Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today on this bill, especially since this is my maiden speech in the House of Commons as Bloc Québécois critic for regional development.
From the outset, I should say that we are in favour of Bill C-309, An Act establishing the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Region of Northern Ontario. This new federal body’s mission will be to promote and develop Northern Ontario, just like the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec does in Quebec.
The Bloc Québécois stands up for Quebec’s interests. It is in this spirit that we previously voted against Bill C-9, an Act to create the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec.
The Bloc Québécois, just like Quebec governments for the past 45 years or more, believe that to formulate an integrated regional development policy, Quebec must be master of its own regional development programs.
The regions are the ones with the solutions. There are organizations in Quebec dedicated to regional socio-economic development. They are capable of effectively advising the minister regarding regional needs and of overseeing program implementation. One need only think of the Centres locaux de développement, the CLDs, and the Conférences régionales des élus, the CREs. It is for these reasons that the Bloc Québécois has consistently been in favour of decentralization in this area.
We know that not all governments share the same priorities, and despite instances of flagrant encroachment in the past, should the government of Ontario decide to favour this kind of organizational structure for its regional economies, the Bloc Québécois would be very hard pressed to oppose it.
In 2009, the government created the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. There is still no equivalent agency for Northern Ontario. Northern Ontario does have FedNor, an equivalent program that essentially shares the same objectives as an agency. The main difference however is that FedNor is the responsibility of the Minister of Industry, who can amend its budget as he sees fit. Agencies, on the other hand, are independent and have ministers of state, as is the case with the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec.
In actual fact, the reason for creating the economic development agency of Canada for the region of northern Ontario is to transform the FedNor program into an agency that would then be more independent of the government’s budgetary decisions, as currently exists in Quebec and in other regions served by agencies.
The Federal Economic Development Initiative in Northern Ontario or FedNor has existed since 1987. Its purpose is to encourage economic growth and diversification and the generation of jobs and incomes in northern Ontario by providing support for private sector projects.
Even though the Bloc Québécois is in favour of the bill, a regional development strategy necessarily includes such diverse things as natural resources, education and training, municipal affairs, infrastructure and settlement of the land, which all fall under provincial jurisdiction. In fact, the Constitution makes the provinces responsible for most of the issues involved in regional development.
From 1973 to 1994, there was a framework agreement between Quebec City and Ottawa. Both governments had to agree, or else Ottawa could not do anything. Most federal government funding passed through Quebec agencies. But since 1994, the federal government has been acting unilaterally.
No more co-operation with the Government of Quebec. No more respect for its priorities and the priorities of the regions. This is very unfortunate and even unacceptable.
Following the passage of Bill C-9 in 2005, the federal government appointed a minister responsible for the regions of Quebec. The result has been more quarrels between Quebec City and Ottawa, more duplication, more confusion, a federal government obsession with raising its profile in the regions, and most of all, less respect for the priorities of Quebec and its regions.
Ottawa should stop interfering in Quebec’s areas of jurisdiction and instead start working together with Quebec on determining all federal economic priorities that have an impact on Quebec, while taking into account the economic development priorities of the regions.
Having seen how obviously ineffective the Economic Development Agency for the Regions of Quebec actually is, we wonder what use such an institution would be for northern Ontario. The Bloc Québécois would like to warn the Ontario government of the possible harmful consequences of the federal government's integrated, centralized approach.
Take a concrete example. In April 2007, the then Minister of Labour and of the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec announced a measure that was heavy with consequences for local groups, such as not-for-profit organizations, working in the area of economic development. He eliminated their grants. Here is an excerpt from the Jonquière newspaper, Le Quotidien, of April 28, 2007:
The Economic Development Agency of Canada will no longer provide operating funding for non-profit organizations that work in economic development and will no longer fund pure research.
However, these non-profit organizations play an important role for small and medium-size businesses. They support innovation and the development of international markets. They have become an essential link in the local economic fabric in many regions in Quebec.
As a result of increased pressure by many economic stakeholders in Quebec, the federal government reversed its decision to some degree by creating a new policy concerning non-profit organizations and partially restoring some funding for those organizations. In fact, nearly a quarter of the non-profit organizations that had received funding in 2007 could reapply.
The Bloc Québécois fiercely opposed cuts to the non-profit organizations that had been subsidized in part by the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec and were active in the economic sector. This absurd situation calls into question the economic development model that Quebec has been requesting for several decades. Since it is an inappropriate measure that is extremely prejudicial to the economic fabric of the regions of Quebec, it could result in the loss of some jobs in local communities.
I would like to close by saying that the Bloc Québécois does not oppose the will of the Government of Ontario and that we support Bill C-309.