Last week at the Senate: new technology and inequality, the debate on cannabis legislation, pipelines and a maiden speech.
Technological advances like artificial intelligence could increase income and class inequality if close to half of Canadians cannot take advantage of them, as is currently the case. Some provinces and territories could see job losses and an economic decline if a segment of their population cannot adapt to technological change.
Canada has a high graduation rate, but it’s quite a different reality when it comes to basic skills like literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in a technological world.
The OECD reports that 49% of Canadians score below the threshold needed to function well in society. That figure translates into 11.8 million people between the ages of 16 and 65. Data from the OECD and Statistics Canada also show that these same people – even those who are employed – do not have the minimum skills required to earn a high-school diploma and find a decent job.
The advent of artificial intelligence will further complicate the situation: experts anticipate that 50% of jobs will be affected. If we want everyone to benefit and not be left behind by technology, we must encourage people to improve their skills throughout their lives. To succeed, we need a collective strategy.
This is a significant challenge. If all governments across the country agree to work together and share their expertise in the area of continuing education, then we could expect the benefits of future technologies to be shared equitably, with no group left behind.
Other countries such as Australia have accepted the challenge. Why not Canada?
The implications of legalizing marijuana are serious and wide-ranging. Last week, the National Security and Defense Committee heard U.S. immigration lawyer Len Saunders, reminding senators that Canadians who admit to having used marijuana risk being banned for life from entering the United States even after marijuana becomes legal in Canada.
Last week, Minister Ralph Goodale appeared before the committee, giving senators the opportunity to ask questions regarding border laws. Senators expected that Minister Goodale would reassure Canadians. Unfortunately, he only committed to “working with the U.S. on this matter” after legalization has taken place. Senator Paul E. McIntyre asked the Minister why Canada hasn’t secured assurances from the US to protect Canadians at the border. The Minister responded that he "doesn't know" if formal assurances or an agreement are a realistic request.
To have such blatant ambiguity at this late stage before C-45 becomes law is unacceptable. Is Minister Goodale forgetting that over $2 billion in goods and services are traded across the Canada-United States border every single day? In fact, according to Statistics Canada, in 2017 overnight trips to the US by Canadian increased to 20.2 million. Witness Lorne Waldman, who practices immigration law, noted that parents could also be held legally responsible if their minor children are found in possession of marijuana at the border.
Without assurances from the U.S, millions of Canadians could face the prospect of being legally barred from entering the U.S.
Canadians deserve clear answers from Minister Goodale before this bill becomes law.
Last week, during Senate Question Period, I asked the Minister of Natural Resources, the Honourable Jim Carr, about pipelines and the need for a means to transport Canadian oil, particularly from the western provinces to eastern Canada. It remains a perennial challenge to move Alberta oil westward over the mountains via pipeline, and even more so to move it east except by rail cars. As a result eastern Canada imports more than 750,000 barrels of oil per day for processing, while oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan, which is looking for markets, remains inaccessible.
The Energy East Pipeline Project would have carried 1.1 million barrels of oil to Atlantic Canada every day at a lower cost than the imported oil brought in by tankers. This pipeline would have been a great economic benefit to New Brunswick, Atlantic Canada, and all of Canada. Unfortunately, the National Energy Board amended the assessment criteria halfway through the review process, and TransCanada then halted the project given the regulatory uncertainty it faced.
Despite this setback, the need for a pipeline to Atlantic Canada remains. The government already expresses support for approved pipeline projects like Keystone and the Trans Mountain Expansion; I see no reason why the federal government cannot indicate support for the concept of moving oil from western to eastern Canada other than by rail cars, which as we saw in Lac Mégantic, carries its own serious risks. Indeed, a pipeline would be in the economic and environmental interest of Canada as a whole.
Last week, I had the honour of giving my maiden speech in the Senate Chamber. I began by sharing the tragic true story of a young Indigenous woman and her child whose lives were taken, and their deaths dismissed as being “just Indians”. This took place the community of The Pas, Manitoba in the 1920s. This incident set the stage for my experience growing up as an Indigenous Canadian and as a residential school survivor. In many ways, the issues I faced had been determined before I was born. Sadly, racism and oppression are a defining factor in the Indigenous identity.
We cannot achieve reconciliation without first acknowledging the truth. As stated in the summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “reconciliation requires that a new vision, based on a commitment to mutual respect, be developed.”
I shared my truth, not with the objective of casting blame or spreading negativity, but with a view to promote the importance of a unified effort as we work towards reconciliation.
This speech is just the beginning of what will be a long, interesting, and productive career in the Senate. I look forward to bringing my individual background and experiences to the Senate with the goal of helping to elevate dialogue and stimulate discussion on reconciliation, including the path to self-determination for all Canadians.