Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand in the House to oppose Bill C-50, the budget implementation bill.
I can assure members and the people of Nanaimo—Cowichan that I will actually be in my seat and will vote in the House when Bill C-50 comes before the House. Not only will I speak in opposition to the bill, but I will actually vote in opposition to the bill, unlike some members of the Liberal Party.
There are many good reasons to oppose the bill. On one of them, I will come back to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which has issued a paper called “A Budget Canadians Can Count On”. In the paper, the centre says:
The legacy of this minority government is one of neglect: the Conservative government has failed to address some of the most pressing issues of our time....
Canadians are working harder but they are struggling to afford the basics: housing, child care, post-secondary education. There has been nothing in the previous two Conservative budgets to address these issues. Canadians have not been able to count on their government to get them through shaky financial times.
The centre goes on to state:
This, for a minority government, is shocking. Its tax cut agenda to date reduces Canada's fiscal capacity by close to $190 billion over the next six years. That $190 billion could, and should, fund programs and services that all Canadians can count on but within a matter of years--the blink of an eye--it will have disappeared with no lasting investment in this and future generations of Canadians.
That in itself is a very good reason to oppose the budget implementation bill.
Over the last several months since the budget came out, we have seen increasing joblessness in Canada. A CBC story dated May 9 talked about the fact that manufacturing continued its decline in April, with losses in Ontario and British Columbia. The number of factory workers has decreased by 112,000 since April 2007, according to Statistics Canada. Recently, of course, we have heard of more layoffs in the auto sector, and certainly forestry is reeling.
In my province of British Columbia and my riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan, we have seen hundreds of jobs disappear over the last six months. We have heard nothing but absolute silence from the government. We have called on the government to institute a national forestry strategy and a national auto sector strategy. The silence is deafening.
The Financial Post of Saturday, May 10 said:
B.C.'s forestry industry has experienced hard times before, but nothing close to this. As long as fallers worked the forests, and truckers hauled their logs, and sawmills produced lumber, and pulp mills turned their waste to paper, the whole system, while precariously co-dependent, seemed to work.
With three production lines capable of producing 400,000 tonnes of pulp product a year, Harmac was the industry's Hercules. It was ageing, and not terribly efficient and probably in need of a major overhaul. But the mill was always counted on to chug along...
This week was black. A sawmill near Campbell River, on Vancouver Island, was scheduled to permanently close. Its owner, Vancouver-based TimberWest Forest Corp., had been trying to sell the Elk Falls plant since 2005. Another 257 jobs, gone. Production stopped this week at Harmac's sister pulpmill in Mackenzie, a town in the B.C. interior, putting 260 more people out of work. A thousand loggers and contractors on Vancouver Island were laid off this week by Western Forest Products Inc., a leader in the industry.
Trees are still being felled in B.C. forests, but more and more, logs are loaded onto ships and delivered, raw and cheap, to such countries as the United States and China, where they are processed. Trucks used to haul logs and wood products around the province are sitting idle.
The result: Mills are starving...A sawmill in Ladysmith, near Nanaimo, closed indefinitely in April. More than 80 workers just lost their jobs at a mill in Crofton, down the highway. Almost 150 people were told not to return to a papermaking plant near Campbell River.
According to the Forest Products Association of Canada, there have been 46 mill closures in B.C. since January, 2007, and 5,747 jobs lost. There is no fix on the horizon...
Nanaimo lost something integral. The city, a thriving, busy hub of shopping malls, new housing developments and myriad services, is at heart a mill town.
All of that was from the Financial Post, but I want to now put some names and faces to this, because this is not just about numbers. This is about people. It is about their families. It is about their children. It is about their grandchildren.
I want to talk a little more about what the article says about how this impacts on people's lives. The article states:
“We thought it would go on forever,“ said John Kloppenburg, 53, one of the few men who did stop to talk outside the mill on Wednesday...“It was my bread and butter for 34 years. And now...” His voice trailed off. “Now I feel lost.”
Further on the article states:
“Guys are looking for answers, they are trying to figure out how they are going to put their lives together,” says Gerry Tellier, president of president of the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers Union, Local 8....His father, Louie, started at the mill in 1951, three years after it opened. “He told me that if I was going to work for a living, I might as well work for a big company that's going to pay well, because they are likely going to stay around forever,” Mr. Tellier recalls.
He took his dad's advice, and signed on at Harmac in 1966. He passed the wisdom along to his own son, Trevor, who went to work at Harmac 20 years ago.
There are three generations of the Tellier family who worked at Harmac. Now they have lost their jobs and they are being forced into leaving the community where they grew up, a community which they love and which they contribute to in so many different ways.
Another person from my constituency, Laura Bohun, in writing on behalf of her husband, said:
As a voting taxpayer in the degenerating province of British Columbia, I feel I must call on you to address the issue of Employment Insurance. My husband is one of the many thousands of men across the country that lost long term forestry employment as a result of the criminal changes made to our forestry code by provincial government, ignored by federal Ministers....The rape of our forest communities continues the sell off of raw logs to the U.S. while forestry communities are dying.
After 26 years of employment at the Ladysmith Western Forest Products Mill (formerly known as Domans) he was given a one week notice (on April 17, 2008) and told that the mill was shutting its doors indefinitely, at least one year minimum. Since January of the same year, my husband only worked every other week on an on call basis. Never enough time off to apply for EI benefits until the mill shut down on May 5th.
She goes on in her letter to talk about the fact that her husband is going to face an unconscionable delay in even getting a decision about whether he qualifies for EI benefits. She recognizes the fact that there are surpluses, excuse me, that there were surpluses. She said:
I implore the powers that be to take some of this EI surplus and use it for the purpose it was intended to serve. How...are ordinary working class people supposed to stop paying mortgages and buying food while we wait for the government to give us back money they failed to disburse to us?
She goes on to talk about the fact that there are 10,000 other unemployed skilled workers in B.C. and that work is very hard to find, and that no one who makes $10 an hour can afford to own a house.
That is a critical point because in Bill C-50, there is a clause to actually set out the EI fund at arm's length to the government. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with setting the EI fund at arm's length so that successive governments cannot pilfer the fund, what we are really concerned about is that over $50 billion has disappeared from the EI fund. This is money that could be used to help workers in transition, to help them with bridging into other employment, to take a look at reinvesting in communities so that communities can diversify and make sure that families get to stay in their own communities instead of having to move somewhere else.
On March 5, the member for Acadie—Bathurst in a question put to the minister responsible for the EI fund, said:
Why does the reserve fund of the new crown corporation not contain the entire $57 billion that belonged to workers?
Fifty-seven billion dollars. The Minister of Human Resources and Social Development responded by saying:
Mr. Speaker, there is no question the Liberals did raid the EI account to the tune of well over $50 billion.
The minister acknowledges the wrong that was done by the Liberals but does nothing to rectify it. We are telling Canadians it is perfectly okay for the previous government to take $50 billion of workers' money, money that workers have paid into a fund for decades and never collected, and then when it is time to actually make sure that workers have that social safety net in place, the government says it is too bad. The money was pilfered by the Liberals, but the government is not going to put it back in the fund where workers can actually take advantage of that fund to make sure that their communities stay viable.
Mr. Speaker, I am very aware of parliamentary privilege and that we have to be very careful about how we talk about funds that go missing, but the member for Halifax today talked about a former finance minister and about misappropriation of funds. I would argue that when workers pay into a fund and expect it to be there and the fund disappears, that sounds like misappropriation.
We know that the previous Liberal government gutted the EI fund anyway. The Liberals took the money out and made sure that only one in four men and one in three women who were working could actually qualify. The Liberals reduced the amount that people would get to 55%. The benefit rate is now only 55% of their earnings. They made the number of hours much higher so that people would have more difficulty in qualifying.
What is happening right now in Nanaimo--Cowichan is that people who had worked for decades in the forestry industry, after five or six months on EI, are told that their benefits are running out because Nanaimo--Cowichan's unemployment rate is tied to that of the Lower Mainland, a completely different labour market. When we followed up to find out if there was anything that could be done about that, we were told that the regions are reconfigured every so many years and it is just not time. We wrote to the minister saying that these are real people who are worried about paying their mortgages, about sending their kids to college and could something not be done. The response to date has been silence.
Those 1,500-plus workers who have lost their jobs over the last six months, whether it was at Munns Lumber, Ted LeRoy Trucking, Catalyst Paper, Harmac Pulp Mill or Western Forest Products' Ladysmith mill, whatever the company, are all people who have homes in our communities, who pay taxes in our communities. Not only are those workers worried about whether or not they are going to have a future in our communities, but the municipalities are also worried about it. They are losing a good tax revenue source as these companies close. The very health and vitality of Nanaimo--Cowichan was the forestry sector. People are wondering what the future holds for them.
There are some very good reasons, just on the forestry sector alone in Nanaimo--Cowichan, British Columbia and across this country, for opposing this bill. This bill holds nothing for forestry. It holds nothing for the EI fund in terms of making sure money goes back to the workers who actually deserve it.
On another note, as the aboriginal affairs critic for the New Democrats, I have to draw attention to the shocking absence in the original budget speech and now in the budget implementation bill of meaningful measures for aboriginal people.
I have spoken many times in this House about the desperate poverty with respect to many first nations, Métis and Inuit, but as a reminder, 41% of aboriginal children under 14 were living in poverty nationally in 2001, rising to 51% in Manitoba and 52% in Saskatchewan. Those are shocking numbers. In Canada in this day and age we should not be talking about how poor the first nations, Métis and Inuit children and their families are, but sadly all we see is the government's inattention and neglect in such matters as education, housing, clean water, and many of the initiatives in early learning and child care that would actually help lift first nations, Métis and Inuit out of poverty.
We all know from the many studies that have been done that education is one of the tools that can be used to make sure that people have access to employment. In some areas there are skills shortages, for example, apprenticeable trades, physicians, medical technologists. There are many, many occupations where there are skills shortages. It has been studied to death, whether it was in the aboriginal affairs committee or the human resources committee, and the recommendations have consistently been to put more money into education. It is simple. The second piece of that is to make sure that first nations, Métis and Inuit are involved in designing, developing and delivering that education.
I have spoken about the First Nations Technical Institute many times in this House. We recently received a letter from the minister indicating that although the First Nations Technical Institute got some additional money this year, it is not likely to happen in future years. In fact the letter stated:
--the Department's preferred focus is on transferring tuition dollars directly to learners. As a result, 2007-2008 is the last year the Department will provide transitional funding to the First Nations Technical Institute.
This flies in the face of so many reports that have talked about the importance of indigenous control of education. The First Nations Technical Institute graduates high numbers of students. The students have a very high success rate in terms of placement in employment or further education. What we are hearing from the minister is, “Too bad. You have the results. You are performing, but too bad. You have to find some private money from somewhere”. First nations post-secondary students have to go to institutions that are privately funded from somewhere else. We do not ask other students in Canada to do that. Why would we ask first nations students to do it?
While I am talking about schooling, the member for Timmins—James Bay has been tireless in bringing forward the shameful fact that Attawapiskat children do not have access to a clean, safe public school.
We did a bit of research. We asked the Library of Parliament to do an analysis. The analysis showed that there was roughly $56 billion in federal corporate tax cuts from 2001 to 2007. Based on that amount, we could build every pending school project 177 times.
When we tried to get a list of what schools were pending for construction or renovation we were able to get the names of 39. We know the number is substantially more than that because of an access to information request. Based on 39 schools that needed renovation or construction, that would total $315,833,000. From the billions of dollars that were used for corporate tax cuts, surely we could have found $315 million to build schools to provide education for first nations children. Without proper education, first nations children will continue to face the wall of poverty that their mothers and fathers faced.
Officials from Indian and northern affairs appeared before committee. I posed a question to them around the funding issue. There are a couple of issues here. There is something called the band operating funding formula which allows the schools to continue to operate. We found that they received exactly the same money as they received last year even though we know that was substantially less than what is needed to operate the schools.
On reserve schools are substantially underfunded compared to schools off reserve. Does this mean a first nations child does not deserve the same level of education as an off reserve child? First nations children do not have access to computers or other technology or libraries. They do not have access to special needs programs or a speech therapist because they live on reserve and they are a first nations child.
I asked the associate deputy minister about the funding and he said that K to 12 funding is still part of the 2% funding cap and that is a challenge. It is a bit of an understatement to say that it is a challenge. The Auditor General has identified population growth at around 11% and yet funding has been less than 2% when a bunch of other elements are factored in, such as the cost of living and those kinds of things.
The 2% cap was put in under the previous Liberal government in 1995-96 as a cost saving measure despite the fact that it knew that the population was growing. The Conservatives have maintained that 2% funding cap despite all of the reports, including the Auditor General's report, that talk about the serious underfunding crisis in education, in housing, in health care.
I want to put a couple of faces to this issue.
The member for Timmins—James Bay has done an excellent job in raising the issue around Attawapiskat. Canadians from coast to coast to coast recognize that the children from Attawapiskat articulately talk about what it means for them to go to school.
The Canadian Press on January 24 published a report, “Funding crunch affects native schools”, which states:
“They've put a freeze on even our renovation dollars,” said the co-director of education for the Prince Albert Grand Council in Saskatchewan. It's one of the largest tribal councils in Canada, representing 12 bands and 26 communities.
Hill said at least a quarter of the council's 29 schools need major repairs.
Sometimes there isn't even a building. A school at Deschambault Lake in northern Saskatchewan hasn't been replaced since it burnt down in 2004.
That was four years ago. For four years those kids have been shipped all over their community, taking classes in basements and wherever else that space could be found. I would argue that in any community off reserve it would not take four years to get a school back on the ground; in fact, I know it would not. In other communities where schools have burned down, they have been rebuilt within two years.
The member for Timmins—James Bay did an access to information request on the state of school construction projects. I could not even find that one on the list.
We talk about the importance of education, yet the government keeps shovelling money away from education. It has underfunded so many projects. In the period 1999-2000 and 2006-07, a total of $72 million per year was reallocated internally from the capital facilities maintenance program to address the pressures in other areas.
When we are trying to fund schools, there has to be a dedicated pot of money that puts children first. We need to make sure that first nations kids on reserve have the same access to education as has every other off reserve child in this country. It is criminal that children are not getting that education.
We in the NDP will be opposing this bill on principle.