Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to speak to a topic I am very familiar with. For the second time in this Parliament, a bill to reduce poverty has been introduced in the House.
I congratulate and thank my colleague, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, for his commitment to those most in need. With this bill, he is following in the footsteps of Ed Broadbent, who got a motion to eliminate child poverty passed in 1989. He is also following the example of Tony Martin, Jean Crowder and so many other political figures who made the fight against poverty the primary reason for their involvement.
If we look at the figures, we can see that such a bill has never been more timely. This month, we marked National Child Day and National Housing Day. We know how important these days are. They were created not as a time to celebrate, but rather to sound the alarm. They raise awareness about the issues and hard realities that some of our fellow Canadians face in those areas. They provide an opportunity for community organizations and associations to speak out against the injustice. Canada is a rich country with a wealth of resources, yet we allow our children and fellow citizens to grow up and live in poverty.
The figures are alarming. One in six Canadians lives in poverty. That is 5.8 million people, including 250,000 who end up homeless every year and 1.7 million households living in substandard or unaffordable housing. Unfortunately, that is not all. Children are even worse off: 1.4 million Canadian children live in poverty. That is 200,000 more children than last year, and more than one in three of these children live in an indigenous community.
Because this situation is urgent, and because the bill is part of the New Democrat legacy, we will be supporting this bill. However, I must say I am shocked, because I myself introduced a poverty reduction bill in February 2016, just over two years ago. That bill was developed after long consultations with organizations from across the country. It had the support of many anti-poverty agencies, and it built on the community work I have been doing for decades to improve the lives of the people of Saint-Hyacinthe and Acton Vale in my riding of Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot.
The purpose of Bill C-245 was to strengthen Canada's social and economic safety net. I wanted to add social condition to the Canadian Human Rights Act, so that poverty would no longer be grounds for discrimination. I also included community organizations, the municipalities, the provinces and the territories as privileged partners in this poverty reduction strategy. Make no mistake, if our federal role is to give guidance and show leadership, then we cannot do without the support of these stakeholders, who work on the ground every day to help those who are most in need.
Most of the Liberals and Conservatives voted against Bill C-245. Why? The Liberals said that they were going to do better to significantly reduce poverty in Canada. Did they keep that promise? I do not think so.
Let me be clear. Bill C-87 is necessary, but it barely scratches the surface of what needs to be done to eliminate poverty. I would like the Liberal government to tell me what concrete, urgent action it is taking to eliminate poverty in Canada. The minister announced that this plan would make Canada a leader in poverty reduction. I do not think that is true.
I commend the efforts that have been made so far, such as the Canada child benefit, but to be honest, we still have a long way to go. Bill C-87 sets the minimum targets recommended by the United Nations. There are no new investments and no new programs. What does this bill really do? It establishes minimum targets, a very debatable poverty line, and an advisory council.
As far as the poverty line is concerned, I have to wonder whether Canada really hopes to become a leader in poverty reduction by lowering its standards. That is the issue. Members should know that anti-poverty organizations are afraid that poor people will not longer qualify for subsidy programs, because this metric excludes them from the government statistics. The poverty line used by the Liberals is the market basket measure. Let me reiterate this for the House: this measure is a smokescreen that masks the reality of poverty in Canada.
Economist Andrew Jackson has demonstrated that using the low income measure, 828,000 seniors live in poverty. Using the market basket measure, the number would be 284,000 over the same period. That is a difference of about half a million seniors. Is the government really okay with using the lower figures and leaving half a million unaccounted-for seniors out in the cold?
In addition to turning a blind eye to poverty, this indicator does nothing to lift people out of poverty. It measures the income needed to purchase a basket of basic goods. Since Canadians whose income exceeds that threshold are no longer considered poor, they are no longer counted in the government's statistics. That is not right.
The market basket measure excludes many day-to-day expenses, such as health care costs, day care fees and support payments. Even those who reach that income threshold are still living in poverty. Being able to meet those basic needs does not mean one is no longer poor—far from it. People in that position live in uncertainty, and the slightest unexpected expense can cause tremendous financial stress.
This week my team spoke with representatives of Comptoir-Partage La Mie, a food bank in Saint-Hyacinthe. Every week volunteers there provide support to nearly 200 families in financial difficulty and provide them with food to help make ends meet. People must not assume that assistance is given first come, first served. Each case is examined individually in order to provide the most appropriate assistance and maximize the limited resources each family has. Their poverty level is $100 above the basic income. When you work on the ground every day, you realize that people in need are not there to try to take advantage of the system.
The precariousness is real, and with a margin of only $100, these people are not wealthy. They have just a bit of wiggle room to pay their bills and perhaps some unexpected expenses, like if their car breaks down, for example.
These organizations have limited resources, yet they work miracles in our communities. I commend them. They have limited resources because they receive very little assistance from the federal government. Still, they manage to face reality and realize that being able to afford only the basic necessities does not mean getting out of poverty.
That is why I am so disappointed to find this government, that claimed to be so ambitious, incapable of seeing that poverty is overtaking Canada's children and families. The bill cannot merely be about reducing numbers. We must implement concrete measures.
There must be a review of existing programs. Today many families do not receive the Canada child benefit, especially in remote indigenous communities even though poverty and insecurity are rampant in those communities. Of the 20% of poor children in Canada, one in three lives in an indigenous community.
Poverty is an endless cycle that affects entire families. To break this cycle, we must address the structural inequalities that affect these children from birth.
We must also reform the unfair EI system. For almost 30 years, the government has not contributed a single cent to the employment insurance fund. After 20 years of Conservative and Liberal reforms, this system is in a pitiful state and unable to provide families with the help they need. It is not acceptable that we are living with a system that has not been overhauled since the 1970s and that excludes 60% of our workers.
EI reform would help lift thousands of families out of precarious situations, and even out of poverty. However, we cannot forget that because EI has such a low qualification rate, these workers are being denied access to training adapted to their needs. I am talking about the so-called middle class and those who are working hard to join it.
The less fortunate should not have to fight for access to federal benefits. Since we are not all equal in the face of poverty, we must expand access to EI and make the Canada child benefit available to everyone. We should make sure that grandparents who have guardianship of a child are also eligible. The same goes for our seniors.
I want to commend the initiative to make the guaranteed income supplement automatic for seniors at the age of 65. The NDP had been calling for this for decades.
However, the reality is that many more seniors do not receive this benefit, even though they are entitled to it. I wrote an open letter in January to inform my constituents and I received hundreds of emails and calls. There were a lot of people who were disappointed to learn that it was not automatic.
Why not expand this measure to all workers who worked their whole lives to build this country?
The government must also adopt the low income measure for calculating poverty. The low income measure sets the poverty level at half of the median income, which is more realistic. It also also for international comparisons, which should interest the government, since it was to be a leader in the global arena.
The government must set more ambitious short-term goals. On November 5, the day before this bill was introduced, British Columbia adopted a bill to reduce child poverty by 50% in five years. Anti-poverty organizations are calling for a similar measure.
Is the government really going to wait more than a decade to do something, letting a generation of children grow up in poverty?
We need to get these measures in place faster so we can help Canada's future generations now. Let's not fool ourselves. These programs are a step in the right direction, but they address only part of the problem.
We cannot radically reduce poverty in this country unless we attack it on all fronts. We need to be bold and adopt fairer and more ambitious measures for Canadians.
Reducing poverty calls for profound social change. Sending out cheques is not enough any more. When child care costs $80 per day per child, the Canada child benefit is not nearly enough to change peoples lives' and give them a little breathing room at the end of the month. What we need is a universal, affordable, nationwide child care system.
The government made an election promise to launch a full-scale attack on poverty, not just a superficial one. I am now asking the government to keep that promise and put its money where its mouth is. Canadians need a complete overhaul of our public policies and services.
Martin Luther King said that true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. Attacking the root causes of inequality is the one and only way we can hope to put an end to poverty.
Let us attack it, then, beginning with a universal, affordable child care service. Campaign 2000 and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have described such a service as a cornerstone to poverty reduction.
This service is crucial so that parents no longer have to choose between expensive child care and going to work. It is especially important to reducing poverty among women, who are more often affected when it comes to having to choose between child care and going back to work.
Affordable, high-quality child care for everyone would also help give children from disadvantaged backgrounds a more equal start in life.
The same thing goes for uninsured medical expenses and dental costs, which are not included when calculating the poverty level and pose a heavy burden on family budgets.
How can we talk about an equal and just society if we are not all equal when it comes to health care costs?
Bringing in drug and dental plans is more than necessary, it is essential if we truly want to address inequalities in an effort to eliminate the scourge of poverty.
We keep saying that work is the way out of poverty and guarantees dignity. However, work is not accessible to everyone. Let us bring in guaranteed income for people in need. I am talking about people who cannot work because of physical or mental limitations. Believe me, it is not a choice. It is the weight of a disability that they suffer daily. It is our role, that of parliamentarians, but also that of the government, to provide these people with a decent income to live on. Bringing in a basic income guarantee would help maintain dignity and reduce the stigmatization that our constituents go through every day.
Having a fair tax system also goes a long a way to reducing poverty.
To tackle the root causes of inequality, let us overhaul the income tax system to better redistribute wealth to the most vulnerable groups. To reduce poverty, we must look at society as a whole. We must reconsider the causes of inequality. The gap grows every year, and the wealthy keep coming out on top, while the income of the middle class remains hopelessly stagnant.
The government cannot sell us a brand-new poverty reduction strategy with no new programs or funding, as I mentioned, and then turn around and increase tax breaks for the rich. I would like to remind members that we are losing $8 billion a year because of a lack of political courage. Let us put an end to this travesty. Community organizations keep saying that this bill is a good starting point but does not do enough to address the challenge of poverty in Canada.
Campaign 2000, Citizens for Public Justice, Collectif pour un Québec sans pauvreté, FRAPRU, the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Broadbent Institute, and many other organizations are asking this government to set the bar higher. The OECD recommends measures to support employment, offset low incomes and increase affordable full-time child care services for families.
I want to acknowledge the tremendous work that employees and volunteers at community organizations do to help the less fortunate. The Centre de Bénévolat de St-Hyacinthe, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, works hard to support those in need. The volunteers working on the ground are far removed from Ottawa's initiatives, recommendations and directives. What really counts for them is what they can immediately do to help a mother who is drowning in debt after school starts in September or a retiree who needs help filling out his guaranteed income supplement application because he was over 65 on January 1, 2018.
The Centre de Bénévolat de St-Hyacinthe, the Centre de Bénévolat d'Acton Vale, Moisson Maskoutaine and the Comptoir-Partage La Mie have all come to the same conclusion: people are struggling financially, and they need more than just a basket of necessities. Single people are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Incomes are too low.
Claudine Gauvin, director of Moisson Maskoutaine, told me that, of the 870 requests for Christmas food assistance, more than half came from single people. Sick single people are particularly vulnerable, because their health-related expenses are so high. Moisson Maskoutaine, the Centre de Bénévolat de St-Hyacinthe, the Centre de Bénévolat d'Acton Vale and the Comptoir-Partage La Mie provide a great deal of support to our community. They collect toys for children and organize coffee chats and community kitchens, helping isolated and disadvantaged people create strong social ties.
Since the majority of those affected are single people, I no longer want to hear the government say that the Canada child benefit will fix everything.
The work done by these organizations should guide our debate here in Ottawa and the work we will be doing together in committee. Our sole objective should be to make sure that what we do has a meaningful effect on helping Canadians across the country emerge from poverty. Aside from targets and measurement tools, we need to combat poverty by making meaningful, far-reaching changes to our services and public policies.
In conclusion, I would like to share the words of my colleague, Ed Broadbent, who said the following nearly 30 years ago: “Let us affirm today...that as a nation by the beginning of the 21st Century...child poverty...will be a relic of the past.” The knowledge of our failure must guide our actions. We have broken promises and left commitments unfulfilled, and child poverty is far from being a relic of the past. It is even worse. It is now a scourge. Back in 1989, the House of Commons set a goal of eliminating child poverty in Canada by the year 2000, and we have already missed that deadline by 18 years. We are a long way from meeting that goal.
If there is one thing I hope members will retain from my speech today, it is that I want us to be ambitious and honest for our children, who deserve to see an end to the cycle of poverty once and for all. We owe them this now.