moved that Bill C-9, an act to establish the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, this is my first speech in the House as Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec and Minister responsible for the Francophonie. I will therefore begin, if I may, with a few words to the people of my riding. I would like to thank the people of Brossard—La Prairie for their confidence in me. These are people who know how to build bridges and work together for the common good. I am very proud of them.
I am very pleased to mention how proud I am of my own people in Brossard—La Prairie on this occasion of my first rising in the House after being appointed Minister of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec and Minister responsible for the Francophonie.
I am pleased to have the opportunity today to speak to the members of this House on the occasion of second reading of Bill C-9 to establish the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, which the Prime Minister did me the honour of entrusting to me on July 20.
This bill defines the framework within which the government intends to address the regional economic development of Quebec. Why have such a bill? First of all, because the agency as we know it operates under the terms of a series of orders in council under the Department of Industry Act. By providing a legislative framework governing the operations of the department and confirming its status, prerogatives, powers and authorities, we hope to make the minister responsible more directly accountable. There is also a requirement for the agency to submit to Parliament a comprehensive report of activities by December 31, 2006 and every five years thereafter.
The second purpose of this bill is to establish consistency in the status of the federal departments responsible for regional development. It provides the agency with a legal basis on its own right, modelled after the Atlantic Opportunities Agency, ACOA, which of course looks after the Atlantic provinces, and the Department of Western Economic Diversification for the west, both of which have had that status for several years.
Last, the bill is a testimony to the commitment of the Government of Canada to support regional development in our country through regional economic development agencies, in cooperation and in sync with our provincial counterparts.
The bill before the House today establishes the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, commonly known as Canada Economic Development or CED, since the use of acronyms is so widespread in Ottawa. The bill confirms its role as a federal agency whose mandate is to foster economic development opportunities for the regions of Quebec.
That being said, this bill does not make any change to the agency's mandate or goals as set by my department. So, how can we describe our mandate in simple terms? In order to become or remain competitive, our businesses, and especially our small and medium size businesses, often need some help, and they can count on us. To compete against the best, businesses must benefit from unconditional support in terms of research and development, and they can count on us. To revitalize or preserve the vitality of our regions, they can count on us. To help create a climate that would persuade our youth to stay in or to come back to their region, career opportunities have to be provided, and they can count on us. To stimulate the economy in our regions whose main towns are single-industry based, and therefore, of course, more vulnerable, the economy needs to be diversified, and they can count on us. To help communities move away from dependency and stand on their own feet, they can count on us. To grow, businesses have to export and rely on some support and networking, and they can count on us. They can count on us for everything that brings dignity to workers, confidence in the future, some comfort and a certain enthusiasm. We are there for the families. That is the beauty of our department.
As far as I am concerned, the economy is not an end in itself. It is only an instrument to enhance individual and collective well-being. That is how I see the mandate of my department.
To fulfill this mandate in the past few years, Canada Economic Development has focused its efforts on achieving three strategic results, that is, SME development, improvement of the environment of regional economic development and development or renewal of collective infrastructure. Our development strategies are tailored and adapted to regional and even local needs.
It is precisely to ensure that our strategies respond to the needs of the people that the bill gives the agency the responsibility of directing and coordinating federal policies and programs in relation to the development and diversification of the economy of Quebec regions.
The bill confirms the role of the agency and its minister in the coordination of federal policies and programs, the achievement of an integrated federal strategy, with the cooperation of other relevant federal departments and agencies, and the promotion—I did not say defence, but promotion—of Quebec's interests in the development of national policies and programs in its area of activity.
This ability to listen, this very fine synchronization, this intimate knowledge of the field and the players are the trademarks of this department that I am honoured to head.
All members—I repeat all members—who, at some time or another, have been interested in regional development recognize this quality over and above any political partisanship.
Thus, it will be incumbent on the agency to establish and maintain close partnerships to properly play the role of unifier and coordinator with other federal departments. Equally important, it is incumbent on the Canada Economic Development to work closely with the Government of Quebec, throughout the province and in all regions. This has been a common practice for a long time. This bill confirms this desire.
Still, complementary does not necessarily mean identical. Sometimes Quebec City and Ottawa do not have identical goals. Complementary means, for example, that Quebec City is able to work with certain businesses because they share similar goals, while Ottawa can support other businesses for the same reason.
In the end, it benefits everyone. The bill also recognizes the importance of working in close collaboration with all actors in the field—Economic Development Canada, entrepreneurs, development agencies, research centres and so on.
Here I want to pay tribute most emphatically to all the employees in our 14 regional offices and head office, who enhance our reputation through the quality of their work, their knowledge of the environment and their professionalism.
I would also like to remind the House that the Government of Canada created its first regional development policy in the 1960s, thus recognizing that the needs and realities of the country's various regions sometimes required interventions to ensure equality of opportunity for all citizens. This principle has even been recognized in the Constitution, in section 36.1.
And let this be perfectly clear: ensuring equality of opportunity does not mean giving everyone, everywhere, the same thing. Rather, it means to make sure that everyone, everywhere is treated fairly. Today, the needs that once justified our regional development activities in Quebec have not disappeared, but they have evolved a great deal. In order to meet these changing conditions and take advantage of them, since 2001, the agency has been emphasizing innovation and the knowledge economy.
In the last five years, the relative share of financial assistance granted by the agency to innovation projects has increased considerably, from 24% of total financial assistance in 1999-2000 to 61% in 2003-04.
With respect to the knowledge economy, we have provided support for a number of research centre projects. For example, there is our support for the plan to acquire highly specialized equipment for ISMER, the ocean sciences institute of the Université du Québec à Rimouski. I could also mention the Aluminium Technology Centre in the Saguenay. Here I should thank our former colleague, André Harvey, who worked very hard on this project for his region.
I could also mention the Aerospace Manufacturing Technology Centre in Montreal. Of course, this one is of particular interest to me, because such firms as Pratt & Whitney, Héroux-Devtek and others, which are very significant in the aerospace and aeronautical field, are located in my region.
Our communities are our greatest assets. Our recent throne speech said what makes our communities strong is the willingness of men and women from allwalks of life to take responsibility for their future and for one another.
The solution to the problems in the regions is not to be found in the ivory towers of our capital cities, but in the regions themselves. Communities are in a better position to find local solutions to local problems, to meet the challenges, and to achieve their potential.
The agency's role is to support regional entrepreneurship with all the resources available and help the regions channel their energy toward strategic projects for their development.
For over 20 years, the Canadian government has been active in the communities and regions through the community futures program, the goal of which is to encourage communities to take charge of their own future. In the context of this program, the Canadian government is cooperating with 57 community futures development corporations, or CFDCs, and 9 business development centres, or BDCs.
The youth strategy which CED is implementing is an example of action by CFDCs. Its main goal is to help young men and women in rural areas of Quebec fulfill their dream of having their own business in their area.
From November 1997 to March 31, 2003, the youth strategy helped fund 2,731 entrepreneurs, promoting the creation, growth and modernization of 2,250 business in rural regions of Quebec. That is why it should be emphasized that, for each dollar invested by CED, a total of $7 was invested. This is a remarkable performance.
Better yet, the youth strategy helps young people who migrated to urban centres to study or work, to come back to their region and start their own business.
Through the Community Futures Program, Canada Economic Development supports 13 CEDC, community economic development corporations, which provide services and support to community organizations and SMEs in disadvantaged urban areas in Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Gatineau.
We also contribute to the maintenance and development of community infrastructures in close cooperation with the Quebec Government. I am referring of course to the Canada-Quebec infrastructure agreement. This program is a resounding success. Allow me to pay a tribute to my counterpart, Jean-Marc Fournier, the Quebec minister, for his cooperation, hard work and professionalism.
Financial support provided through this program should help in the short term to improve Quebec community and transportation infrastructures, develop new technologies, and improve the management of drinking water, waste water and solid waste.
The agency intends to develop the social economy sector to better meet the needs expressed by the communities.
In Quebec alone, there are over 7,000 social economy businesses . With annual sales of over $17 billion, they employ more than 125,000 people. These businesses are rooted in the community and play an essential role in regional and rural development.
As of March 31, 2004, there were over 2,100 projects across Quebec receiving support from the agency overall. These projects represent a contribution of close to $4 billion to Quebec regional economies. The agency is involved to the tune of $1 billion.
These numbers speak for themselves. They show how much the various projects help strengthen the economy in our regions. Of course, since the good economic health of Canada depends in part on a vigorous Quebec economy, good results in Quebec can only have a beneficial impact on the Canadian economy as a whole, where Quebec continues to make a difference.
These numbers are impressive, of course, but the reality they represent is even more so. Whenever the Economic Development Agency becomes involved in a project, our fellow citizens benefit, jobs are created and thousands of lives take a turn for the better.
Take for example the quartz production plant in Cap-Chat, Gaspésie, where 60 new high technology jobs will not only help families to earn a living but to develop expertise in job intensive areas.
The cooperative La Relève in the Asbestos RCM is another good example. We have decided to support it because it has chosen to tackle the exodus of young people to urban centres.
Another example would be Renyco, a company that specializes in manufacturing hardwood flooring in Thurso. The Outaouais regional office has invested a total of $342,000, but thanks to the developer's know-how, finished products are of a better quality, productivity has increased by 15%, sales have tripled and the company has created about thirty jobs in rural areas.
Since we wanted the development to be part of the surrounding realities, we have adopted regional intervention strategies. These strategies were based on consultations, joint actions and mobilization of regional economic stakeholders. While enhancing local expertise, these strategies allow every region to define how each one of them can use the Agency's programs and services to maximum benefit.
Regional development is a complex issue. You cannot talk about it without taking environmental, social and cultural issues into account. It is thus essential to focus on the synergy of expertise provided by various departments.
I am not sure that I will have time to say everything I wanted to say, but I would like to come back to two elements. The first is the quality of the cooperation and the complementarity that exists between my department and the Quebec government in order to better serve the public, which expects nothing less. This regional development is in keeping with the desire expressed in the Speech from the Throne. We are being true to that mandate.
This mandate should have a broad humanistic vision. In this regard, if you allow me, I would like to conclude with an experience I had not so long ago, in one of my very first events as Minister of Economic Development Canada. I referred to that activity a bit earlier. I am talking about Sural, in Cap-Chat.
You know as well as I do that, when an announcement is made somewhere, generally, one meets with a few elected officials, some local stakeholders, perhaps the heads of organizations and members who deign to have an interest in those matters that come up. In general, that is the case.
In Cap-Chat, the room was full. The people were there, along with local elected officials. All the officials had mobilized to show how important this was. I saw people who, after long despairing, felt renewed hope for the first time in the Gaspé Peninsula. In their small municipality of 7,000, a plant was opening, which, when fully operational, would create 100 jobs. This is the aim of human dignity, which comes of the collective work which we, Economic Development Canada, have done in partnership with the Government of Quebec.
Local authorities got involved. Why would a business from Venezuela set up a plant in Cap-Chat? It looked totally incredible in the beginning. The community brought it about. It did it through its strength and its resolve. We were there to support that project, just as the Quebec Government was, and I am very proud of it.
The atmosphere in the room was electrifying. To me, the hope that the Sural project generated in the eyes of these people from the Gaspe is worth the recognition and the tributes.
I thank the people from Cap-Chat for giving me such a taste for my department.