Madam Speaker, I am pleased to say a few words in this debate. When the bill is passed it will mean hundreds of millions of dollars to be used for the benefit of the country.
When I think about the country many words come to mind. I think about quality of life, security, prosperity, freedom, compassion, co-operation and many other things other countries do not have. Generally the very last thing we associate with Canada is poverty and all the suffering and loss that come with it. Most of us simply do not want to admit that the very real problem of poverty exists in Canada. I do not think the government has come to grips with it or wishes to admit it.
Nevertheless, the reality is that for millions of Canadians poverty is a way of life. As the poor become more vocal through various organizations in which they become involved, through the media and anti-poverty associations and whatnot, many Canadians come to realize it is a very real problem.
Governments at every level will not be able to ignore that problem much longer and will have to take action on it fairly soon. They will have to do a bit more than actually appoint a minister for the homeless. They will have to give that minister the resources to do the job that needs to be done to address the issue of poverty.
The issue of poverty is a very difficult one, as we are all aware. The government knows very little about the true state of poverty in the country. We have not developed an effective way to identify and to measure poverty. We have yet to identify all the causes of poverty. We still do not have an effective and complete strategy to eliminate poverty.
The issue is also complicated due to the large number of effects it has on many different social classes, whether it be women, children, the working poor, the unemployed poor, aboriginals or disabled persons. I am not sure if the bill does anything to address the plight of many people who are well below the poverty line.
We are all very much aware that back in November 1989 the leader of the NDP, Ed Broadbent, introduced the following motion in the House of Commons:
That this House express its concern for the more than one million Canadian children currently living in poverty and seek to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000.
Jean Charest, the minister of state for fitness and amateur sport and the deputy leader in the House at the time, moved at the end of the debate that the motion be supported unanimously by the House of Commons, and it was.
I want to read some of the positions of members of the PC Party, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party at the time on the whole issue of child poverty. In the speech to the motion Perrin Beatty of the PC Party, then minister of national health and welfare, said:
We do not have to be afraid of the future. We have a prosperous and a dynamic economy which if managed well promises to improve even further. We have the tools to reduce the number of children living in poverty as we have for each and every year since 1984.
In a few short weeks we will be entering the new decade. This is a good time for us to reflect on the very real progress that we have made in the past and to think about what accomplishments we want to make in the 1990s. Any society that cares about its future must care about the plight of its children today. This government demonstrated that commitment and I can assure you it will continue to demonstrate that commitment.
In his speech introducing the motion Ed Broadbent of the NDP showed that child poverty had increased. He stated:
From 1980 to 1986, when the child population actually fell by some 4%, the number living in poverty in Canada at precisely the time that the rest of us were doing better increased by 13.4%.
He also pointed out that the rate of poor children in poor health is 150% higher than the national average.
Mr. Broadbent went on to explain how the cycle of poverty works. He said:
There is now in Canada and the United States a vicious cycle involving the poor. Poor kids are undernourished, underhoused, more sickly, more poorly educated, get the second or third rate jobs, and when the lay-offs come, they get laid off first. The same young people marry each other and then they produce children, statistically out of proportion, who go through the same cycle. We have a cycle of poor food, poor housing, poor clothing, poor education, poor jobs, poor spouses, more poor kids. This is a vicious cycle. It is a vicious cycle that can be broken and it is a vicious cycle that must be broken in this Canada of ours.
Ed Broadbent said that back in 1989.
This quote is truly the most interesting quote of all. It is a statement made by the Minister of Foreign Affairs who was in opposition at that time. In speaking to that motion, he said:
I never hear the Minister of Finance talk about the real deficit in this country, which is those one million kids in poverty. That is the real lack of investment. That is the real tragedy. In 10 years from now those are the children who should be tomorrow's teachers, business people, politicians or journalists. They will never get there because they will never get up to the starting line. When you have a million children living in poverty, that is the greatest lack of investment. That is the greatest deficit we face. That is the problem, and there is nothing being done to address that kind of issue.
This was the now Minister of Foreign Affairs who said that the greatest deficit we had in this country were our poor children.
Even though the child poverty motion was unanimously supported by all members from all parties in the House of Commons, very little has been done to take action on that problem. Even today we realize the governments of the past, and today's government in particular, have really not taken any action on that issue.
If we were to read the quotes with a few modifications to names and dates, we would realize that the words of a decade ago apply to the situation we face today. In fact the number of Canada's poor has increased and their condition has worsened.
When that motion was passed back in 1989, we had one million children living in poverty in Canada. Today, 10 years later, when we pledged that we would eliminate child poverty in this country by the year 2000, we do not have one million children living in poverty, we now have 1.5 million children living in poverty in Canada. That is a real tragedy and one for which all of us have to bear responsibility. It is not only this government but governments of the past that have to bear responsibility for the very glaring tragedy we have in our society.
Poverty statistics are debatable and very controversial, especially in Canada. An example of that is Statistics Canada's low income cut-off. The low income cut-off is the most widely used formula to establish a poverty line in Canada, even though Statistics Canada says it should not be used as the poverty line. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the statistics are useless and that we should not be using them. Most of them are very accurate. The point is that we need to develop a clear and widely accepted formula for measuring poverty in Canada. Only then, when we have the real hard facts on poverty, will we be able to effectively deal with the problem.
Hopefully, as the poverty task force travels the country, we will be able to, and I think we are, gather all of the good, hard evidence that the government will need to effectively deal with the problem, if it is serious about dealing with it.
There are hundreds of statistics on poverty in Canada. However, we have to make sure that we do not get bogged down in numbers and lose sight of reality. If we only look at numbers we might end up thinking that Canada is not a very good place to live in this world. That is not really true. That is not the case.
With these numbers we can see that there is a major poverty problem in Canada. However, we must not and should never lose sight of the fact that we are doing many good things in the country and that we are a very strong country. That is why we should be able to find ways to eliminate the whole issue of poverty in the country.
The issue of child poverty has always touched a very sensitive chord with most Canadians. The reasons for that are fairly obvious. Children are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They are helpless and are innocent victims of their environment and their socioeconomic condition. Needless to say, by eliminating child poverty, the aim is not only to eliminate child poverty, but to eliminate all poverty in Canada. Children are dependent upon parents. If we eliminate child poverty we eliminate parent poverty and people poverty as well. One of our goals has to be the elimination of not only child poverty but also parent poverty.
In 1998, the year for which we have statistics available, 1.5 million children were living in poverty in Canada. That is an increase of 21% since 1995, but it is an increase of 60% since 1989 when the motion to eliminate child poverty was passed in the House of Commons. It is a very real problem.
I wonder if the government is aware of the number of people using food banks in Canada. As travel go from province to province, many people have come before our committee to talk about how frequently they have to use food banks. It is heart-rending to listen to not only the unemployed poor but the number of working poor who come before our committee on a weekly basis to tell us their stories of the loss of pride and how they have to go once a month—and in most cases they can only go go once a month—to a food bank in a country that has the kind of resources and riches that we have.
It is a national tragedy that we have over 800,000 people per year using food banks in the country. It is a national disgrace. Forty-two per cent of people who depend on food banks for all or part of their food are children and people under 18 years of age. Can anyone imagine 800,000 people per year using food banks in a country that has our resources and riches? It is hard to imagine.
Statistics for 1994 estimated that 57,000 Canadian children under 12 experienced hunger due to a lack of food or money. We are now living in 1999 and I believe that number has probably gone up to 100,000 children under 12 who are experiencing hunger due to a lack of food or money. The majority of hungry children lived with lone parents and a high percentage of these children were aboriginal people.
As our poverty task force travelled from province to province, we had quite a number of women who came before our us to talk about their problems. Women are struck very heavily by poverty, especially single mothers. We do have a kind of arrogant and cynical attitude in some quarters today toward single parents. People tend to say, especially people in government, “they made their bed, let them lie in it”. We hear that very often, but that is not the way of a compassionate country.