This week I am back in Ottawa attending a number of briefings and meetings related to Okanagan-Coquihalla and also my new duties as Parliamentary Secretary to the President of Treasury Board. When I’m in Ottawa one of the ways I stay in touch with the Okanagan is through reading various online editions of local news outlets. One recent trend that I have noted in some letters to the editor is an increase of personal attacks directed against elected officials. In any democratic society there will always be disagreement from time to time on issues and likewise there is merit in constructive criticism and debate, however mean spirited personal attacks in my view have no standing and add little constructive value to a discussion. I know many Mayors, councillors, MLA’s and MP’s who work hard on a range of challenges and generally throughout the Okanagan we have a good track record of our different levels of government working together in successful partnerships. While it is understandable that some of the projects and administrative decisions will be disagreeable to some the reaction to insult and attack the decision makers as opposed to questioning the decisions made is counterproductive and lowers the level of debate.
In my mid July MP report I focussed on our newly named Federal Cabinet and the many ways Ministers can serve the interests of Canadians including specific examples where cabinet Ministers have supported my work as a Member of Parliament on behalf of citizens here in Okanagan-Coquihalla. One point that I did not address in that report was the fact that the majority of the new faces who were promoted into cabinet were formerly Parliamentary Secretaries. This in turn created a number of vacancies for Parliamentary Secretaries, (or “PS” as they are referred to in Ottawa) that were filled when an announcement was made by our Prime Minister on Thursday of this week. I mention this because I was honoured to be among those named to serve as a Parliamentary Secretary. My particular appointment is to serve as the Parliamentary Secretary to the President of Treasury Board.
What does a Parliamentary Secretary do? The Guide of Parliamentary Procedure defines this role as a “member of the government party named to assist a Minister as the Minister directs. A Parliamentary Secretary may table documents or answer questions on the Minister's behalf, but may not present government bills". In my case the responsibility is to serve the President in the execution of his duties as chair of Treasury Board. Typically a PS will communicate decisions and policy and also help to facilitate related Bills and legislation through the House of Commons and in particular, to provide guidance at the committee review stage of proposed legislation. Having taken my own private member's bill through the House of Commons to Royal Assent with unanimous support and having served on several Parliamentary Committees these are challenges I look forward to. A Parliamentary Secretary is also subject to the Conflict of Interest Act and in many cases will also be required to obtain a security clearance depending on the portfolio involved.
For those of you wondering what Treasury Board is, the summarized definition is a cabinet committee responsible for financial, personnel and administrative management within the Federal Government. This also includes comptrollership, approving regulations and most Orders-in-Council. The President has the responsibility for translating the policies and programs approved by Cabinet into operational reality within Government and to provide departments with the resources and the related administrative infrastructure required. As the Secretary to the President I view my role as a great honour and one I share with residents of Okanagan-Coquihalla given the importance that our region has in reflecting the views of our great country.
I am also encouraged by other Parliamentary Secretary appointments announced by our Prime Minister that I believe will also benefit our region. My colleague and good friend MP Mark Strahl has been named as PS to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. In light of some of the significant projects currently before the Penticton and Westbank First Nations, having a nearby representative with a BC perspective will be helpful. Other positive British Columbia based appointments include MP Andrew Saxton serving as PS to the Minister of Finance, MP Cathy McLeod serving as PS to the Minister of Labour and for Western Economic Diversification, and MP Randy Kamp serving as PS to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. These portfolios are all of considerable importance to our Province and to our region. Although my new duties will require me to spend more of my time in Ottawa, I will continue to personally return your calls and meet with local citizens, groups and organizations. Taking your concerns to Ottawa is just as important to me as an MP as it was to represent citizens to City Council when I was a councillor. Accountability can only begin when the voices of citizens are heard. On a final note, I would like to pass on my sincere thanks to the many citizens who have taken the time to pass on kind words on my recent appointment. Your comments (and criticisms) are always welcome.
In one of my July reports I referenced the importance of innovation and cited specific examples where our Government has entered into partnership agreements with many value added wood producers in Western Canada including Okanagan Falls.
Why is trade important to British Columbia and Canada? Rather the engage in a rhetorical answer to this question I believe it is important to provide specific real world examples. Last week the community of Whistler hosted the 10th annual Global Buyers Mission and Wood First Forum. In many respects this forum is like the world series of BC wood products as over 350 buyers representing 23 different countries gathered to do business with BC wood producers. When you consider that over 40 percent of all Canadian wood products are now exported internationally clearly the importance of trade deals and this forum are key to our forest industry and our regional economies. In fact, despite recent challenges within the sector, the Canadian forest industry currently employs roughly 235,000 Canadians and contributes over $20 billion annually to our GDP. The spin off employment and economic impact on other industries as we know locally is also very significant.
Getting back onto the topic of trade and the forest industry while some have questioned trade with countries such as China, South Korea and more recently India, it is also important to recognize that wood product exports have increased significantly to these countries. China is now Canada’s second largest wood export market and South Korea has moved up to number five. In fact Canada now exports significant amounts of wood product to over 20 different countries that also include Japan, Taiwan, Netherlands, Philippines, Belgium, Turkey, Hong Kong, Pakistan and New Zealand to name a few. We are also fortunate that Canada’s Minister of International Trade is the Hon. Ed Fast from Abbotsford, British Columbia and as such has a firm understanding on the importance of trade to the BC Forest industry.
How does trade and wood product exports benefit us locally? In several previous reports and in Parliament I have often shared the success of Penticton based Structurlam Industries, who has now expanded into Okanagan Falls. This innovative value added company provides over 150 well paying jobs. Much of the lumber sourced by Structurlam comes from Kalesnikoff Lumber, a rural mill located in Thrums, B.C. that has taken pride in being a BC specialty wood producer for over 70 years. Each of these operations employs many local workers and utilizes many local industries for support services and supplies. While in Whistler at the Global Wood Buyers forum, over 150 architects participated in a forum to learn more about new innovative building technologies, like the ones at Structurlam. It should be noted that some of these innovative wood products are made possible by investments in innovation created in partnership by companies like Structurlam and our Government. These new and innovative products have created a very promising level of interest and I have also been informed that two international delegations will be visiting Structurlam in the weeks ahead. These types of events seldom receive much media attention however they are indeed very exciting for those in the BC wood sector and show how our Government, working in partnership with industry can create innovations that generate new jobs and support our local economies. Let’s also not overlook the importance of trade deals in opening new markets that help create Canadian prosperity and employment.
The September long weekend has often been thought of as the “end of summer” given that students will be returning to classes in the days following the holiday Monday. For students entering post-secondary education it can be a very exciting time but also an expensive one.
Although post-secondary education falls primarily within Provincial jurisdiction, our Government offers some tax relief that parents and students should be aware of. For example students can claim tuition fees that are paid to a College or University and in some cases other Canadian educational institutions that offer post-secondary courses. In addition, tuition fees paid for courses that are certified by Employment and Social Development Canada to develop or improve occupational skills may also be claimed.
In meeting with a very well regarded local manufacturer in West Kelowna last week the challenge of finding skilled workers was identified in spite of offering very well paying local positions. In fact, with close to a dozen different tours of local manufactures over the past few months I have yet to encounter one that has not reported similar challenges in finding skilled workers. I would urge many students entering into post-secondary education to give strong consideration to trades-oriented training opportunities.
Another tax relief program that post-secondary students may take advantage of is the ability to claim an education amount of $400 for each entire or part month in the year that they are enrolled in a full-time qualifying educational program, or $120 per month for part-time enrolment in a specified educational program, at a designated educational institution. One program that may be of benefit to some students is the ability to claim a textbook amount of $65 for each month where they qualify for the full-time education amount or $20 for each part-time month. In all of these programs it’s very important to keep your receipts, as they must be used to apply for the various tax rebates. Last year there was roughly $11 Billion claimed by students and families in tax relief to help absorb the costs of post-secondary education. Although this is a very significant amount of financial assistance, there still yet may be qualifying students and families that are unaware that this and other tax relief is available. The importance of investing in your future with a quality education is one that can never be emphasized enough. I hope all students have a productive and enjoyable school year.
Much as investments in education are important, so too are investments into infrastructure. As part of my summer listening tour I had the opportunity to participate in many ribbon cutting events celebrating the completion of various much needed infrastructure work. Road projects, sewer and water systems and increasingly, public walk-ways, are just some of the many improvements to many communities within Okanagan-Coquihalla.
Recently I was asked by a senior resident to put our Government's commitment to infrastructure funding into perspective. By the numbers since 2006, our Government has contributed towards the creation to over 43,000 projects Canada wide. The new building Canada plan also includes $70 Billion in federal infrastructure funding over the next 10 years. In the next two years alone over $10 Billion will be invested into infrastructure.To put this number into context from a historical perspective this $10 billion over the next two years is more than the previous Liberal Government invested into infrastructure during the entire 13 years they were in power. I mention this last point not to be partisan but to provide a context on the commitment of our Government to invest in community infrastructure compared to what was done previously. I know from my time as a city councillor, the ability to partner with senior levels of governments ensures that community infrastructure is built in a manner that residents can best afford.
By ensuring that our infrastructure commitment is guaranteed over a 10 year cycle local government can better plan priorities and also budget accordingly. However we should also recognize that that virtually every aspect of infrastructure planning, development, engineering, building and often maintenance is performed by individuals with some level of post-secondary training and/or education. As we enter September and our children return to the classrooms let us all recognize the importance of education in the future of our great country.
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.