Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Chatham—Kent Essex.
As we all know, my role as Deputy Chair of Committees of the Whole limits my interventions in this House to procedural matters. I am therefore grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for finally giving me an opportunity to speak to my colleagues about a topic which is dear to my heart and which was mentioned briefly in the throne speech. I am referring to the plight of the homeless.
Naturally, however, I want to begin by thanking my constituents in Saint-Lambert, to whom I owe the great privilege of sitting in this place.
My riding consists of four large municipalities: Greenfield Park, Lemoyne, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the western portion of the city of Longueuil and, finally, Saint-Lambert, which gives my riding its name.
As is the case with many urban ridings in Canada, contrasts abound between and within these four municipalities. They are essentially suburbs of Montreal—what are often referred to as bedroom communities—where the quality of life takes precedence over industrial activity. The proportion of anglophones, francophones and new Canadians also varies widely in the municipalities contained within the riding's boundaries.
My constituents back home have been generous enough to put their confidence in me. I renew my pledge to represent them loyally and efficiently, notwithstanding their social background, their cultural origin or their political affiliation.
But I also wish to pay special attention to a very serious problem. That problem is homelessness, the terrible and hopeless situation in which thousands of homeless people, particularly youth, find themselves.
The gap between those whose circumstances are improving and those for whom, on the contrary, they are worsening, also exists in my riding. At the close of the century, with the effects of globalization and technological innovation increasingly transforming not just relations between countries but also the daily lives of all citizens, I feel we must pay special attention to the life of the community.
In fact, I believe that one of the vital roles of the governments of today, as well as of each and every member of this House, must be to work toward the economic and social integration of all those who are at risk of being pushed aside in a competition-, innovation- and knowledge-based economy.
In this context, the situation of the homeless is a particular concern. It is true that this is a problem that is hard to get a proper handle on. There is no typical homeless person, although we are too often tempted to lump them all in together without thinking.
In reality, all homeless people have their own stories, their own experiences, their own lives. They may be children abandoned by their parents, ruined businessmen, battered women, aboriginal people who have not managed to integrate into big city life, refugee claimants, or people who have been released from correctional or psychiatric institutions and are having difficulties fitting back into society.
People end up on the street for all kinds of reasons. Among the main causes of homelessness are: mental illness, family violence, addiction, poverty, loss of income, less affordable housing, and migration to major urban centres.
In Ottawa, our nation's capital, an estimated 4,500 people including 375 families with children are homeless. As a matter of fact, the fastest growing group of homeless is families with children, and 18% of the homeless population of Ottawa are children under the care of single parents.
In the street, all suffer in the same way, young and old, university graduates and the functionally illiterate, members of our first nations and recent immigrants; all are discriminated against in the same way. What almost all of them have in common is the fact that they did not choose this lifestyle and cannot change it unaided.
I take great pride in being part of a government that has set itself the priority of improving the quality of life for all Canadians.
In particular, we set up several programs specifically for the homeless. However, these measures could lose their effectiveness and end up being too scattered if they were not all co-ordinated by a single minister. Fortunately, the Minister of Labour and federal co-ordinator for activities related to the homeless displays remarkable energy and sensitiveness in dealing with this delicate and complex task. The Canada-wide tour that she did this summer to consult stakeholders shows that she is taking that responsibility very seriously.
When the governor general read the throne speech last week, I was very pleased to hear her say that “the Government will continue working with its partners in all sectors to address the root causes of homelessness”.
However, even a government with the best of intentions, or all levels of government working together, can never solve the problem of homelessness without the support of the whole population. Homelessness is a societal problem that must absolutely be dealt with by society as a whole. It is imperative that we develop common approaches and initiatives with all public administrations, community groups, educational institutions, the private sector and everyone who wants to contribute to the betterment of their community.
As Canadian citizens we are justly proud of our first place ranking in the United Nations human development index, but such classifications are meaningless for the individuals who struggle every day to find something to eat and do not know where they will be sleeping at night.
Over the years successive Canadian and provincial governments have achieved much, more than most countries in fact, to provide Canadians with an effective and affordable social safety net, but we still have a very long way to go before coming to grips with the problem of homelessness. Homelessness is growing in number and diversity at an accelerated pace.
All Canadians are about to celebrate, in their own way, the arrival of a new century and a new millennium. This is an opportunity for us to proudly celebrate a remarkable past and to look confidently to a promising future.
On the occasion of my first speech in this house, I am making the wish that, during these celebrations, we never forget that thousands of our fellow citizens need us in an urgent and critical way. We must listen to them. We must speak to them from the heart.
There are of course no homeless people in this house. However, each and everyone of us here represents some of these people in the Parliament of Canada. The homeless, as well as all those who live in need and uncertainty, are also Canadian citizens. They too are entitled to a brighter future.