Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure, being from Saskatchewan, to speak to this issue. I thank the Bloc members for their support on this bill. I see a unity being built around this issue. Hockey is important in Quebec and it is important in Saskatchewan. Hockey is our national sport and very much a part of the culture of this nation, so anything that would promote amateur sports, especially junior hockey, would be a plus.
I would like to express a concern about government policy on athletics. Canadians rightfully, after an Olympic event or whatever, are concerned that maybe the lead athletes are not competitive, that we did not receive enough gold or silver medals and that we should have done better. The government approach seems to be to put more money in the elite programs.
I think it is too late at that stage. We will have elite athletes when our amateur athletic programs are strong at the grassroots. That will produce the high quality athlete and that is where the focus should be. I am not saying there should not be funding for lead athletes, but we should not lose focus. Lead athletes come out of very strong grassroots programs. The government, in this case, is not giving any support to grassroots junior hockey in this country. It is doing the exact opposite. It is trying to tax it out of existence with questionable applications of tax law.
The bill has wide applications. It deals with not for profit associations that are directly involved in amateur sports. It allows them to expend $8,000 per participant or team player under that umbrella without bringing on the wrath of the federal government and its tax collectors.
Somebody said $8,000 sure sounds like a lot of money. Let us apply it to the Saskatchewan junior hockey league. The Canada Revenue Agency, in its wisdom or judgment or whatever one wants to call it, has deemed a $100 a month allowance per player, players who are 17 or 18 years of age. They have left home, their parents are not paying an allowance, and they are under the guardianship of their junior hockey team. They are billeted into really good homes. The parents want that for their kids. They want to make sure they are in good homes. They get paid $300 a month. They eat that up in the first two weeks of the month, but the tax department says that is a taxable benefit. It assesses Canada pension, unemployment insurance and income tax deductions even though these players are never going to be eligible for the benefits that they are assessed.
It does not stop there. The $8,000 is needed for a whole lot of other reasons too. Let us use our imagination. If the expenses and billeting costs are taxable benefits, what about the transportation costs when they are on the road? What about the meal costs when they are out of town? We travel to Flin Flon. That is 200 or 300 miles away. Some of the teams travel 500 miles away. They have to eat on the road and the teams pay for their meals.
There are hotel expenses when they are on the road. They have hockey sticks and uniforms to buy. The list is endless. It would not take much of an imagination before everything the hockey team is doing is a taxable benefit. I raise these concerns. I almost think the $8,000 is too low, in my view, but it is a good start.
A team in my league was the first to be audited. The government got it up to $65,000. I know how that team operates. It is non profit. Seventy per cent of its revenues are derived from ticket sales, raffles and bingos. It is a community event. It is not a big community and the team has to put in as much sweat equity as it can to make the books balance. Along come our federal tax collectors into this community and they say the team has to pay $65,000.
Our national sport is a truly amateur production. They are killing the hockey dreams of these players. Most of the players came to that team with one objective and that was to hopefully continue their schooling, attract a scholarship from a major American university, and get a full scholarship to a university in the United States. The parents are behind them 100%. They are hoping that their kids' dreams will become their dreams.
The people in the community, from all walks of life, in January go out to the hockey rink to cheer their team on. Everybody in the community, every class of person we can think of gathers together to cheer their team: farmers, labourers, professional people, business people, the aboriginal community, low income people, high income people, and retired people. That is the culture in rural Saskatchewan communities.
What does the federal government, through its tax policies, want to do? It wants to destroy that; it wants to undermine that. I would remind the members opposite that in the last two major Olympic events or international competitions that Canada has had, our of the 20 players on the team, we had four players from the Saskatchewan junior hockey league alone. These were players who came up through the development of that league. There were four NHL hockey coaches only a few years ago who cut their teeth in that league.
What is the federal government's attitude for promoting amateur junior hockey at the grassroots level? What is its policy? Hammer them with taxes. If excessive regulations do not kill off something, let us bring in a whole bunch of government taxes. Maybe some day they will come back to the Liberal government on bended knee and ask, “Is there a foundation that can hand us out a grant or something so we can carry on?”.
That seems to be the government's mentality, to create a dependency in this country where nobody wants a dependency. They say, “Just get out of our lives, leave us alone and let us be amateur athletes”. However, that is not the Liberal approach. It is more taxes, more regulations, and more interference in the lives of day to day Canadians. In Saskatchewan it is killing something that is very important in Saskatchewan: junior A hockey.
Government members should really be ashamed of where they are at. I am hopeful on this point that logic will prevail and that government members will see the wisdom in supporting amateur athletics in this country by making grassroots amateur sports in this country strong and healthy, not weak and dependent on government.
The Saskatchewan junior hockey league has a long history. I got interested in hockey back in the fifties. That kind of gives my age, but I remember the Regina Pats were in the Saskatchewan junior hockey league and the radio station covered them. Bob Turner, whose obituary I just saw the other day, played with that team. He played with the five Stanley Cup teams of the Montreal Canadiens. The players on that team, Red Berenson, Billy Hickey, Terry Harper, Ted Greene and Dave Balon went to the Memorial Cup. There was a whole slug of really great players from Saskatchewan who were on that team. They played the Montreal Canadiens dream superstar team, the Ottawa-Hull Canadiens. For four or five years they were together on that team with Ralph Backstrom, J.C. Tremblay, Bobby Rousseau. It was a great series. This is the tradition we have in that league in Saskatchewan. There was Gordie Howe and Red Berenson, great hockey players.
What is the Liberal position on something that is so much part of our heritage and culture? The government spends millions of dollars through the Department of Canadian Heritage and it spends millions of dollars on elite athletes, but here it is going to send its tax collectors out to kill something that has a very rich legacy in this country.
The Minister of Finance prides himself on being born near Father Athol Murray's college in Notre Dame: the Hounds of Notre Dame. I knew Father Athol Murray, and if Father Athol Murray was around here today he would have the Minister of Finance chased around the block 15 times on this issue alone. There is nothing to be proud of on the government's approach to dealing with junior hockey in Saskatchewan. It is a disgraceful record.
I want to close on a positive. By making this one simple change in the law we would be helping every grassroots amateur sports association in Canada from coast to coast, right at the bottom. With the Liberal government's elite athlete programs, it is like trying to take somebody at 18 or 19 who cannot read or write, and start spending money on them to teach them how to read and write. It starts in grade one, it starts in kindergarten, it starts from the grassroots with a solid program.
I would ask Liberal members to please support the bill because it is a good approach to building a really strong, healthy amateur sports regime in the country.