House of Commons Hansard #90 of the 37th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was health.

Topics

Social Condition
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Bloc

Serge Cardin Sherbrooke, QC

moved:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should add “social condition” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Mr. Speaker, allow me first to thank the House for this opportunity to introduce this motion. I will again be expressing my thanks when it is passed, I promise.

By way of introduction, I would point out that the 1997 Canadian Human Rights Commission report stressed the lack of protection for the poor provided by the federal law. It makes no mention whatsoever of poverty, and social situation is not among the prohibited grounds of discrimination.

A number of bills have been introduced in order to get social situation included in the prohibited grounds for discrimination. On December 10, 1997, Senator Cohen introduced Bill S-11, an act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act, in order to add “social condition” as a prohibited ground of discrimination. The bill was intended to amend sections 2 and 3(1) of the act, adding “social condition” but not defining the expression.

On April 13, 1999, my Bloc Quebecois colleague, the hon. member for Hochelaga—Maisonneuve, introduced Bill C-491, the anti-poverty bill, which proposed to add social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act; to prohibit financial institutions from refusing to provide financial services on the basis of inadequate income; and to ask the Canadian Human Rights Commission to prepare a report annually on poverty in Canada. This bill died on the Order Paper in September 1999.

In March 2001, the member for Hochelaga—Maisonneuve was back again with Bill C-326, which was identical to the former C-491. Recently my colleague introduced Bill C-228 on the same subject, the battle against poverty and social exclusion. Not being votable, it did not bet past second reading, which took place on February 4 this year.

My motion, M-392, today is in the same vein. It reads:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should add “social condition” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Canada has always been a world leader in the promotion and protection of human rights. A Canadian was one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, often called the “Magna Carta of the World”.

This declaration includes the right to social security and to realization of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for an individual's dignity and the free development of the individual's personality.

Also in 1976, Canada ratified the International Covenant on International and Civil Rights, the most comprehensive international document on social and economic rights.

But Canada is not respecting its international obligations and has failed to fully implement its international commitments to promote and protect social and economic rights.

More and more Canadians and Quebeckers live in poverty. The Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms prohibits discrimination based on “social condition”. Interestingly enough, Quebec recently passed legislation to fight poverty and social exclusion. In December 2002, the National Assembly passed Bill 112.

Article 2 of Bill 112 defines poverty as follows:

—the condition of a human being who is deprived of the resources, means, choices and power necessaryto acquire and maintain economic self-sufficiency or to facilitate integrationand participation in society.

Women, especially single parents, but also young families, children, seniors living in isolation, visible minorities and first nations are particularly affected by such poverty. There are considerable immediate and long-term costs associated with this poverty for Quebec society as a whole.

On October 17, 2000, during the World March of Women to combat poverty and violence against women, the Quebec Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse noted that, despite difficulties or variations in measuring poverty, it has remained an important phenomenon that affects a large number of individuals and households in Quebec.

The National Council of Welfare, in a document published in July 2002, entitled Poverty Profile 1999 , indicated that even though Canada's gross domestic product increased by almost 5% in fiscal 1998-99, income disparity between Canadians increased or stayed the same as in the 1990s. Even though poverty rates dipped slightly between 1997 and 1999, they remained higher than rates prior to the 1991 and 1992 recession.

When it comes to families on social assistance, the situation is even worse. In its Welfare Incomes 2002 report, published April 10, 2003, the council noted that there was a considerable gap between the poverty line and welfare income, which remained practically unchanged in 2002.

According to the document, people on social assistance receive as little as one fifth of the amount that is equal to the poverty line. What is worse is that because social assistance income is not indexed to inflation, recipients have become poorer than ever before.

Despite a steady increase in poverty in Canada and Quebec, the courts are hesitant when it comes to recognizing social and economic rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Recognizing social and economic rights would mean that banks could no longer refuse to open a bank account because of a poor credit record, for example.

In 1998, the National Council of Welfare prepared a comprehensive report on banking services and poor people. The report states that Canadian banks and financial institutions do not adequately meet the needs of low income people. The council recommended that one of the first issues that banks and other financial institutions deal with is that of identification required by poor people to open a bank account or cash a cheque.

The fact that many banks today continue to close branch offices for the sake of efficiency, especially in low income communities, is definitive proof that they care little about providing services to the poor. The amazing number of fringe banks popping up in disadvantaged neighbourhoods is more proof. These companies provide a variety of financial services including loans, cheque cashing and money orders, with high fees for low income people or people in precarious situations who do not have access to a bank in their neighbourhood or who have little experience with banks.

In addition, bank service charges may create considerable personal indebtedness and cause social and psychological stress in the lives of the poor. Poor people, it seems, face similar problems in the area of communications.

Before I continue speaking about the banking issues that most of the complaints refer to, I would like to make a small digression and give examples of telecommunications problems.

Some people have had trouble with Bell Canada. For seniors living alone and in poor health, the telephone is their only link to the outside world and, moreover, it is used for emergencies. Just the fear of having their service cut off adds to their stress and health problems. Some have considered suicide. One even had to delay paying the electricity bill to be able to pay Bell.

In order to avoid having the telephone cut off, people will accept heavy repayment schedules over just a few months, to comply with Bell's very strict requirements, but this leads to other problems. For example, they will delay paying their rent or other monthly bills, such as electricity, to try to make ends meet. During this time, their credit rating takes a beating and they never get out of the vicious circle. Today, the telephone is an essential service.

But let us return to banking. For a number of years, the financial institutions have been denounced by consumers associations in Quebec. It seems that the banks and caisses populaires are choosing their clients or members more and more selectively. Even though they have agreed to change some of their practices, it appears that they still refuse access to basic services to a large number of consumers.

For more than 10 years, Quebec consumer associations have been speaking out against the financial institutions, which have been trying to get rid of what they consider to be a non-profitable client segment by increasing the obstacles to opening a bank account or cashing a cheque, using as their pretext bad credit, the need of an appointment, which is never immediate, freezing deposits for 10 days and so on.

People without bank accounts cannot cash pay cheques or government cheques, nor make use of direct deposit. They cannot make rent or other payments by cheque or automatic withdrawal, nor can they use a debit card. As a result, these people who have no accounts are condemned by the banks to a still more marginal existence. A bank account is a right.

In September 1998, the Task Force on the Future of the Canadian Financial Services Sector tabled, in the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Finance, what was to become known as the fabled MacKay report, which addressed in large part the excessive requirement for ID It also addressed the matter of putting holds on government cheques and basic service packages.

At the time, the Standing Committee on Finance agreed with these recommendations and recommended that the government immediately implement the MacKay report, namely recommendations 88 to 92, all of which addressed the difficulty in accessing financial services and aimed to ensure that such services were provided at reasonable rates and under reasonable conditions.

On the strength of the banks' seeming good faith, the committee's preference was for access problems to be resolved by a cooperative effort, with legal recourse a last resort.

Today, it is clear that the obstacles faced by underprivileged individuals and groups have not only not disappeared but are taking new forms. There is now a whole new series of banking practices, which have effectively restricted access to basic services: banks refuse to open accounts; accounts are closed without good reason; new customers have their credit checked, along with their income; there are fewer personalized banking services; access is being reduced or the less profitable branches are being closed. The use of automatic tellers is also encouraged. In short, the most profitable customers are being chosen, meaning those able to consume financial products and make investments, but above all those who can help increase the billions in net profits made by banks and financial institutions.

I even heard that one bank branch in Montreal set up a waiting line with one bank teller for people on social assistance to cash their cheques on the first of the month. There was a separate line for the other clients, with two tellers serving it. With a special line for people on social assistance, not only are these people treated differently and labelled, but they are also discriminated against because of their social status.

A bank account is a necessity. The banks have too much discretionary power and this leaves room for abuse.

This is why the motion I am moving this morning is so important. I am asking all of my colleagues, from all parties, to demonstrate their interest in social justice by voting for this motion, which reads:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should add “social condition” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Social Condition
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Halifax West
Nova Scotia

Liberal

Geoff Regan Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to present the government's position to the House on behalf of my colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice, on the motion.

The motion seeks the opinion of the House on the addition of the phrase “social condition” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination contained in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

The motion poses something of a quandary for me, and, I suspect, for many other members of the House, because the intended purposes and effects of the amendments proposed by the motion are not clear. It is difficult to determine what precisely we are being asked to agree with and therefore it is hard to know whether one should support it.

Is the motion motivated by a desire to protect individuals in Canada from being subjected to discrimination based on the fact that they occupy disadvantaged positions in our society? Assuming that it is, then certainly the government and I would share such a desire.

However, taking the motion at face value, as we must, we have to look at the actual wording of the motion. It is by no means clear that this is in fact the underlying purpose of the amendments it proposes or that the amendments would have this effect in any event.

Before returning to this issue and discussing the motion in more detail, I wish to assure the hon. member for Sherbrooke that the government is fully committed to protecting individuals occupying disadvantaged positions in our society from experiencing discrimination on the basis of their social position or status. Such discrimination can too often compound the difficulties and challenges faced by these vulnerable individuals.

The progress made by the government on these fronts is significant and includes previous initiatives to strengthen the protection provided by the Canadian Human Rights Act. As well, the government has introduced several important new policies that seek to address the root causes of poverty, focusing particularly on the situations of low income children, families and aboriginal communities. I think right away of the national child benefit which is an important program that I have long supported and one that is very important in our country.

While the government is proud of its accomplishments in this area, we realize we must be ever vigilant in ensuring that the human rights of individuals in Canada are protected to the fullest extent possible. There is always work to be done in this area and the government will not shirk from this responsibility.

I am pleased to report to my hon. colleagues that Department of Justice officials have been working on a comprehensive and careful review of the Canadian Human Rights Act with a view to identifying areas where this legislative scheme can be updated and improved. As part of this ongoing work, the Minister of Justice is always interested in hearing suggestions about how human rights legislation in Canada can be improved, such as the suggestion put forward by the hon. member for Sherbrooke. I welcome the opportunity the motion provides to debate the issues involved in such an important matter.

I am sure the hon. member will be pleased to hear that as part of the aforementioned review and consideration of possible Canadian Human Rights Act amendments and reforms, Department of Justice officials are engaged in an indepth analysis of the question of including social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. I should point out that this is just one possible reform among several others also being considered.

At the same time, I must state that the government is not in the business of making rushed, ad hoc or piecemeal changes to any legislation, let alone a statute as important as the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Even where legislative changes are proposed with the best of intentions, inattention to detail or to the specific language used can often lead to unforeseen and unintended legal and social consequences even to the extent of setting back the goal that is aimed for, in this case the very important goal of improved human rights protection.

While I commend my hon. colleague for what I have to assume are good intentions behind the motion, I must point out that the motion does not offer any definition of the term “social condition” nor does it provide any clarification or guidance as to how these words should be interpreted. Those are very important points, and they are important omissions in the motion.

The motion does not explain what is intended to be covered by these words and what is not intended to be covered. The motion also does not explain how the inclusion of these words in the act is intended to affect existing social programs and legislative schemes that benefit low income Canadians.

This degree of vagueness in the language used in the motion causes me considerable concern and, unfortunately, makes it difficult for me to support the motion at this time. In fact, due to the lack of detail contained in the motion, I believe it is unclear exactly what the House is being asked to agree with if we were to approve the motion.

Perhaps the hon. member could shed some light on this for us. For instance, I would be interested to know whether the hon. member for Sherbrooke has given thought to the possibility that his proposed amendments to the act might have the effect of allowing those whose social condition is that of being wealthy to challenge government programs and initiatives that treat them differently, for instance, progressive marginal rates of taxation and eligibility requirements for social assistance. In other words, a person who is rich could decide that he is being discriminated against because of his social condition. Surely we would not want that to be the case.

Surely the hon. member intends that the proposed amendments would apply only to lower income individuals. If so, how would the hon. member ensure that the amendment's effect would in fact be limited in this way without saying so?

I would also be interested in any thoughts my hon. colleague has about whether the phrase “social condition” is intended to refer only to one's degree of wealth and level of income, or would the notion also include other factors that might go toward a broader concept of an individual's social status.

How does the hon. member envision how an individual's social status would be determined by those interpreting the Canadian Human Rights Act? Would objective or subjective factors be used to determine social condition or would both kinds of factors be considered? Would only an individual's present circumstances be considered, or would his or her family background and origins be considered as well?

Is it the hon. member's intention that temporary forms of social status, such as being unemployed or being a full time student, also be caught by the phrase “social condition”?

What about prisoners in federal correctional institutions or those suffering from drug or alcohol addiction? Would, in the view of the hon. member, discrimination on the basis of these forms of social condition be prohibited by the proposed amendment?

Has the hon. member considered how his proposed amendment would affect the assessment of credit worthiness or the conducting of security or background checks?

Has my hon. colleague considered how his proposal would affect existing government programs? Would parole and conditional release programs be affected? What about criteria used by Canadian immigration officials?

Does the hon. member foresee how the inclusion of this new ground in the motion would affect the operation of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the resources it needs to function as it must and fulfill its mandate?

The answers to these and other important questions will greatly affect the nature and scope of the proposed new prohibited ground of discrimination. I invite my hon. colleague from Sherbrooke, as well as other members of the House, to share their views about the precise intended effect and scope of such a change.

However I must note that the actual motion presently before the House for consideration in no way addresses or clarifies any of these questions. Thus, I am afraid that I cannot support the motion, which is so vague and uncertain in its potential outcome and effect, no matter how much I might agree with the general objective of protecting individuals from being discriminated against because they are perceived to be of lower socio-economic status. That is something I agree with totally. I like the intent of the motion but it has to be better worded. We have to look at these important questions in detail.

Without a clear definition of the meaning of “social condition”, without any measures to limit the possible unintended and undesirable costs and consequences and without any provisions for safeguards to protect our valued social programs, I believe it would be irresponsible to vote in favour of the motion as it stands.

Social Condition
Private Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Gurmant Grewal Surrey Central, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am also pleased to rise this morning on behalf of the residents of Surrey Central to participate in the debate on Motion No. 392 being put forward by the hon. member for Sherbrooke. I commend the member for his thoughtfulness on this issue.

The motion reads:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should add “social condition” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

This is not the first time that the House has considered the possibility of adding social condition as a prohibited ground for discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. In the 36th Parliament, Bill S-11 proposed to do exactly the same thing but after passing the Senate it was defeated here in the Commons.

I suppose the first question to consider is what we mean by social condition. It is tempting to equate social condition with poverty, however, the term social condition conveys much more, including disadvantages that are associated with, though not synonymous with, poverty. This could include occupation, literacy, type of employment or even unemployment. It may also include culture, to the extent that one's social station is conveyed by dress, language or mannerisms.

Quebec's definition of social condition has been evolving and includes one's rank, place or position occupied within society, or the class in which they belong. The Quebec courts and tribunals have found social condition to include temporary conditions, such as pregnancy and unemployment. Further, social condition is considered distinct from social origin.

Quebec is the only province that currently includes social condition as a prohibited ground for discrimination in its human rights legislation. However all the other provinces, with the exception of New Brunswick, include various grounds encompassed by the term social condition. For instance, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island prohibit discrimination on source of income. Similarly, Ontario and Saskatchewan protect receipt of public assistance as an enumerated ground in their codes. Newfoundland prohibits discrimination on the basis of social origin.

Canada has always been a leader on the international stage in terms of the promotion and protection of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, often referred to as the Magna Carta of humankind, was co-written by a Canadian. The declaration includes the right to social security and to the realization of social and economic rights indispensable for a person's dignity and the free development of his or her personality.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was ratified by Canada in 1976. It guarantees the right to social security and social insurance and the right to an adequate standard of living.

Human rights are both entrenched in the Constitution and protected in provincial and territorial human rights acts across the country. However an argument can be made that Canada has fallen short of its international obligations by failing to fully implement its international commitments to promote and protect social and economic rights.

The recent general economic condition in Canada has been one of slowly increasing average real incomes. Yet, this improvement has been taking place simultaneously with signs of increasing disparities. There is a growing underclass of people homeless or with precarious shelter. Also there is a growing contingent of labour force that relies upon non-standard employment: part time, temporary or seasonal employment. This employment tends to provide incomes that will not meet a family's basic needs.

According to Statistics Canada, the net worth of the richest 20% of Canadian families increased by 39% between 1984 and 1999, from about $290,000 to about $400,000. In the same time period the net worth of the poorest 20% decreased by $600.

In 1999 the top 50% of families in Canada had 94.4% of the wealth while the other 50% had the remaining 5.6% of the wealth. The gap between the richest 20% of families and the poorest 20% of families is a cool $1 million.

In a 2002 report the National Council of Welfare pointed out that although Canada's gross domestic product had grown considerably inequality among Canadians either widened or stayed steady throughout the 1990s.

Households with young children, especially those headed by a single parent mother, suffered the most chronic poverty between 1980 and 1999. While the gap between the rich and the poor has been growing ever wider, particularly in the past decade, members on the opposite side have done little or nothing.

If the taxation proposals of the Canadian Alliance were listened to and followed by the government many of the poorest families would be much better off. We in the Canadian Alliance believe the threshold for paying taxes should be raised. More money should be put back into the pockets of Canadians so that they can address their real life needs.

The fact is many Canadians have incomes that are inadequate to meet their minimum needs. Poverty restricts the lives of many Canadians. It limits choices in food, clothing and shelter. For children, it denies what other Canadians take for granted, for example, recreation, holidays and school field trips. Poverty also has impacts on health, education and children's subsequent income.

Many disadvantaged Canadians are subject to prejudice, that is, preconceived notions that low income people are lazy or uncaring parents. That is unfortunate. This further restricts the choices available to low income Canadians.

The most recent United Nations human development report contrasts Canada's 3rd place ranking in terms of human development with its 12th place ranking with respect to poverty.

Some questions have been raised about the feasibility of inserting social conditions as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act. It is argued that many of the cases alleging discrimination in this area have involved rental of accommodation, an area that is of minimal relevance to federally controlled issues.

However, anti-poverty organizations feel that social condition must be inserted into the federal human rights act in order to address issues of discrimination faced by poor people with regard to federally regulated services like banking and telecommunications.

The Association coopérative d'économie familiale du centre de Montreal prepared a report for Industry Canada in 1996 entitled “The highs and lows of access to banking services in Canada”. The report emphasized that the major barriers in accessing banking services were the large number of identification documents required and the attitudes of bank employees. Besides identification issues for poor people who wish to open an account or cash a cheque, many banks continued to close down branches, in the name of efficiency, mostly in low income communities.

The so-called fringe banks that have moved into low income neighbourhoods provide a variety of financial services, including loans, cheque cashing and money orders, at high costs to low income and financially distressed individuals who either have no access to a bank in their area or lack of experience with the banking system.

A recent study found that while most people being serviced by fringe financial services would rather have a bank account, the costs of transportation to a bank, the lack of proper identification, limited banking hours and previous credit difficulties have pushed them into fringe banks. Yet, the financial costs for services with these banks can lead to a substantial personal debt. They add stress and other psychological components.

One of the most serious practical concerns is the fact that the Canadian Human Rights Commission has limited resources and an existing backlog of cases. Adding social condition to this definition would further drain the resources as well as increase the backlog of the cases it is dealing with. Therefore, I rest my case here.

Social Condition
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Libby Davies Vancouver East, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to rise in the House today to speak in support of the motion put forward by the member of the Bloc from Sherbrooke. As a member of the NDP I too have a motion, almost exactly the same in terms of its wording, to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include social condition as a prohibited ground of discrimination.

When I was elected in 1997, it was one of the first motions that I put forward. I would agree with my colleague from the Alliance in recalling that we also had a motion that came to the House from the Senate that was based on the same amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act. The federal NDP supports the amendment and believes it is an important amendment that should take place.

I listened with interest to the debate today and it has changed a little bit. I recall in earlier days when we debated a similar motion that the government was not willing to consider the idea of amending the act to include social condition. What we heard from the government today is that based on the Canadian Human Rights Commission's review of this question, the government is now holding discussions as to whether or not it may look at including social condition.

I was disappointed to hear the government representative say that it could not be supported because it was too vague. Liberals were concerned that somehow this would be applied to rich people. Every single time this issue has come up, and certainly today it was stated by the member from Sherbrooke, it has been clear that when we are talking about social condition we are talking about poverty and the people who face discrimination because they are poor. The government member is being very flippant with what is a serious question to somehow dismiss this because he cannot understand whether it would apply to people who are wealthy and who are worried about paying their taxes.

I would say to the member who spoke for the government and to the government itself that it is ironic because if the motion had been more specific, I know that the government would have said “we cannot agree with it because it is too specific”. It seems to me that the intent and the principle of the motion is clear in addressing social condition and income inequality in this country. The onus is on the government to show responsibility that it understands that principle and is willing to address it. That is not what we heard from the government today.

I was disappointed to hear the government's response. I would go further than that because the issue of social condition and being a prohibited grounds of discrimination is important as it applies to federally regulated businesses, services and programs. We have heard that many provinces already have some aspect, and certainly Quebec has led the way in including social condition. It is something that has worked so we actually have a precedence. There are some important elements that need to be looked at.

I do want to make the point in this debate that when we look at social condition and at discrimination against poor people, the greatest problem that we see is actually discrimination by government itself. The greatest barrier for poor people, the greatest discrimination, comes from public policy. One only has to look at the latest report of the National Council of Welfare which looked at the statistics across Canada to see what happens to people when they are on income assistance and how they are living so far below the poverty line and to note for example that still today in 2003, that the child tax benefit is not afforded to the poorest of the poor and that is people on welfare. That is discrimination based on social condition.

That is government policy. That has come from our federal government. It has been agreed to by provincial governments except for the provinces of New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador which do pass on the child tax benefit.

When we are debating this issue, we are not just talking about banks, businesses, and the real discrimination that poor people face, we are talking about public policy and the discrimination that has come about as a result of public policy being developed by the federal government.

One thing that I would like to bring to the attention of members is that we are now on the brink of changing the way we measure poverty. For years we have used the low income cutoff developed by Statistics Canada. It is a measure that allows us to look at the wealth and the poverty in our society based on a relative scale. That is important because we can actually see how people who are at the bottom of the socio-economic scale are doing in relation to average incomes, and so on.

As a result of government announcements, we know that this is now about to be changed and that government is embarking on something it calls the market basket measure, which will by the stroke of a pen probably reduce poverty by one-third. However, it will not have changed the living standard or status of a single child, a single family or a single person who is living in poverty. If that is not discrimination based on public policy, I do not know what it is.

It is scandalous that this major change in public policy is about to take place with virtually no public debate and no assessment of the impact. This particular strategy of the market basket approach to measure poverty has been peddled for years by the Fraser Institute. It has campaigned for years to change the LICOs and the way we measure poverty. It seems that the federal government has capitulated to this, and I say shame on the government.

I feel angry that this change is about to take place and there has been no consultation or debate about it. If we were to move to the market basket approach the government, by redefinition, would be able to stand up and say it has reduced poverty by a third, but it would not have helped anybody who in reality is living in poverty.

It is important that we support this motion. I heard the government member saying that the government cares about the rights of poor people and is committed to dealing with discrimination. If the government were genuine about that principle then why would it not support this motion? Why would it not say that this motion should be approved and it should go to committee for further study so that we can sit down and spell out what we mean in terms of definitions around social condition as it relates to low income and poor people? We could look at the experience in Quebec and other provinces, and advance this debate. We could do something positive and progressive instead of just saying we do not want people discriminated against, but we will shoot down this motion.

There is an opportunity today, as there has been in the past, to support this motion and to support the Canadian Human Rights Commission in its recommendation to ensure that the Canadian Human Rights Act includes social conditions. My party fully supports that and we want to get on with this debate. We want to have that discussion to ensure that people, just because they are poor, do not face discrimination by banks, other institutions or the federal government itself.

Social Condition
Private Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Progressive Conservative

Loyola Hearn St. John's West, NL

Mr. Speaker, let me first congratulate the member for Sherbrooke for bringing forward this motion, which we solidly support. There cannot be any excuse for discrimination in Canada. All too often those less fortunate or those of a different ethnic origin are left to fend for themselves. We as a people must do all we can to ensure that discrimination is eliminated in Canada.

While the motion is not a comprehensive plan to eliminate discrimination in all its facets, it is an excellent first start, which would have a deep impact upon the federal civil service and organizations that fall under federal legislation.

The Canadian Human Rights Act governs employment and the provision of goods and services by the federal government and federally regulated businesses. These organizations employ about 11% of the workforce. The vast majority of small businesses, schools and religious or cultural organizations fall under provincial or territorial laws which would not be affected by the addition of social condition to the prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Section 3(1) of the act lays out the definition of discrimination, which includes discrimination based upon race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and conviction for which a pardon has been granted. The motion would see social condition added to the definition.

There are a number of important issues to consider when dealing with what would essentially be an amendment to the act, the first of which deals with the definition of social condition.

In 1999, the Minister of Justice established an independent panel to review the Canadian Human Rights Act. This was the first review of the act since its inception in 1977. That is a period of 22 years.

The panel's mandate was to determine if the law had kept pace with the evolution of human rights and equality principles, both at home and abroad. In June, 2000, the panel released its report, “Promoting Equality: A New Vision”, in which it made 165 recommendations. Among those recommendations was the addition of social condition to section 3 of the act. That is why it is so surprising that, having had such a thorough review over such a long period of time to try to bring the act into modern day language, we find government basically saying no, it cannot do it.

Currently the only other Canadian human rights act to include social condition in regard to human rights legislation is in the Province of Quebec. However, several other provincial and territorial governments do include narrower grounds that fall within the area of social condition such as, for example, source of income, receipt of public assistance and social origin. Some attempts have been made provincially to address this extremely serious issue.

During its consultations, the panel heard more about poverty than any other single issue. That brings forth very clearly how important this issue is in the country. It concluded that protecting the most destitute in Canadian society against discrimination was essential. According to the panel, like other grounds for discrimination, poverty is often unavoidable for those affected and is often beyond their control. Moreover, characteristics such as poverty and low level of education have historically been associated with patterns of disadvantage.

In its review, the panel put together areas of federal jurisdiction which discriminate based upon social condition. These areas include the banking industry, the telecommunications industry and housing on Indian reserves. According to the panel, discrimination in these areas could be eliminated if social condition were added to the act.

The Liberal government made child poverty a priority when it took office in the early 1990s. Like so many other Liberal promises, a solution to the problem went unfulfilled. Despite years of economic growth, Canada's child poverty rate is largely unchanged and those who are poor are in fact getting poorer.

A study by the Canadian Council on Social Development outlined the increasing gap between Canada's rich and poor. Wealth is defined as a family's assets minus its debts, with assets including such items as houses, cars, stocks and bonds. The wealth of the poorest 20% of couples with children under 18 went down by 51.4% between 1984 and 1999, whereas that of the wealthiest 20% of couples increased by 42.7%. With such a staggering gap between lower and higher income levels it becomes incumbent upon government to recognize the problem in the context of discrimination.

Race, religion, sexual orientation, marital status or social condition should not be the grounds upon which discrimination is based. This is definitely a motion the Progressive Conservative Party can support.

Social Condition
Private Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

Bloc

Diane Bourgeois Terrebonne—Blainville, QC

Mr. Speaker, I know I do not have much time to convey the opinions of the various ACEFs in my riding. An ACEF, or Association coopérative d'économie familiale, defends the rights of consumers, the disadvantaged and the poor. Nevertheless, I want to express, on their behalf and my own, all the dismay I feel with regard to the governing party, which refuses to support this motion that would, essentially, right a wrong.

It is a wrong that poor and disadvantaged people have had to live with for many years, possibly more than 20, but especially since the MacKay report made its recommendations. These recommendations were made in 1998 and accepted by the House Standing Committee on Finance. The committee not only accepted but promoted these recommendations, which were aimed at recognizing that poor people have trouble getting recognition in our society, particularly from banks and telecommunications agencies.

It is appalling that members are playing on the fact that they do not know what the motion means when it refers to “social condition”. Everyone knows what this term means. There is no way to quibble about the specific purpose of this motion, because everyone agrees that poor people do not have access to telecommunications services like everyone else. They are being denied the right to have bank accounts. But we are going to quibble about words. It is shameful.

A bank account is a form of social recognition—a recognition of social condition; it is a right. We must respect people who have problems. Mr. Speaker, if you had a child with impaired mobility, if you were a single mother with a young baby and a sick child, and you had to get to a bank to cash your social assistance cheque, you might find that difficult. If you were alone, disabled, receiving an income supplement from Quebec or a province, and you had to go somewhere to cash your federal government cheque—which should be good—and they ask you for a deposit and freeze a certain amount of money for 10 days in order to guarantee this cheque, would you not find this shameful? That is what people are living through every day.

People simply used the wording of the motion to condemn the federal government's lack of action. Back then, it was the Minister of Finance, who is running for the Liberal leadership, who did not do his job. The Liberal Party has not done its job and has forced people to make a detour and move a motion to recognize social condition as a ground, because the government has not recognized it. The government has failed to recognize that there are poor people who need protection. It is shameful.

On behalf of all of Quebec's ACEFs, the ACEF in East Montreal, the ACEF in North Montreal, the south west ACEF, the ACEF on the south shore, the ACEF on Île-Jésus, the ACEF in the Basses-Laurentides and all of the organizations that these ACEFs represent, I say to the current Liberal federal government that it has demonstrated no concern or compassion for people who live in poverty.

Contrary to what my colleague from the Liberal Party said earlier, social condition has been clearly defined by committees of this House, and on numerous occasions. Human rights are entrenched in the Constitution and protected by other legislation at the provincial and territorial level across the country.

We are arguing that even if social and economic rights are not clearly defined, governments must prevent them from being abused, for example, discrimination based on one's social condition. As for those who say they do not know what social condition means, that is simply a way to skirt the issue, and it is shameful.

I would like to thank my colleagues from Vancouver East and St. John's West for their support. This shows that they are close to their constituents. I find it hard to believe that there is even one member of this House who would vote against this motion, who would not accept it. I am sure that every single member has, on at least one occasion, heard from a disadvantaged person, a poor person who has had problems making ends meet and was not able to open a bank account, to make withdrawals or to use an automatic teller.

Do you know what this ends up costing? The fringe banks referred to charge $1.25, if not $1.50, to withdraw money and if anyone wants to cash a cheque the charges amount to usury.

The bank chooses its customers to an increasing extent. As my colleague from Sherbrooke has said, they have to investigate, and the people without a bank account are told, “You are not a profitable proposition for us, do you have $5 to open an account?” Even then, they will get no service. They are told, “Go elsewhere if you want service”. That is awful.

And how much does it cost these people to cash a government cheque? How much does it cost seniors who receive the guaranteed income supplement—if they manage to get it—to cash their cheque if they have no account? How else can they cash it?

I would not wish it on anyone here to get so disabled or sick that they are unable to get to a bank, because they will have problems cashing cheques. How can a person cash a cheque if they have no bank account? At an ATM? Not everyone can use those machines, for instance seniors who do not see well. What about a single mother with four children who goes with them to the bank to try to get her cheque cashed but has no account. How will she manage?

I see that my colleagues over there are nodding their heads. Are they going to be able to support this motion in a while? They are nodding yes. And will they? I hope so.

I just wanted to speak to this issue because I find it shameful to be debating wording without paying any attention to people's social condition.

Social Condition
Private Members' Business

12:05 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Bélair)

The hour provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the Order Paper.

Pension Act
Government Orders

12:05 p.m.

Winnipeg North—St. Paul
Manitoba

Liberal

Rey D. Pagtakhan Minister of Veterans Affairs

moved that Bill C-31, an act to amend the Pension Act and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superannuation Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today and commend to the House Bill C-31, an act to amend the Pension Act and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superannuation Act, which was introduced April 10.

I trust all colleagues will agree with me on the importance of this legislation and grant it their speedy and unanimous approval.

Bill C-31 would give members of the Canadian Forces and the RCMP greater assurance when sent to special missions in areas of elevated risk that they and their families will be cared for should harm come their way. It sends the message to them that their government cares and appreciates, that their country is with them and their families in their hour of need.

Members may ask, “Why these proposed amendments now?” Before I go into the detail of this bill, I want to ensure: one, that I bring members of the House up to date on the current status of departmental benefits, specifically to those who deal with Canadian Forces members' accessibility to disability pensions and the related programs my department provides; and two, that I provide colleagues with the proper context regarding the intent behind the proposal.

In making these undertakings I am aware of the expertise of some members of the House on matters related to veterans issues, in particular among those members who serve on the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs. They are very familiar with veterans issues and concerns. I, like my predecessors in the portfolio, have sought and taken their excellent advice. They know very well the programs of my department. Hence, some of the information that I will provide will be quite familiar to them. I therefore ask them to bear with me when I review the background that has brought us to today's debate.

Members of Canada's military may apply for a disability pension if they become injured or ill in the line of duty. Survivor benefits are available for dependants in the case of death of a member or veteran due to his or her service. These pension disability benefits have been available to eligible members or veterans whether they serve or have served their nation in times of war and times of peace, here at home or abroad.

Disability pension payouts comprise by far the largest expenditure my department disburses, amounting to approximately $1.5 billion a year. Close to 165,000 clients are presently receiving disability pension payments. Of those, more than 5,000, about 3%, are currently serving Canadian Forces personnel. It is to this latter group, currently serving Canadian Forces members, and to the RCMP members as well that Bill C-31 speaks.

The bill would provide them with the most comprehensive disability pension coverage possible, including enhanced health care services needed for the disability incurred from the moment they are deployed and when such deployment exposes them to conditions of elevated risk.

Deployment could be to any part of the world, including here at home, and the scope of deployment could encompass disaster relief, rescue operations, peacekeeping or peacemaking.

Under the existing legislation, if members incur a disability or illness while not serving in a special duty area, they are covered but there is a burden of proof. The burden of proof is intended to satisfy the requirement that the disability be shown to have arisen out of or was directly connected to service.

However by giving the members in a special duty area the 24/7, 24 hours a day, seven days a week coverage, the burden of proof requirement is removed. They will only need to show that such a condition arose during the time of service. Therefore the need for detailed medical and service evidence is simplified. Thus an award of the pension, if required, can be more easily rendered.

The amendments proposed in Bill C-31 have two main components. I wish to deal first with the aspect of service in special duty areas or SDAs.

In 1964 Parliament enacted the special duty area legislation. It stipulates that special pension provisions would apply to serving members operating in certain areas outside Canada when those areas have been designated by the governor in council as special duty areas. Technically, SDAs are identified by geographic coordinates and by definition they must be outside Canada.

Since 1949, for more than half a century now, members of the Canadian Forces have served in areas outside Canada in various roles on behalf of the United Nations and in other trucekeeping and peacekeeping operations. It has been recognized that service in these areas has often meant participation in active combat operations and exposure to hazardous conditions not normally associated with peacetime service.

Specifically, the special pension provisions deem a member serving in a special duty area to be on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for pension act purposes. That is from the moment the member arrives in a special duty area up to and including the moment the member departs from that area. This means that any death or any disability other than a disability caused by the improper conduct of the member that occurs while serving in a special duty area is governed by these special pension provisions.

The fact is Canada and its service men and women have been in the forefront of support to peacekeeping missions in special duty areas in countless hot spots around the world. More than 100 individuals to date have paid the price with their lives. Many more have paid the price in the form of accidents and injuries.

I am pleased to tell hon. members that the bill will improve SDA coverage in two important ways.

First, the process of declaring an SDA will be speeded up or streamlined. With the passage of this legislation, under the pension act, the Minister of National Defence, who seconded the bill, or the Solicitor General in consultation with the Minister of Veterans Affairs, will be able to declare an SDA and have it apply in a much faster time frame. That means it will be possible for departing members and their families to be assured of their rightful 24 hour, seven days a week coverage and as a result, have greater peace of mind.

Bill C-31 is intended to address more than peace of mind considerations. The bill would increase the length of time covered by an SDA, beginning on the day of actual deployment and covering training for the deployment, travel to and from the SDA, and authorized leave of absence from the SDA.

The second component to this legislation reflects the new times in which we are living. The events of September 11 changed the world. They changed the sense of security we all have felt in our country, and this is true for many other countries as well. They marked the beginning of a new era of violence by extremist organizations that created a need for rapid response by the community of nations. Indeed, we live in a world where new threats can happen at any given moment, anywhere.

It is becoming more difficult to define geographically a theatre of operations. In today's operations of elevated risk, there may be troops on the ground in a specific designated area, yet many others stationed elsewhere working in support of that operation. Although not confined to the same specific area, they are nonetheless also exposed to elevated risk conditions.

The key feature here is exposure to elevated risk, meaning a level of risk higher than that normally associated with peacetime service, regardless of the form it takes, search and rescue, disaster relief, anti-terrorism activities and armed conflict.

Thus the bill proposes to add an additional designation called the special duty operation, or SDO. Unlike SDAs, SDOs could exist at home or abroad. For example, domestic SDOs could include search and rescue and disaster relief operations. Overseas SDOs could apply to a naval deployment not confined to a specific geographic area or region, but on a mission where elevated risk is apparent.

Because of the bill, members deployed to SDOs will benefit from the same insurance principle as those deployed to SDAs, with 24 hour, 7 day a week coverage. As will be the case with SDAs, the Minister of National Defence will be able to declare a special duty operation. This new service type and associated coverage will provide Canadians in uniform the added recognition and security they deserve for putting themselves in harm's way.

Increasingly, members of the RCMP are also being asked to take on assignments of elevated risk. The bill proposes to give the Solicitor General similar authorities, under the RCMP Superannuation Act, for equivalent situations. The Solicitor General will be able to designate areas of operations outside Canada as SDAs or SDOs. In addition, the commissioner for the RCMP will be able to deploy RCMP members to such operations as designated by the Minister of National Defence.

The proposed amendments to our disability pension legislation reinforce Canada's long-standing reputation as a leader in providing the men and women who serve our nation with one of the most comprehensive coverage packages of benefits and services in the world.

When it comes to providing the best legislation for our military and the RCMP, we must be able to adapt to the conditions under which we ask them to serve. World conditions have changed drastically over the past few years, as has the type of deployment we ask of our men and women in uniform, our troops and our national police.

While this type of legislation will always be a work in progress, the process we are engaged in today will give them a better product in the form of legislation that provides servicemen and servicewomen and their families with broader and more timely coverage. It will provide more coverage to Canadian Forces and RCMP members placed in harm's way, no matter where in the world or in Canada. It will provide for greater peace of mind, not only for those leaving on deployment but also for family members who are awaiting their safe arrival home.

Let us take this very important piece of legislation into our statue books as a reflection of Canada's gratitude to our military and RCMP, whom we call upon to uphold our values of peace, freedom and justice in dangerous places around the world and at home.

These amendments will establish a more responsive framework in keeping with the changing nature of Canadian Forces and RCMP operations. Thus, I seek the support of all colleagues in the House. Let us respond to the challenge and unanimously adopt Bill C-31 with speed.

Pension Act
Government Orders

12:20 p.m.

Canadian Alliance

Roy H. Bailey Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, I listened very carefully to the minister's comments. It might be said that the bill brings us up to date. It brings us into a new millennium and a new military era. The bill itself is designed to be a millennium bill. Not only is it designed for today, but I believe it is designed for the future. I commend it and I will certainly be supporting this bill.

I might point out in contrast that next week on May 4 we will have the Battle of the Atlantic parade, or we were to have it. In that battle, one-eighth of all those involved gave their lives. Today it would be considered a high designated area. We did not have that then. We were not used to terrorism. We were not dealing with modern techniques. We were not dealing with modern weapons. The weapons at that time were very crude. Therefore, what this bill does is give real meaning to what is here before us today and which I believe will be here for us well into the future.

We have come through a period of debating what constitutes a legal war. This bill will give a wider meaning to what actually constitutes war in designating special areas or special operations, but it is all in defence of our nation and the security of our nation. It takes on a brand new meaning. We cannot help but disagree with those who say that a nation can never be at war unless it is attacked or invaded. If that is what legal war is, I am sorry if any veterans are listening in, because over 100,000 Canadians let their blood flow in some 21 countries around the world. Canada is proud of that fact and we have lived better because of that even though we were not invaded.

In World War II, not too far off the coast of Canada in Canadian waters we lost hundreds of lives. Those people did not wear uniforms and they did not have guns, but they were delivering goods to supply a war in a foreign continent. This idea of what constitutes a legal war is nonsense. A war is constituted when a nation is threatened by any means, be it here on our soil or somewhere else.

After the Twin Towers went down, people began to think differently. They began to think that the new type of warfare that we will face now and into the future will be different. This bill addresses that.

I might point out one other thing. Not too long ago, a young man came to my office who had done some research on what was probably the last major battle of World War I, Cagnicourt. I hope we get something going; I am excited about this and I will tell everyone why. The only sitting member of Parliament ever to win a Victoria Cross was at Cagnicourt. This fall, on September 2 or somewhere around there, Canadians are going to be recognized by having a town square named after one of the VC winners from Calgary, the remnants of what was left two months before the Armistice was signed. It was at Cagnicourt that Kaiser Wilhelm said the war was over.

I want everyone to think about this. I want everyone to think about what special forces can do. The special forces on that day said this. Instead of having the slaughter of a lot of British, Australians and New Zealanders, the Canadians went over and the war came to an end on November 11, 1918, not on March 11 or April 11 of another year. By designating areas, as the minister has announced, and by designating the rapid deployment, by speeding up the process, we are indeed into the new century.

Some people ask me, “How come you are critic for veterans affairs? Why would you not be critic in some more important role?” That really bothers me. It really does. What is more important in this country than to take a look at the thousands of people, as the minister has said, who are on benefits and the hundreds of people and their kinfolk, their spouses and so on, who are still being cared for by the government? Can we think of anything more important than that? I cannot. I am very proud to represent my party as critic in this particular area.

The purpose of the bill, as the minister has said, is to be more responsive: bang, bang. Do we remember how long this used to take? It used to take from six months up to a year to designate something. I would have quite a beard by that time. Now it can be done almost immediately. It is in keeping with what is surrounding us today.

Therefore the bill is to be more responsive in providing comprehensive coverage to members of the Canadian Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who serve in dangerous operations areas and in conditions of elevated risk. These provisions are good provisions. They are good because they meet modern day requirements. They are good because we can declare a designated area within 24 hours. They are good because those people who are being deployed know that they have this coverage. Canadian troops have never known that before, not to this extent.

I just finished a trip visiting long term care for vets and I reminded my colleagues who travelled with me that Newfoundland was a designated area. Do members know why? It was considered overseas in World War II. They still get extra pay for serving overseas. I tip my hat to Newfoundland, because they were a very special people.

Under this pension act, there are two types of coverage, as the minister has announced. It is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is a difference that has to be explained. It is not just if one is on a specific duty. Let us say a person was in Kosovo and was sent out to take a look at a particular function. That would be a police duty. Let us say that something happened after the person came back from that duty and the person was wounded while sleeping. There is still coverage under the bill, which makes it entirely different from any piece of legislation we have had before.

About three years ago at the annual chamber of commerce meeting in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, there was a young RCMP officer who had served in Kosovo. Listening to the graphic details of what a Canadian policeman had to go through while living there made one feel proud that we had people like that in a high risk area. That was only a few years ago. We could not tell them then that they had this extra insurance, but it is there today.

Canadian vets are the pride of the country. I know that a lot of people will say, “Yes, but there are not many left and why do we want to spend a bunch of money?” But these vets and these people serving are the pride of the country because of their acts and sacrifices and their heroism in the defence of their country.

There are so many things we can do. For instance, I got a call the other day about the condition of an 89 year old vet who had fought almost five full years in World War II. He came out of it unscathed, without a scratch. But because of the conditions in which he was living I had to call somebody and get that vet out of there. I finally worked through the Royal Canadian Legion and we are going to get some action. Vets care for vets and the government should care for vets as well.

I was thrilled to be with the minister and the committee when we visited Dieppe last summer on the 60th anniversary. There are many Canadians who take the opportunity to dwell always in the negative about the military. Terence Robinson wrote a book called The Shame and The Glory: Dieppe . To go to Dieppe and to Pourville where the South Saskatchewan Regiment was, a regiment which was organized in Weyburn, Saskatchewan and to see the grave of a deceased Canadian soldier from the South Saskatchewan Regiment who did not have a name, it brought me to a standstill.

All of this made me realize what had happened. Perhaps it was ill planned. Nevertheless we will deal with a more prominent issue of the day which is we will be called upon and make no mistake about it.

Bill C-31 will ensure that veterans receive full access to all benefits and allowances due to them.

I was also with the group that spent a day at the Veterans Affairs office in Charlottetown. The office deals with many problems. I am somewhat relieved to see the manner in which the Veterans Affairs office attacks a problem, particularly if a person comes in for benefits and so on. I am satisfied that the bill, along with an increase in attention to veterans affairs will reduce the red tape. It will reduce the time spent on waiting lists. Then veterans can appeal and receive what is due to them immediately.

Bill C-31 provides compensation to Canadian Forces and also to the RCMP who are injured or disabled as a result of their service or while they are in a special duty area or a special duty operation. This is while they are there. It could be while they are eating supper but they are in a dangerous area. This is a big change.

Bill C-31 which has been brought forward by the government is not asking for additional money. I repeat that the bill is not asking for additional funding. It is not the same as another minister who fined 16-year-old hockey players and their teams. Then after they were done raping Saskatchewan they quit the survey. The bill is not asking for additional funds.

The Minister of National Defence or the Solicitor General, with the Minister of Veterans Affairs, would be able to declare an SDA just like that, whereas under our old system it would have taken up to a year.

What will Bill C-31 bring to the families, to the mothers and dads at home and to the boyfriends, girlfriends and so on? The bill will bring something which I think will be elevated and that is peace of mind.

The Canadian Alliance is pleased to support Bill C-31. When a member serves on a committee he or she is not always happy with everything. There are others items which I will not mention at this time that need to be supported. I do want to say to the government that this is good legislation. It is meaningful and up to date legislation. As situations develop, hopefully not for the worst, this piece of legislation being there will make it much easier to handle the situation in a better way than we have ever done before.

Pension Act
Government Orders

12:30 p.m.

Bloc

Robert Lanctôt Châteauguay, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to speak today on Bill C-31, an act to amend the Pension Act and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superannuation Act.

First, I want to say that the Bloc Quebecois supports the principle of Bill C-31. We recognize the commendable work done by our veterans and RCMP officers. Their commitment goes far beyond their job requirements, and we are grateful to them for this.

The purpose of Bill C-31 is to make the necessary amendments to the aforementioned legislation so that members of the armed forces or the RCMP who have taken part in special service operations, particularly ones under the Charter of the United Nations or search and rescue operations would, from this day forward, be entitled to a pension. So, this change recognizes the high risk of such operations.

Both these groups have impressive records. Since the Korean War, the largest deployment of military personnel abroad took place in 1999 with over 4,400 members of the armed forces, mostly on peace support operations.

These interventions are predicated on our legal and constitutional role. Thus, cabinet usually makes special orders allowing troop deployments for UN operations.

Of course, cabinet must inform Parliament of such decisions and it is up to parliamentarians to support or reject these decisions. The nature and scope of these deployments are significant elements in any government decision. We must also point out that in some cases the participation of armed forces or the RCMP in foreign operations moves rapidly beyond the control of the central government, as in the case of a United Nations operation.

In other words, the central government loses its right to act independently and becomes solely a service provider.

The Bloc Quebecois position has always been that such operations should be subject to debate in the House. Thus, on April 19, 1999, a motion by the Bloc Quebecois was debated. That motion concerned the armed conflict in Kosovo and the Balkans. The Bloc's intention was that any deployment of soldiers who may be involved in military or peacekeeping operations should be subject to a debate.

Our position was that the information about this involvement was seriously deficient. The motion was voted down on the pretext that it concerned a purely hypothetical situation. Since then, we have seen over and over that there was nothing hypothetical about it and that the Bloc Quebecois request was clearly justified.

We can regret the fact that, because of the government's refusal, members of our military and RCMP must deal with precarious situations and impossible deadlines, making their activities extremely risky. We must remember that certain missions have been more like military operations than peacekeeping or humanitarian activities, and that is disappointing.

Thus, it is appropriate to meet the needs of those who go on such missions by granting them commensurate pensions.

Canada has taken part in many wars since the Boer War in 1899. In 1918, more than 4,000 men were sent to Siberia during the Russian Civil War. In 1950, during the Korean War, Canada agreed to send troops only if the UN decided it was useful. We should mention that Canada's participation in that conflict was not dependent on a declaration of war.

The same thing happened during the gulf war in 1991. On August 6, 1990, the United Nations adopted resolution 661, which required members to impose sanctions against Iraq. Now, the federal government has invoked the United Nations Act, which states that only after the next session commences shall the orders and regulations made under this act be laid before Parliament. On October 23, 1990, the House of Commons adopted a motion to send troops to the gulf. However, it was not until November 29, 1990, that the United Nations adopted resolution 678 authorizing armed intervention in Iraq.

I find it somewhat ironic that, back then, there was no mention of any hypothetical situation.

Although the House of Commons adopted a motion authorizing the sending of troops to the Arabian Peninsula, the government thought it appropriate to hold an emergency debate to confirm this military support. The opposition questioned the need for such an aggressive reaction, because the UN had not taken such action during other similar conflicts. This entire debate ended when the United States began its armed aggression the following day.

On December 3, 1992, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 794 to establish a peace support mission in Somalia. In this resolution, the UN approved the use of force.

At the time, the opposition had asked that a debate be held before the federal government made any decisions. The government responded that it would make its decision first and only then would there be a debate. Furthermore, the government indicated that making such decisions was its responsibility and prerogative. Nevertheless, there was a special debate on the issue.

It was not until 1998 that parliamentarians again raised the need to hold a debate before any decisions were made about Canada's taking part in armed intervention abroad.

On September 30, 1998, a motion was passed in the House of Commons calling upon the Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to negotiate a peaceful solution and expressing profound dismay and sorrow concerning the atrocities being suffered by the civilian population in Kosovo. Only a week later did the central government deign to hold a take note debate on this matter, once again relegating parliamentarians to the role of bystanders.

Finally, the war in Iraq has allowed us an opportunity to stress the essential role parliamentarians must play in making decisions that in any way involve participation by Canada in armed interventions.

Once again, the decision-making role of parliamentarians has been shunted aside and the central government has decided to just do as it pleases, which we find regrettable. Our involvement as parliamentarians must be active rather than passive when it comes to making decisions with such impact on the public. I wish to make it clear that the participation by the people of Quebec has been exemplary. Our demonstration in support of peace most certainly played its part.

In addition to combat interventions, we must also think of our involvement in peacekeeping operations. These have become riskier and more complex than before, if not downright dangerous.

Once again, the scope and nature of the situation are significant, but we must add the human side. The duration only complicates matters.

Since 1945 Canada has taken part in more than 40 peace operations or related missions. While the UN charter does not oblige Canada to participate, we have nonetheless established a custom of peacekeeping we want to maintain that dates back to 1954, after the Korean war, when Canada took part in three surveillance missions.

Toward the end of 1954, Canada took part in the Suez Canal peacekeeping mission, and it was only four days after the government made its decision that a special sitting was held.

In February 1964 Canada made a commitment to take part in the peacekeeping mission in Cyprus when Parliament was not sitting. However, the motion authorizing the deployment of troops was not passed until March 13, 1964.

Canada then agreed to act as an observer in Vietnam, reserving the right to send troops before any vote in the House, however. Canadian military personnel were deployed on January 27, 1973 despite the fact that the matter was not debated in the House until February 1, 1973.

The following year, Canada deployed forces to the Golan Heights as part of a United Nations operation. As mentioned before, Canada took part in the gulf war of 1991, but it had also participated in the implementation of the embargo prior to that. There was only one vote to support the UN resolution and no vote on the matter of sending Canadian troops.

In 1992, Canada sent 1,300 troops to Somalia under UNITAF and 750 solders under UNOSOM. There was only a partial debate in the House.

Since 1993, more than 2,000 peacekeeping soldiers have been deployed in the former Yugoslavia under the UN or NATO. These missions have been debated in the House of Commons. There was also the matter of Canada's participation in operations in Haiti and Rwanda.

The result of these debates was that Canada must be more careful in evaluating its participation, because of the costs and resources involved.

On February 9, 1998, there was a debate in the House on the issue of military action in light of Iraq's refusal to allow weapons inspections by the UN. The Prime Minister gave the assurance at that time that Canada would not make a decision without a public debate. However, the United States Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, announced Canada's participation in this operation the day before that debate was to be held.

In conclusion, it is easy to understand that these kinds of interventions in foreign countries are complex and delicate issues, but the fact remains that Canadian troops and RCMP members who take part in these operations should not have to suffer the consequences unjustifiably.

Our peacekeeping missions are commendable, despite the risks involved. However, we must show our gratitude and our appreciation to members of the armed forces and of the RCMP.

Throughout my speech, I mentioned the flagrant lack of debate concerning our participation in military operations or peacekeeping missions. It is clear that parliamentarians and, as a result, those who elected them, are excluded from the process. This is inconceivable. Our role must not be limited to approving executive decisions. We are the voice of our constituents.

We need to debate any issue that affects Quebeckers and Canadians. We are elected representatives and we take our role very seriously. The deployment of troops is a serious issue. We must change our bad habits and be accountable to our constituents.

In closing, I will say that members of the armed forces and of the RCMP who fulfill their mission deserve our appreciation, and so do our constituents. Obviously, we support the principle of this bill.

Pension Act
Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Bill Blaikie Winnipeg—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the NDP I would like to indicate our support for the bill at second reading. We support much of what we see in the bill. The extension of benefits to the RCMP and the Canadian armed forces personnel operating in special duty areas or specially designated areas of operation is a good idea and long overdue. It is something that recognizes emerging realities. We commend the government for bringing the legislation forward.

I listened with care to the Alliance Veterans Affairs critic and I share with him the view that being the Veterans Affairs critic is not a minor role in the caucus of any particular party in the House. I am very proud, as well as being the parliamentary leader of the NDP, to also be the Veterans Affairs critic, which I am now and have been on occasion in previous parliaments. I say that as someone who is the grandson of a veteran. My grandfather, Robert Blaikie, was a founding member of the Great War Veterans Association in 1926, I believe, coming out of the first world war. My father, Robert Blaikie Jr., is a veteran on the basis of his service in the Royal Canadian Navy during the second world war. I myself have been a full member of the Royal Canadian Legion for over 30 years as a result of my own service in the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders in Winnipeg.

I mention that because, again referring to the speech by the Canadian Alliance Veterans Affairs critic, he spoke of being at Dieppe and, in particular, of being at the beach at Pourville in Dieppe. He mentioned that it was the beach on which the South Saskatchewan Regiment landed. However I would hasten to add that it was also the beach on which the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Winnipeg landed. Both groups had the distinction of advancing farther than anyone else that day. However many of them were taken prisoner.

I knew some of the people who were taken prisoner that day at Pourville. One of them was Pipe Major Alec Graham, one of the people who taught me how to play the bagpipes. He was actually one of the pipers who stood and played his pipes on the bow of one of the barges that landed on the beaches of Dieppe. There were other pipers. I think there were four from the Camerons that day. I know only three out of four of them because the fourth, Charlie Gunn, who was an uncle of a friend of mine, was killed on that day. I had occasion to visit his grave at the Dieppe cemetery and play the lament on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dieppe in 1992.

The Canadian Alliance Veterans Affairs critic also talked about extending benefits to people in areas of elevated risk. This is progress if we consider, as the Canadian Alliance member referred to, the fact that for decades we fought to have benefits extended to members of the merchant marine who were clearly a special duty operation or in a special area of elevated risk, and in fact were at great risk. It took decades for various governments and various parliaments to finally recognize the danger they were in, the risks they took, the many lives that were lost and the benefits that should have been extended to them a long time ago and were finally extended to them.

I am very proud of the fact that I personally was involved in that struggle for justice for the merchant marine, as was the NDP caucus with many other members of Parliament.

Let us call it progress that today we recognize that RCMP officers and others who may be in areas of elevated risk should have benefits extended to them regardless of their particular status. I hope we would never again be in a situation where we have to fight for long periods of time for benefits that obviously should be extended to people who are in theatres of elevated risk.

I listened with care to the member from the Bloc Quebecois who spoke to this. He gave us a rather lengthy history of the role that Parliament has or has not played in various decisions to deploy Canadian troops. I agree with him. The role of Parliament has not been what it should be when it comes to the deploying of Canadian troops. The history record is mixed but certainly there is a great gap between the behaviour of this Liberal government, elected in 1993, and the behaviour of the government prior to that, the Conservative government, when it came to the deploying of troops. There is a big difference between what was done during the first gulf war and what it appeared the Liberals were willing to do in the second gulf war, if in fact Canada had decided to participate. The government decided not to participate, but we could not get a commitment out of the government that we would actually have a full debate in the House and a vote on it. Eventually we had that but we had it as a result of other political manoeuvrings which resulted in the government feeling the need to put down a motion and have it debated. However that was long after the fact and it did not happen in the way that it should have. In fact, if Parliament had conducted itself properly and if the government had permitted Parliament to conduct itself properly, the government itself, and I think the whole country, might have benefited from a timely debate and a timely vote here in the House of Commons. Different positions could have been put, various parties could have expressed themselves on the matter, Parliament could have expressed itself on the matter and it would have all been done in a much more dignified way than what rolled out as a result of the refusal of the Liberal government to allow Parliament to play its proper role.

Therefore I want to agree with my colleague from the Bloc Quebecois. That is a potential flaw in the bill. I do not think it is something that should stand in the way of it being passed here today and going to committee and eventually being passed, but there was an opportunity here to do something that the government has not done and that is to insert a role for Parliament in the designating of these areas.

I am not surprised that the Liberal government did not do that. In fact what it has done is make the designating of these areas even easier. There might be some merit in that, taking it away from the cabinet and giving it to various ministers, either to the Solicitor General or to the Minister of National Defence. That might be quicker and more efficient. If we are not going to involve Parliament, we might as well have it efficient. However the underlying debate is whether there should be some role for Parliament in this. Perhaps this is something that can be explored a bit in committee.

Having said that, I certainly want to indicate our support for the bill at second reading. We look forward to having the bill in committee and considering it further at that time.

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12:55 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Gerald Keddy South Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise today to speak to Bill C-31, the RCMP and military pensions act, special duty operations.

The member from the NDP who just spoke did so quite well. I agree with him and the Minister of Veterans Affairs should remember the length of time that it took to recognize the merchant navy personnel in this country, the fact that it was only in recent years that it came to the House and we actually recognized the merchant navy.

I can remember as a kid the discussion years ago in my own household. My father, who was a veteran of World War II, just absolutely, totally turned away from the government, and from the legion at the time because they would not allow merchant navy veterans to be members. As someone who had served a lot of time in the coastal communities in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland where they actually picked up survivors and the bodies from the U-boat attacks, my father could never understand the fact that the Canadian government never recognized merchant marines as veterans of World War II. It was absolutely incredible.

Before I begin my full comments on Bill C-31, I would also remind the minister that it seems to be a continuing theme within the government ranks. The minister himself has refused, at least up to this point, to support the veterans of the Korean war who are asking for the privilege and the right to wear the Republic of Korea service medal which was given to them in 1951. The Canadian government has never recognized that medal. It had issued its own. Other governments have recognized it, including most of the Commonwealth countries and the United States, yet the minister, through his office, refuses to recognize it and refuses to give his support to the Governor General's Chancellery of Honours, to support our veterans in wearing the Republic of Korea service medal.

Certainly it is time that we have an in-depth examination of many of the wrongs that were created in the past, and it is a proper time now to correct them. We have corrected the merchant navy. I am certain it is time to allow our veterans of the Korean war who were issued the Republic of Korea service medal the right to wear that medal with honour, as they should.

The purpose of Bill C-31 is to extend more comprehensive and timely coverage to members of the Canadian forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police serving in areas and operations where the risk to their safety and security is elevated. Now they are at least going to have some peace of mind that there is some coverage there, not only for themselves but for their beneficiaries.

Under the current Pension Act and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Superannuation Act, members of the Canadian forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are entitled to financial compensation in the event of disability or death in the performance of their duties. The coverage is provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and includes insurance against all perils for those serving in what are known as special duty areas. Special duty areas are defined as areas that are geographically outside of Canada.

The substance of Bill C-31 would provide more complete coverage to eligible members serving in designated operations both inside and outside of Canada. Surely since September 11 we all realize the importance of extending this coverage. It was important before but it is even more important today that we extend this coverage inside of Canada. That coverage is for exposure to conditions of elevated risk up to and including armed conflict.

In addition to special duty areas, Bill C-31 would create a new service type called special duty operations. Serving in these areas or operations is special duty service which is defined in Bill C-31 as meaning service by either Canadian Forces or RCMP members in an area or operation designated for Canadian Forces members by the Minister of National Defence in consultation with the Minister of Veterans Affairs as a special duty area or operation. For Royal Canadian Mounted Police members the designation falls to the Solicitor General in consultation with the Minister of Veterans Affairs.

A special duty area or operation in Canada, or abroad, will be so designated if it is determined that it involves exposure of Canadian Forces or RCMP members to elevated risk. Examples of elevated risk include: search and rescue missions, UN operations, armed conflict or counter-terrorism. They include any area or operation of elevated risk dating back to September 11, 2001. This coverage includes: training for the operation, deployment to and from the area, and authorized leaves of absence.

It is my understanding that the bill is long overdue. For a government that has been in power since 1993, there have been a number of issues that have sat on the back burner. This is one of them. It took a major attack inside the confines of North America to even have the government interested in bringing this type of legislation forth and certainly it is timely and long overdue.

In closing, it has been said that a nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces, but also by the men and women it honours, and the men and women it remembers. In this spirit, it is an honour to support Bill C-31, a bill that seeks to improve the conditions of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Forces and their families.

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1:05 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Is the House ready for the question?

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1:05 p.m.

Some hon. members

Question.

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1:05 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?