Mr. Speaker, as I rise to address Bill C-5, the Canadian education savings account, I am mindful of the fact that this is the first time that I have actually stood in the House to participate in a debate since I was elected to serve exclusively as the member of Parliament for Halifax.
I no longer carry the responsibilities of federal leadership and now have the privilege of sitting behind my leader, the member for Toronto--Danforth, who was successful in being elected to represent his constituency in the House.
It is indeed a pleasure to pledge in a very public way my commitment to work as conscientiously and diligently as I possible can to serve in that manner as a full time member of Parliament. It is an added privilege to find myself seatmate to a former leader of the New Democratic Party under whom I first ran for politics in the federal election of 1979, unsuccessfully I might say, never imaging that some day we would in fact be sitting in the House backing a subsequent leader. It is indeed a privilege to take up my new role in this august body.
I am also very pleased that in addition to my new responsibilities assigned to me by my leader as critic for foreign affairs, I now have the added responsibility of being the post-secondary education critic.
I am extremely pleased with that challenge for a couple of reasons. For a number of years before I entered politics, I had the opportunity to be both a professor at Dalhousie University and also for several years I served as a field instructor for graduate students in the school of social work in employment settings with the City of Halifax's social planner and with the Province of Nova Scotia in the social development division. For me, it is something very close to home.
However, perhaps more important than that is the fact that my riding, the constituency of Halifax, is host to more post-secondary education students per capita and more post-secondary education institutions per capita than any other riding in the country. That is perhaps an accident of history.
It is partly a geographic thing, that they happen to be concentrated in the riding of Halifax, but it is also true that for many years it has been said that because of the excellence of post-secondary education students in Nova Scotia, that one of our best contributions to Canada in fact is the educational experiences gained in our province by students from across the country.
Unfortunately, all too often translating into the deportation of those students to other parts of Canada because they do not have the opportunity to remain in their native province. We continue to need to address that very serious problem.
I am pleased, because of how exceedingly important post-secondary education issues are to my constituents, to have the opportunity to rise in this place as the post-secondary education critic.
Having said that, as I turn my attention to Bill C-5, it is regrettable in the extreme that the bill can probably be described as an attempt by the government to divert attention from the fact that it continues to fail students and their families in regard to the adequate level of post-secondary education funding desperately needed, both at the level of individual student aid and at the level of educational funding for post-secondary education institutions.
Our universities and colleges are forced into the situation of driving tuition fees up even higher than they are now creating an immense access barrier to far too many students in the country today. That is the real crisis that we face in the country. That is the real challenge that the government has sidestepped again and again.
It sidestepped addressing that issue in the spring 2004 budget. It absolutely sidestepped dealing with it in the throne speech. During the election campaign that intervened between the spring 2004 budget and our return to Parliament we saw how little the government had to offer. We heard all kinds of promises from the Prime Minister about finally addressing the crisis of student aid and skyrocketing tuition in this country; however, they were very fleeting commitments.
Nothing in Bill C-5 even begins to make a dent in this serious problem. Bill C-5 is grossly inadequate in our view for a couple of fundamental reasons.
The maximum contributions that will be forthcoming for the Canada education savings grant amount to a paltry $7,200. That needs to be put into perspective. The government needs to recognize the fact that in some Canadian universities, even at the undergraduate level, tuition is now $6,000. Tuition is a great deal higher than that in a good many graduate programs and professional schools.
It is not an unduly pessimistic prediction to make that it is possible that the entire contribution from the government toward the education of a student 19 years from now could amount to less than the tuition fee for half a year of post-secondary education, in other words, for one term. The reality is that there is nothing in this legislation that will begin to deal with the really serious crisis that exists.
There is a fundamental flaw in the government's thinking regarding the real problem. I want to acknowledge that the government has accurately identified that for low income families any possibility of gaining access to post-secondary education under the current circumstances is virtually nonexistent. That is an accurate diagnosis, but the remedy provided is both grotesquely inadequate and flawed. It seems to be based on the premise that there is a real problem about the motivation of low income families to save money and invest money in education.
It is not a motivational problem for families living in grinding poverty in Canada not to save dollars. The problem is they do not have the money to do it. It simply does not meet the minister's own stated objective of levelling the playing field for all students who want to gain access to post-secondary education to say that this program will now make a significant difference. It will do no such thing.
We will have an opportunity in committee to deal with the bill on a clause by clause basis and we will do so. Let me use one or two examples.
First, I do not know how anybody could refuse to acknowledge the fact that families in the lowest income categories, which is what the minister said the objective is, are not going to be able to find money for post-secondary education from their scarce incomes. They do not have sufficient money now to pay for their groceries and keep decent shelter over their head. It defies the reality of the grinding financial poverty in which a great many of those families are living.
Second, when we see what a bureaucratic and administrative nightmare is going to be involved in setting up this program, at least as I interpret it, then one must really wonder about the decision to spend the limited resources the government is prepared to make available to feed a bureaucratic monstrosity.
I want to express appreciation, and I do so genuinely, for a briefing that I obtained earlier today on the legislation. However, as the opportunity to ask some questions was made available and as the discussion unfolded, it seemed to me more evident that for such a very paltry sum of money being made available to low income families, if and only if they could actually access it by finding money out of their scarce incomes to participate in these programs, it is simply unwarranted to set up what is going to be such a bureaucratic nightmare.
It also denies eligibility to a number of categories of young people that surely is unwarranted. For example, if we go to page 7, clause 7, it makes it quite clear that the Canada learning bond may be paid in respect of a beneficiary under a registered education savings plan only if the beneficiary is resident in Canada.
What that means is that the aspiration expressed by the minister, when he spoke to this on first reading, that immigrant families should benefit from the program will not be fulfilled. Immigrant families who might arrive here with children ages 7, 9 and 11 would have failed to qualify year after year for the very small sums that are going to be made available to other families. They are going to be even more disadvantaged.
In such a mobile workforce within a globalized economy with more and more workers being required to go outside of the country by their employers, one must also recognize that they too will presumably not be resident in Canada and not be eligible for the years in which they did not live in Canada. That is just one of the flaws that we are concerned about.
At the end of the day the real concern is what an enormous shortfall there is in the response of the government to deal with the real crisis that is happening. Perhaps the minister needs to have the kind of reality check that would be available to him by sitting down with leaders of the student governments across the country--I did this in my own province with the leaders from across the province from every post-secondary education institution--and be reminded of what it is that they face today with the crippling debt load.
Nothing in the bill is going to change that situation for students for the next 18 years, let alone do anything for those who are already crippled by debt and are having to drop out of university because the resources simply are not there for them.
It is lamentable that the government has not responded at an appropriate level to deal with the serious access problems. We need a post-secondary education act in the country that sets out certain principles. We need stable, solid, adequate funding that is appropriate and will deliver on what the government says that it wants to see happen, and that is that every young person who is able to avail themselves of a post-secondary education institution has the opportunity to do so.
We absolutely need to recognize that we have to freeze tuition fees and it is going to take some funding to do that. We must improve the student aid programs as well as the student debt relief programs, instead of constricting what is available to students by changing the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act to put them at an even greater disadvantage when they are in major financial difficulty through no fault of their own.
There are a number of remedies that are desperately needed. It seems to me that in this paltry and narrow response, which will not have any impact for any students for a minimum of 18 or 19 years, the government has simply not responded to this very serious crisis.
We absolutely need to replace the flawed millennium scholarship fund with a needs-based system of grants. It is clear that it is the view of students in the country, as expressed through all their national advocacy organizations. It is clear that it is the position of all the faculty who have stood behind them in this demand. It is clear that it is the view of the university administrators that the number one crisis that has to be addressed is that of crippling student debt and the access problems being created for students who do not have deep pockets or whose families do not have deep pockets. Yet we have absolutely nothing on any of this in the Speech from the Throne, and the legislation does not even begin to address that problem.
During the election I had the opportunity to participate in a student-sponsored debate in my province, and I very much appreciated the opportunity to do it. A student who was involved in the whole discussion made a very telling but simple point that what was a student crisis now has become a family crisis.
As a result of the failure of the government to provide increased funding and as a result of the government's the massive cuts to post-secondary education over the last number of years, a lot of young people are being driven out of their communities and provinces because of student debt. It becomes a deportation or out-migration program for students from northern and rural communities in less prosperous parts of the country. They go where they can get the fattest, fastest salary and income to pay off their crippling debt load. That becomes a crisis in many cases for families who are either left behind or have to relocate.
We have a lot of grandparents who are barely able to make ends meet. They now are having to dig deep into their pockets to help put their grandchildren through university or to help them with their debt load. We have a lot of working families who are sacrificing big time to make it possible for their young people to go to university.
This is what is so sad about the rhetoric around recognizing, and the minister said it, that the Canadian dream cannot be fulfilled in today's world without a post-secondary education. Yet we are not prepared to make it available to young people. What we have is an erosion of the quality of that education. Students have to work at poorly paid jobs simultaneously when they go to school. Universities have to rely more and more heavily on private funds or on corporate sources of funding, which skews curriculum choices. In some cases literally faculty contribution to the educational effort is being measured, not in terms of their excellence in teaching or the quality of the research, but in terms of how many corporate or research dollars they can draw down to help deal with the university's inadequate funding base. These are all distortions that are being created. The minister is quite right that the Canadian dream for future generations cannot be fulfilled without an adequate post-secondary education these days, both because we live in a globalized economy and because it is important in economic competition terms.
This is my final point. Surely the greatest, most compelling and urgent reason for our young people to have the opportunity to get advanced education is the magnitude and complexity of the challenges we face in the world, such as dealing with environmental degradation that could destroy the planet, or with disease and hunger, which is unnecessary in today's world because we cannot find the solution, or with the horror of the possibility that we will destroy this planet with increasing weapons of mass destruction and nuclear threats.
These are the real reasons and the major challenges that our young people face in the future. We are failing them in equipping them with the post-secondary education they need to meet those challenges.