Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to speak at report stage of Bill C-7 which is an act to amend the Department of Canadian Heritage Act and the Parks Canada Agency Act and to make related amendments to other acts.
In the context of committee debates on this issue, there appears to be an impression among MPs that Parliament and not the Prime Minister decides which minister has the responsibility for departments and agencies and that such organizations cannot be transferred to another minister's responsibility unless Parliament expressly agrees to such a change. It appears to me that is the nature of the amendment that is being proposed.
It is important to note that the Prime Minister has the prerogative to assign responsibilities to ministers. This also includes allocating ministers' portfolios, establishing their mandates in keeping with existing legislation and identifying priorities for their portfolios. Parliament has also given the government the ability to transfer portions of the public service, ministerial powers, duties and functions from one part of the public service or from one minister to another.
This power gives the government the necessary flexibility that it believes it needs to reorganize the institutions of government and to address governmental priorities and public needs. It does, however, not give the governor in council the power to expand or alter the powers of either ministers or departments, which appears again to be the concern that is in the amendments.
As of December 12 the Minister of the Environment is in fact the minister responsible for Parks Canada Agency. It can therefore be said that the proposed amendments merely reflect the status quo and therefore are not as serious as they may appear at first consideration in terms of the government not wanting to be able to firm up the intent and spirit of this bill and give the Minister of the Environment very clear authority.
However, the government cannot support the NDP amendments at this time and at the same time defend the principle regarding the Prime Minister's prerogative to make organizational changes. It would be the contention that the legislation and the amendment thereto are primarily technical in nature. I hope that gives another side of the amendments that are being put forward, albeit those amendments are being put forward in a very positive spirit in order to firm up and make this bill in fact work. The government understands that also.
The bill will give legislative effect to the government reorganization that was announced on December 12, 2003 as it affects Parks Canada, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of the Environment. The bill will also update existing legislation to reflect two orders in council that came into effect in December 2003 and July 2004, which transferred control and supervision of Parks Canada Agency from the Minister of Canadian Heritage to the Minister of the Environment.
The bill also clarifies that Parks Canada is responsible for historic places in Canada and for the design and implementation of programs that relate to built heritage. It updates the Department of Canadian Heritage Act and the Parks Canada Agency Act. The remarks I am going to make underscore the urgency with which the bill will attempt to deal with the challenges that are facing our heritage sites and Parks Canada.
Canada's national parks, national historic sites and national maritime conservation areas represent the very soul of Canada. They are a central part of our heritage, who we are and what we are. They are places of magic and wonder and heritage. Each tells its own story. We do not take this lightly. Together they connect Canadians to their roots, to their future and to each other. That is why the spirit of this legislation is an attempt to reinforce what we believe to be the true heritage of Canadians, that Canadians want to see us do better with respect to our heritage.
Responsibilities for safeguarding and celebrating heritage will continue to be shared among departments and agencies across government. I would like to assure the House that Parks Canada's organizational integrity has been and will be maintained.
Responsibility for built heritage is managed through a number of programs, including national historic sites, federal heritage buildings, heritage railway stations, federal archaeology, heritage shipwrecks and the federal role in the historic places initiative. These activities are of interest to all parliamentarians and to Canadians in general. Built heritage includes sites, buildings, and monuments recognized for their historic value.
Through the Parks Canada Agency, the Minister of the Environment has responsibilities in three key areas: management of Parks Canada's built heritage; federal government leadership in programs relating to built heritage; and a Canada-wide leadership role in built heritage.
Hon. members are probably most familiar with the first of these areas, Parks Canada's role as a steward of heritage places. Parks Canada leads the national program of historical commemoration which identifies places, persons and events of national historic significance. The program aims to celebrate Canada's history and protect associated sites.
Parks Canada administers about one in six of the more than 900 national historic sites which speak to the diverse and rich history of our country. Parks Canada's stewardship role with respect to these places and their historic values and resources is similar to its stewardship role with respect to national parks.
Unfortunately, many of Parks Canada's built heritage assets are under threat. The Auditor General's report on the protection of cultural heritage in the federal government indicates that two-thirds of Parks Canada's national historic sites and federal heritage buildings are in poor to fair condition. The same is true for Parks Canada's assets more generally, which need $140 million annually to be maintained. They only receive about $40 million at present. This is a major challenge for the preservation of these irreplaceable national treasures. All members of the House are concerned about this.
Despite strong management systems that put care for cultural resources at the centre of planning and reporting for national historic sites, the future of many of these places continues to be threatened. Repair of masonry and wooden structures weakened by exposure to our climate, such as those repairs required at Fort Henry National Historic Site of Canada, are ongoing. Coastal erosion threatens to literally wash away significant parts of the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada.
These examples are symptomatic, not exceptional, of the state of our cultural resources and of the infrastructure that supports Canadians' ability to visit such sites. These resources, once lost, will be gone forever and with them will go their evocative testimony to Canada's dramatic past. Addressing the ongoing deterioration of resources needs to be a priority for the government.
Federal government programs relating to built heritage is the minister's second key area of responsibility. Through its leadership in the federal heritage buildings program, Parks Canada works with departments to protect the heritage character of buildings while the property is within federal jurisdiction.
The minister's third area of responsibility is to provide Canada-wide leadership in built heritage. Only a small portion of historic places in Canada are owned by the federal government, so cooperation with others is absolutely key. Government alone cannot save Canada's built heritage. This requires participation by individuals, corporations and other governments across Canada.
Year after year, decade after decade, more and more historic places are being lost. The remaining heritage buildings and structures, cultural landscapes and archaeological sites continue to be threatened. Recognizing the need to deepen its resolve to protect built heritage, the Government of Canada has responded with the launch of the historic places initiative, the most significant conservation effort related to historic sites in our national history.
The profound nature of what we are talking about with respect to the spirit of the bill is a subject that crosses all partisan lines of the House. It is of interest to all Canadians, be they new immigrants or those who have seen the traditions through generations of immigration to this great country.
I am confident that all members of the House will support not only the spirit but the substantive nature of the changes that are part of the bill. I hope the bill will carry unanimously as it really symbolizes what we as Canadians believe in, in terms of protecting our heritage.