Madam Speaker, I would like to say hello to all of the members who are taking part in the debate on the report of the Standing Committee on Finance. As we know, finance committee reports mean budgetary policy.
At this stage, we are being asked to concur in the report of the Standing Committee on Finance, but since the budget has already been tabled, we might as well talk about that. For starters, it was two years in the making and was introduced one year into an unprecedented, global health crisis.
In Canada, this budget is the result of a tendency to want to erode the power of members, who are increasingly being asked to rubber-stamp the government's propositions in favour of ministerial power. Decision-making power is ever more concentrated within the Prime Minister's inner circle. This new culture is reflected in extremely lengthy omnibus bills that are tabled without the possibility of being amended and that are being rammed through the parliamentary process.
The budget comes after a year-long health crisis, a year of the government not being transparent with the public, parliamentarians, the Parliamentary Budget Officer or the Auditor General's office, a year of scandals and failures—which, in a particular case, led to the resignation of the Minister of Finance, one might say out of an excess of charity—a year in which Parliament was prorogued for six weeks, paralyzing the democratic process.
It was never clear why the government was so afraid to table a budget, especially in these troubled times. The budget was long overdue, but not necessarily the one we were hoping for. Now that we have seen it, this budget marks a new offensive in Ottawa's gluttonous drive to centralize power. Indeed, this budget is in keeping with Ottawa's deeply rooted tradition of wanting to build a government that is the only one to set the priorities, strategies and actions that will ultimately be implemented.
On paper the so-called Canadian confederation is composed of provinces that are free to follow their own destiny and only share certain responsibilities, but this budget clearly says that that is just a sham. This budget shows us that Canada is not a confederation at all, that it can only have one legitimate state, Ottawa, and that the provinces are mere administrators responsible for managing the losses, begging for money and enforcing the decisions of the central state.
Canada—and this is its intrinsic logic—will be increasingly called upon to become a unitary state. The approach is disconcertingly simple but undeniably effective: to further drain Quebec and the provinces financially by deploying a maximum number of new pan-Canadian structures, national strategies and centralized and centralizing standards. That is how Canada will erode Quebec's ability to act and then impose its choices, choices that Quebec would probably not have made if it had made its own decisions freely. According to this vision, Quebec will no longer be the home of a nation, but a mere administrator for outsourcing.
I would like to make an aside. Last fall, when the Bloc Québécois moved a motion calling for an official apology from Ottawa for enacting the War Measures Act in 1970, under which hundreds of people were arrested, one government member spent 10 minutes of his speaking time talking about everything other than the motion. We asked him about this during questions and comments, and he told us that he was not interested in history and the past.
I am bringing this up because the Bloc Québécois has no problem looking back on, learning about or understanding the past. We can learn a lot from history, and what history tells us about the budget and the financial situation we are talking about today is that English Canada, whether you are talking about the British or Canadian government, has always taken advantage of crises to hold Quebec back. This was true in the 19th century after the patriots' rebellions, it was true after the 1980 referendum, it was true after the 1995 referendum, and it is true now in this health crisis.
After the failure of the Patriotes' rebellion in 1837-38, the government took advantage of the new balance of power to pass the 1840 Act of Union to take away our power. After the failure of the 1980 Quebec referendum, the government took advantage of the new balance of power to unilaterally patriate the Constitution, without Quebec's agreement, in essence excluding Quebec from the decision. To this day, Quebec is still not among the signatories.
After the failure of the 1995 Quebec referendum, the government once more took advantage of the situation to put in place its plan B. It is very similar to what we see happening today. The plan involved several parts. The spectre of the partition of Quebec was raised. A law was passed, the Clarity Act, which denied Quebec democracy. A mass propaganda campaign was waged, along with an ideological invasion through the sponsorship program. Quebec's efforts at diplomacy were sabotaged. I would remind members that during the post-referendum years, the Premier of Quebec was uninvited from international ceremonies at the behest of scheming Canadian embassies.
Then came the financial destabilization, which has been known for years as the fiscal imbalance. In this case, the plan was to unilaterally reduce transfers and use that money to interfere in Quebec's jurisdictions under the guise of providing assistance. Does that remind my colleagues of anything?
Between 1993 and 1997, the government reduced the provincial transfers in an effort to eliminate its deficit. These reductions were equivalent to five times the cuts the government was making to these programs. The government made more cuts, diverting money from the employment insurance fund. Between 1993 and 2001, the percentage of unemployed workers eligible for benefits dropped from 65% to 49%.
To offset those cuts, the Government of Quebec had to take on $845 million between 1990 and 1997 in expenditures normally covered by Ottawa. This was also the case for the health transfers. In 1997, when he was leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives, Jean Charest contradicted what he had repeated ad nauseam during his years in Quebec. He said, “Forget Lucien Bouchard and Jean Rochon. The person who is really responsible for hospital closures and the deterioration of our health care system is Jean Chrétien.”
Subsequent federal budgets contained numerous announcements of federal investments in areas of shared jurisdiction or areas exclusively under provincial jurisdiction, particularly health and education. At the time, federal Liberal minister Marcel Massé was disconcertingly candid when he said, “When Bouchard has to make cuts, we in Ottawa will be able to show that we have the means to preserve the future of our social programs”. He deserves credit for being clear, albeit extremely cynical.
Now, in 2021, nothing much has changed. As we know, the Government of Canada's budget does not provide for any increases in health transfers for the provinces. The COVID-19 crisis has shown how important it is to have an optimal health care system that is prepared to deal with the most challenging of situations. The effectiveness of the health care system is certainly not solely dependent on funding, but funding is an essential component. The provincial governments need to hire doctors, nurses and orderlies. Needs are increasing exponentially, and Quebec is responsible for dealing with them since health falls under the exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces. However, the money remains tied up in Ottawa at a time when the health care system is overburdened.
This is a long-standing problem, as I said. Since 1995, federal transfers for health care have melted away like snow in the sun. Even before the pandemic, population aging was already a real challenge. In Quebec, the population segment aged 85 and over will triple over the next 30 years. When the Medical Care Act was first passed in 1968, Ottawa was to provide 50% of the funding for health care. Today, federal support is closer to 23%. I would remind the House that we were not even asking for 50%. We were asking for 35%, but even that was too much to ask. The financial shock has been enormous for Quebec. It has had to deal with mass retirements and chronic underfunding.
In Quebec, spending on health and social services represented 9% of GDP and 50% of the public budget last year. That is huge. According to an organization called Force Jeunesse, by 2048, those figures will increase to 15% of GDP and between 65% and 82% of public spending. Think about that.
This poses very serious political problems for provincial governments, which quite simply are losing their budgetary autonomy. The shortfall will continue to grow, and the provinces will have one obsession, which is to fund their health care system, ignoring everything else.
In the past, now and in the future, the transfers must be adequate and unconditional. I remind members that it would not be a gift from Ottawa. We pay our taxes, it is our money, and it should be spent on health care.
Liberal and Conservative federal governments alike have never increased the transfers. Even worse, the current Prime Minister lectured Quebec about its management of the vaccination rollout, even though it was his government that was unable to supply the provinces as it should have.
Of course, that was not the only criticism from the Prime Minister of Canada. He is also talking about imposing federal standards on long-term care facilities. He might want to look after our seniors the same way he looked after the borders during the pandemic, but I am saying no thank you.
The Bloc Québécois made health transfers a central issue a long time ago. As a matter of fact, in December 2019, I remember we had just started to sit. It was our first week. My first speech ever in the House, which at that point was not yet doing virtual sittings, was about this subject. If I am not mistaken, it was during debate on the throne speech. We will not back down.
Part of the reason we are pressing this issue is that we are thinking of the working conditions of our amazing health care workers. I commend them for their heroic efforts. Let us not mince words, they are working in veritable war zones, taking huge risks, yet they still manage to keep smiling. I sincerely commend them for their devotion and their courage. They deserve the greatest recognition.
As I was saying, costs will go through the roof, putting Quebec in an untenable position. It will no longer be able to concentrate on anything other than its health care system. This is the only issue we will hear about in the coming years and decades. Make no mistake, the window opened by the Quiet Revolution fostered Quebec's identity as a nation in its own right instead of a province among many, but this could close that window a little more. We were even at the stage where we were developing relations with other countries in the world through a system of diplomatic representation. We had developed our own programs, our own Crown corporations and even our own diplomatic ties.
Today, that is no longer in our reach. We are being reduced to the status of a local branch, a mere administrator, while Ottawa co-opts and monopolizes all the flexibility to make decisions. We can read in the pages of this budget that in conjunction with draining Quebec and the provinces of their ability to act, the federal tentacles are coming out, as they did after 1838, after 1980, after 1995. As it dismantles Quebec, Canada builds itself up. Ottawa is setting up the infrastructure to be able to permanently interfere in the jurisdiction of Quebec and the provinces.
Let us take a look at what is in the budget: long-term care centres, a national child care program, possibly pharmacare, women's health issues, a framework for mental health with Wellness Together Canada, reproductive health, a Canada water management agency, critical mineral management, securities, a federal office for recognizing foreign credentials, a federal framework for skills training and other sectoral initiatives in employment, an initiative to help seniors age well at home, a national advisory board on child care, a new program to support skills for success, a new apprenticeship program, a new data commissioner, and a natural infrastructure fund.
It is safe to say that the 739-page budget document does not skimp on intrusions of all kinds, in every way and in every facet imaginable. Need I point out that there is no right to opt out with compensation? No, because that goes without saying.
These multiple intrusions were even denounced in a letter from André Pratte that was published in the Montreal Gazette. Remember, André Pratte was a senator and editorial writer for La Presse, and he is most definitely not a sovereignist.
I also want to quote the columnist Antoine Robitaille, who wrote:
...as is often the case in Canada, when something seems necessary and desirable, the federal big brother ignores the constitutional rules and takes the lead.
In his article, Antoine Robitaille quoted Justice Rowe, who was himself quoting constitutional expert Peter Hogg:
According to the latter, if in a federal nation paramount central power “completely overlapped regional power”, then that nation stops being federal. In such a system, the provinces can exercise their jurisdiction as they please—“as long as they do so in a manner that the federal legislation authorizes”!
It is a declaration of war, war on independence, war on the merest hint of the people's desire to assert themselves as a nation or affirm provincial autonomy.
Whenever we raise these issues, as we do on a regular basis, people always accuse us of trying to pick a fight. What are we supposed to do, though?
Should Quebec keep quiet, suck it up, accept these limitations, settle for never being more than a province, never being more than a minority? Every day that it exists within this system, Quebec loses a little bit of itself. Are we supposed to tell ourselves that is not so bad? No thanks.
Contrary to what the feds would have us believe, political power and the ability to act is a real issue, especially in times of crisis. This is not some wacky fixation on a fight over a flag. This is about power, political power.
Naturally I am going to say that the only way to escape dependence is to gain independence. This will certainly not come as a surprise to anyone, but independence requires that we have budget autonomy in every respect and at any price.
Former separatist finance minister Bernard Landry spoke of strangulation by the tentacles of big government. One of his successors, the former federalist finance minister Yves Séguin, directly compared Ottawa to a vampire. His metaphor was even stronger, adding a bloody touch to the comparison.
This must stop at all costs. Ottawa must stop and re-examine its boundaries. To be honest, I do not think it will happen. As I was saying, I believe that the only way to escape dependence is to gain independence.