Mr. Speaker, it is indeed an honour for me to be here. As a school teacher, when I studied government with my students, I emphasized the fact that politics was indeed an honourable profession. All of us are here because we want to serve our country. In my case, I became involved in politics because I am concerned about the future of my country.
My parents came to Canada as political refugees, fleeing the horrors of the Russian revolution and civil war. They were very thankful that Canada gave them a home where they could raise their family in peace.
My father spent 38 years working in a lumber mill. As a youth going to school, I was also able to work there, earning a union wage at that time of $1.92 an hour.
Thanks to my union job and relatively low tuition fees, I was able to finish university basically debt free. This is no longer the case. It is harder for students to get well-paying jobs as our industry is hit by the negative effects of NAFTA and the ideological pressure to contract out jobs.
Many students work in various fast food outlets trying to make ends meet and are faced with increasing tuition fees. It is not uncommon for university graduates to have a debt load of from $20,000 to $60,000 upon finishing.
Our government wants to reduce the GST when there is apparently not enough money available for post-secondary education. I think things would be fairer for ordinary families if education were more affordable.
It is an honour and a privilege to represent those in B.C. Southern Interior. I will do everything I can to represent their interests, just as our previous MP and his staff have done. I thank him for his hard work and wish him all the best in his retirement as he hits the golf trail and prepares gourmet meals for his wife, Ann.
The past few years have been perhaps the most enriching ones of my life. The energy and time put in by all the volunteers, in addition to their individual financial contribution that kept coming in, was truly amazing.
I am happy to announce today that four of these amazing people Ann Harvey, Laurel Walton, Gina Petrakos and Jayme Hadikin have accepted positions as my assistants. Together with an amazing Hill veteran, Jennifer Ratz, I believe we have a team second to none.
In addition to our Castlegar office, it is my pleasure to announce that, as of June 1, I will have part time offices both in Oliver and in Princeton to better serve the western part of my riding.
It is difficult to name all those dedicated and committed people who have stood beside me over the past years, but a special thanks should be said to my wife. In spite of the fact that she said “I think you're crazy” when I said I was thinking of running for office, she is still right here with me in Ottawa.
The three others who encouraged me right from the beginning are our former MLA, Ed Conroy, his wife, Katrina Conroy, who is now our MLA, and Lily Popoff, our riding president at that time.
Before moving on to talk about some issues facing our riding, I would like to pay tribute to some old-timers who not only supported me in the campaign, but who have spent their entire lives, or most of their lives, in the pursuit of social justice. My old friend Albin Carlson from Oliver, a long-time social democrat from Sweden, who will be 100 years old this year; Marshall and Isabella Johnson of Princeton, who will be celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary this year; Agnes and Hugh Herbison of Argenta, with roots in the Quaker community, who have been fighting for peace and justice for many years; and finally, what would I have done without Harold and Phyllis Funk when we blitzed Grand Forks with leaflets last September?
Many diverse ethnic groups make their home in our riding. It was indeed a pleasure for me on New Year's Day to be present at the Sikh temple in Oliver, as it was to have met some members of the Portuguese community in Osoyoos prior to the last campaign. I have also had the privilege of attending a couple of dinners at the Columbo Lodge in Trail, one of the gathering points for the Italian community.
One of the main reasons my wife and I moved to Castlegar 12 and a half years ago was because of the Russian presence in that area. It is possible to go downtown in Castlegar and Grand Forks and hear Russian spoken in restaurants and on the streets.
The Doukhobors came to Canada at the turn of the 20th century because of religious persecution in Russia. They are pacifists, who have worked for peace and justice since the community was established.
Over the years they have made contributions to the cooperative work ethic of toil and peaceful life. They have built railroads, developed farms, flour mills, sawmills and jam factories.
One of their trademarks is choral singing. Their beautiful acapela choirs have performed at the United Nations and in Europe. I invite everyone to come to Castlegar in the May long weekend to attend the Doukhobor Youth Festival and get a taste of Doukhobor culture, especially the delicious food.
Two members of this community have been helping to build bridges between Canada and Russia by undertaking projects in that country. Mike Kanigan has been helping people in Rostov-on-Don to set up a door and window manufacturing business, while Alex Jmaeff has spent a number of years in Yasnaya Polyana spearheading a bakery and restaurant project.
In the Kootenay Boundary region, many people, including members of the Doukhobor community, are working for peace and justice. They want Canada to work with the United Nations to promote peace throughout the world and they are concerned about the role our country appears to be setting for itself these days and especially our military commitment.
I would like to thank my friends, members of the Kootenay Regional United Nations Association and others for their tireless pursuit of world peace. They, along with many in our riding, welcome the debate on Afghanistan, which will take place this evening.
At this time I would like to recognize Private Will Salikin of Grand Forks for his contribution and service to our country. On behalf of all Canadians, I wish him well as he recovers from injuries sustained while serving in Afghanistan.
A young woman from Castlegar, Mireille Evans, is currently preparing for a dangerous mission in Colombia as a volunteer with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She will be spending time in the peace community of San Jose de Apartado to help discourage, by her presence, the abduction and killing of community members by illegal paramilitary groups. I fear for her well-being and I salute her courage.
The throne speech talks about reducing wait times in our hospitals. One way of ensuring that patients receive timely care is to target federal funding for long term senior care spaces. This would open up more acute beds in our hospitals, which would in turn decrease surgical wait times.
As members can see, there are many concrete and positive alternatives to cutting the GST by 1%.
Our rural communities are facing difficulties. We have heard over the past week what farmers are telling us. Unless there is some immediate help and a long term agricultural policy, the family farm, along with the thousands of towns and villages in rural Canada, will be a thing of the past. In my riding of British Columbia Southern Interior, our cattle industry needs some flexibility to be able to access locally owned and approved slaughter facilities. It is a disgrace that we allow Washington State to dump their apples in B.C. while our primary producers in the Okanagan are fighting to survive.
It is my hope that there will soon be an end to the softwood lumber dispute. I urge our government to demand an immediate return of the $5 billion-plus which was literally stolen from our communities. I urge the Prime Minister to remind the U.S. President that this is not a way to treat our friends.
I am encouraged to see there will be a review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. We in B.C. Southern Interior live in a pristine place. It is important that we preserve our wilderness areas and species that inhabit them, such as the mountain caribou.
Finally, the survival of our rural way of life depends in part on a fair and just federal infrastructure program. Our communities need continued assistance and more flexibility in deciding their local priorities. A common thread uniting the citizens from Manning Park to Kaslo, Salmo and New Denver is a desire to live in sustainable and prosperous rural communities.
I urge all members of all political parties to work together to truly represent the interests of rural Canada.