Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me today to rise to support this motion.
The motion deals with an issue that is extremely important to all Canadians: equality for women.
Budget cuts affect us all, but mostly the very vulnerable in our country.
The Treasury Board president defends his government's cuts by referring to the cuts to social programs made by the Liberal government 10 years ago. However, we cut spending in a successful effort to deal with a $42 billion deficit resulting from the fiscal mismanagement of the previous Conservative government. The Conservatives had reduced Canada to what the brokers on Wall Street described as a third world economy.
Today's cuts are being made despite the fact that we have a $13.2 billion surplus, thanks to the prudent fiscal management of the recent Liberal government.
We are heading down the meanspirited path of Mike Harris in Ontario. Two former Mike Harris hatchet men are leading the charge in their new federal roles as finance minister and Treasury Board president.
Soon there will be no funding and no services, and it will take a generation to fix. The most vulnerable groups are affected first, including women.
It is all in the cuts. The list includes: $5 million from status of women; $45 million from housing, we were fighting for housing just two minutes ago and here we are now cutting; volunteerism, now the government is punishing volunteers; youth international internship programs; youth employment; literacy; court challenges program; and important support programs for the most vulnerable in our society. The government is hammering women, aboriginals and youth. This is totally unacceptable.
It is targeting equality seeking groups because this government believes that they are a threat to its voter base.
A government with only 125 seats out of 308 in this House has absolutely no mandate to make such major changes to the social fabric of Canada.
Let us not forget that this Prime Minister, during the recent election campaign, signed a commitment to “ensure that Canada fully upholds its equality commitments to women”.
How do we square that with the Draconian cuts to women's programs that this government has just made?
I have news for the folks across the aisle. The government must address the needs of all Canadians not just its favourite ones.
Our democratic system has to support the fight for equality rights for all citizens, including: minority language groups, immigrant groups, religious groups, disability groups, same-sex rights groups, and women's groups. They all need the resources to ensure their arguments are heard when their rights are trampled on.
We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It should be a cause for celebration. Instead, this government dishonours that by shutting out equality seeking groups. Women were only included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, and that was only after they marched on Ottawa to demand recognition.
The court challenges program established under the Liberal government was meant to implement this kind of thing. That program was dismantled by the Brian Mulroney Conservatives. It was then reinstated by the former Liberal government. Now, this Conservative government has chopped this program yet again.
What does the court challenges program really do? It seems to me that people think it is a waste of time fighting for people's rights. Let me give some examples.
One example is ESL for immigrant women. In the late eighties the policy of the government was that immigrant women should not receive subsidized English language training because they were not deemed to be going to work, whether they did or not, it did not matter. They did not need English language training. Only men could get training.
It was as a result of a court challenge, which I personally, by the way, was involved with, that women were able to get that turned around.
I have here another charter challenge. The Canada pension plan was extended to include on reserve workers after a status Indian, employed on reserve for many years, was excluded from CPP simply for working on reserve, funded by a court challenges program. This was another aboriginal woman again.
The other example is the rape shield. We all know the famous decision on that one, the protection of therapeutic and confidential files of sexual assault survivors in the context of criminal proceedings. These are only but a very few examples. I have many others if the members opposite are interested. The elimination of the court challenges program is just the beginning of the Conservative plan to cut the legs out from under all equality seeking groups.
The cuts that have just been announced are yet another example of the government's lack of compassion for ordinary Canadians. Women have many roles in today's Canada and face many problems of discrimination and violence. The government has to be there to protect. It has to be there for the people of Canada. Instead, the government guts the funding to equality seeking groups that help raise awareness and fight discrimination.
We are saddled with a minister who will not rule out the possibility that Status of Women Canada might wind up on the Conservative chopping block. Does the minister not see the important role this agency serves in promoting gender equality and the full participation of women in the economic, social, cultural and political life of Canada? If, as she has shown so far, she is not prepared to fight for Canadian women, she should resign today.
My colleagues were taken aback, as I was, to hear the minister say:
Our government is not a government that just keeps institutions alive in any of its areas...just for the sake of keeping an institution alive.
What planet is she living on? Maybe it is Pluto. Her attitude is offensive to all Canadian women struggling for decent affordable housing, a decent income and retirement years free from poverty. The minister has no heart in this case and no clout.
The minister says that money spent on women's programs can be farmed out to other departments. The other solution is to hide the problem. By mainstreaming responsibilities, she will be ensuring that no one is responsible for guaranteeing women's equality rights, rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. When nobody is responsible, there is no accountability.
Without a full department under a real minister, the rights of women under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms will be non-existent. That is what the Status of Women Canada is, which is why it is so important that it be preserved and supported as a lead agency for all government departments in the ongoing quest for equality for the women of Canada.
The knowledge and experience that it has gained in such areas as pay equity, gender based analysis, just name it, must not be sacrificed on the altar of the REAL Women ideology. Canadian women are still marginalized within key political, social and legal institutions. These are still the realities of today. They must have a strong and independent women's movement to promote recommendations in support of women's rights. We must have that to support equality before the law, an adequate standard of living, to fight for meaningful employment and access to justice.
The government must demonstrate leadership and vision on women's equality on all those issues and many more and it must increase the women's budget and make it sustainable, not cut it.
The government must ensure that core funding is available to sustain day to day operations of women's groups. This is what is demanded and this is what is necessary. Instead of this, the President of the Treasury Board says that the government is cutting fat. For the Conservatives, parental leave is fat, affordable housing is fat and women's health is fat.
As we all know, we established the National Centers of Excellence in Women's Health all cross Canada, which was never done before and did not exist. I guess the present government considers the research centres of excellence to be fat. I guess the ESL for immigrant women that I mentioned earlier, which, under a charter challenge, were given the right to access programs, is fat.
The Prime Minister says that Canadian men and women of the armed services coming home in coffins is the price we must pay for bringing freedom and equality to Afghani women. Meanwhile, his government is slashing spending on hundreds of programs upon which Canadian women depend for an improved quality of life. He is prepared to leave them voiceless.
Does anyone follow the logic of committing military force to protect the rights of Afghani women while, at the same time, slashing spending on programs designed to promote and protect the rights of Canadian women? I certainly cannot.
We need to further strengthen women's rights to equality and security of the person, not weaken them as the minority Conservative government is doing. The Conservatives are simply caving in to the pressure of right wing radical groups, such as REAL Women, that believe a woman's place is in the home, barefoot in the kitchen.
Women's groups still have a long battle ahead to achieve equality in this country. We are not there. The fight is a huge one. Women in this country were well on their way until the present minority government came along and removed equality from the national agenda altogether.
Liberal governments, on the other hand, are known for their commitment to women's equality. Building on the Liberal achievements from 1993 to 1994, the former Liberal government continued to take action. The following are only some of the things it achieved: first, Parliament established the Standing Committee on the Status of Women in September 2004, which the Conservative government tried to eliminate at the beginning of this Parliament.
In October 2005, an expert panel was created to provide advice and options to strengthen accountability mechanisms to advance gender based analysis and gender equality issues.
In 2000, parental benefits were extended to one year. National Centers of Excellence in Women's Health and the Institute for Gender and Health were created to work on health policy issues unique to women.
Thirty-two million dollars were committed on an annual basis to the national crime prevention initiative and $7 million were committed to the family violence initiative. Of that money, $1 million over four years is being provided to address violence against aboriginal women.
In the fall of 2005, trafficking in persons was added as an offence to the Immigration and Refugee Act, Bill C-49.
In response to the sisters in spirit proposal, the Liberal government provided $5 million over five years to the Native Women's Association of Canada. These funds support NWAC's work with other aboriginal women's organizations and the federal government on activities aimed at ending violence against aboriginal women.
To help make post-secondary education more affordable for lower and middle income Canadians, $2.1 billion over five years were committed to improving student financial assistance. There were $1.3 billion over five years committed to improving settlement and integration services for new immigrants to Canada.
Budget 2005 ensured that senior women would benefit from a $2.7 billion increase over two years to the guaranteed income supplement and a $15 million increase to the new horizons for seniors program.
Despite the progress that we have made, women still only make 71¢ for every dollar a male earns in Canada. The government, in conjunction with women's organizations, must deal with the growing problem of women's economic security.
The National Council on Welfare research shows that women, especially lone parents, stay in poverty longer than others. Poverty costs all Canadians in many ways: increased health care costs, social disintegration and associated crime, untapped potential and labour market activities.
Women are still disadvantaged by the employment insurance program. The program was supposed to be reviewed to assess the inequities for women. Still today, women are less likely to qualify and less likely to get full benefits. Part time workers, mostly women, are excluded. Maternity and parental benefits are least accessible to those mothers who need it the most.
Senior women and caregivers are among those most severely at risk of poverty. The old age security and the GIS benefits are below the poverty line and do not factor in actual costs of living, such as rent in Toronto.
EI must be reformed. Hours needed to qualify must be reduced. Self-employed women must be able to contribute and qualify for maternity and parental benefits.
CPP is very important for senior women as well. This is another part that is based on employment but could be interrupted because of violence, child rearing and caregiving. This affects women in a totally different way than it affects men. Taking time out is something that affects women.
The poverty level of seniors is increasing. Unpaid work for women is a major cause of poverty, as I mentioned earlier, because of having to take time out. Caregivers of today are the poor seniors of tomorrow. Women making 71¢ for every dollar made by men is not acceptable. That has to change.
The way we structure the CPP has to change to allow women to deal with taking time out for caregiving, as we do when we have children, because, quite frankly, they are the backbone of our nation. They are holding up the nation right now and are saving us billions of dollars in caregiving. However, because they are pitching in they will pay the price when they are seniors and that is not acceptable.
Increased education levels for women have not changed and this is appalling.
The report from the Standing Committee on the Status of Women clearly shows that the current system does not work.
We need new pay equity legislation. The Liberal Party committed to introducing this legislation in the House but the Conservative government's response to the standing committee, which basically says that it will not introduce pay equity legislation, is further proof that the present government is dead set against equality for women. It has chosen to keep in place an archaic system that has not worked for the last 30 years and has refused to introduce pay equity legislation that would give women some semblance of income security. It is quite obvious that the government does not intend to respect and promote women's human rights. That is yet another clear reason why it is so important to ensure the ongoing federal funding for advocacy groups that defend women's rights.
The government's response to gender based analysis is that it will make sure it is adhered to but it is not prepared to put in place a process or legislation to ensure its use by every department, especially the Department of Finance and other departments that have traditionally resisted integrating gender based analysis of all programs into their systems, which would address the issues of inequalities. This could be identified up front before policies are made and before they impact on women in a negative manner. This is another area that the government completely refuses to act on. We are supposed to trust it on everything but it will eventually get rid of the Status of Women. It seems that it is on the chopping block and that will completely obliterate women's rights.
With respect to pay equity, it is absolutely unacceptable that pay equity is not part of the government's program. When we were in government, we committed to bringing in legislation because the departments were not prepared to function. The only place where we were successful was at CIDA and maybe one other ministry. We actually led the way in training the World Bank with respect to gender based analysis because we had the expertise in the Status of Women Canada department. However, we are not able to use that expertise in our own departments because there is no will to force it. We were prepared to push that with legislation but the present government has refused to do that.
I am proud to inform the House that the Conservatives received only 18% of the vote in my riding of Beaches--East York. My voters understood what the Conservatives would do if they ever came into power. These latest budget cuts demonstrate that my constituents were right when they concluded that the Conservatives were most definitely not fit to govern.