House of Commons Hansard #132 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was federal.


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5:10 p.m.


Rahim Jaffer Reform Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Madam Speaker, I thank the hon. member for Medicine Hat for his well stated question. I agree with him totally. It has been unfortunate that the Liberals and governments of the past have managed in such a poor fashion to cut over $7 billion in transfers to the provinces. Shame. That is what I say. I agree with the hon. member that it is a terrible thing.

What we propose and what we have always said, as the hon. member questioned, is there needs to be a stronger commitment from the federal government to deal with the provinces.

We heard from a number of members that the tax points are an element that the provinces can use in order to spend money within their provinces. There still remains a problem of flexibility that comes with this argument of tax points. If the provincial governments do have increased tax points, as many members opposite argued, what good are those tax points if they do not have the flexibility to actually implement the programs that would work best within their provinces?

I think the core of the debate is also addressing the fact that the federal government needs to move outside of this domain of central, heavy handed politics and start working to create a real sense of unity, start working to entrench the transfers that were initially taken out of the system by this government and build stronger unity in this country.

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5:10 p.m.


Mac Harb Liberal Ottawa Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I have just a few comments on the motion before the House. I will make a few remarks on the federal government and its initiative.

We have clearly shown Canadians that we are not interested in turf wars. The Government of Canada wants first and foremost to offer equal opportunities to each and every one of its citizens. We are absolutely convinced that all Canadians have an irrevocable right of access to comparable social programs and services, regardless of the region in which they live.

Our government has implemented a variety of initiatives aimed at redefining the roles and responsibilities of the federal government and the provinces, and has contributed to renewed federalism. On the leading edge of these initiatives is the federal-provincial-territorial council on social policy reform, a forum which enables the government to strike productive partnerships for joint solutions to the most common social problems facing Canadians.

The council on social policy reform has met four times since its establishment in June 1996. Over that short time, our country has witnessed unprecedented co-operation.

The innovative initiatives that have ensued are clear evidence that the elements uniting us outnumber those dividing us. More specifically, they demonstrate that governments are at their most effective when they pool their efforts.

The national child benefit is a perfect example of this new collaborative approach. In the summer of 1996, the premiers made child poverty one of their priorities and agreed to co-operate with the Government of Canada to provide an integrated child benefit system.

As soon as the government negotiators focused on the real goal, which is to provide children with a good start in life to help them become healthy, educated and productive adults, partisan politics were set aside.

Madam Speaker, I am sorry. I forgot to tell you that I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Wentworth—Burlington.

Negotiators of both levels of government realized that it was important to ensure that poor children have a chance to make it. They realized that the fight against child poverty requires a national effort based on a constructive partnership between the federal government and the provinces and territories.

In January, we started to put $800 million back in the pockets of middle income working families with children. An additional amount of $850 million will be given to them in the year 2000, for a total of $1.7 billion handed out every year to the middle income working families. And that is in addition to the $5.1 billion we now allocate to families with children.

I remind my hon. colleagues, and in particular the sponsor of the motion before the House today, that, thanks to the increased Canadian child tax benefit, the province of Quebec now has access to an additional $150 million a year to provide programs and services that can meet the particular needs of Quebeckers.

Following the agreement reached on the national child benefit, a working group made up of federal, provincial and territorial representatives started to develop a national action plan for children to promote the well-being of Canadian children through new policies and procedures in terms of social services, health, justice and education.

Canadians are fed up with federal-provincial bickering. They know we live in a democracy and differences of opinion are unavoidable, but coexistence is possible. As a matter of fact, they want us to work in co-operation to establish efficient and sustainable social programs for the 21st century.

If anybody has doubts about the determination of the Government of Canada to take this approach, he should consider the agreements on labour market development we have signed with the provinces and territories in the last two years.

The hon. member for Témiscamingue will certainly agree with me that our unprecedented offer to transfer to provinces and territories the jurisdiction over labour market development has allowed Quebec to design and implement training programs suited to its particular needs.

These agreements fulfil the Canadian government's commitment to get out of labour training, and they show that the Canadian federation changes to meet the needs of Canadians.

For example, we are going to transfer $2.7 billion to the Quebec government under the terms of the Canada-Quebec agreement on labour market development for active programs to help the unemployed re-enter the labour force.

These agreements give new opportunities by reducing duplication and overlap. Even more important, they yield concrete results. They allow governments to improve employment opportunities for Canadians by providing them with good services at the right place and time, and at the lowest cost possible.

This new distribution of powers shows that, with a few mutual concessions, governments can effectively consolidate the social union. Thus, we can co-operate to achieve common social goals and, in doing so, create governmental programs that are better targeted, improve the delivery of services and make considerable savings.

As we all know, the most recent talks on the social union were held in Edmonton last Friday. I learned with great pleasure that this meeting was very productive, the province of Quebec being represented for the very first time at the negotiating table.

The media echoed comments by the Quebec minister of Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs, Joseph Facal, who said that he was confident about the outcome, which hints at the possibility of new developments in the next few days.

The negotiations on the social union are tangible evidence that it is possible to live together in harmony, thanks to the respect and trust that we have for each other. It is possible to share the same values of generosity and social justice, without giving up traditions and approaches exclusive to each region in the area of social development.

I take this opportunity to congratulate all my colleagues from both sides of the House who took part in this very important debate.

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5:20 p.m.


Libby Davies NDP Vancouver East, BC

Madam Speaker, I would like to make a couple of comments and to question the hon. member.

I listened very carefully to what he had to say about the social union. He made it sound like a very positive affair. However, I think one concern expressed by Canadians right across the country is that basically the deliberations taking place between the provincial premiers and the federal government on the social union have absolutely no context in terms of a public debate.

There is no involvement by the Canadian people as to what should constitute a social union in Canada, what the relationship should be between the provincial governments and the federal government when it comes to jurisdictions of the provinces or the federal government.

Why does the hon. member believe that such a closed door, backroom process that has basically cut out and censored the Canadian people from that debate is something to speak of so positively?

If the hon. member believes the social union that is being developed is something so positive, why is it that basically in Canada the social safety is in complete tatters? We have growing homelessness and growing poverty as result of his government's policies.

What do he and his government propose to say to Canadians who have now been placed at increasing risk and are very vulnerable because of the $6 billion cut to those programs?

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5:20 p.m.


Mac Harb Liberal Ottawa Centre, ON

Madam Speaker, I hope the hon. member is not suggesting that the two provincial NDP governments from Saskatchewan and British Columbia have entered the meetings unprepared and without consulting their people. One would assume that the premiers, the NDP government and the other representatives of the other political parties would at least have some understanding of what their people want.

As for us at the federal level, this is an ongoing discussion and debate. Many of my colleagues and I on a regular daily basis hear from our constituents that they want a framework which responds to the needs of the people, a framework which is flexible and maintains the integrity of social programs from one end of the country to the next.

I remind the member it was not too long ago that one of our ministers responsible for the transfer payments to social programs threatened not to give one of the provinces the transfer payment for social services. That was the province of British Columbia. The province decided on its own to tinker with the social program the federal government had set up and it threatened not to give the money for it.

We will continue to maintain a social program that is flexible, that is national in scope, and that responds to the needs of the people.

I want my colleague to remember that many of the provinces at the table are New Democratic. I presume they have consulted with their people.

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5:25 p.m.


John Bryden Liberal Wentworth—Burlington, ON

Madam Speaker, I begin by observing that politicians are the representatives of the people. We are supposed to hear from the people and carry on a debate such as this one in a forum like this place. This is democracy in action.

I congratulate the member for Témiscamingue for putting his motion on the order paper and giving us an opportunity to debate it today on behalf of all our constituents and all Canadians.

I am pleased to take part because I would like to take the debate around the corner and deal with another aspect of the problem of transferring money from the federal government to the provincial government for health and education.

One idea we have not debated much in the House today—and it has not been much of a debate at all—is that we should be examining, among other things, how efficiently that money is used by the end users, principally education and medical institutions.

It is certainly true that the federal government cut social transfers and that the Ontario government passed that cut on to hospitals and universities. This is not to disparage the Ontario government. Indeed I hope it is listening. One of the problems with what it did is that it basically cut approximately 20% out of the funds available for hospitals and universities as a result of the cuts in transfer payments by the federal government.

The problem with that is when an efficient organization running at 100% efficiency is cut by 20%, the organization gets hurt. On the other hand, if institutions that are running at 50%, 60% or 70% efficiency are cut by 20% they are not hurt. In fact they become even more inefficient.

The question I would like to raise is whether or not, particularly the hospitals and the universities and especially the hospitals, are using the money they receive from all levels of government as wisely and effectively as they should.

The money involved is big. It is not just the $12.5 billion in social transfers from the federal government. It is also from the provincial governments. It amounts annually for hospitals alone from government sources to $17 billion a year. When we include universities and other higher education institutions the amount is $34 billion per year. That is a lot of money.

The difficulty is that the institutions receiving this money, again particularly hospitals and universities, are charities. They are usually incorporated as non-profit organizations under the Canada Corporations Act. These two business entities or organizational entities that comprise hospitals and universities have very little requirement in law for the kind of transparency that other institutions have which leads to accountability.

It might amaze members to realize that a non-profit corporation, for example, does not need to have, certainly under the federal statute, a chartered accountant perform its audit. It does not have to submit annual financial statements to the government as do non-profit organizations. There is a serious omission here.

The board of governors of a non-profit corporation has no standards set by any level of government to explain what it does. When they are charity boards of governors the only legislation that pertains to them is no legislation at all. It is case law.

We have this very big difficulty about whether a charity or non-profit organization, the collective of these, is actually spending the money it is receiving from both the provinces and the federal government in a way that the public can monitor effectively and know that money is being well spent.

The member for Témiscamingue earlier in the debate said that we should let the control of health care and education be done by the citizens, those who are closest to the situation. We cannot do that if the citizens do not know what is happening.

When it comes to hospitals I will give a few examples from my own area, although there are anecdotal examples across the country. The Hamilton Health Sciences Corporation in my riding is in a bit of a controversy. It was contracting out brain injured patients to a facility in Texas which turned out to have such a bad reputation for treating patients that the state of Texas would not use the facility. When the Hamilton Health Sciences Corporation was challenged on this by local journalists and the local MPP, its chief executive responded that it was not the obligation of the institution to monitor what was happening in Texas. This is the problem of a hospital contracting out without careful due diligence as to whether it is a good facility and the public does not even know this is happening.

We must ask ourselves if we want to know in detail how hospitals and other institutions are carrying on when they contract out services. I suggest that this is only the tip of the iceberg of a very big problem. It is not just a matter of health care and care for the patients, it is a matter of the effective use of taxpayer dollars.

There are other areas concerning compensation which have created another major problem in my riding. Chedoke-McMaster Hospitals gave a severance package to their chief administrator worth $818,000. That is an incredibly unacceptable use of taxpayer dollars, but that was done. I will not go into the details of this controversy because it is the subject of litigation, but when the chief executive was hired in 1991 she immediately hired onto the staff a close personal friend. This is a case of nepotism.

One might say that the board of directors of the hospital should be in control of this. But I challenge members to talk to politicians and citizens who have served on hospital boards of directors. They will say that trying to get information out of the administrators of hospitals is near impossible. The reason is that there are no standards. There is no countrywide standard for the administration of charities and non-profit corporations which would apply in the case of hospitals that are spending $17 billion a year as of 1993.

There is a great deal of anecdotal information about how hospitals contract out for goods and services. Hospitals do not have to issue tenders. They can do it however they want, and indeed this happens. Gifts are received by people in the business of purchasing for hospitals. I do not know about universities, but certainly for hospitals there is a lot of very negative information about how goods and services are purchased and gifts are exchanged. This is all because of a lack of transparency.

The cuts originally made by the federal government and the cuts that were inevitably and maybe properly passed on would have worked. I do not know whether the Ontario government had much choice or whether any other provincial government did. Those cuts would have been efficient if only we could have rid the institutions of the inefficiencies. These institutions cut nursing staff and beds when they should have been cutting administrators. They should have been cutting the fat out of their bureaucracies. The machinery is not there and the transparency is not there to enable this to happen.

I would encourage and seek the support of other members of the House for any initiative that might come in this House that would involve bringing a greater level of transparency and accountability to charities and not for profit organizations. It is imperative that we re-examine the Canada Corporations Act and require at least the same level of transparency that exists with for profit corporations or, at the very least, the same level of transparency that exists now with bureaucracies. That would be an important first step.

The next thing would be to re-examine the government's obligation to oversee charities across the country and perhaps to write new legislation that defines the standards of accountability and transparency for charities. That would go a long way to making the cuts in social transfers acceptable to Canadians.

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5:35 p.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Madam Speaker, I will be brief.

I would like the member to tell us whether he is in favour of the part of the motion we moved today, which would give a province the right to opt out with full compensation when a federal program does not meet its needs.

Is the member willing to push the proposal which was unanimously approved by all the premiers in Saskatoon, giving a province the right to opt out with full compensation, provided it reinvests in the same area, and sell it to the Prime Minister, who seems to have his mind made up on the matter, in sharp contrast with the consensus reached in Saskatoon?

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5:35 p.m.


John Bryden Liberal Wentworth—Burlington, ON

No, Madam Speaker, I would not support the motion, simply because if we are going to have a standard in every province across the country then it has to be the national government which sets that standard.

The problem with the provinces is that they all seem to want to go it alone. Ontario made a 20% cut. However, it did not think to create efficiencies in the institutions that it was cutting. I think that leadership has to come from the federal government so that we can give all Canadians the same opportunities to health care.

I am the first one to admit that Quebec, if it can go it alone, may do it better and more efficiently, but what about the rest of the country?

I think it is very important that the national government be a national government and show leadership in this.

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5:35 p.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Madam Speaker, I would like to remind my colleague that the Saskatoon proposal provides for the right to opt out with full compensation, but it is also possible for five provinces representing the majority of Canadians to set up different programs.

This forms a whole. This would allow English provinces to have the federal government agree to their program while Quebec would set up its own. Would it not be a way to allow every province to develop programs meeting its particular needs?

My colleague said earlier that we cannot do away with leadership. It should not be forgotten that our proposal includes decision making mechanisms. The provinces could not do it alone, but they could have some influence to avoid a repeat of what we saw with the millennium scholarship fund when, because of its autocratic attitude, the federal government created a system parallel to the existing one in Quebec, the loans and bursaries system.

Is my colleague adamant in his view that it is unacceptable for Quebec to exercise its right to opt out with full compensation, and that, basically, he would rather see Quebec leave Canada?

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5:35 p.m.


John Bryden Liberal Wentworth—Burlington, ON

Madam Speaker, we are all in the same boat. We must work together on that boat. In my opinion, the federal government must show leadership in this matter.

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5:35 p.m.


Pauline Picard Bloc Drummond, QC

Madam Speaker, I am somewhat amazed to hear the Liberal member answering my colleague by saying we are all in the same boat and need to all row in the same direction.

He does not know his history and he does not respect the constitution. In the constitution, we in Quebec had rights as a people. When the government interferes in an area that comes under provincial jurisdiction, as it does in Quebec, we are not in the same boat.

I would also like to tell the hon. member that, in this the finest country in the world, as it pleases the Prime Minister to call it, there are one and one-half million poor children at the present time. If children are poor, this is because parents and women are poor. I would like him to think about that.

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5:40 p.m.


John Bryden Liberal Wentworth—Burlington, ON

Madam Speaker, I strongly feel that if any province is disadvantaged in this country then it is the duty of the federal government to come to its rescue.

Right now things are fairly good in Quebec. Elsewhere in the country they are not so good. It is true that, given the money, Quebec does have the expertise to manage it well. I do not doubt that for an instant.

However, as Canadians we must look to the entire country. This is federal money we are talking about. It is all very well to talk about provincial rights, but we are talking about federal money. As long as this money is coming from the federal government, then surely the federal government should make sure that it is used in the interests of all Canadians.

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5:40 p.m.


Francine Lalonde Bloc Mercier, QC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise and speak to this opposition motion introduced by the Bloc Quebecois. I would like to reread the first paragraph:

That this House recognize the very harmful effect of federal cuts to the Canada Social transfer (CST), particularly on health services in Canada, and that it support the consensus achieved by the provincial Premiers in Saskatoon on a project for social union, with the following main components,

I will deal with those components later.

I would like to return to the very harmful impact of federal cuts on the Canada social transfer. I would first like to point out that, before the transfer, there were inter-regional subsidies, if I may put it that way. There used to be the Régime d'assistance publique du Canada, the RAPC, the Canada assistance plan or CAP. There were programs that subsidized individual Canadians equally in matters of health and education.

Under the Canada assistance plan, need determined the level of funding. In other words, since the end of the 1960s, the poorer provinces received more of the money set aside to fight poverty.

What has the Liberal government done since it took office? It eliminated the Canada assistance plan and the established programs financing and came up with a single amount for essentially equal redistribution among all the provinces. In other words, Quebec, which had been entitled to 34% of the Canada assistance plan because of its needs, found itself with a share of the Canada social transfer that was equal and proportional to its population. The first cut was on needs.

Quebec was relieved to not be held back any more by a set of standards that some regretted, but that others regretted less, because they prevented what happened under the Canada assistance plan.

This set of standards precluded among other things the reimbursement of the difference between the salary paid to individuals who chose to work to earn a living and social assistance allowance paid out by Quebec since 1975, in 1976 under the PQ government, to encourage those who wanted to not to go on welfare and to stay in the labour force. Incentives were provided, so that workers would not be penalized for working instead of going on welfare.

This system, which was introduced in Quebec after 1976, in 1977 I think, and was still in place when the Canada health and social transfer was announced, has never been compensated by the federal government. In other words, Quebec could get 50% of its social assistance expenditures refunded by the federal government, out of the Canada assistance plan account, but it had to make up the difference out of its own pocket for the working poor. There is no doubt the Canada assistance plan needed to be changed.

The Canada health and social transfer was the first form of cut sustained by Quebec. The following year, the federal government slashed funding across the board bringing social transfer payments down from $19 billion to $11.7 billion, imposing an initial cut of $7 billion. In the last election, it gave us back $1 billion, claiming to be increasing payments when in fact it was reducing the cut by $1 billion. With these drastic cuts, being made in often difficult circumstances because unemployment was high, Quebec ended up paying a high price for the adjustments made by the federal government in its fight against the deficit. The social transfer, in itself and as a channel for making more cuts, has taken its toll.

When, in its motion, the Bloc asks that the federal government put money back into the Canada social transfer, it seems to me that members on all sides should applaud. It is essential that now that the federal government, to a much greater extent than it cares to admit, has eliminated the deficit by taking money—that is what we said, and it is true—from those who could least afford it, return the money to the health, education and welfare sectors through the Canada social transfer. It must not start dreaming up new programs like the millennium scholarships, regardless of whose ego is in need of stroking.

These are the people who have been hurt, and who are still hurting. Seventy-five cents of each dollar cut in Quebec last year was because of federal cuts in health and education. The Government of Quebec was stuck with actually making the cuts and is the one being blamed.

I think the entire House should agree that the money should be returned to the Canada social transfer and nowhere else.

But the motion goes further. It says:

That this House—support the consensus achieved by the provincial Premiers in Saskatoon on a project for social union, with the following main components:

—re-establishment of—contributions

—the support from a majority of provinces before new federal initiatives are introduced in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

The members opposite who are so fond of saying that Canada's federalism is the most flexible and “federalizing” of all are demonstrating their great ignorance.

Several federations I know cannot even conceive of the central government—which is not the best government, not a more intelligent government with greater compassion, but just another level of government—deciding unilaterally to interfere in areas that, under the terms of the Constitution, belong to another level of government—which is not inferior in level, intelligence or compassion, but merely has different responsibilities.

The motion says that there should be “support from a majority of provinces before new [federal] initiatives—” We could have gone a lot further. Everyone should have no problem agreeing with that wording.

But I am sure there will be a problem with a fundamental issue, since the notion of the social union is no longer a meaningless expression coined for Quebec. Indeed, the provincial premiers agree on “the right to opt out, with full compensation, of a new or modified Canada-wide federal government social program—because, as we know, some amendments can change the nature of things—in areas of provincial jurisdiction when the province—and here Quebec made a concession considering what has existed for 30 years—offers a program or introduces an initiative in the same field”.

This right to opt out with full compensation is essential, not for Quebec's sovereignty, but so that the existing constitution—which has been terribly twisted, transformed and tainted—may have a minimum of meaning, and so that in the social sector—which, historically, was strictly a provincial jurisdiction—there would be no question of imposing on a province—and I am thinking of Quebec of course—programs and amendments regarding which a province could not opt out with full compensation.

Why? Why Quebec? Because in the social sector people can make different choices. These choices are all legitimate, but they are different. In Europe, some countries have the same level of social spending, but the choices they make are different. It is a matter of culture, because culture also involves that aspect.

In the social field, the key word for effectiveness is integration. Quebec can have a co-ordinated range of social policies because this is what it wants given its priorities, the priorities set by the National Assembly—not by one party or another, but by the National Assembly. It wants this integration to ensure a better use of the money and a greater effectiveness of the resources.

When this government was elected, the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development was asked to conduct a comprehensive review of social policy. From the outset, it was felt that the integration of social policies would be a priority. It is strange how all researchers and, I might say, the rest of Canada—that expression “the rest of Canada” is not from us—were hoping that the integration would be implemented by the federal government.

The rest of Canada wanted policies to be harmonized at the federal level, whereas Quebec always wanted to integrate its own social policies. That is precisely why it agreed for the most part with the Canada social transfer.

This right for a province to opt out with full compensation is absolutely fundamental. In Quebec, it has been defended equally strongly by Liberal and PQ premiers. It is the expression of Quebec's cultural desire to integrate its own policies.

I mentioned that Quebec made one concession. The right to opt out with full compensation as historically applied did not require any kind of commitment from Quebec to spend that money in a particular area. Therefore, to show that it was willing to compromise, Quebec agreed that this would apply only when the province offers a program or introduces an initiative in the same area.

This proposal is extremely important because it is fundamental to the recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, not only in words but in practice. It is fundamental to the recognition of the right of Quebec to do as it pleases in areas of provincial jurisdiction under the Constitution. This is something Quebec cannot give up.

I followed the work of intellectuals, because they are the ones who initially worked on the social union concept. I know that, in Canada, they wanted to adjust to our changing society. I also know some of them wanted to reach out to Quebec.

I am sure that when the premiers agreed on these proposals, they must have been very happy because they were looking for a way to reconcile Quebec's social objectives with those of the rest of Canada.

Members of the Bloc Quebecois and Quebeckers have always respected the other provinces' opinion that social and economic policies must be integrated by the central government. We have no choice but to recognize this right. But, in the same way, we have always wanted others to recognize Quebec's right to integrate its own social policies and to define its own priorities as it sees fit.

As long as the federal government has this spending power, which means that it has the power to impose taxes, Quebec intends to get its full share.

Social policy has been deeply affected by the cuts the Government of Quebec has been forced to make as a result of the federal government's cutbacks and its battle against the deficit. Although there were still social democratic concerns, there was not enough money to meet all of the needs, and we had to make some painful and difficult choices.

As I, and others, have said, people have suffered, people needing health care, welfare and education. How many young people have had to go further into debt, how many resources have had to be cut at all levels of education, up to and including post-secondary education? Some universities have been left seriously short of funds.

Now that we have brought the deficit under control, which we always agreed was the prudent thing to do, and that the federal government, which already has a budget deficit of over $7 billion for the first four months, is headed toward a sizeable surplus, it is urgent that this House recognize that this money must be put into the Canada social transfer. This House must also accept the right of the provinces to opt out, which is essential if this Constitution, which does not make much sense, is to have a least a modicum of meaning for Quebec.

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6 p.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for Mercier for the history lesson she just gave us on what I would call the social evolution of Canada. She clearly described how the premiers came to the consensus they have reached, especially on the right to opt out with full compensation.

All the information she gave us about our history and our evolution shows why the federal government has to get on board, agree to this consensus and allow Quebec and every other province in Canada to make their own choices in order to meet their particular needs.

The question I want to put to the hon. member is the following: Would this right to opt out with full compensation not provide the people with a better way to assess the efficiency of their governments? We have seen significant federal cuts in health care, especially in the last few years.

Taxpayers, at least in Quebec, do not ask themselves each and every day who is responsible for what. With this proposal to allow the provinces to opt out with full compensation, would the people not be in a better position to clearly assess, at the end of a mandate, if a government made the right choice and did a good job in this or that area? Could the hon. member for Mercier give us her views on this issue and tell us if she thinks this would help to improve the quality of democracy in Quebec and Canada?

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6 p.m.


Francine Lalonde Bloc Mercier, QC

Madam Speaker, I thank the member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques for his question.

I think the question refers to the notion of integration I mentioned. If policies could be integrated, they would be more effective. The government that integrates is in fact in a better position to be accountable and to say why it used money and then it can be judged in this regard.

It is a very bad thing when the public is unable to see how government decides. Canadian federalism today certainly lacks clarity. I was saying earlier that the government in Quebec cut deeply. However, what the public does not know is that for every dollar cut, 75 cents went to the federal deficit.

The deed was done to health, education and social assistance, but it went to reduce the Canadian deficit. So, it is vital to democracy that people know that government is accountable and that the details of management are revealed.

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6:05 p.m.


Libby Davies NDP Vancouver East, BC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the opposition day motion.

I have been sitting in the House all day listening to the debate. I have found it very interesting. The subject matter we are covering is called the social union in Canada, the discussions between the provincial premiers and the federal government. This is something of critical concern not just to the House but certainly to the people in every region of Canada. It would be very interesting to hear the kind of discussion that has taken place.

I would like to make a couple of observations to begin. First, it is very clear from the motion before us and from the debate that has taken place that the premiers of Canada and the territories are involved in a debate on what they would like to see as a new social union or their relationship with the federal government as a direct result of the massive cutbacks in the Canada health and social transfer that have been experienced in Canada. There is no getting away from that reality.

I listened very carefully to the debate by hon. government members who tried to persuade us or convince us that the social safety net in Canada is alive, well and healthy. They tried to convince not just the House but the people of Canada that we are the envy of the world. I have heard cabinet ministers say that today.

The reality is something different. Being involved in the debate today I would like to draw the attention of members to the fact that Canada was a signatory to the UN international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.

What is very interesting about that covenant is that the UN committee assessing the record of member countries in carrying out the covenant has recently sent the Government of Canada a very tough list of 81 questions outlining its concern about where Canada is not meeting its obligations.

I would like to quote from some of the questions the UN committee has put to the Canadian government that have to be responded to by Canada. For example it says:

The committee has received information that food bank use has continued to increase in Canada and has approximately doubled over the last 10 years—Does the government consider the need for food banks in so affluent a country as Canada consistent with article 11 of the covenant?

We are all waiting to hear that answer. It goes on to ask another question:

—Child poverty is at a 17-year high of 20.9%, meaning that nearly 1.5 million children live in poverty in Canada. Although the last recession ended in 1991, poverty rates have risen since then. Please—explain how this unacceptable situation has been allowed to occur.

This is not me asking the question. This question comes from the UN committee on economic, social and cultural rights and is to the Canadian government. It asks another of its 81 questions of the Canadian government:

—At what point would the government consider homelessness in Canada to constitute a national emergency?

I know the answer to that question. I only have to look at my riding of Vancouver East to see that there are more than 6,000 people living in slum housing. There are people living on the street. We only have to look at the city of Toronto or the city of Winnipeg or any major urban area. We only have to look at the status of aboriginal people in Canada to know about homelessness, the lack of shelter and the lack of food security. It is a very desperate situation.

There is no getting away from the fact, no matter what government members try to convince us of, that this is a direct result of the abandonment of the Canada assistance program in 1996 and the federal government running for cover under the Canada health and social transfer and slashing $6 billion from social programs in Canada.

I would like to speak about that a bit because it signalled the beginning of a new era. Clearly the federal government was abandoning its national responsibilities, which has resulted in the proposals we hear from the premiers of Canada who are saying that the federal government is not relevant any more. They feel the government has cut them back so much that they want to take what they can and set their own standards and programs. They want the federal government to butt out.

The Canadian people and members of the House, certainly those of the New Democratic Party, have a different view. We believe it is very important there be an increasing and strong role for the federal government in terms of a social union, a social charter, and the establishment of national standards in Canada.

It simply is not good enough to say that there will be a transfer of funds to the provinces and there will be no conditions attached to it. We only have to look at things like the child tax benefits or the state of post-secondary education to know that the Canada health and social transfer has been a dismal failure, not only in relation to the lack of funding and the retreat of public funding it has signalled in Canada but also because it has not been accompanied by the conditions, standards and guidelines we need to have.

For example, when we look at social welfare programs, the much touted child tax benefit by Liberal members is something that is quite appalling when we consider that the poorest of the poor, the people on welfare, will not be able to benefit from the child tax benefits.

There is absolutely no assurance that provincial governments which save money as a result of this benefit from welfare payments will put that money back into welfare programs to actually help people on welfare. There is no assurance that those moneys will not end up in workfare programs where people basically lose their entitlement to social assistance as a result of the demise of the Canada assistance program.

When we look at the reality of what has come about with the advent of the Canada health and social transfer, is it any wonder that the provincial premiers are now convening their own meetings and trying to draw up their own framework of what they think their relationship with the federal government should be?

We in the federal NDP believe that the federal government not only has to be at the table but has to reinstate the funding that has been lost from our health care programs, our educational programs and our social programs.

In the last budget we heard a lot of hype about the budget being an education budget that would help young people. Again the reality has been something very different. I only have to speak to young people in my own riding, students who are suffering from an enormous debt load, some of them $25,000, $30,000 and $40,000 as a result of skyrocketing tuition fees.

This begs the question: Why have those tuition fees gone up so much? It is because of the retreat in public funding by the federal government which has abandoned the area of education. Post-secondary institutions have been left with no recourse but to increase tuition fees so that now the tuition fees in Canada are higher on average than tuition fees at publicly funded universities in the United States, a situation that is very shocking.

We have the millennium fund that was unilaterally announced by the federal government with no consultation with the provinces, no consultation with the stakeholders and no consultation with the experts in post-secondary education. It is being touted as the future for students when in fact it is a foundation that is increasing the privatization and corporatization of the post-secondary education system. The money that has been put into that fund does not even begin to make up for the funds that have been taken out by the federal government in its support for post-secondary education.

There is no question there has been an abandonment of federal responsibility and a complete absence of national standards and national programs that historically have helped hold this country together. This is something we should be aware of as we begin this debate of a new social union.

We have to demand that the federal government take up its responsibility not just in terms of a fiscal framework but also its responsibility in setting, with the co-operation of the provinces, a sense of national purpose, a sense of national accessibility whether it is health care, social programs or post-secondary education.

The other very disturbing aspect is the lack of accountability and public debate around the issue of a social union. The provincial premiers have been meeting and may feel they are having productive discussions and have their own process of dealing with their own jurisdictions. However on an issue as fundamental and critical as this one which really deals with the future vision of our country, it is critical that the federal government and this House ensure there is accountability for the way the process unfolds.

Just before the provincial premiers met in Saskatoon, the result of which is this motion before us today, some of the leading representatives from the social justice, civil society and labour movements wrote to the provincial premiers. These included the Canadian Health Coalition, the National Anti-Poverty Organization, the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Canadian Federation of Students.

What did these groups have to say? These organizations have been involved as watchdogs. They have monitored the shocking and appalling situation that has unfolded as a result of the retreat of public funding under the Canada health and social transfer. To quote from their statement to that conference in Saskatoon, they said:

Such fundamental change to the way in which Canada's national social programs are managed is of great importance to the Canadian public, the labour movement and the vast array of social justice organizations dedicated to a vision of progressive social policy for Canada.

The social union has already undergone significant change. The implementation of the Canada health and social transfer marked a massive restructuring of national programs for health, education and social assistance. The block funding approach and the elimination of national standards for social assistance put us on a path toward `no strings attached federalism' and further devolution of federal responsibility for national programs.

As a result of the elimination of national standards for social assistance, abysmally inadequate rates of assistance have been cut in many provinces and workfare is flourishing, putting Canada in shameful violation of the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requiring that work be freely chosen, a fundamental tenet of democracy.

They went on to say in their statement:

As members of the public and organizations committed to the preservation and enhancement of national social programs, we are concerned that the Canadian public has had no opportunity to discuss and debate the vast changes to the social union which have already taken place nor is there any process in place through which the public can participate in these and future negotiations on the social union.

In the interest of democracy, closed door, backroom federalism must end.

That is a very significant statement which has come from these groups. Not only have they been the watchdogs of the federal government in what has gone on, but they are now sounding the alarm in terms of this debate that is taking place. They are making it quite clear that this type of critical debate about the relationship of the provinces to the federal government and how it encompasses our social values and our national programs must be a debate that includes organizations such as those which I mentioned and others, key stakeholders that do have a significant contribution to make.

In closing, the motion before us today raises some very key points about what has gone fundamentally wrong and is clearly at the feet of the federal government as it brought in the Canada health and social transfer. We have to be very careful. We have to make sure that we do not embark on a new kind of proposal and a process that excludes the Canadian public and sets us on a course where we will no longer have a framework of national programs and national policies, whether it is education, social programs, welfare or health care.

We have a lot of concern over the fact that the premiers are suggesting that there would be a right to opt out of any program that was new or modified. What does that mean exactly? What does a modified program mean? Does it mean that if the federal government provides some modification to our medicare system the provinces can opt out in some way?

We have to insert into this debate the sense that there will be national standards that can provide a sense of universality, a sense of security and significantly provide a fiscal framework. When the committee at the UN on the covenant on social, economic and cultural rights writes to the Government of Canada and asks at what point will we be declaring homelessness a national emergency, we have to be able to demonstrate that we have national programs that will ensure we do not have those kinds of emergencies. They should not exist in a country as wealthy as Canada.

One of the most harmful things that has taken place in Canada in the last few years has been the destruction and abandonment of our social housing programs by the federal government. In my riding people are literally on the street. People are living in slum housing as a result of the lack of federal funding for social housing.

I just came back from a mission to Indonesia and Thailand with the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. We looked at the conditions in those countries as a result of the economic crisis there. There is no question the impact has been devastating.

I was shocked by the reality that some of the conditions there are not dissimilar from what I have witnessed in my riding. People are at incredibly high risk as a result of the demise of the role of the federal government and the abandonment of the sense of a national focus in these programs. We are at a very critical point. We have to hold this government accountable for the damage and havoc it has created for the people who could least afford it: people who are unemployed, people who are homeless, people who are living in poverty.

We now have the second highest poverty rate of any industrialized nation. I heard the Minister of Justice say that Canada was the envy of the world. We have five million people who live in poverty and 1.4 million children who live in poverty as a result of her government's policies. That is nothing to be proud of.

If we want to talk about social unionism, we should talk about social unionism in a way that respects social entitlements and human rights in this country so that no person goes hungry or homeless. We should make job creation a priority. We should not abandon the unemployed by cutting back on UI benefits. That is what real social unionism would be if we were to take the time to sit down and bring about the new kind of co-operative federalism many of us would like to see.

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6:25 p.m.


Pierre De Savoye Bloc Portneuf, QC

Madam Speaker, I certainly agree with some of the things my colleague mentioned, in particular with the fact that the Liberal government is responsible for the chaos in the health sector coast to coast.

I would also like to comment on what she said regarding national standards. At first glance, national standards seem to make sense, but when you start thinking about it and look more closely, you realize that such a vast country, made up of provinces and of Quebec from coast to coast, and to another coast since there is the Arctic, cannot have a single standard. You cannot impose the same norm across the board.

There are differences in needs between the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario and the West. National standards might do more harm than good. In fact, the proposal of the premiers assembled in Saskatoon provides that a province, Quebec or any other, can withdraw from a new federal program, if judged inappropriate to its particular environment.

It would be an excellent thing, because the government would transfer to the province enough fiscal points to generate the same amount of money the federal government was willing to offer. That way, the province could set up a similar program, but better tailored to its own needs.

If we had followed this kind of approach over the last decades, we would not have experienced the troubles we have. I would like to give an example, and I will ask my colleague for her comments on the matter.

A case in point is the millennium scholarship fund; $2.5 billion of taxpayers' money will be entrusted to a private body headed by the president of Bell Canada. What for? To give scholarships to students. This seems great and it is for the rest of Canada, but not for Quebec.

For over 30 years we have had a scholarship system which has been running smoothly. Our situation is different. These millennium scholarships deal with a problem we do not have. Statistics prove it: Quebec students graduate from university with an average debt load of $11,000. In the rest of Canada, it is $25,000. Why? Quite simply because CEGEP is free; the last year in CEGEP is first year university in other provinces, a very expensive year since tuition fees are much higher than in Quebec. In some places they are more than double what they are at Laval or in Montreal.

The problem is when you want to make a system universal, it is very difficult to meet everybody's needs. How is the member who raised these issues earlier reacting to this? Does she not understand the opting out clause is fundamental to meet everybody's needs?

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6:25 p.m.


Libby Davies NDP Vancouver East, BC

Madam Speaker, it was a very long question and I know the debate is going to finish in two minutes, so I will try to give a very short answer.

I thank the member for his thoughtful question. He says that national standards sound good, but somehow they have not worked in the past. I would not agree with that opinion.

I think it is because we have had national standards in the past that we have been able to produce very good national programs such as medicare, social programs that have helped bring Canada together.

I agree that there is huge diversity in this country. But it is precisely because of that that we need to have some sense of a base of what it is Canadians can expect as an entitlement to services and programs, whether they live in the west, the maritimes or Quebec. That is precisely why we need to bring back those national standards.

SupplyGovernment Orders

6:30 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

The time allotted to debate on the motion before the House has expired.

It being 6.30 p.m., this House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 6.30 p.m.)