MP Report for Okanagan-Coquihalla: Progress, not status quo will serve our national interest on skills
As I shared in a recent report roughly one month ago, Canada Day is my favorite day of the year in large part because it is that one special day when we, as a Country, come together and celebrate all that we love about our great nation. Since being elected as a Member of Parliament it has also occurred to me how often I wish there were more days where we all stopped for a moment to think about the true meaning of Canada Day. I submit that for each of us, the meaning will be different, unique and special. Most importantly I believe we can recognize that collectively we are all part of a greater good that we know and love as Canada. That when we work together, as a nation, when we are united, we are so much stronger than when we are divided. What sets us apart from most other nations is that in spite of our vastness and great diversity we can stand together and support what makes Canada strong.
I mention these points out of concern that I am observing a trend from different jurisdictions including local governments, Provincial governments and increasingly, groups and organizations that have lost sight of the big picture and seem to disregard the greater good. Frequently these disputes and disagreements are centered around jurisdiction, decision making and finance, or put another way.... power. There are some issues that I believe affect all of us as Canadians to the extent that it is in our national interest to work together, find consensus and solutions. If you followed the recent Premiers' conference in Niagara on the Lake in Ontario you will know that some were critical of the proposed new Canada Jobs Skills Training Program provisions laid out in the economic action plan in this year’s budget. To be fair it is easy to criticize. The Job Skills Program has not evolved to the stage of reaching individual agreements with different Provinces at this point. The program also proposes significant changes to the status quo and depends on employers being actively involved in the skills development training. This last point enrages some critics who resent private sector employers being involved in publicly funded Government programs that to date have been largely delivered at the discretion of the Provinces.
However there is a larger more important point that critics routinely ignore and that is the fact that the current skills training system is largely not accomplishing its goals. How do I know this? I make a point of meeting with employers and touring local business operations on a weekly basis. The number of employers who are struggling to find the skilled workers they need is alarming. At the same time, I have also encountered and met with many graduating students who are deeply in debt after having borrowed to fund an education in a profession where there are few jobs available. Those graduates are now forced to look at re-training or taking lesser positions that do not reflect their educational investment. For many employers the short term solution has been to turn to the temporary foreign workers program– the increasing use of this program is a concern that I know all Canadians from all political spectrums share. I raised these same concerns in the House of Commons earlier this year and even in that heavily partisan environment, I heard loud consensus from all sides. In summary I believe it is within our national interest as a Country to take action on this problem. While I respect there will always be disagreement and debate on the decisions of Government, in this instance I believe we cannot stand by and support the status quo approach while we have unemployed young graduates and a growing use of temporary foreign workers. Many do not like change however we must not overlook that one of our great strength as a Country has long been our ability to come together for the greater good to keep Canada strong.
The summer constituency break from the House of Commons for Members of Parliament is often referred to as the “BBQ Season”, although I have yet to attend any barbecues so far this summer. I have been very fortunate to be able to attend a large number of different community events, engage in meetings with constituents, meet with local government officials and have toured many small business operations. Although we often think of “big business” when it comes to employment we should not overlook that here in Canada 98% of workers who support families are actually employed by small businesses. In many of the small business operations I have visited locally I have observed a pattern where investments in innovation and new technology along with plant expansions are helping to increase sales growth and create a demand for more workers.
Government can also play a role to assist this growth and investment– as an example in our most recent Economic Action Plan budget the temporary hiring credit for small business was extended for an additional year. Many of the small business employers I have met with are taking advantage of the hiring incentive which is credited automatically when a new employee is hired. In fact across Canada roughly 560,000 small businesses have taken advantage of this credit and that in turn has resulted in excess of $220 million being re-invested. That not only helps these businesses to take on new opportunities as they arise, but also aids in keeping our local economies strong. From a recent meeting with an Okanagan Falls employer, I learned that these new investments are resulting in some very interesting and innovative products which will greatly benefit our region as well as helping to create some much needed new jobs. This is particularly important to areas that have been hard hit of late, due to the cyclical nature of some industries or from the fall out of the financial crisis of 2007-8 and the recession that followed. These kinds of investments help to create stability and confidence that is vitally important to see continued success. While some would like to see more investment by the government in terms of direct jobs, almost all those that I have met, see the importance of local, regional, provincial and federal elected officials helping to support policies that help the private sector to invest and grow. I have also become more aware of how local Okanagan-Coquihalla businesses who operate internationally are utilizing regional strengths with various products from the Kootneys or Similikameen Valley. More recently I learned of another opportunity in the Similkameen Valley that can support a reasonable number of jobs while also enhancing environmental protection– which is something I plan to explore further.
When in Ottawa, we debate and vote on the various clauses that are contained in the many Bills that come before the House of Commons, however it is very rewarding to see firsthand the net outcome of these Bills once they become law. The provisions in some of these bills are intended to help support jobs and to grow our local economies. A visiting Minister was asked what bills he helped pass this year that would help the Canadian economy. His response was the 'Northern Jobs and Growth Act'. That helps our territories to better and more efficiently process, with full environmental scrutiny and review, the many resource development projects that have been discussed since the times of Diefenbaker. How would Okanagan-Coquihalla benefit from these Territories being able to permit more like provinces, with less of the process being run out of Ottawa? We have world class manufacturers of service vehicles and electrical components for mining as two examples. These employers provide high paying jobs that help support our local economies. These past few weeks I have toured many small business operations and met employers who are taking advantage of these incentives to make new investments and to hire new workers in these expanded small business operations. That is not to suggest there are not still challenges or more work that we can do. An important part of my summer listening tour is meeting with groups and individuals to hear ideas and challenges that exist so these can be shared in Ottawa once the fall session is underway. I welcome your comments, questions and the opportunity to meet with you. Please do not hesitate to contact me at 1-800-665-8711 or via email at email@example.com
As you may have already heard, one of the larger media stories out of Ottawa this week focused on the subject of Monday’s cabinet shuffle. For political pundits and journalists alike, cabinet shuffles are somewhat like open season as speculation, opinion and judgment are cast within mere hours of the announcement.... long before any of the newly announced Ministers have had the opportunity to spend time in a new or pre-existing portfolio.
Over the past two years while I have served on Parliament Hill, I have worked with many of those named to cabinet on Monday. I have gained an insight and a much better appreciation of and respect for the demanding job of being in cabinet and the great importance of the role. My comments might be at odds with what you may have heard from recent media reports. From reviewing many of the pundits’ comments over the past 24 hours one re-occurring theme from some in the Ottawa-based media gallery seems to be that cabinet “doesn’t matter”. It was not my intention to cover the topic of the cabinet shuffle in this week’s report, however after reading many media stories I feel compelled to comment from another perspective. It is my experience as a Member of Parliament that who serves in cabinet does matter, and in my view, it matters to all of us.
I would like to share one of my first challenges as an MP that will forever be in my memory. Not long after being elected, a situation occurred where a Priest, who was legally in Canada and working on starting a new life here at a local Temple, was, in error, issued a deportation order and given five days to leave our country. In this instance the community in question, including the local Mayor and MLA, rallied strongly in support of the priest. As the newly elected MP, my only option was to pursue this matter directly with the Minister responsible. I was very much aware that the Minister could have simply said “MP Albas, there is nothing I can do in this case” however that was not the response I received. Instead the Minister in question took the time to hear the concerns, looked at the information I presented and offered to try and help. In the end, we found a solution; however it was not lost on me that were it not for a Minister who was willing to take the time to get involved in this case, it certainly would have had a very different outcome.
In another instance when I first arrived in Ottawa, one of my primary tasks was to take on the archaic prohibition-era liquor importation rules that prevented Okanagan based wineries from sending wine to other regions in Canada. This was an issue that was raised in an all-candidates debate and throughout my initial summer listening tour I heard that it was a problem which had frustrated many in Okanagan-Coquihalla for years. It was an out-of-date law that made no sense. Although this issue would eventually be addressed by a relatively short amendment through my private member's bill, I also received incredibly strong support from the Minister in question, and from other Ministers with related portfolios. Little did I know how important this support would turn out to be. Although this issue was a relatively small one on the national scale many of the bureaucrats I spoke with said it could or should not be done as a Private Members Bill. In fact, the number of reasons why this could not be done seemed to grow almost by the day. Without the support of the Minister it is highly unlikely that the Bill ultimately would have received royal assent, or if it had, certainly not within the first 12 months of this 41st Parliament.
To the pundits in Ottawa these small events seldom make the media radar screens but to the people involved, they are important. Having Ministers who take the time to listen and are willing to help make things happen goes a long way toward making a difference in our communities. In this shuffle the Ministers referenced in this report have been moved into other Ministries where I believe they will continue to make a difference for Canadians.
There are also a number of Parliamentary Secretaries who have now moved into Cabinet that I have worked with extensively on various Parliamentary committees and without exception these are very capable and committed people who I also believe will do good work on behalf of Canadians. There are a number of different and important issues to be addressed in the communities within Okanagan-Coquihalla and I look forward to working with our new cabinet to ensure continued success for our region. As my summer listening tour is soon to begin I welcome the opportunity to meet with you or your organization. Please do not hesitate to contact me at 1-800-665-8711 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Although Forestry falls under Provincial jurisdiction it is important to recognize the importance of this industry to all levels of Government that also includes communities, local economies and the many working families who are supported directly and indirectly by forest sector jobs. In Okanagan-Coquihalla, communities such as Merritt, Logan Lake and Okanagan Falls have long had direct ties with the forest sector while many important industry related support businesses are located in Penticton and West Kelowna/ Westbank. For many years, Canada’s largest trading partner has been the United States and with the American housing construction boom slowing down, this in turn has reduced export demand and has resulted in mill closures as we witnessed locally at Okanagan Falls. To further challenge the British Columbia forest industry, the pine beetle devastation has also reduced the available timber supply and recent mill tragedies have dramatically increased insurance costs for those mills still operating. In summary, there are a number of challenges within this industry as critics are generally quick to point out. However while it is often easy to criticize, it is also important to recognize efforts underway to help support the forest industry.
Free trade agreements, although often opposed by some, open up new markets that British Columbia lumber manufacturers can access and this in turn, can help keep mills open and people working. As an example of this, BC lumber exports to China exceeded $1 billion in revenue for the first time in history in 2011. Exports to Japan have had similar success and more recently a wood export guide to India has been prepared for manufacturers. The need to diversify Canada’s trading partners is a top priority for the Canadian forest industry as it is in many other industries. However it s also important that innovation is not overlooked as another means to diversify and increase demand for our local value - added lumber producers.
This week I was excited to attend an important event as Structural Wood Products announced an expansion of the recently opened Okanagan Falls production facility. This new expansion will allow for the construction of the new “Eco Structure Wall System” that consists of pre-fabricated engineered wooden wall structures made using the technology of the cross laminated construction method. These walls are intended to be an alternative to conventional concrete “tilt-up” wall construction with the advantage of being lighter, stronger and also offering improved insulation qualities while being more energy efficient to produce and transport. For Structurlam, a company with 50 years of expertise and over 150 employees this is an investment that has a very bright future.
In Whitecourt Alberta, Millar Western Forest Products is introducing an anaerobic hybrid digester that will convert pulp mill effluent to green energy. This waste to green energy technology has the potential to be used in other mills to help reduce waste and lower long term energy costs. In Meadow Lake Saskatchewan, the local Tolko Mill will soon become the first in North America to produce specialty orientated strand board products on a single production with enhanced quality controls.
These innovations are a few examples of Natural Resources Canada partnership projects under the Investment in Forest Industry Transformation Program . Although challenges in the forest industry remain, the need to proactively expand and diversify our value - added forestry sector are essential objectives that help support local economies and help create new and support existing jobs. While we as a country continue to lead the G-7 in job creation and overall fiscal management it is also important to recognize this success does not happen by accident. Through partnerships between industry and all levels of Government working proactively together to open new trade markets or increase innovation we can and will succeed.
As a Canadian and as an elected official, Canada Day is easily my favorite day of the year. It is that one special day when we, as a nation, come together and celebrate all that we love about our country. While we gather in celebration here in Canada it should not be lost on us that in Egypt the citizens are also gathering in mass for entirely different but important reasons. We should also not overlook that our neighbors in Alberta are also gathering together to support fellow citizens in the cleanup after a devastating amount of flooding. More and more often around the globe mass gatherings of citizens are becoming increasingly common. However what is becoming less so is celebrations such as Canada Day. Giving thanks and sharing in the spirit that we collectively share is part of what makes us unique.
This Canada Day I was able to visit with citizens in Merritt, Summerland, Penticton, West Kelowna and Peachland, driving to each community with a few other stops along the way. The beauty and diversity of our region here in Okanagan-Coquihalla combined with the warm hospitality of those who live here are part of what makes Canada Day such a special one. I would like to sincerely thank the many volunteers and citizens who give generously of their time to come out and share in the spirit of this amazing day. It is always a pleasure to meet so many new people and I am already looking forward to my summer listening tour so that I can return to many of these same communities and meet with more citizens. Hearing and sharing the thoughts and ideas that help make our country great is part of how Canada has become the envy of the world.
On that same note, recently the New York and Copenhagen based Reputation Institute named Canada as the world’s most reputable country for the third year in a row. Trust, admiration and respect are many of the qualities that contributed to Canada earning this esteemed position based on 27,000 submissions from G-8 countries who ranked 50 different nations. Following Canada in the second ranking was Sweden with Switzerland in third and Australia in fourth. Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, the Netherlands and Austria rounded out the top 10 countries while the United States in contrast was ranked 22nd.
As mentioned earlier, my annual summer listening tour will begin in mid July- if you would like to arrange for a meeting at your home, business or other location in your community, please do not hesitate to contact my office to set up an appointment. As something new this summer, I will also be hosting a number of drop-in Friday’s at both my West Kelowna/Westbank and Penticton constituency offices. I have taken note that some citizens can better take advantage of a “drop-in” format as opposed to having scheduled meetings. These Fridays, I often refer to as “barber shop” Fridays, will be advertised through my upcoming MP reports. If you have any questions, comments or concerns please do not hesitate to give me a call. I can be reached at 1-800-665-8711 or via email email@example.com
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.