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.