Mr. Chair, as Canadians, we have certain understandings about what it is to be Canadian, what we expect of ourselves and for ourselves, what we expect of and for others. As Canadians we expect a chance and a second chance. We expect the opportunity of a full, rich, rewarding life. For some this does not happen easily, because of illness or accident, disability, poverty, age, because of personal or family circumstances, because of something that puts us behind when the race begins or somewhere along its way.
At Social Development Canada it is our job to see the gaps between those understandings and what is and with others to do something about it.
For me, our social policy rests on two main goals, ensuring the social well-being and the income security of Canadians. No single department, level of government or set of policies can do the job by itself. This is the reason that successful social policies and programs in our country have been achieved when the federal government has worked with the provinces and territories, worked with communities and worked with individual Canadians.
We simply have to work together to achieve anything big and worthwhile and successful. This partnership must recognize that Canadians want to be part of the decisions that affect them, that governments need to build on federal, provincial, territorial collaboration, that governments need to remain accountable to Canadians and need to enlist third parties to monitor social progress, and that research, knowledge and information are essential. Further, partnerships only work if they are founded in values and what Canadians stand for: shared community, equality and justice, respect for diversity, and a balance between rights and responsibilities.
Social Development Canada was created just 18 months ago, inheriting from other departments a set of policies, programs and services for seniors, persons with disabilities, children, families and caregivers, and communities, and inheriting all the values and motivations that set them in motion. SDC's purpose is to build upon all this to ensure income security and social well-being that strengthen Canada's social foundations and social cohesion.
In planning for the future, we need to take into account that we are living longer, healthier lives. We are living longer as seniors. We will live almost one-quarter of our lives after retirement, after our families are grown.
Being a senior can be a great physical, financial and psychological vulnerability; it can also be a time of great opportunity.
It is up to SDC to help seniors make the most of their lives. It is up to SDC to ensure that their public pensions are enough to underpin the basics of a life, and to ensure that those pensions will be there, next year, ten years, fifty years from now, when they and when we need them.
Several years ago the federal and provincial governments, as joint stewards of the Canada pension plan, agreed to significant reforms to ensure its long term financial sustainability. As a result, the Chief Actuary of Canada has stated that the CPP is financially sound for the next 75 years. Moreover, poverty rates for seniors have fallen from 21% in 1980 to 6.9% in 2002.
To put all this in perspective, according to the OECD, Canada's retirement income system, a mixture of public and private funds, is considered one of the best in the world in terms of equity, level of benefits and affordability.
However quality of life for seniors is not just measured in terms of income support. It lies in the purpose of every day. A program like New Horizons for seniors helps those who have reached their second life to share their skills, their experience and wisdom with others to make their communities better and in the process to make their own lives better as well.
Another area of concern for SDC is people with disabilities. Once people with disabilities were kept out of sight. Their disability defined them and was allowed to define them too often even in their own minds.
More than 20 years ago, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms reinforced our understanding of equality. It reinforced as Canadians our sensitivities to discrimination. Now people with disabilities want to live and insist on living fully and completely at school, at work, at play, in their moment to moment lives.
The Government of Canada has taken significant steps over the years, particularly in the areas of employment, income and taxation, to help persons with disabilities overcome many barriers to inclusion.
SDC brings together the Government of Canada's significant income support program, the CPP disability, with other programs and services offered by the Office of Disability Issues to promote the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in all aspects of learning, work and community.
We know that we need to do more but we also know that we cannot do it alone. People in communities are finding innovative new ways to tackle old problems. At SDC we help. One such innovation is through the social economy, community based social enterprises that are entrepreneurial but not for profit.
While many Canadian communities have successfully identified their own unique approach to helping their residents, others are finding it more difficult. By doing research into what works and in sharing these strategies with other communities, SDC is working to help community based efforts that improve the lives of Canadians. Members will hear more about this later in the debate from my parliamentary secretary.
Over 2.8 million Canadians provide care to seniors, to adults and to children with disabilities, and to Canadians with acute and long term health problems. For some the demands are overwhelming. The Government of Canada recognizes that unpaid family caregivers need help and support. In fact, we think it is such an important concern that we have a Minister of State responsible for Families and Caregivers.
SDC is working with the provinces and territories and has asked Canadians for their views on developing a comprehensive caregiver strategy. Again members will hear more about this from the Minister of State for Families and Caregivers later in the debate.
In all our planning for the years to come, Social Development Canada has a strong commitment to ensure that all Canadian children have the opportunity to get a good start in life. The well-being of Canadian children is a key component of our country's quality of life now and in the future.
We all know that the pressures on families have changed and will continue to change. As they always have and always will, parents still play a primary role in raising their children.
But no longer are the majority of Canadian families with young children supported by a single income. Seven out of ten women with children under the age of six are in the workforce. This is the reality.
Recognizing that a vibrant and productive society requires investment in our children, the Government of Canada has put in place a comprehensive set of policies and programs to assist parents as required and to support and enhance the range of families' choices and circumstances. They include $10 billion a year by 2007 for the Canada child tax benefit and the national child benefit supplement that helped 3.5 million low income families with the cost of raising their children, the child rearing dropout in the Canada pension plan which allows parents to stop working temporarily to raise their children without having a reduced pension when they retire, and the tax measures to assist families cover the additional cost of their children with disabilities.
However we know that even these measures have not provided parents of young children with the full flexibility and choice that contemporary life requires. SDC therefore was given a mandate in last fall's Speech from the Throne to increase access to the kind of quality early learning and child care programs that can help families put their children on an even better life path. The budget then announced $5 billion over five years to move us toward this goal.
Working together, the provinces, territories and the federal government have developed a shared vision for early learning and child care, and I have been working with each province and territory on bilateral agreements in principle that will move this vision from dream to reality. Five provinces have signed these agreements so far and we expect more to do so in the weeks and months ahead.
All of this said, there is not one provincial government, not one territorial government, not one municipal government nor one Canadian citizen who does not want to do better in all these areas. We at SDC want to do better too.
Canada is a federation. It is as a federation that we are able to best meet the circumstances and needs of the Canadian people. As Canadian citizens, with our families, our companies and our unions, we are able to meet most of our needs ourselves. When we cannot, we look for government to help. It does not matter that it is our federal government, our provincial or territorial government, or our municipal government. We do not notice, we do not care. We just need help and we expect it.
We are also a country of great disparities. At any one moment, even if as Canadians we may see some things, such as health care, early learning and child care, post-secondary education, a healthy environment and vibrant cities and communities, as clear and critical priorities for all, some provinces and territories may be able to deliver on these and some may not. This is where the federal government plays such an important role.
In the area of social development, seniors and income security, people with disabilities, early learning and child care, and families and caregiving, there are never enough resources to do what we, the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments, want to do and what the public wants done. That means we absolutely must work together for good jurisdictional reasons and for better practical reasons. The public does not expect cooperation, it assumes it. It cannot imagine it cannot tolerate anything else, nor should it.
At Social Development Canada we respect jurisdictions. We also respect people's needs, hopes and possibilities. That is real federalism, living federalism. That is federalism that people understand. That is why this past week, at the meeting in Quebec City of federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for seniors, we agreed to work collaboratively and to meet every year rather than every 18 months as in the past.
That is why my department, working with the provinces and territories and the disability community is developing a 10 year plan of action to advance the full inclusion of persons with disabilities. That is why the five early learning and child care agreements we have signed so far are not the same and why the agreements we will sign in the weeks ahead with the other jurisdictions will also be unique.
The principles are the same, the expectations are the same and the ambitions are the same, but how each province and territory will deliver on these principles, expectations and ambitions will be different. We need to work with them. At the same time, all of us must place great emphasis on accountability, on what the public expects and demands of us. Simply, we must work together because the demands on any of us are too great.
Early learning and child care offers an example of federalism at its best. Where do we go next? As a department we will work to help build Canadians' faith in government. Citizens want to know that the programs they value will be secure and will adapt to their evolving circumstances. We will work with our provincial and territorial partners to develop flexible new approaches where they are needed.
We will not attempt to do everything on our own. Canadians do not support an old style approach where governments identify problems and devise solutions without listening to them. Governments make better decisions if citizens are involved in their plans and members of Parliament need to be an important part of this.
We will never forget the understandings that we share as Canadians and never let others forget and work always to close the gap between where we are and where we expect ourselves to be.