Hon. Lillian Eva Dyck:
Honourable senators, my question is for the Leader of the Government in the Senate.
The Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Minister Valcourt, has said that the federal government will cut welfare rates for New Brunswick's 15 First Nations.
With this cut, for example, a family of four on social assistance in the Eel Ground First Nation will go from getting $1,262 a month to merely $908 a month. A single person would see a drop from $828 a month to only $537. Those are about one-third cuts, or a 30 per cent to 35 per cent cut in welfare rates.
This cut is so egregious it will make it nearly impossible to make ends meet for those First Nations who are dependent on social assistance in New Brunswick and these cuts will effectively put them below the poverty line.
The response of the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to this dire situation is that he thinks the First Nations' welfare system is "geared so as to encourage passiveness." He believes these cuts will push First Nations off welfare and he wants to direct the savings from these cuts to training and skills programs for Aboriginal people in New Brunswick.
Honourable senators, I would remind you that this cut would hit amongst the poorest of the poor in the country, where unemployment and illiteracy rates are substantially higher than in the rest of Canada.
Therefore, my question to the Leader of the Government in the Senate is: Does the government honestly think that by cutting welfare funding to First Nations in New Brunswick, cutting the money that provides for the bare essentials to sustain life, these Canadians, who can no longer afford a roof over their heads or put food on their tables, are going to be able to study and participate in these training programs under such dire circumstances?
Hon. Claude Carignan (Leader of the Government): Senator, there were numerous elements to your question. Let me review the government's record on the health, safety and well-being of First Nations children in particular, who are a priority for this government. That is why we have chosen a prevention-based approach in the delivery of child and family services on reserves.
In 2012-13, our government invested nearly $630 million in child and family services on reserves, which represents an increase of 40 per cent since 2006, and we will continue to take action to ensure that children and families receive all the support they need to live safe, healthy lives.
In addition, regarding job creation and skills training for Aboriginal populations, our government, First Nations communities, chiefs and young adults all agree that First Nations youth should have the same opportunities as all Canadians when it comes to finding and keeping a job, so that they can enjoy the benefits of working.
We are taking concrete action to create the conditions needed to ensure that First Nations communities are more prosperous and more self-sufficient. That is why our government has invested in job creation and skills development. This will help increase First Nations' participation in the economy and improve the health of their members so that they can help build a stronger Canada.
These investments have allowed us to provide personalized supports to 4,000 First Nations young adults. This is a significant investment in skills development. I could also talk about the nearly $12 billion our government has invested in education since 2006, in order to support elementary and secondary education for First Nations.
Senator, we have done a great deal of work for First Nations in order to ensure that First Nations families and young people have the tools they need for a brighter future.
Senator Dyck: You say that children are a priority for this government. I find that a little hard to believe because the approximate savings on this cut for welfare for the 15 First Nations in New Brunswick works out to about $12 million annually. At the same time your government has allocated $13.5 million just for advertising Budget 2015 for two months. Where is the priority? It sounds to me like the priority is advertising your own government.
Do you really believe that spending $13.5 million on ads in just two months — ads which have proven to be somewhat ineffective — is a better use of government funding than helping First Nations children in New Brunswick to actually be able to get decent food so they have a tummy full of good food so they can actually learn in those schools?
Senator Carignan: Senator, this is no place for demagoguery. It is important to bring up the government's record. It is also important to advertise the government's policies so that as many Canadians as possible can take advantage of them.
We have economic action plans that lower taxes and improve benefits for families. I am talking in particular about the Universal Child Care Benefit. We cannot announce policies that will lower taxes and improve universal benefits for as many people as possible without ensuring that the people who are eligible are aware of the measures and can claim these benefits when applicable.
I think that our economic action plans make it clear that this is a government that is working very hard to balance the budget, making decisions, lowering taxes and investing in the future. I understand that you support a leader, Mr. Trudeau, who wants to increase taxes, bring us back into a deficit and cut services.
Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh!
Senator Carignan: However, I think that's pointless. Canadians want to choose what to do with their own money. They don't want to pay more in taxes to have it invested in bureaucracy.
Senator Dyck: You talk about your government providing tax breaks and tax reductions. Well, people living on welfare are in no way going to be able to benefit from that.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Dyck: The benefits to advertising do absolutely nothing for people on welfare. In fact, if anything, it will probably make them very annoyed by the fact that that money is being misspent when it could have gone to feeding their own children.
How can this possibly be the correct action for the government to take, to cut welfare to these poverty-stricken First Nations people in New Brunswick?
Senator Mitchell: He probably thinks they're going to put it in a tax-free savings account.
Senator Carignan: Senator, as I said, billions of dollars are allocated to Aboriginal people, especially for education. I will not repeat the figures. I know that you find it frustrating when I talk about the government's record. I don't want to add to your frustration. One thing is certain. As I mentioned, the government believes that Aboriginal communities and young families must have equal opportunities. The tools developed and the investments made by our government to promote job creation and provide education and skills training for Aboriginal youth are proof of that.
Senator Dyck: Thank you.
What's really interesting about this welfare situation in the Maritimes is that apparently the federal welfare rate for First Nation people on reserve is actually higher than the provincial rate. The minister decided that, since the federal rate was higher and the provincial rate is lower, he was going to drop it. That's fine and good; we will equalize it. However, when it comes to education, which you just brought up, it is the other way around. We all know the federal rates are lower than the provincial rates, but this government has resisted and refuses to remove the 2 per cent cap on education and put it at 4.5 per cent so that it becomes more equal.
Why is it that, when it is higher, it is okay to drop it, but, when it is lower, there's absolutely no way they're going to raise it?
Senator Carignan: It is disappointing to hear the opposition criticizing the government. Economic Action Plan 2015 provides $200 million over two years to improve education on reserves. It also provides $500 million over seven years for First Nations school infrastructure.
From your remarks, I can already see that you are planning to vote against Economic Action Plan 2015. I find it very disappointing to listen to you speak out of both sides of your mouth.
Some Hon. Senators: Oh, oh!