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Inquiry on Budget 2009

 

Hon. Michael L. MacDonald: Honourable senators, I rise to speak to the inquiry on the budget. We are all aware of the economic problems that have emerged from the world of late, and although Canada has much inherent strength, it is not immune to the effects of global financial unrest. Canada's government is responding to these challenges with measures designed to stimulate consumption, create jobs, build infrastructure and provide support for sectors that require short- and medium-term assistance.

Parliament has passed the budget. Canadians are depending on parliamentarians to show leadership in these unsettled times. I commend this chamber for expeditiously passing the budget and for doing our part to ensure that the economy gets the infusion of capital it needs and Canadians get the help they require and deserve.

I want to thank the Prime Minister of my country, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, for giving me the opportunity to serve in the Parliament of Canada. This is one of the great honours that can be bestowed upon a Canadian, and I feel privileged to serve in this chamber. We have been given a rare opportunity to work toward building a better Canada, and I look forward in the months and years ahead to doing such work with you. I ask honourable senators now for your indulgence while I share with you the thoughts and observations of a new senator.

One thing I know we share in common is the experience of our first day in this chamber. Moreover, I am sure we dealt with a range of impressions and emotions as we took our seat in this place. I suppose a new senator could feel somewhat intimidated like a student in a new school, but as I looked around, I was struck by how much was familiar to me and by how many of the faces were familiar as well. I understood that most people in this chamber did not know me, but there were many here that I knew at some level.

I looked to the front and I saw the dean of Parliament, Senator Prud'homme of Quebec, who was serving his forty-fifth consecutive year in the Parliament of his country. I was eight years of age when he was elected in a 1964 by-election. Elected as a Liberal nine times, he was summoned to this place by a Conservative Prime Minister to sit as an independent. He is a unique individual with a remarkable career.

I looked across to my right and saw Senator Adams, the dean of the Senate. For 32 years, he has represented the Northwest Territories and, later, Nunavut in this place. He looks like he is able and ready to serve for 32 more. I am comforted by the presence of them both and feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work with them this year before they take their leave of this place.

I looked straight ahead and saw the one person on the other side who definitely knew me upon my arrival. My fellow Nova Scotian Senator Cordy and I have been neighbours for years; like me, she is a Cape Bretoner. A few years back, we had a great day golfing together at a fundraising event. Her Liberal colleagues can be assured that she remains a better Liberal than a golfer.

On this side of the chamber, I have joined old friends and am enjoying making new ones. The Nova Scotia senators are all friends of mine. I want to thank Senator Oliver for escorting me into the chamber and Senator Comeau for all his help as I settle into my new position.

I recall that when I first came to Ottawa looking for work in 1978, one of the first people to meet and advise me was Senator LeBreton.

I would be remiss if I did not single out my old friend and another Cape Bretoner, Senator Murray. I have known him for so long that I remember when he used to be a Tory. In the 1988 election, Senator Murray campaigned with me for a day in Cape Breton—East Richmond. We did not win, but we had a lot of fun.

However, I was meeting most of you in this chamber for the first time, so permit me to tell you a little bit about myself.

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I have owned my own business since 1988 and have met a payroll for the past 20 years in the hospitality industry. Although I did not come from a business background, I enjoy it very much and would recommend a life in business to anyone. I will be married for 25 years this summer. My wife, Marilyn, is a teacher and I have two teenaged sons.

Before starting my business and a family, and following graduation from university, I worked for a decade in politics, starting in the PC research office in the Wellington Building in 1978. I returned to Nova Scotia to work as an assistant to the minister of health and later as executive assistant to the premier. I came back to Ottawa in the mid-1980s and served as an executive assistant to two federal ministers before returning to Nova Scotia for good.

Since then, I have remained active in politics, including running in four elections — two federal and two provincial. I was 4 and 0 when it came to winning nominations, but unfortunately for me, 0 and 4 in elections. However, these disappointments did not diminish my enjoyment of politics. In particular, it was very satisfying working to create the new Conservative Party of Canada. I have been the Nova Scotia representative on the party's national executive since 2005 and, until summoned to this place, I was Vice-President of the Conservative Party of Canada. I believe that politics is a noble vocation and that political partisans of all stripes should be applauded, or at least encouraged, for volunteering their time and labour to a political party.

I come from a long line of Nova Scotians and Atlantic Canadians. My family was in Nova Scotia a century before Confederation, yet I am also a Canadian of many generations. Like most descendents of 18th and 19th century Canada, my family has been here so long it matters little where they started out. Nova Scotia is my home, but I am an unhyphenated Canadian. I do not say that to the exclusion of or in judgment of how anyone else sees themselves — it is just who I am.

I am also a Cape Bretoner. Sociologists and anthropologists will tell you that the first 15 years of one's life leaves an imprint on us all, one that greatly defines how we see ourselves and the world. It is when real memory of things are passed on from one generation to the next. The Cape Breton of my youth, as with the two generations before me, was undergoing great social transformation.

Honourable senators will recall that on the day I entered this place, after taking the oath in English and in French, I took it in Scottish Gaelic. This is the influence of my grandmother and her generation and my salute to them. As a young man, many of the older people in my extended family and community, in particular in the countryside, were Gaelic speakers. My grandmother was a product of a mostly Gaelic-speaking Cape Breton. In broader terms, she grew up in a Canada where Scottish Gaelic was the most commonly spoken minority language in what today would be considered English Canada. It was an era that spanned three centuries from the late 1700s to the post-World War I period. When Senator Meighen rightly bemoaned a short while ago in this chamber about the lack of knowledge Canadians have of their own history, I knew of what he spoke. I wonder how many students in Canada have ever been taught that small fact about Canada I have just described, or that Alexander MacKenzie, the first Liberal prime minister of Canada, was also Canada's first fluently bilingual prime minister; but I digress.

I was very close to my grandmother, who died when I was 16. Back then, she would say your prayers with you in English. Then she would go to her room and recite them again in Gaelic just to make sure that they counted. When asked why they prayed in Gaelic, these Cape Bretoners would reply:

S'e a Ghadhlig a chaient, a bh'aig adhad s'a gearadh.

It meant, and they were adamant about this, that Gaelic was the language spoken in the garden — in this context, the garden of Eden. Now you know why I added Gaelic to my oath. When taking an oath, you are speaking directly to God, and when speaking directly to the Almighty, it would seem advantageous to address him in his native tongue.

I am the youngest of 10 children. My father was a working man and president of three different unions in his prime, including the first fish plant workers union in the country in 1953. My mother worked on the packing line at that plant for many years. They are both gone now; in fact, they are gone 22 years ago this past weekend. They were loving parents who sacrificed everything for their children, and I want to acknowledge that and remember them today.

They also loved politics. My father's people were Highland Presbyterian from Cape Breton, with some Loyalist roots in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, and they were Liberals. My mother's people were Irish and Highland Catholic from Cape Breton, with some roots in P.E.I. and Newfoundland, and they were Conservatives. In the 1940s, my father sometimes supported Clary Gillis, the CCF MP for Cape Breton South, but he still voted Liberal provincially.

Of course, my mother would have nothing to do with this heresy. She was kind and good natured, but she had two strict rules for her children: You went to church on Sunday, and when you were old enough to vote, you voted Conservative. Dad complained that mom always cancelled his vote, but in the end she won. Dad relented and always voted Conservative after Diefenbaker and Stanfield came along.

I never knew my mother's father, who passed away in 1947 at the age of 74, but I know that for decades he held a very important job in every election for the Tories — he was always in charge of the election day liquor. He was the right man for the job because he never took a drink in his entire life.

Like most Canadians, I am a hockey fan. I grew up with the six-team league. My father, like half of the people I knew, was a big fan of the Montreal Canadiens. The other half, of course, were fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I have always been a die-hard fan of the Chicago Blackhawks. I know what you are thinking: a Blackhawks fan and a Tory from Cape Breton — this guy is a glutton for punishment. I suppose I am — sort of like someone who chooses to be a Liberal leader from Alberta.

Last but certainly not least, I am a native of Louisbourg, called the Dunkirk of America in its heyday. For centuries known as English Harbour, it is a place with a unique history, its lovely harbour identified on the earliest of North American maps. In 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht, France acquired legal title to Cape Breton and renamed it Île Royale. English Harbour was renamed Port St. Louis in 1719 and Louisbourg in 1720.

For the next 40 years, it had a remarkable existence. In a sign of things to come, it represented Canada's first great bureaucratic cost overrun. Louis XV said that the cost of Louisbourg was so astronomical, he expected to see it looming over the Atlantic horizon, its streets paved with gold. It was besieged and taken twice. In 1745 there was a campaign by 4,000 New England troops under the Governor of Massachusetts, Sir William Pepperell, supported by the British Navy. However, three years after its capture, it was returned to France by treaty, enraging New Englanders in the process and planting what is considered by informed opinion to be the first seed of the American Revolution.

Over the next decade, France reinforced the community militarily and Louisbourg blossomed economically. During this time, it became the third busiest trading port in North America, trailing Boston and Philadelphia but ahead of New York, which was fourth. In summer, its working population increased from 3,500 to 10,000 people — a meting pot that included Breton and Basque fishermen, Irish domestics and New Englanders with merchant interests from around the globe.

In 1758, during the Seven Years War, Louisbourg was taken again, this time by the largest colonial siege force in Canadian history, almost 25,000 men, including over 14,000 soldiers, under the command of Major-General Jeffrey Amherst and his three brigadiers, one of whom was James Wolfe. Wolfe fought and won at Louisbourg and apparently lived to fight another day.

My mother's people go back to the soldiers who fought with Wolfe and settled around the harbour following the second siege. Indeed, a fifth great grandfather of mine married a daughter of one of the few French families that remained in the area, giving his descendents an unbroken link to the earliest days of settlement under the French Crown.

When I was a boy, all that remained of the fortress site were grass-covered ruins and a museum. Where the fortress stands today, my family has had 500 acres since 1792. For years it was hay-making land. No modern town was ever built over it and these lands, over time, were acquired by the federal government.

Suddenly in 1961, Prime Minister Diefenbaker announced that the fortress would be rebuilt. As kids, we played inside the bomb shelters that remained and stumbled over and stubbed our toes on buried shot from musket and cannon as we ran across the fields. Then, we saw the great fortress literally rise from the dead. It was a fantasy come true for a young boy who was always saddened that it no longer stood.

Although I believe that pride can be a dangerous thing, I take a certain satisfaction in the history of my hometown and my family's long connection to it. It is a place that played a major role in determining the existence of Canada.

Honourable senators, lately we have witnessed a debate over how we should acknowledge our Canadian history. Sadly, there is nothing new about this sort of foolishness. In 1895, the U.S.-based Society of Colonial Wars announced plans to erect a monument on the fortress site to commemorate the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the first siege and the 1,200-plus American war dead at Louisbourg; yes, there is an American war grave in Canada. They lie buried at Rochefort Point at the western entrance of the harbour, with the dead of both sieges from both sides, interred together forever.

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A Quebec senator at the time, who happened to be a member of the St-Jean-Baptiste Society, protested the celebration of a French defeat as unacceptable. In his opposition, he was joined by the Loyalist Society of Canada whose president was furious that an American victory in Canada would be honoured. As some in this chamber have suggested, politics does indeed make strange bed fellows.

Eventually, common sense prevailed and a gathering of 3,000 people stood at the site of the old fortress where everyone's history has always been recognized and respected. After all, it was the people of 19th century and 20th century Louisbourg — all British stock — who acquired the land and fought to protect and preserve the area and have it designated a National Historic Site. All of Canada's colonial history is worthy of our respect. It should not matter which side our ancestors were on at the time.

Do not take my word for it. Instead, hear one of our greatest Prime Ministers. Five years after the 1895 celebration, there was another event held in Louisbourg. In 1900, Sir Wilfrid Laurier — at the height of his powers — stood at the fortress site and addressed a tremendous gathering in the thousands. In an article from the local newspaper entitled "Historic Town Captured by Sir Wilfred's Eloquence," Prime Minister Laurier said, "I thank my stars that my visit to this section of Canada has been made at so opportune a time, and that I am able to see historic Louisbourg on such a day of enjoyment. Upon this spot consecrated by the blood of your forefathers, the British, and my forefathers, the French, if the memories of those conflicts be remembered, let the lesson be that they struggled to do their duty by their country. As they did their duty; let us do ours. . . .

It is and shall be my effort and ambition to make out of this country a nation in which all of the elements shall be united and which shall be heard of in future ages."

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: The time allocated for your speech has expired. Five minutes.

Senator MacDonald: Sir Wilfred also made reference on that day to the sacrifice Canadians were prepared to make for their country and its values. He continued, "Neither the spirit nor the blood of those whose bones are resting peacefully beneath our feet have passed away. Our descendants have shown themselves to be as valiant as their forefathers. Some of them are now fighting the cause of their beloved country far away beneath the sun of South Africa, and have helped to establish and are now perpetuating the honour of the Canadian name."

How prescient were his words! Today, over a century later, Canadians find themselves again in a far off land working to bring peace, order and good government to a troubled part of the world.

I have relatives and friends who have served or are presently serving in Afghanistan. I have always been acutely aware that unlike the two generations that preceded me, my generation never had to go to war. I have always been grateful to those who came before me for their sacrifice. I salute the present generations of Canadians who bravely risk their lives so that others might have a better future.

My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan. However, I have noticed the soldiers and their families ask not for pity, but for our support. I support them unreservedly. I look forward to a time soon when they can all return home to live in peace and security in Canada with the knowledge of a job well done.

Our soldiers are meeting great challenges, but Canadians have always risen to the challenge. We met the challenge of building a country from the northern half of this continent. When the American Revolution occurred, the two remaining British colonies — Nova Scotia and Quebec — refused to join, marking the first step towards what was to become the Dominion of Canada. Unlike the United States, Canada is a product of evolution, not revolution. We are reminded that the American Revolution resulted in not one but two new countries.

Canada is a federation — the modern form of a nation state. We are often thought of as a young nation, but we are one of the globe's oldest federations and an example for the world. Sir John A. Macdonald drove a ribbon of steel across this country to tie it together and Laurier populated the West. We came of age as a nation during World War I, survived the Great Depression and did our duty in World War II and the Korean War while continuing to build a good, decent country in the subsequent years.

We have also had to deal with internal matters that challenge us. In my lifetime, the biggest threat to Canada is offered by that small minority in Quebec who insist that Quebecers should abandon the country they helped to establish. It is a concern that it is very much a modern day phenomenon and a conceit that did not burden our forbearers, at least to the extent that it does today.

Now that I am middle-aged, having worked with many Quebecers on three different occasions in Ottawa, having made many trips to Quebec over the years and made many friends with Quebecers who work and live in Nova Scotia, I have reached some conclusions. Whenever a discussion ensues about Quebec's future in Canada, I always say that I have great faith in the common sense of the people of Quebec. When asked an honest question, I strongly believe that Quebecers will always choose to remain in Canada.

Canada is a beacon of hope for many around the world who want a better life. Demographically, we are changing and Canada welcomes with open arms anyone willing to come here with good intentions and in the spirit of nation building. However, a changing Canada also presents its own challenges. We must be vigilant to ensure that we look after Canada's best interests while always remaining true to our better nature.

At this time of global economic distress, Canada is well placed to deal with the problems we face. We have the strongest financial system in the world. In the past three years, we have retired almost $40 billion of long-term debt. Despite admitted troubles in certain sectors, we still have relatively low unemployment, inflation is under control with mortgages stable and supported by real equity. We will weather the storm and come back stronger than ever.

We share this continent with the United States. The line about sharing the longest undefended in the world may seem trite at times, but it is something many other countries have never accomplished. Americans are our neighbours, our friends and our allies. We must never lose sight of this because it is critical in protecting our best interests as Canadians.

Canadians have listened to American politicians at election time. Regardless of their political stripe, they will often refer to America being the greatest country in the world. I admire the patriotism of the Americans and give them full credit for it, but when examining the criteria one would assess to make such a statement, I truly believe that we Canadians have ample reason to make that claim.

I submit that we are the finest nation in the world and the best example of what nationhood should offer its citizens. As senators, we have been given a great opportunity to help look out for our country, to ensure that the Canadian legacy of a good and benevolent way of life is bequeathed to those who follow us.

Canada has been true to us. I pledge that I will make it my business, as I trust all of you will, to be true to Canada and to pass on an even better country to the next generation of Canadians. Thank you, honourable senators.