Mr. Speaker, as I rise in my place in this Chamber for the very first time I wish to congratulate you, Sir, on your re-election to continue serving as Speaker among your 300 peers. It is an honour for sure but also a daunting task.
I also want to congratulate and thank the other candidates to the Chair.
I know, Mr. Speaker, that it is your job to create a respectful political climate and at the same time favourable working conditions for all members who are elected to serve the public interest in this great Parliament of Canada. I also know that it is the responsibility of the Speaker to attend to the working conditions for all of the employees who serve Parliament here on Parliament Hill and in the precincts in the surrounding area.
I must say that over the last year and a half as I have served as leader of the New Democratic Party without a seat in Parliament I have looked on with some frustration and some horror as I have watched the deteriorating conditions for some of the people who are serving us here on Parliament Hill. In particular, I have felt a great deal of consternation at the spectacle of hundreds of locked out security guards.
Mr. Speaker, I know that it is not because you failed to exercise your duties but rather the government has been willing to not only tolerate but actually sponsor first the training and then the hiring of replacement workers who have replaced workers earning barely above minimum wage and who are coming up to a one year anniversary of the time when they were locked out from their jobs here on Parliament Hill.
I hope it is a sign of better times to come that there is some indication those security guards are now looking at a tentative agreement. I hope that as we come up to the one year anniversary of that lockout we will instead be celebrating a just settlement on behalf of those workers and their families.
I am delighted today to finally be taking my seat in the House of Commons and I am delighted to be surrounded by some 20 New Democrat colleagues. It is certainly true that three quarters of the NDP caucus are rookies, I among them, at least newcomers to this Chamber. Mr. Speaker, for that reason we will be looking to you frequently for guidance and counsel. I hope we can expect a little patience as we learn the rules and the procedures of the House.
As I look across the floor this afternoon I am very aware that someone very dear and very special is missing. He was someone special not only to New Democrats but to all parliamentarians present and past. I am sad that Stanley Knowles did not live to see this day, that he did not live to see the official return to the House of Commons of the party which he helped to found. It is a bittersweet celebration for us today.
Many of us learned of Stanley's death as we were arriving in Ottawa for our first caucus meeting in June. We will all miss Stanley Knowles greatly, his warmth, his humour, his fierce unyielding dedication to justice and equality and his unparalleled expertise in the rules and procedures that govern Parliament.
We all remember Stanley's lifelong battle for decent pensions for working people. Stanley would never have been fooled by euphemisms like seniors benefits into believing that a massive reduction in pension benefits was an improvement. We pledge today to honour Stanley's memory by fighting any further erosion of pension protection for our seniors. On this occasion I give thanks for the tremendous contribution that Stanley Knowles made to the House of Commons, to my party and to the people of Canada.
On the day of Stanley Knowles' funeral, a close long time friend of his arrived at my office. He brought me two publications that were co-authored by Stanley and by my father who came to work in Ottawa as the first researcher for the CCF caucus in the early 1940s. Those publications talked about a more democratic Canada.
For me it is a humbling experience and I admit an emotional occasion to take my place in the House of Commons, to continue that struggle for a more democratic and a more social democratic Canada. I was born in Ottawa because of my parents' decision to come here and be part of that social democratic movement. But of course Halifax is where I have spent most of my life and Halifax is the riding I have the privilege to represent here in the Parliament of Canada. Let me take a moment or two to tell the House a bit about my riding of Halifax.
Halifax is often said to be something of a bell-wether riding. I must say I never really quite believed that until the June 2 election. But when all four Halifax area federal ridings elected New Democrats to represent them in this session of Parliament, I knew that Halifax was a bell-wether riding.
Halifax is a growing modern metropolis and yet it is still characterized by the generosity and the openness of a small farming town or a fishing outport. Our maritime traditions are well known; the courage of our military men and women serving overseas, the resourcefulness of our current armed forces and civilian personnel rising to new challenges.
Less well known perhaps is our rich cultural ethnic diversity in Halifax and Nova Scotia generally. We are rediscovering and reclaiming the history of Nova Scotia's aboriginal people, the Micmac, our black population, the proud community that was Africville, our Acadian communities and their valiant struggle to maintain their language and their culture, the many other peoples who have entered Canada through the port of Halifax, many of them through pier 21, some settling in Halifax and many others moving on, all of them choosing Canada as their home.
That diversity I am pleased to say is very much reflected in the caucus that I have the privilege to lead in this Parliament.
It includes, for instance, the first Acadians in a New Democratic caucus as well as an aboriginal member from the Prairies.
We have the first Afro-Canadian member of Parliament elected from Atlantic Canada, several members from recent immigrant families and, I would add, the most women ever elected to the New Democrat caucus. My predecessor, the member for Yukon, served in the House with dignity and devotion under much more difficult circumstances, outnumbered by her caucus colleagues eight to one. I guess it can be said that the only caucus that has ever come close to being gender balanced in Parliament is the past Conservative caucus. I do not know anybody who is recommending that formula for gender balance.
In recent years Canadians have watched my province of Nova Scotia spawn an explosion of cultural expression and cultural achievement, Acadian and Celtic music, Scottish dance, Atlantic humour—who among us does not both love and fear “This Hour has 22 Minutes”—our vibrant visual arts, award winning film making, dynamic theatre and outstanding playwrights like my colleague, the member for Dartmouth, and amazing authors like Anne-Marie Macdonald, one of Cape Breton's finest, author of the epic novel Fall on Your Knees . Permit me to quote briefly a favourite passage: “There is nothing so congenial to lucid thought as a clear view of the sea. It airs the mind, tunes the nerves and scours the soul”. Maybe the inspiration of the ocean explains the eruption of self-discovery in Atlantic Canada these days. Now this quiet Atlantic revolution is sending shock waves through the world of politics.
My colleagues and I are well aware that we have an enormous responsibility, a mandate born out of suffering and out of hope. I want to say to my constituents and to all Canadians, Atlantic Canadians, today that we will not let them down in the coming Parliament.
Canadians understand what this throne speech has so callously ignored, that something has gone desperately wrong for far too many Canadians with jobs being wiped out, the quality of life being eroded, medicare and education crumbling, national institutions like the CBC under siege, tax subsidies for business luncheons but new tax burdens for family necessities, and new threats to our national sovereignty from the multilateral agreement on investment.
It is gratifying to see provincial and territorial leaders commit to the unity initiative announced earlier this month in Calgary, but let me also say that Canada is bigger than any constitution. Far more crucial than any notion of equality among the provinces is the fundamental equality of Canadians, Canadians as citizens, equality before the law, equality of services, equality of opportunity. Worsening our inequalities can only gladden the hearts of those who seek to divide us.
In order to capture the hearts and minds of the people of Quebec, we must prove that Canada can work well once again, that Canada can once again become a country where economic security, sound communities, interesting opportunities and real human charity prevail.
This Parliament must focus on rebuilding that kind of Canada. Otherwise, the next Parliament may very well represent a much smaller and a much sadder Canada.
If this government is willing to tackle the whole question of unity instead of focusing on the narrow agenda of those who would divide us then we will work with it for the shared goals of compassion, community and unity; but that requires that this government do some serious rethinking and requires a new commitment to the real priorities of Canadians.
We promised in the election campaign that not a week would go by in the House of Commons without New Democrat MPs fighting for Canadians pressing priority, especially for jobs. I only wish that the prime minister would devote as much attention to the creation of jobs as he devotes to the creation of senators.
Let us examine the facts: 82 consecutive months with unemployment above 9 per cent, 82 consecutive months with 1.4 million children living in poverty, unemployment insurance protection dropping below the level of the state of Alabama creating immense hardship while the unemployment insurance fund runs a huge and growing surplus, and those with jobs dogged by constant insecurity in an increasingly part time, low wage, no benefit economy.
Women are the most vulnerable. It is no surprise that this government has abandoned women. The first 1993 red book promise broken was that of a national child care program. Canadian families and Canada's children are still waiting.
Let us look at how this government treats its own women employees. The government is still refusing to honour the $2 billion pay equity debt owing to 80,000 women in this country. Aboriginal communities across the country are desperate for economic development and jobs while this government stalls on the royal commission recommendations.
Twenty-five per cent real youth unemployment is eating away at our country's future. Canadians have heard lots of lofty Liberal promises, but the fact is that there are 20,000 more youth unemployed today than this time last year.
The program reannounced in yesterday's throne speech will not make a dent for the 410,000 unemployed youth.
A whole generation of our young people finish their studies without being rewarded with a decent job offer and find themselves strapped with a huge debt, $25,000 on average.
What is really happening with medicare? The good news is that two tier health care is no longer a threat in this country, and the bad news is that two tier is already a reality brought to us by the finance minister's massive cuts, cuts in no way reversed by yesterday's hollow pronouncements.
Who bears the brunt? Families struggling with illness and, most of all, once again women: the backbone of the health care workforce reduced to casual workers with homemakers and volunteers forced to take up the slack as services are slashed.
With people suffering, with families struggling, with patients' lives on the line, why is there any debate over what to do with the fiscal dividend?
New Democrats will be relentless in fighting for a real commitment to move medicare forward, not vague platitudes but a solid commitment to comprehensive home care, a prescription drug program and the unequivocal rejection of two tier American style health care.
Where is this government on the environment? The short answer judging by yesterday's throne speech is nowhere. Canada's most endangered species is a federal Liberal politician willing to take any responsibility to protect our natural environment.
I want to be fair. There is one solid government achievement that we all celebrate. I want to give credit where it is due. Canada has played a pivotal role in the resolve to eliminate global stocks of landmines.
I trust the government will have the humility to acknowledge the work of so many Canadians whose pressure on our own government and others laid the foundation for this important success. I know all parliamentarians will join me in underlining the singular contribution made to Canada's effort by the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
The treaty to be signed here in Ottawa will serve as a fitting tribute to her legacy and her memory. Every Canadian can be proud of this achievement. I pledge today my party's support to further the goals of that treaty and rid the world of all inhumane weapons of war.