Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-321.
As indicated by my hon. colleague from Vaudreuil-Soulanges and all members on both sides of the House who have spoken on this issue, the NDP will gladly support this bill, which the House has been trying to pass for the past few session and which, for various reasons, has never passed third reading to receive royal assent.
I would like to take this opportunity here today to address a few issues related to this bill. These issues are not necessarily part of today's debate, but I think they are worth pointing out.
As hon. members probably know, the postal subsidy program has existed since the 19th century, but it was modified in 1939 specifically to include the shipment of library books. I mention library books because that is probably one area that will have to be revisited in committee, in order to increase the bill's scope.
We must not forget that in the 1990s, the program was cut by 50%. I am sure we all recall the cuts made by the Liberal government of the day, including the social program review, in particular. So, funding to this program was cut by 50% and the eligibility criteria had to be tightened considerably in order to promote Canadian owned and controlled subscriber-paid publications.
However, in March 1996, the legality of the postal subsidy was challenged before the WTO, which revived the whole issue of cultural exclusion in international trade relationships. Indeed, Canada and especially Quebec have always defended the notion that the cultural industry—books, periodicals, magazines, newspapers, movies, DVDs, music—and, to some extent, broadcasting express and reflect ideas, opinions, values and traditions, and as a result, contribute to the structure and identity of a community, a population or a nation.
Canada had to comply with the terms and conditions of the GATT agreements in 1998. The program's preferential postal rates were converted into direct subsidies through separate accounts at Canada Post for each registered title. The costs related to these rates therefore had to be absorbed by the crown corporation. That decision likely contributed to putting the nail in the coffin for this program, which officially stopped being a government program in 2005. However, thanks to pressure from libraries and industry organizations, Canada Post has granted an extension of the rates every year since 2005.
Since that time, the rates have never increased, which is a credit to Canada Post. However, that is about to change, since Canada Post announced for the latest year of the program—this year—a 5% increase to the library book rate, effective January 16, 2012.
For example, sending a package that weighs just over two pounds at the library book rate currently costs 92¢. That amount increased to 97¢ in January 2012. Without the library book rate, the same service of sending and returning a book would cost $18 through a post office. There are truly very significant savings when it comes to library books and they benefit the entire Canadian library network, whether we are talking about public libraries or university libraries.
In general, I believe that this shows the importance of being able to vote for a bill such as the one introduced by my colleague from Brandon—Souris. However, the library book rate program is scheduled to end on December 31, 2012, after being renewed for more than five years. For almost 30 years, and especially since the 2008 Canada Post strategic review, the corporation has been trying to reinvent itself, sometimes even abandoning the fundamental principle of universal and accessible postal services. Thus, it is a pleasant surprise that this program is still in place.
In defence of this crown corporation, I have to agree that it is not just up to Canada Post to cover the cost of this program to promote culture and knowledge. Hence the Canadian Library Association, as well as most stakeholders, recommended that the federal government ensure the continuation of the program. However, stakeholders do not agree on whether the program is part of the universal service obligation—the USO—that Canada Post has toward Canadians. The strategic review advisory panel's conclusion was as follows:
As a matter of principle, Canada Post should not be required to subsidize or otherwise pay for those public policy objectives that are not an explicit part of the USO. If a government department or agency proposes public policy activities like the ones above, the government should open the service to a competitive bidding process on a contract basis where such options exist.
To quote further from the advisory panel carrying out the strategic review of Canada Post:
While Canada Post as provider of postal services to all Canadians has been delivering publications since before Confederation, it does not have the mandate to promote Canadian culture by subsidizing postal rates for Canadian publications. That is the responsibility of the Department of Canadian Heritage.
One thing is clear: if Canada Post does not receive assistance, it will end this program, be it in 2013 or at some other time.
The crown corporation estimates that in 2007 alone, it lost $6 million because of this program. On the other hand, if the library book rate is raised or eliminated, libraries could pay postage fees that are up to 24 times higher, which would significantly curtail our access to information, knowledge and library services.
In Quebec alone, some 800 small public libraries use Canada Post's library book rate. In 2010 alone, over 115,000 interlibrary loans were made. A lot is at stake for them.
Public libraries are gateways to knowledge. That is why high-profile organizations like UNESCO promote them. In fact, UNESCO adopted the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto in 1995 in collaboration with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions to guide the creation and evolution of public libraries around the world.
The manifesto states that public libraries are a living force and a natural ally for education, culture and information. It also says that libraries are an essential agent for the fostering of civic-mindedness and peace because certain values “can only be attained through the ability of well-informed citizens to exercise their democratic rights and to play an active role in society. Constructive participation and the development of democracy depend on satisfactory education as well as on free and unlimited access to knowledge, thought, culture and information.”
In that sense, government support is key, if not crucial, to encouraging and promoting these local institutions, which open doors and minds to knowledge and possibilities.
I would like to add that this bill and the difference it could make are of particular concern to me given that I represent a riding that is largely rural and that depends on this kind of program so that libraries that would normally have a hard time accessing many books and library materials would be able to access them without necessarily blowing their budget. In rural settings, it is often difficult to properly fund organizations that are key to the vitality of several municipalities, because of the lack of resources. Interlibrary loans are an essential tool in sharing these costs in a uniform manner so they can all benefit.
If the book subsidy program currently offered by Canada Post as part of this interlibrary loan program were eliminated, libraries in small municipalities would suffer first and foremost.
I would like to take this opportunity to respond to what the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport said about the issue of the availability of information. He was quite right to mention that the free market in information and the development of new technology have increased knowledge through various media such as the iPad, the Internet and so on. However, this is not all that different from what bookstores were offering in terms of library materials. One can easily go and buy a book at a library, just as one can buy access to documentation online for iPads and for other devices.
In that sense, this provides part of the equation. Public libraries represent opportunities for those who cannot afford to buy books and documents, so they can consult them for free, which democratizes information and knowledge. That is why it is important that we do not confuse the issues. The issue of access to information in the private sector is an important one and we fully support that, but we need to ensure thoroughly democratic access to information and its public availability.
As I said, we will be supporting this bill. We would like to propose some amendments in committee, including, for example, increasing the number of materials that can be exchanged—not only books, but also other materials that can be accessed by various devices.
I am pleased to announce the NDP's support for this bill.