moved that Bill C-309, An Act establishing the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Region of Northern Ontario, be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak about Bill C-309 once again. For those members who may not be all that familiar with it, Bill C-309 proposes to establish a permanent agency for regional development for the residents of northern Ontario. The existing government program, FedNor, falls under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Industry who can essentially cut the program's budget or completely withdraw it without warning. It is important to note that, when the previous Liberal government was in power, it never threatened to eliminate FedNor's funding.
In fact, in 2005, the Liberal government increased FedNor's annual core funding to $51.9 million. Unfortunately, when the Conservatives came to power in 2006, they hastily cut nearly $7 million from FedNor's annual funding, and tried to make Canadians in northern Ontario believe that, somehow, they would receive more money than ever before.
At the time, the industry minister announced that the Conservative government would extend the FedNor program by five years, but that its annual budget would be reduced to $45.5 million, resulting in a loss of $6.4 million for the program.
In an attempt to justify this 13% budget cut, the minister claimed, incorrectly, that the 2005 FedNor budget was set at $45.5 million with an additional $6 million going to the new Northern Ontario School of Medicine. In fact, government records clearly show that the $6 million provided for research facilities and equipment at the school in 2005 was above and beyond the $51.9 million annual FedNor budget guaranteed by the Liberal government.
My constituents and residents through the region were not fooled by the minister's shell game. Rather, the people of northern Ontario felt betrayed by the Conservatives, and with good reason. The Conservatives are masterful at playing politics of division. They love to pit different regions across the country against one another rather than offering everyone an equal opportunity to succeed.
As the member of Parliament for Nipissing—Timiskaming and a resident of northern Ontario, I can say that FedNor is of tremendous value to the people of the area. This funding is essential in creating jobs and strengthening our regional economy.
The cuts speak volumes to the priorities of the Conservative government and its vision for the future of Canada.
In 2005, the northern Ontario Liberal caucus worked very hard to raise FedNor's stable base funding to ensure that FedNor could undertake longer term strategies for the development and growth of the northern Ontario economy.
My Liberal colleagues and I continue to recognize the importance of making sound investments in people, knowledge, modern infrastructure and a sound and efficient financial sector in order to provide the foundation for global success. We are also committed to ensuring that the people of northern Ontario are given every opportunity to develop and maintain a strong regional economy, as well as diversify and strengthen their employment base. Bill C-309 is a critical means to that end.
It is worth noting that other regions of the country have regional economic development agencies that report directly to a minister of the Crown, thus serving their needs. I firmly believe that the residents of northern Ontario deserve the same privileges and services that these agencies provide to other Canadians.
The Conservatives will argue that the establishment of a permanent FedNor agency will do nothing more than create more bureaucracy and cost more to administer the existing program. For instance, in his remarks during second reading of the bill, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration made the bogus claim that establishing a permanent regional development agency for northern Ontario would limit FedNor's ability to contribute to other economic development initiatives in northern and rural Ontario.
I will pause a moment to reflect on this assertion. Are we really supposed to believe that making FedNor a permanent agency, one that cannot be subjected to cuts or outright termination, would somehow limit the organization's ability to administer necessary funding to projects throughout northern Ontario?
The people of northern Ontario will not be taken for fools by the Conservative government.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, the NDP will argue that the Liberals had the opportunity to establish a permanent FedNor back when they were in government but they had made no effort to do so.
In 2005, DEQ, the provincial economic development counterpart to FedNor in Quebec, was converted from a program to an agency. While we were in government, the NDP and the Conservatives teamed up together and brought down the Martin government, killing the opportunity for FedNor to become an agency then. They also killed many other programs that would have been very beneficial to us and which the Conservative government does not believe in.
Therefore, in light of the substantial FedNor funding cuts that have already been made by the Conservative government and facing the possibility of more cuts again in the future, we must take action now.
Let us begin by discussing the difference between program and agency, which is a question that is often asked. Technically the words “program” and “agency” have no effect under Canadians law. What separates FedNor from other regional development agencies is that each of its counterparts has an act of Parliament establishing it as a separate entity and outlining its mandate and powers, while FedNor does not.
The legislation means the federal government requires the consent of Parliament to change or alter the agency's powers or its mandate.
Currently FedNor's performance and financial reports are included in a chapter in Industry Canada's reports on plans and priorities and departmental performance reports. We call it a chapter, but it is a couple of pages, if that, and is very meagre and difficult.
If made a separate agency under the Financial Administration Act, FedNor would be required to file detailed financial and performance reports for tabling in Parliament. The reports on plans and priorities would outline the agency's objectives, programs, spending plans and departmental performance reports, which evaluate whether the objectives have been met and provide details on previous spending. Again, I want to point out that this is non-existent with the program.
While a separate agency generally requires its own corporate services and communications divisions to provide human resources and public relations support, FedNor already has its corporate services and communications divisions. If it were turned into a separate agency, creating these divisions would not be an issue.
Since my bill was first introduced, it has gained support and endorsement from many municipalities throughout northern Ontario. They obviously believe, just as my Liberal colleagues and I do, that FedNor should become a permanent regional economic development agency.
My constituents continue to ask me why the Conservatives are abandoning northern Ontario.
A number of regional development agencies are already at work: the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
The 2009 budget announced that two more agencies would be created: the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario and a new economic development agency for northern Canada. Every region of the country now has its own regional development agency. Every region, that is, except northern Ontario.
In the case of northern Ontario, it is left up to the Minister of Industry to look after FedNor. As it happens, the minister in question hails from Toronto, which further demonstrates how out of touch this Conservative government really is when it comes to addressing the needs of northern Ontarians.
Northern Ontario is indeed a unique region that represents unique economic challenges. Residents in northern Ontario are not looking for government handouts. We are looking for funding that will help us build infrastructure that will allow us to maintain the same standards as large urban centres.
Bill C-309 is not about creating more bureaucracy. It is about having people on the ground who live and work in the region, who are best able to assist municipalities, rural communities and not-for-profit organizations to build a robust local economy. Bill C-309 is about equality, fairness and a strong and sustainable northern Ontario. It is about northern Ontario standing up and being treated as an equal in Canada.
In my previous remarks on Bill C-309, I emphasized the fact that Canada was not one homogenous entity. Different regions face different challenges. They have different growth rates, different strengths, different weaknesses. Each region is unique and deserves special attention so it can flourish and allow its residents to provide for their families and to live a decent and prosperous life.
I still believe the Canadian federal government and regional economic development agencies, in particular, have an important role to play in maximizing the potential of each geographic region in our country. In order to maximize the potential of northern Ontario, in particular, we must focus on future investments. I highlight this because, as a separate agency under the Financial Administration Act, FedNor would be required to file detailed financial and performance reports for tabling in Parliament.
I have asked the minister for these reports a number of times while in industry committee. Each time he promises them but they never come because he does not want to show them. He does not want to show what he has been doing with FedNor.
The reports on plans and priorities would outline the agency's objectives, program spending plans and departmental performance reports, which evaluate whether the objectives have been met and provide the details of previous spending.
Being able to review the agency's estimates would allow parliamentarians to take a closer look at the list of proposed funding and activities that are being planned and managed for the upcoming year so we have a better understanding of where the economic development is being directed. As it stands currently, because FedNor is a program and not an agency, the spending details become lost as part of the budget of Industry Canada. This means that there is very little spending information and no breakdown of activities.
In fact, if we take the time to visit the existing FedNor site, we will notice that only certain spending announcements are posted and those that are contain very little in terms of specific project details. Furthermore, unlike an agency, reports for a program can only be seen at year end. Because it takes another six to eight months for those numbers to be published, that means it is generally a full year or more before we are really able to assess whether the investments that have been made are effective and being directed in the right areas.
An example I have used before is it is much like driving a car and concentrating on the rear view mirror. We cannot really look to the future when all we can see is behind us.
With regional economic development, we really have to look ahead and see where we will go and where we want to go in order to find the kinds of programs that will get us to that place.
Interestingly the Conservatives are the only party that fails to see the logic and usefulness of Bill C-309. It is time they stopped treating the people of northern Ontario like second-class citizens. At a time when every region in the country has its own economic development agency, there is absolutely no excuse not to have one for northern Ontario, where we face so many economic challenges.