That, in the opinion of this House, the government should take steps to alleviate the burden of poverty in Canada by encouraging self-sufficiency and self-reliance, and to that end, should increase the basic Income Tax credit to $10,000, index the tax brakets and index the Child Tax Benefit.
Madam Speaker, I would like to inform you that I will be sharing my time with my colleague, the member for Madawaska—Restigouche.
We have decided today to put a matter of national urgency before the House, a matter that cannot wait any longer. I am referring to poverty.
Barely a few days before the next federal budget is tabled, I consider it entirely appropriate to hold a public debate on this national scourge, which continues to be one of the main obstacles to equal opportunity in Canadian society.
I would like right off to establish the parameters of the debate I am initiating today with the aid of a historic reminder. On November 24, 1989, this House witnessed a rare act of solidarity on a matter of national urgency, the unanimous passing of a resolution expressing a common desire to eliminate child poverty in Canada by 2000.
Despite this desire, clearly and—I said it and I repeat it—unanimously expressed, there are today 564,000 more children living in poverty than there were in 1989. In fact, the rate of child poverty rose from 15% to 21% during this period.
In other words, this means that one child in five is exposed daily to the cruel consequences of misery and poverty. The reason these children are living in such conditions is that their parents are among the 20% of the Canadian population who live below the poverty line.
These alarming figures have moved me on numerous occasions in recent months to beg the Minister of Finance to make children a priority in the next federal budget, among other things by indexing the national child benefit in order to ensure that families receiving it maintain their purchasing power.
I have reminded him of how vital it is to invest right now in the well-being of our children, so that they may develop to their full potential and contribute to Canadian society later on.
Yet every time I have tried to get a commitment from him, or from any other minister of the Liberal government, I have had to settle for a nicely recited litany, always the same one, of nothing but columns of figures. All these statistics are, of course, aimed at singing the praises of this government and how well it has done in improving the economy and creating employment.
Instead of openly admitting the deplorable situation in which some of the children of this country are living, and instead of assuming their responsibilities by putting their shoulders to the wheel in order to correct this national aberration, the members of the government are content to issue glowing reports about the excellent health of our public finances. Yet they cleverly forget to point out that, in order to attain that excellent health, they have given up providing a social safety net for Canadians. They also cleverly neglect to mention that this race toward economic recovery leads to an even more marked deterioration in the living conditions of those whose financial situation is already precarious.
The director of Repas Granby et Région Inc., a social advocacy group in my riding, recently informed me of the dramatic impact this insane pursuit of economic recovery can have sometimes.
When I hear him tell the story of this single mother who must sometimes resort to prostitution in order to support her children or that of a welfare recipient who committed suicide upon learning that her benefits had been cut, I understandably cannot applaud the government's approach to putting its fiscal house in order.
I think therefore that it is appropriate to mention an important fact, which has been overlooked in the government's rhetoric. In its two terms, the government opposite will have chopped more than $10 billion from social transfer payments, yet it continues to portray itself as the champion of the young, the old and the unemployed and of social programs.
However, the Prime Minister was nowhere to be seen yesterday morning, when victims of his so-called sound management rallied on Parliament Hill to condemn his vision of wealth distribution. I was there, along with my leader, the right hon. Joe Clark, and my colleague, the hon. member for Madawaska—Restigouche. I can tell you that the government's triumphalist statements about its good management of public affairs are not very well received by this bitter and desperate constituency.
On behalf of these and of all Canadians who bear the brunt of this government's economic policies every day, I urge my colleagues not to give up.
These people, who came to Ottawa to express their anger and despair, need our vigilance and support. They are a living reminder of this government's economic failure. In spite of what the Prime Minister and his government colleagues may say, they failed miserably in their most basic duties by letting some of their fellow citizens become so impoverished that they have to do without food and shelter.
I am not the only one who is running out of patience with the government's indifference. The Prime Minister should ask young people if they are happy to wait, to hear nice speeches, to see their debt reach excessive proportions, and to find out that post-secondary education is becoming increasingly inaccessible.
Young people are not any more gullible than us. They know that it is the Liberals who contributed to the gradual and systematic erosion of our public education system. Again, the Liberals' wealth redistribution record has been absolutely dismal.
Since 1989, the year which I used in my introduction as our base year for this debate, average family income in Canada has fallen by roughly 4%. It has gone down, not up. Yet, the Minister of Finance claims that the economic fundamentals are right, that unemployment continues to go down, and that inflation is below 1%. Despite all that and despite the fact that the economy, as the minister says, is doing better, the question is: Better for whom?
It is certainly not better for the average Canadian family, whose income has gone down by 4% in recent years. It is not better for the children I met this morning at a school in the national capital region, where we served breakfast. These children, who were shamelessly abandoned by the state, must rely on charitable organizations to start their day with some food in their stomachs.
It is definitely not better for families on welfare, which must face a daily reality that most of us cannot even imagine.
In my riding, the co-ordinator of the Association coopérative d'économie familiale de Granby recently told me about the anguish experienced by these families toward the end of a month, when the fridge and the cupboard are empty, or when spring heralds the arrival not of flowers and birds but of the letter they will receive from Hydro-Quebec demanding that they pay the arrears accumulated during the winter, otherwise power will be cut off.
This may all be very new for our well-fed and well-lodged ministers, but it is nothing unusual in the lives of a growing number of our fellow citizens.
The proof is in the number of food banks, which have almost tripled in Canada since 1989. According to the Canadian Association of Food Banks, the number of communities relying on this service has risen from 180 in 1989 to 508 in 1998.
I must confess I have long been puzzled by cabinet's indifference to the national tragedy I have just described.
After all, this is the same government that signed the Copenhagen accords in 1995, committing it to take concrete action to improve the living conditions of the poorest of the poor in Canada. I would almost have to conclude that this attitude on the part of government members indicates a flagrant lack of compassion for the more unfortunate members of our society.
That would certainly confirm the popular belief that legislators, the very people with the power to change things, are often indifferent to the basic needs of those they represent. But I am an optimist by nature and I refuse to believe that the government will not listen to reason.
Time is running out. Something must be done. The issue of poverty must be addressed without further delay. Canadians want a proactive government that will get moving and do whatever it takes to put an end to the national disgrace of poverty in this country.
Solutions exist. All that is lacking is the willingness to do something. One of the things the government could do is to remedy the inequality of taxation practices and not tax low wage earners to death. It could also encourage self-sufficiency and self-reliance by increasing the basic income tax credit to $10,000 and indexing the tax tables and the child tax benefit.
On behalf of our society's most disadvantaged members, I call on the government to show leadership and compassion.