Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak on the budget presented yesterday and I look forward to some discussion on this as we move forward.
On May 14, 2006, a Meadow Lake Progress editorial stated that with the 2006 budget, northern Saskatchewan communities “have been left behind”.
The editorial listed three major ways in which our communities have been left behind: first, no specific help for forestry workers and communities in Saskatchewan; second, nothing to help farmers with spring seeding; and third, abandoning the Kelowna accord.
It is unfortunate that a year and a budget later, little has changed. Once again, Saskatchewan forestry workers and industry have not been given any specific assistance, farmers will not receive any help for spring seeding, and of course the Kelowna accord has not been honoured.
Northern Saskatchewan is once again being left behind.
However, this budget is even more of a disappointment for northern Saskatchewan because of all the Conservative broken promises. Income tax rates have increased and income trusts have been taxed. There are no plans to reduce health care wait times. The promise of removing non-renewable resources from the equalization formula has been abandoned.
Let me first address agriculture. The agriculture announcement is all headline and no substance. After a year of the Prime Minister being distracted by fighting with farmers over the future of the Canadian Wheat Board, he forgot to deliver any assistance to them for spring seeding this year.
As the Western Producer reported on March 15, 2007, farmers and the provinces know they are being played as pawns by the Conservatives with the budget as well. This has given rise to frustration and cynicism.
Farmers know that the Conservatives are playing political games by claiming the budget must be passed in order for money to flow. Farmers need assistance with spring seeding now to pay for fertilizer, fuel and other costs of production.
The Prime Minister can and should deliver the money now but is leaving the producers waiting. There is no reason to wait. This aid needs to be delivered now. Farmers who need the aid now might not be in business by the fall or next year.
We must make no mistake: for the current government, farmers are on their own.
On top of that, the farmer savings accounts that require provinces to buy in were unilaterally introduced by the Prime Minister without consultation. Provinces were caught by surprise by the announcement. No timelines or details have come out yet, making the announcement an empty headline.
Moreover, during the Prime Minister's photo op in Saskatoon, he could not resist taking potshots at the Saskatchewan premier even while admitting he needed the premier's support to create these savings accounts. So much for creating goodwill and working together.
The situation for Saskatchewan forestry workers, the industry and the communities is also deeply disappointing. In the past year, the Conservatives did not announce any Saskatchewan-specific plans to help workers or businesses. In the softwood managed trade agreement, they left $1 billion of illegally collected duties in American hands and traded away half of Saskatchewan's traditional U.S. market share.
With tough market conditions, forestry workers and industry deserve a strategy about how to move forward. The Liberals had responded to this challenge by creating the five year and $1.5 billion forest industry competitiveness strategy. This strategy offered long term stability and a plan to build sustainability for forestry communities.
However, the Conservatives abandoned that strategy. This has meant incredible hardship for Big River mill workers, who have been out of work for the past year, and uncertainties for Meadow Lake mills. The pain and uncertainty for these workers are real and the Prime Minister needs to offer his support to them. These workers deserve a plan. It is time the Prime Minister delivered it.
Northern Saskatchewan has also been hurt by broken Conservative promises. The Conservatives breaking their health care wait time promise by not offering any timelines or plans and the health minister's lack of leadership on health issues have hurt rural and northern communities.
However, other challenges also need immediate attention. Accessibility to treatment and facilities remains a major concern. Recurring doctor shortages in Spiritwood led to its hospital closing, forcing residents to travel at least an hour to get emergency care. For remote communities, there is double the hardship.
As for taxes, the Conservatives broke their word to lower taxes, hiking the lowest income tax rate to 15.5% in the last budget and refusing to cut it in this budget. Also, the amount that people can earn tax free has been lowered and the Conservatives refuse to increase it to the levels the Liberals had it at. This move has meant that tax credit savings for Canadians have been cancelled out or that their taxes have actually increased.
The broken income trust promise has been a bitter disappointment as well, as many relied on the Prime Minister's promise not to tax income trusts. His sudden move to tax income trusts took away $25 billion from investors overnight.
But breaking the equalization promise is perhaps the most bitter of all for Saskatchewan. For over two years, Conservative members of Parliament had vocally advocated excluding non-renewable resources. The member for Battlefords—Lloydminster changed from saying that “people were getting angry about equalization” to saying it was priority 11 out of 10. The member for Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre switched from introducing a motion in support of the promise to saying he would “be happy with whatever announcement was made” by the Prime Minister.
With this broken promise it is clear that not one of them is willing to speak up for Saskatchewan. Their voices do not even amount to a whisper in the government.
Considering the amount cut by the Conservatives by scrapping the child care agreements and the Kelowna accord, the income tax rate hikes and personal tax free amount decreases and social program cuts to literacy, museums and youth investments, Saskatchewan is not even at a break-even point because of this broken promise.
As for aboriginal issues, the scrapping of the Kelowna accord and the meagre funding for first nations, Métis and Inuit, despite the quickly growing aboriginal population, hurts Saskatchewan in particular. The last year had already been very disappointing for aboriginal Canadians. Only $150 million of new money was specifically dedicated to first nations, Métis and Inuit. With cuts to INAC and aboriginal health and languages totalling at least $220 million, this means that funding was cut by about $70 million, a net loss over the course of the last year.
What a loss scrapping the Kelowna accord has been. There has been more of a loss than simply the $5.1 billion that was budgeted for economic development, housing, water and health. It is more than the loss of the new consensus reached between premiers and the aboriginal leadership.
The investments in the Kelowna accord would have provided increased economic development for all of Saskatchewan; more jobs for aboriginal and non-aboriginal workers, as investments in housing and water would have created a need for construction workers, water treatment specialists and housing firms; more economic activity, particularly for all northern Saskatchewan communities, as business opportunities would be created to meet the needs of suppliers, workers and capacity. Most important, investments in our youth for education and child care would have enabled aboriginal youth to achieve their goals in post-secondary education because they would have the necessary supports from their communities for funding and services.
However, the narrow and short-sighted vision of the Conservatives never saw the Kelowna accord for the opportunity it held for Saskatchewan. They saw it as something to cut. With this cut they have cut down the aspirations of many first nations, Métis and Inuit youth, youth who deserve much better, youth who are the competitive advantage of a new Saskatchewan. Without investing resources, this will increase the social pressures upon which these young people have to survive and battle every day.
A few weeks ago I was in Sandy Bay, a community that suffered through several suicides by despondent youth. The small community was in shock, reeling from the loss of so many lives. Many spoke about how they needed hope, jobs and something to do, someone to talk to. Community members came together in the face of this tragedy. The many divisions of the town joined together: Métis, first nations and municipal; health, justice and leadership; youth, elders and parents. They all came together for a common cause, the young people who needed the attention in order to survive and prosper in the new Saskatchewan.
This is what the Kelowna accord was about for Canada, all Canadians united, working together, a meeting ground, an understanding, a commitment to get the work done that needed to get done.
At their meeting, Sandy Bay residents spoke of their considerable need. They need resources for health, basic infrastructure, community halls, youth centres and such. Will they be able to achieve that? Only if we, the Liberals, the NDP, the Bloc and Conservatives commit once and for all to respect that it is people in those communities that have the answers and we exist only to empower them. We cannot afford to waste any time.