Evidence of meeting #5 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was million.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Pursuant to Standing Order 81(5), we are studying Supplementary Estimates (A) for the fiscal year ending March 31.

We'll now commence. I'd like to thank everyone for being here.

Minister, everyone is here early today. I don't know, I think they're excited to see you. I think if we could do that every time, we could get our meetings started a little faster, even with all the bad weather to boot.

So Minister, welcome. We thank your individuals from the department for being here as well. You have 10 minutes, sir, then we will start with a round of questioning from the opposition. The first round will be seven minutes and subsequent rounds will be five minutes.

Minister, the floor is yours for 10 minutes.,

3:30 p.m.

Medicine Hat
Alberta

Conservative

Monte Solberg Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to appear before this committee to talk about the 2007-2008 Supplementary Estimates.

Of course, Mr. Chairman, it's always a pleasure to be amongst friends here at Christmastime, a real pleasure.

Let me briefly outline my department's proposed investments and ask your support in helping Canadians create a productive and prosperous economy.

Human Resources and Social Development Canada touches the lives of all Canadians. Our programs and services directly benefit Canadians through employment insurance, the Canada Pension Plan, old age security, the universal child care benefit, loans disbursed under the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act and other student assistance programs.

We assist Canadians through Service Canada's 597 points of service and by working with our federal, provincial, and voluntary sector partners.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, CMHC, is helping Canadians access quality and affordable housing by supporting low-income Canadian households, including seniors, persons with disabilities, aboriginal Canadians and women and children experiencing family violence.

Earlier I mentioned that my portfolio provides services directly to Canadians. I want to take this opportunity to update you on our progress in providing eligible citizens funding under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. To date, we have received 79,600 common-experience payment applications and have issued 25,900 payments, totalling $512.7 million. This is in addition to advance payments of $82.6 million, which have already been paid to individuals 65 and older, for a total of $595.3 million.

The funding sought by HRSD in these supplementary estimates is in support of a vision to build a stronger and more competitive Canada, to support Canadians in making choices that help them live productive and rewarding lives, and to improve Canadians' quality of life.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the ways in which these supplementary estimates enable the government to deliver on its budget commitments: making improvements to the temporary foreign worker program, $15.9 million; expanding the New Horizons for Seniors program, $8.2 million; improving labour market outcomes of aboriginal people, $4.9 million; providing domestic in-person service and a dedicated phone line for the foreign credential recognition office, $4.2 million; creating a new human resource sector council for the forestry industry, $0.3 million; enabling the transition from the national homelessness initiative to the new homelessness partnering strategy, $25.1 million; supporting the delivery of the Transport Canada ecoAUTO rebate program, $6.3 million; delivering renovation program assistance for low-income households over the next two years, $181.9 million; creating affordable housing under the bilateral affordable housing agreements, $40.8 million.

Today I would like to focus on what my department is doing to address the changing nature of the labour force and to support Canada's families.

Let me start with the labour market.

Canadians can take pride in our performance as a society and an economy. Our unemployment rate, at 5.8%, is the lowest in 33 years. Half a million jobs have been created in the past two years alone, and almost 80% of working-age Canadians are in the labour force today, a record level.

But when we look at the long term, it becomes clear that the demographics are working against us. For the last 50 years, our labour force has been the single greatest factor contributing to economic expansion. Over the past half century, it grew by nearly 200%. But in the next 50 years, that labour force is projected to increase by only 11%, and that includes immigration.

Our challenge is too few skilled workers to meet demand. In the past, we didn't seem to have enough work to go around for the number of workers. Now many jobs are going unfilled. Even in areas of high unemployment, we don't have enough skilled workers to fill job openings.

This is a challenge, Mr. Chairman, but it is also a wonderful opportunity.

We can raise our standard of living by ensuring all Canadians can access our labour market. Far too many Canadians are unemployed or underemployed. The best way to help them create opportunities in the emerging economy is by helping them acquire knowledge and skills.

This brings me to Advantage Canada, our long-term economic strategy. It sets an achievable goal:

to create the best educated, most skilled and most flexible workforce in the world.

Mr. Chair, our government wants to ensure that students can access post-secondary education. That's why the Government of Canada is investing 40% more per year in our post-secondary education system through the Canada social transfer.

In budget 2007, we also formally launched a review of the Canada student loans program, in consultation with provinces, territories, and stakeholders. In that regard, my officials have worked with national advisory groups representing a wide range of interests, held regular consultations with provinces and territories, and have sought the views of Canadians. We plan to announce the outcomes of this review in budget 2008.

I would now like to say a few words about the Canada summer jobs initiative. I am pleased to report that this initiative created about 42,000 summer jobs and offered funding to over 18,000 applicants. As you all know, I asked the department to accelerate a second round of funding decisions when it became apparent that some organizations delivering vital community services could be denied funding.

When the books are closed, we expect to have spent between $103 million and $105 million under this initiative. In the supplementary estimates, we are requesting $44.3 million for Canada summer jobs.

I am proud of the Government of Canada's role in helping students find career-related work while helping them save for school. I seek the support of the committee in continuing to make that happen. I look forward to announcing the government's new approach to the Canada summer jobs initiative for 2008 in the very near future.

Mr. Chair, through our labour market initiative announced in budget 2007, we will make significant investments through negotiated agreements with provinces and territories to provide training and labour market programming to people not covered by employment insurance. This includes members of underrepresented groups such as persons with disabilities as well as those with low education and literacy levels.

That same philosophy of collaboration also exists under the aboriginal skills and employment partnership program. We have more than doubled the program to provide training and jobs for aboriginal workers in major economic development sectors across Canada, such as forestry, mining, and construction.

I would like to draw committee members' attention to the forestry sector, which has been faced with some serious challenges in recent years.

Our government recognizes that many single-industry towns across Canada have been hit by lay-offs.

Our targeted initiative for older workers program means we can give older workers in these communities the training they need so they can find new jobs and support their families and our economic growth.

In September this year we also created a new sector council for the forestry industry. This investment highlights our commitment to work closely with the forestry industry to address skills shortages and to help the industry recruit and retain skilled workers.

Mr. Chairman, our government recognizes that not all regions experience the same growth and that individuals employed in seasonal work face special challenges.

To help these seasonal workers, we will continue the extended EI benefits pilot project to June 6, 2009. This demonstrates that our government has taken action to support workers and will continue to do so while traditional and seasonal industries adjust to global conditions. Our priority is to help Canadians participate in the labour market.

I have also announced an extension in the labour market agreement for persons with disabilities, with the provinces and territories, until March 2009. This investment will help Canadians with disabilities develop skills so they can find and keep good, long-term jobs, by breaking down barriers that some persons with disabilities face when trying to get a meaningful job.

Let me now turn to our other priority, providing support to families and their diverse needs. Through our significant investments in benefits for families, particularly those with children and those in low- and middle-income families, we are trying to help Canadians reach their potential. We believe in strong Canadian families that are able to contribute to their well-being, to the labour market, to their communities, and to their country. We are making significant investments in low- and middle-income families through the Canada child tax benefit, and the national child benefit supplement for low-Income families. We are also helping families with the costs of raising their children, through the universal child care benefit and the new child tax credit announced in budget 2007. And we are helping Canadians get over the welfare wall through the working income tax benefit, which strengthens incentives for low-income individuals who are either already in the workforce or who want to work.

The Government of Canada recognizes and values the contributions that seniors have made to their communities. With the passage of Bill C-36, there will now be automatic renewals of the guaranteed income supplement for recipients who file tax returns. We've also been conducting an outreach program to ensure that seniors are getting the information they need about their benefits.

Finally, we are expanding the New Horizons for Seniors program. This program helps seniors benefit from and contribute to the quality of life in their communities through active living. One aspect of that program focuses on education about elder abuse.

With these supplementary estimates, HRSDC is requesting Parliament's approval for additional funding totalling $146.6 million, which is offset by funding available within the department of $82.6 million. The total net voted requirements for the 2007-08 supplementary estimates is $64 million.

For CMHC, we are requesting a total of $222,871,000 to cover planned expenses for the 2007-08 period.

I would be pleased to answer the committee's questions.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dean Allison

Thank you, Minister.

Before we start our first round, the clerk has reminded me that we are on camera today. I don't think I probably need to remind any members of Parliament of that. They always seem able to find the camera, so that's not a problem today.

We'll get started. As I indicated, the first round will be seven minutes, followed by a second round of five minutes.

Mr. Savage, you have seven minutes.

December 3rd, 2007 / 3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Thank you, Chair.

Minister, it's always a pleasure to see you and your hard-working officials.

I want to talk a little bit about Canada summer jobs, the replacement of the summer career placements program. In the estimates and in your comments, you refer to the additional almost $45 million. Can you tell me what the final cost was for this year's Canada summer jobs program?

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

I'd be happy to do that. As I said in my remarks, the final cost will be $103 million to $105 million. We're still closing off some accounts.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

Explain to me the $45 million. How does that work? Is some of that for this past year and some for next year?

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

We had originally allocated just about $55 million for this program. When I came to the committee in the spring, I indicated that we would be coming back for supplementary funding. We announced at that point a budget of $85.9 million for the program. We're coming back requesting this additional $44 million that you referred to, and we're also reallocating $6.3 million from within the youth employment strategy.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

This is quite a saga, this summer jobs program. You've referred to some of it.

About a year ago, the government announced a cut of $55 million in the summer jobs. Then without any further announcement, they came back in the spring—you had come in as minister—and indicated, no, it's going to be about $85 million, $11 million less than the Liberal program, $77 million of which would be for the not-for-profit sector. But there had been no announcement up until then that the $55 million was cut. We asked you that question at this committee in the spring.

So we go from a $55 million cut. And it wasn't a $55 million cut; it appeared to be a $10 million cut. When everything went crazy in the ridings and we started getting calls from organizations, we asked the question, is there more money going in? We were told, no, it's the same amount of money. And when reallocations were made, we were told at this committee that this was the normal process, that there are some people who apply and are turned down, and it would be reallocated to people who had applied.

In essence, what you're saying is that you're spending about $10 million more than the previous government did, based on a plan to spend $10 million less.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

What I'm saying is that when we came to you in the spring, we did say $77 million to the not-for-profit sector, and that was in fact the budget. So there was no reduction. Of course, what we've done is we've provided more jobs than the previous government for longer periods of time, so it wouldn't be correct to characterize it the way you put it.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

With respect, I don't think any of us would say that we shouldn't put more money into Canada's summer jobs, but we all want a government that can plan responsibly, like the Liberal government did with our Canada summer jobs program, so that we know when we have a certain amount of money that it'll be spent.

We all had a sense, and I'm sure other members of the committee felt, that this thing was out of control in the spring and there was scrambling going on. We had requests into this committee to ask what was actually happening and we didn't get any information. Now you're coming back and saying, you're right, we did scramble; instead of $10 million less, we've put in $10 million more to fix the holes.

That's what I'm reading from what you're saying. Is that accurate?

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

Just so we're completely accurate, every year there is a second round of funding, because some groups don't use all the funding that they're given in the first place. So we take that and put it into some of the programming. This is not anything new.

It's correct to say that when we realized there were very worthy groups that weren't getting this funding, we felt the need to go back and secure more funding so that we could make sure we didn't end up with that consequence.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

And I think that's right. What I and other members were looking for in the spring was a bit of honesty about the program. When you talk about the reallocation, the reallocation in years past was done out of existing budget from those who applied, were given students, and then decided they didn't need them. That would be one or two per riding out of existing funds.

So you've budgeted $85 million--that would be slippage--but you've spent $105 million. Nobody says you shouldn't spend $105 million. I hope, on behalf of lots of not-for-profit organizations across the country and students, that next year's program is announced well in advance of when this one was, because organizations scrambled like mad in March when, without notice, they got the new criteria and were told the criteria had changed. Some of them didn't even apply, and if they didn't apply last year and had got students before, they didn't get caught up in the second tranche of funding.

So there are some organizations in my riding, and I know in Mr. Cuzner's riding and in other members' ridings, that didn't get funding but should have got it. Will they have some reason for hope that this year's funding might be available to them?

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

Let me just say that I'm sensitive to some of those comments. We've talked extensively to MPs, many people sitting around this table, and of course to stakeholders as well. We are going to make sure we get the criteria out well in advance so people understand exactly what's going on.

I just have to say that we have taken the position that we're going to invest much more heavily in training and support for initiatives like this than governments have in the past. We've done exactly that through the new labour market agreements, through the aboriginal skills employment program. We feel confident it's the right way to go to help people generally.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

Michael Savage Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, NS

I understand. Minister, I don't question your sincerity; I question the government's execution. It's not that I'm not in favour of the government's execution in general, but I think that the way this plan was executed was poorly done.

You mentioned in the House, on May 9, in a response to a question from me, “In fact, we have changed the program and we have improved it. Under the Liberals, they used the plan to fund companies like Wal-Mart...”. Are you aware that there were 20 ridings in Canada that were funded by Wal-Mart and they were all represented by Conservatives?

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Monte Solberg Medicine Hat, AB

That's why we changed the programming—