Mr. Speaker, I appreciate my colleague's comments, and obviously those members have come to realize that this is not a good budget.
I rise specifically with respect to the Algoma Central Railway line and the fact that the current government has actually cut $2.2 million of the subsidy that CN used to get. Now it is leaving the tourism sector in that area, plus the little town of Oba and the outlying municipalities, at a very big disadvantage with the impact this will have on tourism.
This is an email I received from Al and Moe. It goes on to say:
All of the tourist that travel to our cities and towns will no longer have a reason to come. This will create complete loss of revenue to all of the lodge owners and many businesses in these small communities that rely on the ACR Passengers who spend money when they visit. It will impact the city of Sault Ste. Marie and all of the restaurants, hotels and grocery stores who serve these tourists that venture into our precious northern wilderness for weeks at a time. The loss of jobs will be nothing more than staggering and devastating to this economy.
The email goes on to say that people have written to the Minister of Transport but have had no response.
My question for my colleague is with respect to tourism. Does she see anything that really would help the people along the Algoma Central Railway line from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst and tourism as a whole? The Conservatives say they are creating jobs, but meanwhile they are getting rid of jobs in northern Ontario.
Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Hull—Aylmer.
I want to begin my speech by sharing an excerpt from a piece of correspondence I recently received from a woman on Manitoulin Island.
I am a senior receiving OAS and supplement. My employment income for 2012 was $5,735.64 which is $2,235.64 above the allowable $3,500.
As a result $50.00 is deducted from my supplement each month.
Yes, I have a problem providing myself with food, rent, especially paying bills for a dentist and new eye glasses.
I wish I could say that hers is an isolated case, but I have a small mountain of messages on that exact issue. Clearly these are people looking for a little relief, and given that they took the time to write their MP, they may also have been paying attention when the finance minister delivered his budget. If so, they would have been disappointed by what many are calling a do-nothing budget.
However, I am not happy just calling it a do-nothing budget. I think we are doing the finance minister a big favour with that description, because this budget does an awful lot when we consider how much in the way of clear, identifiable needs it does nothing to address.
For so many Canadians, the basic message of the budget amounts to “Your concerns are of no importance to your government, which is more interested in focusing on a single, self-serving goal.”
Therefore, instead of thinking of it as a do-nothing budget, let us consider what the budget actually does.
It signals the government's acceptance of an ongoing economic recovery that cannot replace the full-time jobs we lost in the recession.
As I mentioned, the budget tells our seniors living in poverty that the government has no plan to either address the problem or to reduce the pinch felt by those who are able to work to supplement their income only to be subjected to a mean-hearted clawback.
The budget tells our disabled community that the smaller agencies who help them so much will not be receiving support, which in turn translates into less support for the disabled across the country.
The budget tells our first nations that they will have to wait, again, for money to improve underfunded schools. It has nothing to improve first nations access to post-secondary education or to ensure adequate resources for the post-secondary student support program.
The budget also tells families waiting for a national dementia strategy that they will have to continue to wait.
The budget tells the communities, individuals, and businesses that rely on tourism in northern Ontario that creating a pre-election surplus is more important than the region's economic prosperity.
The budget goes on to tell small businesses that the government is not interested in continuing with a focused tax credit to assist with the hiring of new employees.
The budget also tells the forestry sector that the forestry industry transformation program will remain underfunded.
The budget tells communities with important federal infrastructure that the government is not interested in assisting with their local economy anymore.
The budget does nothing to make post-secondary education more affordable or accessible.
I am sure we could do this all day, but the point is that we should not be slapping the Minister of Finance on the back when all that he really has done is dismiss so much need in the pursuit of a single goal designed to benefit the Conservative Party of Canada alone.
Northern Ontario's economy is facing many problems, particularly those related to the boom and bust cycle, which typically affects resource-based jobs. The region has a large number of small businesses, many of which are involved in tourism.
After the budget came down, people in the region wondered whether the Conservatives cared about them at all. They have reason to wonder since the budget made no mention of northern Ontario or its economic development agency, FedNor.
Small businesses in the region work just as hard as anyone, and they would like to know that the government appreciates their efforts and that the billions of dollars they help generate in economic activity are important to the Canadian economy.
Recently, however, the owners of these small businesses have felt as though they are being attacked, and the communities where they run their businesses feel as though they have been abandoned by the government, which continues to deprive the region of its support.
In the few years I have been in this place, we have seen the government walk away from heritage lighthouses that were tourist attractions on the Great Lakes. It is walking away from a modest investment in passenger rail on the Algoma Central Railway, which supports good jobs all along the line from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst.
In the budget, we see the government will continue to walk away from its responsibilities for federal ports as well. People on Manitoulin Island have just been through the wringer with the government's refusal to accept its clear responsibility to maintain the port in South Baymouth. Now they are bracing themselves as the government prepares to transfer the costs of federal ports onto small communities, communities that have grown local economies to serve tourists who arrive by boat.
However, the problems that flow from this budget are not limited to small tourist-focused businesses. The budget is going to affect all manner of small businesses by eliminating the small business hiring credit. This amounts to the Conservatives turning their backs on job creation opportunities in about 560,000 businesses across the country. The credit was generally used by companies with 20 to 35 employees or less and cost $225 million annually. However, job creation that bolsters small business is not as important for the government as getting re-elected in 2015.
First nations are getting mixed messages in this budget as well, which is in keeping with the relationship the Conservatives have forged with these communities. Despite changing its tune on first nations education, the government has taken a page from the Liberal playbook, which amounts to strong language and distant commitments, but precious few dollars.
There is no reason to delay increased funds for education in these communities. The chronic underfunding is well documented, and every day the government waits to address this need is another day lost in the struggle to bring better results for the young people in Canada's first nations.
When it comes to first nations, the budget makes blue-sky commitments for 2015 and beyond. What money it does allocate to continue the first nations water and waste water action plan and to continue the aboriginal justice strategy still falls short of what is needed, so we see that the well-being of first nations and our aboriginal population remains a low priority for the government, which is preoccupied with its own needs.
I mentioned just how important the resource-based economy is to northern Ontario. The forestry sector in particular has been dealing with significant problems on a number of fronts. Since the current government came to power, 30,000 jobs have been lost in this sector in Ontario alone.
We know that the Forest Products Association of Canada asked the government for $500 million in assistance over six years under the forestry industry transformation program but received only $90.4 million over four years, which represents a shortfall of $410 million.
This once again shows that the government is not prepared to stand up for northern Ontario's or Canada's forestry sector.
Many of us have met over the last few years with delegations from the Alzheimer Society of Canada, which has been advocating for a national dementia strategy. As our population ages, Alzheimer's will only become more of a challenge, and from my own experience, I can say that families already living with the difficult reality of this disease are hearing that their struggles are of no concern to the government. I say that because that is the message sent by refusing to commit to the $3 million requested by the Alzheimer Society of Canada that would let it lay the foundation for the national dementia strategy.
The list of snubs can add up quickly, and while the government sets itself up to hoard cash, household budgets are stretched to the limit. There is little beyond signals of intent in this budget.
In northern Ontario, high gas prices are a constant problem, and New Democrats have long advocated for an ombudsman to ensure that consumers are not being gouged at the tank. While there is some recognition of gas price disparity in the budget, the focus is on cross-border disparity, and even that is nothing more than big language with no details or timelines.
Finally, changes to the way the government administers funding for national disability is a point that I will get to later.
I just want to indicate that these are just some of the things that this budget does. I am certain that my colleagues will continue to inform the government of the widespread effects of its budget, which is anything but a do-nothing budget.
I have so much more. I hope to get it done during questions.
Mr. Speaker, the member from Sault Ste. Marie is telling people the decision to cut passenger rail funding is justified because the communities along the Algoma Central Railway have “...year-round access to the national transportation system...”.
This is not the case for residents of Oba, whose only option would be a private, rough, logging road that is impassable at times.
When ACR service stops March 31, Oba will be stranded. Businesses along the ACR will suffer.
Will the government do the right thing and reverse this mean-hearted cut?
Mr. Speaker, here we are again debating one of the many issues in which the federal government has lacked leadership. The Conservatives try to make Canadians believe they are good economic managers but they have continued to sweep things under the carpet or turned a blind eye until a crisis occurs.
On this particular file, it is extremely disconcerting that the Conservative government eliminated the Canadian Wheat Board without ensuring that there would be an efficient plan for grain transportation. It did not make this a priority.
In the past, wheat farmers could depend on the Canadian Wheat Board to fight and to put pressure on the rail companies to get the grain to market. When the board had a monopoly on selling grain overseas, it also held considerable market influence. In a system that has to move around 400,000 grain cars in a year, there is absolutely no room for error or a shortfall when grain shipments are waiting at a cost of thousands of dollars a day, a cost that is ultimately paid by farmers through a lower price for their product.
The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food commented last month that in his opinion the railways were doing an adequate job of moving crops to market. However, thousands of farmers, agricultural experts, and newspapers across western Canada are instead pointing to deep and fundamental flaws with the grain transportation system after the loss of the Canadian Wheat Board.
Now the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food is suggesting that farmers apply for advances and proposes a five-year investigation into the source of the problem. However, Canada's grain producers have bills and loans that are due now. The government must take action to get the railways moving.
The lack of leadership from the Conservative government with respect to grain farmers will mean that farmers will likely continue to see lengthy delays and backlogs in rail transport that will prevent thousands of western grain producers from getting their products to market. On this side of the House, we fully understand the frustration of western farmers.
It is not just the grain farmers who are frustrated with the government's lack of leadership when it comes to rail. Let us look at the frustration being felt by the residents of Oba, the tourist lodges, businesses, municipalities, and economic development offices, from Hearst to Sault Ste. Marie, because of the Conservative government's ill-thought-out decision to cut approximately $2.2 million in subsidy to CN for passenger service on the ACR line. This is the Algoma Central Railroad line, which recently saw CN announce that without the subsidy it could not continue to maintain the current passenger service. CN told the people around January 24 that the service would end as of March 31. This has also raised concerns that the freight service may also be at risk.
Again, when we are looking at the wheat farmers, they are concerned about their freight services, as these people are as well.
Particular to the ACR passenger service, let us look at the short-sightedness of the Conservative government. It is obvious that, just like the wheat farmers, the government never considered the economic impact of its ill-thought-out decision, nor did it care to consider that it would basically leave the residents of Oba stranded. They only have access to train passenger rail or an industrial road, which at times is impassable and is around a two-hour drive to Hearst, if they can take it.
I forgot to mention that I will be splitting my time with the member for Vaudreuil--Soulanges.
On that note, when it comes to rail transportation, the government's action on this file reminds me of a similar situation that occurred last year with respect to another mode of transportation, the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry on Manitoulin Island. It became a showdown between the government and the province. The impact on tourism was quite great for Manitoulin Island. Although the ferry ended up running, there was a delay in the tourist season for some of them. People cancelled because they could not rely on the ferry.
Now the government is choosing to attack the economy of northern Ontario again, especially the tourism economy, from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa to Hearst.
I will read something from Tatnall Camp. I have had massive emails on this, and it is all about rail. Whether it is freight or passenger, I think it is important for us to raise the issues here in the House.
This is about Tatnall Camp. Cindy Lebrun and her family have written. They are very concerned, because March 31 is coming up very quickly. They are afraid that their tourist resort will be severely impacted, as 98% to 100% of their business depends on rail. They say:
The vast majority of our guests are railroad travellers that would never want to fly. 100% of our freight arrives by railroad.
She goes on to say:
If this train goes under, our business and all of our investments both past and present will be gone. To hear this news is completely devastating and lacks any Federal promise for our future and also the economic boost businesses like ours provide to the local communities nearby over the long term. My brother and I are one of only a handful of up and coming entrepreneurs under 35 years old in the community of Wawa, and we have a one of a kind train-in destination product that will continue to sell as long as the railroad is here.
Just as we are trying to entice young farmers to take on farming, these are young entrepreneurs who are looking at the tourist industry. They are relying on rail for their business, and all of a sudden, things are being ripped out from under them.
She goes on to say:
We are not the only train-in business on Oba Lake and there are numerous other interests who are served by this railroad (cottage owners, trappers, local citizens, other tourist Camps, canoeists)
Municipalities are also going to be affected. There is a big ripple effect. Let us not forget that some of the effect happening because of the removal of the subsidy by the government, which is a mere $2.2 million, is also impacting the Conservative riding of Sault Ste. Marie. I hope that the government is going to look at the need to find that financing to give back to CN to put that passenger rail back in place so that it does not end.
The other thing is that the government actually invested in a revamp of passenger cars just recently. Now it is saying, “Sorry, no more cigars”.
The letter goes on to say:
...we have an increased number of reserved and confirmed guests and this upcoming season is looking even better than the last....
Our reservations are completely in jeopardy as well as our ongoing marketing investments.
They have been marketing for quite some time. Given the fact that the dollar has now gone down to about 90¢, it was going to be a prime time for them.
I have another letter from Betty, who talks about the impact:
How many FEET of track would this maintain in southern Ontario [for this amount of money] and yet it was sufficient to maintain over 300 miles of track in the north.... Where was the consultation with those directly impacted by such a decision, before they potentially remove their business livelihood.
When we are looking at the particular situation we are talking about today, we see that the government has no national strategy when it comes to rail, whether it be freight or transportation, and none at all for the short term or long term, not for farmers, not for passengers, not for tourists, not for jobs, and not for the economy.
On that note, I just want to reiterate the request we are making. What we want is increased pressure on rail companies, including through the implementation and enforcement of rail performance standards. We want the government to ensure that export and vessel information is accessible to producers, that grain producers have fair access to rail infrastructure to move their product, and that a strategy for future rail service that accounts for sustained agricultural growth is developed. That is on the agricultural piece.
On the passenger side, I think the government has to be really serious to divest our economy for tourism, for municipalities, and for Canadians as a whole. I would ask that the government find the money to reinstate the ACR line as well.
Mr. Speaker, I am following up on a question I asked last year of the Minister of Veterans Affairs concerning the Conservatives' treatment of our servicemen and women. I notified him at the time that Thunder Bay's mayor and city council had voted unanimously to condemn the closure of the Veterans Affairs Canada offices in Thunder Bay and across Canada, but the minister went ahead and closed the offices anyway.
I told him that I had received hundreds of messages from Canadians who are angry at the government's poor treatment of our veterans, but instead of reconsidering and ending the clawback of benefits to injured and disabled soldiers, the minister actually insulted and further outraged veterans who came to visit him.
One veteran that he insulted was my constituent. Roy Lamore is a World War II navy vet from the Branch 5 Legion of Thunder Bay—Superior North. I joined him last Friday at the Veterans Affairs Canada office in Thunder Bay, along with dozens of other vets and constituents, and we had a memorial service for the closure of this local office. Mr. Lamore was outraged that the minister had treated him and his fellow vets so badly, after coming all the way to Ottawa. He said it was a complete disgrace that the office that he and other vets depend on is closing. Many people I meet say the same thing.
The local Thunder Bay office served a vast area, all the way from the Manitoba border to past Sault Ste. Marie. It served over 2,000 veterans and their families and employed 10 hardworking, skilled people. On Friday, the Conservative government closed that office. This shows a complete disregard for the needs of our veterans, the opinions of the people of Thunder Bay—Superior North, and all of our servicemen and women.
It is ridiculous to say they will get the specialized support they need through a 1-800 number or some byzantine website. They are now supposed to go through Service Canada, which in Thunder Bay—Superior North is already way overworked after deep cutbacks and layoffs there. My own constituency office is now doing much of the work that Service Canada is supposed to do, and now my two hardworking staffers, Shannon and Vicki, will have to try to replace the services of 10 expert, laid-off Veterans Affairs staff. Our veterans have specific needs that require specialized training, yet Conservatives think that a general Service Canada employee, who does not have the knowledge or the experience, will be good enough as a replacement.
Veterans Ombudsman Guy Parent has called for the government to rectify failures in supporting veterans. He found that veterans who sustained serious and permanent injuries are all too often left with little or no support and are at high risk of falling into poverty. Vocational rehabilitation programs for those under 65 are deficient, and families left to care for wounded or addicted soldiers are left without the necessary resources.
In short, the Conservative government is leaving our servicemen and women in their time of need. It is shameful. What is even worse is the tragic rash of suicides by veterans over the last two months. One can only imagine how abandoned they felt. There has never been a worse time to abandon our vets. Things are so bad that veterans have actually sued the government for disability support. Imagine, not only has the government been derelict in its responsibility to veterans, it is actually arguing in court that no such responsibility even exists. The government feels that there is no special obligation to veterans who were injured in Korea, Bosnia, Afghanistan or World War II. That is incredible.
I ask the minister, will he stop fighting our veterans in court, reinstate the disability supports, and replace vital services, or will he resign?
Mr. Speaker, tourists spend billions of dollars in northern Ontario supporting thousands of jobs. Clearly, that does not matter much to the government, which cannot stop penny-pinching on the backs of small businesses that are the heart of the region's tourism economy.
Last year, a showdown with the province threatened to cancel the season for the Chi-Cheemaun ferry and Manitoulin Island tourism.
This year they are blaming CN after killing a subsidy that offset some of the losses from the Algoma Central Railway's passenger service from Hearst to Sault Ste. Marie.
It is unbelievable. Although the government recently invested in upgrading rail passenger cars, now it is forcing those same cars off the rails.
Most tourist operations in northern Ontario are small and family-run. They work especially hard and do not deserve last minute roadblocks from the Conservatives. Just as they are drumming up business for the summer, they are forced to wonder if they will have a season at all.
Why will the government not sit down with the stakeholders to find a way to ensure a long healthy future for the ACR's passenger service and the communities, including the town of Oba, and the businesses and people who rely on it?
The electoral district of Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario) has a population of 89,028 with 69,272 registered voters and 191 polling divisions.
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