Debates of Nov. 2nd, 2010
- Question Period
- Commissioner of Official Languages
- Government Response to Petitions
- Fair and Efficient Criminal Trials Act
- Committees of the House
- Questions on the Order Paper
- Questions Passed as Orders for Returns
- Points of Order
- Copyright Modernization Act
- Citizens for Clean Air
- Alma Mater Society
- Caregivers' Week
- Canadian Wheat Board
- Vancouver Island Raiders
- Media Literacy Week
- Federal Business Initiative
- Sodium Consumption
- Arts and Culture
- Worldwide NET Cancer Awareness Day
- Holocaust Education Week
- The Economy
- Édouard Carpentier
- Stanley Baker
- Battle of Passchendaele
- Potash Industry
- Government Priorities
- Oil and Gas Exploration
- Potash Industry
- National Defence
- Veterans Affairs
- Public Works and Government Services
- Veterans Affairs
- Foreign Affairs
- International Co-operation
- Harmonized Sales Tax
- Aboriginal Affairs
- Official Languages
- Office of the Prime Minister
- Violence in Sports
- Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec
- Arts and Culture
- Persons with Disabilities
- Foreign Affairs
- Agriculture and Agri-Food
- Presence in the Gallery
- Points of Order
- Copyright Modernization Act
- Federal Spending Power Act
Federal Spending Power Act
Private Members' Business
Thomas Mulcair Outremont, QC
Mr. Speaker, it is intriguing to hear the Prime Minister’s spokesman categorize the debate on limiting the federal spending power as theoretical given that it was his Prime Minister who promised to introduce legislation in the House to do just that.
As for his assessment that some, particularly in the Bloc, will continue to demand spending in areas where they do not want it, I think that any honest assessment of the bill and of the speeches made earlier by Bloc and NDP members—and I dare say by his own Prime Minister—shows that people are fully aware that this problem must be resolved. That is one of the challenges that needs to be addressed, instead of pouring oil on the fire as the Prime Minister’s spokesman did by oversimplifying things, which is neither in keeping with the standards of this House nor worthy of the individual who just spoke. He knows what he just said was not honest. I think that those of us who have spent their careers trying to build bridges between Quebec and the rest of Canada are extremely disappointed because it is his own Prime Minister who promised to introduce legislation.
Now, I must come back to an important point made by my colleague, the Bloc Québécois member for Saint-Lambert, in her speech. In response to my question, she said that her bill was optional for the other provinces. But the fact is that she failed to read her own bill. Clause 2 of Bill C-507 could not state more clearly that the legislation applies to all provinces. One simply has to read the summary of the bill:
This enactment amends the Financial Administration Act in order to end federal spending in an area of provincial jurisdiction in the absence of a delegation of power or responsibility in that area.
The bill applies therefore to all the provinces’ areas of jurisdiction.
Based on the response the member gave earlier, she would have had us believe that the bill applied solely to Quebec. And yet, the recent letter from the leader of the New Democratic Party to the leader of the Bloc concerning the Bloc’s motion could not have been clearer.
It is being said that the Conservatives are irresponsible because they failed to stand by their commitment to introduce legislation. And we agree. We do not agree, however, when the member for Saint-Lambert says that Quebec is the only province to be recognized as a nation. We do agree with the first part. But she wants Quebec to be treated just like the other provinces. The NDP does not agree with that. We want this recognition of the Quebec nation to be truly meaningful, and that is what the leader of the NDP sought to do in writing to his Bloc counterpart. It is why we kept all the provisions limiting the scope of our proposal, but made them specific to the provinces’ exclusive areas of jurisdiction; and yes, that includes Quebec.
We have no interest in playing games as the Bloc seems to want to do by introducing legislation it knows is doomed to failure because it will upset the provinces when they have asked for nothing of the sort. There is nothing optional about Bill C-507.
It is worthwhile to take a look at the NDP’s historical approach to this. At its founding convention 50 years ago, the NDP was the first Canada-wide political party to recognize the reality of the Quebec nation. That is a very important historical fact.
Then a broad consultation was held everywhere in Canada, called the Social Democratic Forum on the Future of Canada. This was a report by a group co-chaired by Nycole Turmel, long-time president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and Dick Proctor, a former colleague of ours in this House from Saskatchewan. Charles Taylor and Bill Blaikie were also members of the forum. Of course, that was Charles Taylor of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and Mr. Blaikie, who was once voted best member of the House.
The report led to a recommendation that we have asymmetrical federalism when it comes to Quebec, and co-operative federalism. Obviously, it is that last word that causes so many problems. It sticks in the craw of the Bloc members to think that something constructive could be done in Canada to improve things for Quebec.
That was implicit in her answer to my question: she wants to be able to keep saying, every time she talks about it, that Canada cannot be reformed.
That is what we are talking about. Canada is a work in constant progress. It is entirely perfectible, and one of the things we have done to make Canada better is to recognize the reality of the Quebec nation in this House. The NDP is now trying to give that a little more substance.
A series of positions that are quite clear were then adopted in the Quebec section. They are worth examining, in light of recent efforts by the NDP intended precisely to give some real meaning to that recognition of the Quebec nation. Five years ago, it was said that Quebec’s national character was based particularly, but not exclusively, on a majority French-speaking society that works in the common language in the public space. A bill was introduced in this House to extend the language guarantees in the Charter of the French Language of August 1977 to federal enterprises. That was in response to this first concern.
We raised something else, namely a specific culture that is unique in the Americas and that finds expression in a sense of identity and belonging to Quebec. I proposed a motion in the House following the Supreme Court’s decision invalidating Quebec's Bill 104, which opened an enormous hole in Bill 101 concerning access to English schools. We managed to get it adopted unanimously by the House. The House agreed unanimously that immigrants who choose Quebec must learn French first and foremost. That is important to the history of this country.
Finally, we also speak of Quebec’s specific history and institutions. The NDP courageously supported the Bloc motion to maintain Quebec’s political weight in the House of Commons. We did not see any contradiction between the need to increase the number of seats in provinces that required it, such as British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta, and the need to maintain Quebec’s percentage. We moved an amendment that the Bloc accepted, and there was a vote. Ultimately, it was defeated because the Liberals always vote against Quebec, whether in regard to the language of work, the specificity of its culture, access to French schooling, or its political weight. However, there is a progressive, federalist, Canada-wide party that can stand up in the House and say loud and clear that we should stop being half-hearted about our recognition of the Quebec nation. The time has come to really breathe some life into it.
Finally, because the fourth point deals with specific economic and political institutions, I would like to add in regard to the regulation of securities that, once again, when there were votes in the House—the Liberals are hiding now behind a reference to the Supreme Court—they voted against Quebec’s right to keep the regulation of securities within its jurisdiction.
Those are four examples. That was followed in the fall of 2006 by what is called the Sherbrooke declaration, which was approved at the first meeting I had the pleasure of attending for the NDP in September 2006. It was held in Quebec City. All of these principles favoured asymmetrical federalism and a federalism that worked through consent, consultation and negotiation. We wanted to eliminate the federal spending power from areas of exclusive Quebec jurisdiction. It is in keeping with this position, unanimously supported by the NDP, that we are trying today to repeat what the leader of the NDP recently offered the Bloc in regard to their motion.
If the Bloc is sincere, if it is serious, if the Bloc members are not just engaging in a positioning exercise, as they often do, if they want to have a chance to get this passed, they should agree to propose an amendment making it clear that they are speaking exclusively about Quebec and its exclusive areas of jurisdiction. The NDP will be there. That is totally in keeping with the positions adopted by our party pursuant to these very important consultations that found expression in the NDP’s Sherbrooke declaration.
We say in our document that we have to break the deadlock. That is what we are trying to do. Unfortunately, the Bloc prefers to keep us there.
Federal Spending Power Act
Private Members' Business
Alexandra Mendes Brossard—La Prairie, QC
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand in the House today to speak to Bill C-507. However, I must say that this is beginning to seem a bit like déjà vu.
I find this motion rather curious in that it claims to deal with an urgent issue of vital importance to Quebec, according to the Bloc Québécois. Moreover, the ideology behind it draws on ultraconservative theories that even the Reform government opposite refuses to tackle officially.
This issue was addressed by the Bloc on October 21 during its opposition day motion. May I remind the member for Saint-Lambert that her party's motion was defeated 42 yeas to 232 nays.
However, even with Bill C-507 on the order paper prior to the opposition day motion, the Bloc could not have envisioned a better time to bring this idea to the forefront of debate thanks to the member for Beauce. Remember that the member for Beauce in a speech to the Albany Club in Toronto on October 13 stated that the federal government intervenes in provincial jurisdictions and that, in his inflated opinion, it has no constitutional legitimacy to do so.
The member for Beauce’s eloquent rant continues by stating that we should envisage a new way of conducting federal-provincial relations. The big bad wolf, as the member for Beauce calls the federal government, should not interfere in provincial matters and activities. Clearly, it is a simplistic way of summarizing the highly complex task of governing the federation. I remind my colleagues who seem to have forgotten this, that we are still one country.
Before delving into the arguments against the motion, which seem exceedingly clear to me, I would like to point out the glaring inconsistencies in the Bloc Québécois’s bill.
Since when does that party which claims to be the only true defender of Quebec's interests want to promote a bill that would actually provide fewer services for the province while dismantling tried and tested programs? Does it really want less for Quebec?
Let us now look at the arguments which, in my opinion, call into question the relevance, not to mention the urgency, of this issue. At present, this is not even an issue in Quebec. My fellow citizens of Quebec have much more pressing concerns, such as the future of their pension plan, their health care system and their jobs, than such very esoteric constitutional matters. Furthermore, whether you are a nationalist or a federalist, today, as was the case 15 years ago, this is not an issue in which Quebeckers are engaged on a daily basis.
The central issues in the major debates on the future of Quebec that we have had over the past 25 years are language, culture, pride and other aspects of identity. I have never heard talk of the spending powers of the different levels of government outside of political circles.
The Bloc members will now rise together to proclaim loud and clear that this motion is vital because the current government does not respect the division of powers set out in the British North America Act. I would like to digress a bit here to point out the subtlety of my referring to that constitutional legislation, since I assume the Bloc Québécois would not be not referring to that act, given that Quebec refused to sign the Constitution in 1982. But looking closer, perhaps I am mistaken.
The Bloc Québécois claims that the federal government should not help the provinces when it comes to health and education, because those areas fall under provincial jurisdiction according to the Constitution. Let us take a closer look at the ins and outs of the Constitution Act, 1982.
On the one hand the Bloc is saying that the federal government violates the Constitution the province refuses to adhere to, but on the other hand, wait. It now appears it is somewhat opportune to refer to it while that party is still refusing to admit the brilliance of its scope. When it works in their favour, the Bloc members like it and when they do not get enough out of it, it is a disgrace. It is looking more and more like a case of having one's cake and eating it too, or as we say in Quebec, avoir le beurre et l'argent du beurre.
At the heart of this debate on the division of government powers and responsibilities lies, I believe, the whole question of the very delicate balance we are trying to achieve in terms of governance within the federation. This balance is not only vital to making this country work, but it is also the primary reason we have been so successful over the past 143 years.
We in the Liberal Party are fully aware that our federation can always be improved, but its basic principles—including the federal responsibility of ensuring the greatest possible fairness for all Canadians—are not negotiable. In that regard, the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Conservatives form the strongest coalition this House has ever seen. For both parties, the best form of governance for Canada would be a federal government stripped to bare bones, in which all real power would belong exclusively to the provinces.
The irony of this approach is that the current government is using its spending power excessively and has run up a huge operating deficit, showing complete disdain for the most basic democratic principles and profound distrust of all of the accountability mechanisms established by our parliamentary system.
This brings me back to the idea of balance. Balance is what we are severely lacking because the Conservative Reform government refuses to be fiscally responsible, socially fair and an equitable partner our provinces need and expect. Balance is the crucial determinant of a solid and functional federation. It is the only way to ensure that all players are equally represented regardless of size, wealth or background.
Prior to 2006, federal governments of all political stripes tried, in their own way, to work harmoniously with the provinces.
The objective was always to ensure equitable, fair transfers in the areas of health and education. Clearly this has not always been easy, nor have the provinces always obtained everything they asked for. However, the search for that balance was certainly a constant during those 143 years of congenial federalism.
The prosperous and generous Canada of the 21st century is the brilliant result of the fragile but undeniable equilibrium our governments have always sought to achieve.
That said, in working out my pro-federative and resolutely federalist arguments, I am beginning to understand, though I can never subscribe to their reasoning, why my Bloc Québécois colleagues felt it was important to introduce Bill C-507, which we are debating today. I can get a sense of their argument for a federal government reduced to its simplest form.
In the face of the Reform Conservative government's dictatorial and simplistic approach, it is easy to conclude that it would be better to get rid of any possibility of power being exercised by people who are so ignorant and contemptuous of the tradition of striving for balance to which I referred earlier.
Federal spending power is the critically important means by which the federal government can exercise its responsibility to make Canada a viable political unit and to strengthen it. This is certainly the way Ottawa has traditionally used its spending power under Liberal governments such as when we introduced the old age security plan, the national health care act, employment insurance and many other initiatives.
Canada is not the European Union; Canada is a true federation with constitutional mechanisms and responsibilities that allow it to ensure a certain cohesion among all of its components.
Our differences, be they linguistic, geographic or ethnocultural, are a source of wealth and innovation. They define our place in the world and allow us to be creative in our search for solutions. As someone who left Canada after a long stay here once said, “Canada is a solution in search of a problem.”
The Bloc Québécois has its raison d'être, and I know for a fact that I am not going to be the one to change its outlook. However, I am no more ready than they are to abdicate the vision I have had of Canada for 32 years, one which has inspired me to pursue the federalist adventure.
The federation we created in 1867 was extremely idealistic. I am convinced that there were not many observers at the time who would have bet on its success.
And yet—can we forget that for six years in a row, Canada ranked first among the best countries in which to live? Can we forget that Canada originated the concept of the duty to protect, an obligation which is now the guiding philosophy of the United Nations? Can we forget the sacrifices made by all our soldiers who have fought for democracy?
As a proud Canadian and a proud Quebecker, I really do not believe that to be the case.
Federal Spending Power Act
Private Members' Business
Jean Dorion Longueuil—Pierre-Boucher, QC
Mr. Speaker, I noticed something the hon. member for Outremont said a little while ago and would like to get back to it at the end of my speech.
Our debate on the federal spending power in areas of Quebec and provincial jurisdiction reminds me of quite a funny incident during the 1992 referendum campaign. At the time, the Charlottetown accord was on offer to Quebeckers, who rejected it as we all know. The supporters of the accord had recruited a hockey star, who turned out to be better at stickhandling than at constitutional issues. Journalists asked this star, who said he was in favour of the Charlottetown accord, what he thought of the spending power and the provisions of the Charlottetown accord in that regard. He said he thought they were good. When asked if he could expand on this, he explained that spending power means that if someone has money, he can spend it. That was an amusing episode in the campaign.
In 1867, the people of Quebec were not consulted about joining Confederation. Nevertheless, their political leaders at the time assured them that under the new constitutional system, Quebec would have considerable sovereignty in many areas concerning culture, its national aspirations and everyday life, and that, in order to develop as a nation, it could use these considerable powers in areas affecting daily life such as culture, education, health and so forth.
Those were the conditions under which Quebeckers agreed at the time to join Confederation. In fact, the desire to provide a certain amount of sovereignty was expressed by the use of the word Confederation rather than federation.
Since then, though, Ottawa has not hesitated to invade Quebec’s exclusive areas of jurisdiction. Family policy, health, education and regional development are a few of the most striking examples. I will provide a few figures. In 2008, the federal government spent $652 million on health, $386 million on heritage, and $679 million on the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. These are all areas that deal with cultural and social life, which is internal to Quebec.
Ottawa does not hesitate to invade these areas. In all, the federal government spent more than $60 billion in Quebec and the provinces in 2008-09. That is clearly intolerable.
In 2006, the current Conservative government promised to limit the supposed federal spending power, but it has not done anything so far. Some time ago, the hon. member for Beauce went quite far, saying that federal expenditures in areas of Quebec and provincial jurisdiction should be eliminated, pure and simple. However, he did not go so far then as to vote for a motion of this kind. We will see whether he votes for this bill.
Our claims today are based on the very existence of a Quebec nation that was officially recognized by the House. Recognizing a nation is more than just a symbolic gesture. Nations, like people, have fundamental rights, the most important being the right to control the social, economic and cultural development of its own society, in other words, the right to self-determination. You cannot, on one hand, recognize the existence of the Quebec nation and, on the other hand, deny that nation the right to make choices that are different from Canada's. You cannot deny it the right to choose how to use its own resources, in accordance with its own values and in pursuit of its own development.
In his speech, the member for Beauce quoted a speech that was given in 1871. So concerns over the constant interference of the Canadian government in the areas of jurisdiction of Quebec and the provinces is nothing new. The member quoted a speech by Laurier, who said:
If the federal system is to avoid becoming a hollow concept, if it is to produce the results called for, the legislatures must be independent, not just in the law, but also in fact. The local legislature must especially be completely sheltered from control by the federal legislature. If in any way the federal legislature exercises the slightest control over the local legislature, then the reality is no longer a federal union, but rather a legislative union in federal form.
It is clear that what Laurier feared has now become a reality. In his speech, the member for Beauce reminded us that we have strayed a long way from what the Fathers of Confederation intended. We have strayed because federal spending that encroaches on provincial jurisdiction is contrary to Canadian power-sharing principles. In principle, the two levels of government are equal, both sovereign in their respective areas of jurisdiction. Power sharing is supposed to be airtight to prevent the majority nation, the Canadian nation, from imposing its ideals on the minority nation, the Quebec nation. That is why the Séguin report—Mr. Séguin, a former Quebec finance minister, was appointed to chair a commission to investigate the fiscal imbalance in Quebec, and he took the opportunity to address the basic issue of federal spending power—stated the following:
The so-called federal spending power is based on singular logic enabling the federal government to intervene in areas under provincial jurisdiction without having to adopt a constitutional amendment.
Indirectly, the federal government is doing what the Constitution forbids: interfering in areas belonging to Quebec and the provinces.
Earlier, the member for Outremont said that, in a way, the NDP recently proposed that Quebec should be able to manage its own affairs and opt out of the federal spending power, as long as that approach was not imposed across Canada.
If the New Democratic Party were prepared to propose an amendment to the existing bill to guarantee Quebec the right to opt out of the federal spending power unconditionally, our party would support that measure. It has to be clear. It cannot be a trick—
Federal Spending Power Act
Private Members' Business
The Deputy Speaker Andrew Scheer
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.
Pursuant to an order made on Thursday, October 28, the House shall now resolve itself into committee of the whole to consider Motion No. 7 under government business.
I do now leave the chair for the House to go into committee of the whole.
[For continuation of proceedings see part B]
[Continuation of proceedings from part A]
(House in committee of the whole on Government Business No. 7, Mr. Andrew Scheer in the chair)
Jean-Pierre Blackburn Jonquière—Alma, QC
That this committee take note of the courageous contribution and service to Canada by Canada's veterans.
The Chair Andrew Scheer
Before we begin this evening's debate, I would like to remind hon. members of how the proceedings will unfold.
Each member speaking will be allotted 10 minutes for debate, followed by 10 minutes for questions and comments. The debate will end after four hours or when no member rises to speak.
Pursuant to the order made on Monday, November 1, 2010, the Chair will receive no quorum calls, dilatory motions or requests for unanimous consent.
Jean-Pierre Blackburn Minister of Veterans Affairs and Minister of State (Agriculture)
Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by thanking all members of this House for allowing me the opportunity tonight to discuss issues concerning the care and support we are giving to our nation's greatest heroes, the men and women who have answered the call to serve our country in times of war and in times of peace.
As the Prime Minister has stated many times, military service is the greatest form of public service, and he is right. There is no greater service one can perform in Canada than to defend this country's most important values. What are those values? Democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. These ideals are shared by all Canadians. That is why the best men and women in our country are always willing to serve Canada, whether during both world wars, the Korean war, our many peacekeeping operations or the current mission in Afghanistan.
We must recognize that these remarkable men and women make many sacrifices. They have left the comfort of their homes and the arms of their nearest and dearest to serve and protect Canada and Canadians. And now, they are also doing it to support the Afghan people. In exchange, our nation owes these men and women an enormous debt. Our government is aware of this, and we are determined to make sure that Canada is always there for them.
Our accomplishments over the last five years show that we have decided to ensure that the members of our Canadian Forces, our veterans and their families have the support they need when they need it, and get the care they need at the proper time.
If I may, I would like to remind the members of this House, and all Canadians, of what our government has done in the last five years to serve the men and women who have served our country so well.
First, we have made significant investments in the programs, benefits and services these men and women depend on. In fact, in the last five budgets, the Government of Canada has allocated over $2.5 billion in additional funds for our veterans and their families. I repeat: well over $2.5 billion in additional funds.
It is equally important to note that these new investments have been made in the priorities determined by our veterans and their families, in things they have said are most important to them, and of course that includes the New Veterans Charter. Although some do not agree, a New Veterans Charter that is flexible and adapted to the new circumstances, to the modern era, is something our men and women in uniform and our veterans wanted. And the House supported them.
In May 2005, in this very House, all parliamentarians voted unanimously in favour of adopting the New Veterans Charter. They had realized that Canada needed a new approach, a new social contract, to keep up with the changing needs of our veterans in the modern era. That is what the New Veterans Charter accomplishes. It clearly places the emphasis on the health and welfare of our sick and wounded veterans and their families, so they are able to live full and productive lives as quickly as possible. In essence, it means that when our new veterans in the modern era return home wounded, they are able to enter a rehabilitation program, go back to work and continue to live a full life.
I would point out that the initial cost of the new veterans charter was substantial at approximately $740 million over five years. This covers the new measures in the new charter. However, the new veterans charter was never a question of dollars and cents. For us, it is about doing what needs to be done for our veterans.
I would also encourage Canadians to consider our other investments, again, in areas considered by veterans to be the most pressing. Some of these investments targeted issues that go back decades, issues that some veterans perhaps thought would never be addressed in their lifetime. And yet, we acted. For example, we took action to support veterans living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. For the past 66 years, no government had acted on this issue, but our government took immediate steps to provide more financial support to veterans and access to the care and services they so greatly need. The battle is over for these veterans. They will no longer have to fight for the services they need in dealing with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and should a veteran be diagnosed with this illness, he or she will be entitled to all the benefits that our department provides.
There are other examples, such as the establishment of the veterans bill of rights and the appointment of the first-ever ombudsman for Canadian veterans. Veterans’ groups were calling for a veterans’ bill of rights and an ombudsman as far back as the 1960s and 1970s, but their calls went unanswered until our government took the reigns.
There have been many similar examples over the last five years. We extended the veterans independence program to thousands of low-income survivors. We restored benefits to pre-1995 cutback levels for allied veterans and enhanced them by including Korean war veterans and their families. We also doubled the number of Veterans Affairs Canada operational stress injury clinics so that veterans scarred psychologically as a result of their service can get the assistance they need when they need it.
We have disseminated information on agent orange use in 1966 and 1967 at the Canadian Forces’ base in Gagetown, and we made available ex gratia payments to eligible persons. These payments are for $20,000. Other governments refused to take action in that area, too. We acted to ensure that those affected got help.
These achievements are significant. They have genuinely helped to improve the lives of our veterans and their families in a meaningful way, and they are in keeping with our commitment to take decisive action to meet the changing needs of men and women in uniform, both active and retired.
The new veterans charter has been thoroughly successful in this way. The charter embodies the greatest enhancements to veterans’ benefits and programs in 60 years. It has also ushered in numerous innovations in terms of the application process for veterans and their changing demographic profile. The charter is not perfect, however, and could not be so. No one could predict all the issues our veterans would face, in even the first five years.
That is why, over the past two months, our government has announced far greater investments, totalling $2 billion, to enhance the veterans charter; $2 billion to help lessen the suffering faced by our men and women living with catastrophic injuries; $2 billion to ensure that injured and unwell veterans have an adequate monthly income.
We have made these improvements to the new charter to ensure that those returning seriously injured from Afghanistan, and their families, do not have to worry about their financial future. These new assistance measures represent $2 billion in additional support, and we will soon be introducing a bill to that effect here in the House of Commons.
I wanted people to know that at least some new measures will being implemented to help our veterans. I will have a chance to elaborate on that as I answer hon. members' questions.
Shawn Murphy Charlottetown, PE
Mr. Chair, this is perhaps more in the nature of a comment than a question and perhaps I will get the minister's response.
It is appropriate and timely that we have this debate, because all members of the House will be in our ridings next week attending various ceremonies that commemorate and honour the sacrifices made by our veterans over the years.
One thing I notice is that every year the crowds get larger and larger, but unfortunately the number of World War II veterans on parade gets smaller and smaller. Although that is a fact of life, it is unfortunate.
The point I want to make, and I make this point every chance I get, is that I am from the riding of Charlottetown and I want to say in the House how proud I am of the work and the dedication of the people who work for Veterans Affairs Canada.
I know there have been a couple of issues involving privacy that came to public light and they are being investigated, but that should not for a minute take away from the excellent professionalism, the work and the dedication of these people who go about their jobs each and every day looking after the needs of our veterans.
The fact has been alluded to in surveys and empirical evidence that the vast majority of veterans in Canada are pleased with the service they are getting from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Therefore, every chance I get I want to say how proud I am of those hundreds of people who work in that particular department, and I ask the minister if he shares my sentiment.
Jean-Pierre Blackburn Jonquière—Alma, QC
Mr. Chair, to provide all these services to our veterans, we need an extremely attentive and devoted team. That is the team we currently have at our headquarters in Charlottetown. There are also all the government representatives and officials in various locations across the country offering these services to our veterans.
I want the hon. member to know that we are currently recruiting additional staff in order to be prepared to respond to the needs of those returning from Afghanistan. We want to make sure that in less than a few weeks, we can quickly provide them the entire range of services available on their return from Afghanistan.
I want to take advantage of the hon. member's question to explain the significance of the changes we are making. Take for example a soldier who returns from Afghanistan seriously injured. Before the changes, if he underwent a rehabilitation program he would have received 75% of his salary, but someone else at the bottom of the pay scale would have received 75% of that salary at the bottom of the pay scale. We are going to increase this so that the person receives a minimum of $40,000, plus additional measures. A seriously injured veteran returning from Afghanistan will now receive a minimum of $58,000 a year.
Guy André Berthier—Maskinongé, QC
Mr. Chair, I have two short questions for the minister. Last week, we saw important internal documents from Veterans Affairs, which indicated that officials knew from the outset that a new benefit system would result in less money being allocated to veterans. We are talking about a savings of $40 million. I would like to hear what the minister has to say about that.
Furthermore, there have been a fair number of scandals over privacy and confidentiality of medical, psycho-social, economic and financial information of veterans. We are familiar with the case of Sean Bruyea. More than 650 people consulted his file. We do not know why. There is also the case of Louise Richard, a retired military nurse, who experienced the same thing. Even the veterans' ombudsman told us in committee that he was the victim of such abuses.
We were pleased when the minister apologized publicly. However, he said that the privacy rights of a number of other veterans had been breached.
The minister has said that he will investigate. I would like him to tell me what mechanism will be put in place to ensure that veterans' privacy rights are respected.
Jean-Pierre Blackburn Jonquière—Alma, QC
Mr. Chair, the Bloc Québécois critic has asked me two questions. In his first question, he claimed that improvements were made to the new charter in order to save money at the expense of our veterans.
I remind the House that the new veterans charter was adopted before we took power. It was under the previous government. I have no idea whether they were trying to save money, but that is not our intention. The proof is that we just received $2 billion in additional funding from the government, that is, $200 million over five years, to improve services for veterans and to ensure that they do not have any financial worries.
That is why I said earlier that if a soldier returns from Afghanistan seriously wounded and participates in a rehabilitation program, or if he can never return to work because his injuries are too severe, he will receive a minimum of $58,000. That is obviously in addition to the lump sum disability payment, which can go up to a maximum of $276,000. So there are two measures. Furthermore, we have been asked to look at the amount our veterans receive as a disability payment, since some of them have difficulties managing it. We will offer options to our veterans to better meet their needs.
As for the privacy concerns, since my time is up, I would be happy to speak further if other questions are asked.
Peter Stoffer Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS
Mr. Chair, so many questions and so little time.
If the government wishes to take credit for certain programs, then it also has to take responsibility for the failure of some of those programs.
As the minister well knows, when the VIP program was extended, the Prime Minister was the opposition leader. In 2005 he said clearly in a letter to Joyce Carter that all widows and widowers of World War II and Korean War veterans would receive the VIP program. All of them would receive it, and they would receive it immediately. There were no other provisos.
In the 2008 budget, the program kicked in and less than 10% of those people were eligible. They were also under strict criteria, which meant they had to be receiving a disability payment or have a low income in order to receive the VIP program. That was not said in the letter. The letter said “all” and “immediately”.
The privacy information of Sean Bruyea and others may have been scattered throughout the department like confetti. I am wondering why the minister did not call for a public inquiry into the department in order to seek outside consultation and recommendations.
We do not blame the minister for what happened. He just received his posting. To be honest, with what I have seen so far I believe the minister is sincere and careful regarding what he wishes to do for veterans, including RCMP veterans, and their families.
I am wondering why he did not call for a public inquiry into his department.
I have many more questions, but I am sure I will be given ample time in the future to ask them.
Jean-Pierre Blackburn Jonquière—Alma, QC
Mr. Chair, I would like to thank the member for his questions.
What is more important than information concerning the private lives of veterans? This information needs to be kept only in the hands of those who need to know, and not a large number of people who actually do not need to know. We need to keep this type of information from being shared with a large number of people.
When all of this was brought to my attention—they were talking about events that occurred in 2005 and 2006—we immediately put measures into place. The Privacy Commissioner's four recommendations will be implemented and, over the coming days and weeks, we will make public an action plan that comprises 10 elements that will completely change the way things are done within the Department of Veterans Affairs. We can therefore ensure that our veterans' private information will truly be respected. You can see that we are serious and that we are moving ahead in this direction.
In terms of support measures for families of veterans, I would also like to tell the member that it was the previous government that made cuts in 1995. We put them back in place and those who served in Korea, in particular, as well as their families, are really being helped by these measures.
Kirsty Duncan Etobicoke North, ON
Mr. Chair, my earliest memories are of a Legion where my mom played in a pipe band. I liked to listen to the kindly older men while the band practised. I liked their stories. They would test me, “Do you know what that tune is? Do you remember what it stands for?” They were The Battle of the Somme, Black Bear, and Highland Laddie.
By the time I was five, I knew to stand for the colour guard, to take my woolly winter hat off as I entered the Legion, and why we wear a poppy. I found the word “veteran” hard, so my parents instead used the word “hero”. My whole life, veteran has been synonymous with hero.
Every summer we lined the streets of the Canadian National Exhibition for Warriors' Day. I remember the rows and rows of men and women who stretched from one side of Princes' Boulevard to the other, Legion after Legion, the 400 Squadron, the Toronto Scottish, waiting for my grandfather to march past and then my mother, and clapping until my hands were raw.
As a child, I was fascinated by the veterans' medals, and I asked my dad how anyone could have had medals that stretched from one side of his chest to the other. My father taught me that Canada owes our veterans. That is why we come to honour them each summer and that is why I must never forget them. He told me how his own father was not able to fight in the second world war, but that at the end of each week, how his father, a barber, prepared packages tied up in brown paper with string, to send to the boys from the neighbourhood. As a child, I saw my father cry only twice, but his eyes watered every time he told me about those packages.
As I grew older, my understanding of our veterans' gift to my parents' generation and to mine deepened, while the rows upon rows of veterans dwindled. Today Warriors' Day is a mere trickle of what it once was, with many veterans being driven in vans along the parade route. But the ranks of new veterans are growing. My hands are still raw and none of my family can manage a dry eye when the first Legion passes.
For 25 years, I had the honour and privilege of performing with the 48th Highlanders of Canada, Dileas Gu Brath, and had planned to do officer training with the navy if I had stayed in Canada for school. I have stayed on the bases as Esquimalt and at Valcartier, and was asked to teach new recruits at Borden. I would like to thank the 48th for the profound respect they taught me for military culture, history, and the sacred trust Canada has with its veterans, for the debt of gratitude we owe them, and always, that we will remember them.
I came to serve in Ottawa for two main reasons: to fight to end child hunger in Canada, and to fight for neurological disease, all because of what a veteran said when I was a child. He said that he went to war for my mom's generation, for my generation, and for those to come, that he did not go for his own. One hundred thousand never came home. Then he said the words that I have never forgotten, that have haunted me all my life: “What will you and your friends do for the next generations? We are entrusting you with the future we fought for”.
Let me begin by thanking all of our veterans, our World War II veterans, our Korean War veterans, our Canadian Forces veterans, and all our Canadian Forces and reserves. I thank them, I know each member of this House thanks them, and our country thanks them.
I was enormously proud to be appointed the veterans critic by our party. I take this new role to heart. I profoundly take my service to them, as they taught me service throughout my life, and I will do my utmost to honour them, their service to our country, and, most important, to work to restore the sacred trust Canada once had in them.
I will fight hard to bring attention to the issues they have raised with me such as agent orange, ALS, atomic war veterans, clawbacks, lump-sum payments, the new veterans charter, and privacy. I never would have believed, and Canadians would not have believed, that we would ever have had to fight for the privacy of our veterans. We assume that this is a given in our country. To name but a few issues, there is PTSD, the veterans' ombudsman's office, and Veterans Affairs.
It is disgraceful that in Canada we have let them down, and let them down on so many issues. Yet again they have had to be the heroes, to lead us to see the injustices, and to push us to begin to right the wrongs. I am sorry that they have come home only to fight other battles: for care, treatment, and something so basic as privacy.
While I may have come to Ottawa for two main reasons, I now have a third: the brave men and women who put their lives on the line for Canada in time of war and in time of peace. They are our country's heroes.
This week, Canadians across our country will begin to gather in places where it is impossible not to be moved by the sacrifice of our veterans. We shall remember the fallen, the battles that have defined generations. We shall remember our humanity in difficult circumstances, during peacekeeping missions. We shall remember the generations serving today. Many left as young men and women only to return as heroes, to take their place alongside previous generations for the courage they have shown and the sacrifices they have made.
However, our veterans deserve more than one day, one week, of remembrance. They have earned care when they need it, respect throughout their lives, and the necessary economic, familial, and social supports to return to civilian life, to adjust to a new life, or to age with dignity and grace. They do not want hollow words, with no action. They deserve leadership with real change, and they deserve what they engaged in so extraordinarily well themselves, namely, action.
Our veterans deserve significant changes to veterans affairs. I want to acknowledge the good work of the people there, though. I want to recognize the people who actually served in the military and who understand the culture. We need a change in the current philosophy, from the insurance policy climate of today to the sacred trust of the past, from helping a veteran only to the age of 65 to looking after a veteran to the end of his or her life, to reinstating the originally intended benefit of the doubt when dealing with veterans, to streamlining processes and procedures and ensuring that there are enough people to allow timely processing of claims.
There also needs to be an extensive review of the new veterans charter, in consultation with veterans across the country. We need to know what is working, what is not working, where the gaps are, and what needs to be changed.
Although the charter was intended to be a living document, the government has not made one change in four years.
We need to make real changes in compensation. This is one of the most criticized pieces, with 31% of veterans saying the lump-sum payment does not work for them.
Why does the government continue with something that is failing to help our veterans?
We must also ensure that VAC is properly prepared for when our men and women return in 2011. VAC cannot meet the demand of today's veterans, let alone the veterans of 2011. Where is the vision, the strategic plan, and the resources to ensure that the department is ready?
I profoundly thank Colonel Pat Stogran, veterans ombudsman, for his years as an officer in the service of our country and for his excellent and courageous service to our vets over the past three years.
Finally, I honour all our veterans, their families, the fallen, and those still serving. There is no commemoration, praise, or tribute that can truly match the enormity of their service and their sacrifice.