Madam Speaker, I am pleased to take part in today's debate on the social programs reform. I did not think this issue would show up so soon on the Order Paper, but I am glad it did, because I spent last Thursday, November 17, working with my riding assistants to organize public hearings, since I feel that the Gaspé constituents will be hard hit by the measures proposed in the social reform.
So, along with my assistants, I decided to hold public hearings, because the closest the Parliamentary Committee will come to my area is Rivière-du-Loup, a one day journey away. As you can understand, my constituents wanted to be heard on this issue. However, because of the distance, few will able to make it to Rivière-du-Loup on December 11.
I organized these hearings with the firm belief that this social programs reform is such a crucial issue that it goes beyond partisanship. With this in mind, and that will make some of the members opposite smile, I asked the director of an hospital centre, a known Liberal, as well as a former PQ minister and MNA for Gaspé, to give me a hand. With these two commissioners on board, we heard something like 18 witnesses, including representatives of at least 16 social organizations.
If only to pay tribute to these people, since this had to be organized rather quickly because I also thought crucial to start the discussion in my constituency, I would like to mention them in this House.
So, the following have made themselves heard: the Regional Municipality of Côte de Gaspé, the Gaspé Chamber of Commerce, CRCD, the concertation committee of the Regional Municipality of Parbock, the Regroupement contre l'appauvrissement dans l'est du Québec, the United Church, CASA, the Anglophone Social Action Committee, the Ralliement gaspésien et madelinot, the Anse-à-Valleau Development Committee, the Denis Riverin Unemployment Action, the Regional municipality of Parbock Work Action, the Gaspé CNTU, the Association des capitaines propriétaires de la Gaspésie, the Regroupement des pêcheurs professionnels du sud de la Gaspésie.
We also heard from Rural Dignity and the Regroupement des femmes and others whose name I forget. These are either regional or local groups and this was reflected in their comments. But they are all wondering if after the reform proposed by the minister the safety net which we have now in Canada will still suit Gaspé constituents. Madam Speaker, allow me to state at the outset that people are very sceptical about that.
I would like to state a few facts. First of all, people from the Gaspé Peninsula know how to read. They heard about the leaks in the Toronto Star regarding the possible cuts of $7.5 billion and another $7.5 billion that would accompany this reform. Every time they were questioned about their briefs, they would talk about these cuts. They would tell us also that, from their viewpoint, the objective of the reform is not to improve assistance to the needy, but rather to cut assistance to the disadvantaged. To them, it is absolutely inconceivable.
Some facts about our riding are in order. As I have already mentioned to the Minister of Human Resources Development, the riding of Gaspé receives approximately 27,000 unemployment insurance applications a year. About 33 per cent of those applicants have worked only 10 or 11 weeks. It is not because they do not want to work longer. There are no jobs. Our region has to live with the seasons.
If I look at the situation in some areas in particular, in the Chandler area for example, 38 per cent of UI applicants have worked only 10 or 11 weeks. These figures were provided to me by the employment centres for the Gaspé Peninsula and the Islands. In the Magdalen Islands area, and my colleague opposite can correct me if I am wrong, close to 40 per cent of UI applicants have worked only 10 or 11 weeks.
I used to work for the fishing industry, representing fishermen, and I wonder where these people could go to work more weeks, especially considering the fact that this resource has been scarce. When the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans declares a moratorium on fishing, his goal is the conservation of stocks, but the Minister of Human Resources Development is telling us we should be working more. In the Madgalen Islands and the Gaspé Peninsula, our economy is seasonal in nature. Tourism is a seasonal industry, although we have started to take action in order to extend the season. We have yet to reap the full results of those measures and reach our ultimate goal, which is to have people work during at least six months each year in viable businesses.
Forestry workers would also like to work more. The problem they face is winter conditions. When winter begins, at about this time of year, at the beginning of December, there is already a fair amount of snow high up in the mountains beyond Sainte-Anne-des-Monts. It is very difficult to work in the snow, not onlybe-
cause of the cold, but also because it is hard to haul the timber out.
Of course, we could use heavy equipment, but it gets expensive for businessmen to clear bush roads every time there is some timber to haul out whereas, during the summertime, roads are always open and accessible. Springtime conditions are no better. It is hard to work in the bush when the snow is melting. When you are using a chain saw, you need to have your two feet on solid ground. There is also the haulage problem, which can be serious in the spring.
I have already dealt with fisheries, but I could add the example of lobster fishing. The data on resource preservation show that, for as long as I can remember, at least since the beginning of the 1970s, lobster fishing has been limited to ten weeks. The resource itself makes it impossible to fish for a longer period. Around the Gaspé Peninsula, they go lobster fishing from Mother's Day to the beginning of July. In Nova-Scotia, they go a bit later. For example, some areas are still open around Nova Scotia. However, the resource is subject to a limit of ten weeks.
How can we find a way for these people, who have a highly specialized job, but one which does not provide them work for any longer than that, to continue to earn a living? In the past, they used to rely on cod fishing, but there is no more cod to be caught. We worked with these groups in order to create other projects for them to start fishing other species and diversify, but it is not an easy task. The first years when you start working under a federal program made mostly for shore workers, there are no incentives that would allow for a lucrative kind of fishing to emerge, such as soupfin shark, or spiny dogfish as we call it in my region.
However, I will admit this is a remarkable effort and I know the people opposite in the government co-operated. I hope we will get the same kind of co-operation next year and the following years. The Gaspé Peninsula needs tools like this. It is not because we did not reach the objective this year that we should forgo the experience next year. On the contrary, we should profit from what we have learned this year.
I am going from one subject to another, but I would like to mention some other points. First, I am somewhat moved by this because life in that region flows with the seasons. We need this form of support. If we want to do without social programs like unemployment insurance, the question is: Are you people listening to us this afternoon willing to pay two, three, four times what you are paying now for your seafood? Maybe you are, maybe not. One thing is certain, we will have to be given time. What we want are the tools to give more responsibility to people in the industry. Marketing tools, of course, but also tools to clean up the industry, in particular as regards incidental captures.
Last spring I attended hearings where I heard a number of groups from the Atlantic region. Whether they were from Quebec, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland, people wanted to be part of the discussions on their future. People wanted to be consulted. More than that, they wanted to be able to intervene locally on matters of interest to them. Unfortunately, this is not possible under the present system.
I wish to draw the attention of the Minister of Human Resources to the fact that a debate on this subject is forthcoming. Last week, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans recognized that we would have to review the whole fisheries administration in Canada. I congratulate him for acknowledging that we have a problem. I also let him know that the province of Quebec had submitted a project that might solve the problem. He told me that, naturally, he had to consult the other provinces. During the next few weeks I will follow up on that, to make sure that the minister has, indeed, started discussions with his counterparts and that officials of the two levels of government are doing the necessary groundwork. It is most important.
I would like to go back to what my constituents said because it touched on all of this. They said: "We do not understand this reform. We are in dire straights, and we would like the government to help the poorest members of society, to give us the necessary tools to break this vicious circle". Before, it used to be called the 10/42, from now on it will be the 12/38. The government is tightening eligibility, increasing the number of work weeks, while shortening the benefit period. It is very disappointing for people.
People would like to have the tools to take care of themselves. But the government is not providing them. With respect to the unemployment rate in the Gaspé Peninsula, the government came to the brilliant conclusion that we do not have too many people out of work, we have too many people for the number of jobs available.
The second point which really irks people is the matter of employability. A fisherman told me this: "In our village, with a population of 200 to 300, should everyone become a welder?" It does not make any sense to retrain some 30 fishermen to all become welders. What I want to point out with this story is the fact that we need the tools to modify the economic structure of our regions.
We will not be able to transform the Gaspé Peninsula overnight into something like Montreal. Montreal also has its share of problems. The unemployment rate in this city is somewhere around 13 per cent, I believe. People are warning me that if this reform goes any further, it will trigger an exodus. Where will people go, if they have to leave an area where the unemployment rate is now 17 per cent to go to an area where it is 13 per cent? It is robbing Peter to pay Paul.
But this will not solve the problem; our problem is one of structural unemployment. We are not showing our people how to become self-sufficient. We are not giving them their own decision-making tools, we are not allowing them to manage their own affairs. These tools should be transferred to them, people should be consulted, and yet it is not done; it is one of their main comments.
I would like to point out that I will supply the Minister of Human Resources Development with a summary along with these briefs. I will also give it to the parliamentary committee, which is on the road right now.
But I would still like to raise a few points. As I believe was mentioned by some hon. members a few minutes ago, shared time is one solution to the employment problem being used by the CNTU in the Gaspé Peninsula. People are ready to discuss solutions, to look at all the possibilities. As I said earlier, fishermen throughout the Atlantic provinces, not just in Quebec, mentioned that they are hoping, and indeed are asking, for a bigger share, for permits with more variety.
Some of the things I heard were amusing. There was one woman who said: "The Liberals are forever consulting, but we need more than that right now. The barn is on fire and we need a fireman who knows what to do".
Madam Speaker, as I told you earlier, I was accompanied by two commissioners. I am merely repeating what people told me. One woman asked: "Why are we reforming social programs, when the problem is elsewhere?" The problem is in the lack of employment, in the fact that the government is facing excessive debt, that over half this debt is owed outside the country and that we are going to be in serious trouble if we do not get our finances in order soon.
The message is that the Bloc Quebecois agrees that the deficit must be reduced and said so during the election campaign. However, we do not want cuts to be made blindly. We want there to be respect for the public. If there is an objective to be met, people should be asked what tools they need to reach it, and whether it is feasible. If it is not feasible then, as a society, we will have to make a choice. We will always need fishermen.
One of them told me: "I am willing to work 12 months a year, but is the Minister of Human Resources Development willing to thaw the gulf in the wintertime? Is he willing to stock it? If so, I could fish 12 months a year".
Of course, we had a bit of fun. In spite of the seriousness of the problems, people in the Gaspé Peninsula came to these hearings with a smile on their face and kept their cool. They suggested solutions. They also sent a serious warning to the government. If it realizes what their needs are and gives them the necessary tools, they will meet the objectives that the government wants to set behind their backs.