Mr. Speaker, I too would like to pay tribute to the fine performance of the previous speaker, the hon. member for Repentigny, who is the Bloc Québécois’ new critic for seniors. As the hon. member for Alfred-Pellan said, I think that this appointment will bring a sensibility to the House that was previously lacking and will impart a much higher tone to the debates on this subject.
It is a great pleasure for me to rise today on Bill C-36 which will correct, at least in part, one of the greatest injustices done to older people in Quebec and Canada.
There are several reasons why it is a particular pleasure for me, including the fact that this may have been the battle into which the Bloc Québécois member who preceded me in Saint-Maurice—Champlain, Marcel Gagnon, threw himself the most, that is to say, the battle for seniors and for the guaranteed income supplement.
I am very pleased today to see that his constant efforts over many years have now resulted in this matter reaching the public stage and the production of a bill—a bill that still needs to be improved, of course, but that still does much to correct a situation that so occupied him.
The statistics tell it all. Some 42,000 people in Quebec out of the 68,000 in 2001 will now receive the guaranteed income supplement. It will amount to as much as $6,600 a year per person.
There is another reason why I am especially happy with the progress made in this regard. The riding that I represent, Saint-Maurice—Champlain, was determined in late 2005 to be one of the 10 poorest in Canada. It is also a riding in which the number of older people is constantly increasing. These people found themselves impoverished because they could not access a program that would have helped them improve their situation, including among others the guaranteed income supplement. The result was even more poverty in the riding I represent than would otherwise have been the case. We had poverty that was fixable. The fact that it was not fixed is due to the negligence of the previous Liberal government, all to the detriment of our most disadvantaged citizens, as a number of other speakers have pointed out.
That inaction on the part of the Liberal government is truly troubling. The Department of Human Resources and Social Development had known since 1993 that many older people who were eligible for the program were not enrolled in it and were not receiving the money they were entitled to. There were 68,000 people in Quebec who were not enrolled. They did not know that they had to register.
That is absolutely scandalous. We say that we live in a developed, democratic society, when at the same time what we were seeing was scandals, speaking of the time between 1993 and today. This was quite common in the riding I represent, Saint-Maurice—Champlain. Friends of the party in power received millions of dollars under a program called the sponsorship program. Everyone knows this, and I see nothing wrong with pointing it out. The sole purpose of that program was to buy the conscience of Quebeckers. Meanwhile, that same party knew that there were people who did not have access to money that they should have been receiving. Nothing was done to correct this.
Millions of dollars were spent, handed out to friends of the party, money that was turned back over to the party on top of that. Older people, who built Quebec and Canada, were abandoned, as if those people did not need that money. Better that it should be wasted and we should help our friends.
Personally, I think it is appalling that during the same period there was a two-tier system. There were other people who did not have access to this program for a variety of reasons: in some cases, because they were illiterate; in others, they were disadvantaged by physical limitations, language barriers, problems with social integration or homelessness. Some people were living in places that were too remote, others belonged to aboriginal communities. In large majority, and at higher rates than for others, those people did not have access to the guaranteed income supplement.
Nor is the present Conservative government necessarily exempt here. When we see that illiteracy was one of the things some people did not have access to the guaranteed income supplement, we may wonder whether the recent cuts made by the Conservative government to funding for literacy groups will not have a similar effect on this program or even on other programs. People do need assistance, particularly older people, who account for a very large majority of illiterate individuals.
This is why I am serious in asking the Conservative government to review the cuts to funding for literacy groups announced last fall. These cuts could once again lead to unfairness, such as we saw with the guaranteed income supplement.
The guaranteed income supplement program is still a paradox. To me, the program's title, “guaranteed income supplement program”, seems to be just a front. For many years, no one had any guarantee that he or she would be getting benefits to improve his or her precarious financial situation. As we know, this program is for the elderly. They called it the guaranteed income supplement program, but many people did not get that guaranteed income.
Why did the government use the term “guaranteed” if the program was not going to apply to everyone? If we say that a program is guaranteed, then the guarantee must be universal. Those who designed this program should have taken all necessary measures to allow and guarantee automatic access for those who qualified, namely Canadian citizens over the age of 65 whose income is insufficient. Indeed, this program is linked to people's tax returns.
Again, one wonders why it was called the “guaranteed income supplement program”. I find that the principle of universality was not applied and that we did not facilitate access to this program, in order to help society's most needy.
I will conclude by going back to a few recommendations, particularly the one where the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities recommended that retroactive payments be made to those who were deprived of the guaranteed income supplement.
As the hon. member for Repentigny mentioned, the Bloc Québécois will maintain pressure to ensure full and total retroactivity. After all, these people were not deprived of only half of their benefits; they did not suffer a partial prejudice. The prejudice they suffered was total because they did not get their benefits.
Once again, I think that the Bloc Québécois has done an excellent job. We will keep up the good work in the coming months, so that this legislation can be satisfactorily amended and passed.