Motion for Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne

Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
1st Session, 37th Parliament,
Volume 139, Issue 12
Thursday, March 1, 2001

Hon. Douglas Roche: Honourable senators, I begin by expressing my sorrow at the death of Senator Molgat, and I express my condolences to the Molgat family.

As a fellow Albertan, I am pleased to see Senator Hays in the Chair. I wish him great fortune in his role. Again, I express my congratulations to the Leader of the Government, the Deputy Leader of the Government, the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and I offer them my cooperation.

Honourable senators, is there alienation today in Canada? Yes. Is it growing? Yes. It disaffection with government real? Yes. I want to talk about something much larger than the Western alienation issue that we have been hearing so much about lately.

The alienation that concerns me is the exclusion, marginalization and isolation of the growing numbers of poor people in a richer Canada. The working poor, the homeless, and hungry children are looking for human dignity, community and a feeling of truly belonging to this great country. I am very much afraid that governments have forgotten that they have a responsibility first and foremost to protect the common good.

Let me first dismiss the idea that alienation is something particular to Western Canada and that Albertans are suffering some sort of bad deal in Confederation and want to build a "firewall" around the province. Is there a bad deal? These complainers who are making a career of feeling "alienated" should follow me on my journeys through developing countries where 1 billion people live without ready access to water, health and education facilities, and where many are caught up in the ravages of war. Then they would, as I do, kiss the ground of Canada on their return.

Canada is consistently hailed by the United Nations as the best country in terms of human development in the world. The grumbling of the few should stop. The voices of the great majority of Albertans, who speak moderately for a stronger Confederation, must be reinforced.

Honourable senators, a clear majority of recently polled Albertans rejected the provincialism of the "Alberta First" agenda. This majority of 67 per cent of Albertans continues to support national programs such as the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Health Act.

Far from being downtrodden, Alberta approaches from a position of considerable strength the complexities of equalization that pay for our national programs.

Real GDP growth reached 5.5 per cent in Alberta last year and is expected to grow another 5.7 per cent in 2001-02. That is by far the fastest growth in the country.

Alberta's total tax burden is the lowest in the country. Moreover, Alberta has no sales tax.

The per capita disposable income is $22,489 - the highest in the country. Alberta's oil and gas industry is projected to earn $10.3 billion this year. The Alberta Treasury is booming with a $7.3 billion surplus last year. The Alberta debt will be eliminated in two years - the first province in Canada to become debt-free.

The unemployment rate is 4.8 per cent, the lowest in Canada, and Alberta leads Canada in job creation.

The University of Alberta has been rated the fourth best overall university in Canada.

We have nature trails galore, mountains of world renown, and a population density of only 4.6 people per square kilometre, which gives us all the space we need and more.

We have a quality of life that is unmatched any where in the world - and I have been in every region of the world.

It is a portion of the taxes of the richest provinces such as Alberta that helps to provide minimum national standards for social programs in the poorer provinces. Is that not the way that Canadians want to ensure the strengths of the whole of Canada? I can assure honourable senators that this is the way the great majority of Albertans want it.

The measurement of our society must be more than an accounting exercise. We do not make a great province or a great country by building a "firewall" around ourselves. What a regressive approach to government.

Honourable senators, we must have a vision for the Canada that we want. I will tell you my vision. I want a country that is human-centred and genuinely democratic; a country that builds and protects peace, equality, justice and development. I want a country where human security, as envisioned in the principles of the United Nations Charter, is the foremost government aim. I want a country where everyone lives in a clean environment with a fair distribution of our resources and where human rights are protected by a body of law.

Do we see such a vision in the recently delivered Throne Speech? I regret that we do not. That brings me back to the real sources of alienation in Canada.

The Speech from the Throne called for a national project "to ensure that no Canadian child suffers the debilitating effects of poverty." That is very edifying. But what is the record? In 1989, all political parties in the House of Commons vowed to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Since then, the number of poor children in Canada has increased by 43 per cent. One in five children in Canada still lives in poverty, an increase of 402,000 since 1989.

UNICEF reported that Canada has one of the worst records on child poverty among the world's richest countries. In a ranking of the 23 states of the OECD, Canada positioned seventeenth.

The Edmonton-based Quality of Life Commission's new report, "Listen to the Children," dramatically illustrates, in the words of children themselves, the effects of debilitating poverty. Politicians everywhere should read it. The Vanier Institute for the Family, named after one of Canada's great Governors General, says the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow in Canada despite the buoyant Canadian economy of the last half the 1990s. In 1998, five million Canadian families saw their incomes shrink, while 3.3 million families showed increases. It is for this reason that the Social Affairs Commission of the Catholic Bishops of Canada recently issued a strong statement on economic and social justice in a letter to parliamentarians entitled, "The Common Good or Exclusion: A Choice for Canadians."

The bishops highlighted the challenges facing this new Parliament, reminding us that solidarity comes from the just distribution of resources and opportunities and efforts to create a more just social and political order. This is what governing for the common good should be all about.

Governing for the common good means we must never accept exclusion. True respect for the dignity of all people means that each individual's potential and contribution is needed in order to make our society the best that it can be.

Concern for the well-being of Canadians must not only focus on issues such as fiscal imbalance, federal-provincial transfers, visibility, intergovernmental cooperation and parliamentary reform. We must also develop a community of shared values, shared challenges and equality opportunities, based on a sense of trust, home and reciprocity. Canadian democracy demands that each individual shall have the same capacity for engaging in the decision-making processes that affect his or her life.

It seems to me that these values are indeed eroding, undermined not so much by whether Ottawa or the provinces get the bigger tax grab but by the apathy and loss of dignity that economic exclusion has fostered within the Canadian people.

One of the key findings of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology in its 1990 Report on Social Cohesion is that the faith of Canadians in their political institutions is declining. No wonder the voter turnout in the recent federal election, at 61 per cent, was the lowest since 1896.

We need desperately to rebuild the confidence of people that governments will play their proper role in building the conditions for economic and social justice. It is a myth to think that governments are immobilized by the market forces of globalization.

Here, I recall the British government's white paper of December 2000, "Eliminating World Poverty: Making Globalization Work for the Poor." An overarching theme of this document is that, if well managed, the benefits of globalization for the poor can substantially outweigh the costs with the right policies on the part of government.

The British government's white paper makes the case that good social policy goes together with good economic policy - investment in social services and social protection is an essential investment in economic development. What is primarily needed is political will. It is not inevitable that globalization will work well for the poor - nor that it will work against them. This depends on the policies that governments pursue.

I do not want policies in Canada that promote tax cuts that benefit mostly the rich. I want government surpluses used for social reinvestment to rebuild health, education and social programs, as well as debt relief.

Prime Minister Chretien recently said the following: "I deeply believe that government has the responsibility to promote social justice." I applaud the Prime Minister's words, but they need to be accompanied by adequate money for social programs. That is where the real investment in our country should be made. The poor have suffered enough in the cutback of social programs, in the name of deficit-cutting. Now they have a rightful claim on the new government surpluses.