The following remarks were given by M.P. Hutchings to the Corner Brook Rotary Club on Thursday, January 12, 2017.
Thank you, for the introduction and for the invitation to speak to all of you today.
I want to start by thanking the Rotary Club and all of its members for the great work you do here in Corner Brook and in surrounding communities. As with year, your work has made a real, positive difference in the lives of many people throughout our community.
I also want to highlight the work you do in building our sense of community. When we look around the world today, the importance of building stronger bonds within our community, strengthening our connection to our neighbours and fellow citizens should not be underestimated.
From the federal government perspective, there are many things that we have been able to do over the past year that I am very proud of.
When we look around the world right now, one of the greatest issues we face is the separation between the rich and everyone else. There are many reasons this is problematic . When the benefits of our system go to those at the top, it makes it harder for everyone else to get by.
Naturally, if people don’t feel the benefits of economic growth, they’ll withdraw support for policies that create it. We see that throughout the world right now. Now, I believe that in Canada, we have done a better job of providing support to the middle class than other countries. But, I also believe we must do better.
We all know how hard our province was hit by the downturn in oil prices and the impact that has had on our local economy. It has exacerbated the trends we have been seeing for some time now. It is getting harder to save for your children’s education, to buy your first house, to save enough to ensure a secure and stabile retirement.
In the face of these trends, we cannot go backwards. We need to make smart, long-term investments to grow our economy. At the same time, we need to provide better support to families and those who are struggling.
In our first year, our federal government has worked to support our middle class here in Long Range Mountains, throughout the province, and across the country. To me this boils down to a government that is doing everything it can to respond to the real needs of Canadians.
The first thing our government did was to cut taxes for the middle income bracket. This tax cut will put up to $670 for a single earner, or up to $1,340 for a two-income household, back into folks’ pockets.
Similarly, our first budget introduced the Canada Child Benefit. This new, tax free and automatic benefit is providing more support to 9 out of 10 families. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, this it is providing over 43,000 families an average of $500 per month, tax free.
Both of these measures were put in place to help families right now. To give families that little bit of extra support to help pay for groceries, or for school supplies, or for the kids after school activities.
These measures will help strengthen our middle class, and will help families in the Long Range Mountains save and invest in our local economy. When families across the Long Range Mountains are doing better, that means more customers for businesses, allowing workers to re-invest and to hire more workers.
I know that these measures do not solve all of the issues facing folks across our riding. It has been very hard to see so many people that have lost their jobs because of the fall in oil prices. We know that resource downturns like this have had even more of an impact here at home in NL because many of the workers in the oil patch were from NL. To help those who have been impacted by these changes in the economy, our government acted as quickly as possible.
In the 15 regions hardest hit by the drop in oil prices—including the Long Range Mountains—our government temporarily extended regular Employment Insurance benefits by up to 5 weeks and for long-tenured workers for up to 20 weeks. As of January 1st, we’ve also reduced the waiting time for Employment Insurance from 2 weeks to 1. These changes are providing more help to those who need it most, and are ensuring that families can get that support faster.
The tax cut, the Canada Child Benefit and the EI extension are all providing immediate help to folks across our riding. While we must continue to provide support to families right now, we also have been working to deal with the long-term trends that are facing Canadians.
For generations, as parents, we have told our children a similar story: if you want a good job, stay in school. Young people have been taking this to heart. Unfortunately, for too many Canadians rising costs have made post-secondary education less affordable. Fewer people are able to save enough for their education which prevents them from getting the skills they need to secure good, well-paying jobs in an increasingly competitive world.
Even with a good education, many young people are facing difficulty finding that first job. That makes it hard for young people to pay back their student loans, and to begin saving for their future. I think everyone here would agree that it is the goal of every generation, parents and grand-parents to leave a better future to our children and grand-children.
To do that, we need to support young people as they pursue their education, and work to provide more opportunities when they enter the workforce. I was very pleased that our government increased the federal student loan to help students achieve a brighter future. Starting this year, the federal student loan program will increase the maximum financial assistance amount by 50% for students from low and middle income families as well as part-time students.
Furthermore, when students finish their post-secondary education they will no longer have to worry about paying back their federal student debt while they are searching for their first job. As of November 1st, students will not be required to begin repaying their federal student loans until they begin earning over $25,000 per year. This will allow students more flexibility in the years after they graduate by relieving that immediate financial stress.
Additionally, to help young people get the skills and experience they need, our government doubled funding to the Canada Summer Jobs program. This increased investment led to 77,000 jobs for young Canadians being created across the country. That was more than double the number created the previous summer.
Here in the Long Range Mountains—due to the hard work of town councils, businesses, and organizations like the Greater Corner Brook Board of Trade and others in letting folks know about this opportunity—last summer saw 679 jobs created by the Canada Summer Jobs program, a disproportionately high share given our population. That represents an investment by the federal government of $1.7 million dollars across the riding.
I want to remind all the business owners here that it is not too late to apply for funding to help hire students this coming summer. The deadline to apply is January 20th. If you have any questions, please call the office and we’ll be happy to help out.
These measures are important investments in our young people and our future.
Now in my conversations with folks across the riding, I know a major concern for many is retirement security. To provide immediate assistance, the federal government increased the Guaranteed Income Supplement for single seniors by up to 10%. This was extremely important because we know that single seniors are 3 times more likely to be living in poverty.
Also, to ensure every Canadian can feel confident in a secure retirement, our government made the historic announcement that for the first time in fifty years, the Canada Pension Plan benefits will be expanded.
Once these changes are phased in fully in 2025, Canadians will receive more money from the CPP, up from the current rate of 25% to 33% of pensionable earnings.
Another key promise we made during the election was our promise to make smart, long-term investments in our infrastructure. This is another commitment that we are keeping.
In the past, there have been concerns that when federal infrastructure funding was allocated, it was difficult for small communities to access it because of the application criteria. As a result, in the past, all the funding went to the big cities, particularly with respect to road infrastructure.
Our government has responded to these concerns by lowering the threshold of traffic volume requirements from 100,000 cars to 10,000. This may seem like a small change, but it has a big impact for us here in NL. Instead of 5% of proposed projects being eligible, it is now 80%.
Furthermore, our government has increased the federal contribution rate for many of the infrastructure categories to 50%.
All of these changes have created infrastructure funding programs where our province, and our communities all along the west coast, have greater access to federal funding.
I’m proud to have worked with my fellow rural colleagues in Ottawa to push for these changes because it means communities across the Long Range Mountains will have a much better chance to access this federal funding.
As result of these changes, and our government increased investment in infrastructure funding, tourism, in the federal government is investing over $100 million in the Long Range Mountains. This funding will provide real, tangible improvements to our riding.
This year and next year, we will invest about $27.3 million to upgrade wharfs and harbours. These investments will improve our harbours and make them safer for harvesters and mariners, who are vital to our local economies.
To upgrade campus infrastructure, expand skills training programs and build a heavy equipment centre of excellence, the federal government has provided $11.4 million for College of the North Atlantic Stephenville and Corner Brook Campuses. This will help create jobs by providing more students the skills and opportunities they need to get jobs in our communities right now.
Through the Clean Water and Wastewater fund, the federal government partnered with communities, town councils and the province and invested $20.8 million to support water and wastewater infrastructure throughout the riding. This means safer, more environmentally friendly water infrastructure for Corner Brook, Stephenville, Lark Harbour, Port aux Basques, St. Anthony, St. Lunaire-Griquet and many others all along the west coast.
Parks Canada has also invested $45 million to upgrade infrastructure and the tourist experience for Gros Morne National Park, Port au Choix Historic Site and L’Anse aux Meadows historic site. These investments help build on the momentum of this past season, which saw great tourism numbers across our riding. It will also help grow our local tourism industry, which we know is essential to our local economy, by improving our Park and National historic sites to help us capitalize on Canada’s 150th anniversary and this year’s free access to our parks. This will help attract more visitors and help our local tourism operators.
Now I know these investments aren’t necessarily flashy. But they will improve the quality of life in our communities and will help position our businesses to succeed. Also, because of increased federal investment in these areas, it helps to save money for our communities and for the province. So I will continue to push in Ottawa to ensure that all federal funding programs are designed to provide rural ridings like ours with a fair chance at funding.
I think the decision that I am most pleased about though, is our government keeping its promise to our veterans and re-opening the veterans’ affairs centre in Corner Brook. Simply put, it was a promise we made to all of our veterans along the west coast to ensure they would be able to receive the care and support they deserve and it’s re-opening is good news for all the veterans in the area.
Moving forward for the coming year, there are several important areas where I intend to focus. The first of those is Rural Broadband opportunities.
The Connect to Innovate program, will invest $500 million over 5 years with the goal of connecting 300 rural and remote communities to high-speed broadband. The first round of applications for funding will open on January 16th and will run until March 13th. All of the information is on my website, including a detailed application guide. My offices will also be sending out as much information as we can directly to communities, mayors and town councils. This program will be an important opportunity to provide connectivity to many throughout the riding who are currently under-served.
As always, the fishery remains a vital part of our history and our local economies. Over the past year, we have made positive steps in ensuring better management of the fishery and in ensuring our harvesters are receiving their fair share of quotas.
Another issue that I have heard from harvesters all along the coast was the fairness of the gulf halibut quotas. The previous government had made decisions on Gulf Halibut quotas to suit their political concerns and that hurt our harvesters—the share for western NL harvesters fell from 32% of the quota to only 25%. We worked hard to make sure the Minister of Fisheries knew how those decision were hurting our harvesters all along the coast and I was pleased when the Minister committed that DFO would reverse course and that, over time, western NL harvesters should return to a 32% share.
The coming year will also see challenges that we’ll need to meet head on. Over the past year I have spoken with hundreds of you about the Qalipu Enrolment Process who are worried about the upcoming decisions.
I want start by letting everyone know that the Enrolment Process will only determine the Founding Members list. That list is only a starting point.
Once the Founding Members list has been established there will be an opportunity for some people to reapply to receive status if they are a descendant of a person on the Founding Members list. That means there will be people throughout the riding whose application to be a Founding Member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation will be denied, but they may still get their Indian Status under the Indian Act as the descendent of a Qalipu member with Indian Status.
Now I do understand the concerns that have been raised and in the previous months, I have met with the Minister’s office numerous times to relay these frustrations and presented a petition from thousands in the riding outlining these concerns to the government in the House of Commons.
The Minister’s office has consistently told me the government is committed to a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada that is based on respect and reconciliation, and that the Government is committed to working in full partnership with the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.
The Qalipu Enrolment Process, including the Supplemental Agreement, was negotiated and agreed to by the former Government of Canada and the Federation of Newfoundland Indians and the government with the purpose of ensuring a fair and equal process for every applicant, and both the Government and the FNI agreed that the process is sound, equitable, and rigorous but fair.
As an example of this partnership, under the agreement reached between the former government of Canada and the FNI, the FNI identified the 66 communities that they felt represented the core of their nation. And the government of Canada recognized those communities as part of the basis for the enrolment process assessments.
I know there are frustrations over the Supplemental Agreement but as Chief Mitchell said this past week, and the Minister’s office has confirmed, the Supplemental Agreement is a part of the overall agreement and without it, the process cannot be completed. Both Canada and FNI would have to agree to re-negotiate the agreement, and we don’t know how that would impact everyone who has applied to the process, including those who received Status.
I want to provide an update on the current status of the process for you. The Enrolment Committee, which is made up of six people appointed by the Federation of Newfoundland Indians and six people appointed by the Government of Canada, will be mailing decision letters to applicants on January 31, 2017 and they should arrive in your mailboxes in the first or second week of February.
In some cases, these letters will confirm eligibility to be enrolled under the agreement as Founding Members of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation and receive Indian Status, while in other cases applicants will be informed that they are not eligible to be enrolled as a Founding Member.
I have been assured, however, that applicants, except those who did not provide any evidence that they self-identify as Qalipu, will have the right to appeal the decision of the Enrolment Committee.
For those applicants with a right of appeal, a Notice of Appeal will be included with the January 31, 2017 decision letter. Anyone wishing to appeal will have until March 17, 2017 to submit the Notice of Appeal to the independent Appeal Master who will be neutral, legally trained and well respected in the Newfoundland legal community.
Once the letters are received, I know there are likely to be many questions. Qalipu have posted a wealth of information on their website for anyone with questions. Also, the Minister’s office has confirmed the Government of Canada will provide a call in centre for applicants who have questions respecting the letter that they receive or the appeal process. This number is available on both the Qalipu First Nation and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada websites.
I will also be hiring an additional staff person in my office who will be dedicated to doing everything we can to assist constituents if they have questions about the letters they received or the appeal process.
Another of my biggest priorities for this year will be pushing the government to provide more support for our seniors. I think we all know seniors throughout our riding who are struggling to make ends meet. In the first year, we’ve made important steps to improving financial security for seniors with the expansion of the Canada Pension Plan and the increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement for single seniors, but there are still a lot of seniors throughout our riding who are struggling. I’ll be pushing for our federal government to find more ways to help our seniors because I believe we must do more to take care of those who done so much more us.
Last year when I came to speak to you, I was brand new to the job. To be honest I don’t know if I even had an office in Ottawa yet.
But one of the things I promised to you last year was that I would do my best to represent everyone in the riding. I tell my staff all the time that when people call my office with a problem, I want to know about it and I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to help. My goal then, and now, is to be as available and approachable to everyone in the riding as possible.
Unfortunately, one of the things I discovered in this job very quickly, and one of the most frustrating, was that MPs cannot fix every issue that comes across our desks. Try as I might, there are always going to be issues that people call the office about where I’m just not able to help.
But, that does not mean that I will not do everything I can to help everyone who contacts my office asking for assistance. I hope that you feel I have kept that pledge this past year. And I want you to know that will continue to be my number one goal.
Thank you for the invitation to join you this afternoon and to provide an update on our federal government’s work.