House of Commons Hansard #41 of the 38th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was salaries.

Topics

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:40 p.m.

Bloc

Paule Brunelle Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, there is no question that increasing the benefit period by five weeks would help the regional economy and workers. For many of them, employment insurance is not a choice but a last resort. In this type of economy, most workers cannot wait for something else to come along. There is nothing else.

It is important to know that the government does not put one cent into the employment insurance fund. It is insurance, plain and simple. People expect, when making a claim, to receive their fair share from what employees and employers have paid. This is only normal.

If I insure my home, and something bad happens, or there is a fire or what have you, I expect to be paid for the damages incurred. I would think that the same principle should apply to employment insurance.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:40 p.m.

Peterborough
Ontario

Liberal

Peter Adams Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join in this debate on Bill C-278, which proposes changes to employment insurance.

This is a particularly important debate, because EI plays a key role in providing temporary income support for people coping with job loss and for employed people who cannot work for reasons of sickness, childbirth, parental responsibilities, or the need to care for a dying family member. Also, for those Canadians who have lost a job, EI provides skills development opportunities, that is, training so that they can return to work quickly.

To illustrate the importance of EI, let me outline how it helped Canadians during the period 2002-03. During that time, Canadians filed 1.87 million new EI claims and $12.3 billion was paid out in benefits. In addition, 638,000 people participated in active re-employment measures, an investment of $2.1 billion in training and in the labour market success of the people concerned.

Clearly EI is there for people when they need it most, but this was not always the case. Before the introduction of EI in 1996, aspects of the old unemployment insurance system caused some to question the very sustainability of this vital program, a program which is vital for social reasons, for reasons of humanity and, by the way, for reasons of keeping our economy going. Those features included the encouragement of people to become dependent on program benefits, and it emphasized unemployment rather than employment, in some cases actually acting as a disincentive to work.

Unfortunately, this bill threatens to return us to the situation that confronted us in the past. Let us take, for instance, the bill's proposal to relax entrance requirements.

Four successive monitoring and assessment reports, the reports which review the program regularly, have stated that overall access to EI benefits is strong: 88% of employees would be potentially eligible for EI if they lost their jobs. Among those working full time, 96% would be potentially eligible for EI if they lost their jobs. Among part time employees, 57% of women and 41% of men would be potentially eligible for EI if they lost their jobs.

Bill C-278 would also increase the benefit duration, which could have the effect of making unemployment more attractive than work. Such a suggestion contradicts successive EI monitoring and assessment reports which have said that the current duration of benefits is in fact appropriate.

For example, on average, regular beneficiaries receive benefits for less than two-thirds of the weeks for which they are eligible, which means that the benefit duration is already more than enough for most clients. Even people living in areas of high unemployment typically do not use more than 70% of their entitlement. Add to this the fact that benefit exhaustion rates have steadily declined since EI's introduction, from approximately 37% in 1995-96 to about 31% in 2001-02. All of this suggests that the benefit duration is appropriate.

What about the bill's call for the government to raise the replacement rate and maximum insurable earnings? In my opinion, this also is unwise given that the current 55% replacement rate serves as a balance between income adequacy and ensuring that work incentives are maintained. In addition, individuals in low income families with children can get additional support through the family supplement, which allows these individuals to receive as much as 80% of their insured earnings.

I might add that at the time of EI reform concerns were raised about the fact that the level of maximum insurable earnings at that time was substantially higher than the average industrial wage and so was acting as a disincentive to work. To address this, the level was reduced to $39,000 a year with the understanding that it would be reviewed at some later date when the average industrial wage increased to the equivalent of that level.

Such a review has not occurred because the maximum insurable earnings figure is still 10% higher than the average industrial wage. It is important to note that 70% of all paid employees have earnings below the $39,000 level, which means that the majority of claimants have their employment income fully insured by the EI program at its current level. This level seems to be set properly as well.

Finally, there is the proposal to increase the premium refund threshold from $2,000 to $3,000, while also lowering entrance requirements to 360 hours. This recommendation is also ill-advised since it would effectively result in some workers being in a position to qualify for and receive EI benefits without having paid premiums, something none of us would wish to see happen.

It is clear that the bill contains a number of serious flaws. That brings me to the heart of the matter, namely, that given the vital importance that EI plays in our social safety net, it is critically important that any changes we make to it be well thought out in advance to avoid unintended negative consequences that could damage the whole program and its ability to help workers.

Of course, this is not to say that EI is cast in stone, never to change. Some fine tuning is required from time to time, and when evidence indicates that such changes are necessary, the government has acted. For example, this happened when we removed the intensity rule, when we adjusted the clawback, and when we made the small weeks provision a permanent and national element of the program and subsequently increased the threshold.

We have also commenced a pilot project to test labour market impacts in areas of high unemployment by adding five weeks of entitlement to address the needs of those who go without income for a period of time prior to the resumption of their work.

However, rather than make rash, badly thought out changes as this bill would have us do, we instead need to pursue a balanced approach that takes into account larger issues such as the likely impact of changes on the labour market as a whole, on the financial sustainability of EI in the future and on the EI program as a whole. Because EI is such a complex program, involving employed as well as unemployed people, that impacts many aspects of our economy and the lives of millions of workers and their families, we need to get it right for their sake and for the sake of future generations who will need to call on this program for assistance. It is for this reason that I cannot support the bill.

That being said, I do want to commend the member for her commitment to helping workers cope with job losses and the difficult task of balancing workplace and family demands, a commitment which I share and which the government shares. I particularly share her concern about balancing work and family and particularly about the return of women to the workplace. Those are two areas in which I personally would be glad to work with her to maximize the benefits of this program.

I would urge her and other members to work with the government as it seeks to pursue a balanced and thoughtful approach to fine tuning the EI program so it can continue to help Canadian workers for generations to come. It is only by getting the full range of ideas and insights, such as some of those the member has put forward this evening, that we can make this important program even better than it is.

I regret to say that I cannot support the bill.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

Conservative

Peter Van Loan York—Simcoe, ON

Mr. Speaker, when we talk about unemployment and the employment insurance program, it is important to remember that the most important priority has to be the creation of jobs so that people do not have to claim employment insurance and that they do not have to stay on employment insurance for a long time. I am not sure that the bill in front of us addresses that; in fact, I believe it may have the opposite effect of hurting it.

The real problem in the employment insurance system for basically over a decade has been an overtaxation of the workers who are paying employment insurance premiums and an overtaxation of the employers who pay matching contributions, in fact a larger proportion of it. Over the past decade that has produced a surplus of some $46 billion.

That is $46 billion more that has been taken in by the system than has been paid out. It is far in excess of anything that would be possibly required to sustain a system. What it constitutes is a theft under the guise of employment insurance of tax dollars in order to help the government with its general revenue issues. That is where the money has been diverted. It is a theft from the workers and employers under the guise of employment insurance.

The worst part about it is for the people for whom the impact is greatest, the people from whom it takes the most. It is unlike income tax which is quite progressive, and unlike the goods and services tax which is related to spending and has a progressive element. This is the most regressive. In fact, after a person's income tops a certain level, the person stops paying employment insurance premiums. The overtaxation and the surplus hits most of all the people who earn the least. That is the real problem.

We have to stop adding to the $46 billion surplus. We have to return that money to the people who paid it. If we look at that money, $46 billion in 10 years has been taken from employers and employees. That money could have been used to create more jobs. That money, had it been in businesses, might have kept many of them from going bankrupt. In the hands of individuals, that $46 billion could have been used to pay mortgages, to buy skates for their kids and to live better lives.

Simply put, the premiums have been too high for the past decade, far in excess of what was necessary to pay the system. We need to change it to solve that. I am not sure this bill does it.

In fact there was an announcement recently by the minister about a drop in the rate. Employees have been paying $1.98 on $100 of earnings. That is going to drop to $1.95. Under those numbers, based on the performance we have seen in the past, the employment insurance system shall again generate a significant surplus. That is demonstrated based on the performance year after year.

In making that decision, obviously the government has decided to continue this process of overtaxation of workers and employers. Through that overtaxation it will continue to generate a surplus and turn it over to general revenues. It will continue that process which is a very regressive and unfair taxation that hurts workers.

There is only one other alternative if that is not the case. The numbers show clearly in black and white, and we do not have to be sophisticated accountants to understand, that it would have taken $1.88 or $1.82 in premiums, depending on to whom we listen, to be balanced in the past year. Therefore, $1.95 is going to be too much and will continue to produce a surplus.

What is the only other option? It is that the government is expecting a massive economic downturn, that it is expecting job losses to grow significantly. If that is the policy position of the government, if that is the pronouncement, and I believe that is the projection of the minister in making that declaration, I think that is something that is very grim. I hope the people of Canada will take note of the pessimistic view held by the government toward the future job environment.

The real answer and the real priority is to stop the theft of those dollars from the system, to make employment insurance work as a real fund so it does not generate excessive surpluses that are turned over to general revenues. The bill, however, does not represent a solution to that problem.

In fact, what we expect would happen with this bill would be a huge increase in the cost of the employment insurance program and as a result, a huge increase in the required premiums. That would mean huge tax increases for ordinary workers and employers who are trying to create jobs. In the end, all that happens when we put taxes on job creation, and that is what employment insurance premiums are to some extent, and when we increase them, it becomes more punitive. We would be limiting the job creation that occurs and taking money out of the pockets of workers.

There are significant problems. Let us take one example only from this particular proposal. That is the proposal to increase the maximum insurable earnings to $41,500 a year. If we did that, the net impact under the current rate of employment insurance would be more money would be taken out of the pockets of employers and employees than would actually be returned to workers through the benefits that result from the increased allowable annual earnings.

Essentially, the proposal from the Bloc would result in a grab of taxes from workers that would then produce a surplus that would be turned over to general revenues. That does not solve the problem. It makes the problem that we have right now even worse. It effectively is an increase in taxation on workers again. Why that is being proposed in this legislation I do not understand.

As well, when one looks at the problems in the system, the private member's bill does not address in any balanced way the nature of the problem. All it speaks to is one side of the equation.

In fact, employers have been very hard done by under the current operation of the employment insurance system. A principle has been established for some time that 58% of the premiums was paid for by employers and 42% by employees, a 1.4:1 ratio, whatever the rate is set at every year. The principle was that employers had some greater measure of control over whether an employee kept or lost a job. That was the justification for it.

Since that principle was established, the employment insurance system has been changed dramatically. No longer is it simply straightforward insurance for those who lose their jobs, but there is a significant social component that has been added. Compassionate care leave has been added, and extended maternity leave has been added, all funded through employment insurance.

In the normal case, there is very little that an employer has to do with an employee's decision on whether or not to have a child. Effectively, that justification for the higher burden on the employers has altered significantly over time as the program has been expanded. Fairness would dictate that the burden should also be shifted to a more even balance, perhaps fifty-fifty sharing. That principle is not established here.

In addition, we have a problem with overpayments. Many people who work multiple jobs or who go from one job to another and change jobs within a year pay into employment insurance in one job and then in another and the employee ends up having an overpayment. When it comes time for those people to file their tax returns, because they have paid too much into the system, more than their insurable earnings allowed, they get a rebate for an overpayment into the system.

Millions and millions of dollars are returned every year to employees, but the employers who made the matching contributions do not have the benefit of that return. They do not get the same compensation. That is unfair and it is an imbalance. We do not see any element to address that in this legislation.

I would suggest that the bill before us is one which is unfair to workers and to the taxpayers who are funding the system, the employees who are trying to make better lives for themselves. It is a system that results in huge increases to them without, in many cases, any perceptible benefit. It is going to kill job creation. It is going to have a drag on the economy. It is not a positive result. For that reason, I find it difficult to support the bill before us.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, first, I want to congratulate the hon. member for Trois-Rivières for having introduced this bill in the House of Commons. I am flattered because there are a number of similarities with the bill I introduced before the election. In computer lingo, this virtually called cut and paste. It could be said that the NDP and the Bloc Québécois have much in common when it comes to the needs of workers in regions providing seasonal employment.

Some Liberals also agree with us that changes are needed. There have been past examples of this. I remember our colleague in the House of Commons, Georges Farrah, from Bonaventure—Gaspé—Îles-de-la-Madeleine—Pabok. I think he lost the election just over employment insurance.

This shows the hardships that people can experience in certain regions. We just need to consider the hon. member for Beauséjour, who is in favour of the EI reform. His experience representing people in the region of Cap-Pelé and Bouctouche, people working in the fish plants, has made him understand the importance of EI to seasonal workers.

Not so long ago, I met with the people of Cap-Pelé. The mayor asked if anyone was coming to recruit people working in fish plants to take them to Moncton. He said that he was happy for Moncton. He congratulated the city of Moncton on its unemployment rate, which is 5% or 5.6%. But if everyone from his region goes to work in Moncton, it means that the Cap-Pelé region might as well shut down. As the mayor of Cap-Pelé, he is not happy with the way things are going.

I was surprised to see my colleague from Peterborough shift and say that he cannot support such a bill. He was a member of the committee created after Bill C-2. The recommendations were along the lines of this bill. He has changed since he sat on that committee but, back then, he strongly supported the bill.

I remember too that the people of the Cape Breton region strongly supported it. When there is an election, people want to be part of the government so they can ensure that changes are made to EI because it needs changing. People are starting to realize that there have been a number of elections in which they say they want to sit on the government benches in order to change EI but it does not change.

This week I thought it shameful that the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development had the gall—excuse me for saying so—to lower the employment insurance premiums. I thought this was a bit rude of him, especially since the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development is currently considering changes to employment insurance.

Instead, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development is listening to the Conservatives. That is why I say there is no difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals. The only thing the Conservatives ever ask for is lower employment insurance contributions, because they think the employers are being over taxed.

I do not know how many times I have said, here in the House of Commons, that no employer has ever called me to say that he was going to lose his business because he could not afford to pay the employment insurance premiums and that he needed them lowered. I hope my phone starts ringing tomorrow morning. I have not received those types of calls.

However, I have seen people demonstrating in the street to say that the employment insurance system does not cover seasonal employment adequately. That is what I have heard.

When I went to the Forestville area before the election, I was talking to people in the streets, including Forestville's young priest and the former priest, who is now retired. I remember what the priest told me. He said it was not a political story, but a human story. The cuts made to employment insurance by the Liberals in 1996 had a direct impact on families and children. That is where they are hitting.

There are 1.4 million children going hungry in Canada and it is the Liberals' fault.

During the election campaign, I remember hearing varying opinions from the Conservatives. In 2000, the Conservative leader said, in the West, “We must not change employment insurance. We must make some cuts in it”. In the east, he said, “We are going to change employment insurance for you.” He did not know that the Globe and Mail is sold all over Canada and that people read both messages.

The shameful thing is that the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development listened to him and is reducing EI benefits to such a point that there will not be any money left in the EI fund to pay for what people need.

It may be a little comical, but as I have often said, you do not catch lobsters on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. The lobsters are in our waters, in Chaleur Bay and off Cape Breton. The lobsters are in the Bay of Fundy. People in Peterborough love our lobsters.

These people have seasonal jobs in regions like ours, in the Gaspé and Chaleur Bay, where everything freezes up in the winter. In fact, you cannot catch lobster in the winter. And besides that, we have to work within the quotas set for us by the government.

The people of Cap Pelé—and not just them, because this happens all over Canada—have found it necessary to cheat the system to accumulate hours, to do what some call “banking” their hours. They are breaking the law. In Cap Pelé, where the member of Parliament is a Liberal, 1,500 people were caught banking hours. The government told them, “We will not do anything to you. We will make the employer pay $5 million.”

At the same time, in my riding, 11 people were also banking hours. They had to repay the government $10,000 and $11,000. It is shameful that in a national program the government treats people represented by a Liberal member on way and the people represented by a member from another political party another—in a democracy like ours.

This is the biggest theft the government has committed in Canada: it has stolen $46 billion from the pockets of the workers and employers who have paid premiums into the employment insurance fund, and they took it to balance the budget and get to that zero deficit. It was all done on the backs of the workers who have lost their jobs and the children who have nothing to eat. It is shameful. That is what the Liberal federal government has done. Today it boasts that it has lowered premiums every year, and it does that to please the Conservatives.

I would like the people back home to know that the Conservatives are opposed to changing employment insurance. They think that slashing EI will send people back to work. I regret to say that my dear friends do not know their Canada. They do not know that some Canadians are in seasonal jobs and need employment insurance to get by. Punishing them and their families is not the way to help them get by.

I congratulate the member for Trois-Rivières on making recommendations, which I support 150%. I am not likely to ever need EI, but I see the hardships the Liberals have caused in my area.

When Doug Young lost his job here in Parliament, it was because he thrust the people of my area into abject poverty. I have women calling my riding office and talking of taking their own lives, because there is nothing left in the house. I have fathers calling and talking of suicide, because they are not able to support their families. The Liberal government is responsible for their desperate situation, with the help of the Conservatives.

know that I have said all this before. That is because the problem is still the same. There are Liberals who agree with me on this. I hope that this time they will be capable, in a minority government position, to do something about it. The same goes for the member for Beauséjour who has finally said—and it made the papers—that he hoped that, with a minority government, Parliament would be able to bring about the changes required to restore to workers what they are entitled to, and what has been taken from them.

The communities would be delighted to hear that. Workers are not the only ones hit by this. The Liberals are punishing the communities too. We are not all in Toronto, where there are jobs for the taking. In our area the situation is different, our workers are lured away to take employment elsewhere. Our regions are emptied. It is a kind of legal deportation. That is what is happening. The government is sticking it to the people in need.

Is this our Canada? Sometimes, we have to ask ourselves that question. We are not all as lucky as Alberta. If we had oil wells at home and if we no longer needed to fish, things would be different. I can assure the House that people back home are hard workers. When they move to Alberta, they are the first ones to get jobs, because they are hard workers. Contrary to what Doug Young once said in Hamilton, they are not lazy. That was written in the Globe and Mail .

In conclusion, I hope that hon. members will support this bill, that Liberals who are still not convinced will soon be and will do the right thing. It is not up to the Liberals to take that money and use it to reduce the debt and achieve a zero deficit. That money is there to help the needy, the families, the 800,000 people who do not qualify for employment insurance benefits.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to tell hon. members what I think and what seasonal workers in our region think.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

Bloc

France Bonsant Compton—Stanstead, QC

Mr. Speaker, I wish to thank the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst for his colourful speech, which was a great motivation to me.

The purpose of Bill C-278, before us today, is to make a number of efficient and necessary amendments to the Employment Insurance Act.

As the hon. members know, employment insurance is a reality for thousands of people on the labour market in Quebec. With any luck, you will never have to collect benefits in your life. But that is not true for all workers.

This bill, introduced by my hon. colleague from Trois-Rivières, is geared toward those workers who currently need or will need employment insurance. These workers contribute to the plan and, as such, should be able to use it when necessary. This bill contributes to that, by making it easier to have access to employment insurance for those who really need it. I will explain in a moment why this bill is good for all workers.

First, this bill reduces the minimum qualifying period to 360 hours of work, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment. At present, the qualifying period for employment insurance benefits varies between 420 and 910 hours of work, depending on the place of residence and whether the claimant is a new entrant or re-entrant.

We are asking that this period be reduced to 360 hours, regardless of where the claimant lives. This rules, unanimously approved by the central labour bodies in Quebec, would provide more appropriate coverage for workers in seasonal businesses, and also for all workers in unstable jobs.

Currently, the benefit period is determined based on the regional rate of unemployment. To qualify for employment insurance, a worker must have worked 420 hours in regions with an unemployment rate over 13%, and 700 hours in regions where the unemployment rate is 6% or less.

We can understand that such measures may not be appropriate for seasonal workers in a region where the unemployment rate is low. They are also not appropriate for workers in marginal areas. The same is true for workers in cities where the rate of employment is different from the regional rate.

I want to point out that, while this bill sets the eligibility threshold at 360 hours, regardless of where the workers live, the benefit period will continue to vary from region to region.

Speaking of the benefit period, the cut-off point is now set at 45 weeks. In 2000, a study by Human Resources Development Canada showed that 35% of EI recipients use up their entire benefit period. Many of them were victims of the infamous seasonal gap. In other words, for a period of several weeks, sometimes up to 10 weeks, unemployed people had no income. This gap would be compensated for by the proposal in this bill to raise the benefit period from 45 weeks to 50. Adding those five weeks would, depending on the number of hours worked and the regional unemployment rate, entitle a contributor to receive between 30 and 50 weeks of benefits.

Another change contained in this bill is the increase in the weekly contribution rate, from its present 55% to 60% of insurable income.

In Quebec, the minimum wage is $7.45. So a person working a 35-hour week has a net weekly income of $260.75. This entitles an unemployed worker to an EI cheque of $287 every two weeks, before taxes, or $574 a month.

This is about what it would cost to rent a small apartment in many cities in Quebec, what we call a “four-and-a-half” —oh, but I forget that EI recipients also have to eat and clothe themselves. Where will they get the money for that, if most of their cheque goes to keep a roof over their head?

Statistics show that in Quebec low wage earners are the ones who make use of EI most often. They are earning the minimum wage, as I have already mentioned. In 2002, 66.6% of the 192,000 workers earning minimum wage in Quebec were women, and women also made up two-thirds of low wage earners.

Instead of lowering premiums in a ridiculous way—such as the government's announcement this week that it would save every worker 3¢ a week—the Liberal government should instead look closely at what is in this bill. Increasing the rate of weekly EI benefits from 55% to 60% is a practical measure that would make it possible to give better support to people who really need it.

I would like to go back now to the minimum qualifying period in hours making workers eligible for employment insurance benefits. This time, I would like to point out the ridiculous distinction between people who enter the labour force and those who re-enter it. Fortunately, the bill before us proposes to put an end to this distinction.

At present, a person who enters the work force, or comes back after two years of absence from the work force, must accumulate 910 hours of work to be eligible for EI benefits. For other workers, as I mentioned earlier, the number of hours ranges from 420 to 700. The primary victims of this discrimination are, once again, women and younger workers.

With regard to women, the distinction can be clearly seen when they leave the labour market to start a family. If they prefer to look after their own children, the EI system penalizes them when they return to work.

As for young people, we are aware that first jobs are often seasonal, short-term or part-time. But when that job is over, if the young worker does not have 910 hours, there is no income. This discrimination toward those who enter or re-enter the labour force must be eliminated.

I would like to address another point. This bill will—at last—require the Canada Employment Insurance Commission to pay out, as workforce support measures, at least 0.8% of the insurable earnings—as estimated by the Commission—of all insured persons. In concrete terms, that amount would be used to help the unemployed upgrade their skills, learn new ones, or become self-employed.

I hope that the hon. members from all parties will support this bill and, finally, improve the employment insurance system for the people who are its real stakeholders.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Employment Insurance Act
Adjournment Proceedings

6:20 p.m.

Bloc

Stéphane Bergeron Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to take this opportunity to expand on intergovernmental affairs and, more particularly, on so-called “asymmetrical federalism”.

First, I think that the notion of “asymmetrical federalism”, which lately has been used a great deal by federalists, seems instead a kind of asymmetrical interference.

There are numerous examples, in fact, where the federal government interferes in areas of jurisdiction belonging to Quebec and the provinces.

This is especially true with regard to health. The increase in federal transfer payments for health constitutes a victory of the first federal-provincial first ministers conference this fall, but it has been darkened by the resounding failure of the conference on equalization. This increase is accompanied by federal government oversight and control over these matters.

By establishing action plans, common, well-defined objectives, performance indicators or even so-called national standards, the federal government ensures that it can continue to invade areas of provincial responsibility.

In addition to health, look at municipal affairs or even day care. In terms of intergovernmental affairs, the main strategy of this government is to offer Quebec and the provinces money while it simultaneously imposes its own conditions.

With the arrogance it is known for, this government has even created a federal department of regional development, whose investments will be used to duplicate programs already administered by Quebec.

Regional development is not a federal responsibility, since the Constitution confers upon Quebec and the provinces responsibility for most issues in this sector: natural resources, education and training, municipal affairs, and so forth.

No, the problem that is slowing down regional development is the same one that faces all the other sectors in which the federal government does its best to interfere, the fiscal strangulation of Quebec and the provinces.

The fiscal imbalance, that only our Liberal colleagues refer to as financial pressure, is the key to understanding the intrinsic dynamic of this so-called asymmetrical federalism.

The fiscal imbalance financially weakens Quebec and the provinces and allows the federal government to free up huge budgetary surpluses, which it gladly uses to burst into provincial jurisdictions and to give itself the noble task of solving problems it created in the first place. In passing, it uses its “providential” intervention to dictate the conditions for funding, thereby ensuring it has the visibility it so desperately seeks.

If we can recognize this underhanded strategy called nation-building, then we will have a better understanding of why the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs is celebrating the virtues of “asymmetrical federalism”, since, in doing so, she is also celebrating the federal government's desire for centralization.

And yet, the minister has tried to explain that asymmetrical federalism was not written into the throne speech because that would have been entirely superfluous, and that this concept is the new way the federal government operates in its relations with Quebec and the provinces.

Still, it is pretty obvious. Even though this concept enables the government to hide its hopelessly centralizing aims, asymmetrical federalism has been exposed as a formula that, even on the surface, is much too favourable to Quebec for all the Liberal dinosaurs with ideas from the Trudeau era.

That is why the Speech from the Throne said not one word about this concept that has been introduced as the new method of intergovernmental cooperation. It only took one federal-provincial conference for this ghost ship to crash on the sharp reefs of equalization. Like a mirage that dissolves as we approach it, asymmetrical federalism will fizzle out.

This government will not be able to boast of practising real asymmetrical federalism until it allows Quebec and the provinces to intervene in its own exclusive jurisdictions.

Employment Insurance Act
Adjournment Proceedings

December 8th, 2004 / 6:25 p.m.

Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte
Newfoundland & Labrador

Liberal

Gerry Byrne Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to be taking part in the discussion on the question raised by the hon. member for Verchères—Les Patriotes on October 6.

During the exchange with the Minister of Intergovernmental affairs, this hon. member chose to deplore the fact that the Speech from the Throne was silent on the notion of asymmetrical federalism. He complained that the speech could have stated:

--that this asymmetry should apply not only to Quebec's jurisdictions, but also and particularly to federal jurisdictions, so as to allow Quebec to pursue its own agenda in the areas of telecommunications and justice, for example, or so that it may speak for itself at international forums.

In reply, the minister responded that the government has been promoting and practising this very type of federalism ever since it came to power. The Speech from the Throne specifically highlights cooperation among the partners in the federation, namely, the provinces and territories. In fact, this seems so obvious that many of us are left wondering whether he actually read the Speech from the Throne.

Specifically, the throne speech centres on such principles as respect for diversity and a consensus driven approach for reaching national objectives. This implies an asymmetrical approach that corresponds to a flexible federalism that respects differences.

Regarding the health agreement, which was raised just a few moments ago, Quebec premier Jean Charest stated on September 17, “Today we are marking a very important step in Canada's history. We have blazed a new trail in Canadian federalism through the recognition of asymmetry by all partners of the federation”. The Prime Minister echoed these very sentiments in his response to the Speech from the Throne on October 6. He said:

When the Government of Canada brings together its 13 territorial and provincial partners, when it agrees with them on a 10 year plan that will mean shorter waiting times and improved access to health professionals, that is a testament to the strength of our federation...We see the importance of national will in the health deal.

In the wake of the health agreement, with which all of Canada was delighted, but which the leader of the Bloc Québécois described as “the very least”, it will be possible to resolve other questions while fully respecting those differences. That flexibility will help us pursue common objectives for the well-being of all Canadians and this includes Quebeckers. All will benefit from a consensus driven solution approach.

Similarly, the Speech from the Throne contains other key commitments of our government: the commitment to early learning and child care. It states:

The Government will put the foundations in place with its provincial and territorial partners--

It also states:

Within this national framework, the provinces and territories will have the flexibility to address their own particular needs and circumstances.

What more can one ask for in terms of flexibility and asymmetrical federalism?

Given the hon. member's great interest in the formula, I invite him now to reread the speech delivered in the House by the intergovernmental affairs minister on this very topic on October 7.

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Adjournment Proceedings

6:25 p.m.

Bloc

Stéphane Bergeron Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Mr. Speaker, as I believe I have shown, the Liberal government is using asymmetrical federalism as a camouflage for constitutional interference. When you realize this, it becomes easier to understand the scope of the statement, made in October, by the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and I quote:

I do not believe Canadians are interested in reopening constitutional talks.

These words truly reveal her vision of things. This government wants to avoid talking about the constitution, since every day it is fully engaged in asymmetrical meddling. I ask you, why would it bother to restart constitutional talks?

It is disturbing to hear a minister of intergovernmental affairs, worse yet, one representing a riding in Quebec, allege that having a constitutional debate is no longer of interest to anyone. This attitude is all the more troubling given that Quebec did not sign the Constitution Act, 1982.

For Quebec, asymmetrical federalism can lead only to a constitutional step backward, since it and federal interference are one and the same. The only way to put an end to federal interference for good is for Quebec to become a sovereign nation.

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Adjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Liberal

Gerry Byrne Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte, NL

Mr. Speaker, there we have it. I have to admit that I find the Bloc Québécois attitude a little curious. It is a sovereignist party but of course it remains active on the federal scene. It sits in the Canadian Parliament, not, it says, to promote its sovereignist ambitions, but to promote Quebec's higher interests.

How then can it be so honestly enamoured of asymmetrical federalism when it does not believe in this very system to begin with, which it feels will bring insufficient gains to Quebec?

In election campaigns, it consistently hides its true intentions and presents itself to Quebeckers as an unwavering defender of their cause. What is that primary cause? The answer should be quite simple. After all, the majority of Quebeckers want their governments to work together.

This is something that even the Bloc Québécois has embodied in this debate by the hon. member for Verchères--Les Patriotes and he cannot ignore this. The Bloc will not fool anyone by its true intentions. While it claims to defend the notion of asymmetrical federalism, the political logic of the Bloc is just not on the straight and narrow and it is in fact rather disconcerting. This debate provides us with yet another excellent example of that very fact.

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Adjournment Proceedings

6:30 p.m.

Conservative

Bill Casey North Nova, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise and ask another question further to an issue I raised on November 5. There is quite a controversy between the fishermen in New Brunswick and P.E.I. in particular about the herring fishery between the two jurisdictions in the Northumberland Strait.

At the time, I asked if the minister would acknowledge that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans failed to correct a very obvious error in the description of a fishing zone off Prince Edward Island. The minister responded to me and he did acknowledge that it was a very hot issue between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. He said it was important that we act in a responsible way.

He then went on to say that the fact is the herring stocks are very healthy, so healthy that according to the department's science the total allowable catch was increased to 10,000 tonnes. However, I was talking to some very knowledgeable fishermen today, people in the fishing industry in P.E.I., who tell me that there is a problem with the fisheries department science.

Although the scientists are saying it is the biggest biomass in a long time, there was hardly any spring herring fishery off P.E.I., the mid-season was very weak, the inshore did not catch their allowable catch, and the seiners did not catch their total allowable catch either. It hardly matters that they increased the total allowable catch if the fish are not there and they are not catching them.

Basically what I was told today by this very knowledgeable person in the P.E.I. fishing industry is that the people in the fishing industry do not have confidence in this DFO science that is saying the herring fishery is the best it has been in decades. They would like DFO to enlist the services of independent science and independent scientists to analyze this and give an independent assessment of the biomass for the herring. This was a concern of theirs.

They still do not have their answer as to why the correction was not made in the herring fishing zone off P.E.I. originally, but now the answer from the minister indicates that there is all of this herring there and the fishermen say they are not there.

Just between us, Mr. Speaker, I have a lot of faith in the opinion of the fishermen because they have turned out to be right every time.

I would like to ask the very distinguished parliamentary secretary who is going to answer the question why they have not corrected that obvious error they made when they changed the coordinates of the 25-fathom line off P.E.I. It was so obvious. There was one description in English and one description in French.

Instead of having a rectangle off P.E.I. that was a protected area, it was a triangle. It made absolutely no sense and anybody with any common sense would have known that it was not right. Even the parliamentary secretary would know it was not right if he looked at this, so I wonder if he could explain why it was not corrected, and then could he answer to the fishermen of P.E.I. about their request to have independent scientists rather than just DFO scientists?

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Adjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

West Nova
Nova Scotia

Liberal

Robert Thibault Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, I know this is a great day of jubilation and celebration in the member's riding of Cumberland--Colchester because yesterday three calves were born to a single cow, which rarely happens. I read about it in the paper and I know the member will be celebrating that all week.

On behalf of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, I appreciate the opportunity to rise in the House this evening to say a few words in this important debate about the herring fishery in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.

I appreciate the question from the member about the proximity of the exclusion line to Prince Edward Island and the perceived damage that this causes the fishery.

Let me begin by saying that while I understand that the P.E.I. inshore fishers are concerned about the potential impact of the seiner fishery, current scientific information indicates that there are no major conservation issues with the seiner fishery and seine gear.

However, in the interest of addressing their concerns, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans announced last month that a three year scientific fishery will be undertaken on the northeast coast of P.E.I., thereby answering one of the member's questions.

This fishery will be monitored independently and will allow detailed sampling to determine the size of the catch, by-catch and any bottom encounters with the gear.

DFO will use these results to determine if further changes need to be made to the exclusion zone. I am pleased that both the herring seiners and the Prince Edward Island Fishermen's Association have agreed to accept the results of this additional scientific work.

I would like to remind everyone that the state of the herring fishery in 1983, to which my hon. colleague referred, was very different from what it is today.

In the 1980s, more than 80% of the total allowable catch was landed by the large herring seiners, with 20% being landed by the inshore fishers. In recent years, seiners have been allocated only about 20% of the total allowable catch.

Two decades ago there were 65 seiners active in this fishery and now there are only 5 such vessels. That is why the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and I strongly believe that it makes sense today to find a solution that works in the current situation, rather than returning to a closure line that existed in the past under very different circumstances.

DFO will continue to work with the herring industry to develop a more comprehensive approach to managing the herring fishery, including enhanced reporting, analysis and verification of total removals of herring by all fishing sectors.

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Adjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

Conservative

Bill Casey North Nova, NS

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health for telling everybody about the three calves born to a single cow. I suppose if one is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, one would follow these issues very closely.

Again, I am pleased to hear that the three year scientific fishery will be done by an independent organization. If the parliamentary secretary has that information, could he tell us what independent organization will be monitoring this fishery?

Even though the parliamentary secretary says that he does not want to go back, would he go back to the fisheries regulation or designation that was there before on the 25 fathom line and at least acknowledge that DFO did make a mistake and then did not fix it right, which is what caused this rift between P.E.I. and New Brunswick? I am not saying that is the entire issue now, but by not correcting that problem when it happened, it created hard feelings and raised the level of antagonism between the fishermen of P.E.I. and New Brunswick to a high level. Could he just address those two issues for me?

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Adjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

Liberal

Robert Thibault West Nova, NS

Mr. Speaker, I regret that I do not have the name of the organization or the scientists who will be doing the independent analysis, but I can tell the hon. member that in similar fisheries, like the Bay of Fundy fisheries, the data is collected by the industry and given to an independent third party that does the collation, puts it together and gives it to both the Department of Fisheries, as well as the fishers.

As far as the line, having known the discussions that a former minister of fisheries would have had on such issues, I can say that sometimes we have the same argument from both sides from the same group. McLeod’s Ledge had a similar line. It was an antiquated line but it was put there for another reason. The minister at the time was asked to remove it and asked to be permitted to fish outside that line. At the same time they asked that former great minister of fisheries that he re-add a line that had been removed, for whatever reason, but no longer had any purpose to be re-established.

What I should tell the member, which very few people recognize, is that the then minister of fisheries, who is an honourable gentleman and great Canadian, in his discussions with the fishermen and the Governments of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, came to the line as it is now, as it was imposed last year, with the agreement of all and with congratulatory notes being sent by that organization. However it then created political difficulties in Prince Edward Island because it was such a contentious issue. The difficulty that these fleets had in catching their herring made it worse and made the thing more political.

I think the current Minister of Fisheries and Oceans has done a great job, in working with both organizations, on this independent analysis and a three year test fisheries program that should give the information needed by all to come to a friendly resolution of this matter.

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Adjournment Proceedings

6:40 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. Marcel Proulx)

The hon. member for Simcoe—Grey not being present to raise the matter for which adjournment notice had been given, the notice is deemed withdrawn.

The motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly, the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m. pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 6:40 p.m.)