Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak to this bill today, which is the latest chapter in the government's plan for Canada. There is a bit of good news in it, most of it recycled from previous Liberal economic updates, but a lot of it causes me great concern.
I want to talk about two specific issues. One is the Atlantic accord, the remnants, the glowing embers, of what is left of the Atlantic accord. I also want to talk a little about students.
Budget 2007 in the spring signalled the end of the Atlantic accord. This economic budget implementation act confirms the death of the Atlantic accord.
It is an interesting saga. A member from the opposition said the premier of Nova Scotia seems to like it, but the premier of Nova Scotia has some problems that the member, being from Ontario, may not be aware of.
Back in the spring when the budget was introduced, he did not seem to know that anything was missing. He did not seem to know that something was wrong. Suddenly, though, people said that he had better look out, because the Atlantic accord was gone. He said it could not be but looked and saw that, uh-oh, it was. “What do I do?”, he asked.
He decided he was going to negotiate a little. He even told the Conservatives, including the member for Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley, to vote for the budget while he worked it out. That member had too much principle to do that. He voted against it.
Then the premier found out that the Prime Minister was not going to do anything for him. He was not even going to acknowledge that the Atlantic accord had been taken out, defeated and gutted. The premier decided that he was going to fight the Prime Minister. He was about the 900,000th Nova Scotian to realize what happened. He got on the bandwagon and said we could not live with that. Then he went over it again, did not get what he wanted, and started to negotiate.
Over the summer, we started to see little tidbits of information that there was a deal here or maybe a deal there. Suddenly, back in September or October, I cannot remember the month, we heard that a deal had been reached. The member for Central Nova, the Minister of National Defence, indicated that it was a good deal, that there was an exchange of letters and that an exchange of letters constitutes a contract. If that is the case, I think I have a valid contract with Santa Claus. Nothing happened. This deal failed to materialize.
Suddenly, a few weeks ago, we saw it, only we did not see it. We asked to see it. We had a briefing that was scheduled and put off, then scheduled and put off again. Then suddenly we had the briefing and the one thing we realized is that it is not a good deal.
Danny Williams, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, was right on the mark when he said on the day the deal came out that it is a bad deal by a weak government. The people of Nova Scotia and the people of Newfoundland and Labrador know that. Those people knew the Atlantic accord. They understood the Atlantic accord. Because although equalization is tough, the Atlantic accord was simple.
This new deal is back-end loaded. Crown shares are brought into it. There are those three-person panels. There is money in 2016. There are funding projections that are in doubt. People do not want that. They recognize that the government is going all over the place in trying to distract them. I think that if the government wanted to drive from Halifax to Vancouver it would go through Florida to get there, because it cannot do anything in a straight line or in a straight way.
However, the people of Nova Scotia and the people of Newfoundland and Labrador know one thing: this ain't the Atlantic accord and we want the Atlantic accord. It is not the Atlantic accord. It is not dealing fairly with the people of Nova Scotia and it is not dealing fairly with the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Now I want to talk about something else. I want to talk about students in Canada.
Canada is an educated nation, one of the most educated nations on earth. In the last number of years, starting in the late 1990s, we invested in research and innovation to make sure that the research agenda matched our students and our fine institutions, our great universities, our wonderful community colleges and our innovative polytechnic schools. We did some work on it, but the statistics now indicate that we are falling behind. We are starting to slip. Those investments are not there.
There is one area that as a nation we really need to invest in. If productivity really matters to a nation, it invests in its people. The human capital is the most important capital in any nation. Countries in the OECD are realizing that and are investing hugely in making sure that all of their students have access to post-secondary education. The emerging giants, China, Brazil and India, are ahead of us on a lot of this and are making sure that people have access to university.
We have to be particularly attentive to the most vulnerable students among us, who tend to be from low income families, aboriginal Canadians, persons with disabilities, and first generation university students. The government is doing nothing for them.
There was an $80 textbook credit in the spring. The average tuition in the province where the member for Cape Breton—Canso and I come from is $6,500 to $7,000. How do people afford to go to university unless the government says it is the government's responsibility to assist people to go to university, not just for their own benefit, which is the social justice argument, but because of the economic argument that it is good for the country and we need to do it?
I want to talk about the Millennium Scholarship Foundation. It was started in 1998 with a $2.5 billion endowment. It now kicks out about $350 million a year for student financing and the money is almost entirely needs based.
A number of student organizations put out a study this year called “Sleepwalking towards the precipice: the looming $350 million hole in Canada's financial aid system”. They talk about the Millennium Scholarship Foundation. They say:
Eliminating $350 million from the Canadian financial aid system will have a disastrous impact on the accessibility and affordability of a post-secondary education in Canada....
The federal government must continue to provide a commitment equal to or greater than the Foundation's original endowment in non-repayable student financial assistance.
One of the complaints we heard years ago about the millennium foundation from the then opposition, now the current government, was that it was not accountable. Guess what the students found:
The Foundation is fiscally efficient and has lower administrative costs than government departments, ensuring that students receive the maximum benefit....
There were “initial problems with displacement”. A number of organizations, such as the Canadian Federation of Students, which I respect, are not fans of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation, but even they would say that if it is taken out it has to be replaced with something of equal or better value for students most in need. The foundation is an organization that works across the country. It is in place in all the provinces and territories of Canada and is providing the assistance that Canadians need.
This program needs to be renewed. The government needs to stop dithering on student assistance and at the very least commit to keeping this very valuable organization going. It has to do this very soon.
Another organization that has been active in the last few months is the Coalition for Student Loan Fairness. Julian Benedict in British Columbia heads up the organization and has done some great research about student loans and some of the work that needs to be done.
The CSLF came out with eight significant recommendations. Among them is one to reduce the cost of borrowing from the 8% to 8.5% the government currently charges in the Canadian student loan system to what is now the cost of borrowing, which is somewhere in the 4.5% range. Whether that is adopted or we go somewhere in between, the government should at least acknowledge that there is a benefit to the nation as well as the student when we actually invest in making sure our students are educated.
The CSLF talks about an ombudsman's office. Whether we call it an ombudsman or a commissioner of student loan fairness, I think that is something we should look at as well.
The CSLF talks about “hardship relief” and the need to have something specific accelerated in this program for those students who are having trouble with their student loans. Students find it very hard, as they cannot go online to find out what their balance is on a student loan. I urge the government, in its review of the student loan process, to take some of those things into account.
Canadian students are among the best in the world. We should recognize that. We should encourage those students. We should make it as easy as possible for all Canadian students to go to university. We do not do enough. We generally do not do enough, not only for students, but for all those Canadians who most need help. In my view, the responsibility of government is to stand up for those citizens who are the most vulnerable.
I believe the current government cares little for those most in need. It shuts out students. It ignores low income families. It does nothing for the environment. I believe it takes Canada backwards in many ways. The Prime Minister says quite often that Canada is back. I would say we are back, way back, at the back of the pack. We are at the back of the pack when it comes to taking care of those who most need the assistance of their government. That is a shame.