Mr. Speaker, I might say in the beginning that embarking on this major comprehensive change to the social safety net is a bold and much needed move by the new government. I pleased with the process that the Minister of Human Resources Development has established which will involve people in terms of those discussions.
As well I might point out that in this initiative, along with the first budget of the new Liberal government, we must demonstrate to all Canadians this is a new government with a new agenda which places jobs and opportunities for all Canadians first and foremost.
While taking control over the deficit and debt is critical, we must not fall victim to the neo-conservative obsession of the past nine years which has directly contributed to the current crisis in Canada in terms of job losses, social unrest, increased poverty and disillusionment throughout the country.
It will be important for this government to outline to Canadians the limits within which we as government can work with respect to developing new made in and for Canada economic and social policies, especially so given the various trade agreements in which we now find ourselves.
For example, we have to address the issue in the very near future of the kind of federal provincial transfer system which will provide the critical social infrastructures for most provinces. As a nation and as a government we must ensure that all Canadians have equal access to programs under those economic and social policies that we implement.
Professor Tom Courchesne, a proponent of free trade, pointed out that an east-west transfer system does not square well with north-south economic integration. If Courchesne is correct, the future of our ability to provide for the means of our critical social programs throughout Canada could be at risk.
Our economy is still having to adjust to the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement and is now faced with both NAFTA and GATT. Canadians do not want this government to merely administer trade policies negotiated by the previous government, they want a proactive government which will ensure that policies emerging from these trade deals reflect Canadian needs, not just the economic and foreign interests of our neighbour to the south.
The Prime Minister has stated clearly that he will operate on these deals in the interests of Canadians.
As members in this House, we must be forever vigilant that economic trade agreements do not force us to the lowest common denominators in social programs under the guise of economic competition. We must work toward bringing up the social, labour and environmental standards of the United States and Mexico, our trading partners, and not buckle under to the pressure of reducing our own programs.
Let me turn for a moment to what is perhaps one of the greatest social tragedies in this country over the last nine to twelve years, the farm financial crisis.
I want to try and put that in some kind of context in terms of where we are coming from and where we are going and what we have to do to offer some hope for the future.
I maintain it is a real serious social tragedy in our rural areas. The farm crisis, to a great extent for political and global trade reasons, has become accepted to a great extent around the world. It has become almost normal in our society to hear of farmers going broke and governments really not doing much about it. This acceptance ignores the reality in personal terms in which farmers and farm families and farm communities find themselves.
Let me put that into perspective. In 1988, after eight years of farm crisis in this country, the House of Commons in its agricultural committee report talked about a debt of $22 billion. After implementing the Farm Debt Review Board, farm adjustment program and other subsidies, in 1992 we found ourselves after the loss of thousands of farmers still in debt to the tune of $23.9 billion.
How serious is this? It is very serious. It means that if we were farmers in this room, if you looked one person to your left and one person to your right, one of you would be in serious financial trouble, faced with the possibility of losing your farm. That is the kind of situation we find ourselves in today.
In my province of Prince Edward Island in 1991, according to census figures, we had 2,361 farmers, a decline of 16.7 per cent since 1986 and a 48 per cent decline of farmers since 1971. Are we any better off today because we have lost these farmers? No, we are not. We have deteriorating communities, a deteriorating base on which to base community programs, rinks, social affairs, educational systems and so on, a very serious matter.
How do we put a human face on these figures in terms of social problems? It is an issue that you really cannot understand unless you have experienced it. I call it economic violence, a loss of pride in terms of those farmers affected, a feeling of failure, increasing farm suicides, increasing family split-ups as a result of this very serious economic problem at the farm gate.
Even with these facts and figures we continue to see over the last nine years, coming out of Agriculture Canada and the Government of Canada, an acceptance that we must follow the trend that the market should make all decisions. We are seeing that increasingly so in the new era of globalization.
There are some who would say on the other side of the House that the free market should decide all things. I disagree very strongly with that and I hope we do as a government.
Some people will say let us be competitive. Let us look a little deeper into this competitive approach for a moment. What is the nature of competition? Basically, the nature of competition is that you get into an economic game and your objective is to destroy the competitor. In the current kind of trade and economic policy that we are moving toward in terms of these globalized trade agreements, the object of the game is to pit farmer against farmer in communities, between countries, between provinces, across borders, in a game of trying to lower your prices in order to access the market and in the process destroy that farmer in that other area.
That is not the answer. We must move forward with economic and social programs that bring in regulatory control, put in place marketing programs like the Canadian Dairy Commission, the Poultry Marketing Board, the Canadian Wheat Board, to implement agricultural policy in the interests of rural Canada and farmers.
The approach that has been going on for the last nine or ten years is leading to greater and greater exploitation and I believe to competitive poverty.
I do not believe it has to be this way. We must restore, as a new government, a sense of direction and a sense of purpose. As I mentioned a moment ago, we can introduce marketing programs. We can, through our power as a federal government, expand and strengthen farm debt review boards to deal with these cases that are in serious financial trouble.
This is one member who is going to work toward those objectives.
I do not believe we can allow the pressure to adapt and adjust to the blind blameless free market on a global basis to deter us from doing what is right in terms of the social and economic future of rural Canada and Canadians.
There are a number of other areas that I had hoped to speak on for a moment but I see that I am out of time so I will sit down and receive questions.