Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-36 introduced by the Minister of Finance and known as the Budget Implementation Act, 1998.
A lot could be said about this budget, but I will begin by pointing out several of its shortcomings, particularly in so far as the Department of Canadian Heritage is concerned.
In recent days, the Minister of Canadian Heritage has passed herself off as the great defender of the rights of francophone and Acadian communities. Her grand statements are beginning to sound like science fiction.
A hard look at the numbers and at what is actually going on reveals that the Minister of Canadian Heritage is cutting official language education funding by $22 million. This is particularly hard on independent schools and associations of independent schools at a time when francization needs are glaring.
On March 18, the minister announced that the Official Languages in Education Program was being renewed for a further five years, with stable funding, meaning that, despite the fiscal turnaround, the savage cuts of recent years are continuing.
The Commission nationale des parents francophones du Canada, an organization representing 11 provincial and territorial federations of francophone parents outside Quebec, reacted to this announcement in a release quite rightly entitled “Political will in free fall”.
It says, and I quote: “The announcement of another large cut in the Official Languages in Education Program for the next five years represents another disappointing chapter in the increasingly sorry turn that the future of official languages in Canada is taking—. The ongoing erosion of the Official Languages in Education Program is indicative of the erosion in the political will of the Canadian government with respect to the development of minority francophone communities. It can be expected that teaching in French in the francophone communities will become a priority as resources dwindle”.
While the federal government was paying $268 million into this program at the time the Liberals were elected in 1993, the Liberals reduced payments to this program this year to $152 million, or a reduction of 43% over six years.
According to Mrs. Johanne Lacelle, the president of the Commission nationale des parents francophones, “We are disappointed, because the educational needs in minority communities are pressing. We are still far from having the quality education that would put us on an even footing with others. Funding should be doubled or tripled rather than reduced. Assimilation is on the rise in all of the francophone communities. More and more francophones are losing their first language, while more and more anglophones are acquiring a second language. These are the results of the present language situation in Canada”.
Let us recall that the Commission nationale des parents francophones revealed in 1996 that the bulk of the funding to provinces for official languages in education was going to anglophones learning French as a second language. Finally, only the minister herself thinks that everything is fine and that francophones can be helped by reduced budgets.
We have also called upon the Minister of Canadian Heritage, both here in the House and in the heritage committee, to substantially increase the funding allocated to the court challenges programme. The purpose of this program is to provide financial support to cases taken before the courts by groups or individuals who feel that their language rights have not been respected.
Finally, the minister has announced that she would not pursue her plan to cut 9% from this program. What great progress for francophones. By cancelling this cut, the minister will have to find the $250,000 this 9% represents elsewhere in her department. So who will pay the price this time?
At the present time, there are about 10 cases before the courts, or in preparation, contesting provincial decisions on school administration or the creation of French language schools.
Unless the court challenges program receives a substantial increase in funding, some of those cases will have to be either abandoned or deferred, as the money will run out before the year is over. The past has shown that continuous recourse to the courts was the only way francophone minorities could ensure any sort of respect for their rights by the governments of the anglophone provinces, despite section 23 of the Constitution.
In another vein, the 1998 federal budget makes no provision for funds for the multimedia sector or for loan guarantees to develop content in the new media, including the Internet.
Yet, this was promised in the second red book, and the advisory committee on the information highway recommended setting up a $50 million fund. Last week, at the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, the representatives of Telefilm Canada indicated how important investment in the multimedia sector is to the development of television programs, videos and films.
The Liberal government could and should also have announced the immediate abolition of the GST on books. While the minister allocates $31 million a year to her program to assist publishers, the Minister of Finance pockets some $120 million in revenues from taxes on reading material. By continuing to tax books, the Minister of Finance is nullifying his colleague's efforts. He is undermining the industry and limiting public availability of written material, thus hurting both culture and education.
That is some of what is missing in the 1998 budget, which confirms that the Liberals are promoting certain values in their speeches and election campaigns but neglecting them when they deliver their budget. It is all very well for the government to set ambitious objectives for its departments, but these are unattainable without the necessary financial means.
Part 7 of Bill C-36 is intended to implement the raise in taxes on cigarettes announced by the Minister of Finance before the budget was tabled. While the Bloc Quebecois supports such an increase, it deplores the fact that the minister did not include measures to support sports and cultural events that may lose their sponsorship by tobacco companies, following the adoption of Bill C-71 by the federal government.
I should point out that the Quebec government took the initiative regarding this issue by pledging to allocate part of the revenues generated by the tax increase on tobacco—that is about $12 million—to a Quebec fund for culture, sports and health. This initiative will be confirmed in the budget to be brought down by the Quebec government.
Parts 1, 5 and 10 of Bill C-36 deal with the government's millennium scholarship fund, the measures to support registered education savings plans, and federal assistance to students. In spite of these stopgap measures, one wonders whether the federal government truly wants to improve education, considering that, between 1993 and 2003, it will have cut over $10 billion in that sector, including $3 billion in Quebec.
These federal cuts, which are partly responsible for the lower quality of our education system, have resulted in soaring tuition fees, thus contributing to the indebtedness of a whole generation of students and to a major increase in personal bankruptcies by graduating students.
Instead of providing financial solutions to these students, the federal government ties them down for a long time. With this bill, the Liberal government amends the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act to extend from two years to ten years the period of time during which a discharge does not release the bankrupt from the reimbursement of his student loan.
I cannot talk about education without deploring once again the chronic underfinancing of research and development, as we are about to enter the 21st century. This situation directly impacts on students, because they do not have access to modern teaching and research infrastructures, and because they are deprived of the stimulating presence and expertise of teacher scientists.
I will conclude by saying that the federal government should stop talking about its noble values and boasting about its great initiatives. Instead, it should find the means to implement these projects and to take concrete and effective action, while respecting the jurisdictions of each level of government.