moved that Bill C-236, an act to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act (student loan), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, in my capacity as the New Democratic Party advocate and critic for post-secondary education I rise to launch second reading of my private member's bill, Bill C-236, with very mixed feelings. I will try to explain that in the time available to me.
This is a measure that is desperately needed to provide some relief to students who are in dire straits. The reason I rise with mixed feelings is that it was my hope and the hope of hundreds of thousands of students and their families that the need for such legislation, this debt relief for students, would not be so great today after the budget was tabled in the House this week.
Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. What the students of yesterday, today and tomorrow have received from the budget is the back of the hand and a kick in the teeth with respect to the priority needs for young people and for all Canadians who understand the value, the importance and necessity in today's world of being able to afford a post-secondary education.
I want to briefly outline what the bill would do. The summary states:
This enactment amends the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act to reduce, from ten to two years after a bankrupt leaves school, the period of time during which an order of discharge does not release the bankrupt from the reimbursement of his or her student loan.
I have no doubt that some people who are trying to follow this debate are asking themselves why on earth the NDP member from Halifax would be introducing a bill to deal with bankruptcy. I am also sure they will be asking themselves whether there not other more urgent priorities for students and greater needs that ought to be addressed by the federal government and raised by all members of Parliament.
The answer to those questions is an unqualified yes. A lot of things are of higher priority to the overwhelming majority, especially to all post-secondary education students today and those who will follow, but the sad truth is that students have been virtually abandoned by the budget that was brought in here this week in terms of those priority needs.
It is absolutely clear that yesterday's students and their struggling families needed a meaningful program of debt relief, debt forgiveness in many instances.
Second, today's students, because of the crippling debt loads that are amassing and the continuing spiraling of tuition fees, desperately needed the government to reinvest in post-secondary education to make it possible for universities to both freeze and lower tuition fees. However, not only has the government not addressed this urgent matter, it has once again broken an election promise in this regard.
We are not just talking about some casual election commitment. We are talking about a specific commitment that the Prime Minister made in a grubbing for youth vote exercise in which he participated, the great Canadian job competition, a debate that was held with my leader, the member for Toronto Centre—Rosedale. At that time the Prime Minster said that the government recognized that there had been massive cuts over the last decade that have caused the financial crisis for students and he committed to the reinvestment of $8 billion to $9 billion in core funding for post-secondary education. There was absolute silence in the budget on that matter.
Tomorrow's students need to know there will be a post-secondary education system still standing when the government is through hacking and slashing at it. We have damage done, not just to the finances of students and their families in terms of debt burden, but we have an erosion of the post-secondary infrastructure because of the massive unilateral cuts that were introduced in that infamous 1995 budget. After one takes into account the paltry dollars that were contained in this week's 2005 budget, today the level of core funding to our post-secondary education system is below the level of core funding in 1993 when the government came to office some 12 years ago. It is unbelievable.
It is a tragic irony and it is heartbreaking. It is so important for the discrimination that now exists in our insolvency legislation to end as it relates to students. That is what we are talking about today. Others who become bankrupt, whose circumstances beyond their control have driven them into the situation of financial disaster where bankruptcy is an option, are eligible to apply for bankruptcy protection after two years. However, the government has removed that protection from the student population who have indebted themselves because of the inadequacy of the student aid programs in the country and particularly because of the withdrawal of any meaningful support from the federal government. They are in the position where they are not eligible for such bankruptcy protection for 10 years.
This is out and out discrimination against a category of Canadians that needs to be fought in the courts. I applaud the student leaders of the country, through the Canadian Federation of Students, who are fighting this discriminatory provision through the courts. It is pathetic that our students have to do this to get the government to pay attention to their desperate lot.
It is unbelievable the one measure, which we could hardly even call it an initiative let alone a major initiative, contained in the budget for which the government keeps congratulating itself is if students die or become permanently disabled, then they will have the debt forgiveness for their student loan.
I applaud the government for its effort. In fact I had a private member's bill to propose exactly that. I am glad that my other private member's bill to provide for such relief is no longer needed. I say that without qualification. However, it is such a tiny measure in relation to what is needed.
Since I have become the post-secondary education critic, I have received an avalanche of letters, e-mails, phone calls, personal approaches from students whose lives are in ruin because of the inadequacies of our student aid system. The government has pushed money over into a foundation to escape accountability. It has absolutely turned its back on the universally recognized need for a student aid system that is based on needs. That has left incredible numbers of students in desperate financial straits.
I could share with my colleagues today the kinds of problems students are having in no more effective way than to briefly quote from the letter from just one such student. I had introduced the bill before I ever heard from this student in my riding. I will not have time to read it in full today because it is quite lengthy. He says:
For years I have been a slave to the student debt I was forced to incur in order to receive a post-secondary education. With no funding available from my family and only minimum wage earnings saved by myself I embarked on my higher education with five years of student loans, leaving me approximately $40,000 in debt upon completion of my studies...
He goes on to describe the nightmare of trying to deal with the student aid system and the frustrations in all of that. He then goes on to say:
My intention at 18 years old, when I accepted my first student loan, was never to have to declare bankruptcy with the debt I was assuming. But the reality of it ends up being so. After speaking to many different sources over the past couple of years, ranging from financial advisors, bankruptcy counsellors, legal aid lawyers, and going through my situation in great length, I was told by the majority of them that bankruptcy is my best option.
Because this student and every other student in a similar situation in the country is actively discriminated against by the insolvency provisions, I have introduced my private member's bill to amend and to correct the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act so students will be given fair and equal treatment.
He goes on to say:
More than anything, I want and need the stresses of this to be eliminated from my life so I simply can get on with it and create a decent living for myself.
He finishes with the following:
I am one of thousands who desperately need this change to occur. We, as young Canadians, need to get on with our lives and become productive members of society so that we may create lives for ourselves that will enable future generations to succeed. I feel as though the Liberal government has put young Canadians in a position that prevents us from doing so, preventing us from moving forward with a proper life's path.
This is the problem we have created for a lot of our students today. However, the problem does not only exist for students. In many cases the very low income families, who could not afford to help them with their escalating tuition fees in the first place, are now stuck trying to help bail them out of situation out of which they simply cannot get.
I to appeal to every member of the House to understand that this is a small measure. This is a measure to which every other Canadian is entitled, yet we are insist on dragging down our students with student debt, through no fault of their own. The government has effectively abandoned any meaningful system of student aid.
We have to address the crisis and emergency that exists with respect to the bankruptcy provisions while we continue to press the government to reinvest, starting with the Prime Minister's very specific commitment during the spring election to restore $8 billion to $9 billion of core funding to the post-secondary education system. We can do no less if we mean what we say about our youth being our future.