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House of Commons Hansard #40 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was ethanol.

Topics

Old Age Security ProgramPrivate Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan

Conservative

Lynne Yelich ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for raising this issue in the House today. My colleague, like every member in the House, cares deeply about seniors and seniors' issues, especially the issues faced by seniors living in low income situations.

I would like to take this opportunity to discuss this government's actions with respect to seniors' issues, and we welcome any input from the opposition.

The good news is that Canada has one of the lowest poverty rates among seniors in the world. In fact, most Canadian seniors enjoy a high standard of living. Since 1980, the level of low income among Canadian seniors has dropped from just over 21% to about 6%, yet even this remarkable achievement leaves too many Canadian seniors living below the poverty line.

That is why this government continues to make the needs of low income seniors a priority, and that is why I welcome the opportunity to address the motion before the House today.

The motion proposes that the government review the old age security program with a view to achieving four main objectives. I would like to address each of these now.

First, the motion proposes that the government reduce operational costs in the old age security program by ceasing to pay benefits that subsequently have to be repaid.

Second, it proposes that any savings from these measures should then be allocated first to beneficiaries of the guaranteed income supplement, or the GIS, specifically elderly, single, divorced or widowed individuals.

It is exceedingly rare that the old age security program pays out a benefit that must later be repaid. Most of the overpayments result from errors in statements of income or a late notification of changes in marital status or death. Overpayments occur in less than one-third of 1% of all files and amount to about 1% of total benefits paid out annually.

Our government is working to eliminate even these rare instances of overpayment. Service Canada is working with the provinces to collect vital statistics in a more efficient and timely manner to eliminate the overpayments that occur due to late notifications of death or a change in marital status.

As a result of the government's successful modernization of this important program, the first two sections of this motion are unnecessary. In the very near future the savings to be made from overpayments will amount to mere fractions of pennies for each recipient.

The third provision calls on the government to improve GIS benefits for elderly, single, divorced and widowed individuals.

Under this government all seniors, including those groups mentioned in this motion, are receiving hundreds of more dollars in guaranteed income supplement and old age security benefits than under the previous Liberal government.

In fact, since we took office two years ago we have overseen two increases to the GIS.

Effective January 2006, we raised the GIS by 3.5% and we did again in January 2007. These measures are providing all single recipients with an additional $430 per year and $700 more per year per couple.

These increases will raise the total guaranteed income supplement benefit by more than $2.7 billion over the next five years and benefit more than 1.6 million GIS recipients, including more than 50,000 seniors who were not eligible under previous Liberal governments.

The fourth provision in the motion proposes to exempt 15 hours per week of earned income at minimum wage in the recipient's province of residence without penalty.

Given the range of minimum wage rates across the country, the income exemption would vary from just under $6,000 in Nova Scotia to just over $6,000 in Nunavut. Such a measure would raise serious equity concerns as seniors would receive different benefits depending on their province of residence.

The GIS is an important resource for low income seniors. It was never intended to supplement an individual's income. Rather, it was and is intended to ensure every pensioner has enough income from all sources, including the GIS, to maintain and improve the standard of living of Canada's seniors.

That said, we currently have an earned income exemption for GIS recipients of 20% of earned income above and beyond any benefits received from the government. This exemption is capped at $500, which is reached with an income of $2,500 per year.

Providing additional assistance to older workers and to seniors wishing to re-enter the workforce is a worthy goal, especially given the labour shortages that exist in so many sectors where seniors are likely to take a part time job. Let us examine the proposed solution for a few moments.

Recent statistics show that only about 4% of guaranteed income supplement recipients have earned income above and beyond the benefits provided to them. Many of those who have decided to enter the workforce have done so for personal reasons that are not financial, for example, to maintain social connections, to continue contributing to the community, to stay active, or just to be out of the house.

Then there are the real considerations. If all of these seniors were to take advantage of the 15-hour exemption, this would cost the GIS program almost a quarter billion dollars each year. This figure assumes no additional seniors would choose to enter the labour market. This translates into a large cost to taxpayers to benefit a very tiny percentage of seniors, and the seniors who could benefit are not likely to be the seniors most in need of additional assistance.

The government is committed to the financial well-being of Canadian seniors, especially those with low incomes. This is why we have done more for seniors in 24 months than the previous Liberal government did in 13 years.

We made it easier for seniors to apply for Canada pension and old age security benefits through the passage of Bill C-36.

We have reduced combined income taxes by allowing senior couples to split their pension income.

We have reduced the GST twice, which is often the only tax that low income seniors pay.

We have created the National Seniors Council to advise the government on matters related to seniors' well-being and quality of life.

We have committed $10 million to combat elder abuse through public awareness and education and upgrading of community buildings and equipment used by seniors.

We have also budgeted an additional $10 million per year to the new horizons for seniors program to encourage seniors to contribute to their communities.

As I said before, this government is serious about improving support for all seniors. That is why we have examined the provisions of this motion with particular attention.

Again, we thank the member for her concern for seniors. However, it is clear that despite its good intentions, the motion does not do what low income seniors might expect. It does not provide substantial and effective assistance of any kind to seniors, which this government has offered in the past and will continue to offer in the future.

For these reasons, I oppose the motion and urge all members of the House to join me in doing so.

Old Age Security ProgramPrivate Members' Business

6:30 p.m.

Liberal

Glen Pearson Liberal London North Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of the member for Rimouski and the motion she has put forward. I do it for a number of different reasons, some of which are personal.

What we just heard in the House in the last intervention really does not deal with the aspect of seniors' poverty which we are facing now. This is a huge issue and a significant one.

The old age security and guaranteed income supplement were designed at a time when our country was in a very different place. It was a world in which mothers worked at home, raised children and were widowed young, but not divorced, where fathers worked in industrial settings, and where both men and women had much shorter life expectancies at older ages than those of succeeding generations.

Today we know that life is very different and as a result, the social impacts of a changed society have had dramatic repercussions on all segments of this society. For Canada's low income seniors these changes have meant a lingering cycle of poverty. We as parliamentarians actually have the ability to change that.

While there has been a clear improvement in the economic situation of Canadian seniors since the 1980s, a substantial number of seniors continue to live under very difficult economic conditions. While many consider Canada's combined public-private retirement income system a success story, poverty among seniors is not a rare occurrence. It is most common among seniors living alone, women over the age of 80, visible minorities and immigrants.

For a good number of these seniors living in poverty, the prospect of a golden retirement simply does not exist. The gains in old age security and CPP cut seniors' poverty in half during the 1980s and the 1990s, a very significant accomplishment, but it showed what government could do when it applied itself to seniors and the struggles that they were facing.

I speak from experience. I am a director of the food bank in London. I have been a volunteer director there for 21 years. We had not seen so many seniors coming to food banks over the course of the last two decades, but that number is now beginning to change. We are seeing more and more of them starting to come and more and more of them in desperate situations.

These are terrible situations for seniors to have to resort to. For a senior who has provided for his or her whole life, who had fought in a war, who had worked, to have to come to a food bank and depend on community largesse and charity is something that is just not right. For many of these people, they are stuck. They are trapped in a system from which there is no escape.

It is worse. There is a huge demographic shift coming. We all know it. We all know that the number of seniors is going to multiply in the next number of years. Food bank statistics, not only from my food bank, but from all the Ontario association of food banks across the province reveal that more and more workers have less and less savings and less and less investment in pension plans.

Those who are poor have absolutely no real hope of building up a cushion of RRSPs. A large number of today's workers will reach retirement age in the next decade and they will have to find creative ways to fund their senior years. This motion, should it pass, and it should, will help all those coming on to OAS, a great many of whom do not have a sufficient form of public protection.

Let us look at some of the statistics of what the population in Canada will be in the next few years. Between 1981 and 2005 the number of seniors in Canada increased from 2.4 million to 4.2 million. Their share of the total population jumped from 9.6% to 13.1%. The aging of the population will accelerate over the next two decades particularly as baby boomers begin turning 65. That will be me soon.

Between 2006 and 2026 the number of seniors is projected to increase from 4.3 million to 8 million. Their share of the population is expected to increase from 13% to 21.2%, this from Statistics Canada in its Portrait of Seniors in Canada.

It has been suggested that the chief problem with Canada's pension system for women is that pension schemes in both the public and private sectors were indeed developed with men in mind. This is true and these last few years are showing this to indeed be the case and we are experiencing this once again on the front lines of food banks.

Elderly single women have consistently been disproportionately represented among the poor in Canada and are twice as likely as elderly men to live in poverty. In 1997 almost 50% of single women over the age of 65 lived below the poverty line, a figure that has remained consistently high over these last number of years.

Various reports have concluded that if the rate of poverty continues for the next two decades with all of these new seniors that are coming in line, the number of poor seniors is expected to double as the population of seniors increases twofold. The government has not yet answered as to how it is going to deal with the influx of people coming in.

Because of the inadequacies of our present system, we are finding seniors in desperate situations. I would like to speak about women and the particular difficulties that they face.

There are many reasons that the current system is not working for Canada's seniors who would otherwise rely on it. Among them, women often find themselves the hardest hit. Some of the reasons for this are pretty obvious.

Women's participation in the paid labour force remains well below that of men. For aboriginal and racialized women, this number is even lower.

The kind of work that women do is also a major factor. Only those who work for relatively large employers can have this kind of benefit. More women than men work in non-unionized jobs and women generally work in sectors where pension coverage is the lowest, such as the retail trade and community, business and personal services.

Above all, one of the greatest obstacles for women saving for retirement is that they simply earn less than men. They still make 72¢ for every dollar that a man makes. Women, therefore, have smaller pensions in retirement.

We know that the social programs that we as parliamentarians help to create directly affect things like health, housing and income, in short, the general well-being of many vulnerable groups. Low income seniors are no exception. With limited access to professional financial training, services that are generally available to all higher income Canadians, it is the role of government, all of us, to ensure that programs are properly designed to benefit low income seniors.

OAS and GIS have made great advances, but millions of seniors who live alone have not been able to increase their economic security; in fact, many are sliding backward. Inequalities in incomes and assets have not declined. Divorce rates continue to climb among middle age Canadians, and more of us, especially women, are choosing to raise children alone.

These trends and projections presented today suggest that low income Canadian seniors will be no better off in the future than they are today in spite of what we have just heard. If we are to increase benefit adequacy and economic security for these vulnerable elders, it makes sense to incorporate an effective income floor into the system. Canadian seniors deserve such a commitment. The reforms put forward by the hon. member present an opportunity to attack this particular problem within our own system.

I thank my colleague from Rimouski for bringing up something that I think is very important. From personal experience and the experience that many members have had, I ask that we look at her leadership and take on this initiative in the spirit in which it was given.

None of us wants to see seniors suffer. All of us want seniors who are living in poverty to be able to climb out of it. We all say the words and I believe we probably all mean them, but we set up a system that is a trap and seniors are not able to work their way out of it.

Especially for senior women, I ask that all members of the House support this particular motion, not because of from whom it comes or even so much the language that is used, but the time has come when we should accept what senior women are going through and all of us should act on it. I thank the member for taking the initiative.

Old Age Security ProgramPrivate Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

Bloc

Raymond Gravel Bloc Repentigny, QC

Mr. Speaker, I too want to support the motion of the hon. member for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques. Seniors are as important to me as they are to her. This motion is in line with Bill C-490 introduced by the Bloc Québécois in December.

My Liberal colleague had some very interesting points to make. However, I find the comments of my colleague opposite, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, to be amazingly nonsensical. By “nonsensical” I mean foolish, silly, and just plain stupid.

When I heard the hon. member say that the Conservative government has been quite generous to seniors, I wondered what planet she has been on. I know that in two years the government has given an additional $18 to the guaranteed income supplement, when it knows that people are living below the poverty line. I do not see any generosity in that. When she argues that in 13 years, the Liberal government did nothing and that the Conservatives have done more in two years, I do not think it is right to justify doing more by comparing oneself to those who did nothing.

I am very pleased to speak to this motion. As I was saying earlier, it looks a lot like our bill C-490 tabled last December by the member for Alfred-Pellan. This bill follows up my tour of Quebec, in 2007, to identify the needs of the seniors of today and of the future.

Having realized that seniors have become impoverished over the past ten years, I met with several seniors' groups and associations in all parts of Quebec who shared with me their fears, needs and hopes. They spoke of the quality of life of seniors, of the causes of their poverty and of the solutions recommended to various levels of government. I also heard the opinions of seniors on Quebec society. The results are reflected in the bill that we tabled and that has four components. It is very much in keeping with the motion by my colleague for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques.

The first component is automatic registration for the guaranteed income supplement. Why? Simply because this supplement provides additional income to low-income seniors. When we say low-income we are talking about individuals living in poverty. We know that poverty takes many forms and that thousands of seniors are entitled to the guaranteed income supplement. However, they do not receive it because they do not know about it, which is also due to their poverty.

On August 23, 2001, the Toronto Star estimated that 380,000 seniors in Canada were eligible for the guaranteed income supplement but were not receiving it. In Quebec, more than 80,000 people were in this situation. The reason is simple. Poor seniors often have difficulty reading and understanding forms, and the forms at the time were extremely complicated. People were also unaware that they had to apply every year. This is no longer the case thanks to Bill C-36, which was adopted last May.

There are other reasons associated with poverty as well. Poverty affects people who have never worked outside the home, who do not file income tax returns, who are aboriginal or who live in remote areas. We also think of people with poor literacy skills, people who speak neither French nor English, people who are disabled or ill and people who are homeless. There are many reasons.

If these seniors were automatically registered for the guaranteed income supplement at age 65, this problem would be eliminated. The work the Bloc Québécois has done over the past several years has drastically reduced the number of people who do not receive the guaranteed income supplement. In Quebec there are apparently still about 40,000 people who do not receive the supplement, but in 2001 there were 80,000.

The second part of our bill involves a $110 a month increase in the guaranteed income supplement. This would bring the poorest seniors up to the poverty line, as my colleague's motion says. The calculation was done in 2004, when the poverty level for a single person was set at $14,794 a year. Poor seniors who receive the maximum guaranteed income supplement are getting only $13,514 in 2007-08.

This means that that their income is $1,280 below the poverty line, or $106 per month, which we have rounded up to $110. This is not asking for much, just getting them over the poverty line. That is not too much to ask in a country like ours.

The third part of our bill concerns full retroactivity of the guaranteed income supplement for people who have been given a raw deal under the current system. In May 2007, Bill C-36 resulted in just 11 months of retroactivity for poor seniors. That is not enough; we must do more. During the election campaign, the Conservative Party agreed to fix this problem. Now that they are in power, they do not want to talk about it. Nobody is asking for handouts here; we just want seniors to get their fair share from a system that ripped them off.

When one owes money to a person, one has a legal debt to that person. This is about justice, honesty and dignity. Just think of Mrs. Bolduc in Toronto who told a Radio-Canada reporter what it is like to live in poverty. Many seniors are in the same position as Mrs. Bolduc.

The fourth element our bill introduces is a six-month compassion period for seniors who lose their spouses. We know what kind of situation these people face. A six-month period would enable surviving spouses to recover from the grieving process and figure things out, because their benefits will automatically be reduced. This period will certainly offer a degree of security to grieving seniors.

The government's failure to help our poorest seniors is unacceptable. We have known for quite some time now that seniors are some of the poorest people in our society. Poverty affects their health, makes them feel insecure about their future and makes them even more vulnerable to those who claim to be taking care of them. Many newspapers have reported on violence against seniors and exploitation of the elderly. These people are in a very vulnerable position. It is disgusting that, despite vast budget surpluses, one government after another has failed to solve the problem raised by members of the Bloc Québécois.

The Bloc Québécois supports the motion by the member for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques. That is a long name for a riding; it would be easier to call her by her name. I am asking all parliamentarians to support this motion as well as our bill, which will be debated soon in the House. It is a question of justice, fairness and dignity for all those who came before us and paved the way for us.

I would like to close with the 2006 definition of poverty by the National Council of Welfare:

—poverty is not just a lack of income; it can also be a synonym for social exclusion. When people cannot meet their basic needs, they cannot afford even simple activities. Single parents or persons with a family member who is sick or disabled often suffer from “poverty of time” as well, and have too few hours during the day to earn income, take care of others, obtain an education, have some social interaction or even get the sleep they need. This form of social exclusion and isolation can lead to other problems, such as poor health, depression and dysfunction. Poverty can quickly deprive individuals of their dignity, confidence and hope.

This often happens to our seniors who are sick and poor.

Old Age Security ProgramPrivate Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

NDP

Chris Charlton NDP Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to participate in the debate tonight on the motion brought forward by the member for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques on the old age security system. This motion is very timely.

This afternoon I tabled yet another petition in the House signed by hundreds more seniors, asking the government to pay them the money they were owed as a result of the StatsCan error in calculating the cost of living increase. Seniors were shortchanged on their public income supports because of this error. In calling on the government to reimburse them, they are simply asking for fairness. Yet the government is refusing to act.

If the government will not give seniors the benefits to which they are already entitled, I am not optimistic that it will contemplate enhancements to those benefits. However, I nonetheless believe that this is a critically important debate.

Unlike the parliamentary secretary, the Prime Minister cannot script me. Nor can he prevent me from speaking up on behalf of seniors. In fact, that is why I was elected to the House, to represent the views of the residents of Hamilton Mountain and to ensure that their concerns were being championed in the single most important democratic institution in this nation.

All politicians pay lip service to the fact that seniors built our country. They talk about needing to ensure that seniors can retire with dignity and respect and that they deserve that dignity and respect.

Let me tell the House what is happening to seniors, not just in my community, but across the whole country. With each passing year, it becomes more and more apparent that seniors are falling farther and farther behind. They have worked hard all their lives, they have played by the rules, but now everywhere they turn, every bill they open, they are paying more and getting less.

It is a fact that increases in the cost of living hits seniors disproportionately harder than any other segment of the population. When StatsCan determines the annual cost of living, upon which adjustments are based, its basket of goods includes things like plasma TVs, IPods, computers, all goods which are coming down in price and reducing the cost of living figures. Those also are not goods that poor seniors are buying. The items they are spending money on are essentials like heat, hydro, food and shelter, all of which have been going up and up.

In a series of polls that were conducted by the Canadian Labour Congress in 2004, 73% of Canadians polled said that they were worried about not having enough money to live after retirement, up by almost 20% from just two years before.

Canadians are worried about the solvency of their private pensions and the adequacy of both CPP and public income supports. Those fears are well-founded. Since the middle 1990s, the income of seniors has reached a ceiling and the gap between the revenues of seniors and those of other Canadians is now increasing.

According to the government's National Advisory Council on Aging, between 1997 and 2003 the mean income of seniors' households increased by $4,100, while the average income of other Canadian households increased by $9,000. The situation is even more pronounced for seniors living alone.

Private retirement savings are concentrated in a very small percentage of families. According to StatsCan, 25% of families hold 84% of these assets, while three out of ten families have no private pensions at all.

We find ourselves in a situation now where, across Canada, we have over a quarter of a million seniors living in poverty. That is hardly retirement with dignity and respect.

What is the government doing to address this issue? In fact, I would argue, precious little. We have now had two throne speeches, two budgets and one economic update from the government and none of them left seniors with anything about which to cheer.

We did not get universal drug coverage, no improvements to health care or long term care, no national housing strategy and no review of public income supports. The only people cheering were the Liberals who supported the Harper government's first throne speech and let the most recent mini-budget pass—

Old Age Security ProgramPrivate Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I want to remind the hon. member not to use proper names, but ridings or titles when referring to our colleagues.

Old Age Security ProgramPrivate Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

NDP

Chris Charlton NDP Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, I apologize for using the Prime Minister's name.

Nonetheless, the Liberals did give the Conservatives what the voters would not do, which is in essence a de facto majority government.

In a country that had a surplus of over $14 billion, that simply is not good enough. The income security of seniors must be at the top of the government's agenda, but it is not.

In fact, while we are debating an enhancement to income supports for seniors, the government is not even doing a particularly good job of getting seniors the benefits to which they are already entitled.

According to the government's own statistics, an estimated 130,000 Canadian seniors who are eligible for the guaranteed income supplement are not receiving it. Why? Because even if they are aware of the program, the application process is unduly complex, and many seniors lack the language or literacy skills to avail themselves of this benefit.

What has the government done about this? Instead of pursuing aggressive outreach programs to inform seniors of their entitlements, the Conservative government has re-designated positions at Service Canada so that experts, whose only role it once was to assist seniors to find their way through the maze of the CPP, the OAS and the GIS, have now been replaced by generalists who deal with everything from employment insurance to boat licences.

To add insult to injury, if they do not apply for their entitlements in a timely fashion, they can go back only so far in claiming retroactivity. A system designed like that is clearly not a system designed to help seniors retire with dignity and respect.

That is why I welcome the motion that the member from Rimouski has brought before this House today. In fact, it picks up on an item that was already part of the NDP's seniors charter, which I had the privilege of introducing in the House last year.

The seniors charter called on the government to guarantee for every senior in Canada the right to income security through protected pensions and indexed income support that provides a reasonable state of economic welfare. That charter, I am happy to say, was passed by members of this House by a vote of 231 to 52, including by the Conservative MPs in this chamber, I might add.

Only the BQ voted against it. Despite the fact that seniors from coast to coast to coast built this country, including seniors from Quebec, of course, the BQ abandoned the elderly in the province of Quebec simply for its own narrowly defined partisan purposes. Perhaps that is why the member from Rimouski has abandoned her former colleagues and now sits as an independent. She is finally free to advocate on behalf of seniors in her community.

In any event, as I said, her motion speaks to one of the sections that was part of the NDP seniors charter and so I am happy to support it here in principle. I say this on the understanding that the motion will be amended at the next debate and therefore will focus on the core section of the motion that I expect to survive after the amendment.

In essence, what the motion proposes to do is enhance the guaranteed income supplement for the very neediest of seniors and increase the income threshold for eligibility.

As members of this House will know, the guaranteed income supplement is one of the three major income support programs available to seniors through the federal government. It was developed to reduce poverty among seniors by providing a monthly income supplement for eligible seniors with low incomes.

However, as I said earlier, despite this program, there are still a quarter of a million seniors living in poverty. I am proud to support any motion that will assist this group of the most vulnerable in our community.

From my perspective, I think we in this House could and should have gone further. As it stands now, Motion No. 383 will enhance GIS benefits for only the very neediest in our community, yet from my perspective everyone who receives the GIS desperately needs more money.

While any increase is certainly welcome, what we really need is a comprehensive review of the entire income support system for seniors. Indeed, I have a motion on the order paper, Motion No. 128, which does precisely that. It calls for a review that looks ahead 10 years and ensures annually that seniors have an income that allows them to live with the dignity and respect they deserve. I am proud to say that this is the very first motion that I tabled in this House upon being elected.

It is precisely because I am keenly aware of the growing income needs of seniors that I am happy this motion is before us today. Certainly, as I said earlier in my comments, the many elderly women in my community of Hamilton Mountain who are living alone are experiencing poverty at much higher rates than any other segment of the senior population. Indeed, it is for every senior who is living on his or her own that I will stand in support of this motion.

I know that my time to speak tonight is short, so I would like to focus just briefly on the last part of the motion, which would make more seniors eligible for the GIS. Surely we can all agree that this is a laudable goal.

What section (d) of the motion does is raise the income threshold for GIS eligibility. It is a sad reality in Canada that many seniors cannot survive on their public income supports alone, so many are supplementing their income by participating in the workforce far beyond the normal retirement age.

I heard from a woman in Vancouver just two weeks ago who told me that her husband is in his eighties and still working because it is the only way that they can afford her prescription drugs. While that is a national disgrace and should be addressed through a national pharmacare program and adequate income support for seniors, it is a reality that is being lived daily by thousands of seniors across the country.

Income security is crucial to a retirement with dignity and respect. I say to all of the seniors watching our proceedings tonight that they should not let anyone tell them that it cannot be done.

Old Age Security ProgramPrivate Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

The time provided for private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

6:55 p.m.

Liberal

Gurbax Malhi Liberal Bramalea—Gore—Malton, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to ask the government for a third time to explain its lack of compassion and its discriminatory approach to visitor visas. Not surprisingly, my previous attempts to get an answer from the government were met with empty words. Instead of addressing the reality of our broken visa system, the minister claimed that the real issue is “the safety and security of those who are already here”.

The minister's deflection from the problem at hand is typical of the government.

Is the security of our country put at risk when a bride to be invites her parents to come to Canada for a visit to share the joy of her wedding day? Is the safety of Canadians threatened by a Nigerian grandmother who wants to come to our country to see her newborn grandchild?

Of course, invoking national security is a convenient tactic for the government, considering that no usable data are kept on the reasons for denying visitor visa applications. Even if security were the main reason for refusing visitor visas, we would have no way of knowing it.

The reality faced by my constituents and by Canadians across the country is that the decisions made by visa officers are often difficult to understand. Some visas are denied to people who have visited Canada many times under the previous government. Similarly, more than once I have seen cases in which an applicant was denied entry to Canada even after being granted multiple entry visas to both the United Kingdom and the United States.

One of the most tragic examples of the failure of the current visa system was laid bare in the August 21, 2007 issue of the Toronto Star. Nicholas Keung writes of how the body of Hu Xiu-hua, an immigrant to Canada who passed away last summer, lay unclaimed in a Toronto morgue for almost two months. As citizens of China, Ms. Hu's elderly parents were required to apply for a visitor visa to claim their child's remains. Their application was denied not once, not twice, but six times.

The ugly truth is that the vast majority of these cases involve applicants from developing nations. How can the government claim that the visitor visa system is fair and impartial when it so clearly discriminates against Canadians with families from developing nations?

I am not alone in my frustration with the visitor visa system. I am sure that my colleagues of all political stripes deal with many similar cases in their constituencies. The government must stop denying that the visitor visa system is broken and start working to find solutions that benefit Canadians and their families abroad.

7 p.m.

Souris—Moose Mountain Saskatchewan

Conservative

Ed Komarnicki ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate this opportunity to comment on temporary resident visas.

There is no question that there is a lot of rhetoric coming from the member opposite. It is clear that the intention of the hon. member in large measure is political and is not based on the facts.

The reality is that the overall approval rate for temporary resident visas has remained consistent, ranging between 79% to 82% over the past five years.

The government has an application process for temporary resident visas in order to protect the integrity of the immigration process and to maintain the safety and security of Canadians. The member opposite knows that.

Visa officers assess individual temporary resident visa applications and take into account the circumstances of the applicant, including the reason for travel. Applications are considered on a case by case basis on the specific facts presented by the applicant.

The government aims at being compassionate in issuing visas. However, given the high levels of fraud and misrepresentation in some regions of the world, it is incumbent upon visa officers abroad to examine all visa applications very carefully.

As my hon. colleague knows, temporary resident visas are issued to bona fide visitors, students or workers who will comply with admission requirements. This includes leaving Canada at the end of the authorized period of temporary stay. All of these factors must be taken into account by our visa officers overseas.

The government has improved service for travellers coming to Canada for business or personal reasons, using our visa application centres in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia, and is considering extending such services to several other countries.

In India, for example, this means that citizens wishing to apply as visitors, students or workers can submit their temporary resident applications at nine visa application centres across the country and at a centre geographically convenient to them.

In 2006 the visa offices in New Delhi and Chandigarh together processed almost 78,000 visa applications with an approval rate of 67.4%, or slightly more than two out of three. Those are the overall systemic numbers. We accept more immigrants from India than any other country but China, and 10,000 more last year than a decade ago, from 19,000 in 1997 to more than 30,000 last year.

The overall approval rate for temporary resident visas has remained historically consistent. In 2006 it was 81% and has remained at just over 80% for most years since 1983.

The government is also making efforts to permit visa-free travel to citizens from a greater number of countries. In 2006 the visa requirement for Estonia was lifted. In October of this year, we lifted the visa requirements for the Czech Republic and the Republic of Latvia.

Citizens of these countries can now visit Canada without a visa. Citizens in half of the 12 countries who have joined the European Union since 2004 enjoy visa-free travel to this country. We continue to review the remaining EU countries where a visa is still required.

These measures by our Conservative government are helping families maintain their close ties.

Visas are effective tools to protect the integrity of our borders and to ensure the health and safety of Canadians. The Government of Canada has no greater duty than to protect and maintain the safety and security of its people.

7:05 p.m.

Liberal

Gurbax Malhi Liberal Bramalea—Gore—Malton, ON

Mr. Speaker, I do not agree with the facts or the figures the parliamentary secretary has provided. I have been to New Delhi and Chandigarh many times and do not agree with them.

One positive step on this issue would be the creation of a system of visitor visa bonds. Under a visitor visa bond system, immigration counsellors would be given discretion over the creation of visa bonds. They could establish minimum and maximum visa bond amounts as a guideline for immigration officials and could allow the visa bond to apply either to the sponsor or to the visitor.

Solutions need to be found on this issue. I believe the use of visa bonds on a case by case basis would be a good start.

7:05 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Komarnicki Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, the figures are what they are. They indicate that there has been no significant change downward in the rate of refusals for temporary resident visas.

The hon. member opposite is yet again attempting to perpetuate as fact what is not fact. He has tried a number of times to politicize an important issue of security and procedural integrity. The government is not refusing temporary resident visas at a rate higher than that of the previous Liberal government. There is no doubt about that.

The last known significant drop in temporary resident visa approvals actually occurred under the previous Liberal government. If that member were truly concerned about this issue, then he would have raised it in the House before now.

The facts speak for themselves. There is no basis to the allegation. It is really a matter of political posturing and nothing more.

7:05 p.m.

Liberal

Ken Boshcoff Liberal Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Mr. Speaker, as you will recall, Professor Irwin Corey once stated, “If we don't change direction soon, we'll end up where we're going”.

So it is with the most recent announcement of $1 billion for the provinces to help hard hit communities. It is trying to go everywhere but goes nowhere.

On the surface it sounds like a grand plan. Regrettably, it is little more than a scam. Believe it or not it reflects the worst of the Conservatives' hidden agenda.

In spite of being the beneficiary of the Liberal government's record of annual budget surpluses, the fact remains that it was a Conservative government that drove this nation into those huge deficits.

Despite inheriting sound finances, the Prime Minister has chosen to tie this relief money to the next budget. The shameful reality of this tactic is that the communities in crisis will not receive any of these funds until June or July.

Once again, I call upon the Prime Minister to release this $1 billion immediately. I do this knowing full well that the proposed community development trust has serious flaws.

For instance, the money will be distributed on a per capita basis to each province and territory. Even Alberta whose economy is bursting at the seams will receive millions of dollars; whereas Ontario, with its thousands of job losses, will receive only $211 million.

That is why industry, labour, communities and families are condemning this as “a billion too little and two years too late”.

The fact that there are no conditions on the use of the funding further means that each province can spend the money as it sees fit. It will not save one job or one plant.

It is truly shameful that the government is playing politics with the lives of Canadians. It displaces all of the progress made by the forest industry with regard to the positive suggestions for assisting the forest products industries.

Many organizations, such as the Forest Products Association of Canada, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, the steelworkers union, the Ontario Forest Industries Association and the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, all have made positive suggestions. None of this would even be necessary had the Liberal government's forest competitive strategy been implemented at the $1.5 billion level.

This tactic of announce it in January, but wait until July scam is absolutely shameful.

7:10 p.m.

Oshawa Ontario

Conservative

Colin Carrie ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Industry

Mr. Speaker, on December 7, 2007 the hon. member for Thunder Bay—Rainy River implied that the forestry plan his party presented in the run-up to the last election would have saved the industry.

We all know what voters thought of that party's bag of election goodies. They rejected them. Canadians placed their confidence in this government. We take this responsibility seriously and are providing Canadians with the leadership that they deserve.

I do not wish to make light of the serious challenges facing the forestry industry today. We are witnessing a decline in the U.S. housing starts, a decline in the North American newsprint market, and increased low-cost competition from offshore.

These pressures have intensified over the past year, especially with the rapid depreciation of the U.S. dollar.

Further, higher housing inventories and difficulties in the U.S. sub-prime lending market have meant significant declines in U.S. residential construction; the key driver of lumber and panel consumption in North America.

These challenges have hit the industry hard. Good paying jobs have been lost and communities are being impacted.

However, the government has not been sitting on the sidelines. On January 10 our government unveiled a $1 billion community development trust, designed to help vulnerable communities dependent on a single employer or sector.

Provinces and territories will be able to use this funding for a variety of uses, ranging from investing in job training and skills development to developing community transition plans aimed at diversifying local economies.

That is not all. Through our budgets, economic statements and “Advantage Canada”, we have created, and we continue to create, a supportive business environment for all industries, including the forestry products sector; one that promotes competitiveness, innovation and success.

In short, the government is working diligently to create an environment in which all industries can succeed. And the same is true for the forest products industry.

The forest industry plan to which the hon. member refers included a loan insurance program and an industry support program. These programs were to provide short term relief to firms pending the resolution of the softwood lumber dispute. The party opposite had to offer these programs because it could not resolve the longstanding dispute. However, this government did. Less than nine months after taking office, the government made good on its pledge to resolve the softwood lumber dispute.

The softwood lumber agreement offers many benefits to Canadian producers, not the least of which is the return of over $5 billion. This contributes to the industry's stability, thereby benefiting workers and supporting the economic development of rural communities.

Further, the government has invested $400 million in the forestry sector. We have contributed $127.5 million to encourage the long term competitiveness of the forestry industry, which will in turn help advance a prosperous forestry industry, and the communities and workers that depend upon it.

We are devoting $72.5 million to the targeted initiative for older workers, a cost-shared program with the provinces and territories. It focuses on the needs of older workers who have lost their jobs in communities where the local economy is facing ongoing unemployment or where industries, such as forestry, are affected by downsizing and closures.

We are investing $200 million to combat the spread and consequences of the mountain pine beetle infestation in western Canada.

In closing, the government has supported, and will continue to support, the Canadian forestry industry. The Speech from the Throne highlighted the government's ongoing commitment to stand up for Canada's traditional industries, including the forestry industry, and that is what we are doing.

7:10 p.m.

Liberal

Ken Boshcoff Liberal Thunder Bay—Rainy River, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member opposite for recognizing all my efforts in bringing forestry back to the federal agenda.

Point by point I have outlined the shortcomings of the latest Conservative scam. We in northwestern Ontario will not be fooled.

Canadians in crisis want the government to release the available surplus now. Maybe some jobs and some plants can be saved. One thing is certain. If we wait until July, more plants will close and more workers will lose their jobs.

On behalf of those workers and families who are suffering from tough economic times, I ask for compassion. Deliver the money now. Do not hold these workers hostage any longer.

7:15 p.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Mr. Speaker, time and again the hon. member refers to out-of-date policy authored by a government that voters rejected.

After less than two years in office, our government has settled the longstanding softwood lumber dispute and returned billions of dollars to the Canadian industry. The resulting injection of funds is worth more than worn platitudes espoused by a worn party.

However, we have not rested on our laurels. We have provided $400 million in assistance to the forestry industry. We have lowered taxes and created the conditions where both forest and non-forest companies can succeed. We have established a $1 billion fund for vulnerable communities and employees.

This government has provided the support that Canadians expect. This government has the courage and integrity to set priorities, to act on them, and to honour its commitments to Canadians.

7:15 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, healthy cities and communities are essential to a prosperous country with the quality of life Canadians need and deserve. In order to deliver the services and build the kinds of communities we need, Canadian cities and communities require funding that is fair and sustained.

Cities across Canada are continuing to struggle with multitudes of pressures, including the city of Toronto, which is home to my riding of Davenport. Toronto is, in many respects, at the economic centre of Canada. It is imperative that this great city is healthy and prosperous.

Having served the people of Davenport for three terms as a city councillor, I understand that municipal governments provide services that are often the most direct in terms of their impact on the quality of life of Canadians. They maintain transportation services, including public transit and roads, they fund and support cultural programming and social services, they provide local policing and recreational services. To do all these things and more, cities need equitable and sustained funding. This is a simple fact of life.

For many years, municipalities were both neglected and not afforded the respect they deserved. This changed dramatically during the terms of the last two Liberal governments. First, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien created an urban task force, under the leadership of the member for York West, that made groundbreaking recommendations. Then the member for LaSalle—Émard brought our cities to the table, extended to them respect and under this new relationship began to assist them financially with infrastructure, including public transit initiatives.

These included transferring 1¢ of the gas tax to municipalities. We appointed Canada's first secretary of state for cities and communities, my colleague, the member for Don Valley West. We established a working relationship with cities. In fact, we were days away from signing a tripartite agreement to set up a permanent agreement between the Government of Canada, Ontario and Toronto when the members for the New Democratic Party decided to join with their colleagues in the Conservative Party to defeat the government for what were clearly political opportune reasons.

Indeed, the mayor of Toronto, a former member of the NDP, just last month made note of his displeasure with the actions of the NDP in a statement applauding the work of the member for Don Valley West. Clearly, the mayor was upset that because of the NDP's decision, municipalities across Canada must now deal with a government that refuses to even abide by existing financial agreements or extend to cities the respect they found from the previous Liberal government.

I note that the current finance minister served in the Mike Harris government in Ontario that, through downloading of costs, virtually paralyzed that province's municipalities with unimaginable fiscal burdens.

I stand together with municipal leaders across Canada in demanding the kind of respect they received from the Liberal government and to call on the federal government to commit to sustainable and predictable funding.

Healthy and prosperous cities are required for a healthy and prosperous country. When will the government become a real partner for Toronto and all Canadian cities?

7:15 p.m.

Fort McMurray—Athabasca Alberta

Conservative

Brian Jean ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for Davenport for the opportunity to address this important issue. I would like to read a quote:

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member knows that the government does not operate and no government can operate on the basis of dedicated taxes.

Who said that? The former finance minister and former prime minister, the member for LaSalle—Émard, who the member has indicated was the founder of all these great and wonderful things for cities. Indeed he was not. It is this government.

On November 6, 2007, our Prime Minister launched building Canada, the government's new infrastructure plan. Building Canada is worth $33 billion, an unprecedented amount. This had never been done before in Canada since the second world war. This is over a seven year period. It is the largest and most long term commitment to public infrastructure by any federal government in modern history.

Over $17.6 billion, or 50% of the building Canada plan is in the form of direct guaranteed funding for municipalities to help them with their infrastructure needs. That is the important part. We are listening to them and we are putting money into their priorities.

This includes $8 billion in new money to extend the gas tax fund from 2010 to 2014. The gas tax fund is predictable, up front and flexible for cities. It responds absolutely directly to municipal requests for stable funding.

In addition, we have extended the 100% GST rebate to municipalities, thereby providing an additional estimated $5.8 billion in flexible funding that we are confident they will use for their priorities.

We have committed another $8.8 billion in new funding for the building Canada fund to support large and small scale projects across the country. This will include support for key priority projects identified by municipalities, again their priorities, such as transit and clean water.

As part of this fund there is a dedicated component that will support projects in communities with a population of less than 100,000.

This Conservative government has taken strong action announcing support for priorities that will bring benefits to municipalities right across this great country, including clean water, waste water, better public transit and green energy.

We will also address local priorities such as improved transportation; connectivity and broadband, which is very important in rural Canada; solid waste management; disaster mitigation, such as happened in Manitoba; brownfield redevelopment, such as happened in Atlantic Canada, British Columbia and other areas; cultural infrastructure, such as in Toronto and Quebec; sport infrastructure; and tourism.

These are the priorities that municipalities have identified and we are responding in an unprecedented way.

This includes strong support for small communities, and large cities like Toronto. Over $900 million was announced by the Prime Minister to support improved public transit and highway infrastructure in the greater Toronto area. In fact, he announced that last March for five different projects in that area. There have been other announcements, including to help clean water in the Huron Elgin London project. We are taking positive action.

Provinces, territories and municipalities asked for increased, predictable and longer term funding to address growing infrastructure pressures. We have heard them. We have listened and we have taken positive action for Canadians.

7:20 p.m.

Liberal

Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, predictable and sustainable funding by the federal government allows cities like Toronto to meet the ever increasing demands that are placed upon them for better public transit, better policing services and sustainable infrastructure.

Make no mistake. This is a quality of life issue for all Canadians and it is an economic issue for our country. Without healthy, vibrant and prosperous cities, quality of life will suffer for all of our citizens. There is no doubt whatsoever that our economy will also come under pressure.

Cities need the support of the federal government to build better communities where public transit is improved and appealing, where roads and infrastructure are maintained and safe, and where recreational programs can be maintained for the young, the old and for those who are most disadvantaged.

When will the government understand that, as I have said, healthy cities and communities mean a healthy country? We cannot have one without the other.

7:20 p.m.

Conservative

Brian Jean Conservative Fort McMurray—Athabasca, AB

Mr. Speaker, I have to identify who left us in this mess. After 13 years of inaction by the Liberals, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has indicated that there is an infrastructure deficit of over $123 billion from coast to coast in this country of ours.

I would like to read one more quote. This is from the then intergovernmental affairs minister, who is now the official opposition leader, when he told mayors from across Canada:

--you know full well that the Constitution clearly establishes that municipal affairs are under provincial jurisdiction, and that the provinces are determined to keep it that way.

The Prime Minister, the minister, this Conservative government are taking real action for municipalities. We are not listening to the former intergovernmental affairs minister. We are not listening to the leader of the official opposition because it would not get done.

7:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

The motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly, the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 7:25 p.m.)