House of Commons Hansard #40 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was cards.


Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act
Private Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

Parkdale—High Park


Sarmite Bulte Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage

Madam Speaker, the Government of Canada understands the strong feelings underlying requests for redress for incidents in our nation's past. As Canadians we all share in the responsibility to learn from the lessons of the past and to ensure that the history of our country in certain instances does not repeat itself ever.

I know firsthand the issues that are being addressed today by the hon. member opposite. My riding of Parkdale--High Park is home to a great number of Ukrainian Canadians, and this is a matter that I have spoken to members of the community about.

The Canadian Multiculturalism Act lays out principles for these adjustments. It gives specific direction to the federal government to work toward achieving equality in the economic, social, cultural and political life of the country. The multicultural program turns those principles into action. Its activities help to combat racism and discrimination, to break down barriers that prevent all Canadians from fully participating in society, to promote freedom and equal opportunity, to improve inter-group relations, and to foster social harmony and a shared sense of Canadian identity.

As Canada becomes more culturally diverse, the challenge we face is maximizing the benefits of a multicultural society, which means respecting differences and being willing to adapt to change.

Since the introduction of Canada's multiculturalism policy in 1971 and the adoption of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act in 1988, Canada's population has continued to become more diverse. This rich ethnocultural, racial and religious diversity has been fostered and supported by a strong multiculturalism policy that encourages people to maintain their culture and identity within a Canadian framework that values fundamental human rights and freedoms.

In order to keep pace with the needs of our evolving and increasingly diverse society, the multiculturalism program focuses on three overall policy goals of identity, social justice and civic participation. Within these policy goals, four priority objectives have been identified for the multicultural program: first, fostering cross-cultural understanding; second, promoting shared citizenship; third, making Canadian institutions more reflective of Canadian diversity; and fourth, combating racism and discrimination.

The government recognizes that creating and maintaining a strong and cohesive society free of racism and discrimination is critical to the continued growth and success of our country. As part of its commitment to fight racism and as part of its forward looking approach with regard to historical acts, the Government of Canada established the Canadian Race Relations Foundation in 1996. As members know, the Canadian Race Relations Foundation is an important asset in helping to build an inclusive society based on social harmony. In establishing the foundation, we have committed to building a better future for young Canadians and a better country for all of us.

The mission of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation is to build a framework for the fight against racism in Canadian society. The Foundation sheds light on the causes and manifestations of racism. It provides independent, candid national leadership and contributes to the pursuit of equity, fairness and social justice.

The Canadian Race Relations Foundation is the articulation of the Government of Canada's commitment to fostering racial harmony and cross-cultural understanding. The Canadian Race Relations Foundation is to a great extent at the core of what the Ukrainian community and this bill are asking for: an educational foundation.

Through the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, I am pleased to say that many groups have had grants for initiatives in specific projects against racism. Along with the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the Government of Canada has and will continue to promote initiatives to improve understanding among Canadians, such as the March 21 campaign of the Department of Canadian Heritage, which is designed to raise the awareness of Canadians against the dangers of racism and racial discrimination.

The March 21 campaign was initiated in response to the need to heighten awareness of the harmful effects of racism on a national scale and to demonstrate clearly the commitment and leadership of the federal government to foster respect, equality and diversity.

For more than 10 years, the March 21 campaign has mobilized youth across Canada to rise up and to take a stand against racism. Through their participation in the campaign, Canadian youth have spoken loudly and eloquently. There is no place for racism in their lives.

Each year on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racism, many activities are held throughout Canada to raise public awareness about the problem of racism.

The national video competition “Racism: Stop it!” is one of several federal government initiatives to fight racism and encourage thousands of young people from across Canada to stand up and condemn this problem.

Why youth? Youth are the future of our nation. It is only by looking to the future that we will achieve our common goal of eradicating racism and discrimination.

We know that youth are the heart and soul of the annual March 21 campaign. They have the energy, commitment and creativity to advance the struggle against racism. They are the voice of the present and also of the future. They are among the most exposed to racism in their schools and on the streets in villages, towns and cities across Canada. The March 21 campaign engages youth to transcend the boundaries of race, ethnicity and religion, and to embrace diversity.

Historically speaking, this country represents a coming together of many peoples and traditions. It is because we were and are so different in our backgrounds and our beginnings that Canada has learned over time to place an extraordinary premium on respect, equality and mutual acceptance. This is what sets Canada apart from other countries.

The challenge is not to lose what we have gained through past experience, not to assimilate this diversity into a simple mould, but to harness it for the common good.

As we move forward in this new millennium, it is the youth of the world who stand poised to lead us out of the intolerance of the past which too often results in terrible human suffering.

The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of understanding and preserving our complete history, including those times when we have strayed from our shared commitment to human justice. Through various departments and programs, it has supported a wide range of commemorative projects that have helped the Ukrainian community tell their story in their own voice.

The bill before us today asks for commemoration of the historical events by means of the installation of memorial plaques at the site of the internment camps. I would like the hon. members of this House to know that Parks Canada has already worked cooperatively with Ukrainian Canadians to present the story of the first world war internment.

As part of an exhibit to interpret the events associated with the first world war internment in the context of human history of Banff National Park, several interpretative panels were installed as part of the permanent exhibit at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site of Canada, as well as at Mount Revelstoke and Yoho National Parks.

Parks Canada has also supported Ukrainian Canadians in their efforts to install a permanent plaque and statue at the site of the Castle Mountain camp in Banff and permanent plaques at the Jasper camp, Mount Revelstoke camp and Yoho camp. The Department of National Defence has also enabled the placement of a plaque on the Niagara Falls armoury.

The National Film Board of Canada has produced an internment and exile film package that includes a segment entitled, Freedom Had a Price , which describes the experience of Ukrainian immigrants during the first world war.

In addition, the Department of Canadian Heritage has provided funding for the production of a television series entitled, A Scattering of Seeds , which celebrated diversity in Canada and discusses various topics, including the internment of Ukrainian immigrants.

Yes, people of Ukrainian heritage have experienced challenges during their time in Canada. We acknowledge this chapter of our past and vow never to forget it.

The member opposite did say that nothing has been done but many things have been done. When I was parliamentary secretary to the former minister of Canadian heritage, Sheila Copps, she brought the Ukrainian community together to meet with her officials and dialogue was started. Is there much to do? Absolutely. The dialogue has been started. Let us now continue the dialogue.

Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act
Private Members' Business

6 p.m.


Meili Faille Vaudreuil—Soulanges, QC

Madam Speaker , since Bill C-331 concerns Ukraine, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all those Ukrainians currently fighting for the sake of their democracy to continue this difficult struggle.

The freedom of peoples is not easily achieved. This is why I want to reiterate the support of the Bloc Québécois for all those who are currently defending their right to democracy. In 2004, every nation should be able to choose its own government. The will of the people must not be thwarted by pressure or fraud.

I would also like to congratulate the Parliament of Canada for the second time in as many weeks, since, once again, it is about to correct an error it made in the past. Last week, it concerned an error in judgment regarding legislation made 25 years ago. Today, even if the events in question go back more than 90 years, it corrects behaviour unworthy of a democratic society.

At the beginning of the 20th century, history witnessed great victories, but also some darker days. Today, we must reflect on one of those days. I do not by any means want to forget the brave soldiers who went to fight in Europe. They stood tall on one of the toughest fronts in history. They gave their lives for loftier ideals than the world itself, and we should never forget that.

Bill C-331 is about the plight of over 5,000 poor people who fled abject living conditions and immigrated to Canada 10 to 20 years before the 1914-18 events. These people were later interned in labour camps during World War I. Through an order in council, the status of those who did not have their certificate of naturalization was changed. They became “foreign enemies”, because their territory of origin was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They were no longer just Ukrainians, people in exile, as they had been when they arrived here. They had become Austrians, and Austria was an enemy of Canada.

We understand that, throughout this painful period, Canada respected its international commitments on the treatment of prisoners of war. We do not share the view that these people were indeed prisoners of war. We really wonder why these camps were maintained until 1920, considering that the war had ended a couple of years earlier. However, taking cover behind treaties and conventions does not excuse the fact that the treatment given to these people was unworthy of a democratic country. The events for which Canada is blamed should be recognized. To forget them is to risk repeating them again.

I remind hon. members that these prisoners were subject to hard labour, rations and curfews. They were not only prisoners of war; they were forced to work. They were interned in labour camps and deprived of their freedom. The Canadian government really took advantage of them. It used these helpless people to build or repair houses, to clear land, build drains, construct roads between properties and public roads, etc. These people were forced to work hard and they were shamelessly used by Canada. It is high time the government acknowledges this blemish on Canada's record.

I want to remind the House that we did not imprison them because they were fighting against our troops, overseas or at home, because there has never been a single battle between these enemies and the state that took them prisoner.

We took them prisoner because they were from the Austro-Hungarian empire and because they had Austrian passports. Can we blame people, who never had the chance to choose their own destiny, for the colour of their passports? We think not, and that is why we feel that Bill C-331 is logical.

Furthermore, we accepted these people who were fleeing hardship and had come here in search of a better life, as immigrants. Ukrainians were an integral part of the immigration plan back then. We opened our doors to them and then we put them in prison. We told them, “come” and then we told them to “work”, at the end of a gun. To us, this is a perfect example of how absurd Canada's immigration policies are.

The Bloc Québécois condemns and regrets the way Canada treated Ukrainians but we are proud to take part in a debate on a bill that seeks to remedy the inexplicable behaviour of a country that, even then, considered itself open and modern.

We join all those who wish to reinstate their personal names, the name of the Canadian government, and who want to say sorry for this unworthy decision adopted by order in council. We ask all the members of this House to support in principle Bill C-331.

It is never too late to learn from our mistakes, to confess and set them right. Parliament has an opportunity today it should not miss. We implore it to do more than the small tourism plaques affixed here and there among the national parks. This is the best thing it has done to date to remedy this enormous error in judgment with regard to an innocent people. It is an insult.

We put our guests in labour camps and we subjected them to hard labour. That is called slavery.

Slavery in the 20th century, in any country, is too serious an issue to pretend it never existed. I defy any member of this House to dare to deny that. Turning a deaf ear for 90 years is already a crime in itself. It is time to tell the whole world that Canada does not agree with decisions it made in the past.

Ukrainians were not an enemy nation: they were invited. We welcomed them as they were, truly welcomed them. We gave them land and the right to work and settle, and then we took those things away. The labour camps were something you might find in a fascist state, not a free and democratic nation. The disgraceful and abominable treatment of a nation of invited immigrants, might, in other times and places, attract much more serious punishment and much greater consequences. We think the Canadian government has a golden opportunity to come out of this with its head held high. We ask the government to support this bill and recognize what it means.

This Parliament could, at least, take responsibility for past actions. The federal parliament must recognize the wrongs that have been done to the Ukrainian community.

Members of this House, fellow MPs, let us not repeat the errors of the past again. When we invite people in with open arms, let us not treat them as second-class citizens. Let us not offer them the privilege of becoming citizens but recognize their full right to citizenship. Let us agree to recognize our affront to the Ukrainians. Let us be the hosts we claim to be. Let us not invite people in with one hand and wave them away with the other. Let us show that we are worthy of a society with 400 years of shared history. Let us offer our wealth to everyone who, because of the twists of fate, have not had the same opportunities we have had here in North America.

Canada must live up to the ideals it proclaims. It must be able to recognize when it has made errors that contradict these ideals. In order for history not to repeat itself, we must seize every opportunity. This is a great one. It is a start. Recognizing the wrongs of the past is a way to make it possible to head into the future in justice and serenity.

Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act
Private Members' Business

6:10 p.m.


Bill Siksay Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on behalf of the New Democratic Party in support of Bill C-331, the Ukrainian Canadian restitution act, introduced by the member for Dauphin—Swan River—Marquette. I want to commend him for his persistence in getting the bill on to the floor of the House this time around. I also want to commend my colleague from Vaudreuil-Soulanges for her speech this evening.

The bill seeks justice for Ukrainian Canadians and other Europeans from the former Austro-Hungarian empire who were imprisoned in special internment camps in Canada during World War I. It is a group of about 9,000 people. The bill calls on the federal government to acknowledge the injustice that was done and to provide restitution for those imprisoned.

The bill mirrors a motion passed 11 years ago in the House, a motion that was proposed by the member for Kingston and the Islands. It is unfortunate that Bill C-331 is still necessary, given the unanimous consent that the 1991 motion received in the House.

At the outset of World War I the War Measures Act was implemented and almost 9,000 people in Canada were deemed enemy aliens, rounded up and forced into internment camps. More than 5,000 of them were Ukrainians who had immigrated to Canada. Another 88,000 Ukrainians in Canada were required to report regularly to police and security authorities during that period.

Between 1914 and 1920, two years after the end of the first world war, these people were held in 24 internment camps. They were forced to do heavy labour under trying conditions. Their assets were seized and they were subjected to state sanctioned persecution.

Never at any time was any evidence presented to show that Ukrainian Canadians were a threat to Canada. In fact, Britain had even advised Canada in 1914 that Ukrainians should be considered friendly aliens.

The bill does not seek direct compensation for the victims of the internment operation, but rather it recommends educational and commemorative measures. We must preserve the memory of these events. Our collective memory of the experience of Ukrainian Canadians here in Canada will help call us to make sure that we never again repeat that mistake as a nation.

Bill C-331 calls for commemorative plaques to be installed at the 24 camps. These plaques would describe the events that took place in the history of the internment. It also recommends a museum be created in Banff National Park, which was the site of one of the largest internment camps.

The park infrastructure of that beautiful natural site was partially built by forced labour. When observing the natural wonders of Canada, one should be reminded of the contribution made by the interned Ukrainian Canadians.

This museum would provide information on the operation of the camp and would acknowledge the role that Ukrainian Canadians played in the building of Canada, then and now.

Bill C-331 also recommends a restitution payment be made to compensate for the confiscation of property and assets from Ukrainian Canadians. Much was taken from them, but not all the confiscated wealth was returned.

This payment would be used to develop and produce educational materials that fight racial intolerance and discrimination, which would be distributed to schools and universities. The materials should reflect and promote the values of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, broad on the understanding of other religions and cultures and ultimately protect Canadians from future injustices. Other educational projects could be developed in consultation with the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.

In addition, a set of commemorative stamps would be issued. This would serve again to keep the memory alive and to ensure that such unjust treatment never takes place on Canadian soil again.

Finally, the bill calls for a review of the Emergencies Act by the Minister of National Defence who must report back to the House with possible legislative changes that would prevent similar atrocities in the future.

In this post-9/11 world where security concerns are top of mind for many Canadians and for our government, I find this point particularly resonant. We must not implement draconian security measures at the expense of the rights and dignity of people, based on ethnicity, country of origin or religious belief.

I wish I could stand here today and be clear that we had learned from our mistakes. I fear, however, with our security certificate process and the detention of some Canadians and people in Canada, of special rules for evidence and special trials that are now allowed in Canada, that we are travelling down that road once again. I fear that racial profiling of some Canadians is taking us there yet again.

I am concerned that proposals to allow for the revocation of Canadian citizenship will set up a system where there are two classes of Canadian citizenship. I am glad that the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration has spoken very clearly to that particular issue and the proposals that were made in the past.

These are all issues that demand our attention in light of the experience of Ukrainian Canadians. Should the bill pass, these are all issues that might be addressed in the kind of educational work that would be undertaken.

Canadians rightly take pride in the multicultural nature of our society. At the same time we recognize that we have not always treated all groups equally. We must not forget the Japanese internment during World War II, for which an apology has been made and redress has been negotiated.

We must not forget the experience of Chinese Canadians who were forced to pay a head tax and were subjected to the Asian Exclusion Act. I hope that Parliament will soon address the matter of redress for those who paid the Chinese head tax. Justice must finally be done for Chinese Canadians as well.

We have seen the War Measures Act used against our citizens in other troubling ways in 1970.

I understand that there is only one Ukrainian Canadian who was detained and is still alive today. Mary Manko Haskett was detained at the Spirit Lake internment camp in Quebec. I was moved by a plea written by her in 1994. One of the things she wrote about was how Spirit Lake camp no longer appeared on maps of Canada. She was unable to show her children and grandchildren where it was on a map of Canada.

At the same time Mrs. Haskett was in detention, another Ukrainian Canadian was fighting in Europe as a member of the Canadian armed forces. Philip Konowal was born in Ukraine in 1887 and immigrated to Canada in 1913. In August 1917 he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during battle in France. Mr. Konowal returned to Canada and became an employee of the House of Commons, where he served until his death in 1959. Commemorative plaques honouring Mr. Konowal can be found here in Ottawa, Toronto and New Westminster, B.C. It is indeed ironic that while so many Ukrainian Canadians were being held in internment camps here in Canada, Mr. Konowal was distinguishing himself as an outstanding member of Canada's armed forces in Europe.

We have a choice. We can allow our collective memory to fade about the internment of Canadians, becoming like the map that no longer shows the location of Spirit Lake camp, or we can remember and celebrate the many contributions of Ukrainian Canadians to our country, people like Mr. Konowal.

We must take steps to ensure that this troubling part of our history is remembered, that restitution is made, and that through remembering and rededicating ourselves to ensuring basic human rights for all Canadians, that it is not repeated. That is how I understand the goals of Bill C-331.

I am pleased to reiterate the NDPs support for the bill. We were committed to the bill's previous incarnation in the 37th Parliament. As well, we made our support for redress for Ukrainian Canadians imprisoned during World War I very clear during the recent federal election campaign.

We believe that Parliament and the government should act now to acknowledge and preserve the memory of this and other shameful incidents in our history. Let us ensure that this unfortunate episode is not repeated, that no other ethnic or religious minority ever suffers as Ukrainian Canadians once did. As we do so, let us celebrate the many contributions of Ukrainian Canadians to our country.

In recent weeks members of the House and indeed people all across Canada and around the world have been following events in Ukraine very closely. We have expressed our concerns and our hopes about fair elections and democracy in Ukraine. This legislation gives us the chance to show Canadians and people around the world that we as a nation can face up to the challenges and shortcomings of our own history and that we seek to ensure that justice, equality and freedom are enjoyed by all Canadians.

Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.


Peter MacKay Central Nova, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased and proud to take part in this very important debate on the bill proposed by the hon. member for Dauphin—Swan River—Marquette.

I want to thank him personally for allowing me to represent the Conservative Party in this debate and also to commend him for the passionate advocacy that he brings to this issue and many others. I see him, as do his constituents, as one of the most diligent and conscientious members of the House.

The bill is really about correcting an historic injustice. Clearly, the issue of restitution and redress is part and parcel of how we do that. We will never be able to dial back the clock and somehow give back the lives, the possessions, the lost time and interests that individuals of Ukrainian descent suffered at the hands of a Canadian government.

I find something quite ironic, as mentioned by other members who have spoken eloquently on this issue, At this very moment in Ukraine we are seeing such strife and turmoil and an historic sea of change taking place in that country. The landmark decision to rerun its election bodes well for the future, and I am very confident.

I take this opportunity to congratulate those men and women from Canada who will participate in that process and add to the success of future democratic institutions in the Ukraine.

At the core of democracy, should sit freedom, and the expression of our will to recognize the wrongs of the past. What matters most in the debate is the fact that we are standing ready to recognize the injustice of what was done to persons of Ukrainian descent and persons of other European descent during the first world war. The bill is a great first step in addressing the considerations of a generation of Ukrainians who were made to sacrifice through no fault of their own. Only by virtue of their homeland, their country of descent, were they stigmatized and removed from Canadian society at that time.

Canadians, with justification, take great pride in their country, as a land of cultural diversity. We measure our success based on the interpretation of our citizens, our allies and the global community as a whole. As a multicultural society where freedom of speech does not hinge on one's ethnicity, we know that we are regarded as one of the best countries in the world in which to live. Yet it is something we should never take for granted.

As we have seen throughout our history, there have been dark days in this country. There has been reference made to the internment of Japanese and Canadian persons of Chinese descent. Within our country's history, we have sadly seen people fleeing their home because of severe oppression that was brought to bear and boat loads of refugees from Germany of Jewish descent who were turned back during the second world war.

This I believe is in that category. This is another dark chapter of Canadian history that sadly is a blank chapter. It is not written.

As my colleague from Dauphin--Swan River--Marquette has indicated, much of what we are doing in this exercise is simply setting the record straight or putting in place at least a recognition of what did happen. We cannot start to heal if we continue to cover this up. This situation, as it occurred, did not happen overnight. It was a long process. It was something that was then put to one side, and for generations there was an attempt made to simply forget it.

However, my colleague's motion is not without precedent. In the past, the government has taken action to right the wrongs of previous injustices. We have seen this with Japanese Canadians and their internment. There is a very real precedent that we can look to, the loss of property that they suffered during the second world war. The Conservative government of the day took the opportunity to do the right thing. I would suggest that this is very much at the root of what the bill is about: simply doing what is right in addressing this.

Unlike previous matters of recognition, the motion does not call for a specific monetary redress to individuals or families who suffered the fate, albeit perhaps justified. Rather the bill calls upon the government to return what was unjustly taken and to make restitution in the form of educational materials, dealing with Canada's past internment policies and activities.

I am told that he removal or the confiscation of personal items was somewhere in the range of millions of dollars. It included farm implements and personal items of great sentimental value that could never be replaced. Those who were interned were forced to work unpaid labour, something again that was highlighted and which was not even inflicted upon prisoners of war.

Within our country, we like to embrace the fact that we are a tolerant society, that we have the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect the rights of minority groups within our boundaries. Yet at that time those protections clearly did not exist. During the war between the years 1914 and 1920 the Government of Canada unjustly confiscated untold dollars and property from Ukrainians and other Europeans. That money was never returned. The bill would see the government at least return a contemporary value of what would be applied to the various educational projects through this incentive to have a commemorative and educational project recognizing this historic injustice.

I am reminded that the War Times Election Act disenfranchised 140,000 Ukrainians of their vote, another element to this which dehumanized Ukrainians of that era.

My colleague from the NDP referenced the name of Philip Konowal, a Victoria Cross recipient who, as a Canadian of Ukrainian descent, fought in the battlefields of Europe for which he was recognized with the highest military honour. What perverse and sad irony that he would return to his country only to toil for years here in the House of Commons, having served the country in such a substantive way. and only to see his countrymen of Ukrainian descent interned in our country. In many cases they were taken away from their homes to several provinces, thousands of miles away, to be interned.

I believe it is very important to recognize that the bill would benefit the country as a whole. There can be no substitute for education. If we are to avoid the failures of the past and if we are to avoid those same failures in the future, we must take lessons from what occurred, not only recognizing the injustice of those of Ukrainian and European descent, but through the construction of a permanent museum in Banff National Park, a permanent fixture in which future generations could learn from those mistakes. We would be sending a message of tolerance and understanding to those future generations.

From experience that has been passed on to me by my grandfather, who met some of these same Ukrainians when they came through Pier 21 in Halifax to work in the forests of Nova Scotia, many of whom continued across the country and helped to populate the west, Ukrainians were among the most hard-working, dedicated and industrious of Canadians of that generation. Again, simply recognizing what took place is a giant step forward in restoring the dignity of the families of those Ukrainians who were interned.

The bill, specifically clause 2(1)(a), calls upon the government to erect these plaques at concentration camps, which currently do not support those insignias, describing the events which occurred and the regrets of present day Canadians. These plaques would be of course in both official languages as well as Ukrainian. At the gateway to North America, I referenced Pier 21, which would be an appropriate place to commemorate these injustices.

I know the member for Dauphin--Swan River--Marquette also hails from a region that is rich in those cultural differences. Through his hard work and perseverance, he has brought the bill forward a number of times. It has also been noted that the bill appeared as a motion by the current Speaker of the House of Commons in 1991. In Canada's Ukrainians: Negotiating an Identity is a chapter entitled “Peopling the Prairies”. As the member will know, this is exactly what the Ukrainians did. As they immigrated to Canada, they settled in Manitoba, in constituencies like Dauphin, Shoal Lake, Cook's Creek and Whitemouth, to name but a few, and travelled to larger urban centres. The vast majority stayed and worked on the land. Without those settlers, Canada would not be the country it is today.

All members should be quick to embrace the bill that brings about a historic address and redress of this injustice. The Conservative Party as well represents the face of Canada with the diversity of members of Parliament within our caucus. We are very supportive of our colleague's effort.

The bill would go a long way in answering the unjust practice of interning Ukrainians and other Europeans. I am proud to stand in support of my colleague from Dauphin--Swan River--Marquette and his efforts to bring about this historic redress and historic healing that the bill represents. I would ask all members to similarly support this effort.

Ukrainian Canadian Restitution Act
Private Members' Business

6:30 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

Pursuant to order made Thursday, December 2 the House will now resolve itself into committee of the whole to consider Government Business No. 6.

I do now leave the chair for the House to go into committee of the whole.

(House in committee of the whole on Government Business No. 6, under Mr. Proulx in the chair)

Credit Cards
Government Orders

December 7th, 2004 / 6:30 p.m.

Hamilton East—Stoney Creek


Tony Valeri Leader of the Government in the House of Commons


That this committee take note of credit cards.

Credit Cards
Government Orders

6:30 p.m.

The Deputy Chair

I would like to begin this evening's debate by making a short statement on how the proceedings will unfold.

Tonight's debate is being held under Standing Order 53.1. It provides for a take note debate to be held following a motion proposed by a minister following consultation with the House leaders of the other parties. The motion providing for tonight's debate was adopted by the House on December 2.

Each member speaking will be allotted 10 minutes for debate, followed by 10 minutes for questions and comments. The debate will end after four hours or when no member rises to speak. Pursuant to the special order adopted earlier today, the Chair will receive no dilatory motions, no quorum calls, and no requests for unanimous consent.

Pursuant to the rules used in a committee of the whole, members are permitted to speak more than once, provided that there is sufficient time. At the conclusion of tonight's debate, we will rise and the House will adjourn until tomorrow.

We will now begin tonight's take note debate. The Chair will recognize the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance.

Credit Cards
Government Orders

6:30 p.m.



John McKay Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Finance

Mr. Chair, the debate is on credit cards and of course that is a bit of a broad topic. Nevertheless, I know that Canadians have an interest in this particular subject from time to time. I hear at a constituency level from those Canadians who are in fact interested.

I want to make a few points about the general environment in which we find ourselves with respect to credit cards. The first and foremost point has to do with the fact that a credit card is a payment tool. It is a form of payment, whether one wants to use a credit card, a cheque or cash.

The benefit of putting it on a credit card as opposed to paying cash or cheque is that one can get up to 51 days of free credit. In other words, the money does not come out of one's account until upwards of 51 days. Most credit cards do not offer that kind of privilege, but nevertheless there are credit cards that in fact do that.

It also gives a form of unsecured credit to those who might not otherwise obtain credit. I will use my son as an example. He is in third year at the University of Toronto. He has no assets, his income is sporadic, and he is in school. He would not be considered by most banks and lending institutions to be credit worthy, yet he has a credit card and he is building up a credit record with the use of his credit card in a judicious and strategic fashion.

It is a form of extension to credit to those who would not otherwise qualify for credit. This is a 24/7 worldwide access. One can pretty well travel almost anywhere in the world and get access with a credit card. That is an enormous benefit for those who are both in the larger urban centres but also in more remote areas as well.

There are apparently something in the order of about 30 million worldwide outlets that use credit. This is quite advantageous for small and medium enterprises because these SMEs use this as a form of controlling their costs and a form of payment security. They much prefer to receive a credit card for the transaction on which they know they may have to discount it maybe four, five or six points. It will actually provide a security of payment versus a cheque which may or may not clear the account. It is a form of cost control. It is also a form of security for small and medium enterprises.

It also gives consumers options. The credit card can be linked to a line of credit, both a secured and an unsecured line of credit, and of course the more security given the bank or lending institution, rates on the card will come down. Some credit cards come are calculated at a point or two points above prime. I was reading some statistics that said one can get an unsecured credit card at 1.9% above prime.

Canadians seem to love their credit cards and they seem to be getting quite enthusiastic and sophisticated about the most advantageous use of credit cards. Statistics show us that 68% of Canadians pay off their credit card balances on a monthly basis. That leaves about 32% of people who carry balances on their cards. That has actually been declining over time. Canadians realized that carrying a balance at an interest rate is not always advantageous to them and either they pay cash and pay off that line of credit or they switch to more advantageous forms of credit in order to be able to pay down the balance on their credit card.

Apparently, there are 50 million credit cards in circulation in this country. The population is only 32 million, so that works out to well over one card per person in the country. That is quite an interesting statistic, but apparently it pales in comparison to the U.S. rate. The Americans have four credit cards for every American citizen.

Interestingly, only about 10% of credit card users max out on their balances and run it right up to the limit. Most pay off on a fairly regular basis. Interestingly as well, the delinquency rate is relatively quite low. It is only 2.4% and members should bear in mind that the 2.4% is among folks who might not otherwise get credit in any other circumstances. That compares to the Americans who have a delinquency rate twice that of Canadians. Canadians tend to be fairly conservative or prudent may be a better word. They certainly have seen the light and are not big C Conservatives. They in fact use the credit cards the way they are intended to be used, as a credit facility, a convenience payment and in fact pay down the balances over time.

Canadian institutions have in fact been leaders in the evolution of low rate credit cards. Canadians enjoy a huge competition among a variety of people who put forward credit cards.

Apparently, there is something in the order of about 600 credit cards that Canadians have to choose from, so that they can make choices among interest rates, the amount of money they have to have, the period of time that there is to pay it off, the benefits that are on the card, the rewards that are tied to a particular affinity program, et cetera. Canadians have enormous choice among the 600 cards to basically fashion a credit card that most suits their lending needs.

We also have a fairly decent level of protection. We have disclosure regulations that are required under the Bank Act when these credit cards are set up. In 2001 we made changes to the Bank Act which created the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, FCAC. That is currently headed by a former NDP member of Parliament, Mr. Bill McKnight from Saskatchewan. He has been the head of that agency and by all reports he is doing quite a good job in terms of communicating to Canadians their rights, protecting them by way of a good regulatory environment, and informing them about things such as the cost of borrowing.

Canadians are urged to go to the website. There is material there to assess the kind of credit card that a person should have. Individuals fill in certain blanks as to the interest rate they are prepared to pay, the credit limit that is required, their income, availability for income, the payment frequency, and things of that nature. It will work out a chart for the cost of your borrowing.

The FCAC also protects consumers on application disclosure requirements and also on the agreement disclosure requirements. The Government of Canada protects vulnerable borrowers with very aggressive prosecution of corporate fraud and market illegality. The government has allocated something in the order of about $30 million annually to pursue those who would otherwise take advantage of vulnerable borrowers.

As well, the government has received the Wise Persons' Committee report, which is suggesting a single securities regulator. That is a good way to go when there too many jurisdictions competing in a regulatory environment. All it does is create an endless stream of paperwork, ratchets up the cost and for no discernible purpose.

We take the view that being involved in the marketplace and capping rates, and things such as that, as has been suggested by others is not the brightest idea that will ever see the light of day. In fact, the market provides a whole range of low cost credit cards that are currently available to Canadians and a very strong regulatory environment.

We also take the view that it would have the unintended consequences, if the government decided to cap rates, of cutting people out of entitlement to credit who might otherwise not be entitled to credit. The FCAC actually helps people shop for a card. It breaks out people's budgets and give them their limits. Then people can pick a credit card that most suits their particular environment.

Credit Cards
Government Orders

6:40 p.m.


Paul Crête Rivière-Du-Loup—Montmagny, QC

Mr. Chair, I have listened with interest to my colleague's speech. The figures I have on credit card use are slightly different. According to them, in 2003, approximately 65% of Visa and MasterCard holders paid their account in full every month. This means that the other 35%, or about one person in three, was paying 18% interest most of the time.

He explained that when people can afford it, they pay off their card monthly. That may be true, but I remember when I was 20 or 25. We did not necessary have the same means then, particularly in the period leading up to Christmas with the pressure to buy consumer goods.

I would like to know whether my colleague would consider it appropriate to follow up on a bill introduced by a senator aimed at lowering the maximum percentage that can be charged. At the moment money-lenders can charge up to 60%, Ought that not to be brought down to around 35%?

That would have an effect not only on the maximum that could be charged. Might it not also be an incentive to have lower rates in general? We cannot say that the Canadian financial system is in dire straits at this time. The surpluses reported by the banks are sizeable, we must admit, in the context of a healthy economy.

Are there not a couple of messages that ought to be being sent out by the federal government? For example, the maximum allowable rate could be dropped. It would become illegal to charge over 35%, for instance. Other means could also be developed for informing people who are in dire financial straits. It must be acknowledged that the people most likely to misuse credit cards are often the ones most in need of short-term credit.

Would my colleague be prepared to take steps to get his government to look at such measures?

Credit Cards
Government Orders

6:45 p.m.


John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Mr. Chair, the member properly points out that there is a usury rate set out in the Criminal Code. If any institution or any entity charges a usurious rate they of course will be subject to prosecution under the Criminal Code.

The problem with the suggestion put forward by the hon. member, which is essentially a regulatory interference by the Government of Canada into what is essentially a market economy, is that it would create a variety of unintended consequences. The very people he wishes to help, for example, those who are the most vulnerable, those who are the least creditworthy, those who cannot possibly get credit under any other circumstances, those who have no assets, those who have sporadic income, those who, so to speak, meet the profile of my son, would simply be cut off credit. They would be forced back into either a cash economy or a cheque economy, because the institutions would not therefore be able to shape their credit card according to the risk profile of the individual.

In my view, rather than helping people who are in difficult economic circumstances, he would in fact be creating greater difficulties for those in difficult economic circumstances.

As I said earlier in my speech, we must bear in mind the fact that most Canadians are very sophisticated about their use of credit. A very small percentage, something in the order of 2.1%, actually end up in delinquency difficulties. I would suggest that there is a bit of the tail wagging the dog. I do not think we need to modify our current aggressive regulatory regime in order to be able to address something that affects a very limited scope of people.

Credit Cards
Government Orders

6:45 p.m.


Bradley Trost Saskatoon—Humboldt, SK

Mr. Chair, I want to make a brief comment and then perhaps the hon. parliamentary secretary could respond. I listened very carefully to the member's speech and was quite interested in it.

There was one small discrepancy that I would like to give him the chance to correct. He mentioned a former distinguished member of the House, Mr. Bill McKnight, the former member for Kindersley. He was quite right; Mr. McKnight was distinguished. He was a former minister of national defence. However, my colleague should be aware that the member came from Saskatchewan and in Saskatchewan there is no greater offence than to call a Conservative a New Democrat. I am pretty certain my colleague misspoke. To be referred to as a socialist for people from my province who believe in free enterprise and hard work is something which I am sure we would not want to be left on the record. I will give the hon. parliamentary secretary a chance to revise his remarks.

Credit Cards
Government Orders

6:45 p.m.


John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Mr. Chair, I can appreciate that being called a socialist if one is of a conservative persuasion is something of an insult beyond all insults, but nevertheless I thought I was referring to Mr. William George Knight, who is presently the head of the FCAC. His profession is that of teacher. His political party is that of the New Democratic Party. He was elected in 1971. He was re-elected in 1972 and defeated in 1974 and 1979. I thought I got it right.

Credit Cards
Government Orders

6:45 p.m.

An hon. member

You said McKnight accidentally.

Credit Cards
Government Orders

6:45 p.m.


John McKay Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

I apologize. Thank you.

Credit Cards
Government Orders

6:50 p.m.


Paul Crête Rivière-Du-Loup—Montmagny, QC

Mr. Speaker, I was quite surprised to hear my colleague say that if the criminal interest rate were lowered from 60% to 35% it would hurt people who need credit. This same argument was used 100 years ago; if people needed money they could borrow it at a rate that the lender was prepared to charge. It is justification for a usurious rate. The attitude is that the market must completely regulate and standardize the situation.

Does the government not have a responsibility to ensure that at the end of the day people are treated fairly? In many cases laws are there to protect people from themselves and from their own positions.

According to the Canadian Bankers Association, in 2003 there were 22.2 million accounts with unpaid balances and 50 million Mastercard and Visa cards in circulation. These unpaid balances totalled $49 billion.

I would like the hon. member to reconsider his position a little and tell me whether he would not find it more pertinent—it is not a question of creating a situation whereby people would no longer have access to credit—for people to have access to reasonable rates.

Bringing the current maximum rate of 60% down to 35% is not really a measure that would stop people from getting credit. Furthermore, someone who is willing to pay 60% to borrow money has more serious problems that should have been resolved ahead of time. The solutions on this side are much more directed toward having the means to fund agencies to help people in difficult situations like that and to allow the market to simply move forward.

If the entire population heard this type of remark this evening, it would say this is not what a society would want at the beginning of the 21st century.