Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to join the debate on the Speech from the Throne. It really is our first opportunity as commoners to discuss among ourselves and debate our views on how we will see Canada in the 21st century and the new millennium.
As a member of the government side of the House and as a Canadian, I must say how proud I was of our Prime Minister yesterday. He gave a tremendous speech and allowed us to contemplate Canada today in the context of our past.
The Prime Minister reminded us that we did not discover this land, that first nations and Inuit people were here first and welcomed newcomers so many years ago. He reminded us of our French heritage, of our British heritage. He allowed us to appreciate that here in Canada out of the need to respect diversity, we are now a country that values and celebrates diversity; that out of a need to welcome immigrants we are now a country that values and welcomes immigrants and provides a safe place for refugees.
The Prime Minister allowed us to contemplate the fact that out of a need to downplay nationalistic tendencies, we now are a country that values quiet confidence and modesty. Out of a need to share wealth, we in Canada now value the sharing of wealth and generosity not only between and among citizens and between and among regions of this great country, but between Canada and other countries around the world.
We know that Canada out of a need to respect individual citizens and respect the importance of each one of us as Canadians is now a country that absolutely respects and values human rights and freedoms.
Out of the need to govern with compassion over the turbulent but wonderful history we call ours, we are now a country that values governance with compassion, governance with tolerance, governance with generosity. We indeed know that our country is a wonderful and unique federation.
To many, Canada is an experiment, but to us, Canada is a logical, practical and principled society and we are always pushing at the edges of what we know to be civilization. I am convinced that as we move into the 21st century we will continue to do that.
Another thing the Prime Minister said is that in our federation there is room for improvement and that indeed is true. But if we look at the nineties, our options to continue to improve this great country in which we live were limited. The decade of the nineties was a time of turbulence, of difficulties for citizens and for our country.
We know that unemployment rates were extraordinarily high. We know that there was a lack of confidence in Canadian institutions, including government. We know that our country's unity was being challenged. We know that we were under very significant fiscal constraints. But with the leadership of our Prime Minister and with the extraordinary will of the Canadian people we are now back in a stable form.
Unemployment is at its lowest level in nine years at 7.5%. There is an increasing respect and confidence in Canadian institutions. We know that we live in a great federation and we are continuing to appreciate that and to build on that. We got our fiscal house in order. We are governing in a balanced way. We are attacking our debt.
As Liberals we have always said that we were not interested in making cuts for the sake of making cuts. Getting our fiscal house in order was a challenge we set for ourselves so that we would allow ourselves the choices to continue to improve and build on our great federation.
On the Speech from the Throne, the Prime Minister identified in his speech yesterday a number of areas that we set out as our priorities as we move into the 21st century. We want to continue to build our strong federation. I would like elaborate on a couple of those aspects in my speech today.
First, Canadians now know that the government has put a priority and a focus on our children. As we reflect on the work of our country in the past decades, we know that we have found ways to support Canadian seniors with programs like the old age security, guaranteed income supplement and our partnership with the provinces with the Canada pension plan. Those are programs that Canadians know and appreciate and which seniors access. Those programs have allowed us to significantly reduce poverty among Canadian seniors.
We have programs in place to support working age Canadians, such as employment insurance and the provinces have income support. Those programs are there. Canadians are familiar with them and use them if they have to.
Since 1993 we have understood that there is a role for us to play in working with Canada's youth. The youth employment strategy was introduced. We have encouraged and supported our young people in finding that very important first job. We have encouraged them to continue with post-secondary education. We are finding ways as a country to support our youth.
In the Speech from the Throne we identified continuing ways to support Canada's youth by ensuring that they have the opportunity to travel this great nation through exchanges to get to know each other. That is critically important in a country as large as ours. We know that at earlier ages young people are able to contribute and the notion of celebrating their first works is an important priority for our government.
We have not spent a lot of time considering how we build a strong relationship with our children. It is probably because we believe that it is parents who really are the critical element in ensuring that our children are supported and nurtured. There is no question that remains paramount. It is parents who have the responsibility and the ability to raise healthy children.
But times are changing. It is very expensive to raise children. Yes, it is appropriate that we make tax cuts in support of families. The Reform Party would see that as being the only support we can provide to our children, but we know there is much more that is needed.
Research is telling us that the very early years of a child's life, zero to six, are critical. That research is now becoming more and more available to us. In the Speech from the Throne we have been directed to work together as governments, the Government of Canada with the provinces and territories, to explore this research, to understand it and to build some common values and principles as to how we can support parents and children through those very early times.
That work has already begun. We have sat at the table with the provinces and territories. We have built a document, the national children's agenda, which is now being discussed in workshops around Canada. We will look for input from Canadians on that to assess the values and principles that should guide us as we build a stronger partnership with Canadian citizens, parents and children to support early childhood development. We intend to have that work completed and to present it to Canadians by December 2000.
There is more. We know there is a direct relationship between children at risk and the income of their families. Provinces have supported families through income support measures and services for children. We know that the most important thing we can do is to find ways and means for all Canadians to have a job. That is the biggest thing we can do.
When parents, men and women, move from welfare into a job, very often that job may be low paying. It is difficult for parents to contemplate leaving welfare, where services may also be part of their support for their children, to take a low paying job. We are changing that through the national child benefit. In this system the federal government provides money to families with children for income whether they are on income support or in low wage positions.
The savings that the provinces gleaned from that additional money coming from the federal government are being reinvested in services for Canadian children, services that are available to them whether they are supported by families on income support or in low income jobs.
We are making progress. In Quebec we see the $5 a day day care approach. In Alberta we see the focus on providing health services, dental care and eye examinations for children. These are the kinds of approaches that show a flexible relationship between the Government of Canada and the provinces is working. We know it to be a good platform and we want to build on that.
In the Speech from the Throne we identified that we would make a significant additional investment in the national child benefit by July 2002. Of course everyone heard the Prime Minister yesterday. He identified this as being a priority and he has moved that date up to July 2001. That is a strong message to the people of Canada. We know that we have to support our children. We have to focus on child poverty and we have to focus on it in a way that will allow parents to get work and to contribute, in partnership with their governments.
There is another aspect to this that is tremendously important. We are starting to really understand the changing relationship between the workplace and the family. Seventy per cent of Canadian families are dual income families, mom and dad both working.
Of course that is changing the relationship between what they are able to do as parents in support of their children. That is where we step back and ask, recognizing that those early years are so important, is there not something more that we can do to help parents spend more time with their children and their infants in those very early years? We have identified that indeed there is. Yesterday the Prime Minister announced that by January 1, 2001 we would double the parental benefit for Canadian citizens. We have directly shown how important a contribution this is to building a strong Canada through our children.
The Prime Minister said that we would double the benefit, make it more flexible and more accessible. In terms of flexibility, we will focus on the parental benefit. We will not tell families which parent should stay at home. They will decide.
In terms of flexibility, we also appreciate that there are adoptive parents and that they too need to be home with their children in those early years.
In terms of accessibility, we will know that we have made changes to the employment insurance program. Wisely, we have put in place a monitoring and assessment system so that every year we receive information about how that system is working.
We are seeing in last year's monitoring and assessment report that indeed there may be an unintended effect on women. In the way that women relate to the workplace, they may not be accessing benefits in the way we expected them to do. I am looking forward to receiving this year's monitoring and assessment report to contemplate that trend, to see if indeed we have to do something to ensure there is accessibility.
I know that colleagues on this side of the House have begun to talk about it with me—the member for Essex, the member for Guelph—Wellington and others—and we will look at this.
As the Prime Minister indicated, we want to ensure that there is accessibility to this incredible and significant new plan that was announced yesterday.
With all this and a focus on children we are recognizing that it is wise for us to invest in the early years. Right now there is a cost to us in supporting prisons and youth justice systems because our children may not be getting a healthy start. For us it makes a lot more sense to put the investment in the early years. If we focus on our children the dividends will be huge.
Out of a need to invest in our children I am convinced that we will come to value children as our most valuable resource.
In the context of valuing people, let us turn to another aspect of the Speech from the Throne. We know that our economy has changed. We are in the knowledge based economy now. The challenge for us as a country is to ensure that our citizens have the ability to participate in the knowledge based economy, to be able to continue to develop and benefit from a vastly and rapidly changing economy. We will do that.
First and foremost we have to ensure that we build a tradition of lifelong learning in Canada. In the Speech from the Throne we identified that that will be a priority for us, to work with our partners, with the private sector and with the provinces to do what we can to make sure that from our very early years right through to our senior years we value and engage in lifelong learning. That means improving literacy, without question. We have a dynamic partnership with the provinces right across this country in focusing on upgrading the literacy of our citizens.
We have also built strong partnerships with the provinces in the area of labour market development. The provinces now have active measures within the agreements that we have written with most provinces and they are using them to facilitate and stimulate the capacity development of their citizens so they can participate in the new Canadian economy.
We need to do more. We need to appreciate that our economy is not a single economy, but is sectoral. There are different aspects and sectors to the diverse Canadian economy. We need to partner more effectively with the private sector and with unions to understand that, to encourage them to look at their industries, to look at the timeframes, to help smooth out the peaks and valleys, to identify their workforce requirements. We can do a better job in this regard. In fact, by doing so, instead of following the trends in the economy, we can lead the trends in the economy.
Another thing that is tremendously important is making sure that Canadians have the information they need to make decisions about employment opportunities and business opportunities. There was a recent forum for labour market ministers, attended by all provinces and territories, including Quebec, to talk about this. We agreed that it is wise for us to work together to create a platform of information that can be used locally at the community level, at the provincial level, at the national level and at the international level so that Canadians have the information they need to make the appropriate decisions for their lives and the lives of their families.
There is a third aspect in all of this that I would like to reflect upon as my time draws to an end and that is how we should build public policies in the 21st century. Without question, we have to reach out and engage others at the very beginning of the development of policies. We have to work with the private sector and with the voluntary sector. We cannot abrogate our responsibility to lead and to make important decisions, but we can find a modern way, a 21st century way, of building sustainable policies and programs that speak to all Canadians.
This is a fundamental issue. In the 21st century what we want to do is challenge ourselves to write policies that are inclusive, policies that do not inadvertently exclude people: Canadians with disabilities, aboriginal people, those from low income families. That is not the way to build appropriate responses to the needs of Canadians. Rather, from the very first instance we want to contemplate policies that speak to all Canadians, policies in which all Canadians can see themselves right from the start.
These are the challenges that we have set for ourselves. They are a reflection of our belief that we live in a wonderful country, that we have built a flexible federation, that we have something to work for, something to be proud of and something to build upon.
The Speech from the Throne, as it was presented, gives us all these opportunities. I, as a member of this side of the House and a great team, am committed to doing what I can to continue to build a great Canada, to build a Canada which is where people want to be in the 21st century, to build a Canada that we know will continue to be the greatest country in the world in which to live.