Hon. Percy E. Downe:
I wanted to put in a note of caution. Senator Marwah has given an excellent speech about the importance of the deal we have before us and the importance of timing. However, my colleague from Prince Edward Island, the chair of the Agriculture Committee, has raised one concern and there are a host of other concerns. Maybe it’s unique to Prince Edward Island, but the 165 dairy farmers on Prince Edward Island have been very active and very concerned about parts of this deal, about the deal with CETA and the upcoming American deal.
There is a legitimate argument, and Senator Marwah and Senator Smith have advanced it well, for getting this done. Let’s not delay it. There are all kinds of opportunities. But colleagues, this is the chamber where we often have to look carefully at what the House of Commons has done and review what they have done carefully.
This is a trade deal the Government of Canada entered into, has the other place conducted a proper review and study of it? Do we have any suggestions? I appreciate it’s almost impossible to amend it; you have to accept or reject it. I will go back to something I have said many times before, and from the time I was first appointed, the issue of the Veterans Charter which happened many years ago. Then Prime Minister Martin, then Leader of the Opposition Harper and then NDP leader Layton, all went overseas and went to a moving ceremony for veterans in Europe. On the plane flying home, the Prime Minister and all agreed they would pass the Veterans Charter and it was done with the best of intentions. Nobody in Parliament is opposed to assisting veterans and their families. It was rushed through the House of Commons, it was introduced in the other place. It was never referred to a committee in the House of Commons for study. There was one speaker in the House of Commons, the Minister of Veterans Affairs. The speech consisted of three sentences, and then motion agreed to, bill read the second time, considered in committee, reported, concurred in, read the third time and passed. The whole debate in the House of Commons over the New Veterans Charter took two minutes.
Then it came to the Senate, the chamber of sober second thought, where all of us are so proud of the work we do in committees. I’m looking at Senator Andreychuk, whose Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade will get this bill, and they do outstanding work. But we are very proud of the committee work here. This bill came to the Senate, and what did we do? We had first and second reading on the same day. It was agreed that there would be only one speaker and a half hour of questions, and then the bill was referred to committee.
Now one would assume the New Veterans Charter would go to the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee or, failing that, the National Defence Committee. But senators decided that because we wanted to do the right thing and rush it through — we didn’t want to hold up veterans or their families or dependents — we would send it to the next Senate committee that was sitting. That was the Finance Committee. In other words, it was the next committee on the schedule, so we sent it there. It could have been Agriculture, but it went to Finance. I happened to be on that committee at the time. We had one meeting. There we had passage and it was sent back to the Senate.
I cast no dispersions on anybody: the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, NDP leader Jack Layton, all the people in the House of Commons and all the people in the Senate. We all thought we were doing the right thing. We weren’t holding it up; we were not going to delay it. We were going to assist people who needed the help. But the reality is that we failed to do our duty in the Senate. We did not carefully study the legislation. We did not correct any mistakes in the legislation. We were rushing to do our job when it is precisely our job not to rush.
The New Veterans Charter, as all those who followed this will know, did not work as planned. As a result of our failure, veterans and their families paid and continue to pay the price today. We are still working. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the government is still working to fix the veterans charter. Our job in the Senate is the careful scrutiny of legislation, and that takes time, unfortunately. It takes time to hear witnesses; time to study the bill; time for senators to reflect on what they have heard; time to discuss the legislation with the affected groups in our provinces and regions, and seek the views of citizens. Rushing legislation as important as this does not serve Canadians.
I want to conclude with a quote from the Finance Committee of the Senate that ended up receiving the New Veterans Charter. Retired Captain Sean Bruyea was at that meeting, and he — this is public information — suffers post-traumatic stress disorder. He said at that meeting:
We all know that the government wants to be seen as honouring veterans, but that does not necessarily mean that their veterans charter is free of errors. In fact, given that the veterans’ contribution to society is defined in many ways as timeless, one must ask, why is there such a rush to force something through in only two days after Veterans Affairs Canada has been dragging its heels for more than 15 years? We believe disabled veterans and the CF would rather have it right than have a flawed and unjust charter right now.
We failed, obviously, as the Senate, in the oversight role of the veterans charter. Let us answer those who would have us deal with bills right now by setting out to do it right and with however much time it takes.
I have another example that is more recent. That was back in 2005.
At the November 22, 2016 meeting of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I was a member at the time, then International Trade Minister Freeland testified in support of enabling legislation for a World Trade Organization agreement Canada had signed. As is often the case, there was the desire to pass the legislation quickly. The minister said:
. . . I believe Canada should ratify it as quickly as possible . . . .
. . . for the TFA to come into force, 108 WTO member countries need to ratify it. Right now, 96 countries have ratified the TFA. It’s really important for Canada’s status as an effective and energetic participant in the multilateral trade community and in the WTO to be one of the countries whose ratification of the TFA acts to bring it into force.
It bears noting that at this point the bill had been in the Senate five weeks, but it took 27 weeks for it to go through the House of Commons — a bill, I might add, that enjoyed the support of all the parties in the house, so the need for energetic participation was rather late in coming to the Senate.
I asked the minister about the need for such a tight timetable:
If Canada ratifies after the 110, we’re still members of it and I appreciate there is some face saving, as the minister indicated earlier, but does the minister anticipate 14 countries to ratify in the next week?
The minister responded, “Absolutely.” And when I questioned that, she said:
Yes. Everyone has been acting on this.
In other words, it was crunch time and we had better act quickly.
In light of minister’s sense of urgency, we had one more meeting, reported back on November 24, and it was passed in this chamber on November 30 — a total of seven weeks in this chamber, a quarter of the time it spent in the House of Commons. And when did they finally get the 110 ratifications? It was February 22, 2017, three months after the minister said she was absolutely sure that it would only take a week.
The purpose of this story is not to disparage the minister’s judgment or prediction power. She was merely doing her job, and it is the job of the ministers and the government to try to get the legislation passed as quickly as they can. But that is not our job. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the purpose of the Senate is to pass government legislation or private members’ bills as quickly as possible. No matter how good a bill’s proponents think it is, there is always need for study.
Let us remember that as we go forward, colleagues. One area I’m particularly interested in with this bill is the significance of the government signing so many trade deals, but then having the impact on our trade balance. I’m looking at the most current statistics from Industry Canada. Of the 12 recent trade deals we’ve signed, our balance of trade has deteriorated in two thirds of them. So the Government of Canada is obviously very good at signing deals, but with the second part of the equation — maybe Senator Marwah can address this and find out from the government before he appears before the committee — what are they doing to prepare Canadian businesses to take advantages of opportunities when we sign these deals?
For example, our trade deficit with Mexico the year before we signed NAFTA was $2.9 billion, and in 2017 it was minus $27 billion. Israel is the same thing. With Chile, we had a surplus of $73 million before we signed the trade deal; last year we had a deficit of $1.1 billion. It is the same with Costa Rica. The list goes on. These are some of the questions I am interested in.
I appreciate the urgency and it may very well be that we pass it quickly, that our answers are secure. But we should make sure we know what we are passing and take our time to do the job.