Madam Speaker, I will be sharing my time with my hon. colleague from Sackville—Eastern Shore.
If I were to summarize this bill in one word it would be destructive. It is destroying the hopes and dreams of Canadians who can only imagine living in decent housing and who see this bill as the final step away from any chance of their dreams being fulfilled.
These are people from across Canada who can talk of the difference social housing has made in people's live. However, as the member of parliament representing the community of Reserve Mines I feel I have a unique perspective on what we will lose if this bill is allowed to go through. It was in Reserve Mines that the first housing co-operative in Canada was built. At one time people in Reserve Mines were forced to rent houses from the mining company that were overpriced and often substandard.
Owning their own homes was a dream many thought was unachievable. However, with the encouragement of their parish priest, Father Jimmy Tomkins, the co-operative that the people of Reserve Mines formed succeeded in planning, financing and building houses for its members. For people who had never thought they would have a decent home for themselves and their families, it was a dream come true.
The dream of living in well maintained affordable homes that inspired the people of Reserve Mines in 1938 continues to be the driving force behind efforts to build and maintain social housing. Unfortunately in the last few years the federal government has been doing its best to kill that dream.
On the surface Bill C-66 appears harmless. The government has attempted to portray this bill as little more than a housekeeping measure to simplify the current legislation, remove unnecessary restrictions and improve the flexibility of the CMHC. To use an old saying, the devil is in the details. There are a number of details to which this government is not keen on drawing attention. It is these details that administer the coup de grace in the Liberal government's retreat from social housing. They pave the way for the privatization of social housing in Canada.
We have already seen the first step in the destruction of social housing in Canada with federal downloading. Every province except Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia has had the complete social housing portfolio dumped on them. It is disappointing but not surprising that my own province of Nova Scotia was the first to agree to the downloading. Housing activists warned that the compensation offered by the federal government for taking over its housing responsibilities would not be enough in the long term but, as with DEVCO, a small pile of cash persuaded the Nova Scotia Liberal government to bend over backwards to capitulate to Ottawa.
In contrast, New Democrats in British Columbia have held out against the download. They have looked at the long term costs of downloading and they know the federal government has an important role to play in housing. I know housing activists appreciate the efforts of British Columbia to get the federal government to live up to the commitments made in the many operating agreements it signed with individual non-profit housing providers across the province.
In the provinces that have accepted the downloading we have seen that the end result is abandonment of social housing. For instance, the Filmon government in Manitoba has made clear its intention to gradually withdraw all funding from social housing. In my own community we see the effects of abandonment of housing by the federal government.
The Open Door shelter is one of two homeless shelters in Sydney. The building it is in is 60 years old and is in need of repair. In a region where the real unemployment rate is 40%, there is not a lot of money to go around. Since the federal government is not providing support for the community, the staff and board of the shelter must go elsewhere to look for money.
In the last few months I have had constituents coming to my office desperate for help. There are people in my riding who are living in homes with plastic sheeting for a roof. They are looking for help from the federal government and all too often there is none.
Now the federal government is preparing to take the final step toward abandoning any responsibility or obligation for responding to housing problems in this country.
Current statutes contain very clear definitions of what is meant by terms like public housing project or eligible contribution recipient. This bill eliminates these definitions from the act and puts them at the discretion of CMHC. This opens the door for private, for profit corporations to be recognized as social housing providers. This bill also eliminates the statutory requirements for social housing to be safe, sanitary and affordable. These are currently minimum requirements for social housing units. Now this Liberal government apparently feels that getting rid of these requirements will, to use its language, remove unnecessary restrictions.
It would be nice to believe its intentions are honourable. It would be nice to believe that the maintenance of social housing projects across Canada is so good that including any minimum standards in the legislation is redundant.
Unfortunately the evidence points to another, nastier conclusion. The reason the Liberal government is getting rid of these requirements is so it will not be required to live up to them.
The government has tried to justify getting rid of these definitions on the grounds it needs flexibility. According to it, dumping minimum standards for housing is just a little housekeeping measure.
What I want to know is exactly why requiring homes to be safe, sanitary and affordable is so restrictive. Is the government trying to tell us it needs the flexibility to allow people to live in fire traps, to allow conditions where diseases develop and spread, to raise rents through the roof?
Either one believes all Canadians should have a right to decent, safe, affordable accommodation or one does not. By removing these requirements the government is saying it does not think the homes of Canadians should have to meet even the most minimal standards of safety, sanitation or affordability.
I would also like to touch on the proposed changes to mortgage insurance. Under the current CMHC act, if the CMHC takes any losses when it underwrites someone's mortgage, the federal government absorbs those losses. This enables CMHC to underwrite mortgages for people who cannot get mortgage insurance from banks such as people with low incomes, people with poor credit ratings and people in remote areas who do not have access to a bank or credit union.
What the government is proposing is that CMHC will have to absorb any losses from underwriting mortgages itself out of the mortgage insurance fund. Having to absorb any losses itself may force the CMHC to deny mortgage insurance to high risk applicants. This will exclude applicants with low incomes.
Under the current mortgage insurance system the CMHC acts as a bulwark against a recession because it can underwrite mortgages in poor market conditions without risk. This encourages housing development at a point in the market cycle where the market may discourage it. This will change with the commercialising of CMHC's mortgage insurance. CMHC will now be forced to weigh risk according to market cycles. Thus it will no longer be able to play this valuable counter-recessionary role in the economy.
Now we come to the real reason for these changes. It is well known that GE Corporation of the United States, which has large interests in the insurance industry, wants to expand into Canada. It is well known that it has been lobbying the Liberal government for the commercialization for CMHC's mortgage insurance to make this possible.
In this bill, the agenda of GE seems to have been put ahead of the needs of Canadians. According to the government, there was a risk that if it did not make the changes in this bill, GE could have forced the changes using NAFTA. In which case why, if NAFTA is such a fundamentally flawed agreement, was this government willing to sign it in 1993 and why has it not tried to change it since?
I would like to touch on what this bill says about the real agenda of this government. In the last few months we have heard regular expression of concern from this government about the problem of homelessness. The recent announcement that social housing would not be transferred to the province of Ontario was portrayed as an attempt to protect social housing in that province.
This bill proves that all the lip service the Liberal government has paid to the problem of homelessness was nothing but hot air. Homelessness has skyrocketed since the Liberal government came to power. More and more Canadians are freezing to death on the streets. This bill could have addressed these problems. Instead it will make things dramatically worse.