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C-41: Bill Respecting Payments to a Trust Established to Provide Provinces and Territories with Funding for Community Development

Honourable senators, in light of the procedure used in consideration of this bill, you will understand that I do not have a prepared speech. Still, I will try to describe the situation.

First, I must say that I am not impressed by our colleagues from the other place. This is in no way intended as a partisan comment. In a matter of 15 minutes or so, a bill to provide $1 billion was introduced at first reading, received second reading, was referred to Committee of the Whole and, finally, was passed at third reading stage. I am not impressed with any of the parties, and even less with the government.

The honourable senators will recall that, in late 2005, the minority Liberal government put forward a $1.5 billion economic development assistance program for communities. This program was abolished when the minority Conservative government took office. As a result, our communities experiencing economic hardship stopped receiving assistance from the federal government.

The honourable senators probably recall also that, in this chamber, we strongly criticized the softwood lumber agreement signed in April 2006 between the Prime Minister and the Americans, which allowed the U.S. forest industry to retain an amount of $1 billion. That was April 2006.

If we look at the cuts made in that $1.5 billion program in February 2006, we see that, two months later, in April 2006, another $1 billion was taken away from the Canadian forestry sector and given to the competing American industry. Our forestry sector was left with $2.5 billion to help its development.

Now, in February 2008, almost two years later, the current government is saying that it will help the forestry sector by providing $1 billion. What does it want to achieve? What is the logic behind this? The $1 billion is really too little and too late, because the damage to our small communities and to our forestry sector has already been done. Over 135,000 jobs related to the forestry industry were lost in our rural communities, particularly in northern Quebec, northern Ontario, in the whole northern region, and in part of southern New Brunswick.

When rumours began to circulate to the effect that there "might be" some minor problems affecting the automobile industry, it did not take the government two years to react. Despite the fact that these were mere rumours, that industry received $765 million. However, when it is the basic industry, at least in my province, that is affected, it has to wait two years. Moreover, the Americans took precedence over the Canadians in this issue, as we saw in April 2006.

When western Canada was dealing with the issue of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, no one in this chamber was opposed to providing assistance to that particular industry. I find it strange that, when we talk about an issue that affects primarily New Brunswick, northern Quebec and northern Ontario, we have to wait two years. And when a program is going to be implemented, we are told that it will not be based on the number of jobs lost but, rather, on a per capita basis.

So, even if Alberta and British Columbia are telling Canada and the world that they are looking for workers, they still qualify more easily for assistance than the provinces that really need help, given the program that is being proposed.

Exactly, honourable senators, it is absurd. When the West has problems, the government comes up with an aid program right away. But when problems surface in Northern Ontario, Northern Quebec or New Brunswick, the money to be paid out per capita. That is just as unacceptable as the fact that this has taken two whole years.

First, it is unacceptable for all of the provinces to benefit from a per capita share of the subsidies even though they do not all have the same problems. It is unacceptable that premiers cannot see the impact of this program. Yes, I am a Liberal senator, but if my Liberal premier accepted $10 million per year for three years and Alberta got $150 million, I would protest vociferously. I would certainly not agree with him. This has nothing to do with politics; this is about social justice. The fact is that the federal Conservative government failed to see — was unable to see — the short-, medium- and long-term repercussions on forestry industry workers when it signed the free-trade agreement with the Americans.

Now this is too little, too late.

What upsets me even more is seeing the members in the other place spending their time criticizing the Senate and honourable senators, but passing such a bill in only 15 minutes, a bill that widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

While some may say that $1 billon is better than nothing, $1 billon properly distributed would be even better. I hope that when the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance has studied the bill, it will give a full report with comments, and perhaps amendments or specifications, ensuring that we, as senators, will have fulfilled our responsibility to the Canadian public.