Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Oak Ridges.
I am thankful for the opportunity to address the motion of my colleague on the subject of the social union. The truth of matter is that Canada is the envy of the world. We have consistently been rated among the top countries in the world for our standard of living and quality of life. Canada stands number one among the nations of the world in this year's United Nations human development index. We are respected worldwide for the country we have built by working together.
What are the reasons for this envy and respect? There are several, but I would like to take this opportunity to point out two in particular.
The first is the exceptional quality of our social programs. We need only look around us to realize how fortunate we are to have the social system that we do.
Health care is one of the main subjects of the motion before us today. Let us take a minute just to get back to basics. Through the combined efforts of federal and provincial governments all Canadians have access to health care insurance that enables them to seek timely and high quality medical care anywhere in the country without worrying that each minute of a doctor's time or each step of a particular procedure is costing them their savings. It sounds so simple.
We can compare that brief description with the situation faced by our close neighbours to the south. The United States is a wealthy and powerful country and still many people, particularly low income families, live without access to medical care even for routine check-ups and much less serious interventions because they cannot afford medical insurance.
This is not to say that there is not always room for improvement even in a system as good as Canada's health care system. Nor is it to deny that there have been some challenging times over the last few years while all governments, the provincial governments as well as the federal government, have fought to bring our deficits under control. That fight was necessary to ensure a solid future for Canada and for Canadians. It was necessary to ensure the future stability of our social programs including health care.
Canadians are not interested in seeing their governments finger pointing or hurling recriminations or fighting over their roles and responsibilities. Canadians want their governments to work together co-operatively to make improvements in health care as well as in all other areas that form the fabric of Canada's social union.
It is for that reason the Prime Minister agreed with his provincial and territorial colleagues that the moment was now for discussions on how all governments might collaborate to make the social union work better for Canadians. I stress that I have been speaking about all governments and about collaboration and co-operation.
This brings me to the second source of the envy and respect that Canada garners throughout the world, our success in co-operative federalism.
Canada is a federation. And it is true that the purpose of federalism is to protect and encourage the development of the diversity of Canada's regions and provinces. In particular, federalism makes it possible for Quebeckers to enjoy greater protection for their language, their culture and their civil law system than would be possible in a unitary state.
However, it must not be forgotten that Confederation was not about creating a customs union or a free trade zone among provinces. Confederation was about creating a new country, Canada, for a group of people with a shared identity as Canadians. The creation of a Government of Canada that would be elected to represent all Canadians was a critical part of the design of the new country. The federal government continues to play a pivotal role in the federation and part of that role is to ensure in co-operation with the provinces that there is a strong social union that works in the interests of all Canadians.
As the government elected to represent Canadians everywhere in the country, the Government of Canada has a responsibility to represent the national interest of Canadians in the negotiations on the social union. This means working together with all the provinces to come up with a proposal that is in the best interest of all Canadians.
It is for this reason that as Minister of Justice I have been given the responsibility of negotiating for the federal government on the social union and I continue to negotiate with all my provincial colleagues. It is also for this reason that the federal government is trying, one step at a time, to ensure that Canadian federalism works as well as it possibly can by taking care that each level of government undertakes its constitutional responsibilities in the most efficient fashion.
For example, this government has entered into agreements with the provinces concerning labour market developments to ensure the best service possible to Canadians who require assistance during transitions in their working lives.
At a more general level the federal government has made a commitment that it will not undertake any new national shared cost programs in the areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction without the consent of the majority of the provinces. That same commitment includes a right to reasonable compensation to provinces that choose not to participate in the national program.
The importance of co-operative federalism cannot be overstated. This government has always said that constitutional reform is not necessary in order to achieve the common goals of all Canadians. The federal and provincial governments may together take an approach to the exercise of their constitutional powers that respects what the Supreme Court of Canada recently described in the reference on Quebec secession as the federalism principle.
A good example of the success that has already been achieved through co-operative federalism in recent years is the national child benefit system. This system was the result of negotiations between the provincial and federal governments and has two main elements: increased federal benefits for families with low incomes through the Canada child tax benefit, and provincial and territorial reinvestments in services and benefits for children in low income families.
Between the two levels of government, each working in a collaborative fashion in their areas of jurisdiction, we have devised a program that will help to combat child poverty in Canada.
In conclusion, I can do no better than to quote the words of the governor general in the Speech from the Throne in September of last year:
As we look forward to the beginning of a new millennium with new challenges and new opportunities, we can look back at the last century of Canadian history and state with certainty that Canada is rightly regarded, the world over, as an extraordinary success. Canada represents a triumph of the human spirit, bringing together the best of what people can do.
The future is ours if only we continue to exemplify the spirit of co-operation that has already brought us so far.
I look forward to seeing the results of the meaningful negotiations between the federal and provincial governments on Canada's social union because I am sure that together those governments will arrive at a plan for strengthening the social union that puts Canadians first, both at home and in the world.