Mr. Speaker, I too am happy to stand today and have an opportunity to talk about why I am pleased to see what our government's 2018 budget is all about.
When we talk about equality and growth and a strong middle class in this budget, so many of us and so many of our communities are represented.
I want to particularly talk about the infrastructure investments that are in this budget, but I need to go back to my days as a City of Toronto municipal councillor.
As part of my job as a city councillor in North York or in Toronto, I was always doing budgets. I would have to figure out at the end of year how we were going to meet the needs of our cities while not significantly raising property taxes.
The first year that I became a councillor, I was inundated with phone calls from seniors and other low-income folks in the riding, who told me they could not afford these tax increases. At that time the increases were 2.5% or 2.8%. There were so many tears and so much sadness in those phone calls that to this day I have never forgotten those conversations, and that was some years back.
I committed at that time to those folks that I would do everything in my power to not raise their property taxes, because many of them were living on a limited or fixed income and there was no way they could afford to pay the increases. There were so many increases in other areas that adding property tax increases made them feel they were being driven out of their homes. I made the commitment to them at that time that I would do everything in my power to protect them and to avoid tax increases.
That meant getting a task force together and examining budgets and looking at ways that we could trim from here or find money from there. For 11 years we were constantly trying to balance budgets while seeing what we could cut from here in order not to increase something there.
We did zero budgeting in the city for probably about six years, but sooner or later everything comes home to roost, because money is still needed to advance. There's only so much that can be cut or saved or trimmed. There comes a point when additional funds have to be found; otherwise, roads deteriorate and the needs of the transit system cannot be met. Community centres were being neglected and the city was not in as good a shape as I would have liked to have seen it.
That was one of the reasons I decided that I was going to become a candidate at the federal level. I felt the federal government was where the money was, and if we going to be investing and building our cities, then the challenge for me would be to go to Ottawa and argue for the same things that I was arguing for at the city level, meaning investments in transit and investments in the quality of life of our citizens to make people's lives a bit better. Subsequently I did seek office, and with the blessing of my community I have had the good fortune of representing it at the federal level for 19 years or so.
The first thing I did when I arrived here was exactly what I said I was going to do. I started arguing about how I could get more money for the cities. I approached the then prime minister, Jean Chrétien, and told him about what was going on at the city level. He reminded me that cities are creatures of the provinces, not the federal government. We could not use the word “cities” here in the House. I could not talk about the City of Toronto or Hamilton or Niagara and their difficulties because they were not directly a federal responsibility.
In spite of that and my persistence, Mr. Chrétien put together a task force and asked me to chair it. He also asked me to consult with our urban centres. I think it was his way of keeping a new MP busy, but I took on that 18-month challenge that he gave me. I travelled a lot more in the city and across the country. I consulted with the urban centres about the pressures facing them. I worked with FCM, York University, Vancouver, and a lot of academics as well, and we put together a great report that talked about the need for a national urban strategy that would address their needs.
In addition to to that, of course, we now have a gas tax, we have infrastructure programs, and we can freely talk about the challenges facing our cities across the country. Hence the reason for my enthusiasm for what we have been doing as a government in the last almost three years in investing in transit, infrastructure, and all of the things that we need the federal government to do because the cities do not have enough money and the provinces are struggling with their own challenges.
Therefore, working in partnership is what it was all about. It was about establishing a partnership between federal, provincial, and municipal governments to ensure that our country would move forward in a positive way. Being able to do that and to see it happening, frankly, was the best satisfaction I have had since I came here. With the billions that we are investing in this budget going out into cities all across the country, we are ensuring that we will have infrastructure that can compete with any other country, and it is desperately needed.
We talk about the congestion in cities. In order to relieve that congestion, we need to be investing in transit, both in small communities and in large ones. I am very fortunate in being able to say that after $685 million was invested some years back, we have just opened the new subway that goes up Highway 7 to the city of Vaughan and has a stop at York University. It takes thousands of cars off the road and, more importantly, it reduces congestion. It also provides a better transitway for many of the students, increases the opportunity for York University to expand, and makes for a better quality of life for all of the students and academics going to the university every day.
Of course, we are now starting on the LRT across Finch Avenue, which will be a tremendous asset for the thousands of people who use the bus line to get to Humber College.
Connecting all of that costs money. There is no way around it, and it would not happen without significant investment from the federal government, which is why I am so pleased to see what we are doing with this budget in 2018, as well as in the budgets of 2017 and 2016.
Let me talk now about some of the folks who live in my riding.
All the seniors at 35 Shoreham, a seniors residence, are people who have struggled. They are low-income seniors and are all receiving the GIS that we topped up a bit more, which we continue to do almost every year. We are trying to keep it up with the cost of living, recognizing the challenges that are facing all of those seniors. Many of them suffer from poor health, are new immigrants to the country and have language issues, and are struggling.
We have also invested in research. Whether it is the genomics centre or NSERC, research is such an important thing to help us identify the answers to some of the terrible diseases that affect us. As a member of the ALS caucus, I think of Mauril Bélanger very often, and I think all of our colleagues remember the sad loss. Putting more dollars into research will help us find answers and solutions to rare diseases like ALS.
Pharmacare is our new initiative, and I hope that in the future we can bundle our efforts together to reduce the cost of drugs throughout the country. This is a new initiative that I look forward to seeing come to completion, and I know all of us in this House would like to see that happen.