Mr. Speaker, this will be the last speech I deliver in the House of Commons, in where it has been an honour to represent the people of York--Simcoe for a decade and a half.
Bill C-81 seeks to enhance accessibility in areas of federal jurisdiction. It is a worthy objective. Accessibility is an area where we have seen much change and progress in my lifetime. However, it is progress that has been largely driven not by politicians, but rather by Canadians who saw the need and pressed for changes to the rules.
The success of those changes has been largely due to an incremental approach that has not placed undue burdens on Canadians trying to make a living, allowing progress over time. It is an example of the importance of applying common sense when delivering change for the better. That goal, delivering change for the better, has been my purpose in my time here.
The rationale behind accessibility rules is to create opportunity for people to achieve their potential. The preamble to the bill focuses on that question of ensuring equal opportunity. In this speech I will focus largely on that word that motivates this legislation, that word being “opportunity”.
Canada is all about opportunity. Opportunity is the reason my family and so many others have come here.
My grandparents and mother grew up in Estonia. Their life experience is the reason I am in Canada and in the House of Commons.
My grandfather was an agronomist, an important role in a largely agricultural economy in the first half of the 20th century. My grandmother became a lawyer in the 1920s in Estonia at a time not too many women did that.
With the Second World War came waves of Soviet, Nazi and then again Soviet occupation. Much of my family died at the hands of the Soviets, executed, bludgeoned to death by axes in their beds or suffering the almost inevitable death that came as inmates of the communist concentration camps of the Siberian gulag.
The only alternative for my grandparents and mother was a high-risk escape across a treacherous Baltic sea, where the men kept bailing to keep the vessel from capsizing. They left all their possessions behind. Safety was found initially in a refugee camp in Sweden, but ultimately Canada was the destination chosen. Canada was a land of freedom, hope and opportunity to them.
The agronomist went to work in a paper factory in Riverdale. The lawyer went to work on the order desk at Sears. They found all that they were looking for in this country.
I grew up hearing stories of what happened to my family's homeland and their own many close brushes with fate. I learned as a child that freedom and democracy were valuable, could be easily lost and needed to be defended and nourished.
Inevitably I became highly politicized as a young child. In 1968, we had a Trudeau Liberal sign for Bob Caplan on our front lawn. Trudeau was the champion of freedom and rights we were told. However, soon after that, I saw that prime minister embracing communist leaders like Brezhnev, Kosygin and Castro. Those were the very people responsible for suppressing the freedoms of millions. It had a profound effect on me.
By 1972, as I like to say, I was nine years old and the wisdom of age was upon me. I had become a passionate Conservative. I would start working as a volunteer on campaigns when I was 12 and politics would become my life's passion.
As I was growing up, like all good Estonian emigres, we profoundly yearned for Estonia to regain its freedom, which ultimately did happen in 1991. I would ask my grandmother if Estonia ever achieved regaining its independence would she return. No, she would tell me “Canada is our home now”, and she would add “Canada is the best country in the world. It is a land of opportunity. Anybody can achieve their dreams in this country if you just work hard enough.” My grandmother believed in that word “opportunity” and she believed in Canada.
I often doubted this assurance that she gave me as I was growing up. I encountered all kinds of invisible social and economic barriers that immigrant families typically face, but time would prove she was right. What better proof that anybody could achieve their wildest dreams in Canada, however unlikely, than someone like me becoming Canada's minister of sport.
That opportunity that Canada offers, what this legislation seeks to ensure, is available to all has been very kind to me.
In politics, I had the opportunity to help rebuild the Ontario PC party in the early 1990s when I was party president, not a member of caucus, but we did help to get Mike Harris elected premier.
I had the opportunity to lead efforts to reunite the Conservative movement into a single party federally, including running the campaign on the PC party side to have our membership ratify the establishment of the Conservative Party of Canada, an event that restored competitive democracy to our politics.
As a member of the House, I have had the opportunity to serve as public safety minister, working to keep Canadians safe. My time as trade minister was dedicated to expanding our economic opportunities, making a free trade agreement with Europe our top priority, and initiating or advancing many other free trade negotiations.
I had the extraordinary opportunity to work with Prime Minister Harper closely, as Canada's longest-serving Conservative government House leader. For all of these opportunities, his guidance and leadership, I offer my gratitude.
In all these roles I was blessed to work with extraordinary staff in Ottawa and York—Simcoe, a team that was uniformly bright, hard-working, passionately committed to Canada, and fiercely loyal. That was reflected in what I believe was the lowest staff turnover of any minister's officer on the Hill. They made me look good.
Along the way, I was fortunate to acquire other great supporters, my wife Cheryl, and Caroline and John A. They were a constant reminder to me of why we serve, and they are also a reason to look forward to life away from this place.
When it comes to accessibility, I am proud of much of what we delivered for the residents of York—Simcoe, especially during the Harper government. High accessibility standards can be found in significant projects we delivered, like the new Bradford West Gwillimbury public library and new leisure centre, the expansion of the East Gwillimbury Sports Complex, and Georgina's outdoor recreation facility the ROC.
One of the last projects our Conservative government delivered on was accessibility improvements to Georgina's De La Salle Park Beach. It includes a revolutionary beach mat that allows accessibility for those in wheelchairs right into the waters of Lake Simcoe.
Of course, Lake Simcoe enjoys significantly improved water quality thanks to the Lake Simcoe cleanup fund. It was cancelled by the current Liberal government. However, I am confident that the Lake Simcoe cleanup fund will return again in the future. For over 10 years this Conservative initiative saw almost $60 million from our government harnessed by community-based organizations, who added their financial and incoming contributions to real projects that helped physically remediate the lake environment. This was in addition to other initiatives, like mandatory rules to protect the lake ecosystem from invasive species, a ban on harmful phosphorus in dishwasher detergent, and a ban on dumping waste from water vessels.
Undoubtedly, what I will miss most leaving this job is the opportunity to serve the extraordinary people of York—Simcoe. I genuinely love them. They work hard and simply want the government to give them the freedom to succeed and build a brighter future for their families. They want the opportunity to share in the Canadian dream. We worked to help them by lowering their taxes, encouraging economic growth, and tackling crime to make their communities safer. It was easy to always do the right thing by simply asking myself one question: what is best for the people of York—Simcoe?
As members of the House are debating and reflecting on what to do on this bill, the accessibility bill, I encourage them to consider what a tremendous honour it is to serve in this place. We are privileged to be able to make a real difference for our country in a way that very few ever enjoyed. Our system of parliamentary democracy and the British North America Act, through which John A. Macdonald and the other Fathers of Confederation built our country, has been remarkably successful. We are among the youngest countries in the world, yet we enjoy one of the most enduring constitutions. It has guided our growth and provided the genius that brings people of diverse backgrounds together into a remarkably united country. John A. and the fathers truly built well. They built the best country in the world. Our Parliament is at the core of that constitution.
As I prepare to retire from this place, I want to reflect for a moment on one question that I believe needs more discussion in this country, that is, the relevance of this place. Academics and the media like to talk about the declining influence of the individual member of Parliament, pointing to a concentration of power in the offices of party leaders or party discipline as the culprits. However, there is another real factor rendering the work of MPs less relevant. Little has been said, at least until recent weeks, about the growing tendency of the courts to strike down the laws that the people's elected representatives enact, including many laws that were explicitly part of the platforms those MPs promised they would enact if elected. I can assure members that, from countless conversations with constituents over the years, many find this difficult to square with their idea of a how a democracy should work. I believe that if we want to give meaning to the work that we all do here, the time is overdue for a discussion of the appropriateness of a bit more deference to the decisions of the democratically elected legislature. A proper balance requires a restoration of reasonable deference to the decisions of Parliament.
Another favourite of the critics has been to deride partisanship as causing corrosion of Parliament. None of the members will be surprised to hear me rise to defend the unpopular notion that partisanship strengthens our system.
The bill we are debating today is what many would call “motherhood”. After all, who could oppose greater accessibility and the opportunity that comes with it. Colleagues would say we would be crazy to oppose this bill and to address its flaws in debate, but such a debate should be encouraged. It is through debate between competing perspectives, which our system encourages, that we constantly improve things and find a better way. Through contrasting choices and perspectives, we make democratic choice work.
Partisanship is the fuel that makes our system work. Clear partisan sides also improve accountability. Voters do not go out and research what their individual MP on every vote, on every bill, on every issue. It is enough to know where their party stands.
Now, some say Parliament would work better if only the parties worked together more instead of opposing each other so often. It is at exactly at such a time when there is no debate that citizens should become concerned. That is when the flaws in government become hidden. Therefore, let us celebrate the partisan divides that have made our system of parliamentary democracy so successful for centuries.
Now, returning to the bill, clause 51 addresses the role of the CRTC in the area of information and communication technologies. This provides me the opportunity to thank the media for their always fair treatment over the years. For example, members will recall countless critical articles, and radio and TV news pieces taking me to task for my approach to managing the House, for my using time allocation to schedule our business and votes. Now that my successors in the current Liberal government have shown a similar affection for Standing Order 78, I have been heartened to see them on the receiving end of a similar stream of criticisms, as well as a number of full-throated apologies to me for the fashion in which the media took me to task. Okay, that has not really happened. I am confident it will happen really soon because, after all, I remain hopeful that the media are always fair in this country.
In a more credible fashion, I want to thank the many volunteers on my riding association, executive, and campaigns. They give and have given so generously of their time, simply because they cared about their country and their community and believed in our efforts to make Canada and York—Simcoe a better place.
The bill before us talks about encouraging participation in Canadian society. Participating in our democratic processes is one of the most important types of participation. Everyone has the same kind of people who have helped them. They are true citizens, people who give back, genuinely care and who make our democracy work. They are largely unsung and underappreciated, but all of us and our communities are greatly in their debt.
As I leave elected politics, I will return once again to being one of those people, a dedicated volunteer working hard for his party. The decision to leave politics is one of the most difficult to make. It is easy to follow the path of least resistance and just keep on going, but I am confident that for me, now is the right time to take my leave from this place. I will miss much. My family, who have been full partners and enjoyed the extraordinary voyage we have travelled together, will miss it too. Already, people have witnessed the sad sight of me and my former colleagues sitting in a corner at the Albany Club sharing stories of the good old days, and we will no doubt go on doing that. They have not just been good old days; they have been great old days. We had the opportunity to serve, to make a difference, to make Canada an even better place.
It has been an honour.