Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity on behalf of the NDP caucus to join the debate on Bill C-5 at third reading. At this point in time, we have listened to this debate in the House of Commons and at committee.
The first observation that comes to mind, which I would share with members listening today, is that virtually all of the stakeholders that are knowledgeable about the issue of access to post-secondary education are critical of Bill C-5. They do not support Bill C-5.
One would think that if the bill had merits, if the bill was hitting the mark, if the bill was actually going to meet the needs out there, we would have some kind of a split, maybe sixty-forty or seventy-thirty or eighty-twenty. One would think some stakeholders would have been motivated to come to the committee and share with MPs and the political parties they represent that this in fact was a bill that had merit, that they thought it would address the issue of access to post-secondary education, but there were none.
I think it is only fair that we should be guided by the input that we get at the standing committee. We should take guidance from what we hear from Canadians and the associations and organizations that ordinary Canadians form and we should take it seriously.
The federal government is introducing this measure to offset what it has done with post-secondary education, which is to cut, hack and slash the transfer payments in the Canada health and social transfer from which the provinces draw post-secondary education funding.
We believe that the measures found in Bill C-5 will not offset the drastic effect that these cutbacks have had over these past many years. We believe that Bill C-5 falls well short of making up for the effect of the cutbacks in social transfers. We should remind people that the Canada health and social transfer pays for health, post-secondary education and social allowances. There is no dedicated budget line for post-secondary education. This is block funding. It is all grouped together. It is up to the various provinces to do the best they can with that block funding to meet those three very important social needs: health care, education and social allowances.
Most provinces have been unable to backfill the cutbacks from the federal government without dramatic tuition increases. In the province of Manitoba where I come from, Winnipeg Centre, we wrestle with this every budget year. So far we have managed to freeze tuition increases since 1999 so we have reasonable tuition fees in relation to the other provinces, but it is still a very difficult situation for many who wish to further their education.
What we find fault with in Bill C-5 is not just the content of the bill but the very tone of the bill. This in fact is why the member for Halifax moved the amendment at report stage to delete the stated purpose in Bill C-5. The amendment she moved called into account the fact that this bill calls upon low income people, essentially, to encourage them to save for their children's futures.
That all sounds very good on paper, but nowhere in the tone of the bill or the tone of the stated purpose of the bill does it take into consideration that many people do not have the luxury of that choice, of “How much this month will I put toward my children's education?” If in fact they are seized with basic needs issues and their monthly spending choice is about paying the rent or buying food or buying clothes for their children, how much they are going to put toward their children's educations is not a luxury they have to wrestle with.
Nowhere is this more true than in the inner city riding of Winnipeg Centre that I represent. It is the third poorest riding in Canada. I see on a daily basis the predictable consequences of chronic, long term poverty, with parents, many of them heads of single parent families, struggling to meet the basic needs. It is not a matter of these people pulling up their bootstraps and making smart investments to pay for their children's post-secondary education. When we are struggling with meeting basic needs, it is not really something we can plan, no matter whether the government is going to assist us in that saving or not.
On a larger scale, this type of plan is similar to some of the funding announcements that the federal government has made for other provincial spending where it calls for matched dollars. In some recent programs, after a decade of cutbacks, as the faucet is turned back on, more often than not the federal government has put strings attached to this funding that has to be matched by the provinces or the municipalities. This never happens because the provinces and the municipalities are already struggling under the weight of trying to make up for the shortfall in the transfer of money over the past decade.
It is a bit of a smoke and mirror game where the federal government can say that it has announced spending in a certain sector and that it is being generous in its transfer to the provinces but what it does not tell the public is that the money is conditional on being matched by the province or the municipality, which rarely happens.
Money therefore is left on the table because the province or the municipality is unable to match the dollars. This is the same sort of policy guideline here. The government is looking to low income people to avail themselves of a program in which they cannot afford to participate.
As I mentioned at the outset, none of the stakeholders on this issue are fans of Bill C-5. It is helpful for us to look at some of the comments that they made. When they came and made representation to the standing committee they made many clear, articulate and well thought out objections to the program.
The president of the University College of Cape Breton noted, “As a parent who is currently enrolled in Canada's PSE system and struggling to support children, I find it an insult that the government believes it has to tell me about the importance of post-secondary education through the Canada learning bond”.
This woman was pointing out I suppose more the tone of the bill rather than the content. It is critical all the same. This particular witness went on to say “Bill C-5 would not help women who were working hard, not just to lift themselves and their children out of poverty, but who were genuinely trying to gain an education”.
That was actually a comment from the Federation of Single Parent and Blended Family Association, which represents 60 other associations from all regions of Quebec. Their argument was that the bill would not help that demographic group that is seeking to better themselves through education.
I think we are all cognizant of the fact that the way to go from poverty to middle class in one generation is through education. Therefore the New Democratic Party believes that extraordinary measures are justified if we are to deal with the embarrassing number of Canadian families and children who are living in poverty.
In my riding of Winnipeg Centre, the statistics are shocking. Forty-seven per cent of all families in my riding live below the poverty line. Fifty-two per cent of all the children in my riding live below the poverty line. One would not think that would be the case in a modern, cosmopolitan city like Winnipeg but it is the case.
We were hoping that the government would be thinking outside the box when it came to providing better access to post-secondary education for students, no matter what their means testing or what their parents' income.
After seven surplus budgets one would expect some bold policy statements from the government rather than this document, Bill C-5, which is essentially telling poor people to pull up their boot straps, save their pin money and the government will maybe help match that up to a very small amount per year.
Instead of that kind of patronizing attitude, we expected something bolder. I do not know why people in this House of Commons, where we should be having debates about broader abstract policy issues, are not talking about free education for post-secondary education.
Knowing what we know now, that kindergarten to grade 12 is not good enough, why are we not talking about using this budgetary surplus, or part of it, to broaden the public schools acts in the provinces to say that education should mean kindergarten through one's first degree for instance, or phase that policy in by saying that the student's first year of university education will be picked up by the government.
This is the kind of bold thinking that we would expect. We could have the debate about how that will be paid for, but I do not hear anyone putting forward the idea that if a person cannot get by in today's workforce without at least one university degree, why are we talking about the public schools act being extended to include kindergarten through 12 and one's first university degree. If a person wants to specialized then he or she can find ways to finance that tuition.
If that had been the starting point of this debate perhaps then we could have had people tell us why it would be difficult or tough to implement, or to debate how we would get the financing for that. However I do not hear that kind of thing being debated here. I hear nickel-and-diming to offset the cutbacks to post-secondary education that has occurred in the last year which has put such a terrible stress on the provinces to finance the institutions that were once international leaders in terms of adequately funded institutions for which we could be proud.
The University of Winnipeg has a net mesh surrounding the exterior of Wesley Hall so that bits of crumbling brick and mortar do not fall on the students' heads as they go to university. That is the crumbling state of the institutions across the country, both figuratively and literally, because as much as there is stress on the physical side, there is an equal amount of stress on the budget to pay salaries, provide research money and to be at the leading edge of the subject matter on which they are supposed to be authorities. Our post-secondary structure is crumbling through neglect because it has not been prioritized.
For all the flowery and romantic language we hear from the Prime Minister and others that post-secondary education is the vehicle by which a generation shall rise from poverty, et cetera, access is getting more difficult. Yes, more students are going to university, so statistically the tuition rates have not been an absolute barrier to participation, but when we look at who is getting to go, it is not the children of the families who need it most. It is the children of middle class and well off families who are prioritizing education because they know they need at least one degree to make it in the world today.
That brings me to another aspect of my riding of Winnipeg Centre. I have an urban aboriginal population of over 16,000 who self-identify as aboriginal on the census. We believe there are many more who have come since the census was taken and some who do not fill out that box on the census. I raise this only to indicate that the stated policy objective of the Minister of Indian Affairs for this Parliament is to get more aboriginal and first nations kids into post-secondary education to help build the administrative capacity in that population and help lead their people out of the abject poverty that we know is a national social tragedy.
However this incredible glaring contradiction exists, which will come into effect on January 1. The government will start taxing all the benefits given to first nations kids for post-secondary education by their community as income. What a glaring contradiction. It should be exposed here in the House of Commons and it should be exposed publicly because the predictable consequence of this action will be that fewer first nations kids will be able to go to university. If they are given $10,000 this year to pay for tuition and living out expenses and they have to pay 40% of that off the top in taxes, the community will have to give them more money to live, ergo they can send fewer kids to school, ergo there will be fewer kids in university from first nations and aboriginal backgrounds.
This is more about a shot across the bow on aboriginal and treaty rights than it is about any kind of logic having to do with post-secondary education. I am critical of the government for coming through the back door in what I believe is a cowardly way. If the Liberals cannot win the debate publicly that they do not accept post-secondary education as an aboriginal and treaty right, they are trying to introduce this concept by saying that because we only view post-secondary education as a government policy, not an aboriginal and treaty right, we can unilaterally and arbitrarily change that policy and start viewing it as income and therefore taxable. That is the disagreeable part of this fundamental policy shift, notwithstanding the disagreeable nature of the predictable results, which will be fewer aboriginal kids in university. However, coming in through the back door with this kind of change is a shot across the bow on aboriginal and treaty rights.
Education has always been an aspect of treaty rights and the courts have always viewed education to be open-ended. However, to be fair, when the treaties were signed nobody ever expected an Indian would want to go to university. Maybe they were talking about education as basic literacy or basic reading and writing, but the courts have viewed education to be open-ended. There is no stated limit. In the absence of any language to the contrary in these treaties, education was viewed to be education period.
As of January 1 the government will challenge that orthodoxy. The government will say that it views aboriginal rights to education to mean kindergarten to grade 12 and that anything else is an optional government policy that it will allocate and award at its pleasure or will change the nature unilaterally without consultation at its pleasure.
If this is an indication of how the government is trying to deviate from or derogate aboriginal and treaty rights, it is very worrisome. It is also contrary to the flowery and even romantic language with which the Prime Minister began his tenure in this Parliament with the smudging ceremony and the Speech from the Throne that cited aboriginal progress, in the social tragedy that is aboriginal life in this country, as the number one key priority of his government, when it seems the government is going to chip away and erode aboriginal and treaty rights and look toward a completely different mindset in addressing those issues.
I could not make a speech on post-secondary education without mentioning this, as I am reluctant to deviate from the comments that have been made on Bill C-5. Bill C-5 and post-secondary education policy in my riding means aboriginal access to post-secondary education. I believe it is related in a way that is unavoidable.
I do not see how the government can ignore the fact that virtually every one of the stakeholders who came before the committee to speak to Bill C-5 criticized it resoundingly and made the point that it was going in the wrong direction. They were not satisfied.
Mr. James Kusie, the national director of Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, said:
The greatest problem of learning bonds, however, is that they place heavy expectations on low-income families that simply do not have the resources to contribute significant amounts annually to an RESP for each of their children. Even if families are completely aware of the benefits of saving for education, low-income Canadians cannot afford to save the necessary funds to pay for education funds while still putting food on the table. ...it's like giving a low-income family $500 and a Mercedes-Benz and expecting them to finance the rest of the car.
What a profound statement from Mr. James Kusie, the national director of CASA, who is probably a student himself. His statement accurately reflects the reservations that we have about Bill C-5.