Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity, on behalf of the New Democratic Party, to speak to Bill C-22, regarding the new social development bureaucracy and the new ministry of social development. I note with interest that our critic for this area recommends that we support the bill at this stage because we support the idea of restructuring HRDC into two separate entities.
We were always critical that HRDC was too much. It was a mega portfolio, a massive undertaking, that was clearly too big for any one minister to manage. The issues and subject matter being dealt with were overwhelmingly difficult to manage, especially when we looked at the type of issues with which it had to deal.
I note the new Minister of Social Development deals with issues such as the Canada pension plan, the old age security program and the guaranteed income supplement. I hope, in a broader context, the new Minister of Social Development would not simply administer programs, but would help guide the government in a new national objective, a new set of priorities, regarding social development so we could think outside the box and dare to dream of elevating the standards of living conditions for all Canadians in measurable ways and then put in place a yardstick to measure that progress.
I take no pleasure in pointing out that the campaign 2000 was recently on Parliament Hill reminding us that over one million Canadian children live in poverty, in what one could argue is the wealthiest and most successful democracy in the free world.
Clearly, our priorities have been skewed or our interests have been diverted and we have not paid enough attention to the area of social development. We should be measuring the progress of the country not by the monuments and structures in our cities and not by our GDP, but by the quality of life of Canadians. Maybe the Minister of Social Development could be seized with that issue as a national priority.
My riding of Winnipeg Centre is the third poorest riding in Canada. Some people do not realize that, and I take no pleasure in pointing that out either. Of all the families in my riding, 47% of them live below the poverty line and 52% of all the children. I raise this with a matter of great urgency, especially in this era of cutbacks. The cutbacks have come from social programs. Granted we have paid off the deficit, but we have left an enormous social deficit in its wake. I can testify to that on a day to day basis. I deal with this reality every day.
We went through an era of the 1990s, which was a record profit era for Bay Street, Wall Street, the banks and corporations and record era of cutbacks in social spending. The predictable consequences are record numbers of poor kids in my riding and all the predictable outfall of that. Somehow we have been derailed.
I am a socialist, granted, so maybe I am jaded and biased in this regard. I have a theory that the big money has controlled things in Ottawa for so long that all of our bills, laws and legislation are geared to look after the interests of big money, and everyone else has been forgotten. I can point to the social conditions in my riding as evidence of that.
I do not think it is by neglect or innocent oversight that we have allowed these circumstances to overwhelm certain regions. I point to the guaranteed income supplement as an example. My colleague from the Bloc Québécois pointed this out, quite rightly. I do not care how busy the Minister of HRDC has been in recent years. What the Liberals did in the administration of the guaranteed income supplement was nothing short of cruel. They knew full well that hundreds of thousands of Canadian seniors were eligible for the supplement, but they did not get it.
They knew this because of the income tax records of those Canadians. They knew full well that these Canadians, by virtue of the amount of money they earned from other sources, were eligible for this payment, but they took no steps to advise them of that. We had seniors living in abject poverty when they could have been receiving another $500 a month. There is a natural justice issue here. These people had a right to know. Then when we called attention to this, they used the guise of the Privacy Act. They said that it would be a violation of a senior citizen's privacy, if Revenue Canada told HRDC that the person was eligible for this benefit
I do not think seniors would complain if somebody advised them that they were eligible for another $300 to $500 a month when their income has to be lower than $12,000 a year to be eligible. These are poorest of the poor, yet the government hid behind the guise of the Privacy Act so it did not have to give these seniors the benefits they were due. That did not happen because the Minister of HRDC was too busy and seized with other issues. That happened as a conscious choice of the government trying to pay down the deficit on the backs of the most vulnerable people in society. It is reprehensible, and I condemn the government in the strongest possible terms for that.
An added irony to this is the Privacy Act does not seem to apply if a person who is collecting EI benefit crosses the border for a day. Let us say from my home town of Winnipeg, a person on EI crosses the border to buy some jeans in Fargo, North Dakota and comes back through the border. The border customs agent turns him or her in to employment insurance officers saying that the individual is on EI and is supposed to look for work all day, every day, not driving across the border to shop.
Somehow it is not a violation of people's privacy to rat them out because they took an afternoon drive, but it is an invasion of privacy to advise senior citizens that they are eligible for a $500 a month guaranteed income supplement premium. What kind of pretzel logic is that? That is what I mean when I said that some of these policies bordered on cruelty. They certainly were not designed in the best interests of Canadians. I do not know in whose interests they were designed, but it was not to benefit us to the maximum.
I would point out another thing. The government has paid down the deficit on the EI surplus. There is no secret there. The Auditor General reminds us of it all the time. We went through riding by riding across country. When I say “we”, we hired professional pollsters to do this. They analyzed the impact, riding for riding. In my riding of Winnipeg Centre, the third poorest riding in the country, the cutbacks to EI alone cost $20.8 million a year. For people who were already at the margin, if not poor, this pushed a lot of people from the edge of being working poor to unemployed to abject poverty.
Imagine what we would do if we could attract an industry into our ridings that had a $20.8 million payroll. We would pave the streets with gold to attract businesses like that to our ridings. Those guys in the government cut that payroll out of my riding with one stroke of the pen, when they changed the EI provisions to where nobody qualified any more. No wonder there is a surplus in EI. Nobody qualifies any more. We have to pay in, but we cannot pull out. The government paid down the debt on the back of that surplus.
The other thing on which the government paid down the debt was the $30 billion cut from the Canada health and social transfers. Where did it get the remaining $30 billion? At the time I did this math, there was a $30 billion surplus in the EI fund and the government announced a $100 billion tax cut. A further $30 billion came from the public sector pension plan. People forget there was a huge surplus in that pension plan. It was built up largely because the government let go or fired a third of the Canada public service during those cutback years.
Rather than negotiate some sharing mechanism with the beneficiaries of the plan or simply admit that this was the employees' money, part of their wages and therefore their benefits should go up, the government took it all. The last act of Marcel Masse, when he was president of the Treasury Board, was to force, through closure, a bill through the House which gave the government the right to grab all $30 billion out of the public service pension plan surplus, call it the property of the Government of Canada and put it into the general revenue.
It is no secret that it did not take any good money management skills to pay down the debt and deficit. The government took it out of EI from unemployed workers, the most vulnerable people in the economic force. It took it out of guaranteed income supplement payments to low income seniors. It took it out of the public service employees pension plan.
That is the paucity of social development standards that we see in the previous government.
When I rose today to say I support Bill C-22, I support having a minister perhaps responsible for social development. However, I can serve notice right now that we will be holding the government to a standard. We will have our own yardstick by which we will measure progress and that measurement will be this. Will there be less poor kids in my riding? Will anything we do in the House ever elevate the standards of poverty and living conditions of the people in my riding?
The last thing I would point out is the face of poverty in my riding is by and large native. I can say without any hesitation and without any fear of contradiction, the overwhelming majority of the people living in poverty, and true abject poverty by anyone's definition, are off reserve aboriginal people who flock to the city in the hope of finding some measure of opportunity. In many cases they go from the days drudgery in their reserve to the inner city of Winnipeg. Desperation is what they find when they arrive. There is no social services network really left. There is a mere shadow of what it used to be when we used to talk about the just society. We used to say that the number one priority of Parliament and of government was to elevate the standards of living conditions of its people. That seems to have been lost in the shuffle.
Therefore, we had a decade of record profits in businesses and corporations and a decade of cutting, hacking and slashing. What happened to the post-war labour compact? Perhaps our new Minister of Social Development would like to talk about that when the department gets up and running.
In the post-war years, there was a deal, a tacit agreement with labour that when productivity went up and when profits went up, workers' wages were supposed to go up, thereby creating a burgeoning middle class, thereby having a healthy economy. That was thrown by the wayside. Somehow the Liberals decided they did not need to live up to their end of the bargain anymore. Now record profits do not justify any sharing with employees. In fact, it justifies in their mind a screwing down of standards and labour laws and a reduction in the rate of unionization, the only effective tool for elevating the living conditions of most working people, with free collective bargaining.
I am anxious to speak to our new Minister of Social Development when the new bureaucracy is fully engaged and up and running. These are glaring shortcomings and oversights that we take note of on this side of the House.
I have already said that in my riding, 47% of all the families live below the poverty line. Overwhelmingly the face of poverty is native. The National Association of Friendship Centres is struggling to try to cope with servicing the needs of aboriginal people in the communities in Quebec and in other provinces in Canada.
We have been visited by the National Association of Friendship Centres. It has said that it exists as a national chain of institutions. It is already up and running. It is a structure that could deliver some of these services to non-status, off reserve and Métis people who are floundering in the inner cities, needing assistance to get into the mainstream economy, whether it is life skills training of access to adequate housing, et cetera. Many of these services could be delivered through the Association of Friendship Centres were there the political will to do so.
Rather than set up any new bureaucracy and try to invent new institutions to deliver services to low income aboriginal people in the inner city of all of our major cities, I urge the new minister to forge a relationship with the National Association of Friendship Centres. It might form some kind of a service delivery contract, single window operation to reach out to people.
In closing, we expect the new Department of Social Development and the new Minister of Social Development to set targets for social indications of progress in the same way that the government set targets to eliminate the deficit and tackle the debt. We want to see new targets and a new yardstick to measure progress which results in less kids living in poverty and a better standard of living in our inner cities. That is something that we could be proud of as members of Parliament if we use that as our indication of progress as Canadians.