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House of Commons Hansard #49 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was senators.

Topics

6:05 p.m.

Conservative

Deepak Obhrai Conservative Calgary East, AB

Mr. Speaker, as I stated to the hon. member, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has said that he reported the matter to Passport Canada. Passport Canada has assured us that the problem has been fixed.

Only a few files were accessed. All POL users must register using the Government of Canada's secure channel. Passport Canada has the ability to track who accesses what files and when. Furthermore, only a small portion of the online application can be accessed. Of the six pages that make up the online form, only the fifth one was vulnerable.

Passport Canada's main database was never jeopardized. Passport online is temporary and it stores information for those who apply for a passport through the web. Passport Canada takes seriously the obligation to safeguard personal information by ensuring that the most effective and secure processes are in place.

6:05 p.m.

NDP

Denise Savoie NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I rise tonight for what may be my last chance before the 2008 budget to ask the government to fix student aid in Canada.

I ask on behalf of Veronika in Calgary, who owes over $50,000 on four different government loans. Instead of paying one lump sum, she must make four separate payments of $200 each month, which add up to more than half of her $20 an hour salary.

I ask on behalf of Deidre in Victoria, who has been in and out of mental health services since she was a full time student 10 years ago. Until I wrote to the VP of her bank, she was routinely hounded by collection agents, ineligible for any relief, even though her disability prevents her from long term employment.

I ask on behalf of a constituent who was turned down because her recurring bouts of cancer were not considered a permanent disability, a so-called gap for episodic illness.

I ask on behalf of Brian in Vancouver, a PhD student, whose loans were suddenly recalled in the middle of his degree, despite the federal government's promise that loans were not repayable for the duration of full time study.

I ask on behalf of medical residents who were here yesterday on the Hill and whose average debt of $160,000 means they pay two-thirds of their small residency salary toward student loans every month.

I ask on behalf of the new mother I recently met, who has started to worry about affording university for her children, while she herself has several years of payments left on her own student loan.

Ever since budget 2007 promised a review of Canada's student financial aid system, I and my NDP colleagues have asked that this rare opportunity be used to relieve the financial and emotional burden of student debt on young people starting out their careers, and to fix the many flaws and gaps that students have experienced.

We have proposed that budget 2008 create a federal grant system to offset student loans in every year of study, reduce the student loan interest rate, establish a student loan ombudsperson, improve and expand eligibility for debt relief programs, create standards for the conduct of student loan collection agents, postpone loan repayments and interest accrual during full time doctoral studies and medical residency, simplify repayment into one account with clear and regular statements, among other solutions.

The parliamentary secretary will surely tell us that her government is helping students. She may mention the textbook tax credit, which only pays out $80, or the increase in graduate scholarships.

The fact remains that the students whose stories I have briefly shared, and countless others in similar situations, have been left out of federal budgets for a long time. I do not need to hear that we must be patient for the budget. I want to hear a commitment to these students that the budget will not leave them behind again.

Could the parliamentary secretary assure me of that?

6:10 p.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan

Conservative

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

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise tonight and have this opportunity to speak on the issues raised by the hon. member for Victoria.

First of all, we have to correct some of the hon. member's assertions. One of them was that the Government of Canada was making a profit from the Canada student loans program. I want the member to understand and believe that this is just not true. The Canada student loans program does not and has not ever made a profit. The program has existed for one reason and one reason only: to help Canadian students access the post-secondary education that they want and deserve.

This government committed in our Advantage Canada plan to creating the best educated, most skilled and most flexible workforce in the world. We also recognized that a vibrant student loans program is an important tool that will help us to reach this great goal.

I would like to take a minute now to discuss some of the misconceptions the hon. member has around how this program is run, primarily in regard to the charging of interest.

Contrary to the hon. member's suggestion, we do not collect compound interest daily. The Government of Canada collects simple interest, compounded monthly. Second, it is true that the interest collected does go into the consolidated revenue fund, but the costs of the program come out of the same fund. Year after year, the result is a shortfall, not a profit.

I know that members of the NDP have a problem understanding the concept of profit and what it means, so I would like to reiterate for my colleague that in this case the program costs are greater than the interest collected. Quite simply, no profit is made on the backs of students.

There is no confusion about how students go about repaying their loans. In fact, when students first apply for a loan they are told up front that they can choose their interest rate, either fixed or variable, when they start repaying their loan. This is reiterated when they begin the repayment process after they complete their studies. Students are able to get detailed information about their loans at any time simply by calling the National Student Loans Service Centre or visiting the centre's website.

I would also to add that, unlike interest on commercial loans, the interest that borrowers pay on Canada student loans is tax deductible. Moreover, borrowers who experience financial hardship while repaying their loans can apply for interest relief. In 2004-05, for example, over 100,000 borrowers received interest relief from the government. This was worth $64.8 million.

As I mentioned a few moments ago, this government realizes that the Canada student loans program is a vital tool that will help us achieve our long term goals as a country. That is why we have announced a comprehensive review of the program. The result of this review is going to be announced in budget 2008 on February 26. I look forward to those results.

6:15 p.m.

NDP

Denise Savoie NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, all those fancy numbers do not hide the fact that students and their families are paying double their share of post-secondary education compared to a decade ago. For example, federal education transfers relative to the economy are less than one-half of what they were 15 years ago and the $800 million that the minister often refers to replaces only one-quarter of that.

I may have used the word “profit”, so let us use the word “revenue”, perhaps, which goes to consolidated revenue and then to corporate tax cuts to large financial institutions instead of the government offering that help to students and their families, who are desperately trying to make ends meet. We have thrust the burden of paying for university onto parents, many of whom are still paying, as I said earlier, for their own student loans--

6:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

The hon. parliamentary secretary.

6:15 p.m.

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Conservative Blackstrap, SK

Mr. Speaker, Canadians know that this government has spent more supporting students than any government in history. We have made bursaries and scholarships tax deductible. We have given all students a tax break on their textbooks. We have made it easier for parents to save for their children's education by changing the RESP.

In 2006 in the budget, we increased transfers to provinces by 40%. That was an increase of $800 million in a single year and we promised at least a 3% increase every year until 2013. In 2007-08 we invested $2.4 billion in post-secondary education through the Canada social transfer. This will rise to $3.2 billion this year.

This government is not making a profit on students. There has been no other investment--

6:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

We will now hear from the hon. member for St. Paul's.

6:15 p.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am here tonight to once again ask the government for some answers on the cuts it is making to HIV-AIDS community programs. The Minister of Health has admitted that he has removed $15 million previously promised for community programs for prevention and for the support of persons with AIDS to live with dignity.

He has shifted these funds to the HIV vaccine initiative he announced in partnership with the Gates foundation. This is occurring despite the Gates foundation policy that will match only new money, not funds that have already been allocated to HIV-AIDS programs.

Furthermore, as reported in the Globe and Mail, none of the money announced for the vaccine initiative has actually made it into the hands of researchers. It has been taken away from crucial programs and is just sitting there. While the search for a vaccine is critical work, it cannot come at the expense of education, prevention and support programs for Canadians living with HIV and AIDS.

These decisions are especially offensive because they come at a time when HIV rates are rising.

I would like to read into the record the letter I sent to Mr. Gates. Then I will ask the government to answer some very direct questions. I wrote:

Dear Mr. Gates

I am writing to you to share my concern that Canadian community HIV/AIDS funding is being redirected to the HIV Vaccine Initiative supported by your foundation. On February 20, 2007, you joined Prime Minister Stephen Harper to announce that the Canadian government would--

6:20 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I have to remind the hon. member that we cannot quote proper names.

6:20 p.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will continue:

--joined [the Prime Minister] to announce that the Canadian government would provide $111 million dollars and your foundation would contribute $28 million dollars to support the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative. Last week at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health the Senior Assistant Deputy Minister at the Public Health Agency of Canada stated that “In terms of the funding for the HIV vaccine, the federal government is providing $111 million, $26 million came from existing sources, including about $15 million from the federal initiative....

While I am wholly supportive of research into an HIV vaccine and I applaud the generosity of the Gates foundation, this new venture can not come at the expense of education, prevention and support programs for Canadians living with HIV and AIDS.

Community HIV/AIDS organizations in the province of Ontario are already very concerned about the loss of expected funding and additional cuts are anticipated across the country. In many communities this means the loss of staff dedicated to prevention or the end to services for HIV positive Canadians.

I urge you to intervene by asking the Government of Canada to restore the funding to community programs in order to abide by the spirit of its agreement with your foundation.

I have the following direct questions. I am hoping the member opposite can provide equally direct answers, not some text that the department has prepared.

Ontario community support programs have been hit with a 60% cut that both the health minister and the Public Health Agency of Canada admit is disproportionate. This 60% cut is in spite of the fact that since 1985 Ontario has had the highest number of positive HIV test reports in the country and this number is rising. Can the government explain its misguided and prejudicial policy towards the province of Ontario?

Outside of Ontario, funding for community support programs will run out in March. Community agencies have already been told to expect cuts--

6:20 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I have to stop the hon. member there.

The hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health.

6:20 p.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher ConservativeParliamentary Secretary for Health

Mr. Speaker, this is a very important issue and the government takes the fight against HIV-AIDS very seriously, both at home and abroad.

The member will know very well, when this question originally came up, that it was in fact her government that cut the $15 million that has been referred to. That was the answer in question period in November and I doubt very much that the member included that fact in her letter to the Gates foundation.

The fact remains that this Conservative government has invested $84 million toward HIV-AIDS in the years 2008-09, more than has ever been spent in our nation's history. I hope that was included in the letter to the Gates foundation, but due to partisan reasons, I am sure the member conveniently forgot to include this government's great and progressive record on fighting this terrible disease.

Our government has been committed to a comprehensive, long term approach to HIV-AIDS in Canada and throughout the world. To this end, the government funding for HIV-AIDS is directed toward a mix of different initiatives.

Financial support is being provided to support community, capacity building, prevention programs and research to improve diagnosis and treatment. We strongly believe in the fundamental importance of vaccine research that will one day lead to preventing HIV infection for future generations.

That is why this government has invested a record $84 million in the 2008-09 fiscal year. Investments such as this government is making will support both federal initiatives to address HIV-AIDS in Canada and the Canadian HIV vaccine initiative, investments that will continue to grow over time.

The member opposite has a responsibility to set the record straight with respect to ongoing investments of the federal government on both the federal initiative and moneys that have been allocated to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Inaccuracies that she presents do a disservice to the front line organizations who tirelessly put effort into fighting this terrible disease.

Let me speak about the federal initiative to address HIV-AIDS. The initiative represents a comprehensive integrated Government of Canada response to HIV-AIDS here in Canada. The goals of the initiative are to prevent the acquisition and transmission of new HIV infections and to slow the progression of HIV-AIDS to improve the quality of life, reduce the social and economic impact of HIV-AIDS, and contribute to the global effort to reduce the spread of this terrible infection.

That is why the government has committed, through the federal initiative, to address HIV-AIDS and develop discrete approaches to addressing HIV-AIDS for particular target populations, including aboriginal people. Through these investments, we are focusing on providing access to care, prevention information, and treatment and support activities where they are needed most.

At the centre of our approach--

6:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

The hon. member for St. Paul's.

6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, the previous Liberal government actually doubled the funding for HIV-AIDS programs in Canada and put into place the $84.4 million strategy from which the Conservative government has taken $15 million, in spite of the fact that 4,500 Canadians still become infected every year.

Let me also be clear that no community organization under any previous Liberal government ever received any cuts. After these untimely, irresponsible cuts, this government will still not tell the Canadian organizations what to expect. It is February 12. These organizations were told in the news to expect the drastic nature of their cuts by the beginning of the year. When will the government tell these community organizations what they can expect and how many people they have to lay off?

6:25 p.m.

Conservative

Steven Fletcher Conservative Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia, MB

Mr. Speaker, while this government is interested in helping people with HIV-AIDS, the assertion presented by the member is completely false. People who are non-partisan and of credibility know this, like Bill and Melinda Gates. For every one dollar they invest, three dollars are invested by this government.

That was done with this government in power. The previous Liberal government did not do it and I would strongly suggest it would have been incapable of coming up with such a progressive and thorough plan.

Let us just examine for a second the actions. The member stood up in a very righteous kind of position, but when the member was a member of cabinet--

6:25 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 2 p.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24.

(The House adjourned at 6:30 p.m.)