Mr. Speaker, I would like to speak to the opposition motion on the lamentable failure of the federal groundfish strategy.
I take the liberty of pointing out that this is nothing new for me. A few years ago I wrote a document on the fact that eastern Quebec was the laboratory for the failure of federalism and the symbol of the results of the inefficient intervention of the federal government and other levels of government. I feel today that I am living a similar nightmare, since now all of the Atlantic provinces and the entire eastern region of Quebec and the North Shore are in the same situation.
The motion asks us to “recognize the urgent need for action to address the serious problems in Canadian fisheries” and also criticizes the lack of a national policy. I think everyone is quite aware of this, and the amendment proposed by the Liberal majority is totally unacceptable. They want us to say that the government will maintain the same approach.
This reminds me of the time when Réal Caouette, the Créditiste leader, said that we were on the edge of a precipice and that the Créditistes would move us forward. The Liberals have much the same attitude today. The auditor general himself and not the opposition said that the Atlantic groundfish strategy was poorly designed and poorly managed.
The auditor general added that there had been a kerfuffle between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Department of Human Resources Development, a lack of rigour on the part of the departments involved and a poor estimate of most of the parameters used in developing the program.
In other words, the government struck out on all fronts. It did not properly assess the number of people that would be covered by the plan and then it did not ensure compliance with the criteria that were set. A lot of clarification is needed.
The auditor general was doing his job when he said that the program that had been defined had not been followed. Instead of acknowledging this, the Liberals accused the auditor general of being inhuman, because the program had provided subsistence for the people of the region.
The problem is that the government is not there to provide a subsistence living for people, but to ensure that economic development allows the regions to become self-sufficient. When a program that changes and diversifies regional economies is set up, it must be followed through and the desired results obtained.
If the program became a means of survival, it is not the fault of the communities in Atlantic Canada, eastern Quebec or Quebec's North Shore region. It is the government's fault. The auditor general is condemning the fact that the program was not properly managed and does not achieve the desired results.
After several years of involvement in a critical sector for which it is responsible under the Constitution, the federal government has failed miserably. All that is left is what I saw in Gander, Newfoundland, when the human resources development committee travelled to that region.
I expected to find in employment centres documentation on how to develop our economy or how to exploit our local assets. I did not see any of that. What I found in the display stand of the employment centre was a nice prospectus explaining how to find a job in western Canada. This, I think, accurately illustrates the current problem in Canada. The government has been using a strategy whereby people are expected to go where the jobs are, instead of promoting local opportunities.
It should be noted that at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, eastern Canada, and particularly the maritimes, was totally self-sufficient from an economic point of view. The region was then producing what it needed, and was playing an active role in North America's economy. However, the federal government, particularly during the Trudeau era, came up with a terrible deal for the country: to concentrate production and processing activities in Ontario and give transfer payments to eastern Canada and Quebec. For 20 years they have been telling us: “Federalism works very well. We give just as much money to the poorer provinces, and it comes from the rich provinces”.
What most people, including senior federal officials, have not understood, is that people do not want subsistence policies. Of course, they want to survive, be able to eat three meals a day, have their children attend school, but what they want most of all is programs that will make it possible to create strong regional economies.
What the auditor general is telling us is that, in order to improve matters in the fishery, steps should have been taken to reduce the number of people involved in this sector and to assign them to other functions, so as to diversify regional entrepreneurship. Today we are looking at a terrible failure.
I hope that both government members and the public will understand the difference in the present situation. There is no point in criticizing the auditor general for having done his job. There is no point in blaming local communities and citizens who are trying to survive. What we must do in the present situation is ask ourselves whether the federal government handled the fisheries issue properly.
I think that the answer is a resounding “no” on every count. I would go so far as to say that one of the fundamental reasons for this state of affairs is that, for some time now, the federal government has managed the fisheries from Ottawa, rather than from the regions by means of a truly decentralized approach directed at the regions' individual needs.
For eastern Quebec, the Gaspé, the North Shore, and the Magdalen Islands, fishing is very important. It represents a relative percentage of the Quebec economy as a whole, but for the regions, it is very important. What is required is a targeted approach, unlike the approach that might work for the other Atlantic provinces or the western provinces.
The federal government has never managed to achieve this degree of fine-tuning. If ever there were to be a so-called national fisheries strategy in Canada, the first component would have to be complete decentralization to the provinces, who want to assume responsibility for this sector in order to avoid results like those we are now seeing.
Three years ago, people noticed that there were no longer any fish in the Atlantic. Since then, the government has told fishers they should find something else to do and promote entrepreneurship. But three years have gone by and nothing has been done. There is no evidence today that the result will be a transformation of regional economies. The only result we see is that the subsistence program will have to be extended. People cannot be allowed to starve to death. We will, however, also have to make sure that things are back under control.
We are faced with an example very much like what happened in the 1980s, which led to a ghastly deficit. Today, in the fisheries sector we are faced with the same failure.
I believe it is important for the House to understand clearly that, all partisan politics aside, there are some interesting elements in the motion, statements which must be taken into consideration, but what is the most important is that the amendment proposed by the Liberals must absolutely not be accepted.
The Liberals are asking us to continue along the same path, while the auditor general has just said that the entire strategy was badly thought out and badly administered. They tell us that the financial support ought to represent 36% of the budget over five years, while the auditor general indicates that it will represent close to 76%. Do you think their evaluation was wrong?
The last federal election sent a message. Some regions of Canada sent a clear message to the government. I believe it ought to assume the responsible attitude of accepting major changes in its approach, and particularly ought to give local communities the necessary tools for development instead of sticking to the principle of providing mere subsistence to regions that may experience regional economic development problems. They must be given all of the tools they need to develop, instead.
The Liberal government cannot use the Conservative government as an excuse. They have been in power for three and a half years, soon coming up to four, and I believe they must be judged severely. The population of the Atlantic provinces has judged them, and the government must acknowledge this. The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy is the symbol par excellence of this at the present time.
I hope that the government's amendment will not gain the support of the Liberal MPs for the maritimes, for if it does they will be contradicting themselves. They have already done so on employment insurance reform, and we have seen the results of that in the last election.