Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Vancouver Centre.
It is indeed an honour for me to be standing here to talk on this particular issue. I want to talk about and put into perspective, certainly for my riding and also for the nation itself, the fact that over the past two years it has been a time of tumult, restraint and worry. Certainly, it has been a time of worry for people in an aging community like my riding.
The average age in my riding is above average. Thus seniors issues have come to the fore in many respects over the past while, not only the OAS and the guaranteed income supplement, but also pension security. Some of the issues I will touch upon in my speech will speak to the general nervousness, to use the best word I can come up with, over the past while.
My riding comprises 170 communities. That is a lot, and the largest is only 13,000 people. Thus here is a string of communities, where not only do people have to worry about their personal positions, but also about the position of their communities. In many cases, when larger industries shut down branches or smaller plants, a lot of these communities face extinction. It has been a struggle to diversify and reclaim a spot in the provincial economy and, certainly, in the national economy.
One example among many is Lewisporte Wholesalers. One of the problems we faced was skills training. There seems to be a lot of red tape around the idea of skills training. I am not particularly blaming any individual or any past party or government, whatever these may be, but I think this entire House and all politicians, provincial, federal and municipal, could make a concerted effort to adapt these particular situations so these communities and companies can contribute in the future.
It is about empowerment. In times like this we need to empower the people, no matter where they live. So when we talk about plans, budgets, the economic action plan part one or part two, we need to allow people to be empowered so that they can be trained and productive parts of society and masters of their own destiny.
Over the past while, we have seen circumstances change. Unbeknownst to many, the world economy took a large tumble that started in the United States with the housing market crisis and spread its way through places like Europe and around the world. Canada, being dependent on the United States for most of its trade, and now increasingly the European Union, finds itself in a position where it has to adapt to that international regime more than it ever has.
Let me just return to my riding. This is a particular situation where we are well above average in many respects. Our quality of life is well above average; but, of course, I am biased here, as one of 308 members.
However, in this House we also talk about unemployment. The national unemployment rate hovers around the 8% mark, but in my riding the official number is now 24.9%. I say that again for emphasis: 24.9%. It is well above average.
In this particular situation, many people enjoy seasonal work, which is why we focused on the back end of the EI system when discussing changes to that system. By that, we meant the extension of weeks of eligibility for current recipients of EI. What this discussion did not address was the ability to claim EI benefits in the first place. Therefore, we have an issue that could have benefited my riding if it was addressed. Unfortunately, it did not, because we did not look at that.
I appreciate some of the smaller steps that have been taken when it comes self-employment, which I am sure my colleagues across the way will point out to me, and others as well. However, the missing element in EI reform was the front end of the system and the question of people being able to qualify for, particularly in my riding. With the unemployment rate at around 25%, one can get an idea of just how important that is.
There was one company that disappeared from my riding, and that was in the town of Grand Falls-Windsor. We had a situation where a 100-year-old mill closed. It closed its doors, was padlocked and was no more. Seven hundred direct jobs were involved, and if we include other tertiary activity, we were looking at well over 1,100 or 1,200 people involved in this particular cut.
What do we do? We need to diversify the economy. There were some smaller elements of diversification brought forward by the provincial government, as well as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. This particular budget did extend one of the programs, that is, the investment in the communities fund, but what I do not like about it is that there is no long-term commitment to how a community can adapt itself to that international regime; and therein lies what we should be looking at. That is why I put to the House that this budget lacks the vision it requires. It is a year over year, smaller investment that does not allow these people to plan.
For example, one of the industries that is about to take off in the Exploits Valley region where the mill went down is the cranberry industry. Apparently, unbeknownst to many people, Newfoundland is a good place for growing cranberries. With the higher demand for cranberry juice around the world, we have a way to diversify. However, here is the issue. For someone to put a solid investment into that, the problem is that the agencies such as ACOA that help them do not have the long-term commitment to funding, and that is what they need.
When we were in power, we believed in a five-year commitment to innovation money as well as communities money, because that was essential. In order for a community to survive, it must have that long-term agreement. Therefore, I would ask the government to reconsider and to look at ways of allowing a program that would give people in my riding the chance to diversify in that longer range. One of the programs they had was the community assistance funding, which is a national program.
The other problem is that they did not allow ACOA to have its own program so that it could be the master of its own destiny. I say this because ACOA has the people on the ground who know the most about the players involved.
Let me move on from that particular policy announcement in the budget with regard to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. I cannot speak on behalf of other regional development agencies, but I am sure they fall similarly within the same boat.
Youth unemployment is the highest it has been for years. Here is something that occurred to me, which I hear a lot of it in the riding, and that is the connection between the skills of youth and the labour market that awaits these youth.
There is an emphasis on getting individuals skilled to the point where they do what they want to do. They want to be geologists, or they want to be technologists. There are colleges in my home town that deal with mining and a lot of the technical trades that are in high demand, and also from a university standpoint, especially doctors and nurses. However, when it comes to a lot of the jobs and to allowing a community to retain these young people, what is missing here is the ability of a company or industry to reach out to those who are able to work for them in that particular area. Mining has picked up dramatically in central Newfoundland, and with the new-found resources in gold, copper and zinc, there are people around this country right now who would love to move to my riding to work there, but we do not make an effort to bridge that gap.
Companies and industries such as Teck Resources, which owns Duck Pond Mine, need the federal government, along with the provincial government, to help them to find people to work for them.
Here is an example of what I am talking about. One of the things that we can propose is a skills inventory directory, which does not get talked about much. It would allow the local government offices to compile a list of people who are willing and certainly able to work. That is the vision thing. That is just not happening in this particular budget.
Finally, I want to touch upon pension security. Some people will say that the individual who has a secured pension is a secure person, and that is great; but there is another element of pension security that I put forward to this House. Pension security is a vanguard, the beginning of economic development. In a community of only 1,000 people but with 40% to 50% of its inhabitants on pensions, if pension security is not sustained, these people will either have to move to where they can get more work or move in with other family.
The pensioners of AbitibiBowater face a 25% decrease in the value of their pensions. The problem is that we have to make pensions secure so that people can stay in their smaller communities. Who is going to move a company into a small community if there are no people there to work in the industry? That is the vision thing.
I hope the House gives careful consideration to the vision thing in dealing with this budget.