That this House censure any action by the federal government in the area of education, such as the introduction of the Millennium Scholarships program or national testing.
Mr. Speaker, today we are putting a very important issue before the House.
It is important, because we feel we must decry the disease affecting the federal Liberals, which I would call chronic dominating federalism. It is an infectious disease they caught from the Conservatives and is characterized by the search for better ways to intrude in provincial jurisdiction, despite the Constitution's precluding it.
The disease recently led the Liberal government to establish the millennium scholarship fund. An integral part of the financial assistance for students section of the Canadian opportunities strategy, the Canadian millennium scholarships foundation will have an initial budget of $2.5 billion in order to support access to knowledge and skills for all Canadians.
This is $2.5 billion worth of pretences because if it were really committed to access and to reducing the debt load of Quebec students, this government would not deny the Quebec government the right to opt out with full compensation.
This government, which praises the knowledge-based economy, will have cut approximately $3 billion in education in Quebec alone between 1993 and 2003.
This same government championed in this House, in December 1995, a motion recognizing the distinct character of Quebec and explicitly reassuring Quebeckers that every federal government department, institution and agency would take this into account in making decisions.
This same Liberal government claimed in the 1996 Speech from the Throne that it would stop using its spending power to develop programs in provincial jurisdictions.
This government, which stated left and right that all it is trying to do is to work in co-operation and partnership with the provinces, disregards provincial jurisdictions and priorities.
This action translates into a net loss for the Quebec education system. This money could have been used to improve the grants and loans system in Quebec, thereby helping to considerably reduce the student debt load, as pointed out by the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec when it testified before the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development last November.
It is clear to the Bloc Quebecois that, by establishing the millennium scholarship fund, the federal government intrudes in an area under Quebec's exclusive jurisdiction.
The evil separatists are not alone; other stakeholders in Quebec have commented on this federal intrusion. On February 18, Alain Dubuc wrote in La Presse : “The federal system is based on a system of checks and balances, like the division of powers, which must not be upset. This is especially true in education, where Quebec's distinctiveness is most visible. In fact, one wonders why, after establishing its scholarship fund, the federal government would not let the provinces manage the fund should they wish to do so.—Clearly, while it would rather go it alone on this issue, the federal government must reconsider and agree to let the Quebec government manage the millennium scholarships awarded in Quebec”.
Similarly, on February 25, in speaking about these scholarships, the leader of the opposition said he would have preferred to see the jurisdictions of Quebec and the other provinces respected fully.
The member for Sherbrooke is in the paradoxical situation, on the one hand, of supporting a Canadian fund for excellence in education, which is just as much an interference in Quebec's jurisdiction as the millennium fund and, on the other, thinking of running as a candidate in a party that has always opposed the federal government's systematic intrusions in provincial jurisdictions, particularly education.
If I understand correctly, he could become leader of a party that is part of a broad coalition calling for the respect of provincial jurisdictions, while the policy has shortcomings that only Liberals and Conservatives understand well enough to explain.
Mr. Speaker, I forgot to mention that I will be sharing my time with the member for Témiscamingue.
Let us leave aside the disagreements of the Liberals and Conservatives and look more closely at this government's reasons for creating the millennium scholarship fund. The government recently said that it was the provinces that requested it, and that it was necessary to meet the expectations of students in difficult economic straits.
I will not go back over this government's failure to respect provincial jurisdictions, but will instead focus on what students in Quebec and in the rest of Canada want. It says in the finance minister's latest budget that these scholarships will be awarded to individuals who need help in financing their studies and demonstrate merit. Is this what students really want?
Why did the Liberals create this millennium scholarship fund? I personally asked the Prime Minister what he had had in mind. On February 26, the member for Shawinigan said in the House: “We think every Quebecker should know that the taxes they pay to the federal government give them something in return”. They are going to know it in this case, you can be sure. The cat is out of the bag, or rather the maple leaf is out of the envelope.
As the Prime Minister said, his goal was to use this program as a promotional tool to increase the federal government's visibility, waving maple leaves everywhere in Canada and, of course, in Quebec.
The government wants to gain visibility at the expense of debt-burdened students. Did Quebeckers see through this scheme? On March 7, Sondagem published the results of an opinion poll about this millennium scholarship fund. Conducted from February 27 to March 3, this survey is probably a good reflection of public opinion in Quebec. The results reveal that 42 per cent of the 1000 respondents think that the federal government wanted to score political points among the student population, while 20 per cent think that this project is aimed at promoting federalism in Quebec. Only 22 per cent believe that the only purpose of Ottawa's initiative is to help students.
As we can see, Quebeckers are not fooled by the federal government's manoeuvres. The president of the Fédération des étudiants universitaires du Québec stated in the Journal de Montréal that the millennium fund was only a “visibility exercise” on the part of the federal government, and even an ”ego trip”.
In spite of strong pressure, the budget does not provide any right to opt out so that provinces like Quebec can control their share of the $2.5 billion the federal government wants to spend on higher education.
However, the plan introduced yesterday is still vague and undefined and nothing in it justifies the control of the fund by Ottawa, except perhaps the desire to see a maple leaf on the cheques distributed to students. Maple leaves were good in Nagano. Visibility does not make the provincial education systems better or more efficient; it only creates duplication and overlap.
Jennifer Story, of the Canadian Federation of Students, said, and I quote:
<“questioned why it's necessary to create a new funding mechanism to deal with it. Why not put the money towards the existing Canadian Student Loan Program? Why create something entirely new?”
Quebec is not the only one to say what we are saying today. There is a large consensus among students and universities, but the government turns a deaf ear to them.
I also have a message for those who held a protest yesterday in front of the Quebec National Assembly. These protesters, who are members of the various student associations, were asking for an end to cuts in the education sector. I support this generation which, in fact, is my generation. However, these young Quebeckers should look across the Ottawa River, they should look at this Parliament to find those responsible for these cuts. The dumping of responsibilities starts here, with the federal government.
I often wonder, because we hear all this talk here about building a forward-looking society, a society based on skills. But the federal government imposed cuts of over $3 billion on Quebec, and it is now coming up with another program which essentially seeks to give more visibility to this government. As a society, we have to ask ourselves some tough questions.
Let us not forget that, during the course of this century, life expectancy increased by some 20 years. Since we are now living longer, it is vital to invest in education. Instead, the government is making cuts, thus making the system ineffective or less effective. We have to ask ourselves some tough questions.
Let me tell you how I see things. These are the facts confronting my generation. There is an increasingly wider gap between the people and their elected officials. As I said earlier, the public supports social values and goals, while this government seeks visibility. When are we really going to try to close this gap between elected officials and the public? It is urgent that we answer this question.