In Debate: Government Supply, Liberal Opposition Motion

Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe, NDP)

Madam Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to participate in the debate regarding the Liberal opposition motion. I will be sharing my time with the member for Ottawa Centre.

I believe it is essential to clarify what has happened both outside and inside the House over the past few weeks. A good starting point would be the declaration by the Prime Minister in regard to the agenda of the upcoming G8 and G20 meetings that will be hosted by Canada.

On or about January 26, the Prime Minister told the world that the lack of the most basic services could lead to dire consequences, especially for the world's most vulnerable populations. Each year it is estimated that 500,000 women lose their lives during pregnancy or child birth. Further, an astonishing nine million children die before their fifth birthdays.

The United Nations had hoped to reduce the number of deaths related to pregnancy by 75% by 2015 as part of its millennium development goals. It now appears this target will go unfulfilled.

What makes it worse is the bulk of the deaths during pregnancy are easily preventable. There is a pressing need for global action on maternal and child health. The Prime Minister went on to say that the solutions were not intrinsically expensive. It is a laudable statement and, as the Prime Minister said, the solutions are not intrinsically expensive.

The problem is the Prime Minister left out one of the key actions if we are to make a difference in the lives of women and their children. He omitted any reference to contraception. We might have been willing to believe that this was a mere oversight, except there is much evidence to the contrary. Government ministers made it abundantly clear that the omission of contraception was a deliberate policy decision based on an ideological agenda.

Hansard and a variety of media reports provide some assistance in this regard. On March 18, the leader of the NDP, the member for Toronto—Danforth, asked the Prime Minister if the Conservatives were indeed excluding contraception from their plan to improve maternal health throughout the world. The Minister of International Cooperation responded, but did not answer his question. She evaded him by talking about plans to provide clean water, vaccinations, better nutrition and training for health care professionals.

The minister was much more direct the month before when she told the media that Canada's focus on maternal and child health would not address unsafe abortions in developing countries or support access to family planning and contraception. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was equally blunt in his statement that family planning would not be included in the G8 maternal child health initiative.

Since that time, the Prime Minister and his ministers have fallen over each other like Keystone cops in their efforts to backtrack or save face. Why on earth would the Prime Minister and members of his government make such shamefully ill-informed statements in the first place, unless, of course, they were playing to their socially conservative base?

What is more troubling is that they are supposed to lead. They are supposed to use the best evidence they can find to make intelligence, reliable decisions for Canada. They are not entitled to make ideological, irrational decisions that can only be categorized as completely devoid of any real concern for women and their children.

They played the game of seeming to care about these people. The reality is, as was stated by Dana Hovig of Marie Stopes International, an internationally-recognized reproductive health care organization, they were only able to demonstrate “a new low for political pandering to social conservatism”.

Ms. Hovig went on to say:

There's no question that family planning saves lives by preventing unwanted pregnancies, including those that would otherwise lead to complications and hence the death or injury of the mother or child.

The World Health Organization has been equally clear about the need for contraception if maternal and child health is to be addressed seriously and effectively. Every day 1,500 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications. In 2005 there were an estimated 536,000 maternal deaths worldwide. Most of these deaths occurred in developing countries and most were avoidable.

Improving maternal health is one of the eight millennium development goals adopted by the international community at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000. Goal 5 commits countries to reducing maternal mortality. We have a long way to go to achieve the objective of reduced mortality and the conduct of the Prime Minister and his ministers undermines the role Canada has to play to achieve this reduction.

The WHO is very clear about what is needed. The first step for avoiding maternal deaths is to ensure that women have access to family planning. This will reduce unwanted pregnancies because women in developing countries have many pregnancies on average in their lifetime and they are very often at risk.

The Planned Parenthood Federation is equally clear on the subject. Planned Parenthood, another international organization that provides education and services, in particular, to the poor, the underserved and marginalized in parts of the world where public and private health care facilities do not exist, has a mandate to work at the community level, with local leaders, to overcome barriers based on misinformation, prejudice and gender discrimination.

The research and expertise of Planned Parenthood and the United Nations tell us, and I am sure would have told the Prime Minister had he done his homework, that despite significant progress over the last three decades, access to sexual and reproductive health services and information remains beyond the reach of much of the world's population.

Some 120 million to 150 million women worldwide want to limit or space their pregnancies but are still without the means to do so. Allowing a reasonable space between pregnancies allows women the chance to regain their health, look after their children, and decreases the chance of maternal mortality and child death. Most children who perish before age five die because they have lost their mothers.

Tragic numbers of women continue to die or suffer lifelong injuries because they lack access to sexual and reproductive health information, education and services. Young people face the barriers of cost, stigma and fear of going to a clinic. The lack of information limits young people's awareness of the issues of sex and sexuality. High rates of unwanted pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections are powerful evidence that more programs are required to meet their needs.

The goal of Canada's G8-G20 agenda should be to ensure that all people, particularly those who are young, poor, marginalized, underserved or victims of gender discrimination, have the opportunity to exercise their rights and to make free and informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health.

This concern for sexual and reproductive health brings me to the issue of HIV-AIDS.

As we know, the scourge of AIDS is destroying the very fabric of many African communities. The best defence against the transmission of HIV is the condom. Yet, when the member for Toronto—Danforth questioned the Minister of International Cooperation about providing condoms to African men and women, she was utterly silent. The government should know the importance of condom use to the effective prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS.

This House has, many times, paid tribute to the grandmothers who are raising orphans of their own dead children. They are the multitude of African grandmothers looking after their orphaned grandchildren, with little money, little food and little help.

Some 14 million children have been orphaned by AIDS in Africa, and the number continues to rise. To put that into perspective, that is more than all the children in Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark combined.

It is estimated that in the next few years, there could be as many as 40 million orphans from 19 African countries. These children suffer the privation of trying to manage in poverty and their grandmothers are the overlooked members of society and the unrecognized heroes. Canadian Stephen Lewis, the United Nations' special envoy for HIV-AIDS in Africa, describes these grandmothers as the silent victims of the disease. Stephen begins his book, Race Against Time, with the words:

I have spent the last four years watching people die. Nothing in my adult life prepared me for the carnage of HIV/AIDs.

He goes on to say:

Every time I go back to Africa I see the carnage. I visit the huts where women are dying in the presence of their children. What the Western world has so failed to do is to respond on an emergency basis to a huge human apocalypse. There’s no other way of describing it.

The grandmothers, describes Lewis, are “so impoverished and so frantic for support that they are emotionally decimated,” and often bury their sons and daughters, and become mothers again to the children left behind, many of whom also suffer from AIDS.

As I said, I am indeed glad to participate in this debate. It puts into clear and jarring focus the need for veracity and humanity from the current government.

In the wake of all this suffering, we, as a nation of compassionate people, must show leadership and humanity. I just wish I could trust the current government to provide the direction that such humanity demands and needs to take.

Don Davies (Vancouver Kingsway, BC)

Madam Speaker, I would like to congratulate my hon. colleague from London—Fanshawe and thank her on behalf of all Canadians, particularly women, for the wonderful work that she does on behalf of the women of this country and, in fact, around the world...

...We would also like to bring the focus back to the situation of women and children in this country.

Being one of the wealthiest nations of the world, it is shocking that 70% of Inuit children, pre-school age, live in homes where there is not always enough food. There are many mothers and children who live in this country who live in unsafe places, who go without food, who do not have electricity or heat because of persistent deep poverty.

Now that the government has committed to catching up with other wealthy nations on maternal health aid in foreign countries, I wonder whether my hon. colleague would comment on what she feels is needed in this country to help put women and children first in Canada, as well.

Irene Mathyssen (London—Fanshawe)

Madam Speaker, there is absolutely no doubt that while the government talks a game about maternal and child health in the third world, in developing nations, it is quite prepared to undermine anything in terms of the aspirations of the women of this country to live in a healthy manner and provide for their children.

We have seen it over the last four years. In fact, we have seen it over the last 15 years from this government and the previous government. There have been cuts to the services for women, cuts to Status of Women Canada, cuts to the organizations that advocate and do the research that tells us that women in this country have not achieved equality.

I am thinking about the fact that there is no affordable housing in this country for the women who are desperately trying to leave abusive situations. There is no regulated child care for all of the women who would desperately like to get back into the workforce so that they can look after their families, so that they can provide for their children.

The government has turned its back on the women of Canada, has tried to pretend that it is interested in the women of the world, but we know better. We know differently. I say it is time for women and children first in every country, in every nation, and that includes Canada.