also included a renewed and strengthened equalization program, a renewed and strengthened territorial formula financing program, a new approach to long-term funding support for post-secondary education, a new approach to long-term funding support for training, a new long-term plan for infrastructure, and a new approach to allocating unplanned federal surpluses.

I think it is appropriate to point out that before a major problem can be resolved, it has to be acknowledged. The previous government thought otherwise. It denied that there was any fiscal imbalance in this country.

The Bloc has shown, as it has done countless times before, that it can raise major issues but cannot do a whole lot about them. Once again, the Liberals did not want to and the Bloc could not. Our government has honoured its commitments, and we have acted.

We are very pleased that provincial governments, especially the Government of Quebec, have welcomed the measures we have taken to ensure fiscal balance. However, I should point out that this initiative was not a unilateral concession to the Government of Quebec. It was not a political favour. We wanted to ensure fiscal balance and limit federal spending power because we believe that this will improve the federal system.

We all know why Quebec's governments—of all political stripes—have always been more concerned about fiscal imbalance and federal spending power than other provincial governments. It is because, since Confederation, Quebec's governments have been responsible for protecting and developing a society with unique historical, cultural and social characteristics within this country.

Recognizing the distinct nature of Quebec society has repeatedly created difficulties during recent and not-so-recent federal-provincial negotiations. At the Prime Minister's urging, Canada's Parliament recently made a historic decision to recognize that Quebeckers form a nation within a united Canada. To my mind, that is the crowning glory of our policy of open federalism toward Quebec. That being said, clear recognition of Quebec's uniqueness must not result in abdication of our responsibilities to the entire Canadian federation. Indeed, we want to reinforce Canada's economic union by clarifying everyone's roles and responsibilities.

The motion introduced by the Bloc Québécois shows a deep lack of understanding by these party members not only of Canadian reality, but also of Quebec's history. For the last 140 years, the Canadian Confederation has served Canadians well when the government properly understood and applied the spirit of the Fathers of Confederation.

Each generation of Quebeckers has taken part in the advancement of our political system to make it increasingly efficient and equitable. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that, by practising open federalism, together we can build a better Canada.

That is why I am asking all members of this House who are proud of our country's history and who believe in its future to reject the ill-advised motion of the Bloc Québécois. By voting against this motion, we vote against giving up and against sabotaging our institutions. We vote against those who want to block Quebeckers' future within the country that they created and developed. In so doing, we express our pride in our past as well as our trust in the future.

Opposition Motion—Federal Spending Power
Business of Supply
Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

Bloc

Vivian Barbot Papineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, the speech by my honourable colleague is both a part of the ongoing dialogue of the deaf and a twisting of the facts. One cannot cite events in the history of Quebec to deny that every Quebec premier has asked that the fiscal imbalance be resolved. With regard to the solution of this matter, it really does demonstrate the most abysmal bad faith. To hear it coming from a Quebecker is even more disagreeable.

I would like to say a few words about my colleague's thoughts on how the spending power has been of great service to Quebec. I would like to remind him that beggars can't be choosers. Year after year, decade after decade, we have had to accept the federal government's crumbs even though we wished to be able to decide for ourselves what we wanted in Quebec and to establish our own priorities for our full development.

Having said that, I would nevertheless like to ask the hon. member if he could acknowledge that every Quebec premier, without exception and no matter what his party affiliation, has always complained about the federal spending power and that the Prime Minister's announcement in the throne speech does not at all resolve the issue.