They didn't know me very well. That's right.
Somehow I got through the screening process and was chosen as an ordinary Canadian to participate in a cross-country consultation of great value and great merit.
This was put on by the previous Conservative government, hosted by its minister of foreign affairs at the time, Joe Clark. The government went to great effort and great expense to truly consult Canadians on a number of pressing issues that we believed were necessary. We can imagine what was going on in Canadian history at that time, but it was based on the premise that our Canadian Federation and the Constitution that holds it together is a very fragile construct. It needs to be maintained, nourished and updated on an ongoing basis in order to maintain the fabric. It is a fragile thing that we have thrown together here.
I was surprised to learn that there are less than 20 federations in the world. Of all the countries in the world, less than 20 are federations because they are, by definition, difficult to knit together for a common purpose and a common goal.
At that time, 3 out of those 20 federations were at risk. One of them, the Soviet Union, is now gone. Another one, Yugoslavia, is now gone. The third one that was on the species at risk list was Canada. There was genuine concern at that time that we may not be able to keep this country together. The dynamics, the disparate, legitimate interests of the participating parties to our federation were not satisfied and were frustrated. They felt that the Confederation was not serving their needs as was the commitment made at Confederation.
Therefore, this bold, courageous enterprise took effect and we had five meetings across the country. The 160 of us chosen as ordinary Canadians formed the nucleus. Then they invited about 1,000 or 2,000 more in each of the five cities in which we had these meetings. The 160 who were chosen were given a backgrounder in the complexity of the makeup of the Canadian Confederation and the reasoning behind why we have the two chambers, the efficacy of the two chambers, the representation in this chamber as opposed to the lack of representation in the other.
All of that was a great history lesson for a lot of ordinary Canadians so that we could make an informed recommendation as to what kind of changes were necessary to add value to Confederation and to amend the Constitution to ensure the viability of a great nation and to take us off the species at risk list for countries with federation as their makeup. We believed it was a sad thing that Canada was even on that list. However, the issue of representation by population was key and integral to our dialogue.
We had these five special meetings and, at the very end, it was decided we needed a sixth meeting because we forgot that there were not two founding nations that formed this country, that there were first nations, as well, and that somehow, perhaps due to tradition, we had left them out of the debate. We had another sixth round dealing with aboriginal people.
Since that time, I have travelled to and learned a great deal about the country of New Zealand, another Commonwealth country with which we have great relations. It has seats reserved in its house of commons for the Maori people. They are set aside, guaranteed. They are not limited to that number of seats but they are guaranteed that number of seats and, should they win more by the proportional representation system, so be it. but they are guaranteed representation in their house of commons.
That is the kind of debate and the type of consultation that we should have had going into such an important subject matter. One of the themes throughout all the speakers from the New Democratic Party in the context of this debate is that if we are going to do this now, we had better do it right. There is a bigger picture here than just the simplistic mathematics of ensuring that every seat represents 111,316 constituents. That is the easiest part of the debate. That does not even touch on the thornier issues that are at stake here if we are to reopen the debate on the type of democratic reform that is necessary in this country to maintain the integrity of a great nation with a great Constitution.
The one thing that we learned in the cross-country consultations leading up to the Charlottetown accord is that we need to be ever vigilant to maintain a constitution. A constitution is a living, breathing document. It is not rigid or carved in granite with a chisel. It is something that needs to be revisited on a regular basis, nurtured, watered and watered in a respectful way.
I am fully cognizant of and will acknowledge freely that it is difficult for members of Parliament when one is tasked with representing 88,000 constituents, as I represent, and another member of Parliament with the same budget, the same amount of staff and the same amount of resources representing 131,000, Just by ratio, one would think that the member will have more casework. I am critical, though, that while we do compensate members of Parliament with a greater constituency office budget if they represent a greater geographic area, and we do compensate members of Parliament with a supplementary budget if they represent larger numbers of people, we do not make any accommodation for members of Parliament who may represent areas of greater need.
I represent an area where 47% of all the families live below the poverty line and 52% of all the children in my riding live below the poverty line. Low income people, in fact poverty, puts people in a constant state of crisis and those people need a disproportionate amount of support. The average family income in my riding is less than $30,000 a year. If the average family income in a riding is $130,000, people are not likely to go knocking on the door of their member of Parliament nearly as often as when people are thrown out of an apartment, their social assistance cheque has not arrived or their children have been scooped up by child and family services. Poor people are in crisis on a regular basis. I wish we could acknowledge and recognize that some members of Parliament are dealt with far more pressing casework than people who want to go to the Bahamas for their Christmas holidays and their passport is late arriving.
We are dealing with an incredibly important issue here. I believe it is negligent of us not to be dealing with some of the larger issues regarding democratic reform in the context of doing the math on dividing up the seats in the House of Commons. This is one of those bills that has not gestated, not finished. It is being rushed through without due consideration and it would benefit from a broad cross-country consultation, perhaps not of the magnitude of the consultation that led to the Charlottetown accord, but surely more input from more groups, more organizations and more Canadians who could tell us what they want done with their democratic institutions.
We can point to the other chamber, the undemocratic, unelected Senate, which is burning up resources at breakneck speed. Perhaps ordinary Canadians now, in these times of budgetary restraint, would have some input and some guidance as to whether we really need a second chamber at all or whether that is just some place for senators to go globe-trotting around the world on parliamentary junkets.