Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill C-28. In the view of New Democrats, this was an unprecedented opportunity to invest in Canadians. Instead we see a Conservative government that continues to take Canada in the wrong direction.
It was not a balanced approach. It could have provided targeted tax relief for those who needed it most, instead of providing billions of dollars in tax relief to the friends of the Conservatives, the oil and gas companies. It was an opportunity to close that ever increasing prosperity gap. However, as we have seen in many of the programs and legislation that comes from the Conservative government, it has not invested in working class and middle class families, in ordinary Canadians.
With regard to the wrong direction, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in a 2007 paper called “Why Inequality Matters: The Canadian Case”, talks about that growing prosperity gap. It see income distribution deteriorating.
The rich and poor gap is at a 30 year high, in after tax terms, the fastest growth in the past 10 years under economic conditions that traditionally lead to it falling. There is a far greater polarization of incomes. The bottom half has been shut out of economic gains of the last 30 years, despite working more hours. As a cohort, these families raising children are better educated and working more than those 30 years ago. On average, those families are working 200 hours more a year. That truly is a prosperity gap.
In the economic statement, the government talks about delivering broad based tax relief for individuals, families and businesses. Let us do a bit of a reality check around that.
The government's own document says that families earning between $15,000 and $30,000 will pay on average almost $180 less in tax in 2008. My question has always been this. Exactly how many child care spaces, how many child care days, does $180 in tax relief pay for?
Social Planning Cowichan recently issued a report in October. It talks about quality child care. I will read briefly from that because my community is in a crisis around child care. It says:
Quality, affordable child care is crucial to the social and economic welfare of the Cowichan Region. The successful development of our children, especially in the early years, has a long term impact on our region....
Currently, there is a critical lack of licensed child care spaces in the Cowichan Region, with enough spaces to serve only 48 percent of the estimated 4,862 children under the age of 12 who need child care. For the estimated 1,047 aged three and under who need child care, there are only 165 licensed spaces, or 16 percent of the number needed.
This situation continues to worsen due to the current labour shortage and increasing cost of housing which requires that most families need two incomes to afford a home which is resulting in an estimated 70 to 75 percent of mothers entering the workforce.
Three significant barriers to providing quality child care are consistently identified by information gathered from interviews with local informants as well as the websites of many provincial, national and international organizations involved in promoting quality, affordable child care: lack of child care spaces; funding for child care services and programs; staffing, training, recruitment and retention in birth to three year services.
The economic statement would have been an opportunity to take meaningful action around child care. The Conservatives will talk about choice in child care when they talk about the $100 a month, but that $100 a month simply does not create new child care spaces.
The New Democrats have put forward Bill C-303, which calls for meaningful attention to early learning and child care. One would hope, with the kind of support this bill has garnered, that the Conservatives would have seen fit to take the opportunity in the economic statement to invest in the creation of child care spaces and in early learning. Instead, we have seen tax relief of $180 a year for people earning between $15,000 and $30,000 a year. This kind of tax relief will not create child care spaces.
In my province of British Columbia, and I know in other provinces, many industries are facing severe labour shortages. We could have encouraged people to join the labour force by ensuring there would be affordable, quality, regulated child care. This was a missed opportunity to invest in working and middle class families. This was a missed opportunity to close that prosperity gap.
Another element that is of critical importance to Canadians, certainly to those living in my riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan, is housing. On October 22, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, took a preliminary look at the Canadian housing situation. I will quote from his report because he says it far better than I could. He says:
Everywhere that I visited in Canada, I met people who are homeless and living in adequate and insecure housing conditions. On this mission I heard of hundreds of people who have died, as a direct result of Canada's nation-wide housing crisis. In its most recent periodic review of Canada's compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations used strong language to label housing and homelessness and inadequate housing as a “national emergency”.
This is an international overview of what is happening in Canada. People are saying that the housing situation is in a crisis.
Mr. Kothari goes on in his report to talk about why there has been a significant erosion of housing policy rights over the past two decades. Not only is the current Conservative government not taking the kind of action that is required in terms of a national housing strategy, but when the Liberals were in government, they directly contributed to the crisis that we are in today.
Mr. Kothari says:
—Even more dramatic housing cuts in the coming years as the federal government “steps out” of its financial commitments under the 1973 to 1993 national housing programme.
--Reductions in income support programs at the federal level, and in every province, that have left many Canadians with little money to pay for ever-increasing housing costs, and
--A shift in housing policy to provide support for homeownership, mainly through the tax system, while eroding support for social and rental housing.
It is clearly a failure of leadership, both under the Conservatives and under the previous Liberal government.
The Cowichan Valley fall 2006 report talks about the crisis that has emerged in Nanaimo—Cowichan. It talks about the fact that no new rental units have been built in the Cowichan region during the last 20 years, therefore the supply is scarce. Vacancy rates in private rental buildings in the city of Duncan and in North Cowichan have declined in recent years from 8.4% in October 2002 to 1.6% in October 2005.
Under rents and incomes in the same report, in 2001 more than 6% of households in the CVRD had incomes of less than $10,000, and an additional 14% had incomes of between $10,000 and $19,999 and a further additional 12.9% had incomes between $20,000 and $29,999, in total, 35% of the households. Clearly, the ability to afford rent is a significant issue for many people in the region. The proportion of households spending more than 30% of their gross income on rent was higher in the CVRD than for B.C. as a whole. Thirty-five per cent of the households in my riding are making under $30,000. The $180 tax relief is in the pockets of 35% of the households in my riding. How will $180 help someone rent an apartment when rents are rising because of the severe shortage in supply?
A national housing strategy looked at a continuum housing, from homelessness, transitional shelters, accommodation for singles and families, up to aging in place. We need a continuum. We need that national strategy. That was in the Cowichan Valley. It is no different in the city of Nanaimo.
Another report talked about the market rental and row housing vacancy. It was 3.4% in 2002 and down to 1.4% in 2005. They are turning away people from emergency shelters. Transition houses that responded cited the increasing cost of housing, both owned and rental. They also cited the increasing incidence of homelessness and raised concerns about the declining stock of rental and market housing.
A number of suggestions have been made on actions that can be taken to deal with it. It is no surprise that people in Nanaimo are calling for a range of housing types catering to different ages, family types and income levels, including smaller unit sizes to low income single adults and seniors.
Back in March, a panel, sponsored by the Nanaimo Canadian Federation of University Women, talked about the fact that there were a significant number of women in Nanaimo living on the streets. The Haven Society's Willow WAI for Women have said that 99% of homeless women generally have addiction or mental health issues, are undereducated, lack employment life skills and many commit crimes to support an addiction. They become homeless because of estrangement from their families due to violence or drug use, or marital breakdown or incarceration, or they have been evicted and lack affordable housing.
Affordable and adequate safe housing is only one part of dealing with homelessness in a community. We certainly see that very visible face of homelessness in many of our communities. The economic statement and the throne speech were an opportunity to take leadership both in Canada and internationally in a meaningful national housing strategy. It was a failure in dealing with some of these very serious issues confronting our communities.
Again, the economic statement talked about the fact that people who worked on our shop floors and assemble lines or in our forests and mills were struggling, that the manufacturing and forestry sectors were bearing the brunt of a strong Canadian dollar, that they were facing increased competition from emerging economies and that this is a difficult situation.
I argue the fact that a difficult situation is probably an understatement. In many of communities in Nanaimo—Cowichan our forestry sector reeling. Another one of the pulp and paper mills in my riding has applied for bankruptcy protection, and those are important jobs in our community. Forestry is not a sunset industry. Forestry is a vibrant and vital industry in the province of British Columbia and in other provinces across the country. We are not seeing a strategic investment and national leadership in forestry.
In my province and in my riding, raw log exports continue to be a source of aggravation. Our raw resources are being shipped elsewhere for processing as our sawmills close down. The closure of those sawmills is having repercussions for the pulp and paper mills. When the Bloc put forward a motion calling for some attention to manufacturing and forestry, the Conservatives voted against it and the Liberals abstained, instead of taking a strong stand for our forestry communities across the country.
Our critic for industry, the member for Parkdale—High Park, has compiled some good statistics. She talks about the fact that we have seen significant job loss. She said that there were job losses resulting in 8% of wood products. In British Columbia the manufacturing and forestry sector has lost 13,700 jobs. That is partly to do with the softwood lumber agreement. It did not take into consideration the downturn in the housing sector in the United States. This means the price per board foot has now dropped below that threshold, so we are now paying a 15% tax.
The economic statement acknowledged that forestry was struggling, that these were difficult times, yet there was no commitment in either the throne speech or the economic statement to develop a national strategy to ensure that our forestry sector would remain as a vibrant and vital part of our economy.
When we are talking about closing the prosperity gap, let us just turn for one moment to first nations.
First nations, Inuit and Métis across this country continue to be the poorest of the poor. One of the pillars that we know will contribute to raising people out of poverty is education. The throne speech did mention education. The minister said that there needed to be investment in skills training and development with regard to industries emerging in the north. I would argue that there needs to be a far broader plan for education in this country.
We are seeing discrepancies throughout the first nations education system from coast to coast to coast. In an article today in the Winnipeg Free Press, there is an editorial on education on reserves. The numbers here highlight the difference. On one hand, we hear the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development talking about the importance of standards and looking at provincial standards, curriculum and those kinds of things, and yet, on the other hand, he is telling first nations schools on reserve that he wants them to meet the standards but that he does not actually want to give them the same amount of money.
We have provincial standards on a per capita basis that talk about how much provincial governments say is necessary to provide an adequate education in the K to 12 system, but then we have the federal government telling first nations on reserve schools that it wants to deliver the same standards of education but that it does not want to give the money needed to do it.
Let us talk about some of these numbers. In this editorial it states:
The base funding--per student grants--from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada for on-reserve schools across Canada is lower than provincial grants, and that extends to grants that cover special education. As an example, in Manitoba the Opaskwayak Education Authority receives total federal funding that works out to $6,400 per student.
Contrast that to the Wapanohk Community School in Thompson--whose student body is almost entirely aboriginal--which is under a public school board that spends an average $9,384 per student. On average, Manitoba school boards spent $8,900 per pupil. Across the western provinces, the average was $8,386, according to a report compiled by the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education.
There is roughly a $3,000 difference between what the province of Manitoba is spending and what is funded for, in this case, one on reserve school. This is not atypical. This is happening in provinces across this country.
In 2004, the Auditor General said that the department did not have a good handle on the funds that were required for education and did know whether or not it was actually getting results for the money it was spending.
Right now the first nations educational renewal is up in 2008 and there is something called a band operating funding formula. Here we are, at the end of November, and there still has not been agreement on this band operating funding formula. We know there are huge discrepancies. At a meeting with the department and the minister this morning, they said that it was difficult and that there were different things happening in different provinces.
We talk about a prosperity gap. First nations are certainly in the middle of that prosperity gap. One in four first nations children live in poverty, which means their families live in poverty. We know that one of the elements to raising people out of poverty is adequate education so why are we not investing in education?
The same thing is happening with the building of schools. We have schools in Manitoba that have been on wait lists forever. We have schools in Saskatchewan where, from the department's own records, there is a serious problem with the funding. We heard from the department today that it is juggling funding around when there is an emergency.
If we truly mean that we are committed to education, we need to put the money into the education system for first nations, Métis and Inuit so they have access to an adequate education.
The economic update and the throne speech are missed opportunities to close that prosperity gap and it clearly takes Canada in the wrong direction. Therefore, we will not be supporting that.