Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to take part in the debate on a motion introduced by the New Democratic Party about the fundamental rights of our seniors, the right to dignity, to respect and to security.
I will be splitting my time with my colleague, the hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan.
I would first like to thank the hon. member for Hamilton Mountain for her excellent work.
She has brought forward a very comprehensive and very detailed motion.
The NDP has of course long been an advocate for our seniors, the people who built this country. We only have to recall such members of Parliament as Stanley Knowles to recall the tireless advocacy on behalf of seniors in this country.
We saw another example in Nova Scotia just days ago, when NDP leader Darrell Dexter made seniors issues a top priority for our party in that election, as he had done in the previous election where he forced the Conservative government, in a minority context, to remove an insidious provision that penalized seniors who needed access to medications but who were living in homes that provided support.
I am pleased to say that there was an improvement in that situation, very much honouring the commitment made by New Democrats, and I hope that same scenario will play out in Nova Scotia as a result of the recent election there.
We believe that at the federal level what is needed is the adoption of a seniors charter. That charter would include provisions for income security for seniors, for housing, wellness, health care, self-development and proper government services. We believe that such a charter would be a major step in recognizing the needs of our aging population and setting up a framework for action.
I will not develop all of these six aspects, as many of my colleagues have actually spoken at length about their importance in this debate, but let me say that action is needed now, because when it comes to seniors, it is the sad fact that time is a key factor. While we twiddle our thumbs as governments, as Parliaments, and simply talk about an issue but do not act on it, these seniors are aging in place. Some of them never end up with the opportunity to access the very things that we spend time talking about.
Here is an opportunity to move quickly on some key issues facing seniors. I hope the House will embrace it in that spirit. All too often, I find that politicians, and I think we can share this collectively, do not act out of a sense of urgency when we need to. There is a 10 year plan here and a 20 year plan there, but when it comes to coming to grips with the fact that many of our seniors need action now, we stand back. But they cannot afford to wait. They are making decisions each and every day that are very painful.
I know that many hon. members are aware that too many seniors are dealing with an affordable housing crisis. They simply cannot afford the housing they are in. When we talk to them about it, when we speak to them about how they are paying 80% of their meagre incomes just to keep their homes or pay their rents, so often they will say to me, “Oh well, Jack, it's not that bad”. They say they will just cut back on some of the basics and they will get by. They say that the food bank is very helpful. The idea that seniors have to go to a food bank after they have spent their whole lives building this country should be a national shame. It is a national shame.
We need to build affordable housing. That is provided for as a fundamental in the charter.
As well, of course, they cannot afford to wait for a health care system that takes care of them adequately. Time is passing. They cannot afford the cost of drugs and dental care, which too often are put aside by seniors because they simply have to manage their weekly groceries.
We have heard from doctors. We have heard from seniors themselves. How many have we heard from who have said they know the doctor wanted them to take a particular prescription, but it is not covered by any plan they have access to and they just cannot afford it. “We'll get by,” they say. They should not have to be making those kinds of decisions.
When Tommy Douglas talked about medicare in the 1950s and early 1960s, including in this place in the 1960s, he always spoke about how pharmacare ultimately had to become a part of a medicare system. It is so fundamental now to the health that we pursue with the medical profession. I have talked to seniors who have had to literally make the choice between medication their doctor told them they should have, which would reduce their pain, increase their mobility and could prolong their lives, and food, which their doctor of course also recommends that they eat because they have to eat well.
Making that kind of choice is something that no senior in this country, as affluent as we are, as blessed as we are, should ever have to make, particularly when we consider that seniors made sure that our basic needs were met throughout their entire lives.
Here is an opportunity for us to say that right across the country no seniors should ever find themselves in a situation where they are having to choose between food and dental care, or food and drugs.
Dental care is something I came to know quite a bit about when I was in municipal government and chaired our board of health. We were providing a certain kind of dental assistance to students in the schools right across the city. Many of them had plans, though, and what we focused on was the need for seniors, no matter who they were, no matter what income they had, to be able to go to a clinic and get access to dental care. We put that in place. I know there are some other hon. members here who were on council at the time we discussed these matters. It now is in place for the entire large megacity of Toronto.
The numbers of seniors I have talked with who said that the ability to get some basic dental care has improved the quality of their life in their senior years so much has underlined to me that this is something we should be ensuring for every senior in Canada, no matter where they live and no matter what their income might be. Self-esteem and general health are fundamentally affected by dental care, so I am particularly thrilled that in this proposed motion there is a concept of ensuring that dental care, as well as drugs, is available to all seniors.
Today, more than 250,000 seniors are living below the poverty line. This is truly scandalous. Women make up a large proportion of this group, their retirement income being lower because of the wage gap between women and men, and because pension schemes do not make up for time taken off work to rear children or care for family members who are ill, something that, obviously, is usually done by women.
Adopting this charter would provide the federal government with a clear framework for action to assist our seniors. Obviously, however, some things have to be done in cooperation with the provinces. This is important, and it is possible. For example, the Canada pension plan and the Quebec pension plan operate very well side by side. We can use that approach for measures that are included today in our seniors charter.
The NDP believes that flexibility should be a key element of any action taken by the federal government. This is fundamental. The idea is not to create duplication. On the contrary, the idea is to help the provinces, including Quebec, that have programs of particular importance for seniors, such as drug plans, for example.
The federal government has the funds that are needed to help the province strengthen those programs. We can also help the other provinces to create these programs.
Finally, our motion also calls for the creation of a seniors advocate. The Conservatives have not appointed a minister to be at the table and be specifically responsible for seniors. I think that is unfortunate, but now it is up to Parliament to take a proactive step. We can do that.
We believe it is essential that the charter be brought to life by an advocate. This person would report every year to the House and could make recommendations about the efficiency and effectiveness of all federal government programs with respect to seniors and their special needs.
I urge all members of the House to support our motion. Our seniors have worked hard enough for all of us for so many years. They deserve our support. It is time that Parliament stood up for them.