NDP's McDonough in the House on Student Issues


Friday, October 15, 2004

Ms. Alexa McDonough (Halifax, NDP): Mr. Speaker, yet again the government underestimates the surplus, this time by $7.2 billion. The government may not know the difference between $1.9 billion and $9.1 billion, but Canadians sure do.

They also know this is not the real surplus because it masks the debt burden heaped on our students and their families.

When will the government restore the billions cut from post-secondary education and reinvest sufficiently in our colleges and universities to enable tuition reductions and ease the all too real student debt burden in this country?

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Ms. Alexa McDonough (Halifax, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to the comments by the member for York--Simcoe. I congratulate him on his first debate in the House. He certainly has recognized the importance of post-secondary education, but I found the comments distressing from two points of view.

First, there was very little acknowledgement of the depth and severity of the tuition crisis and debt load crisis suffered by today's students. Second, once again he seemed to propose that tax cuts are always the solution to every problem. The comment was made that the amounts are modest but after all, we have to be concerned about whether we can afford it. I would ask the member to respond to two things in that connection.

First , we have just received confirmation that the government's surplus this year is not the $1.9 billion previously predicted but rather it is $9.1 billion. That is quite a big mistake. Is there not a significant sum of money there that could be available to deal with today's student debt crisis and the very severe barriers?

Second, I want to ask the member to respond to the research finding that the tax cuts to the top 10% of Canadians brought in by the government over the last decade would actually have been sufficient to pay for 25 years of tuition free post-secondary education in Canada.

Could I have the member's comments on those two factual pieces of information?

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Ms. Alexa McDonough: Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity it provides me, and this certainly was not the intent of the member for Vancouver East. I have big shoes to fill in terms of following her period of significant work on post-secondary education issues.

Reference was made to the need for a post-secondary education bill. Again, I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly about this. The member from the government bench who stood up a few moments ago misrepresented, I am sure not intentionally, the position that I had set out. I have not said that the bill should specifically deal with the issue of capping tuitions. I have said that it needs to be a bill that sets out certain fundamental principles and then sets out the governance structure that will ensure that the policies and the resources necessary are forthcoming to fulfill those principles of accessibility and universality. The bill could model the Canada Health Act but improve upon it to ensure that there is some life in it.

It was regrettable that the minister did not address the question I raised with him. When we see the Conservatives rubbing their hands with enthusiasm and praise for the bill, it makes us concerned about what elements of the bill are so acceptable to them and yet falls so short of what is needed.

When we hear the advocacy that further tax cuts is the route to go, let us just recall two things. First, the tax cuts to the top 10% of Canadians, which were introduced by this Liberal government during its mandate, the resources involved in that are sufficient to provide 25 years of tuition-free education to a generation of Canadians.

Second, for anyone who asks how we possibly could afford tuition-free education, more than a dozen OECD countries provide tuition-free education. Why? Not because they are wealthier than us but because they place a genuine premium and priority on post-secondary education.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Ms. Alexa McDonough: Mr. Speaker, I am a bit disappointed by the member's distortion of what I said or perhaps what he thinks he heard me say.

First , I heard the Bloc member also express concern about the complete inadequacy of dealing with the other aspects of education funding. Yes, if this bill were amended to remove what are genuine barriers to a great many people, in other words, if the allocation were sufficient and were part of a comprehensive approach that dealt with tuition, debt and inadequate levels of funding, one could make a case for how this might fit into the total scheme of things.

I want to go to the second point the member made. I very much applaud and congratulate him for having gone after the post-secondary education that he was denied in his youth. However, for us to pretend that the bill would do what was needed when it depends upon families who simply do not have the money to set aside and if they did so, it would make an adequate dent in the kind of costs that would be faced in the future is just simply perverse.

The member surely knows that the Canadian Federation of Students has provided tremendous leadership around the issue of access. Upon the introduction of the savings program, it immediately pulled together representatives of a whole range of anti-poverty groups, immigrant groups and low income groups to ask them: how it would work for them; would it work for them and what would be the impact? The Canadian Association of University Teachers participated with those groups in that exercise, led by student leaders. They said unanimously that the bill was flawed, perverse, misguided and that it would not solve the real problems that existed.
Aboriginal Students

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Ms. Alexa McDonough (Halifax, NDP): Mr. Speaker, today the Auditor General once again condemned the Liberal government's empty words toward Canada's aboriginal people, specifically on post-secondary education. According to the Auditor General, the glacial speed of Liberal commitment to aboriginal people will result in the education gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students being closed in 28 years. I repeat, 28 years.

Why must our first nations wait 28 years for education equality?

Hon. Andy Scott (Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the Auditor General for the report. The reality is that she is correct in her assertion that the gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians in educational achievement is too great.

That sentiment has been expressed by the Prime Minister. That is why we called the round table in April and that is why education is one of the areas we are looking at strategically to do better on that gap. That is what the government is committed to and I thank the Auditor General for bringing it to the attention of the nation.

Ms. Alexa McDonough (Halifax, NDP): Mr. Speaker, is that why the government is now talking about beginning to tax the education benefit for aboriginal students?

The Auditor General reminded us today in her scathing report that the education gap was already highlighted four years ago. Yet since 2000 the do nothing Liberal government has made no meaningful progress. Education is absolutely key to meaningful equality, yet we have seen four more years of second class status and a growing gap for first nations students.

Why is aboriginal equality always the subject of rhetoric, which we heard again here this afternoon, but never--

The Speaker: The hon. Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

Hon. Andy Scott (Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, as a matter of fact that is just one area that has been identified by many aboriginal leaders having to do with special education within the system. At first nations we have identified an additional $273 million to respond to those issues, as identified by the communities themselves. That has happened just in the last two years.
Education (Bill C-5)

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Ms. Alexa McDonough (Halifax, NDP): Mr. Speaker, just to be clear as we resume proceedings, what we are talking about are two report stage amendments to Bill C-5, an act to provide financial assistance for post-secondary education savings.

The stated purpose of the bill is, and I quote:

The effect of this first amendment to delete clause 3 would be to actually delete the stated purpose of the bill. Let me be clear about what we are talking about here.

Clause 3 purports to serve the purpose of introducing so-called incentives to encourage families to save for their children's future. However it fails to take into account the reality that many low and fixed income families cannot afford to put money into RESPs.

We heard from witnesses who appeared before the human resources committee on Bill C-5 that the stated purpose is bogus and that the provisions contained in the bill could not possibly come close to achieving the stated purpose. It was the view of all but one witness of the many who appeared before the committee that Bill C-5 would actually widen the gap between upper income families who can afford to open RESPs for their children and those living on low and fixed incomes who cannot.

It cannot be ignored if there is not to be a total democratic deficit in the work of the human resources committee that every single organization that spoke to the bill said to scrap it. Fundamentally there were two reasons why they said to scrap it. The first was that the provisions of the bill not only achieved the stated purpose, but it could be documented in dollars and cents terms that low and modest income families were not the chief beneficiaries of the bill. The greatest benefits of the bill would go to upper income families who could afford to set aside savings and who could draw down the benefits that are contained in the bill in a way that lower income families could not do.

Student representatives, spokespersons for anti-poverty groups and single parent groups spoke against the bill because it completely fails to address what is really needed to achieve the purpose of opening up accessibility for low and modest income students to our post-secondary education institutions.

There is absolutely nothing in the bill that even purports to address the current post-secondary education crisis that is sweeping this country. Every single education stakeholder who appeared before the committee as a witness demanded that what is needed instead is a needs based grant system instead of this woefully inadequate piece of legislation.

I have heard some people argue that Bill C-5 is better than nothing. The bill would not achieve its stated purpose and that is why we are proposing the deletion of the stated purpose because it is bogus. If it does not actually achieve its stated purpose at least it does attempt to do something. There would be some people in the low and modest income family category who would benefit from it. It is true that some would benefit.

One has to take into account whether this is the best use of the money that would be invested.

The reality is that the principal beneficiaries of the money invested will be upper income families. Therefore we have to take into account the opportunity cost.

The forfeited use of that money is it instead is invested in this Bill C-5 proposal that is before us. It was the overwhelming contention of everyone that if the government is sincere, if the government intends to do what is effective, what is most cost effective in achieving the stated purpose, then that same amount of money needs to be invested in a needs based system of grants.

Anything short of that is really a deception, it is really bogus and it should not therefore be supported.

For that reason I am appealing to members of the House, particularly ones from all political parties who heard the witnesses again and again say that this is not the use to which public dollars should be spent. The use to which public dollars should be spent is to address the crisis in post-secondary education to ensure that there is in fact a system of needs based grants and that it is something of which we could all be proud and together stand in support of.

I want to be perfectly fair. There was one representative on behalf of an organization who said, unapologetically and fair enough that they actually supported the bill. They are in the business of dealing with such registered education savings plans and therefore would be a principal beneficiary of the provisions of the bill.

However I do not think the purpose of the bill is to enrich the investment activities of an organization that is in the business. There is nothing wrong with that. Of course if this is the intention of the bill, then there will be such beneficiaries.

However the stated purpose of the bill is to deal with low income students and families who face a major accessibility problem in gaining entrance into or maintaining their status as students in post-secondary education institutions.

With regard to the first amendment, I ask for all members who heard those pleadings, who heard the overwhelming evidence from witnesses and representatives of all of our respective caucuses who are here to support this amendment to recognize that the stated purpose is bogus and to vote in favour of the amendment to Clause 3, which is to delete it, that is now before us.

I want to speak briefly to the second amendment, unless the Speaker is recognizing the minister to speak to the first amendment before I do so.
Education (Bill C-5)

Monday, December 6, 2004

Ms. Alexa McDonough: Mr. Speaker, I will try to answer the member's question in two ways. First he says that if we were to add a room on to a house would that not be improving it. It could. However what is happening with our university infrastructure is that the foundation is crumbling and the walls are caving in. The libraries and laboratories in our universities are in trouble because of the lack of investment. The walls are falling down and the roofs are leaking.

Would this be the wisest investment? Yes, we could add a room but is it the wisest investment to add a room when the educational infrastructure is in such desperate shape?

My second comment may be perhaps more persuasive for the member. I probably will not do justice to André Lareau from Laval University when I quote him, but I want to remind the member of what this Quebec expert said on Bill C-5 in pleading for it to be set aside. He said: However, one of the objectives of the tax system is to distribute wealth fairly. How can we justify a government financial assistance program that targets the well-off members of society? To summarize, richer families are the big winners in the income splitting that results from the education savings plan. Furthermore, they benefit from these amounts because their children are less likely to have to work. We have a double impact that benefits upper income families.

I would not have thought that would be the position of the Bloc. I say, with no reservation and no hesitation, that one of the reasons that it is so shocking to see the Bloc supporting this flawed bill is that in the province of Quebec, under both Liberal and Péquiste governments, there has been an understanding of the comprehensive approach that is needed. In fact, we have the asymmetrical educational measures taken in Quebec, an approach that goes in the opposite direction to this one.

I hear in this member's question the same thing I am hearing, and dismays people so much, is that is it not better to do something than to do nothing. It is not better if the choice we are making of the something is the wrong choice, that there are other things that are more important in both the short term and the long term and certainly in the medium term to which the educational dollars ought to be directed.

I make that plea again, particularly for the Bloc members because I think Quebec, I do not want to go over the top here, has closer to a model of what is needed in the rest of the country. The only thing that has interfered with Quebec governments, the previous Péquiste government and the current Liberal government, from doing an even better job on supporting the educational needs of students, particularly access to post-secondary education, is the fact that the federal government still has not even replaced the massive unilateral cuts that it introduced, starting with the so-called 1995 budget.

I do not know why the Bloc would be voting for this bill.
Ms. Alexa McDonough (Halifax, NDP): Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to have the opportunity today to participate in the debate on third reading of Bill C-5, an act to provide financial assistance for post-secondary education savings.

A weekend has passed since several of my colleagues had an opportunity to very ably address the bill in debate on Friday and I want to say how appreciative I am of their contribution to that debate. Perhaps we need to take just a moment to remind ourselves that Bill C-5 is an act to provide financial assistance for post-secondary education savings, the stated purpose of which is to encourage the financing of children's post-secondary education through saving from early childhood in registered education savings plans.

On the face of it, one might ask how anybody could not be in favour of people setting aside savings for the future education of their young people if they are in a position to do so. Nobody in their right mind could be opposed to that.

The difficulty with the bill and the reason why the New Democratic Party will not vote in support of the bill is that it is fundamentally flawed.

It is fundamentally flawed because it takes the approach that what is really needed in order to make sure that young people can access our post-secondary education system is just for their families to act more responsibly and, in order to get them to act more responsibly, the government needs to put some money out front, a small number of dollars, a token in terms of the actual cost of post-secondary education, and then families will act more responsibly.

They will learn from this because it is an important symbol. The government is saying that post-secondary education is so important that it is prepared to put some money into people's pockets to take out a registered education savings plan and that will take care of the educational needs of their children in the future.

This is a false signal, because of course the real problem with post-secondary education is that for yesterday's students, they are now crippled with debt. For today's students, their educational quality of experience is being eroded because they are so desperately trying to work at part time and underpaid jobs, which robs them of attending classes and getting assignments done and so on to pay for the privilege of being there, or they are having to drop out because the debt load has become so great that they simply cannot carry on.

Even for tomorrow's students the problem is not solved with the bill that is before us, because tuition is going up and up, the government has massively eroded its commitment of dollars to post-secondary education, and students simply are not able to get into the system in the first place in many cases.

Why? Because the government's commitment--and not the commitment of low income families who are supposed to be the target of the bill and who are supposed to be able to solve the problem by pulling savings out of their pockets--to post-secondary education is woefully inadequate. It represents doublespeak by the government. It is constantly reminding young people of the importance of post-secondary education to their future, which of course is absolutely true, but then the government acts so irresponsibly that it makes that post-secondary education virtually inaccessible for large numbers of students.

I know it is a subject for another day and it is certainly a subject when it comes to the budgetary priorities of the government as we go into the next budget, but the reality is that the government has so massively and unilaterally withdrawn dollars from post-secondary education that we have sent exactly the wrong signal to all Canadians about whether it is really important or not.

The result is that we have students faced with crippling debts. As an outstanding student leader in my own riding said during a debate in the recent election, what used to be a student crisis has now become a family crisis for a great many people in this country, especially low and modest income families, and I want to say especially families that live in the least prosperous areas, because it becomes part of an out-migration policy of our youth.

I know that one of our elected members from Cape Breton absolutely understands this: that not having adequate funding for post-secondary education at the public level becomes a deportation policy from rural areas, from remote areas and certainly from Cape Breton. I have to say that one of the most eloquent presentations before the human resources committee on this bill came from the spokespersons for and the representatives of the students at Cape Breton college, the University College of Cape Breton. I apologize for tripping over that name; unbelievably, I understand that UCCB is in the process of stripping "Cape Breton" out of the name. But that is another topic.

I want to get to what it is about the bill that is so absolutely flawed, and it borders on the immoral. The rhetoric, the flourish around the bill is it is about helping low income students first and foremost. This is simply a number's crunch that will lead to the conclusion shared with the committee, and particularly by an outstanding Quebec economist who gave us the numbers, that this is a bogus bill because the principal beneficiaries of it would be those earning over $70,000 a year.

It is no good for government members to get up as they have and say that is not the intention of the bill. They say that the intention of the bill is to help those in the lowest income category. If that is its intention, it does not live up to its billing. It does not deliver on its intentions. In that sense, it is fundamentally flawed, dishonest and it is immoral. Bill C-5 purports to do one thing, but it would do something different from that.

Students, from low income and modest income families across the country, who did their homework on the legislation, non-governmental agencies and community-based groups, whose resources and expertise are primarily allocated to helping low income families deal with the challenges they face to get into post-secondary educational institutions, came before the committee. With two exceptions only, every one of them said that the bill should be scrapped.

The reason given by those who spoke from the other three parties in support of the bill is that it would be better than nothing. Why? It is either the bogus claim that it will benefit low income families, which it will not, or in some ways worse still, it shows an impoverished state of mind and a lack of understanding of the problem.

I will not name any members when I say this, but I find it repugnant that several members said to me that they agreed with my analysis of the bill and that they had listened to all the witnesses who appeared before the committee who had said the bill should be scrapped. However, they admitted that they would not look good if it appeared they would not support giving money to low income people. I call that a lack of principle as well as a lack of leadership.

The voices that have expressed themselves in opposition to the bill and that have said to scrap it include, the Canadian Federation of Students, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the Canadian Council on Social Development, the National Anti-Poverty Organization, the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada and Low Income Families Together. The most stunning thing of all is the fact that the Bloc would support Bill C-5 in defiance of the eloquent, informed pleadings of la Fédération étudiante Universitaire du Québec, a group of highly informed students who represent the whole student body in the province of Quebec. These students also told us to scrap the bill because they felt it was offensive.

Another group from Quebec that also told the committee to scrap the bill was the Fédération des associations de familles monoparentales et recomposées du Québec, or in other words, the federation of single parent and blended family association.

The economist about whom I spoke briefly, André Lareau, a highly respected professor at Laval University, made it clear in his detailed analysis that the chief beneficiaries of Bill C-5 would be the highest income earners in Canada, not the lowest income earners.

Let me make one more plea. It is never too late to change one's mind. There is nothing weak-kneed or feeble-minded about changing one's mind in the face of the facts and the voices that came forward and who pleaded to scrap this bill. There is nothing wrong with changing one's mind in the face of the evidence.

This is what Ian Boyko of the Canadian Federation of Students said: To begin with, we believe the learning bond will not get anywhere close to the heart of the problem. Just speaking in purely financial terms, the amount of money that low-income Canadians may accumulate under the learning bond will be wholly inadequate to cope with the rapidly increasing costs of colleges and universities in most jurisdictions. Until spiralling tuition fees are brought under control, the federal government is just throwing good money after bad money in student financial aid. Let us remember that the majority of the OECD countries have tuition free post-secondary education. In addition to tuition free post-secondary education, there are a good many countries that are far less prosperous than Canada that also provide considerable financial support in terms of living costs and helping to cover related costs to post-secondary education.

This is what the national director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations said, apparently falling completely on deaf ears in the House of Commons, except for the New Democratic Party caucus. He said: The greatest problem of learning bonds, however, is that they place heavy expectations on low-income families that simply do not have the resources to contribute significant amounts annually to an RESP for each of their children. Even if families are completely aware of the benefits of saving for education, low-income Canadians cannot afford to save the necessary funds to pay for education funds while still putting food on the table. As we've said before, it's like giving a low-income family $500 and a Mercedes-Benz and expecting them to finance the rest of the car. Finally, I want to quote from the very powerful testimony of the representative from the University College of Cape Breton. Jamie Crane is a woman leader at UCCB. She said: Low-income families, even if they did have the time to invest in registered savings plans, would not be able to contribute huge sums each year. Add that to the small amount of $2,000 that the government would contribute in the Canada Learning Bond and we're not looking at an amount that would even allow a child of a low-income family, or even a middle-income family, for that matter, to get their foot in the door, considering the rate at which we know tuition is estimated to rise over the next 10 to 20 years. One really ugly charge has been made about the student leaders in the country today, which includes the Canadian Federation of Students, CASA and the Quebec federation of students to which I have referred, Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec. That charge has been made by some of those who support the bill, but criticize the student leadership. They have said that they only care about themselves, that only care that they are facing crippling debts and that they are not willing to let the government introduce a bill that will, and let us be clear about this, only begin to benefit a student for the first time 18 years from now.

That completely ignores the fact that all the other education stakeholders who have spoken, who very much have a long term investment and interest in the post-secondary education system, have also condemned this bill as ill-conceived, inadequate and a false signal to Canadians that what needs to be done about the financing of post-secondary education is actually accomplished by this bill.

Furthermore, as I have already said, every one of the community-based organizations, the NGOs, the non-profits, the research bodies, whose sole focus is on the question of how to help give low and modest income families a leg up in meeting the challenges that they face in this world, have also condemned the legislation as flawed, inadequate and not supportable.

At the end of the day, I hope it is never too late to say to people that we are supposedly in a minority Parliament that is more receptive, not less receptive, and more responsive to hearing the voices of Canadians. We have heard overwhelmingly voices that have informed themselves on the bill. They have analyzed and experienced this. They have lived and breathed every day the challenges that students and their families of yesterday, today and tomorrow have faced and that their community have faced in trying to support them. They have all said to scrap this legislation. This is supposed to be a Parliament that is renewing democracy. How is it a signal that the democratic process is alive and well and more responsive today when just about every witness and those who have commented outside of the hearings before the human resources committee have said that the bill should not be supported?

The voices that have said to scrap this bill have not done so because they are unaware of what is needed for low income families to support their young people to get an education. The single parent and blended family association from Quebec is stunned that it does not have the support of the Bloc in its position. It has said that since access to quality education is one of the surest ways to fight poverty, it should be one of the federal government's priorities, coming well before tax benefits for the more affluent. However, the bill effectively is about a tax benefit primarily for the most affluent. Not that this is the intention. I see the impatience of some members, wondering how I can say that. I can say it because that is the fact of it. That is what the figures clearly indicate.

We know there are a great many low income families who are struggling now to figure out how to pay for their groceries and rent and at the same time have money left over to help pay for school supplies and equipment of their elementary, junior and senior high sons and daughters. They are trying to help support them through the education system.

I again implore members not to close their ears to the voices that have been speaking out and pleading with us to address the real problems with respect to access and crippling education debt for today's and tomorrow's post-secondary students.
Education (Bill C-5)

Monday, December 6, 2004

Ms. Alexa McDonough: Mr. Speaker, I think the cost of books is a huge issue and a huge burden. I appreciate the member raising the question.

However I must say that I find it surprising and I would welcome the member sharing the evidence that professors across the board in every university community are requiring students to buy new textbooks every year. I have to say that has not been my experience. I am not saying that there might not be some instances where a new textbook or perhaps a new version of a textbook is introduced and that students are being requested to buy the new book.

I am very proud and privileged to represent, I believe, a riding that has the highest number of post-secondary education institutions in the country. If other members want contest that and say that they are number one, that is fair enough. My riding of Halifax has seven universities and colleges.

I know for a fact that a great many students buy second-hand books. What is a particular nightmare is that many students cannot afford to buy books at all. A lot of students borrow and try to scrimp with notes and all the rest of it.

I would respectfully say to the hon. member, in answer to his question, that if those are the kinds of concerns he has he certainly should not be supporting this bill. This bill does absolutely nothing to deal with the nightmare for students and low income families who cannot begin to pay for the tuition, let alone the books, the lab equipment and whatever other requirements there are to support their educational experience.

I would be the first to support an initiative that would speak out loudly and address this very problem of books that may be required to be purchased new, when they should be, and in many instances are, available as second-hand books.

At the end of the day it is not getting at the fundamental issue, which is the inadequate funding of post-secondary education for our students of today and tomorrow, let alone 18 years from now, despite the stated intentions of the bill that we have before us that is so fundamentally flawed and should be scrapped. I hope the member will be voting against the bill given his concerns.