Mr. Speaker, let me begin my comments by congratulating you on your appointment to the chair. Your experience here in the House is going to serve you well, but for sure it is going to serve us well. I am looking forward to working under your guidance.
Since this is the first time I have formally spoken in the 37th parliament, I would like to thank the electors of my home riding of Brant for having confidence in me and returning me to Ottawa as their voice here. I look forward to continuing to work with them in partnership to strengthen the communities back home in the riding of Brant and to make sure that their voices are heard loudly and clearly here in Ottawa.
It is indeed with great pleasure and pride that I speak today in response to the Speech from the Throne that was presented by Her Excellency the Governor General earlier this week. One of the most important messages for me in the Speech from the Throne was a restatement, a recognition that we in the government understand that Canada is only as strong as its people.
In that context, the Prime Minister yesterday in his speech said that our most important investments are the investments we make in people. We have a tradition of investing in Canadians. We believe that there is a role for the Government of Canada to play in the lives of our citizens. We think of important programs like our pension system, old age security, guaranteed security and the Canada pension plan. Those programs are extremely important and have been inordinately invaluable as we have reduced levels of poverty among Canadian seniors.
The House might be interested to know that between 1980 and 1997 the share of senior women with low incomes in Canada fell from 40% to 24%. The pension system is working. It is vitally important. We need to continue to support it and ensure it is there for the future.
The employment insurance system is important. This is a program that is available to support Canadians who, through no fault of their own, find themselves between jobs.
In the last campaign we committed to Canadians to reintroduce the amendments that we presented to the House just before the election was called. I am glad to say that yesterday we gave notice that it is our intention to reintroduce tomorrow amendments to the Employment Insurance Act. I certainly look forward to that act being carried through this place at all levels. I look forward to hearing the debate in the House and the witnesses at committee.
We are all proud of our health care and medicare system. It ensures that Canadians have access to health services regardless of the size of their pocketbook.
In the most recent Speech from the Throne we got direction to turn our attention to some other important areas. We have to recognize that it is unacceptable for any child in Canada to suffer the debilitating impact of poverty.
Yesterday the Prime Minister said “We must ensure that our children are a national priority”. We will establish an investment timetable that will allow us to make real progress in ensuring opportunity for all Canadian children.
In that context we are not starting from ground zero. In fact, we have some very important developments that have occurred since 1997, not the least of which is the creation of the national child benefit, a very important and effective partnership between the Government of Canada and the provincial and territorial governments.
The national child benefit is part of the Canada child tax benefit. The Government of Canada provides income support to low income families with children allowing the provinces to take their savings from the social assistance system and use it to create and develop new services available to families with children. The whole approach is to take down the welfare roll and to make work pay. In the old system parents who were on social assistance and had the benefit of certain services for their children would have to give up those services to take a minimum wage job. It was a terrible moral dilemma for them.
With the national child benefit we have a new approach which increases the income available to those families with children and building a platform of services that is available to those low income families who are working. As is in the Speech from the Throne, I note that by the year 2004 low income families will be receiving $2,500 for their first child and $2,300 for subsequent children. That is tax free money and fully indexed. The provinces and territories and the Government of Canada know that this important undertaking will have a real impact on reducing child poverty in Canada.
There is another example of our very strong and increasingly strengthened relationship with the provinces and territories as together we focus on improving the lives of our youngest citizens. I point to an agreement that was struck on September 11 with the provinces and territories in the area of early childhood development.
The research tells us that the early years are tremendously important, those early years from prenatal time to age six. In that context ministers of social services across Canada have sat together. We have listened to stakeholders and we understood the research. We hammered out an agreement whereby the Government of Canada has identified $2.2 billion new dollars that will be conveyed to the provinces beginning in April of this year for them to use to make investments in programs and services that support children.
We have agreed that there are really four priority areas in which that money should be invested: programs that support prenatal nutrition and infancy; programs that will continue to allow us to develop child care spaces and services; and programs that will allow parents access to the latest information. Also, parents want to do a good job and need to do a good job. We can provide information to them to support them in this regard.
The other thing we know is that these services are best provided at the community level. If they are really to make a difference, communities need to understand the reality of their neighbourhoods and the individuals they are supporting. Money can be used by the provinces and territories to help communities understand what services are there, what access levels are present, how they can fill in the blanks and augment the services so that children and their families get the support they need so that we have a healthy start in the lives of our children.
This is an important undertaking. I look forward in my role as Minister of Human Resources Development Canada to continue to work with the provincial and territorial ministers as we build accountability regimes, outcome measurements so that we know that when we are making the investments we are getting the results that we anticipate. It is a very dynamic process, very respectful of the jurisdictions of the provinces and territories but recognizing that Canadians expect us to work together and that when we work together we move ahead much faster.
There are some other aspects of programming that we believe can help us reduce poverty among Canadian children. They are identified in the Speech from the Throne. One such program builds on a partnership that we have had with New Brunswick and British Columbia. It is a pilot project where we have begun to look at other strategies of supporting lone parent families with children make the transition from social assistance into the workplace.
The self-sufficiency program is a pilot program where we offer to lone parents who find themselves in receipt of social assistance the opportunity, if they can find it, of a full time job. The first job they get is usually a low income one, but the Government of Canada tops up their wage so that they have the money they need to provide the services to support their children.
We found after three years that the results are quite encouraging. More social assistance recipients are working. They have higher wages. They are less likely to be living in poverty. They have improved their skills and experience. They are more likely to stay in the workforce.
We want to offer other jurisdictions the opportunity to pilot with us. It is not a grand strategy yet, but part of the modern approach of governance is to undertake pilots, learn from them and together build structures and strategies which meet the needs of different communities within provincial and territorial jurisdictions.
I would be remiss if I did not remind the House of a tremendously important undertaking to double parental benefits that came to fruition at the end of December. It is a fundamentally important approach to allow Canadian parents the choice of staying home for up to a year with a new child. The program is up and running. I expect it to be extraordinarily well received. I am glad to see the majority of provinces have changed their labour codes to ensure that parents will have a job to go back to. It will make a tremendous difference in the raising of healthy children in Canada.
As we were talking about that we came to appreciate that there was another workplace family issue we would have to deal with in a modern Canada. Sometimes we find that dual income working parents find themselves in a circumstance where a family member may be gravely ill. They are in the conundrum of having to work to keep bread on the table, to do the responsible thing, but someone at home is very sick.
In the context of our children's agenda we have committed in the Speech from the Throne to look at building an appropriate model of compassionate leave, so that the parents do not have to make a choice of going to work and supporting and caring for a gravely ill child. That will be a priority of the government. We will explore the appropriate tool in that regard, consult with Canadians and be back to the House to talk about those developments.
We have a comprehensive approach to focusing on the reduction of child poverty in Canada. We are building on some important developments in partnership with the provinces and territories. I am convinced that we will be able to eradicate poverty in Canada with the support of all parties in the House.
Another important message that we received in the Speech from the Throne was the understanding that the countries that will be most successful in the modern knowledge based global economy are those countries in which all citizens are able to realize their full potential.
In the context of the Speech from the Throne, we feel that an undertaking that is worthy of national focus is the building of a skills and learning agenda for the 21st century. Again, we are not starting from ground zero in that regard, but there is much we can do. Much more effort can be put into this undertaking if we work together.
In the Speech from the Throne we identify a number of approaches that we would like to implement as we try and build a tradition of life long learning in Canada. We all know the economy has changed tremendously. We all know it is unlikely for people to have a job and keep it for their whole career. They will go from one career to another. We know how rapidly changing technology is, how managerial and administrative practices change, and how important it is for all of us to keep current with those changes.
We have set as a goal to try and build a tradition of life long learning, an undertaking of seeing one million adults engaged in some form of additional training, education and experience that will build on their own personal skills platform in the next five years.
One of the strategies we have suggested will work is the creation of registered individual learning accounts. Here we are going to build on another important program that was introduced by our government, the Canada education savings grant, where Canadians can begin to save for their child's education in an account and the government provides a top up. This system has been extraordinarily well received by Canadians. We believe we should model that so individuals can begin to save for their own lifelong learning.
As that system develops, we recognize that there is something more we can do in the area of student loans. Members might be interested to know that each year we issue about 150,000 student loans for full time study and only about 3,000 loans for part time study. However, we know Canadians want to learn as they earn so we believe we have to take the initiative and develop more part time study loans.
Again, we want to be very careful to work in tandem with the provinces and territories. There is an opportunity for us to continue to work to harmonize the student loan process. If provinces are interested in working with us, we will build a strategy of the part time loan initiative in concert and understanding of the undertakings of the provinces as well.
When we are looking at ensuring that every citizen can realize their full potential, we must turn our attention to those most vulnerable in Canada. We have to look at youth at risk, those who have not been able to connect effectively with society or the economy. We have to do what we can to ensure that they get a good start as they go out and become self-sufficient and contributors to Canada.
We have to increase the levels of literacy in Canada. Do members know that two out of five Canadians do not have the literacy skills to read a bus schedule, to read a map and to participate in so many of the jobs now that require technological understanding and competencies? As we said in the Speech from the Throne, we want to work with the provinces and territories to undertake a national initiative to upgrade the levels of literacy. That has to be a national challenge.
Canadians with disabilities are also very anxious to contribute more of themselves to the Canadian economy. They want to be part of the creation and the development of increased prosperity. Together with the provinces and territories, we have begun this work at the table of labour market ministers. We want to build a labour market strategy focused specifically on the issues facing Canadians with disabilities. This is part of our challenge but I know that if we work together we can meet it.
New Canadians come very often with training and experience that we find very difficult to take advantage of. We have to find a system of more effective credentialing for new Canadians. This is again a challenge that we have set for ourselves in concert with the provinces and territories.
We do not have all the answers in the context of building a national skills agenda. These are some of the undertakings that we believe are wise to start now. They require us to work effectively with the provinces and territories but they also require us to go out and talk more closely with stakeholders.
I am looking forward to starting some national consultations with groups, such as the Conference Board of Canada, specifically focused on finding ways to ensure that we build the strategies that will support lifelong learning in Canada, that will allow us all, whether we be the Government of Canada, the provinces or territorial governments, the private sector, the voluntary sector, to rally behind a national skills and learning undertaking that will benefit all citizens.
There are so many other aspects of the Speech from the Throne that dovetail and build on our commitment to innovation and inclusion. These that I have talked about in my speech are ones with which I will be involved. I will need the support of members in the House, certainly in our caucus, to recognize the role our caucus has played in making sure that children are at the top of our agenda, and to recognize the importance of developing programs that speak to a modern Canada and the needs of Canadians to participate in the new economy.
The bottom line is that if people are trained and have the skills, the wherewithal and the support to participate fully in a Canadian society and economy, our country will be greater. That is the challenge we have set for ourselves. I think we have the formula.