Madam Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Mississauga West.
Madam Speaker, you are going to hear a lot of factual and statistical information today concerning educational reform in Newfoundland. You are going to hear a lot of "what ifs" and theory about how this may or may not affect other bilateral terms of union of the other nine provinces and territories of our nation.
What you will not hear today is the voice of one group of Canadians who are the most affected by this constitutional amendment, the Newfoundland children, of which I am a mother of two. I speak from the heart when I say the status quo is unacceptable.
Let me give a brief background on Newfoundland's denominational education system. It dates back to the 1700s when the Church of England's missionaries founded one of the first schools in Bonavista to administer to both the religious and educational needs of that town.
In the mid-1800s this system was entrenched through the educational act which further divided funds between the Roman Catholics and the Protestant school boards. It is this system that still exists today and was enshrined in the terms of union in 1949 when Newfoundland elected to be the 10th province of Canada.
For some time now Newfoundlanders have realized that the system cannot continue under its current form. With the province groaning under the pressing weight of a $6 billion debt, changes to the system are essential. The people of Newfoundland have always believed in a better future for their children.
Consider the title of the 1992 report of the royal commission of inquiry into the delivery of education in Newfoundland and Labrador, "Our Children, Our Future". I call on my colleagues in this chamber to remember these four words "our children, our future" as we debate this resolution in the House today.
The proposed changes will enable the province to improve educational opportunities for our students, to bring in new technologies and to update curriculum. At present the province of Newfoundland spends the highest proportion of its total resources on education, more than most other provinces.
A greater amount of this funding than should be necessary is being used to provide for the cost of maintaining four separate school systems and 27 individual school boards for a provincial population equivalent to that of the city of Calgary, Alberta.
Savings of up to $25 million a year will be realized from the administrative changes, student transportation efficiencies and school consolidation which will result from the education reform process. The proposed reform will provide an opportunity to redirect these savings into the classroom level and benefit our students.
As it exists today, a number of students miss out on the valuable skills and courses that will prepare them to enter the workforce. In today's technical, computerized world I have heard stories of students who have literally flipped a coin to decide which sciences to study because the school did not have enough money to offer a full range of courses. Yet there was a whole other identical system in the same community.
Instead of having one comprehensive system that allows students to avail themselves with every opportunity to study a broad range of sciences, the students lose out in a system of duplication and inefficiency.
With finances stretched to the limit, school boards are often unable to provide the basic necessities. There are schools in the province today with no cafeterias and no proper janitorial services. In these schools, students are missing out on meals and they are getting sick from the general lack of cleanliness.
Is this a system that adequately prepares our students to meet the changing face of the Canadian labour market? No, it is not. It puts the Newfoundland youth at a disadvantage to their counterparts in other provinces.
With the closure of the fishery and a dwindling population, a good education is the key to ensuring our children have a bright future and not one of unemployment and dependency.
In addition to my personal experience with the Newfoundland school system, I am currently part of a team that is travelling across the country coast to coast with the ministerial task force on youth. We are consulting directly with young Canadians, youth service agencies, private and public sectors, schools and other concerned Canadians about the needs of young people, their expectations and their aspirations. We are looking at the issues of school to work transition, labour market entry and perceived and real barriers to entering the job market.
Everywhere I go and especially at my town hall session in St. John's on May 11, which I might add has been the largest town hall session to date, I hear of the real need for schools to make changes to reflect the changing needs of the Canadian labour force.
In the speech from the throne the Liberal government made a promise to create a better future for our children and young Canadians. This statement was made because it realizes that one of the greatest challenges facing our country is ensuring that our children obtain the skills and knowledge they need to compete in the fast changing, highly competitive world.
To meet this challenge we have to ensure children have access to quality and excellence in education. By passing this resolution we will ensure that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have the tools necessary to meet the challenges and to ensure the future of our children.
For those who are concerned that the Newfoundland government is taking control from the churches in the province, this is simply false. The proposed amendment does not abolish or undermine denominational education in this province. Rather, current rights are being updated to effect the needs of today's students and at the same time allowing for a more efficient administration and delivery of educational services in the province of Newfoundland. The modifications further allow schools to maintain religious education, activities and observances.
The majority of Newfoundlanders voted in favour of these changes on September 5, 1995. Of those who chose to vote, 54 per cent voted in favour of the government's proposal despite the fact that the churches launched a vigorous campaign designed to encourage people to vote against the plan. The Newfoundland
government did not stage a campaign, yet it won a clear majority in support of its position.
As to the claim that this referendum is imposing the will of the majority on to the rights of the minorities in the province, the denominations affected by the changes in the education system comprise 95 per cent of Newfoundland's population, hardly a minority. I would further argue with those who would say that their education in a currently uni-denominational school will be destroyed. This is just not so either. There are provisions in the current proposal to ensure, where numbers warrant, those schools will be allowed to continue their as uni-denominational.
Now that I have addressed the many concerns of the resolution I want to address the concerns of some of my colleagues who are concerned about the process that brought the debate into this Chamber. Some argue that this is being pushed through. This is completely false. It has been an issue for a long time. Because it only affects the province of Newfoundland perhaps it was not a priority for some MPs, especially given the amount of legislation that passes through this Chamber. It has always been a priority for me and for my children.
I say this to those MPs who would vote against this resolution because of the concerns over the so-called process: Do not trivialize the future of my children for a bureaucratic mentality. Put yourself in my children's shoes and do not take away their chance for a better future.
In conclusion, I want my sons and the children of Newfoundland to have every opportunity available to embrace the future, to keep up with the changing labour force requirements and in doing so, to become contributors to the Canadian economy. Amidst all the debate on the constitutional, legal and political theories, let us not lose sight of what is really at stake here, Newfoundland's future, its children.
I ask all hon. members to look above the power struggles of the church and state and the political positioning and as parents, which the vast majority of us in this Chamber are, ask themselves: Would I want my child to lose out in a system that is based on duplication of services or would I want my child to have every opportunity available to get a well-rounded education? If hon. members believe in the future of my children and all those of Newfoundland, then they should not base their opinion on the what, ifs and maybes. They should base their conclusion on the greatest natural resources that Newfoundland has to offer this country: our children. Never lose sight of them in this debate.