MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The Committee of the Whole House on Supply will now be called to order. I understand the member for Kings West was the last one. The honourable member used 36 minutes on Friday.
The honourable member for Kings West.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'm pleased to continue with some questions today to the minister and her staff. One of the areas that I want to take a look at today is public housing, affordable housing. This certainly is a very, very significant area of need through my riding and through the Annapolis Valley, generally. The last estimate that I had in regard to the western area, which is the Annapolis Valley/South Shore Housing Authority, there was a requirement of 689 families, 521seniors, 227 non-elderly, for a total of 1,437. That was roughly about a year ago, but I'm told that these statistics have not varied very much during that time.
So I guess the time has come to take a hard look at what is a plan here for one year, or three years or five years out, to try to meet some of those needs. I know that we have certainly had a number of announcements, federally, with dollars. The Department of Community Services 2006-07 Business Plan indicates Phase II as starting this year with an additional $18.9 million, bringing total financing to $56 million by the year 2010. I'm just wondering, where does the Annapolis Valley, the western part of the province, fit in terms of some of that plan?
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Community Services.
HON. JUDY STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, it's a pleasure to resume discussion, debate with my honourable colleague who brings a very important issue to the floor here this afternoon. The Housing portfolio is one that is extremely challenging, as my good colleague knows and understands. He referenced the wait lists, and those wait lists, of course, are something that we attempt to work with and to get rid of, would be a perfect-world scenario. In doing so, we have various programs available to us. We have approximately 13 housing programs under the housing menu. Those housing programs exist all across the province, of course, and we endeavour to meet the needs of each of the regions the best we can.
Now, of course, we have some statistics in the province that are indisputable. Of course, we have a very aged housing stock. We also have a lot of private ownership of homes, Mr. Chairman, and certainly that proves to be a challenge, no question.
Now, when it comes to dollars and commitment and a plan, we know that the federal government, through their housing, through Phase I, committed approximately $39 million. We were able to access those funds. Phase I, 928 units across the province have all been committed. Those projects exist in the form of home preservation, rent supplements, the student housing program that we offer through the universities, as well as the repair and renovation programs that we were able to roll out as well.
Now the individual programs and the individual projects in each of the ridings, I would be happy to share that list with my honourable colleague after debate, if he would like to get the specific locations, as well, as the specific locations of the projects, the projected completion date. Some of our projects haven't been completed yet, Mr. Chairman. Of course, we have discussed here in the House some of the challenges that we have encountered because of that. We, of course, have the pressures that exist within the construction industry, labour shortage issues that, although we can provide the funding and have the projects approved, if indeed the workers aren't available and the developers aren't able to get the project off the ground, then it's something that's out of our control at that point. So some of those projects that my honourable colleague is looking for would fall into that category.
We have completed projects for a couple. For example, Mr. Chairman, 15 units would have been completed in Middleton; Westville, four units - I'm trying to look for the western region - New Minas, 24 units, these have already been completed. Again, in an attempt to come to some type of complete number, 273 of those units have been completed to date. We have 270 that are currently under construction and, of course, we have 114, though none of those 114 are in my honourable colleague's constituency riding, but we are holding out for land issues and development complications. So, again, as we roll out those projects, they have all been completed.
Now my honourable colleague asked about Phase II. Of course, we have put out the tender for Phase II. We received 33 proposals. Those proposals are currently at the department, Mr. Chairman. They are ensuring that all of the necessary documents are
provided. The Phase II, we will attempt to get out the door as soon as we possibly can. The dollars have been secured for that and as soon as we ensure that all of the documentation has been provided, we'll roll out the approval of that Phase II as well.
As well, my honourable colleague knows that we used a certain portion of the trust money for elevators, and those types of upgrades to some of our housing facilities as well, to ensure that we were drawing down the best possible case scenario for our clientele, Mr. Chairman.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you very much, Madam Minister, for the overview of where affordable housing is, where it's going, and of course the challenges that are presented. In terms of Phase II, have tenders been called there? What are some of the timelines when we could say that families will in fact see that those homes are in a move-in condition? I just wondered if there's anything there that can bring some hope to a very, very challenging situation. I know that the Cobequid Housing Authority is still trying to provide some additional stock in our area, because it is an area with very, very high demand. We are now seeing more of a migrant farm worker that moves into the area and decides they're going to stay, and finding housing or apartments that are affordable for rent. I'm just wondering if any of those are possibly of Phase II, what kind of a rollout plan is there?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, my honourable colleague brings to the floor a couple of issues that are extremely important and one that I find particularly intriguing. Phase II, the RFP went out to the public, the tenders closed February 15th, so as of February 15, 2007, tenders had closed. Upon that date we had received 33 applications. Those 33 applications are in the process of being reviewed by the department to ensure that all supporting documentation that is required is indeed there, to ensure the projects that truly do need to be made available are, in the most timely fashion.
I have instructed staff that I would like that turnaround to be as fast as we possibly can, of course doing due diligence. We don't want to have any knee-jerk reactions, but with that February 15th close date of the tenders, I would anticipate that in early Spring, mid-Spring, we would be able to turn around to the developers and make them aware of the successful proposals that are found within that portfolio of Phase II dollars.
My honourable colleague brings forward a very interesting challenge though. It's one I would appreciate discussing with him either in further discussion here today, or outside the Chamber, and that's on the migrant workers and the housing stresses that causes. I know my honourable colleague comes from an agricultural sector of the province, he would know all too well, with the seasonal labour shortage, the challenges that presents, and as those migrant workers come into an area. I would be quite interested to find out what types of discussions have gone on with some of the other departments, whether it be agriculture, and through the Federation of Agriculture perhaps they have some suggestions.
I know in the past, we've worked with the Christmas Tree Producers' Association when it came to the Harvest Connection Program that we rolled out. I'm wondering what kind of advice some of those stakeholders may have and what kind of input they may have. I would look forward to receiving that and finding out what the scenario is in some of our agricultural sectors, some of our agricultural communities.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, before the group moves out and back to the Valley, I guess they would like for me to go outside, so I'm going to ask one more question and then turn the floor over to the member opposite.
My question is, one of the groups, as well, that are finding it very difficult and challenging around housing needs are the 55- to 65-year-old group, where there is chronic disease, there is limited income, CPP disability, these types of income are the ones that are there. Recently, I had a letter from a group in Wolfville, I believe it's called the Wickwire Co-operative group, who want to get into a partnership with the Department of Community Services, with government, to build units and then have them move forward with the operation. I'm just wondering, is there some kind of model like that that you currently have?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I would very much look forward to receiving a copy of that correspondence and/or having my housing folks meet with that particular group - it sounds like a very worthwhile partnership.
Indeed, that's very important, that we work in partnership with our community organizations, with the stakeholders, who have vested interests in what goes on in our communities. Currently, under Phase I, there are certain criteria involved for funding. The same holds true for Phase II; I'm not sure if this group put a proposal in under Phase II. If they did, hopefully they'll be successful with their tender call. If they didn't, then it would be something that I would look forward to discussing with them in-depth, with my housing folks, because as we well know, the whole issue around - and we've discussed it before - aging in place - and even I like to add aging in place with grace - certainly is extremely important to all of our communities, Mr. Chairman. So that certainly is a project that I would be interested in hearing more about from my honourable colleague.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley.
MS. MARILYN MORE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I brought along my own backup musicians and cheerleaders this afternoon.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I noticed. (Laughter)
MS. MORE: Madam Minister, I'm going to focus my questions around my critic area for the people with disabilities in the province, just to give you a heads-up on my main theme. I would be curious to know, it was interesting in looking several times over the past nine or 10 months that I've had that critic area, at the Web site for persons with disabilities, and I'm always struck by the inclusion of the word "voluntary" in there. I will, perhaps a little later, get into that, because I'm just curious to know the department's reason for using that term. Does the department feel that there are any mandated programs and services for persons with disabilities, or are they all voluntary, just at the will of the government?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. As much as we're perhaps all enjoying the cheerleaders, I was trying to get clarification for the question being asked and what my honourable colleague was looking for.
I believe, if I understand correctly, it is the issue of voluntary versus obligation, and obligation on the government's part versus voluntary for services for persons who find themselves with disabilities. Certainly the onus, or I should say the responsibility, I believe, is a communal responsibility, is a societal responsibility. As we look at the services for persons with disabilities that we provide across the province, there are increasingly more challenging issues that our clientele with disabilities find themselves facing.
Mr. Chairman, if I can, I will use a small example. Just two weekends ago we attended the opening of a new residential apartment complex in Fairview. I had the pleasure of having Ralph Ferguson and Anne MacRae, the president and chairman of the Board of the Disabled Persons Commission, with us at that announcement. We were talking about the importance of accessability, because this apartment building was celebrating the fact that it had accessible units to live in and all of their units were accessible for visitation. The delight on the faces of the individuals who were there representing the commission, you could see the delight. I leaned in and said to Mr. Ferguson, is this a choice? At what point do we encourage? So it was a bit of a learning opportunity for me, in consultation and discussion with Mr. Ferguson, about what building codes require versus what is voluntary on the part of developers.
Mr. Chairman, I believe that it truly is a societal, a communal responsibility to ensure that persons with disabilities find themselves able to access programs and services, as well as a recognition and, along with that recognition, of course, always goes the education component, which is extremely important. The education component, of course, we have a shared responsibility there, and government can lead by example, and we can do so with all of our stakeholders, all levels of government, and indeed the groups we work with within the communities, to ensure that responsibility is shared amongst all of us.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, well, it's interesting, I went to a consultation that the Disabled Persons Commission held in Truro probably three weeks ago now, and the mother of a young adult man with severe disabilities got up and told the story of her son, and she
finished with a rhetorical question that has kept me thinking about it ever since, she said why are people with disabilities treated worse than prisoners in prisons in Nova Scotia? It startled me. So I started to do a little bit of research about what human rights apply in Nova Scotia to persons with disabilities. It's interesting, because certainly one of the main purposes of the Human Rights Act is to affirm that every individual living in Nova Scotia is equal in dignity and rights, and it says without regard to physical and mental disability.
The purpose of the Act is to ensure that persons with disabilities, as well as other marginalized groups, can enjoy a full and productive life, and that failure to provide equality of opportunity that threatens the status of people can be considered discrimination. Because I'm trying to reconcile my very superficial understanding of what persons with disabilities deserve to have under our Human Rights Act with the current situation that I think a lot of persons with disabilities, especially those living in poverty, the kinds of services and programs they're offered in Nova Scotia, I'd like to ask the minister, through you, Mr. Chairman, what is the wait list for persons with disabilities in Nova Scotia, for people who have met the criteria for residential support and vocational day supports but are not entitled to those programs?
It's only, as I understand, as resources allow, that is how much money is in the budget for those programs. They're not entitled to that service, although they're eligible for it because they meet the criteria. So just taking perhaps two of the major programs that government provides, residential placement, and vocational and day supports, how many people are waiting to get service there?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, I just want to go back to the statement that she referenced at the beginning. What a very emotional, powerful statement. As elected officials, we all find ourselves, at various times, reflecting on the human side of exactly what it is that we're doing, and sometimes it's much more poignant and much more emotional than others. I can't imagine that it was an easy statement for that mother to make, and I can't imagine it was an easy statement to hear. I could tell that my colleague has been wrestling with it. I thank her for bringing it, because I'm sure I will wrestle with it myself. It's not one that we can dismiss. I'm sure that the challenges that mother and that family have faced have been very real, and I would not dismiss those with any type of fact or figure that I may give here today. So I want to acknowledge that's a very realistic statement, and I'm sure very realistic for that family.
Now, Mr. Chairman, when it comes to services for persons with disabilities and our whole issue of programs, program delivery and wait lists, it's a challenge - it's a challenge that we deal with. I will reference a few examples for my honourable colleague that go to the point of why it becomes so challenging. There is no magical number that I can quote right here, today. I can get, for my honourable colleague, different numbers, as they exist around the regions, because each region would have various wait lists of various length for different reasons. A very simple example to prove that's the very successful program that we launched
last year in Cape Breton - the Independent Living Support. In introducing that to the Cape Breton region - of course, we had the three new programs, but I'm specifically talking about the independent living one now, very successful in that the community received it and the community embraced it.
We've had a phenomenal response to that program. As a result we've increased the budget allotment for that specific component of the program. We've rolled it out in the northern region in this fiscal, and we will also roll it out to the two other regions by the end of this year. So when we talk about the success of that program, we have alleviated some of the wait lists that would have existed, because they've opted for a different program. But now we find ourselves with a wait list for that program. So the wait list will vary and I think my honourable colleague can understand where I'm going with this - that it's not an easy number answer to give.
The other component that I'll bring to the floor today, of course, involves small options homes, group homes, residential facilities. We know that we have challenges with beds and with spaces being available in that variety of options - we don't always have the option available, Mr. Chairman, that the individual or the individual family is looking for. We have endeavoured through consultation with our stakeholders to put on the ground level those three very successful programs - the family support, the alternate family support and the independent living. Recognizing again that they've been so successful, we have increased the funding for those. So, again, the wait lists will vary region to region depending on what programs are available in those regions, and they will also vary depending on what level of service we have in each of the regions.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I commend the department for putting various options in for families and persons with disabilities, but I think the numbers that the minister might be talking about are so minuscule compared to the need for those programs. So, for example, it appears that the Independent Living Support Program last year only had 10 people in it, and I understand that you would like to increase that to 90 over the coming year, but that suggests to me that there could be another 80 people possibly on that wait list.
The same with the Alternative Family Support Program, last year eight clients were placed and your target for this year is 38 clients. So I'm suggesting there are probably 30 people waiting on that list and on and on. Some of the others, I suspect the wait lists are in the hundreds, which brings me back to another point, has the department released its accountability report for 2006-07?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I'm going to ask for elaboration on the accountability report, I'm uncertain of what my colleague is looking for.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, I looked on the Web site and I saw the business plan for the upcoming year, but for the last three or four years there has been what has been called an accountability report. It actually listed the goals and the measures, and it gave baseline data for different things so you could actually compare between budget years. I couldn't find it this year and I'm just wondering if that information, that baseline and comparison information, which allows me to look at the accountability of the department, I'm wondering, is that available and when will it be going on the Web site, or perhaps it's not listed in that area?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as always, it's extremely helpful to have knowledgeable staff with you at times like this. It's my understanding that the report that my honourable colleague is looking for traditionally follows the business plan and the estimates, so it's not available at this time. Certainly it has not been released yet, and when it is released I would be more than pleased to provide a copy for my honourable colleague.
MS. MORE: Thank you for that and I will look forward to that. You mentioned yourself the small options as perhaps being one of the most used and most popular of your residential supports available. There has been a freeze on small options for a number of years - some people suggest as high as 14, but I don't know if that's accurate - how long would you, as minister, say that freeze has been on the small options availability?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, my honourable colleague brings an issue to the floor that I find becomes quite challenging to respond to. As individuals say to me about a moratorium, or a freeze, I freeze myself because I don't like to think of a freeze or a moratorium being in place. I have stated numerous times that while the department has been undergoing a residential review, we have been looking at the different options that are available out there. We have been looking at funding formulas, a consistent funding formula for our service providers, we did stakeholder consultation, et cetera, and I know it has been ongoing for a long period of time. An exact figure - it was before my time, so I couldn't give an exact date.
I have asked for all of that to be expedited so that we can get to the job of putting programs and services in place. I don't stand and wait for the report to come - we've moved forward as we've been awaiting the result of some of those documents coming to the department. My honourable colleague would be well aware of the options I'm referring to, that I've made reference to in this House before, and so I won't take her time and repeat them here this afternoon. But I do know that it's a concern. I get the feedback from clients and clients' families that it is indeed time to move along. I've attempted to do that and commit to doing it in the days to come to the best of our ability without holding onto the reports any longer than is necessary.
MS. MORE: I think all of us on this side of the House recognize that small options homes are expensive. Part of the reason is because they're probably the most effective way
of providing supportive accommodations for people with severe disabilities. Often the most challenging clients are placed in those small options homes, but they are a huge and very necessary piece of the continuum of supports that must be in place in this province.
I know, for example - because I've spoken to him a number of times - I have a couple in my constituency who have provided emergency and long-term placements for the most severe disabled persons in Nova Scotia, who are actually trying to turn their operation into a small options home. I have actually read their business plan and it's extremely impressive. This couple - one's a counsellor and the other has her master's degree in counselling - and it really amazes me that they cannot get permission to open up as a small options home and become licensed when they are the preferred placement by the department for some of the most challenging clients in your care.
I'm just wondering, what hope can you give to entrepreneurs across Nova Scotia who have invested lots of time, money and energy into training, into modifying their residences and facilities to meet the criteria - in fact, exceed the criteria - for small options homes and can't get licensed to open?
MS. STREATCH: Again, the entire concept of the continuum of options, the continuum of placements, the continuum of services we provide is one that is extremely important, because not every case can have a label attached to it. They are so diverse and complex in their individual needs, the cases and the specific instances, that it's incumbent upon us - and I know that each and every day in the department, staff work to be extremely creative, in some instances, in finding the right fit.
We recognize and we value what all of our service providers do for Nova Scotians. I can't even begin to tell you some of the amazing individuals I've met and I know my honourable colleague speaks of a particular couple - I don't believe I've met them personally, but I have met with other such individuals and service providers who do work with those who need us the most.
We value what each of these service providers is able to provide to the community. I would look forward to hearing more about this particular couple specifically, because we've been able and we will be even more able to do so once we get the review - the review will guide us through how we best fit the small options home, the group home, the more complex cases, it will help us figure out how to best fit in our communities, and it may be that this very case becomes one of those best fits for us.
We have, in the past, been able to work with what best fits. So I'd be pleased to discuss the particulars of this with my colleague outside the Chamber, to get the details and encourage the couple my colleague references to continue to work with us, to find a balance that works for all of us, so they can continue to provide that great care that they do to the community.
MS. MORE: Well, I certainly look forward to having that discussion, because I think the freeze on small options homes has provided more pain and suffering to Nova Scotia families than almost any other decision, or lack of decision, made within the department.
I hate to feel cynical after only four years in this Chamber, but I'm told that there has been a series of reviews on residential placements within the department going back 10 and 15 years. Some people would suggest, I'm sure, that review and study has become a synonym for delay and lack of decision making. All of the reviews that have been done on supports necessary for persons with disabilities in this province suggest that there has to be an investment of public dollars to bring them up to standard.
I'm really, really worried that continuing to review when we know what the answer is going to be is just delaying a much-needed decision making and it's downloading the burden of looking after, especially persons with severe disabilities, it's downloading that burden to the families and to the communities and to the charities and service organizations in those communities.
Take, for example, technical aids. I can't tell you the number of people who have phoned MLA offices - I'm sure everyone in this Chamber has had the same experience - looking for financial assistance for motorized scooters, for hearing aids, for power wheelchairs - apparently the Department of Community Services suggests to people that they need to go to the charities to get these.
I know we have a demonstration project, the adult wheelchair recycling demonstration project, and I think it has proven its worth but it needs to be expanded very, very quickly, plus the criteria to be eligible for it are too restrictive. Because the majority of the money is going to persons on the Employment Support and Income Assistance program, only 20 power chairs, for example, are available for the rest of the population through this program.
I've had a woman who is living on $12,000 a year contact my office. She has to replace her power wheelchair and she is not eligible for this program because she has a very small, private medical plan that will contribute possibly $1,200 or $1,500 toward an $8,000 wheelchair and that disqualifies her; whereas someone else who perhaps is making $20,000 but doesn't have any private insurance plan is eligible to get a wheelchair through the program. So through you, Mr. Chairman, to the minister, is there any intent in this current budget to both expand the recycling demonstration program for adult wheelchairs and will the criteria be loosened to allow those in true need to be able to benefit from it?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, my honourable colleague began this last round of questioning with the concern, and I share her concern. We cannot as government, we cannot as elective representatives, study to death issues without putting a plan in place. I certainly want to assure my colleague and all members of this House that we have been moving
forward and I will continue to move forward. April 2000 has the been the time frame for the receipt of that review and it is no longer, as my colleague pointed out, necessary to study this issue to death. We absolutely will continue to move forward, and I make that commitment.
The evidence of this government's commitment to the programming, Mr. Chairman, I think is reflected in the three dollar figures that my honourable colleague will see, $89 million up to $90 million and estimated for the next fiscal, $105 million for community-based programs. I think that's extremely important to note, that it's not a downscaling, it's not a cutting, it is indeed an addition and an adding to the programs because we recognize the value of those community-based programs. Again, we will do due diligence to ensure that we get the continuum right, and work with our stakeholders to ensure that their input is absolutely involved in that.
Now, specifically, the $1 million commitment to the Abilities Foundation, Mr. Chairman, is something that we are extremely pleased with in the department and as a government. I know that we are awaiting some feedback and response from the foundation to deal with the issues like my honourable colleague brought forward here today, so when we hear back from them we will be able to better react and adjust or amend the regulations and the specifics about the program to decide what the go-forward looks like.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, in going back to that particular topic, I just want to reinforce the understanding of the minister in that if we want to keep people independent in their own homes we have to make sure that the modifications and the technical aids and assistive devices that they need to stay independent and self-sufficient are in place; otherwise they are going to move over to the side where we need to consider residential placement and that's a much more costly alternative. I realize that she understands that, but we need to make sure that the supports in the community are there.
I want to go back to something that the minister herself mentioned early on and that was the visitability standards that are in place now in some new construction. I would like to suggest and ask the minister if the department has looked at putting those standards in all the new affordable housing options in Nova Scotia, or also making that part of the building code. I understand that it would be less than $1,000 per unit to put in basic barrier-free standards in new home construction, and this would be a very proactive, cost-effective way of creating accessible housing stock both now and for the future, and considering that Nova Scotia has one of the highest rates of disability, if not the highest in Canada, I would suggest that doing these things proactively, at low cost to the public purse, would certainly be the route to follow. So I would like to ask, through you, Mr. Chairman, whether the department has made this recommendation.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, we often talk about the importance of cross-jurisdictional and cross-governmental responsibility. As I was listening to my honourable colleague, that was one of the questions that I had asked at the time when we were discussing what jurisdiction exists where, who has the ability to make those recommendations and those requests? So I understand that there is a Canadian building code, there are provincial standards and municipal standards. I believe it is incumbent upon governments to co-operate, to ensure that we work within the parameters of those three, but also that we involve the stakeholders who best understand the challenges that come along with that. So, certainly, that is something that we take very seriously.
I believe, and I can get the specifics of the tender call, Mr. Chairman, but I believe in the tender call itself, for our housing developments, we have an accessibility requirement. Certainly, as we continue to respond to the ever-pressing issues of society when it comes to accessibility issues, that's a must, and it must continue.
MS. MORE: Mr. Chairman, just one other question before I pass it over to one of my colleagues. Canada has signed the UN Convention, so I'm just wondering, does your budget for next year reflect any of the necessary action that Nova Scotia may have to take as a result of signing the UN Convention? Thank you.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, indeed, I was hoping my colleague would bring that forward, as I know she brought it forward in the House before. I'm pleased to say yes, Nova Scotia certainly has supported Canada signing the UN Convention. It was a bit of a learning curve for me, because I had to understand the difference between signature and ratification. Canada signing on, of course, is a commitment to move forward with the Convention, Canada, of course, as the federal jurisdiction, to work with the provinces that have the jurisdiction, the responsibility for that, to work with the provinces before ratification, as it would be ratification that would incur any financial responsibilities or costs to the provinces. So we will continue to have dialogue and discussion with our federal counterparts and, as we move forward toward ratification, that certainly would be included in any budgetary discussions.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Halifax Citadel.
MR. LEONARD PREYRA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Through you to the minister, I have a series of very short questions that arise largely from cases that arose in my constituency that I also believe raised policy questions. A couple of them relate to my area as Youth Critic.
I'd like to start by asking about Spencer House, which is a seniors' home in my constituency. As you know, most seniors would like to live in their homes as long as possible, and in their communities, and the government's stated goal is to make that possible.
Spencer House provides a hot meal to seniors who drop in. There are recreational facilities, there is music, there is a great deal of companionship and recreation, and it is a very important resource to my constituency. Yet, despite the government's statement about creating more opportunities for seniors in their communities, Spencer House has essentially lost resources since 1999.Their funds have been effectively cut back, they have had to lay off people. It used to be open on weekends and now it is open only on weekdays, and it is a tremendous success story.
I wanted to table a newspaper article about that, just to give the minister some background. The Minister of Health made a statement at Spencer House not that long ago, and I talked with him about it, because it was somewhat an inappropriate location for a good-news story about seniors because they in effect cut back, and he undertook at that time to consult with you, and he said that the situation at Spencer House would be reviewed. I want to know, has he consulted with you and have you reached any decision about Spencer House and about seniors' homes in general, in providing more resources to them in their own communities?
MS. STREATCH: I welcome my honourable colleague to the discussion today and appreciate him bringing forward particular cases that take place in his constituency that are important to all Nova Scotians, but in particular to the member himself. Spencer House is one of those locations I've not been to myself yet, but would welcome an opportunity to go, and perhaps my honourable colleague would go along with me.
I know the Minister of Health was there, I wasn't able to be there for that announcement, but would look forward to having a visit, because the information, the discussion I had with my honourable colleague from Health was indeed that it was a spot that I should make sure I get to myself. Perhaps I'll take that up with my colleague outside the Chamber and we'll arrange for a visit ourselves.
Of course, as with all budgetary pressures, as we move through the budgetary process, we will be examining those pressures as they unfold. Again, I know my honourable colleague referenced cuts in funding. It's my understanding the Department of Community Services maintained their funding and we were not one of those who cut funding to that facility. That's always good news, when you're not one of the ones that has and so we take pleasure in being able to say that.
So the maintaining of that funding is important, as well as a positive relationship with the folks at Spencer House, to ensure we work together, to maximize any fundraising opportunities they may have, to maximize any programming that may exist within the department or outside of the department that we can assist them to access. It would be in that vein that I would welcome a visit and an opportunity to meet with the folks from Spencer House to see if there are some other components that we can access together to ensure they maximize their available funding.
MR. PREYRA: Mr. Chairman, through you, I thank the minister for her very open response. I will definitely take her up on her offer to visit Spencer House. I can tell you, the seniors are very articulate and their executive director, Deborah Dostal can be quite passionate and quite convincing, so I welcome the opportunity to visit with you at Spencer House.
In terms of funding, I did not suggest that funding had been rolled back, but that funding had been frozen since 1999, and that's in effect a cutback when you consider the costs of running a seniors' centre.
The other question I have also relates to seniors. I conducted a survey of seniors and seniors' homes in my constituency and asked them what issues were important to you, what did you like about the current arrangements and what didn't you like? Two issues kept coming up regularly in the surveys. The return rate was about 40 per cent, which is quite incredible.
The first issue revolved largely around transportation. Many seniors, especially in winter, feel trapped in their homes and they can't access services that are available to them and they would very much like to improve Access-A-Bus services. They would like to have it longer in the evenings, they would like to have it on weekends so that they can get out of their homes and apartments and participate more actively in events that most of us take for granted.
My question is, on transportation - perhaps I'll give you the second part of my question as well. The second theme revolved around recreation for seniors in seniors' homes. For the same reason, they felt trapped; they're very sociable and many of them are lonely in their apartments and they'd like to get out and engage and get involved with their communities. They would very much like to see more recreational facilities.
I guess that's a two-part question. What is the minister planning on doing to provide better and more accessible transportation for seniors and also, are there any plans to provide additional services for recreation in seniors' homes around communities?
MS. STREATCH: I want to begin by applauding my colleague for doing something that's challenging. When you ask the question, you have to be prepared for the answer. So reaching out to the seniors and asking them their concerns is something that we could likely all do more of. So I want to applaud my colleague for doing that and a 40 per cent return rate is phenomenal. So whatever tricks he used, we should all take a lesson from that because a 40 per cent return is really great, and I would encourage him to share that information with any other department or minister who might benefit from some of that information. I certainly will do that after today. I will take the issues that my colleague brought up and I will take them to the departments that could benefit learning that information as well, and I would encourage him to do so as well.
So when we talk about transportation, again, it's important to recognize that there's no question, transportation can be a challenge. I know my honourable colleague has an urban riding and it's a challenge for the urban seniors to get out and about within the community, equally as much of a challenge as it is for our rural seniors to get out and about in their community and find activities and opportunities to socialize, to exercise, et cetera.
The Access-A-Bus, as I understand, is a municipal responsibility but certainly, again, I don't believe that we should allow walls to exist that prevent us from discussion. I will certainly bring the issue to my honourable colleague, the Minister of Service Nova Scotia and Municipal Relations, as well as the Minister of Health Promotion and Protection, which is where I'm going with the recreational facility answer as well, because I think collectively we have to appreciate that - I know that the government has made a commitment in this budget to expand the number of recreation facilities across the province, Mr. Chairman. There's a commitment to a dollar figure and I won't put that dollar figure in the mouth of my colleague, but I believe it was in the vein of $50 million. So certainly we would want to ensure that all of our constituents, young and more aged, are able to access the facilities that those dollars will go to create.
I do want to bring one other topic to my honourable colleague's attention though and that is the new pilot program that we're bringing in this year through the Department of Community Services. That is an assistance for seniors to stay in their homes and access resources as a part of that ability to stay in their homes longer. So as we roll out the details on that, certainly I will make those available to all of my colleagues and I know that my honourable colleague will be interested to see the details of that pilot, Mr. Chairman.
MR. PREYRA: Mr. Chairman, I would like to put on the record that it was a social worker at Metro Housing who helped me get that 40 per cent return rate and if it's not inappropriate, I'll name her, Sara Campbell is the social worker and she is assigned to Joe Howe Manor.
I have another set of questions related more to my critic area and more specifically the McEvoy inquiry. I have a letter here and I won't table it because I see that the minister was copied on it. It's from the Halifax Peninsula Community Health Board and I'll summarize some of these recommendations to you. The Nunn Inquiry, as you know, recommended that the department develop a public, comprehensive and collaborative, interdepartmental strategy to coordinate provincial programs, services and supports for children and youth at risk and their families.
In particular, there have been challenges revolving around schools and youth at risk in schools and youth who come into contact with the justice system and with health, particularly mental health and addiction. I'm wondering, what specific programs have been
put in place? I don't expect the minister to give me a comprehensive answer at this stage, because it hasn't been that long ago, but I would like to know what your department has done recently, or plans on doing, to meet some of the recommendations of the Nunn Inquiry on collaboration.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I really want to thank my honourable colleague for bringing this forward. The horrific tragedy of the Theresa McEvoy death provided the opportunity for us to learn from this terrible tragedy. The opportunity presented itself through the Nunn Commission and I was extremely pleased to be part of that team that unanimously accepted all 34 recommendations of Justice Nunn.
In doing so, Mr. Chairman, we did not do that lightly. We accepted all 34 with the understanding that it came with a financial responsibility, it comes with a visionary responsibility and a social responsibility. As I've stated before on the floor of this House, for those who have not read Justice Nunn's report, I would encourage you to, because it is extremely moving and there's no question that there are challenges out there that we need to address and take very seriously.
As my honourable colleague identified, we have been made the lead on this, on the response, on the action, the move forward. We've accepted them and now we have the move forward. The $3 million commitment in the budget is financial proof to that commitment, but even more so is the commitment as lead minister; in discussion with my colleagues in the various other departments who are involved here, we know that the collaboration piece is key. All too often, clients come to us who say we couldn't access it, we know it's out there somewhere, but we weren't sure how to access it. So that's absolutely essential in taking up the recommendations of Justice Nunn.
Of course we will be creating the Family and Youth Services section within the department. That's being carved out as we speak. We did advertise for the position of the individual who would create that youth strategy; that process is going through due diligence and we would anticipate that individual to be hired in the very near future. We didn't say we were going to wait, because we told Nova Scotians we would report in June, so we didn't sit and wait for these other components to fall into place.
The deputy's committee has been working very diligently to put together the culmination of the resources that are available out there and how we better access them through some of those facilities that we have across this province. When you look at the family resource centres and the education at the schools and what they're doing in some of these areas, it's amazing. We need to make sure we bring together all of the components to ensure consistent service delivery and to ensure that those who need us most are able to not only find us, but find us and then access those services.
MR. PREYRA: Mr. Chairman, I have three, I hope, short questions on the follow-up on the McEvoy inquiry. One question relates to the collaborative work the department is supposed to do with the Director of Youth Strategy and Services. If the minister has the McEvoy inquiry, it is Recommendation 29, which is part of the province's strategy for children and youth at risk:
". . . the Department of Community Services should consider establishing a separate division that will provide a range of services to families directed toward the promotion of the 'integrity of the family' similar to those set out in section 13 of the Children and Family Services Act."
Where is the department with that and is there a specific set of proposals that's going to be coming out from the department related to meeting that particular recommendation?
MS. STREATCH: It's my understanding, as I indicated earlier, we have accepted that recommendation, we are doing that. Within the department we are creating that section, the director is currently in place and we will be moving forward with the regional coordinators. I believe we are advertising, or have just recently advertised, or will be advertising in the very near future for regional coordinators.
MR. PREYRA: I thank the minister in particular for the short answer to that question, because I know they probably have a lot more on the go in meeting that recommendation. Two other questions, one is, in this letter I referred to earlier, the Capital District Health Board recommended the creation of a 211 system, which is a system that I believe the United Way has recommended in other provinces and I see the Minister of Health nodding that he has heard of this before, probably from me as well. It really relates to youth at risk and their families and their ability to navigate their way through the Community Services system.
One of the subjects of the Nunn inquiry was that many of these services were available to Archie Billard and his family, but they were just unable to find it in time, they were not able to take advantage of it. The 211 recommendation essentially says that perhaps families and youth at risk can call this 211 system and have a fairly quick way of finding the services that they need, very early in the process, so that Community Services can intervene - I'm not talking about specifically intervene, but provide for an intervention of some kind that would help these families. Is the department willing to consider a request like that, or are they considering something like that, similar to the Cancer Care patient navigation system, I believe?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, a very good question as I understand a briefing is coming up any day now. So my honourable colleague is preempting the briefing that I understand the department will be bringing to me, to consider this as one of the options that we do consider, as we move forward. We know we have the successful youth help line, of course, the cancer line that my honourable colleague referenced, so we
know that there are options out there and this is one that I look forward to being briefed on in the very near future.
MR. PREYRA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I do have one final question in the time I have left. I'm into overtime, I believe. The minister mentioned family resource centres. We do have a family resource centre called Family SOS in my constituency. Family SOS has a very interesting program which tries to reunite children who are in care, in custody, in foster care and bring them into contact with their parents who had initially put them up for adoption, because the circumstances of those parents have changed for one reason or the other and they believe that they have a record and they have the evidence to show that many of these youth at risk would benefit from it. We're not prejudging it, but that they should explore the possibility of supporting a program like that, to get some help to these youth at risk. I'm wondering, has the minister considered, or is considering, or will be willing to consider a proposal like that from Family SOS?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, of course, as we move forward, we will be looking at all options as they present themselves, all of the varying components that the different agencies have out there. It doesn't go unnoticed that the director actually comes from Family SOS, the new director that I mentioned earlier. I'm sure that the components and successes of that agency will certainly be taken into consideration.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou West.
MR. CHARLES PARKER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Madam Minister and staff, I'm pleased to have a few minutes here to discuss a few issues of importance, I guess, from my perspective as MLA for Pictou West. I guess, after rural roads, the biggest issue I hear about at the constituency level is around Community Services rates. A lot of people are having to struggle to make ends meet. The money is all gone before the end of the month comes. People who are on social assistance are trying to make enough to feed their children or to look after their shelter and their food, clothing and school costs, if they have children and so on. It's a tough battle and I'm sure the minister is aware of that. I guess we can say thank goodness for things like food banks and churches that sometimes fill that gap. Still, it's a difficult struggle for many people who are in this position, that they find themselves on social assistance.
I know, last year, there was a very small increase - I think it was $4 for some that was received, but it didn't really meet the cost of living. I guess my first question to the minister is, how often does the department review the process? When are the rates actually going to come to a level where there's a decent amount to deal with the ever-escalating costs of living? I'd just like to get her comments on that.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I welcome my honourable colleague to the discussion here this afternoon. He certainly brings to the floor an issue that
is extremely important and I'm sure an issue that is not a surprise to any member in this Chamber. My honourable colleague references that the personal allowance, the income assistance rates - and of course we always, at the Department of Community Services, balance out and I like to use the visual beside me here today. We have the accountant who represents the fiscal responsibility and accountability, and of course we have the ever-esteemed social worker who represents the social responsibility. So that's a true indication of how we approach these issues within the department.
As my honourable colleague indicated, there was an increase in the personal allowance, Mr. Chairman. Actually, for the record, that increase was for three years in a row, and that increase amounted to about an 11 per cent increase over that period. Along with that, we had a two-year increase consecutive in shelter allowance. So, again, another indication that this government and the department take very seriously the challenges that do face our clientele. Certainly, for my honourable colleague's information, effective October 1, 2007, a commitment made by this government that we are pleased to fulfill, is the increase for personal allowance will now be based on the consumer price index and will come into effect October 1, 2007.
MR. PARKER: Certainly, Madam Minister, if there is anything your department can do to assist our clientele, I guess all of us, really, our constituents, we all deal with, it is a struggle. It truly is a struggle for many families and individuals out there and anything that could be done to assist them would be helpful.
As time is a factor here, I want to move on to my next topic. It's around the housing component of your department and probably it's the third biggest issue that I get as an MLA. Are there some grants? Is there some help that I can get to assist in repairing or maintaining my ability to remain within my own home?
The most common complaint, I guess, after the long wait list, I think there are 800 on the wait list in Pictou County, but the more common concern after that, after they have gone through the process, is that they're told, sorry, you are not eligible for a grant, your income is too high. In reality, the income cut-off is quite low. I think it's somewhere around $18,000 or so for a family that is non-senior and if they are seniors - I believe my figures are correct - it's somewhere a little over $23,000. That's the concern of most people who come back, they are $1,000 over, $2,000 over, whichever, but basically the cut-off is too low. Are there any plans by the department to raise those levels both for non-seniors and for senior individuals or families?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, again, another issue that is extremely important to all of us. I know my honourable colleague brings it to the floor here because it is one that affects quite a few individuals, of course in the urban area, but as well, and perhaps more
particularly, in the rural areas. So my honourable colleague brings forward the issue of income levels that allow an individual to be eligible or not eligible.
Those household income levels - we refer to them as the HILs - those HILs are reviewed on a regular basis. The HILs are something that we negotiate with CMHC, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. So we do so in partnership with our federal counterparts and we have recently raised those HILs for the Nova Scotia component, the provincial component. So I would bring that to my honourable colleague's attention and I am more than pleased to provide him with a chart that lists those rates as they vary in different zones across the province. So I will bring those to my honourable colleague's attention in chart form.
As well, Mr. Chairman, we did raise the allowable amount for a loan from $3,000 to $5,000 and so that provided - because we knew that the dollar figure was increasingly more challenging to have those repairs done for the $3,000, so we increased that to $5,000. Again, it's almost a Catch-22 situation. As my honourable colleague knows, you increase the income level, you now have increased the potential clientele. So we have to balance that out and so the wait lists, we have an ever-existing wait list. We process approximately 2,000 to 2,500 applicants per year and, again, we end up with 2,000 to 2,500 on our wait lists to work with. So it's a challenge, but we continue to do the best job that we can with the resources and we have continued to provide money for those repairs and renovations for our seniors and families across the province.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order. The time has expired for the NDP caucus.
The honourable member for Annapolis.
MR. STEPHEN MCNEIL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, minister, staff, it's nice to be part of the budget estimates. I'm sure I may have missed some of the questions, so I want to apologize if I'm repeating some of the questions that other members of this House have asked you. As an MLA for the riding of Annapolis, your department is probably the department that I would deal with the most in terms of helping some constituents find their way through and dealing, quite frankly, with the frustration that they face, at times, dealing with your department.
Dealing with some staff that you have in my constituency, and I want to first of all tell you how pleased you should be with the quality of the people who are working on the front lines that I deal with in the riding of Annapolis, but if I was to have one concern, it's that I'm not sure there are enough of them. Many of them have a tremendous caseload to deal with and they find it quite difficult when you move forward, and also clients accessing it find it difficult to feel that they're getting the kind of - a little more one-on-one that they would like. I'm wondering, could you just address that in terms of whether your department has any suggestions on what they are going to do with the front-line workers?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I welcome my honourable colleague to the discussion, to the debate and I know his questions will be well thought out, sincere and with his constituents at the forefront. I want to thank my honourable colleague for his comments regarding the front-line workers and the staff. Do you know, it has never ceased to amaze me, the phenomenal work they do, oftentimes, and I acknowledge, they have very heavy workloads. That's not a surprise to me. It's a reality and each and every day they rise to the occasion. So I applaud them. I'm extremely proud of them and I know the hard work they do is for all the right reasons.
My honourable colleague brings the question of what the plan is. Mr. Chairman, we have absolutely no plan to do anything that would affect the FTEs, the full-time equivalents. Our staff are valuable - I will note, for the record, an $11 million commitment in this year's budget for salary increases and benefits for our staff. They are well worth every penny of it.
MR. MCNEIL: That commitment, whether we will see additional front-line workers or whether that money, the $11 million that you speak of, is really to enhance the salaries and benefits of the existing employees.
One of the other issues which comes to my constituency often is the issue around somebody who may come in who has been cut off, someone whose assistance has been stopped for whatever reason. They have the opportunity to appeal, but it's almost in reverse that you're found guilty before you have an opportunity, you have to prove you're innocent. We want to know - what it comes down to is if somebody is deemed to be in receipt of income assistance and there's a problem, why isn't the appeal process allowed to take place before we cut them off?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to answer the first question raised by my honourable colleague, yes, indeed, the $11 million is for salary and benefit of current staff levels. I will state that for the record. However, I do want to add that as we have seen a decline in our caseloads for various reasons, economic stability, folks are able to get off the system and into the workforce, as we see that decline, we do not decline our caseworkers as well. So we're hoping that the decline in those caseloads can provide for a little buffer with the staff, that they don't feel an increase in their caseloads. So we're hoping that will be the case there.
The issue that my colleague brings forward is one that I know he has addressed with me in the past. I know it's part of the ESIA policy and regulation policy framework that exists. It is one that I have - it has been brought by my honourable colleague. I am prepared to look at it and take it to staff, because it does seem, at first glance, to be counterproductive. So it's one that I do want to take a look at and we'll ask to have a review of that particular component and see if we can't have some move on that one.
MR. MCNEIL: I look forward to that discussion and an opportunity to perhaps correct what I think is wrong in the system.
Career Seek is an announcement that you made and I know it's a program that you're very pleased with and your department's pleased with, one that many members of this House would applaud. The only problem that we - and I can speak directly for myself - that I have with it is the fact that we limit it to only 50 people per year. I want a little explanation from your department - I know we're talking about budgeting issues, but what we're basically saying to Nova Scotians who qualify to go to a four-year, post-secondary education is that we will allow you to keep your benefits while we give you a student loan as well.
We're not giving it, we're allowing them to have - they will pay that student loan back. So I'm wondering how that affects your department and why it wouldn't be a benefit for Nova Scotians to have as many people attending post-secondary education for a four-year period, to allow them to better themselves and move off the system completely.
MS. STREATCH: My honourable colleague absolutely raises a program that I am very pleased with, that we were able to introduce in the department. I'm looking forward to seeing some of the tangible results. I know my honourable colleague expresses concern about the limitations and I accept that concern.
In the discussion and the creation of this four-year pilot, I think it's important that we do due diligence, that we look at the success rate, and I fully anticipate and expect it to be success rates of 50 per year for a four-year period to a 200 total. I think it's important to address that we are very cognizant of the challenge that goes along with potentially adding to one's financial burden. I don't want to find ourselves in that - I don't want people to find themselves in that position. The intent of the program is to work with the individuals who are able and willing and want to take on a four-year university program, clientele who have worked with the counsellors, the labour experts to ensure that they will have success at the end of the programming.
As we move forward, as we see the first round of successful applicants and successful entrants, I would be more than pleased to review the component, the entry component and let's see what the uptake is, let's see where the pressures are, and I'm more than pleased to review that as we move through the pilot.
MR. MCNEIL: Keeping with Career Seek, has there been a review at this point? Have you spoken to the applicants who are presently in the system and how are they feeling after the initial beginning of this program, whether it's meeting their needs, whether the component is right? And what was the uptake? Was there a huge backlog in terms of applicants who are applying for those 50 spots?
MS. STREATCH: We operate on all sorts of different time frames in our lives for different reasons. The school year is one that provides a particular challenge. We introduced this program, we worked with our staff, we educated our staff and we got our social workers and caseworkers well informed of the program. We got word out to the communities that this was a program that we were looking forward to seeing success with. Because of the calendar year, we did not have any uptake, of course, in the Fall of 2006.
January was not acceptable for any of our applicants, so we're looking forward to September 2007, as being the first real indication of the uptake and the interest. At this point, I do not have a number of combined interests, nor regional breakdown, but I would anticipate with the school year, we will see the true results of that.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, just to follow up, have there been people who've been guaranteed they would be in the program come September, at this point?
MS. STREATCH: It's important to note that there are various components of Career Seek that are put on up front to ensure that we do not add to that burden. As our caseworkers and our social workers work with individuals who are interested in the program, they attempt to ensure that there is reason and rationale, as well as desire, to fulfill the number component. As we move forward, there are no guaranteed spots per se other than the 50 that we've committed to, that we will continue to work on in an individual basis with each of our clientele.
MR. MCNEIL: Are there 50 applicants now who are filling those 50 spots?
MS. STREATCH: I don't, at this point, have a list or a number for the individuals who have expressed interest. I can certainly put an all-call out and get that number from staff across the province if my honourable colleague would like that outside the Chamber.
MR. MCNEIL: That would be fine. My concern is that if applicants don't know they've been fit into the program now, they have to also now go through the process for applying for student loans. That's another process that has to take place, plus applying for the program that they want at university, to ensure that they will be ready to go in September. I'm just wondering if there's a timeline that we could maybe pull that all together so that the applicants would know when they could take the next step.
MS. STREATCH: It's my understanding that staff have been working with individuals across the province to ensure those who have expressed interest have all of the requirements fulfilled and they're working with them to ensure that, come September enrolment time, all of that paperwork would be done in advance.
MR. MCNEIL: There was a program announced called Harvest Connection that allowed some of your clients to participate in a work program with the agricultural
community, allowing them to earn up to $3,000 a year without the clawback taking effect. I'm just wondering if you could tell the House what the uptake was on that program and where we are now with it.
MS. STREATCH: Again another program that we're very pleased to put in place through the department for a variety of reasons. I know my honourable colleague comes from an agricultural community and understands the pressures that exist in that agricultural community, as do many members of this House, as it pertains to workers. Through Harvest Connection, we provided for the agricultural sector as well as the Christmas tree producers, to access potential workforce that we have through our contacts at the Department of Community Services.
We recognized that with any program the biggest challenge is getting the word out there, so we worked with the Federation of Agriculture, the Nova Scotia Christmas Tree Council to transfer that information through them to their membership, as we needed the registration of those farmers and those Christmas tree producers. We then provided the same information and educated our staff so that they would be able to work with their clients to do a match up of the clients with the particular farmers.
We look forward to expanding that, of course hoping that we will get an even greater uptake in the days to come. I can give my honourable colleague a specific number, I know that's what he's looking for, so the initial uptake of the program has been fairly low. We have had six people who were able to benefit from that program and we would hope that would grow exponentially in the seasons to come.
MR. MCNEIL: I'm surprised, I thought there would be a larger uptake on that. I want to say this to the minister, I think part of the problem may not be the program, it may be in the application process - not for your client, but for the agricultural business that is actually going through the process of wanting to hire somebody. I don't know if that has been mentioned and voiced to you as a concern, and in terms of the Christmas tree operation in Annapolis, we haven't seen a lot of that, I know in Springfield, but has that been an issue for the Christmas tree growers as well?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, absolutely, my colleague has hit the nail right on the head. In the case of the Christmas tree producers, they were very interested to learn about the program and they've actually requested staff to work with them to better understand how to benefit from this program and how to capitalize on this program for the benefit of all. So I know that at their annual meeting, which is upcoming, we will work with them to ensure that they get the information necessary so that they can then take it forward, and we will endeavour to do the same with the Federation of Agriculture, to ensure that their farmers
have the best information available to them. I should reference for the record, those six people were over a three-month period.
MR. MCNEIL: We are also now coming into a season where the agricultural community will begin looking for people to come and provide them assistance. One of the good things about this program is that you could earn that $3,000 over an extended period of time or in a very condensed period of time. I would encourage your department to look at the application process though from the farm business perspective, because I believe that's where the biggest issue is. Many of them would be more than willing to participate in the program. It is a program that I fully supported when it was announced and I still support. I do believe there need to be some administrative improvements, but I'm wondering, has your department now looked at broadening beyond the agricultural community and beyond Christmas tree producers into some of the other sectors, particularly where we have seasonal work?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, my honourable colleague brings the point and it has been duly noted that if it indeed is the application process that is providing challenges for farmers or for Christmas tree producers, that's something that we absolutely will look at in the department and we will ensure that if that's the stumbling block or if that's the challenge, the barrier, we get over that and we will do so through the department, through an information process. So I thank my honourable colleague for mentioning that. We've made note of that and we'll ensure that application process is cleaned up, or simplified, so that we can get the maximum benefit out of the program, out of the Harvest Connection.
Now, my colleague also brings forward the issue of the option of expanding it. I have discussed this with other members during these estimates and it's absolutely something that we need to look at. It's a good program. It is a program that makes sense. It encourages the return to the workforce, which we all know is key. It encourages the ability to take a void which is there in a seasonal employment and fill that void with an individual who needs to be in the workforce and who wants to be in the workforce.
So as we move forward, I absolutely have and will continue to look at, are there other components, are there other sectors? Some provide, you know, for that seasonal ability. Is there an opportunity there for us to perhaps fill some of the void? I had the issue raised by one of the urban members who said it really wasn't beneficial for the urban members, because they didn't feel that their constituents were able to access the seasonal work through the agricultural component or the Christmas tree component.
So certainly the short answer, Mr. Chairman, to that question is yes, we will be looking to see if we can expand it.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I'm glad to see that it was raised by urban MLAs, because I believe that the issue of this program can go beyond the resource-based industries,
particularly into the tourism industry. I also believe that we need to begin to look at not punishing people on income assistance for every dollar they earn - the 70/30 rule. I think it's really a disincentive for anyone to go out and earn money. I know there has been - your department actually has hired people in my constituency to go out to shovel walkways, and at the same time they've clawed back 70 cents to the dollar and people say, why would I do that? What's the incentive for me to do that? I'm being punished.
I wonder if we looked at the possibility of perhaps saying, regardless of what it is that you're doing, that you could earn up to the $3,000 limit in a 12-month period before we start instituting the 70/30 rule, before we start doing that clawback, and providing a real incentive for people to go out and earn that extra income.
We all, in this House, have talked about the fact that the benefits are low, don't meet the basic living standard that we believe Nova Scotians should be living to. This will allow an opportunity for somebody on income assistance to increase their income without being punished by the 70/30 rule, so I'm wondering where your department is with that.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. As my honourable colleague knows, it absolutely is essential that we look at all the components that go toward the ESIA programming and success of the ESIA programming. We've seen a continual decline in our caseloads on the income assistance end because we have funneled so many resources through the employment support end.
We want to continue to do that because, of course, we recognize that the value of families and individuals getting off the system and becoming independent is a win-win. It is a win from a financial point of view, because as individuals and families come off the system and go independently on their own, of course, that becomes a benefit to the economy of the community and the province; but even more importantly, it becomes a tremendous feeling of self-confidence and a tremendous feeling of success. We want to always keep that at the forefront, Mr. Chairman.
So as we discuss issues like the available income that can be earned before it works as a disincentive, I know that there are varying ways of looking at that. We don't ever want to create disincentives for individuals to go into the workforce, we don't want to create disincentives for individuals to not live up to their full potential. Mr. Chairman, it is a challenge to keep that balance of the disincentive that goes along with the ability to keep a certain percentage of the wage, with the incentive to get off the system. I know that situations like the income tax refund that we brought into place last year, the 30 per cent allowable income tax return, was a step in the right direction.
Mr. Chairman, I know that my honourable colleague has brought this, along with the standing committee, to the attention of the minister and I know that it's in a letter to my attention, through the second round of the Poverty Forum. It is an issue that I certainly will
look at, that the department will continue to look at, to ensure that we have the incentives in place that truly benefit all of our clientele.
MR. MCNEIL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I have the honour in my constituency of having a number of facilities that your department manages, the adult residential center being one of them; the apartment facility, which is an addition to that residential centre; I have Carleton Road Industries, which is a workplace environment for people with disabilities to come and provide, to put skills together that they can work.
One of the concerns that I hear in every one of those, regardless of whether it is the workplace environment or in the living facility of the apartment off the residential centre, is around the issue of the per diem and the food allowance. In particular a number of my constituents - Kirk Grady comes to my mind right off the bat, a young person from Bridgetown who is a Special Olympian and, I should add, won a gold medal while he was in New Brunswick more recently. The issue that they come to is in order to eat, according to what is a healthy standard, one that the Canada's Food Guide says we should be eating to, they are unable to do that.
One of the other challenges for them, in order to go out, they are limited, they can't drive, they don't have the transportation. In order to go to some of these stores to buy the healthy food choices that we want them to do, it is extremely difficult. So I'm wondering if your department has looked at the per diem, whether or not there is some flexibility in the budget that they have. I know that this is how much you have for food - I wonder if they can allow some flexibility in terms of allowing the client to adjust the money they have and spend it the way they choose.
MS. STREATCH: Please allow me to preface my statement saying that we value the tremendous work, as I know my honourable colleague does, that goes on in all of the facilities across the province, be it the adult service centres, the residential care facilities, you name it. The value of the service provided truly is invaluable and that being said, we know there are pressures out there, we know that the service providers have daily pressures upon them and it's for that reason that we hired Mr. Hogg. We are awaiting the Hogg report in its entirety and we will be reviewing that report, because that report looks at the funding for our service providers across the province.
There have been, over the years for various reasons - municipalities had certain responsibilities and then the province took over responsibilities with the increased demands on society, we've had a variety of funding formulas in place. We need to streamline that, we need to ensure that consistency and fairness and accountability are in place. We look forward to the full analysis of that Hogg report, and I certainly will share the review of that report with my honourable colleague and any colleagues who would be interested, to ensure that the valuable work they do is recognized and treated in a fair and equitable manner.
MR. MCNEIL: That would be Hogg II, Hogg III. I know last year during this time, I invited the minister to my riding to view some of these facilities and I know our schedules - you had offered to come a few times and my schedule was difficult to connect and it was a real challenge. I will be busy at least for another 30 days I think, but I do want to make the offer again and to make it happen. I think it's important for you to get an opportunity to come down and see the great work that's being done at Carleton Road Industries, as well as to get a chance to come and see and hear first-hand from the clients who are having these issues around budget issues for them. They provided some flexibility, they have some good answers really.
There's a committee in Bridgetown called People First, it is a branch of what is I'm sure all over Nova Scotia. They would love to have the minister come just so they could have a sit-down and explain to you the challenges that they face and where they think the existing dollars that they get, to allow some flexibility, and how it's spent would maybe alleviate some of the problems that we're talking about. I want to make that offer to you and I will attempt to be able to be free when you're willing to come down. I want to acknowledge that you did make the offer to come and it was my schedule that was the problem last time, so I would encourage you and ask you to allow us to bring you into the riding again so that we can show you the facilities first-hand.
I want to just change gears a little bit and talk about the early child care and early learning and the $3.9 million that has come down. I know $4.4 million roughly has been spent and there's $35 million and I've been on record saying we have waiting lists, let's act, let's move. I want to hear your views on that and why Nova Scotia families who are looking for child care, when they hear that figure of $35 million still with the government and the department, they're saying, how come we don't see spaces that our children can access or we as a family can access?
I also want you to talk a little bit about the issue of portability around that, the issue of the cap around portability too. I'll be on record saying I support the issue of portability and I've said it in many places, because I think it allows some flexibility for families and children to have flexibility around their specific needs. But one of the challenges that has been brought to us by daycare facilities has been the issue of the cap. They say in order for portability to work properly to the best interest of the child and that family, then we need to remove the cap. I'm wondering if your department has been looking at that and when we can see the additional monies moved out and allow Nova Scotia families to have benefit of it.
MS. STREATCH: Of course, to my honourable colleague, I would be delighted to come to his riding. I can't imagine what's occupying his time these days, but I know that he's very busy and, who knows, he may very well be even busier in the days to come, but I certainly will commit again to visit with my honourable colleague in his riding. I had the
opportunity to travel across the province over the last 10 months and I look forward to continuing to do so.
I think it goes to a point that my honourable colleague made. What I have learned from actually getting out into the communities and visiting with so many of the agencies, the facilities, the groups, what I have learned - not to say that what staff briefs me on and tells me about isn't extremely valuable as well - but what I learned out in the communities is really invaluable. They have some very creative ways, very creative and innovative ideas and they think outside that box on a regular basis.
Most of the groups and service providers have learned to be very creative when it comes to their funding and they have some very interesting ideas around how to maximize that funding. So I would like to visit those spots in my colleague's riding and I certainly do commit to coming to his riding when it works in our schedules. We will do our very best to get there.
The entire issue around the child care plan, I know my honourable colleague has a certain amount of time here and I'm not going to take his time by going back over all of the parts of the plan because I don't think that would be fair. I know he's well versed on my answers in the House. I know he's well versed on the information that was provided by my deputy and my staff at standing committee and I know he's well versed in the components of the plan and the roll-out that we've done so far.
I will just add a couple of key components. Of course, the issue around portability is the one that my honourable colleague asks about. There's no question that when you look at the issue of the portable subsidized spaces, it's truly essential that we recognize that the subsidization and the portability of that space truly goes with the family. So the family are able to take that space, they're able to use that subsidization and they're able to do so at a child care centre they have confidence in.
The 150 new spaces we rolled out last Fall, the 100 that we will bring out this Spring and bring out for the next three consecutive after this Spring, for the total of 550, I think are extremely important. They speak to that need of those portable subsidized spaces that my colleague raised.
We are looking at the entire issue of portability. My staff are looking and will continue to review the issue of a fixed number of portable spaces and we certainly are open to reviewing all of those components of the child care plan.
MR. MCNEIL: Just a follow-up to that. Going back to the $35 million which we have set aside, the question that I would ask is why are we rolling out those 500 seats slowly as opposed to introducing them all now? We know there's a need.
The other question is around the cap and portability. You're right, the portability allows me, as a family, to have flexibility where I move my child to, but if that region doesn't have the ability to accept another portable seat, I can't move in there because there's a cap, there's a limit according to what we're hearing from the daycare facilities in regions. There's only a certain number of subsidized spaces that are allowed. I'm wondering why the cap is there, if it truly is about portability and flexibility for the families and that child, why we don't just remove the cap, commit to a subsidized number of spaces and allow them to be flexible and move with the family?
I may live in one community and work in another and prefer to have child care where I'm working as opposed to where I'm living. So, I'll just give you an opportunity to respond to that.
MS. STREATCH: Again, recognizing that my honourable colleague has a certain amount of time, I don't want to take up all of his time, but I do want to get on the record the issue of rolling out pieces and components of the plan in a thought-out process. I think it's important to note that what we've done thus far, as part of the $130 million plan, is that we've laid the foundation - and my honourable colleague has heard me say this and he knows what I mean - we've laid the foundation so that the rest of the components of the plan can now fall into place. As we rolled out 150 of those subsidized spaces, as we put those operational grants in place that represent a $54 million commitment of that $130 million total, as we rolled out the repair and renovation loans, we did it so that the sector could provide for the foundation to now receive those additional spaces. So we have the issue of the operational grants, which was for the retention and the training and the recruitment of staff because, Mr. Chairman, the expression, if you build it, they will come, isn't necessarily the case. We could build it, we could provide the spaces, but if we don't have the workers and we don't have the centres at a position where they're able to receive those spaces and those children, it would be a backward approach to it.
So the approach that we've taken is laying the foundation, getting those resources in place and now I will let my colleague know that I have expedited the process for the creation of the spaces with the additional federal dollars that will be coming our way, through the additional money that was allocated through the $7 million allocation this year, once the federal government gets their budget in place. That $7 million is meant to be on the ground this fiscal year for the creation of those spaces. The grants and the dollars that need to be provided to the centres to actually create those spaces for the expansion grants, that will be done. I have asked for that to be done as soon as physically possible, to allow the sector to absorb that because, of course, we don't physically build the spaces, the sector does; but we provide the resources, and so it's that resource provision that I have indicated to staff, I want out the door as soon as possible.
But to my honourable colleague's point about the cap, we are reviewing that and we are looking at that, to see if the cap on the portability need to be adjusted and as we move
forward, with the long-term component and the sustainability of this plan, we will certainly take that into consideration.
MR. MCNEIL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The question around your waiting for the $7 million to come in from this federal budget. Either it's misinformation that's out there or we have $35 million still there. I guess my question would be, why are we waiting for the $7 million? Why don't we just start moving with the $35 million that we have and start flowing it out to allow families to access those daycare spaces as quickly as possible?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman and no, indeed, the monies are there, simply because they weren't spent, they haven't been removed. They are still there, and excuse me if I misled my colleague. It wasn't that we're waiting for it. We're anxiously waiting for it because we know it's an additional $7 million on top of what we had already planned for, so we know it can help us expedite the process.
MR. MCNEIL: Mr. Chairman, I assume a lot of the prep work has been done, that we know the areas where we're going to begin to add these spaces as we go along, and I look forward to hearing the announcement that the additional daycare spaces will be beginning and I really am encouraged by the fact that you're looking at the cap because I believe that in order for affordability to actually work properly, we're going to have to do something about the cap, either eliminate it completely or adjust it upward quite substantially, in order to allow that flexibility for the individual families.
I'm going to share a little bit of my time with my colleague but I would be remiss if I sat down without asking you about the poverty reduction strategy. I know all members of this House unanimously endorsed a resolution recently, and when we can see a roll-out. I think this is fundamentally one of the largest, or probably the biggest thing facing us as a province, is the issue around poverty and it's unfair that you're the person being constantly asked about this because you are dealing with the results of our inability and our willingness not to deal with it. The Minister of Justice has a role to play. The Minister of Health has a role to play. The Minister of Education has a role to play. The Minister responsible for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women has a role to play. Almost every minister sitting across from us has a role to play with this issue, but it lands squarely on your desk and you're the one who has to deal with it constantly.
I first of all want to say that I was thrilled that this resolution was passed. I want to see some action though. I don't just want to see it land on you. This is also a plea to your other colleagues who are sitting across from me, not to expect it all to come out of your budget. I'm asking for the other ministers to say, this is a benefit to our departments as well. We're prepared to step up with some people resources, some financial resources, to deal with this issue in the way it should be dealt with, in a very comprehensive way. It's not just a community service issue. I can tell you, as a family of law enforcement officers, it's a justice issue. As a family with some educators, it's an education issue. My colleague, the member
for Halifax Clayton Park will often tell you, it's a poverty issue, the face of poverty is feminine. So it's an issue for the Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
I want you to explain a little bit about how the departments have come together to form this strategy and whether or not we are now in the process of reaching out to the communities and to the people on the street who are dealing with this issue on a day-to-day basis, who really put together a comprehensive strategy on how to deal with the issue of poverty.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. The issue of the poverty reduction strategy is indeed one that I too, am pleased that we have unanimous consent of this Chamber and I am pleased to hear my colleague - and I know he has on the record stated this before, I am pleased to hear him state it today - that it is interdepartmental, it is a combination. It is governmental and I would go as far as to say this is a societal responsibility, and when I look at the potential that we have to truly make a difference, I don't want a report to be the outcome of this. I want a true, meaningful, measurable reduction and move forward, and I think in order for that to be realistic, it has to include business. It has to include all levels of government. It has to include all departments of government, but I think too, our community stakeholders have a tremendous responsibility and ownership of this as well. So I think, together, we absolutely do need to go at this as a collective - and I used the statement when we were talking about the Nunn Commission and I'm going to use it again - about silos coming down. Because we tend to live in our silos, in our departments, and we cannot when it comes to issues that are this broad.
So I certainly have included all of my colleagues in any way, shape or form that I can and I will continue to do so. I know that we have a working committee that involves a variety of the other departments that is looking forward to getting some work done. I have met with senior officials in my own department on this matter. As with every strategy, we are looking at, what's the best use of our resources and our time and in which direction do we go? We know a lot of this has already been done. I referenced earlier, a lot of reports have already been done. The phenomenal work that was done by the standing committee, through their round table and their presentations. That work's done. The women's centres across this province have a wealth of knowledge and information that they can share with us so we don't have to reinvent the wheel. So we absolutely do need to engage the stakeholders and we will, but it's a matter of, if it has already been investigated, reported, why would we investigate and report it again? So let's make sure that we use all that information to the best of our ability, and there's no question that it needs to be interdepartmental and it needs to be a governmental initiative and I look forward to working with my colleagues and all members of this House as we move forward on this issue.
MR. MCNEIL: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I just wanted to make a comment and then I'll share the time with my colleague for Kings West. I was pleased to hear you say that we're reaching out to the business community to take part in this because there is a real willingness, I believe, on their part, to want to deal with this issue. I also want to encourage you to not rely on the work that's already been done, not because it's not valuable and not because it doesn't have true input to the issue we're dealing with, but I think the stakeholders in the community need to feel they need to be part of this process for them to have some confidence in it. It's not government, it's just in general, when we talk about the issue of government and the bureaucracy, people on the ground dealing with these issues every day have lost confidence in us, as a collective. And I'm not meaning government, but I mean collectively and I think they lost confidence in our willingness to deal with some of these tough issues.
This is a tough issue. It's an issue that's facing all of our communities and, in some ways, all of our families. So the reach-out to the stakeholders is as much, in my view, to build back connection and confidence with them that we, collectively, are really serious about this issue and we want your input and we're going to deal with it. They have done some great work and so has the Committee on Community Services. It would be a way to reach out and say, we're committed to this. We want you to buy in. We're moving forward. We have the business community. We have the number of departments on-line. If I stand up much longer and ask you many more questions, we will have solved most of the issues related to not only your department, but all the other departments, so I'm going to share the rest of my time with my colleague for Kings West and I want to thank you for that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Kings West.
MR. LEO GLAVINE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'll continue on the housing area, which is where I had left off, and I know it's a huge piece, dealing with housing. I'll start off with just a very general question, at first. There are proponents - and I can safely say inside of Community Services, as well as outside - who feel that perhaps a split with the Housing Department and other Community Services issues, more on the direct services to clients and so forth, would perhaps make for better organization, better delivery of meeting needs. I'm just wondering if the minister has a thought on this, a perspective? I know the two are very often linked together because we do have housing as one of the critical needs of those who are on low incomes or fixed income, or income assistance, and I'm just wondering if there are any directional pieces there in that regard?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and I would be remiss if I didn't thank my honourable colleague, who was prior to the current member, for his discussion in the debate here today. So I certainly should get that on the record.
That's an interesting question that my honourable colleague raises and as I'm sitting here, I don't know what my gut reaction, my immediate reaction is. I know we've been there, done that before. There has been - if I understand the history correctly - a separate
Department of Housing in the past. Currently it is not something we are discussing in the department. As my colleague mentioned, the correlation between some of the housing pressures and the ESIA programming that we provide, the senior programs that we provide, there's a natural fit there, I guess is what I'm trying to say. There's a natural fit. So while it is a challenging portfolio, and I would be more than happy to share with any of my colleagues some of the more challenging parts of my department, at this time it is not something that is in discussion at department level and we'll continue to keep that collaboration together between the components of the department that work well.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, and moving onto a different area and that is persons with disabilities. I'm wondering, have you developed a person with disabilities allowance that has been promised and talked about?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and I want to thank my colleague for bringing this up. It's the first time it has come up in estimates debate and it is something that I have looked at and the department has looked at, and we take very seriously. There's no question that services for persons with disabilities and the issue of a disability allowance is something that we have looked at in the department. We've had discussions at the senior level. I also will let my colleague know that I have had discussions with our federal counterparts on this issue, because as the federal government looks at the issue of a disability allowance and the issue of a federal responsibility, we have had discussions and we will continue to have those discussions, and I will continue to encourage my federal counterpart to recognize that there is a federal component to this and that there is a federal responsibility to this. I will continue with that discussion.
This is an issue that deserves a complete understanding of what's at stake here and I don't want to make light of the issue, so I think when we discuss the allowance issue it's something that we have to look at very seriously, it's something the department takes very seriously and as we move forward this government has made a commitment to a disability allowance. I want to make sure all members of the House understand that is a commitment we absolutely will commit to keep. It's getting that commitment right that is the most important aspect of that issue today.
MR. GLAVINE: I was wondering if you just could confirm the rates now payable to a single person with a disability for shelter allowance, personal allowance and transportation allowance. If I could just have those figures, please.
MS. STREATCH: As we're getting the figures here, if I understand correctly, it's a single individual with a disability allowance? So, $535 for the initial and then the $200 basic allowance in addition to that.
MR. GLAVINE: Of course, I guess perhaps nothing's separate then on transportation. We know that transportation is a huge piece in terms of rural Nova Scotians with disabilities.
It's obviously costlier and often private transportation or limitations with public transit are certainly issues in this area. So, I'm wondering if the government has addressed any provisions, or made any provisions within the budget this time or, as you look forward to addressing this issue more adequately.
MS. STREATCH: I would again be remiss if I didn't identify that, of course, we also have the funding provided for special needs, as special needs pertain to each individual circumstance - a $20 million commitment in this year's budget to the special needs funding. That, of course, is done in consultation with the caseworker and the individual family or client as necessary.
The issue of transportation is one that I find very interesting to discuss here today. We know there are challenges, whether it be in a rural area or an urban area, that pertain to transportation. We have rates that vary, and I bring that up because it's important to note that if there are special, extenuating medical circumstances, we certainly provide transportation funding around those special instances and circumstances. We do have a funding formula that's in place for general transportation.
I have asked staff to have a look at the entire issue around transportation because there are some factors that exist in a rural component that don't exist in an urban component and then vice-versa. I have asked them to have a look at that to see if there is a better way to deliver those transportation dollars to ensure the clients are getting the best possible formula that works for them.
MR. GLAVINE: One of the programs around support for people with disabilities is the Alternative Family Support Program. I've had a little bit of personal contact with the Kentville office in working to get a few families engaged in this program. I haven't had direct contact with them for a couple of months, I'm just wondering at what stage is this program developed? Is it across the province? Also, if it isn't, what are the plans for the Alternative Family Support Program?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you to my colleague for the opportunity to discuss this very important and very successful program. As my honourable colleague knows, the three programs that we put on the ground to assist persons with disabilities to be able to stay in their homes, a big success.
The Alternative Family Support Program, of course, is one that we do provide across the province. It is province-wide. It was one of those three that we introduced. It has been extremely successful. We continue to expand that program, Mr. Chairman. The service providers, the families who assist us with the delivery of that very successful program, are invaluable. The loving care and the professional care that they provide in their homes is, of course, second to none and, of course, this government recognizes the importance of those
programs and the expansion of those programs, and $2.2 million was added to the budget this year to ensure that those programs continue to expand.
MR. GLAVINE: Thank you, Madam Minister, for that update. You also talked about and made a commitment to put a stop on the clawback of CPP disability benefits and I'm just wondering, how is that plan or initiative going?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, of course, with every year you have to prioritize certain initiatives that will move forward, other initiatives that will not move forward, that will be deferred and so, of course, the CPP clawback that was referenced by my honourable colleague is one of those ones that we are examining. The department is looking at how best to make that work in the true nature that it was intended and how best to make that work respecting jurisdictional and Charter challenges that we have been alerted to as a potential complication. So we're working within the department to see how we can best do that with the intention that it was first committed and certainly it's something that we'll continue to look at.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, the Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities, LEO, wants 25 per cent of affordable housing units to be accessible. They've been talking about this now for a number of years and I'm wondering, is this a consideration, is it achievable, and what percentage would currently exist?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, that's a good topic for discussion. To be honest, the exact percentage of public housing today that is accessible is not a figure that I have with me right now. I certainly will get that for my colleague. I have referenced earlier the project that I visited that we announced just two weeks ago, the successful project here in Fairview that was celebrated by Ralph Ferguson and Anne McRae along with myself. They were very pleased with the advances that had been made.
I understand from my Housing staff that when our proposals go out, when we have those requests for proposals, a component of that is that the units must be accessible, of course, for mobility challenges, and that's something that becomes a societal responsibility as well as a governmental and housing authority responsibility. So certainly as we move forward with the commitment of the housing dollars through the federal government, partnered with our commitment for housing dollars, we certainly will ensure that accessibility remains a priority in that funding allotment.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member has approximately a minute and a half.
MR. GLAVINE: Mr. Chairman, one last question then, I'm wondering if there is currently a moratorium on small options homes and if there is a plan to lift that. We know
there's a great movement now to, you know, deinstitutionalize our society where possible, and that may be a great step towards certainly some degree of independence. If you could make a comment in that area, it would be much appreciated.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, certainly my honourable colleague has answered a component of this question for me already with his discussion about the Alternative Family Support Program and the success of that. What we've done is we've taken that program along with the independent family living and the direct family support to complement what currently exists in our continuum of services and programs that we provide across the province and to all Nova Scotians who need our assistance. So that continuum of services and programs is one that we work with. I'm awaiting any day now that residential review, so we can have a look at what we have, where some of the gaps are - we recognize that there are some gaps out there now - see exactly where those gaps are, how we can best use the resources we have to fill those gaps and what exactly it is that we need to move forward with on a priority basis. So as we move forward, things have not come to a halt.
I like to make sure that I reference that every possible chance I get, that the department has continued to work with the complexities that are faced by us every day. We continue to roll out options for the individuals who find themselves at our department with needs and we will continue to roll out those options, Mr. Chairman, in a manner that best satisfies all of those complex needs, as we know that some individuals their challenges are best met with programs like the alternate family support, others with small options, others with a more individual case plan. We do that each and every day and will continue to do that.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you. The honourable member's time has expired.
The honourable member for Pictou West.
MR. CHARLES PARKER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am pleased to have this second opportunity to ask a few questions to the department, to the minister. Madam Minister, you might recall - I'm sure you've had lots of interventions between when I was last up - I was asking partly about income assistance rates and how perhaps inadequate they are and it is really tough for many families, for many individuals out there.
Secondly, I was speaking out on the housing income cutoff levels for individuals and for seniors. Again, with the rates being as low as they are, it is hard for some people to qualify who really are in a bad position. They have a roof that is leaking or they have a furnace that is no longer working or an old mobile home, perhaps 30 or 40 years of age, and it is just falling apart around them. When their income is just barely over the line, it really makes it tough.
These people come to their MLA asking for help and we guide them through the process to get their name before the department and look for help, and then after many, many
months of waiting, because of the wait times, they're told no, sorry, you don't qualify, your income is $500 over the limit. So it is certainly discouraging for those individuals when they think there is some hope that they might get some help.
I guess what I want to ask in relation to that is, what happens then? Is there some help for a family or an individual, even though they are over the limit by a few hundred dollars, and a real crisis in their life is when their furnace breaks down, or their roof is so bad it is causing mould problems in their mobile home or whatever. In spite of the fact that they are over the limit, is there some type of emergency help for them to be able to cope with life as it presents it to them?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I welcome my colleague back to the discussion and appreciate the ability to chat a little bit more about these two issues that he raised that are very important. If I can preface my statement, we were talking earlier about income assistance allowance and shelter allowance and the challenges that that creates for some families and individuals.
I do want to also identify, though, that on top of the personal allowance and the shelter allowance, of course we also do have another series of programs and services that are available. I just reference, for instance, Mr. Chairman, the child care subsidies that would exist, the training opportunities that we provide through ESIA, the housing component that goes along with our ESIA and, of course, situations like Pharmacare and then, as well, special needs funding. I want to go to special needs funding because I think that's where we can also tie in the idea that we do have, Mr. Chairman, as my colleague asked, avenues available if a family, if a senior, finds themselves or themself above those hills, those household income limits.
Of course, the entire issue around emergency funding and emergency health and safety repair and renovations is something that we take very seriously. I would encourage my honourable colleague, if he finds himself in the position where there are specific cases, to please, don't hesitate to come to us and come to me personally or come to the department, because there are often times, Mr. Chairman, extenuating circumstances that we're perhaps not aware of that we need to be made aware of and staff need to be made aware of. Sometimes, it's many MLAs and members in this House who bring those issues to our attention that we're then able to fully understand and put in place the different resources that we have available to us, to meet their specific needs.
MR. PARKER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you to the minister. That's good to know that there might be some consideration for special circumstances. I can think of one particular case, not so much to do with her home but it was a personal health need. She was quite hard of hearing and her doctor advised her that she needed a digital hearing aid. Now perhaps that's not necessarily within your department, maybe it's more the Department of Health, but several thousand dollars to pay for that, she had no way really of
paying for that, yet it was what she needed in order to be able to hear what's going on. Is that something the department would consider, or is that something that you coordinate with the Department of Health, or where can this individual go for the help that she needs?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and just to be clear, of course if we're talking about income-assisted clients, then we do have special needs funding and financing that is available to those special needs clients for a variety of medical reasons, or dental reasons, or health related reasons. If it's outside of the income-assisted clientele, then we would work, as all departments and all members would work, with service clubs in our areas or with our counterparts at Health, in an attempt to ensure that those needs were being met. But as a direct responsibility of the Department of Community Services, not outside of our income-assisted clientele would we have available funding.
MR. PARKER: I guess the other issue that I wanted to raise, every once in a while, as an MLA, we all get very difficult cases, and often it's multifaceted, there are complications. I'm working with one right now, I guess it's precipitated by one of the partners going into a nursing home, the other one's left at home. There's a lot of bills piling up that she's not able to pay - not only the household bills, but some of the responsibility of looking after his care in the nursing home. There are other complications with children and so on in the home with no income. Just on it goes. It's complicated. Does the department, in cases like that or similar circumstances, is there an intervention system or is there somewhere families can turn to maybe get some advice or some help? Yes, they turn to me as their MLA, we can advise as best we can but does the Department of Community Services have somebody on staff or within the various regions who can sit down with the family and try to sort through these multilayered difficulties from financial to mental health issues, to other pressures on the family? Does the department offer any service like that?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, there's no question that my honourable colleague brings a very important issue and that is that all too often it is a multifaceted problem that exists. It's not a simple answer. It's not a simple issue. It's not one, and when you're dealing with the case like my honourable colleague has mentioned here today, the varying components and the complexity of that can be overwhelming for us, as MLAs, when individuals come to us, let alone those families who find themselves in those situations.
I want to take this opportunity to say that anytime MLAs or individuals find themselves in cases where they have that multifaceted component, please do come to the department. Come directly to our department here in Halifax. For sure, go to the regional department. There are individuals - there is no one single individual who would take on the responsibility of the circumstance that my honourable colleague prefaced but there are a multitude of individuals within the department who take issues like that, who work with families to ensure that any programs, any resources that we have, that folks are able to access them.
Again, to my honourable colleague, the introduction of this new program for seniors, it may not fit this particular case, I'm not suggesting that it does, but the introduction of this new program for seniors, where seniors are able to access funding and resources to stay longer in their homes, that may be something that, as we bring this pilot program forward, many of our seniors in our communities will be able to access and benefit from and it will provide some assistance and reassurance for those families who are faced with some of those challenging questions and situations like my honourable colleague brought forward.
MR. PARKER: Those are all the questions, Mr. Chairman, that I am going to ask. I want to thank the minister for those comments. There are some institutional challenges that we have in Pictou County and I know my colleague, the member for Pictou East, is going to bring those forward. So, again, thank you, Madam Minister.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou East.
MR. CLARRIE MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, it's a pleasure for me to stand here and have an opportunity to raise some concerns with the minister at this level during the estimates. I'm going to refrain from individual situations, and also from policy perspectives as well, because I think they have been well aired and we do get a good response from staff in the local area.
What I want to address first and foremost is the Riverview Home, the adult residential centre in Riverton, which is in my constituency but it is a concern to all three members in Pictou County. Now the situation involving the Riverview Home, this is a facility that has existed since 1920. It is 87 years old and the member for Pictou West and I - and I have raised this in the House in relationship to some remarks regarding my constituency but I didn't have the opportunity to raise it to the minister in the estimates. This structure is in desperate need of renewal, of being totally revamped. In the tour of that facility that we had a number of months ago, we went from the basement to the attic and there are so many things that have to be looked after: the wiring, the kitchen, the number of toilets that there are, the number of baths. There is just not enough there.
Worst of all is the accommodation area of those residents. We have, in many rooms, 100 square feet of space being shared by two individuals. It's my understanding that the department has been looking at that facility and some staff have indicated that there will be action in relationship to the Riverview Home and even the idea of it being carried out over three years has been advanced. So, Mr. Chairman, I ask the minister, when will an official announcement be made in relationship to that facility and the badly needed overhaul of it?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, I thank my colleague for the opportunity to discuss the issue that he brings to the floor here today. Again, I will preface any statements about
finances or renovations or repairs with the fact that the work that goes on at Riverview Home, the work that goes on across the province on behalf of those who need us most, those who find themselves in a vulnerable situation, is invaluable and any statements made after that fact, Mr. Chairman, I think always requires that commitment. I know my honourable colleague understands that. I know my colleagues from all of the Pictous met with the board, had an opportunity to visit Riverview Home. My colleague, the member for Pictou Centre, met with me in my department and brought the issues that the board had brought to him and to the other members directly to my desk, and it's not something that has fallen on deaf ears.
Certainly the pressures, we know that the building has its challenges. We know that the health and safety concerns of staff and the clientele are of utmost importance to the board. So certainly when we worked through our budgetary process, we were able, Mr. Chairman, to provide the board with some dollars this year to address some of those concerns. One of the biggest concerns that exists for some of our adult residential centres, of course, are the deficits that they carry. I know that the deficit sits heavy on their shoulders because, as we all know, fiscal responsibility and fiscal accountability is extremely important, and to offset those deficit pressures allows the boards and the centres to then be able to move forward with their projects.
Mr. Chairman, I'm pleased to inform my honourable colleague that we were able to provide funding of $375,000 to Riverview Home to offset that deficit pressure, and that's something that we were very pleased to do. As well, I want to make my honourable colleague aware of the fact that for health and safety reasons, for immediate repair and renovation challenges, we also were able to provide Riverview with $80,000, to put some of those dollars immediately into place for immediate repair and renovation that were causing some health and safety concerns.
Now, Mr. Chairman, on top of that, of course, that won't solve the issue of the long term. I know my colleague mentioned a three-year plan. I think it's important to note that the department is extremely aware of the challenges that are faced by Riverview and we want to ensure that the best possible fit is what works. So we'll be going forward with a major undertaking. We'll be meeting with the board very soon to discuss the specifics of that to ensure that it's done in the best possible manner, and we're anticipating that that will take place through our housing authorities because we can do better with mortgages through the housing authorities. So we look forward to the meetings with that board in the very near future to address those very serious pressures.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, I'm very delighted with the response of the minister in relationship to the $375,000 and the $80,000. However, that having been said, certainly the board itself has been looking at either a replacement or, as it's being referred to now, as a total renewal, the word renewal. I guess the concept of replacement, you're talking multi-multi-million dollars and I just want to bring home the situation. I know other members are concerned about this, but it is in my riding and my personal history with that
facility goes back many years. My first tour of that facility was in 1970 as a 24-year-old municipal councillor in Pictou County. I used to go there with the Lions Club at least once a month and be involved with dances involving the residents there and so on. Certainly George Durling, a native of Pictou County, has been involved in going there on a monthly basis to provide entertainment at a very high level for decades.
What I am most excited about in that facility is the staff. Despite the situation that the kitchen is so depressing, that the rooms are in such horrible shape, that the lifts that are there to get people into tubs out of wheelchairs, actually came out of the Cole Harbour facility. The scuffs and scrapes in the walls there and so on, the maintenance staff, the people who are working there, are doing a phenomenal job and they keep referring to having that facility recognized as a facility of excellence.
I would ask if the minister would consider coming to that facility and touring it with all three MLAs from Pictou County. I think you would be inspired by the staff, you would be inspired by the residents and you would be appalled at the situation that does exist there. One of the things that was most discouraging when I was going through that facility was to see rooms that were, in fact, 100 square feet and drawers that wouldn't even open in a bureau. The bureaus had to be rolled out into the walk space for the bottom two drawers to be opened. Now 100 square feet for two people is contrasted to, I think, the new nursing home standard which is something in the order of 190 square feet or 197 square feet, I'm just trying to go by memory here. We have two people in almost half the area of one person and that is the appalling situation that does exist in that facility.
So having said that, I hope that the renewal will begin very soon, that the allocation of major funding will be forthcoming and the board is a good one, I believe. As I said earlier, the management and staff there would be second to none. So anything that can be done to make this the facility of excellence that the folks there are trying to achieve would be appreciated. So having said that, would the minister be prepared to come and tour that facility with the three MLAs?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, it is indeed my pleasure to make a few comments surrounding my honourable colleague's request. First and foremost, let me state that the department's commitment and concern is one that I know my honourable colleague shares. We're not looking for a band-aid approach here and I know that my honourable colleague and the other members for the area are not looking for that either. Therefore, it is important that we do it right, and it's important that we respect and celebrate the integrity of the clients, and obviously the integrity and the commitment of the staff, for it is indeed a credit to the staff, to the board and to the community at large, the tremendous work that goes on there, given some of the challenging circumstances that my honourable colleague brings forward here today.
So certainly we will ensure that the project, as we move forward in whatever capacity the project may be, is done so in a manner that reflects that respect. Mr. Chairman, it has been a pleasure for me to travel across the province, as I have been able to do within my schedule, and I would look forward to continuing to travel across the province. I would be delighted to come to Pictou County, I would be delighted to meet with the members for that area and the board, and meet some of the tremendous staff and the residents of Riverview Home and, who knows, perhaps when we visit we can bring good news with us.
MR. MACKINNON: Thank you very much. I appreciate the minister's response and willingness to tour the facility. I would like to move from a facility that is looking after over 100 residents to one that is dealing with only six. I had the pleasure yesterday of meeting with some of the residents who are in the Next Step Recovery House. The Next Step Recovery House is a private support facility which is helping residents with addiction problems to remain alcohol- and drug-free. They are working in conjunction with the addiction services and so on, but it is a real concern.
I think it is a concern to people within your department, minister, in relationship to some recent changes that have, in fact, apparently just taken place on Friday, March 16th. The way things were working in this facility prior to that date was that a person who was on assistance actually would receive $535 a month for the apartment and $200 for personal expenses. So it was the same amount that these folks qualified for in the recovery house, these six residents.
The situation today is that the same person will receive $223 for room at the facility and $200 in expenses. This drop of over $300 is affecting this facility tremendously. Yesterday I was there with media and with the owner of that private facility, and also with some of the residents, so my question in relationship to this is, how did this come about and why did a program that was working change on that date?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and to my honourable colleague, the Next Step Recovery Program is, indeed, one that provides an invaluable service. We know that these recovery programs are extremely important. We also know that there is a necessity for there to be more than simply one department that owns these responsibilities. I know there has been some discussion on the floor of this Chamber prior to this conversation, about ensuring that fundings stays committed so core funding to the agencies and the programs that we're discussing, the recovery programs, is indeed, essential.
What my honourable colleague brings to the floor is not a question of the core funding, Mr. Chairman, but it is about the per diem rates. I believe that if we had the opportunity to discuss at length, outside the Chamber, we could come to a better
understanding of the per diem rates that would have been provided through the disabled shelter allowance versus a payment of a per diem of a non-disabled shelter allowance.
So, Mr. Chairman, I would invite my colleague to bring this issue to my attention outside of the Chamber so we can have a full discussion and to bring in senior staff, if necessary, to have a full understanding of the funding scheme and the funding challenges that he referenced.
MR. MACKINNON: Mr. Chairman, that would be very appropriate because I have been told that I'm running out of shared time so I would like to follow that up with the minister. I have a number of other questions in relationship to it. I also had a series of questions in relationship to Summer Street Industries and some of the funding shortfalls there, some information on an audit and some problems that they were having, and the 19 people who are on a waiting list there and they expect that list will grow to 40 people by 2012. My shared time is, in fact, gone, but I would like to follow these up with the minister on a personal basis - perhaps tomorrow or when the estimates are finished. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth South-Portland Valley.
MS. MARILYN MORE: Just two fairly quick questions. I'm interested in the budget for the Disabled Persons Commission. Unlike other commissions and secretariats, I struggled to find it, but apparently it's included on Page 4.4, the Senior Management page of the department's budget.
First of all, I'm wondering why the Disabled Persons Commission doesn't have its own budget line. Secondly, could you give me the estimate and actual for last year and the estimate and forecast this year for that particular commission?
MS. STREATCH: I believe, if my honourable colleague would reference Page 4.5 of the Supplementary Detail, she will find Commissions and Agencies as a line item. That would be where we would find the Disabled Persons Commission. The specifics of the dollar figures we are working on right now, so if she would just give me a couple of moments, we will attempt to bring up those specifics. If we can't under her allotted time, I'd be pleased to provide my honourable colleague with those at a later point when they're able to access them.
MS. MORE: Yes, if you could provide that information as soon as it's available, I would appreciate that.
I'm now sharing my time with my colleague, the member for Cape Breton Nova.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Community Services to respond.
MS. STREATCH: On Page 4.5, as indicated, Commissions and Agencies, staff have confirmed that indeed that is the line item. The estimate to forecast as indicated there and you will see the estimate for next year shows an increase. That is to reflect increases in travel costs and salary increases.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Cape Breton Nova.
MR. GORDON GOSSE: Thank you. First of all I'd like to say to the minister that my relationship with the department in Sydney has improved quite a bit over the last year or so. My relationship with the minister's staff has been great. Anytime that I've asked questions or anything else, they've always been there for me, so I thank the minister and thank her hard-working staff. This is a very stressful department to work in at the best of times and there are so many things we should be doing for poverty and people who are less fortunate than ourselves and people with disabilities.
My first question to the minister is, are the caseloads for caseworkers in Cape Breton higher on the average than here in any other part of the province?
MS. STREATCH: I welcome my honourable colleague to the debate and discussion. I was wondering when he would appear and I look forward to the time that we will spend together over the next little while. We are more than anxious to chat about the issues.
In all seriousness, my honourable colleague makes the statement about the improved relationship. Well, I need to turn that compliment back to my honourable colleague. It's through the co-operative nature that we work together that we can truly go beyond the political boundaries, if you will, and truly seek resolution to some of the challenges we face. I know from my honourable colleague that the goodwill he extends to my staff and to the staff of the department, and I know the staff in the Sydney office, is much appreciated. They certainly will hear this and will know that statement has been made. So I thank him for that statement.
Now, Mr. Chairman, the exact caseload or the total caseload across the province, as we have indicated before, is on the decline, and we appreciate that's because of a sound economic situation in the province, the great work that is being done at Employment Support Services to provide opportunities for individuals and families to go back to work. The exact number of cases at the Sydney office, I don't have at my disposal right now nor do I have a ratio of caseload per caseworker, but I would be more than happy to get my regional administrators to get me that information. I would be more than pleased to provide it to my honourable colleague.
MR. GOSSE: My next question would be along the same lines. I'm wondering if the minister could tell me, are there any other regions in the area, in the Department of Community Services, is the Sydney office the only office that has a caseworker assigned to
single persons or is that a standard policy within the department, or is the Sydney office the only office that has a caseworker assigned to single people?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, it is my understanding, as my honourable colleague brings this question forward, that's one that he has brought forward before and it is my understanding, through staff, there is no policy directive that dictates that one caseworker deals with a certain clientele, that there would be variances across the province.
MR. GOSSE: I would like to switch gears a little bit here and I would like to ask a question about today, the high needs of children coming in foster care. So I would like to ask the minister, has there been an increase in the budget to foster families in Nova Scotia this year and, if so, what is that increase?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, there is no question that the issue of foster families is one that pulls at the heart strings of each and every one of the members in here. I made reference before that I had met with the Nova Scotia Association of Foster Families just a little over a month ago. I heard them and their concerns around their per diem rates, their concerns around the stresses and the additional challenges that come along with foster family care in Nova Scotia today and, of course, across jurisdictions. We are extremely fortunate here in Nova Scotia. We have the Chairman of the Canadian Association of Foster Families here in Nova Scotia. It was very interesting for me to have a discussion with her as she explained to me that in Nova Scotia we truly are looked upon as being very progressive, as being very creative and leaders when it comes to foster family initiatives and foster family structure all across the country.
So that was very rewarding to hear, particularly about rates. Last year, of course, government provided a 5 per cent increase to the foster family rate and I was very pleased to be able to inform the association that affective April 1, 2007, their mileage would be increased to the provincial rate.
MR. GOSSE: I take it that means no rate increases to the families, I guess. I'm just trying to find out if there is any because some of the youth who are coming in today are high needs and it takes special care and it takes a very good individual and a very special individual to want to do this type of work. I'm just wondering, with no increase to their actual per diem rate and increases for some of the needs of the children that they have in care, by giving them the same rate as we get for our mileage, I don't think it's going to help them too much in the everyday taking care of their families and children that they're looking after.
What I'm going to ask next, I guess, is going to be about seniors citizens in Cape Breton. I think the status out there that not just senior citizens, but people in Cape Breton pay almost 60 per cent of their budget - almost 60 per cent of the people in Cape Breton pay more than 30 per cent for rent in the area in Cape Breton. That's the highest statistic of anywhere in the country; I think it was 59.2 per cent in Cape Breton. That's the highest percentage that
they're paying out of their income for rent anywhere in this country. With the high unemployment in Cape Breton, I'm just wondering now, and going back to - could the minister tell me, with all this going on, could she please tell me how many new units were built in the Affordable Housing Program in Phase I in Cape Breton that are actually built?
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Of course it's important certainly that I don't mislead my colleague, that the mileage increase for the foster families certainly is for the foster family to offset some of the pressures that the families find themselves, with the ever-increasing challenges, whether it be medical appointments or school issues or appointments for other needs that pertain to the care of the foster children. Of course that is what the increase is intended for, so I didn't mean to allude that it was for outside the - it's for the family itself.
As well, Mr. Chairman, the budget for the Maintenance of Children, of course, on Page 4.8, the line item specifically references the increase from $68 million, the estimate of 2006-07, to an increase of over $70 million. Mr. Chairman, it's getting late and the numbers are all starting to gel together and I know my colleague is antsy to get back up on another question.
I know my colleague would like to know about the housing in Cape Breton, and as I have shared with my colleague before, under Phase I of the housing commitment of this government and all of those dollars have been committed and moved out the door. Of those, the new rental component for the Cape Breton region is 30, the rental preservation is 104, the home preservation, of course, 65 and the rent supplement for students was allocated at three, for the total for Cape Breton to be 202.
Now my honourable colleague knows that there are specific locations associated with that and I'd be pleased to get into that with him, if he would like, or I can provide him with those lists after the fact. My colleague also knows that there are challenges to getting those housing projects up and running. Some of those challenges came from factors that were outside of our control: the construction industry, the challenges that came along with labour issues, of getting projects completed. We allotted the dollars, the dollars are there and unfortunately some of our developers found challenges, in particular the projects that have been completed, which figure 273.
My colleague will be well aware that of those new projects, four of them were in Cape Breton in Arichat, and my colleague would be aware that the units in North Sydney and the units in Sydney have not been completed to date. I'm pleased to indicate that the chart that I have, that I would be willing to share with my colleague, indicates that Sydney's 104 units have a completion date of May 2007. So I am sure that my honourable colleague will remind me of this, if the May 2007 date is not completed on time. I know that he would be
more than pleased to bring that to my attention, as well as the development in Sydney Mines for 20 units, is, of course, a project that's had some challenges with land issues, and we're aware of that. I believe DNR is working to resolve that issue, that there are some complications there with the land component.
MR. GOSSE: I'm well aware of the challenges in North Sydney. New Deal Development is the name of the association with the 20 units there and the other ones in Sydney Mines, I think the total I read at the last Community Services Standing Committee meeting was - I saw the slide - I think it was four in Arichat, a few in Sydney Mines and then the 20 in New Deal Development. So right now we've had four completed units in Cape Breton in three years in Phase I of $39.2 million and we've had only four new rental units in Arichat. So I guess that would help my colleague from Arichat who would be quite pleased with that, getting four anywhere in Cape Breton.
Now I'll switch my hat into another area, people with disabilities. My focus would be on the program freeze that has gone out for adult service centres in the Province of Nova Scotia - 14 years the program freeze. It's been frozen, I think, since 1992, specifically a rise in achievement centres. We saw a story recently in the news that a lady was looking to keep her child, who is mentally challenged and has a disability, in school until the age of 21, and I'm just wondering, because now we have more and more of these children who are graduating from school at age 21. I think the waiting list that arrives in achievement centres is anywhere from two to four years, and that's a Work Activity Program. It's the same that they have here at Prescott Group in Halifax.
I'm just wondering if the minister has any opportunity or anything else to discuss that would arise on achievement centres to find out if there's going to be any new - is that program freeze going to be lifted so that we can accommodate these young adults who are coming out of school, who have so many difficulties, and give them a place to go, help them with their self-esteem and make them feel good about themselves? I wonder if that program freeze is going to be lifted. It has been 14 years and I'm just wondering if that's going to be lifted.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. We've spoke often during the last few days about the importance of having communication and collaboration with other departments. This is one of those opportunities where I have worked very closely with the Minister of Education. We recognized last year that there was a challenge when it came to funding for some of these programs that was not being renewed through Service Canada. Again, we took that responsibility on. We ensured that those programs stayed in place and we were pleased to be able to do that, not because we believe it is our responsibility to pick up where other levels of government don't, but we knew that it went beyond finances. It went to the individuals and their families. So we were pleased to be able to make sure that those programs continued.
My honourable colleague brings one particular program to the floor and while I don't have the particulars on the funding to that program, I do know that we recently completed a day program review and we will be moving forward, working in collaboration with the Department of Education, to ensure that, when possible, we are able to expand the spaces at these programs, at these day programs. We all have a variety of them, most of us do in our community. We know the valuable service that they provide and the very important lifeline that they provide for those clients, those individuals who find themselves in those programs.
So we have committed to having that full review analyzed, looked at, to ensure that the programs are maximized to the best of our ability, and will continue to do that on a regional basis and an individual program basis.
MR. GOSSE: The program I was referring to, I guess, would be Community Supports for Adults Program. That's the one I was interested in there, that one. I guess being a parent of a child who is in those programs, I understand the anxiety by other parents waiting to have their children in those programs. So it is very difficult to arrange services for a child of that nature. I know the importance myself, as a parent of a child who attends a program like that.
Okay, now I guess I'll switch to something that is near and dear to my heart, asbestos in public housing. What I'd like to ask the minister is, is the department is going to release the internal report done by David Ryan and Cyril LeBlanc, or the report that's at the Department of Environment that was done on the asbestos? I wonder when the House can expect to have those reports tabled here.
MS. STREATCH: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Again, the entire issue around asbestos in the public housing buildings in Cape Breton is one that we take extremely seriously. I have, on numerous occasions, stood in my place, I have presented reports from the internationally renowned Pinchin LeBlanc Environmental Ltd., who have performed investigations and have prepared a report that government was then able to look at and to make our recommendations based on. We accepted the recommendations from Pinchin LeBlanc in our asbestos management plan for the move forward.
Mr. Chairman, we know that there have been challenges within the departments to ensure that everything that's done is done so with the safety and the health of our clientele at the forefront. My honourable colleague brings forth the issue surrounding specifically the report that Environment and Labour are in possession of. I have stated before, and I remain committed to ensuring that what we do in our department is extremely important to secure and ensure the health and safety of our clientele and to respect the reputation and the ethic of our staff. The Department of Environment and Labour are conducting their own investigation and I would encourage the Minister of Environment and Labour to ensure that his staff complete their investigation and do their due diligence in the same manner that we did and get that report available, so my honourable colleague and all members could have a look at their findings.
MR. GOSSE: Mr. Chairman, the reason I ask that is because nobody has ever been held accountable for that report sitting on somebody's desk for six months and construction still going on. So nobody has ever been held accountable and the Minister of the Department of Environment and Labour did tell me that he cannot release that report because there may be charges pending, but nobody has ever been held accountable. So I would like to see us, as legislators, hold somebody accountable for that procedure and what happened when they were exposed.
Also, my final question before I turn my time over to my colleague here, the member for Dartmouth East, I would like to ask the minister, since April 1, 2006, when this story broke, when I broke this story in Cape Breton, I guess I could say in a sense, is that I would like to know how many people have moved back into those units. I'm asking a question I know the answer to, I guess, but I want to know, when can we start to see those units that have been so well taken care of by Pinchin LeBlanc, that international firm of great integrity, when we can have people moving back into those duct-taped units?
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, as my honourable colleague is well aware, we recognized that we had units in the Cape Breton region that we weren't getting a fast enough turnover on. We allocated additional resources this past winter to perform a Winter Works Program so that we were able to expedite the refurbishment of some of the housing units that we had in Cape Breton, and we were able to successfully refurbish 247 vacant public housing units. That's 54 more than the 193 that we had planned to do. So we were pleased that we were able to do that with existing staff and extra staff that we had hired on. All of the refurbished units have been filled with low-income families and seniors.
Specifically to the two facilities that my honourable colleague mentions, I do not have a specific list here as to which ones were refurbished and which ones were not on that list, but I can get that for him as soon as staff can prepare it, Mr. Chairman.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Dartmouth East.
MS. JOAN MASSEY: Mr. Chairman, I don't have a whole lot of time this afternoon, but I would like to thank the honourable minister for any answers that she may be able to give me. I would just like to start by saying that having looked through the budget documents and more or less listening to the budget speech, I know there were a couple of NDP commitments in there that came through the budget. A couple of them were the home repair program grant increase, which I think may be your department, the caregiver support allowance and elevators.
A couple of things I didn't see in there was more interest-free loans for energy efficiency improvement in homes and I was looking for a decrease in Pharmacare co-pays. It seems to be a big issue in my riding and I actually had tabled a petition in here done by one of my constituents. I think he collected over 800 signatures. What they're looking for is the
co-pay to go down and they feel even the premium, for two people, $800, is a lot of money coming out of the pockets of some of my seniors that are on really strict fixed incomes.
I would like to just go over some of the issues I come across. What I did, as I went through just the case files from a month or so ago, that I had just a summary done on each of the cases in my constituency and just tried to highlight which ones related to Community Services. Sometimes it's a bit confusing which department really is handling some of these things. When you're talking of home repairs, Community Services? You know, it doesn't always make sense.
But I do have constituents that have contacted me about home care services. Then, of course, the issue of just the feeling that the amount of money for people on community services is not enough to really survive on, that issue. Affordable housing, housing repairs in general and how do those get paid for, and what can we do to help people that are either low-income working families or people on community services and trying to get off or have gotten off. I know there are all those periods of time where Community Services tries to extend the coverage sometimes for medical, health benefits, while someone does find a job.
I always have a couple of people every once in a while that have termination notices given, or the threat that CS is going to terminate them seems to be something that happens in my office.
Dental coverage is an issue. I've had a constituent recently that had some work done at Dalhousie Dental School, but he desperately is in need of some dentures. He just doesn't have the finances to do that himself.
I really have such a short amount of time that I just really want you to hear some of the concerns that come out in my constituency. I think one of the saddest things I had happen, just to let you know, I don't know if we ever talked to you about this, we had a family that arrived in my riding from Cape Breton. They were escaping from a violent situation there and they really just didn't have time to throw anything together - they sort of got on a bus, literally, and ended up there. The churches and some community groups were helping them out, putting them up in a motel and they literally ended up in my office on a morning when I was still at home. They hadn't eaten in two days, the parents.
I guess these are the kinds of things that I'm concerned about that are out there. I know your department tries to do a lot and you've been very good to my office as far as trying to help people. The people who work for your department are great people, I have to say, but when somebody shows up on my doorstep and my CA gives them $10 out of her pocket because I'm not there, so they can go and get - it's heartbreaking.
Also, I wish I had time to talk about the foster parents in our province and what a great job they're doing, and how I know they're struggling to provide for the children and the youth in their care, and I know the amounts haven't gone up for quite awhile and if they have, it's by a tiny amount. It's so important for us to help these people that are doing such a great thing for our province.
I don't know if there's a question there or anything you can enlighten me with. I'm really not here today to ask questions. More, to know if you're listening to what is really going on. I know you probably spend a fair amount of time in your constituency office and I'm wondering, do you face, are you hearing the same kinds of problems we are? You get elected as an MLA and there's not really any training for this job and you tend to be a jack-of-all-trades in your office where people are coming in with a lot of issues and problems. I just want you to know that's what's going on in Dartmouth East still and hopefully, you know, we'll see things improve as time goes by but I just wanted you to know that's what's going on.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Community Services has about 30 seconds to reply.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, the member for Dartmouth East, I want to say first and foremost that I know she cares passionately about her constituents. We've had many discussions off and on about particular cases and I know that she wears them heavy on her heart and I want to say that publicly and acknowledge the work that she and obviously her constituency assistant do as well. The challenges that we all find ourselves in are not necessarily the ones that are the easiest for us.
I will as a final note though, Mr. Chairman, to my honourable colleague, I will invite her to come to meet with me at any time, to meet with me, my senior staff, the staff in the department, to have a better understanding of what programs she and her constituents might be able to access.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time has expired. I will now invite the honourable Minister of Community Services to bring closing remarks and move her resolution.
MS. STREATCH: Mr. Chairman, first and foremost, I would like to acknowledge the fine work done here by my staff over the last three days. They have been phenomenal and a great support for me and I want to publicly state that.
Mr. Chairman, I am pleased that our proposed budget for the Department of Community Services is once again increasing to support the good work that is being done around the province on behalf of those who need our help the most. The committee has my commitment to provide direction to my department to deliver the programs and services laid
out in this budget in the most responsible and cost-effective manner. In the year ahead we will continue our efforts to make life better or easier for the Nova Scotians we serve.
In closing debate on these estimates, Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to move Resolution E2. Thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Shall Resolution E2 stand?
Resolution E2 stands.
We will now begin the estimates of the Department of Education.
Resolution E4 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $1,188,445,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Education, pursuant to the Estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: I will call on the honourable Minister of Education to bring opening remarks and introduce her staff.
HON. KAREN CASEY: Good evening. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and honourable members. If I may, I would like to introduce two people who are with me here tonight to go through the estimates: my deputy, Dennis Cochrane, no stranger to most people in the House; and Darrell Youden, Senior Executive Director of Corporate Services.
I'm pleased to be here today to share with you the plans that our department and this government have for improving life-long learning in Nova Scotia. The province's investment in the education of its people at all stages of their lives is at the heart of this strategy for a vibrant, prosperous and sustainable Nova Scotia. Investments by the department will increase again this year to a total of $1.4 billion, including assistance to universities, so that we may continue to help Nova Scotians from all walks of life succeed - to succeed as learners, to succeed as workers, and to succeed as Nova Scotians. This represents a 5.4 per cent increase overall in education funding, with no increases in taxes and no cuts to service.
Nova Scotia's public school system addresses the needs of students from Primary and in some cases pre-Primary, through to high school students. This year, government will invest an additional $34 million in Nova Scotia's public school education system. In anticipation of a discussion on per-student funding, let me say that comparing per-student funding between jurisdictions is not a good measure of a success or efficiency of a public school system.
The parts of Canada with the highest per-student funding are the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Their numbers would reflect higher energy consumption for heating, higher transportation costs for students and materials, and the lower population density. In
other words, higher per-student funding in another jurisdiction does not necessarily mean more money in the classroom. There are better indicators of education success and efficiency. For example, Nova Scotia's high school graduation rate is growing faster than the national average, with 5.4 per cent in Nova Scotia versus 0.4 per cent nationally.
In addition, our educator-to-pupil ratios are at the national average. Meeting and exceeding national benchmarks is proof that we are getting value for our tax dollars. I mentioned pre-Primary. We are investing $1.3 million to continue the pilot phase of this program for a third consecutive year, and we will put the resources in place to transition to a December 31st cut-off age of entry date to Primary from the current date of October 1st. This change will take effect at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year, for registration to begin in September 2008. The rationale for these decisions is clear. It makes Nova Scotia consistent with many other Canadian jurisdictions, it reflects the increasing mobility of society, including the large military family presence in Nova Scotia, and it gives more children an earlier start at education.
We know that healthy, physically active, well nourished students are better able to learn. That is why the province is continuing its investment in the health and well-being of our future generations by supporting physical education programming at all grade levels, and by implementing the food and nutrition policy that was introduced in Fall 2006.
In particular, we are allocating more dollars to increase the number of elementary school Phys. Ed. teachers and help schools introduce the new compulsory Phys. Ed. requirement at high school. We are also working with the Department of Health Promotion and Protection and other partners to promote physical activity beyond the instructional program. The public school system cannot solve the problem of student inactivity alone. It is a shared responsibility, but schools do have an integral role to play if we are to move our young people into healthier and more active lifestyles.
With regard to funding to school boards, the province is allocating $1. 8 million to three school boards to complete the transition to the new school board funding formula. This year, Halifax Regional, the South Shore Regional and CSAP, will benefit fully from the transition to the new formula, as recommended in the Hogg Report. We will continue to build a strong, educated workforce in our province by investing in an expansion of the highly successful Options and Opportunities, or O2, program. This innovative program connects high school students with employers, prepares them for post-secondary education in their field and readies them for success in the labour market.
In the coming school year, O2 will expand from Grade 10 to Grade 11 in the 27 schools currently offering the program, and be introduced for the first time in five additional schools, for a total of 32 schools across the province. All indications are that this program is having a tremendous positive impact on students, families and schools. Student attendance and grades have improved, principals are reporting fewer discipline issues, and students are
developing self esteem and self confidence. In fact some students have described it as "life changing."
The province will also invest up to $1.3 million to further expand choices for hands-on learning in the areas of vocational and composite programming. This will give older students a greater choice in identifying the educational path that best suits their interest and their future career plans. When implemented, the new programming will offer students trade-specific opportunities for learning in the areas of metals, wood, plumbing, pipefitting and electrical studies, in connection with the Nova Scotia Community College.
Tuition support is one of the many Learning For Life initiatives that helps provide students support and those students with special needs. The province is allocating a total of $350,000 so that there is funding for a third year of tuition support - one of the many Learning for Life initiatives that helps support students with special needs. This program enables these students to benefit from specialized expertise that is available at a designated private school, for up to three years. Year one concentrates on rebuilding self esteem in the students. Year two will prepare the students for re-entry into the public school system, and those students who require additional time to complete their preparation for a return to the public school system will have that opportunity now, in the third year.
The department has begun a review of special education programming in Nova Scotia to ensure that special education funding is having the intended impact. The province introduced its special education policy just over 10 years ago, and followed that up with a Special Education Implementation Review Committee, in 2001. Now we will determine what's working and where we can improve outcomes. Our focus in that review will be on all students in the classroom.
Our progress in implementing the operational recommendations of the Black Learners Advisory Committee continues. We are investing $1.6 million in that project this year. This is the final instalment of a three-year, $4.1 million commitment dedicated to enhancing the learning opportunities and outcomes for our province's African Nova Scotian student population.
This year's investment also includes funds to pilot a new English 12 African Heritage Language Arts credit, and the resources to continue the implementation of the Racial Equity Policy are also included. I have also called for a review of the implementation of the recommendations in that BLAC Report and we will work with other educators and CAIS to assess the effectiveness of our efforts.
In September, high school students across Nova Scotia will have the opportunity of studying for their International Baccalaureate, one of the world's most respected pre-
university high school diploma programs. The province, in conjunction with school boards, has invested to make Nova Scotia one of the leading jurisdictions in the world in terms of commitment to the International Baccalaureate program. A rigorous certification process by schools was undertaken this year in preparation for offering the program, and we anticipate that 10 schools will be ready to offer the program, starting this September. To that end, we have invested an additional $337,000 to cover the cost of offering the program in those participating high schools.
This September, we expect that more than 375 Grade 11 students will begin the IB Diploma Program, with the first diploma students graduating in 2009. No other province or state has launched the IB Diploma Program in so many schools at one time. The IB Program will be a huge benefit to ambitious students who are looking for a challenge. This is an internationally-recognized program that will encourage students to be active learners, well-rounded individuals and engaged world citizens, and IB graduates are highly sought after by universities, eager for students who have met an international standard of excellence.
Speaking of excellence, the department continues with its implementation of the Positive Effective Behaviour Supports program, known as PEBS. By the end of the 2006-07 school year, we will have in-serviced 75 per cent of the public schools in Nova Scotia and the results have been impressive. The initial PEBS pilot showed a 50 per cent reduction in the number of students being sent to the principal's office. Across the province, teachers and principals interact with students and their families every day. They know their students, their families and their communities better than anyone else. Armed with the information that PEBS provides, they will be better prepared to take action that makes their school safer and more productive.
We remain committed to a comprehensive student information system when we can better afford it. In the meantime, schools and school boards will maintain statistics for such things as attendance, suspension and student progress.
On the capital front, the province is committing $58.5 million to enhance the province's investment in healthy, sustainable school facilities. The additions and alterations program will improve major school building components in our efforts to address building conditions and environmental program issues.
In a few weeks, Nova Scotia will begin to take delivery of the first provincially-funded school buses that include the integrated child safety seats. All of the 66 buses on order this year will have eight safety seats, and this exceeds the new standard established by Transport Canada.
On March 21st, I introduced Bill No. 145, which would improve the school review process in Nova Scotia. If passed, the amendments contained in Bill No. 145 would give
communities a clear and transparent criteria for school reviews and a stronger voice in the process.
Moving on to higher education, we are increasing our university funding by $22.9 million, up 10 per cent, to ensure that more Nova Scotians can enjoy the benefits of higher learning - $12.5 million will offset the 3.9 per cent tuition increase scheduled for 2007-08, under the memorandum of understanding between the universities and the province. This will freeze tuition at September 2006 levels. An additional $11.6 million will be used to reduce tuition levels for approximately 500 Nova Scotian students attending Nova Scotia universities.
This continues our efforts to honour our government's commitment to bring Nova Scotia tuition rates in line with the national average by the 2010-11 school year. The province is further investing to help students access affordable student loans to help finance their university education. As a result of reduced parental contribution requirements and the changes to the formulae used to calculate student loan eligibility, the province anticipates it will issue over $2 million more in student loans this year.
At the same time, the province will introduce a new repayment assistance program that will help graduates who are having difficulty repaying their loans reduce their expected payments to a more manageable level. In addition, Nova Scotia is introducing a new multi-year needs-based grant program in 2007-08 to help students from low-income families to fund their second, third, fourth or fifth years of study.
Another key aspect of Nova Scotia's lifelong education system is the emphasis on ensuring that this province has the skilled workforce it needs to grow its economy. To that end, we are investing $4.8 million to continue the Nova Scotia Community College's multi-year development plan. This year's investment will result in an additional 591 student seats across Nova Scotia with a particular focus in the areas of skilled trades and information technology training.
With this year's investment, the college's aggressive growth strategy will have seen enrolment increase by over 2,000 students since 2002-03 to just under 10,000 students registered. Overall, the budget of the Nova Scotia Community College system will increase by an additional $13.5 million this year. That is a 15.9 per cent budget increase.
In addition, we are investing $3.6 million in strengthening Nova Scotia's apprenticeship training system and making it accessible to more people. Nova Scotia's skilled trades workforce will form the backbone of this province's economic growth over the coming years, and this is an area of tremendous employer demand. Two million dollars will be used to establish an apprenticeship scholarship trust fund, with the proceeds used to assist third and fourth year apprentices to complete their training and gain their skilled trade certification; $1.6 million will be used to enhance the apprenticeship system and workplace-
based training initiatives. As I mentioned earlier, the province, along with our Council of the Federation partners will continue to lobby Ottawa to step up to the plate and invest more of their dollars in higher education in Nova Scotia and in Canada.
The public library system in Nova Scotia, which has nine library boards and 77 public sites, will have a continuation of the funding; the funding from last year will be maintained between $10 million and $11 million. Our provincial librarian has recently concluded province-wide consultations that led to the development of a strategic plan that will help Nova Scotia libraries adapt to the changing demands of its clients in the 21st Century. In closing, I would like to thank my critics and other educators in the House from both Parties who I know share my passion for students and for education in this province. I look forward to your questions. I look forward to continue working with you in the best interests of our students.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Timberlea-Prospect.
MR. WILLIAM ESTABROOKS: Mr. Chairman, could you confirm for me when estimates are over this evening?
MR. CHAIRMAN: 7:19 p.m.
MR. ESTABROOKS: You know I could begin by saying that Paul Harvey line from radio days of the past, if you ever listened to Paul Harvey, where he gives half the broadcast and he comes back, "And now, the rest of the story." That glib sort of sarcastic way is not the way I want to begin this exchange but, you know, the kids are in the street. The president of the Nova Scotia's Teachers Union is angry. We have Mr. Elliott Payzant, who is putting out press releases, "Nova Scotia School Boards Association Disappointed with Public School Funding."
We're going to get a different slant on things here, if that's the correct word, but before I begin, I would like to compliment the researcher for the NDP. Young Lorraine Glendenning from Ireland arrived here and firmly gave me on many occasions a prepared text. Giving the MLA for Timberlea-Prospect a prepared text is impossible. It's impossible for two reasons. One reason the deputy minister knows, I can read although I was a football player. But I would like to at this time thank Lorraine Glendenning again for giving me prepared comments - high definition, big print so I can read it. She sits in the audience as I very conveniently sort of fold them and put it away. (Interruptions)
I want to bring some matters to the minister's attention because I don't quite see it that way when it comes to public school education. You know I think it has gone from disappointment to frustration to anger. I think it comes down to anger, particularly, when the teachers I hear from say they don't know the line items, they don't know the budget process,
but they have lost faith in the fact that curriculum change after curriculum change comes forward, but where are the dollars to follow it?
We read about the Hogg report - it deals nothing with transportation, the key issue in the whole report. The Hogg report doesn't deal with the issue of transportation. We look at the Special Education Implementation Review Committee, 10 long years, and we're still playing catch-up. We can look at one particular issue after another but I want the minister to know that when I see the Nova Scotia School Boards Association agreeing with the President of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, I think we have a concern about this budget.
When I particularly look at what Mary-Lou Donnelly - and yes, Mary-Lou Donnelly at one time was the well-acknowledged vice-principal of Sir John A. Macdonald High School - Ms. Donnelly says that it's is a terribly disappointing budget. This is in the March 24th edition of the Daily News. She said that one of the biggest disappointments is no further reduction in class sizes. The previous Conservative Government promised to cap Grade 4 classes in 2007 and 2008 but that wasn't part of the budget yesterday.
We're just supposed to forget that? I remember one of the predecessors of this minister, Jane Purves when she was the Minister of Education, going into an elementary school in her riding at the time, Halifax Citadel, which is now an NDP seat for some of the very promises that haven't been fulfilled, I remember Miss Purves so proudly announcing the cap program. That makes common sense. It is something that teachers and parents can get their head around, the cap program and how it was to proceed.
Then the previous minister - if I have it out of sync, minister, I apologize but the member for Truro-Bible Hill, the continuation of the cap program. But now the cap program, like a hot potato, it has been dropped, no word of it. Now that's a disappointment that causes frustration and that causes anger among parents. If it was to proceed in an orderly fashion and elementary school children were to have the opportunity so that by the time they were in Grade 6 there would be a cap program, I see the minister does say but, and I won't use her name, the MLA for Colchester North, told the Daily News last September that she wanted to cap classes at 25 students up to Grade 6.
It is not the question I'm going to start off with because I have a few other comments to make before we come to 7:19 p.m., what happened to that commitment to the cap program? What happened to it? It is, after all, the nuts and bolts of the school system when it comes to how things are being done. It is not rocket science. We all know the recent edition of the Sunday Daily News pointed out the success of the math program at Bedford South Elementary School and the teacher who was interviewed said in that interview, if you saw the article, very simple, low class sizes in my elementary school, as opposed to class sizes in other elementary schools that are having problems with math.
Now it is conveniently dropped - that thud we heard in the middle of the budget was, what happened to the cap program at the elementary level, up as far as Grade 6? What happened to compulsory physical education, a commitment that was made with great fanfare, compulsory physical education.
Now at the time I remember being asked for comments, the question that I had was, my God, they'll never be able to meet that deadline. The resources, the teachers - no, we're going to have compulsory physical education, it's an important part of the high school program. But now it has been delayed. I mean the very thing, the foofaraw that was around an election promise and what was going to happen as we heard about the healthy lifestyles, all of the wonderful things about the importance of a physically active lifestyle, particularly with teenagers, but compulsory physical education has been delayed.
I must share with my friends from my caucus, I told you the reasons it would be delayed. We knew it was an election promise, we knew it was something that wasn't going to be fulfilled. This is where you go from the disappointment to the frustration to the anger. You can play politics with pavement, you can play politics with asphalt, with bridges - it is dangerous but it is a Nova Scotia tradition. You should not play politics when it comes to education. You should not make commitments that are not financially viable.
I know some members opposite said well, here's a member of the NDP talking about financially viable; the number one thing that's always brought up when the NDP announces it, what's it going to cost, what's the cost for this particular issue? Here's an example of where we have played politics with the education of children in our school system: the cap program, the progression to Grade 6 and now, of course, we look at the compulsory physical education program that has been delayed. It has been delayed.
I want to turn to Elliott Payzant's comments, though, and I think it is important to get them in the record; the Nova Scotia School Boards Association said in a press release that not only is there no new money to fund new initiatives, this budget announcement includes barely enough to ensure that current programs will continue. Mr. Payzant's words, not mine. He says: More and more the dollars aren't there when it comes to curriculum changes.
So we have Ms. Donnelly from the Teachers Union, Mr. Payzant from the Nova Scotia School Boards Association and today we had kids in the street. We had kids who came up from Middleton and my compliments to the minister for speaking to them, my compliments to the other members of the staff present at that time, my compliments to the member for Digby-Annapolis for making sure that the concerns of those students from Middleton were brought to the minister's attention.
Having listened to the comments and looked at the itinerary here of the Middleton school, and Heaven forbid that I would try to read the size of this print, but when we look at what these people have been putting up with - and I say these young people have been putting up with - I mean I think it is noteworthy for all members of this House to look and to see what Middleton Regional High School students have been putting up with when it comes to their gymnasium or their band program.
If you saw the six o'clock news, as I did this evening, and you watched the coverage on the CBC, they were in the constituency of the member for Kings West, I believe, the Somerset school, where we have kids in that school who don't have the proper facilities for any kind of physical activity. The promises were made but the promises have not been kept, so you can see why parents, why school administrators, and of course why the Teachers Union people are not just disappointed, they are not just frustrated, they are angry because the public school system has certainly not been a priority in this budget for this government.
I know the deputy minister has suffered through these so-called lectures before and I apologize for the fact that I am on a bit of a rant but I am concerned about the fact - no, I don't apologize for being on a rant, I do it all the time - I'm concerned about the fact that teachers are in contact with me, I make comments about them, one particular one, and I'm going to come to a question here in a moment, I promise you. I come to this all the time, curriculum development, it's such a key thing.
You know I have seen and heard people from the Department of Education, and there are some good people who work in the Department of Education, but Ms. Blackwood and I have always differed on the fact that I have called junior high a curriculum wasteland. A curriculum wasteland. That is not in an offensive tone because it is not my language, it is the language of people that I have taught school with. Members opposite should know that once I was a high school teacher and a high school administrator. I made the career change, and a wise one, to go to junior high school.
My friend from Kings West and myself often talk about what happens in junior high. I would like to know, when we look at curriculum development, and this is a specific question that perhaps can't be answered at this time, but I want to point this out to people who are listening, people who are watching this on TV, I want them to know that when it comes to curriculum development, from Primary to Grade 6 there is program after program and idea after idea and issue after issue that comes up; the parents are engaged, the kids are keen, the teachers of course are keen and want to have a good start to the first Primary to Grade 6 part of the school. Then, of course, they are in Grade 10, and I say that because I look at the member for Dartmouth East and she just begins to realize, he went from Grade 6 to Grade 10, what happened in there? Well, what happens in there is junior high school and junior high school is neglected.
My question is simply put, it is unfair at this stage after these comments, I would like to have a breakdown of the amount, dollar for dollar, for curriculum development for Grades 7, 8 and 9 in this province, in the Department of Education. Junior high teachers are under the opinion that those children in those grades are neglected.
So with those comments and lack of focus, I will bring forth the fact that that's the first question I have. I have some others, of course, during my comments but is it unfair for me, as the Education Critic for the NDP and the MLA for Timberlea-Prospect, to bring forward the concern from junior high teachers in my constituency who consider junior high school Grades 7, 8 and 9 neglected when it comes to curriculum development.
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, thank you to my critic for raising some very important issues with respect to education and for the introductory comments. I will respond a little bit to some of those comments before I get to the response to the actual question.
I do want to mention the students who came in from Middleton today and I think the compliments should go to the students because the students conducted themselves in a very respectful, orderly manner. When I was speaking, you could hear a pin drop. They were listening, and that tells me that they are fine young people. I did comment and compliment them that they were the leaders of our province standing before me.
I had an opportunity to speak to them. I invited some of them to come in as representatives from the group. We sat down and had very mature, adult conversation around the table and I helped those young people understand the situation that we were in, and I provided clarification so that the information that they had was accurate. When we finished discussing around the table where we were and where we were going to go and they were happy with our recommendation and our decision, and they asked me if I would go out and explain that to the students in the street, and I was delighted to do that.
Once again, those students listened, they were receptive and they recognized that two things were important, number one that the scope of the project that had been approved had not changed, and number two that the commitment of this government to deliver on the scope of that project had not changed. They were willing and understanding and they recognized that the delay in their project from now until when we are able to put shovel in the ground is a delay of about six months.
I do want to say to all members of this House that I was extremely proud that the young people in our schools conducted themselves in such a mannerly way. I will be saying that to them in the form of a written response.
I also want to mention something about physical education because I think it is important to note that the commitment of the province to have a mandatory phys. ed. course at senior high school has not changed. We have made the decision that the physical education
compulsory program will become part of the current Phys. Ed./PAL compulsory program. It will be enhanced, it will become specific to physical education, it will be one of the 13 required courses out of the 18. There will be no additional requirement, but the focus of that particular program will take on the new physical education strands that we want it to. It certainly is much easier and we were certainly considering the implementation of that when we made the decision.
We recognize that adding additional credits to the expectations for students is increasing the demands that we have on them. We also recognize that an additional physical education course that requires class time, gymnasium time and so one would be a drain and a strain on some of our facilities. We believe by using the already allocated PAL part of their schedule relieves both of those pressures. Many students in many of our schools will be able to begin that program in September.
If I could go to the question from the member opposite about, I think he calls it - if I could quote him - "the wasteland," that being Grades 7, 8 and 9, and from his experience as a well respected educator, I'm sure he has lots of information, experience and background in junior high school programming.
Certainly, we can acknowledge that there have been a number of initiatives, commitments and dollars put into our elementary and into our secondary, but I certainly would want to share with the member opposite some of the resources and textbooks that we have put in place at the junior high level, and his request for line-by-line costs is something that I will have staff prepare and I will be glad to share that with him; but we have certainly provided for supports for our junior high students with respect to health PDR in Grades 7 and 8; math, Grades 7 and 9 with this upcoming year; science, Grades 7, 8 and 9; social studies, Grades 7 and 8; and these are textbooks, one per student, so that those students in those classes will have a resource at their fingertips to use as they move through each of those subjects. In 2007-08 we will be piloting the Food and Nutrition 8 which is a new program at junior high and we'll be working on music for 2007-08, visual arts and technology.
I would hope that the member would recognize these as our efforts to make sure that those students in those grades, and at a very critical time in their education and in their social life, are not being neglected but they are certainly a priority for us. We have leadership teams in every board that are working with supports and resources for those students and we have mentors in literacy and math who are there to help make sure that our teachers are able to understand and deliver the curriculum as it best meets the needs of those students. As I said, I will have staff prepare for the member line-by-line of the costs for those initiatives.
MR. ESTABROOKS: I do appreciate the response to a couple of matters I brought up. I received, and I'll provide a copy of this, a letter of January 29th to my constituency office from Mr. Cochrane. I attended a Human Resources Committee meeting on September 19th at which time we were dealing with teachers teaching out of their subject area. At that
time, one of the questions that I addressed to Mr. Cochrane and staff who were present was the necessity of doing an audit of teachers teaching outside of their specialty area, an audit of teaching assignments.
Now, at the time, to Mr. Cochrane's credit, he responded that it was something that the department was working on and it would be something that he would get back to me on, but here is the response. I think it would be interesting for members of the House who might want to see this response. It has been delayed, and that audit, in my view, is key because, is it an urban myth or not that when it comes to teaching math, we have the proverbial physical education teacher teaching math? Is it not time that when this question was asked that this should be a priority? It should be an obvious priority when it comes to making sure, particularly in the math areas, that we have people teaching math who have a math background.
Now, I know at times my comments not only get me in trouble in this House, they do get me in trouble at Dutch Village Road because I firmly believe that a teacher is not a teacher is not a teacher. A teacher is a teacher is a teacher is the union mentality when it comes to the fact that anybody can teach math, anybody can teach geography. I'm living proof, I suppose, that anybody can teach history, but when it comes to math, and there are other examples, I question the fact. This audit is crucially important to restore parents' faith in this system, particularly to restore the idea being that we do have the expertise in the classrooms to teach math. Why has this audit been delayed?
MS. CASEY: Mr. Chairman, thank you for the question to the member opposite. We recognized that we needed more information about teachers teaching out of subject area and that's what caused the initial review and the report. The member is correct. Based on the information that my deputy did send to him, we had anticipated that that report would be prepared earlier than it has been. We are projecting the date for that report to be April; however, we want to make sure that the statistics in that report are accurate because they will be statistics that boards will use when they're looking at their allocation of teachers and the assignment of teachers to subjects within their school.
We recognize, as I said, that we have teachers in small schools that are teaching outside of their subject area - in particular in small schools - and we recognize the challenge that it presents to an administrator when they have their allocation of staff and they are not able to have somebody who has a background in every subject area on their staff. So I commend the boards and the principals for doing the best they can; however, we recognize that if that's not what's best for our students then we have an obligation to look at ways that we can make that better.
We want to make sure that those statistics are as accurate as possible, and we want to make sure that when we do have that report that boards can use it to help them with their decision-making on staffing. I would be pleased to and will make sure that all members of the House and the critics do have a copy of that report as soon as it is available. It will be a useful tool and we recognize that there are teachers outside of their subject area and we want to make sure that we can address that in the best possible way.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time allotted for debate in the Committee of the Whole House on Supply has expired.
The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
MR. PATRICK DUNN: Mr. Chairman, I move that the committee do now rise and report progress and beg leave to sit again on a future date.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee adjourned at 7:19 p.m.]