That, in the opinion of this House, the federal government should encourage the CRTC to establish regulations that require telephone companies to assist community agencies with providing affordable voice mail service to Canadians who cannot afford or do not have access to telephone service.
Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to be in the House today to speak to my motion. The purpose of this motion is to mandate phone accessibility and phone service for low income and homeless Canadians who, as it stands today, have absolutely no access to this very basic service that most of us take for granted.
My motion before the House today was inspired by a project that was initiated a couple of years ago by a very well known community organization in Vancouver's downtown eastside, the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, which started what was called a community voice mailbox system.
In starting up this system, the organization found that many low income and homeless people who had no access to phone service were incredibly limited in terms of being able to find employment or make contact with doctors offices or even family members. This organization worked very hard. It was approached by a young man who had developed a computer software program to create the program. For a very modest amount of $1,500, it received the computer and the software program, the voice mail service.
The organization found that many people, not just in the downtown eastside but in other neighbourhoods in Vancouver and on the lower mainland, desperately needed access to phone service. As a result of providing this service over the last couple of years, about 1,200 people are now registered. The use of the service is increasing on a daily basis.
The statistics provided to me by the organization are quite interesting. They show that approximately 79% of the users of this service are single men and that 60% of the users have annual incomes of less than $8,000. I would ask anyone in the House to imagine what it would be like to live on less than $8,000. It would mean no money for bus fare, no money for a phone and no money for the basic necessities of life. It basically would mean scraping by and surviving day by day.
What is most interesting is that more than half of the users of this voice mail service have said that having a community voice mail and having one's own phone number has given them a starting point for having more control over their lives. I cannot emphasize enough what that means to an individual. Imagine what it would be like living on welfare and looking for work or maybe living in a homeless shelter and looking for work.
I experienced this last year when I travelled across the country and visited emergency shelters and spoke to homeless people and front line service workers. I was told many times by people that they felt humiliated when they did not have an address or a phone number. If they wanted to apply for a job and the prospective employer needed a phone number, they had to reply that they lived in a homeless shelter. They had no chance of receiving a phone call back from the employer.
Having a program that gave them access to their own phone number and their own voice mail messages enabled them to provide a possible employer with a phone number. When an employer called that number it would be their voice recording on the phone asking the caller to leave a message. They could then dial into that from any location by hopefully using a free phone.
Having their own phone number or voice mail gives people a sense of dignity, a sense of worth and a a starting point for them to find employment and put their lives together. This is a very basic but important thing.
The sad irony is that the federal government has many job creation initiatives to help lower income Canadians. But it is provided on a very spotty basis. Industry Canada has spent millions of dollars getting Canadians on line. I know a lot of agencies that have accessed funds from Industry Canada to help set up Internet access for low income Canadians. That is something I agree with.
Is it not ironic that while on the one hand the government is doing that and sees it as a priority, on the other hand we have information from Statistics Canada which shows that 157,000 Canadians have no phone. That is a very conservative figure because it does not include the homeless people who are not listed in the census. Here we are in our modern society getting people on line, but there are still hundreds of thousands of people who do not have this basic access.
I was in the downtown east side in my riding on Friday and visited the DERA service. I met with the folks who run it and with people who use the service. It was really amazing to see how this operates. They can walk into the office and for a minimum cost of $3 a month, which is what it costs, with no questions asked, they can sign up for their community mailbox.
In fact, I met a young man who had walked into my into my constituency office on Main Street. He came from Saskatchewan and moved into east Vancouver. He was looking for work. I said he was welcome to use my office if he wanted to send a fax or anything. He said he was really glad that at least he had a phone number. I said it was great that he had a phone in his place. He said “No, no, I have voice mail”. Sure enough it was the DERA voice mail. He came to Vancouver looking for work and had somehow managed to find out about it.
The reality is that this service is only available in Vancouver. The Government of Manitoba has just announced a very good initiative where, with the co-operation of the Royal Bank and other private partners, it is setting up a province-wide community voice mail service. Other than that there is really nothing that exists. It seemed to me in bringing forward this motion, and based on my travels and talking to homeless people or people who have totally insecure or inadequate shelter, that to have a program that is mandated through licensing through the CRTC is something that could be easily done.
In this parliament we debate big issues. We debate things that are very complex. Yet, here we have a tool, something very straightforward that could help hundreds of thousands of low income and homeless Canadians by simply saying to the CRTC that we want to make sure that as part of the CRTC licensing the telephone companies, it mandates that there be funds provided or phone lines that are given over as access to local community agencies to set up these projects across Canada.
The DERA community voice mail system has 12 phone lines. I could actually see the information on the phone lines which were in use as people were changing their greeting or accessing their voice mail box or dialling in to retrieve messages. Just think of what that would mean to Canadians from coast to coast who are living in communities where they feel isolated and cut off because they do not have that basic service.
The purpose of this motion is to say that here is an easy, straightforward, simple, logical, reasonable way of ensuring that Canadians have access to the most basic phone service that we all take for granted in this country.
I want to say that this issue is very much linked to people who are living in poverty. Because people are living way below the poverty line, they cannot afford to have the basic phone service. As I have mentioned, in many instances it is related to employment and the need to get employment that they need that phone number. Also, I have come across examples and instances where it is a matter of personal health and security.
The DERA folks told me of one instance where one of its clients was in hospital. The doctor phoned and said that he was ready to be released, but he would need to have a phone by the his bed so if he got into trouble there was somebody he could call. This gentleman did not have a phone so he faced the prospect of staying another six weeks in hospital until the doctor was assured that he was completely better before he went home.
As it happened, the DERA advocacy office spent countless hours dealing with the local welfare office trying to get this man a telephone. I believe it was eventually successful, but how much time and energy was spent to get one person a phone so he could go home from the hospital which was costing thousands of dollars a day. The contradictions and the ironies in these are just simply astounding. If it were not so serious it would be laughable.
I want to encourage members to think about the motion and to see the wisdom of supporting it as a way of doing something straightforward and simple that will actually help people in a real concrete way on a day to day basis.
In a few days time we will bear witness to the 10th anniversary of the Liberal task force report on affordable housing that was chaired by the now finance minister and then an opposition Liberal member. Ten years ago the Liberals in opposition wrote a darn good report with 25 recommendations talking about the needs of Canadians in terms of housing. Here we are now 10 years later and we know that during the period between 1984 and 1993 we lost more than $2 billion in housing funds in the country. Then in 1993 the same member, who was the chair of that Liberal task force on housing, at the finance committee wielded the axe and ended the construction of social housing in the country.
It is because of that, because of increasing homelessness and because more and more Canadians, something like two million Canadians, are paying way more than 50% of their income for rent that people do not have enough money to pay for a phone.
I draw that comparison because this issue of phone service is very much related to the issue of the housing crisis in the country and the shameful record of the government in abandoning a national housing strategy and abandoning the construction of desperately needed social housing.
I do not want to go to another shelter. I do not want to have to talk to another person who says “I want a good place to live. I want to go to work. I want to be employed. I want to have a phone so that I can have some sense of dignity”.
That story is all too familiar for hundreds of thousands of Canadians. I urge members of the House to put aside the partisan politics. From time to time we come together and we say “Yes, this is the right thing to do”. That is what we should do here. We should say to the CRTC “Get on this. Make it a requirement of licensing. Make sure that every telephone company across the country ensures that they require some lines or some funds that can be dedicated to a community organization to open up access to phone service for low income and homeless Canadians”.
I ask for the support of members to do just that.