Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today in support of Bill C-284, introduced by my hon. colleague, the member for Halifax West.
For centuries now, the importance of a sound education has been one of the hallmarks of public policy, not just in Canada but across the nations of the world. A sound and fulfilling education not only serves the interests of the students who benefit from their studies, but the society in which they choose to practice the skills they have learned.
By ensuring that our young people receive the best possible education, we are also ensuring that our society thrives, grows and prospers. It was the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, who stated: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. In providing young Canadians with the opportunity to obtain a thorough and balanced education, we are, as a society, lighting the fire of wonder in their hearts and minds, a fire that will illuminate our country for generations to come.
It is in this vein that I support my colleague's bill, which would amend the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act.
The bill would provide for Canada access grants to eligible Canadians who have permanent disabilities. It recognizes, implicitly, the unique challenges faced by persons with disabilities in their efforts to obtain a post-secondary education.
No one in the House will be unfamiliar with the very real challenges that face students in contemporary Canadian society. It is truly heart-rending to hear the stories of so many young Canadians who simply cannot afford to pursue their education to the extent that they would like, simply as a result of financial barriers.
This challenge is particularly real for persons with disabilities, who may not have the same opportunities to supplement their incomes while attending school as other students might find available to them. Furthermore, I believe we, as Canadians, have an obligation to assist those with disabilities to ensure that they have the same opportunities as their fellow citizens to choose whatever career path they wish to pursue.
I join with my colleagues in wishing to see this bill pass, but fear that it might not succeed. This is because the government seems to have decided to abandon the important role of the federal government with respect to education. The delivery of education may be a provincial responsibility, but as the last government demonstrated, there is much that the national government can do as well.
When the members of the New Democratic Party decided to bring down the previous Liberal government, they chose political expediency over the best interests of Canadians. As a result, much was lost for students.
Members might recall the financial statements of the then Liberal finance minister, the member for Wascana, as he outlined an enormous progressive plan to assist young Canadians to realize their full potential in terms of educational opportunities. This plan committed $2.2 billion over five years to improve financial assistance by making post-secondary education more affordable for lower and middle income Canadians. This was an incredible commitment to help ensure that all Canadians, regardless of their means, had the opportunity to obtain a sound education.
The Liberal fiscal plan also called for $550 million over five years to extend Canada access grants, the subject of our discussion here today. This would have covered 55,000 students from lower income families in all years of undergraduate education. We would also have seen $265 million over five years for Canadians with disabilities to assist them in participating in the workforce.
These commitments were real and they would have gone a long way toward assisting young Canadians with their educational objectives. Members of this caucus have and continue to hold a solid and real commitment to Canadian students.
In keeping with the Liberal commitment to education, I was myself pleased to introduce in the House Bill C-316, an act to establish a national literacy policy. It is truly disheartening that upwards of 38% of Canadians have difficulties reading and writing.
We all know that the most fundamental requirement for education and career advancement is the ability to read and write at a reasonable level of proficiency. The reality is that illiteracy in this country costs the economy approximately $10 billion annually, not to mention the ongoing daily struggles of those who have to contend with limited skills when it comes to reading and writing.
Similarly, it is also true that there is a serious lack of funding for literacy programs in Canada and an even more pressing need for a coordination of services. We need to implement a national literacy strategy with long term programs designed to assist all Canadians who need this kind of help in realizing their full potential both in their academic and professional careers.
Members of this House have acknowledged that without proper educational training the future of many young Canadians is less than bright. There are fewer and fewer jobs available to those who do not possess the kind of skills now required in the workplace. The quandary many young Canadians find themselves in is that they cannot access those jobs without the needed education, yet they cannot afford to obtain the skills that are needed.
It is important that we act on this issue of the need for literacy programs and financial assistance for students, particularly those with disabilities. We must also ensure that we recognize the need to make a real commitment to adequate funding of education in this country.
Education is the foundation upon which the future of this country will be built. There is no benefit to shortchanging our future by failing to adequately invest in the education of young Canadians. The reality is simply that in creating the kinds of programs that will encourage support and sustain our young people in their educational journey, we will be ensuring that the workforce of the future will be able to meet the needs of our economy.
Bill C-284 recognizes the need to assist those who need the help the most in realizing their full potential as students and future employees. In providing this kind of support, we are truly inviting all Canadians to the table. We need to expand programs such as those proposed in this bill, as well as those put forward in Bill C-316 which would promote literacy across Canada.
These programs are investments in the future of our young people, the future of our country and in reality, the future of our planet. There is a role for Canada in the world. When encouraging our young people to strive to reach their maximum potential, we by implication do the same for our country itself.