Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to join in the debate on third reading of Bill C-9, an act to establish the economic development agency of Canada for the regions of Quebec.
This is a public policy matter of profound significance for communities everywhere. Although the bill deals specifically with community economic development in various regions of the province of Quebec, the concept we are discussing is critically important for the future of many communities across the country.
I would like to take a moment to address the essence of this proposal and the whole meaning of social, economic development or political involvement at the grassroots level because that is what we are talking about.
This is about communities having the means to ensure that community development occurs in ways that are relevant to that community. It is about turning around our priorities as politicians and as members of Parliament. We ought to stop saying how communities must perform. We ought to stop making decisions from on high about what communities need and what is best for people at the local level. We ought to begin by saying that no one knows better about what is in the best interests of a community than the people who work day in and day out building communities and creating cooperative arrangements for improving life in that particular neighbourhood.
I have a very relevant example in terms of my own constituency of Winnipeg North, a community that is a typical, inner city, north end neighbourhood. It is an older neighbourhood with old stock housing and many very significant problems in terms of economic and social development.
We are talking about communities where many people live on a day to day basis trying to make ends meet for their families, communities that are struggling in terms of some external factors that are hard to address. It may be an influx of people from other communities without proper housing and other services available to those individuals. We are talking about all the social determinants that come from economic indicators that are indicative of many social ills and problems that we all have to deal with on a day to day basis.
Economic development is central for every region and every community in every one of our provinces to overcoming great difficulties and ensuring we have a long term strategy for overcoming economic and social inequalities.
There is an old expression we have all heard that if we give a person a fish, they will eat for a day, but if we teach that person to fish, they will be able to provide for themselves and their families forever. One could even take that a little further and say that if one gave those families access to the pond, to the lake or the river where the fish are plentiful, then the future of that community is guaranteed forever. It is about giving communities the resources they need to develop, to grow and to provide for all of the people in that community.
We cannot do that in isolation. We cannot do that from government speaking on high and we cannot do it in terms of dealing with things on a piecemeal, ad hoc, band-aid, pilot project basis, which has been the tendency of the government.
It has not tended to look at communities in terms of holistic needs and in terms of working to find solutions with a community, not for that community, not telling that community how the job must get done.
My experience also comes from a community where in fact there is a very high aboriginal population. These are people who want to gain control over their own lives. They are people who know that they will continue to suffer social injustice and economic inequality until we as politicians are prepared to share power and are prepared to empower people to look after themselves, to care for themselves and to make communities work for one another. That is the essence of this concept and why this bill is so important.
Let me now focus specifically on Bill C-9. It is a bill that has gone through all the stages and has had serious study by the committee.
In that regard I want to acknowledge the work of my colleague, the member for Nanaimo—Cowichan, who is a member of the Standing Committee on Industry, Natural Resources, Science and Technology. She has been very much involved in the work of that committee in developing recommendations and amendments to this legislation to make it better, to make it more effective in terms of dealing with the very objectives at stake here, that is, how to give communities the means by which they can shape their own future.
At the committee stage of the bill, many amendments were proposed and many were passed. I want to indicate for all in this House that the New Democratic Party certainly supports the amendments, recognizes the hard work of the committee and wants to support the bill as amended.
Specifically, the amendments state very clearly that social economy enterprises will be included as eligible organizations. That will help community economic development opportunities in the province of Quebec.
As well, the amendments focus on how this money will be used to promote the Quebec economy. I want to look specifically at those amendments that do just that and speak about why we are so supportive of the amendments and the bill including these amendments. The first of these amendments states that there shall be means to:
(a) promote economic development in the regions of Quebec where low incomes and/or slow economic growth are prevalent, or where opportunities for productive employment are inadequate.
That is fundamental to the task at hand and to the very essence of Canadian economic development.
The second part of the amendment states that through this bill it will be emphasized that “long-term economic development and sustainable employment and income creation” are explicitly stated as fundamental goals. The amendments also include reference to a focus on small and medium sized enterprises and the development of entrepreneurial talent.
All these amendments are important, all establishing very clear boundaries that will help direct how the funding that is available will be used and to whose benefit. Very clearly, these are critical steps in terms of this whole process, integral to the whole legislation we are dealing with.
As recent events in Montreal have shown, it is very important that bureaucrats understand the limits of how funds should be used.
I again want to spend just a moment on the importance of literacy in any social economy program. I am sure that members of the Bloc will agree when I say that Quebec, like Atlantic Canada, has more adults with low literacy skills than the rest of Canada. As we agree to the new status for the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec, it is very important for us to emphasize that literacy skills are the most important for people who are in transitional and emerging economies.
I want to point out that ABC CANADA is a great organization working to improve adult literacy skills. The following is stated on its website:
Statistics Canada released a report called Literacy Skills for the Knowledge Society in 1997. This report confirms that we have a serious literacy problem in Canada. Here are some of the facts:
Literacy skills are like muscles--they are maintained and strengthened through regular use.
The higher an individual's literacy level, the more likely he/she will be employed and have a higher income.
Canadians use their literacy skills more in the workplace than at home.
--'good' jobs are those that provide opportunities to maintain and enhance literacy skills.
Let us stop for a moment and take a look at the third point I mentioned: that Canadians use their literacy skills more in the workplace than at home. It makes sense in that context, then, that any economic program, any community development initiative, needs to consider absolutely the need for lifelong learning, especially when it comes to adult literacy and numeracy training programs.
There is so much one could talk about in the context of the bill. I simply want to indicate our support for the bill as amended and to urge its final passage by the House of Commons.
I want to end by referring to some work prepared by the Canadian CED Network social economy round table consultation. I will refer specifically to the briefing notes the group produced. The document outlining the discussions at the round table consultation lists the main points that CCED Net believes should be common concerns during all consultations regarding the federal social economy initiative.
Emphasizing those three points really says it all in terms of what we are trying to achieve and what can be accomplished by providing the funds that are referenced in the bill and providing the framework for its implementation.
The three points made by CCED Net include, first, “strengthening social capital at the local level”. That means “building the local capacity of communities to systematically address the problems of their economies”. That is a very important point, because without acknowledging the need to increase local capacity so that the community itself can overcome the problems it is facing, we are only putting a band-aid on a problem. We are only allowing social injustices and economic inequalities to continue.
The second point about this approach involves “strengthening human capital at the local level”. This means “increasing the competence of local citizens to get and hold good jobs or build their own businesses, as well as to provide essential local leadership for the development process”.
This kind of investment in human capital cannot be done in isolation of all the parts of that individual. If we do not look at this on a holistic basis, it becomes almost impossible to see results by investing money strictly on the basis of a particular economic project. That means looking at the whole identity of an individual and of a community. That means considering the heritage, the culture, the skills, the particular expertise, and the practices of collaboration and working together: networking; the involvement of unions and businesses; the involvement of synagogues, churches and temples; the involvement of schools and universities; and the involvement of family associations and teacher-parent groups.
All of these various aspects of an individual's life, all integral to the health and well-being of a community, must be included in this concept of strengthening human capital at the local level.
Finally, let us get to the nub of the matter in terms of the wherewithal to do all of this. We have the people who want to do it. We have organizations at the local level with people who want to give their lives to making a difference at the community level, who are prepared to work on a volunteer basis and to work tirelessly doing community work, but they need the financial support of government to make that happen.
The third important point made by CCED Net about a community development or economic development initiative is “strengthening financial capital at the local level”. This means improving “investment resources available for local businesses, for affordable housing, and for alternative financial institutions”.
In this context, it is very important to reference the two budget bills passed by this House of Commons just last night, and in particular to reference the better balanced budget proposed by the NDP in Bill C-48, which in fact flows from this imperative and came from the need to address community needs and to support communities to help themselves. The money we have fought for and worked through with the Liberal government is critical for community economic development, the money for housing, education, retrofitting of homes, public transit and other environmental initiatives. All of these initiatives are critically important for feeding into the notion that the best communities are those that are able to help themselves.
By providing the resources to work with community groups like those I have in Winnipeg, the North End Community Renewal Corporation, Just Housing, Habitat for Humanity, North End Housing and other residents associations like the Point Douglas and William Whyte residents advisory groups, by providing assistance to those organizations and groups that are prepared to take on the challenges of a community that needs to be renewed and strengthened, we surely see the light at the end of the tunnel and know that the goals we all share can be accomplished.
This last point also references the need for every community to have access to financial institutions, and if those financial institutions are not there, to provide the resources to develop alternatives. When a community loses all of its bank branches and has no immediate direct access to financial institutions, then it is through community development and economic development proposals, like those we have been talking about under the auspices of this bill, that we can actually provide and ensure that a community has such access.
It is not easily done and it takes a lot of work, but I can tell members from firsthand experience how possible it actually is.
In the case of Winnipeg North, we have lost all of our bank branches in the last 10 years. In a very large and strategically significant area in Winnipeg, that being the north end, stretching many miles on all sides, there is no bank branch. The community realized that without access to financial services there would be no way to keep attracting new businesses. There would be no way to deal with the vacancies along main street and to get local initiatives housed and thriving in those vacant buildings without access to financial services.
That community, my community, decided to first take on the banks and it said to those banks that they had no right to desert a community that had been loyal to them for years and years, for decades and decades, and in some cases for more than 100 years. Those banks grew and became profitable because of that loyalty, only to desert that community when it was convenient for the banks because they wanted to make more profit in other areas. That community, my community, decided to take things into its own hands and to say to those banks, “If the banks will not stay and be loyal to us, then we will switch our allegiance and we will find our own way to deal with the situation”.
The community, through the North End Community Renewal Corporation, has developed an alternative financial institutions plan, has tested it and is now in the final stages of putting it into effect, but it needs money and it needs support from all levels of government. I have actually pursued this matter with the Minister of Finance and said to him that he had an obligation to support such community initiatives and to ensure that if the banks desert communities and we cannot legislate them to stay, then surely we, as representatives of this place and as members of a government, have an obligation to help communities help themselves and provide the necessary economic development and financial institutional resources that they need. The essence of this project is helping communities to help themselves.
I urge members of the House to support Bill C-9.