House of Commons Hansard #51 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was senators.

Topics

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:30 p.m.

Liberal

Denis Coderre Bourassa, QC

moved that Bill C-291, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (waiting period and maximum special benefits), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, there are times in our lives as parliamentarians when we can and must make a difference. On June 2 of next year, I will celebrate 15 years as the member of Parliament for Bourassa. Every day brings its share of wonderful surprises and small pleasures, and most importantly, we have the opportunity to meet with people who help us do a better job. The person I met with—who is watching us now and to whom I pay tribute—has met most representatives of the political parties. I am talking about Marie-Hélène Dubé.

Unfortunately, following a third relapse of thyroid cancer—she is doing better and we wish her the best—she noticed that there was something unfair about the Employment Insurance Act. Since 1971, there has been no change to the act regarding benefits for persons who have suffered a serious injury, have a serious illness or, due to their individual circumstances, cannot enjoy a normal standard of living. She has cancer, children, and noticed that she was not entitled to the 15 weeks of employment insurance benefits. Obviously, we can always look back and ask what we did when we were in power. We made changes concerning family caregivers, and we did what it took, but it is time in my opinion to play a leading role on this issue.

It is not the first time that this bill has been discussed. We in the Liberal Party have done so, as have we. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois supported it, and members from the Conservative Party did so as the minority government at the time was sympathetic to this cause. It is therefore in a spirit of non-partisanship that I stand before my colleagues and call on them to support my bill, C-291. This will achieve two things. First, it will extend the benefit period from 15 to 50 weeks. Second, there is the infamous two-week waiting period. When you are faced with a major and tragic event in your life, when you are receiving chemotherapy, when you have children to look after, a two-week waiting period is an eternity. It does not make sense. For purely compassionate reasons, I do not see why this person would have to wait two weeks before receiving her first payment.

Honestly, I do not understand the 15-week benefit period. Some have brought forward a petition and have worked with Marie-Hélène in Vancouver. Some people are forced to remortgage their houses, others have to take a part-time job when they are able to work, and then there are those who have to deal with specific family circumstances, and in most cases these are single-parent families. It is not easy.

The role of a government, of a Parliament, is to improve people's quality of life. We do not need to ask 25 questions. It is only logical, since our role is to ensure that our constituents live a decent life. Some of them are terminally ill. The least we can do is tell them that they do not have to worry about other problems. Increasing the benefit period from 15 to 50 weeks would be a good way to tell Marie-Hélène and the 500,000 petitioners that we support them. The NDP has presented a petition. I myself have presented petitions signed by over 75,000 people, and the Bloc Québécois has also done so.

If we turn to our families, if we look at our friends and loved ones, there is not likely one member here who does not know someone who is going through this exact situation right now. Unfortunately, cancer is everywhere. I think it is our role, through this private member's bill, to bring them a little peace of mind. It is called solidarity. It is called dignity. This bill could be called “an act to ensure dignity for those who are suffering”. This is not a partisan issue. This is not to say that some people are better than others. There is no point in talking about what was done in the past. This is to say that, right now, we are looking towards the future and working together to tell Marie-Hélène Dubé and everyone else going through this problem that we support them and we are working with them.

There are other people, like Carlo Pellizzari of Vancouver, who has lymphoma and, at the age of 26, is facing a situation similar to that of Marie-Hélène. Like her, people decided to not only sign the petition but also bring this situation to our attention.

Our role today is to invite everyone who is watching the proceedings of the House to first sign this petition and to then continue to exert pressure. They can sign the petition on Marie-Hélène's website, which is found at http://petitionassuranceemploi.com/en/.

The site provides information and a brief explanation of the situation. Basically, there is a call for an amendment to subsection 12(3) of the Employment Insurance Act, which would provide some relief for people in this situation. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, they are often in the terminal phase of the illness. However, I believe that it is important for us to do this.

We in the Liberal Party have taken similar action in certain cases. Clearly, this is not the first time that we have reviewed matters related to employment insurance. There are precedents in which, as a government, we took certain action. For example, we increased the period for parental benefits from six months to a year.

The Employment Insurance Act is living legislation. It is economic legislation that requires flexibility. Sometimes, we have to help people who are having difficulty. We cannot be perfect and we cannot fix everything at once, but with this ode to tranquility and dignity we are acknowledging that there are times in our lives when we have to take action. We have conducted pilot projects. When it comes to employment insurance, there are realities and situations specific to the regions. That is why I am putting myself in the shoes of these men and women who are going through extremely difficult times. Do we think that—and forget about the lists or documents that the government would have us read—we can in all decency tell a person with cancer or a person who has sustained a serious injury that he or she will receive 15 weeks of benefits?

Some of us here have had cancer or are in remission and we know that it can take 5 to 15 weeks or even more to recover from chemotherapy or radiation. Imagine what it is like for people in this situation. They are being told that they have completed their chemotherapy and that they are still sick but that they will not receive any more benefits. It is not right. It does not make any sense. Let us ask ourselves this question: when someone is in that situation, is it right that they should have to wait for two weeks before they receive their first cheque? There are quick ways to eliminate this waiting period.

I would like to pay tribute to my colleagues who brought this issue before the House before me, namely Jean-Claude D'Amours and Michael Savage. These people from my party moved this forward. The member for Acadie—Bathurst has also worked on this file, and my colleague from Jonquière—Alma will be talking about it shortly. It is truly non-partisan. We need to reach out, show solidarity and work together to make a difference. I did not reinvent the wheel. This is not my work; it is the work of a Parliament that has experienced this sort of situation. I had the opportunity and pleasure to table a bill so that we could find a concrete solution to this situation.

Everybody knows of a friend, a member of his or her family, or a constituent who lives in that situation. Our role is to ensure that those people who have already suffered enough have the capacity at least to take care of their kids, and to ensure they do not have that social pressure.

Some of them lose their jobs. Some of them have to take out another mortgage on their homes. They are suffering enough. The least we could do as parliamentarians is to raise the number from 15 weeks to 50 weeks. Also, instead of waiting for two weeks before getting their first cheque I think those people should get them right away.

In a non-partisan way, I am asking all my colleagues to make that gesture of solidarity and support my bill.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:40 p.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Madam Speaker, I want to commend the hon. member for Bourassa for his efforts to help people who are unemployed receive benefits sooner.

I wonder whether he has any thoughts on the difficulties that people who have become unemployed in the current economic downturn are having. I am certainly getting complaints about this. They are waiting so very long just to get someone on the phone to help them find the way to get their benefits.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:40 p.m.

Liberal

Denis Coderre Bourassa, QC

Madam Speaker, there are far too many examples.

There is a problem with personal service. People are waiting on the line and are told that their call is important; press 1 if there is an issue; press 2 if they would like to have the question repeated; press 3 if they want a break. And their call might be answered in the next 15 minutes.

That is the problem. I have nothing against technology, but there is nothing better than personal service and a human voice. At the very least, if the service cannot be personal, the process should be. And when people call Service Canada, they should be able to get an answer.

Unfortunately, too often, staff are hired temporarily as a way of avoiding having to create permanent positions. We cannot defend the indefensible. I agree with the hon. member. Not only should people be treated decently and receive more benefits without a waiting period, but unemployed people who have needs should also have their calls answered.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:40 p.m.

NDP

Rosane Doré Lefebvre Alfred-Pellan, QC

Madam Speaker, thank you for giving me the floor.

I also thank the hon. member for Bourassa for reintroducing this bill which, as he mentioned, is an extremely important measure. I am also pleased that we recognize the non-partisan nature of this initiative because, as the hon. member mentioned earlier, that bill was presented to the House before and the time has come to pass it in a non-partisan fashion.

The hon. member for Bourassa referred to Marie-Hélène Dubé, who is a fellow citizen of mine in the riding of Alfred-Pellan. I salute her today. Marie-Hélène, our thoughts are with you. I wonder if the hon. member could elaborate on the human side of this bill and on its non-partisan nature. I wonder if he could also tell us why it is so important that we all get together to pass this legislation.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Liberal

Denis Coderre Bourassa, QC

Madam Speaker, the difference between a government and a business is that a government must first and foremost look after people. When the economic situation becomes uncertain, the role of the state is to ensure that we help the poor and those who are experiencing difficulties. That is why at the time, even when I was a minister, when decisions had to be made, we always had to keep in mind that citizens, that people were most important. We made changes—to which I referred earlier—to parental benefits and other things. We tried a number of times. The bill was not adopted for all sorts of reasons, but today the reality speaks for itself.

For example, cancer is everywhere. In the case of most single-parent families, it is women who have the responsibility of holding the family together. If, in addition to that responsibility, these women must deal with a disease and do not have the means to support their children, are we going to tell them, after 15 weeks, that they will have to rely on social assistance? In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, self-esteem is at the top of the pyramid. Our role is to ensure that people are always at the top of the pyramid and that we work to protect their self-esteem.

I know that the Bloc Québécois and the NDP agree on this, and I know that, deep down inside, Conservative Party members will have to make a decision to that effect. When we talk about the economy, we must talk about helping people. If there is one important thing that we must do now, which would not cost hundreds of millions of dollars but which would have a definite impact on our community, it is to pass this bill.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

NDP

Claude Patry Jonquière—Alma, QC

Madam Speaker, I am addressing my dear colleagues today to urge them to support Bill C-291, which would create an employment insurance system that is fairer and more just for Canadian workers.

This bill would amend the Employment Insurance Act to extend the maximum period for which special benefits for illness, injury or quarantine may be paid from 15 weeks to 50 weeks. It would also eliminate the two-week waiting period in these specific cases.

As members of Parliament, we all aspire to improve the economic situation of workers, and as we work to that end we are confronted every day with new and bigger challenges in the House of Commons and in committee. However, before we look at new issues or new studies, is it not time we reviewed what is no longer working and what should be modernized? Before offering generous tax cuts to the richest among us, is it not time we took care of families, workers with no job security and the disadvantaged members of society?

When it comes to special illness benefits, the Employment Insurance Act has not been amended since 1971. So it is not surprising that it no longer meets people's real needs today. It must be amended to adapt to Canadians' realities, which have changed since 1971.

Some members may be having déjà vu with this bill. I will admit that this is not the first time it has been introduced in the House of Commons. The NDP has always called for a fair and modern employment insurance system that is adapted to Canadian workers' needs. Furthermore, we want to abolish the two-week waiting period. I should point out that this measure was in the NDP's platform for the May 2, 2011, election. Eliminating the waiting period in the case of special illness benefits is a step in the right direction.

We cannot simply blame the Liberals for dipping into the employment insurance fund, which had a $57 billion surplus, nor can we fault them for not fixing things when they were in power. What we must do is support what they are currently proposing, since they are actually adopting the NDP's position on employment insurance. Above all, we must think about the most vulnerable members of society and leave partisan politics to our adversaries.

We must not forget that when it comes to employment insurance, we are talking about money that belongs to the workers and the employers and not to the government. We have to remember that the Conservatives refused to return that money to the EI fund and chose instead to create the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board, whose objective is to limit the account surplus to $2 billion.

The account is currently running a deficit. The Conservatives should use all or at least most of the surplus to improve special illness benefits. It is time the Conservatives realized that the money in the employment insurance fund does not belong to them. They have to manage that money to meet the needs of the public.

I want to take a minute to talk about the case of Marie-Hélène Dubé, a young, 40-year-old mother dealing with her third bout of cancer in five years. She circulated a petition to extend the period of employment insurance benefits payable in the case of illness. To date, she has collected almost half a million signatures. Ms. Dubé even appeared on the popular television program Tout le monde en parle last March.

What is more, the NDP has publicly supported her initiative on several occasions. It is important to underscore her determination and the strength of her commitment. For this courageous woman and for everyone suffering from a serious illness, I ask that you to vote in favour of the bill, in the name of solidarity and compassion, but especially in the name of common sense.

Only 15 weeks of benefits to recover from an injury or a serious illness is simply not enough. We want to alleviate the financial burden for people affected by an illness or a serious injury so that they can focus on healing without having to worry about how they are going to pay their bills, pay their rent or feed their children.

The Conservatives are quite simply out of touch with reality.

Unfortunately, what they say is not what they do. They say they want to help the economy and cut useless programs, but they are harming families and reducing the present and future purchasing power of workers who are struggling with health problems that are often temporary. I will say it again: taxpayers' money should go back to the people.

In 2008, when the Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board was created by the Conservative government, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Labour Congress, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Canadian Institute of Actuaries stated that the employment insurance operating account needed a surplus of at least $15 billion to ensure healthy management of the program.

This surplus would have absorbed the effects of the economic crisis and could have funded the modernization of the system, including extending the number of weeks of special leave. The Conservative government had the opportunity to fix the employment insurance program in 2008 and, against the advice of experts, it chose not to.

The size of Ms. Dubé's petition, which I spoke of earlier, is proof positive that Canadians want a more human employment insurance system. Instead of wasting taxpayers' money as their predecessors did, the Conservative government should bow to the will of the people. If it wants to be seen as a defender of the economy, it needs to start by really looking at the situation and putting the money back into the employment insurance fund so that the system can finally be modernized.

A vote for Bill C-291 is a vote for workers and their families, for the most vulnerable in our society. Please, vote for common sense.

Cancer is not the only disease. There are other long-term illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and kidney disease. Treatment for breast cancer lasts 38 weeks. After 15 weeks, how can anyone be expected to recover and go back to work? I have documents here that prove that people do not have time to heal; they have not finished their treatment and yet they have to go back to work. Some people have even lost their jobs because their employers could not accommodate them. A large portion of workers in Canada are not unionized and the only means they have for getting treatment and having an income is employment insurance benefits. Other workers have collective agreements and disability insurance that can help, but at this time, some people have nothing after 15 weeks. It is ridiculous.

If the $57 billion that was in the EI fund was still there, we could make improvements and help these people. Now we are told that in order to manage the fund, it takes $15 billion. It makes no sense. Just ask any member of this House.

I am proud to rise in this House. I have only seven months of experience and I would like to contribute to society so that these people can get proper treatment.

I would also like to mention that among the G8 countries, Canada does not have the best-paying system. We are not among the top countries; we are among the bottom. Some countries pay up to 12 months of benefits. Generally speaking, Canada pays 15 weeks and the United Kingdom pays 52 weeks. In France, we are talking about 12 to 38 months, depending on the illness. In Germany, it is 78 weeks. In Japan, it is between six months and three years, depending on the category of employment, and in Russia, we are talking about 12 months. We see that we are quite behind the other G8 countries. They could teach us a thing or two.

What I am saying is just common sense. People want change. We are talking about illness, but not everyone needs illness benefits for 38 to 40 weeks. There is a limit. I had this data. For the plan we are talking about, it would cost roughly $1 billion more for 50 weeks. If the $57 billion was in the government's coffers, we would have enough money for this.

Almost 328,000 special illness benefit claims have been filed, but only 31% of the beneficiaries used 15 weeks. That means that not everyone used the maximum benefit. The average amount paid was $334 a week. In 2009-10, the cost for illness was $1,075,200,000.

If we are human here in this House and we think about the public and the people we represent, we should all support this bill, including the Conservatives.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Madam Speaker, if I could be allowed half a minute, my mom is an avid watcher of the parliamentary channel and I have not seen her in three weeks. I want to remind her that it is Movember, and her pride and joy is doing this to raise money for prostate cancer, I want to make sure she makes her donation. My moustache is much nicer than my colleague's from Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel.

I want to commend my colleague from Bourassa for putting this bill forward. The class of 2000 celebrates its anniversary next week and I congratulate two Conservative colleagues across the way on their 11th anniversary. Some say it was probably one of the strongest classes to come to the House in many years.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

An hon. member

After 1997.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

After 1997.

When I arrived here, I had certain preconceptions about employment insurance. It would be valuable for some of the new members if I give a bit of history about the changes that took place through the mid-1990s. There was a Liberal government in place that made fairly dramatic changes in the mid-1990s that sort of swung the pendulum out of favour with workers. The Auditor General had made a recommendation, because the EI fund had been bankrupt under the past Conservative governments. The Liberals put the money into a general fund. Changes had to be made to make sure that the fund was well established and well funded, and that the actuaries considered it a self-sustaining program.

Cuts had been made that disadvantaged a great number of workers. It worked for a fair number of people, but not for everybody. When I first got here, I thought that EI should be blown up and we should start again. However, once the books were balanced, budgets were surplused and reinvestments were made in social programs, we discovered that we could make changes to the system that would be of benefit to large numbers of people. The Liberal government was able to go back to the best 14 weeks. About 38% of EI recipients were impacted by that; that is a fair number of people who benefited.

The changes increased the amount of money people were able to earn while on benefits and working, the black hole. My thoughts had changed from blowing the whole program up to working hard to try to make changes that benefit the greatest number of Canadians who needed the help most.

This brings us to today's debate and the private member's bill put forward by my colleague from Bourassa. It is probably one of the most significant changes that we could make to the EI program and it would benefit the most vulnerable and needy Canadians now. Those are Canadians who, because of illness, find themselves not able to work. Their household incomes are impacted and sometimes eliminated. The changes that are being put forward by my colleague are right and positive and I hope will be embraced by the entire chamber.

We have seen a similar private member's bill. My colleague from Sydney--Victoria in the 38th Parliament put a similar bill forward, motivated by two of his staff: Darlene Morrison and Lindsay MacPhee. Service Canada employees have to deliver the news to people who are trying to recover from something catastrophic like a double lung transplant, or who are battling cancer, that their 15 weeks of EI sick leave has lapsed and they are no longer eligible for EI benefits.

That is a tough message to send to someone in that state. Mentally, physically, financially and emotionally, the stress on that person because of dire circumstances is substantial. Both Darlene Morrison and Lindsay MacPhee had health concerns and went through protracted periods of time where they faced substantial challenges with their health. They were off for extended periods and lived the reality of going without a paycheque. Fortunately they had other supports.

In the 38th Parliament, the legislation passed second reading and it went to committee. As my colleague from Sydney--Victoria sat before the finance committee, he had beside him the president of the Canadian Cancer Society and the president of the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation. I sat in on the presentation that day and the testimony was powerful. I was moved by the support that the leaders of those two organizations offered for this change in the EI program.

They are not the only organizations. When we look over the years at the groups that have advocated for this, such as the CLC and the Building Trades Council, every major union has advocated for a change in EI because when their members experience health challenges, they know the hardship that it places not only on the members, but on their families.

My colleague from Bourassa made note of a petition that had been circulated about Marie-Hélène Dubé. If members want to read something that is inspirational but straightforward and addresses the reality, the information is online about the situation of this young mother who battled thyroid cancer.

I initially thought that an overall revamping of the EI system would best serve Canadians. In retrospect, in my experience here, we can make a difference in people's lives by supporting this private member's bill, this change in the EI regulations.

My time is almost up but I certainly want to commend the member for Bourassa for putting this important piece of legislation forward. My caucus colleagues and I look forward to supporting this piece of legislation when it comes up for a vote.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Conservative

Devinder Shory Calgary Northeast, AB

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to respond to the hon. member for Bourassa on Bill C-291 an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (waiting period and maximum special benefits).

I truly sympathize with those Canadians who are battling cancer or other illnesses, that last longer than 15 weeks. For example, we know that 70 Canadian men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer every day and 11 of those 70 men will die from it.

Thousands of Canadians, including my executive assistant, Kenton Dueck, my EDA president, Steven Ladd, my son, Chetan Shory, and members from all sides of the House are fundraising this month to fight prostate cancer and I applaud them for that. These battles have no partisan or political lines.

However, my colleague's bill would cost approximately $730 million a year, which, I am sure most of us would agree is a significant expenditure of public moneys in a time of fiscal restraint. We need to ask whether increasing the maximum for special benefits from 15 weeks to 50 weeks is necessary or justifies the moneys that would have to be spent. I would respectfully argue that the targeted changes our Conservative government has made to the benefits system is a smarter way to support Canadians facing health and other life challenges.

Our Conservative government has made the employment insurance system more accessible and fair for millions of Canadians, especially in the face of the challenges many of us have experienced during the global economic recession.

There are several ways in which the federal government provides for those facing a long-term disabling illness, particularly through the Canadian pension plan long-term disability pension. This is in addition to provincial social assistance programs and private long-term disability insurance. This benefit is meant to be a temporary measure for temporary illnesses that prevent someone from working.

In a clear majority of cases, the program does meet the needs of individuals, as 70% of individuals do not exhaust the current 15-week sickness provision.

Hard-working Canadians deserve to be able to balance work and family life. Our government believes in a strong EI system, one that delivers fair and equitable benefits for those who need them most.

During the global economic downturn, our government moved quickly to preserve and create jobs and to help families, workers and businesses.

In fact, we have rebounded quite substantially. More than 600,000 new jobs have been recovered since the depths of the recession in July 2009. Our unemployment rate is now down to 7.3%, one of the lowest levels since December 2008.

However, the economic challenges are not behind us. Our Prime Minister has been clear on the direction the government will take on fiscal matters when he said, “We have sought to strike the right balance between supporting jobs and growth, and reducing our deficit in a responsible manner.”

When Canada was hit hardest by the global recession, our government demonstrated its flexibility by putting temporary measures in the employment insurance program to assist Canadians, both workers and employers.

The economic downturn created exceptional circumstances for our government that required an exceptional response, and respond we did.

For example, we temporarily provided an extra five weeks of EI benefits to help those hardest hit by the recession. I am pleased to say that about 1.3 million EI claimants benefited from this initiative.

We have also helped long-tenured workers renew or upgrade their skills under the career transition assistance program. Close to 15,000 long-tenured workers have participated and around $95 million in benefits has been paid.

We further demonstrated our commitment to help workers and employers through temporary work-sharing measures. About 300,000 employees have participated in more than 10,000 work-sharing agreements since 2009.

Work sharing helps employers and workers avoid layoffs, while redistributing the workload when there is a temporary reduction in the normal level of business activity. In fact, Canada has been a world leader in work-sharing agreements and governments around the world are looking to Canada's program as a model.

I should also point out that, through the Minister of Finance, we introduced a bill to support Canadian businesses that included a temporary hiring credit for small business to encourage further hiring.

Economic challenges during the global recession have placed significant pressures on the Canadian labour market and, in turn, the EI program. That is why we took decisive action to freeze premiums for 2010 and to limit the rate increase for subsequent years.

Now, this is the key. In an uncertain economic environment, a balance needs to be struck between supporting the recovery and ensuring that the program can survive over time. I think we can all agree that we want a sound system in place for many generations to come, for our children, our grandchildren and so on. The decisions we make today will affect the future of this program.

Our government has shown fairness by extending access to EI special benefits, including maternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care benefits to the self-employed who opt into the EI program. By extending special benefits to the self-employed across Canada, we are supporting them in balancing their work and family responsibilities.

Our government introduced a measure to extend the EI parental benefit window for Canadian Forces members who are ordered either to return to duty while on parental leave or whose parental leave is deferred as a result of a tour of duty. Supporting our men and women in uniform is simply the right thing to do. We all know they have sacrificed and put their lives on the line for Canada, so we must stand up for them when they need us.

Compassionate care benefits are available to persons who have to be away from work temporarily to provide care or support to a family member who is gravely ill with a significant risk of death. The eligibility criteria of the EI compassionate care benefit has been modified by broadening the definition of a family member. Now it can mean a sibling, grandparent, grandchild, in-law, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, foster parent, ward, guardian or someone a gravely ill person considers the claimant to be like a family member. This what we mean when we talk about allowing more flexibility and fairness in the system.

We have taken actions to enhance and expand the EI program to help both workers and employers weather the economic storm. We have also enhanced and expanded the EI program through a number of legislative measures to ensure that it meets the needs of Canadian workers and their families in a fair and flexible way. These are real people we are dealing with, and we can never forget that.

That said, our government has a responsibility to Canadian taxpayers and we take that role very seriously. In Calgary Northeast, for example, if I ask Romi Sidhu and Pawan Sharma, who are self-employed, running small businesses, whether they want their taxes to go up, what are they going to say? Simply, they will say, “No way. You're sounding like a Liberal or an NDP.” During the last election, Canadian voters were given two very distinct visions when it came to our economy. They could opt for the tax and spend Liberals-NDP-Bloc coalition, or they could choose a strong, stable, national Conservative majority government under the leadership of our Prime Minister, a government that would focus on protecting jobs and economic growth during these uncertain times.

We all know that Canadian voters made a clear choice and this bill, as it stands, would require a significant expenditure of public moneys in a time of fiscal restraint. For that reason, despite our greatest sympathies, we cannot support the bill.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-291. The member for Bourassa acknowledged, in presenting this bill, that New Democrats have been at this for a number of years. I know New Democrats have presented this bill in various forms, whether it was the member for Acadie—Bathurst or the former member, Dawn Black, from British Columbia.

I also want to acknowledge the member for Jonquière—Alma who ably outlined why the House should support the bill.

I feel quite fortunate to follow the Conservative member across the way in speaking because I feel I have an opportunity to set the record straight about some of the claims that were made.

The employment insurance fund is funded by employers and employees. It is their money. This does not come out of the general revenue fund. Employers and employees pay this money for just the kinds of circumstances the member for Bourassa outlined.

We have people who are ill. We have their families often in crisis. I heard the member say that if their EI ran out after 15 weeks, they could apply for welfare. I do not know what province he is from, but in the province I come from, British Columbia, welfare rates are not enough to pay bills. In many provinces across the country, before going on income assistance, people have to liquidate all their assets. For those suffering from cancer or some other disease that they are struggling to recover from, the member says that we will pay them for 15 weeks and then they must liquidate their assets in the middle of their chemo, radiation or whatever other treatments they are undergoing, so they can go on income assistance. That does not sound like a compassionate society to me.

I need to put a few facts on record.

First, under regular employment insurance, under the so-called progressive rules we have before us, less than 50% of Canadians now qualify, despite the fact that they may pay into employment insurance.

Second, Statistics Canada's studies show that 20% of sick leave lasts 17 months or more. They also show that 60% of these sick leaves are from 17 to 28 weeks and 40% are 29 weeks or more. Currently, only 31% of beneficiaries collect the maximum 15 weeks of sick benefits.

Despite what the government claims, we do not have massive numbers of people that will collect long-term sick benefits. Therefore, if we were to be a compassionate society, all members of the House would support the bill.

I heard the member talk about the NDP-Bloc-Liberal coalition as if that would be something scary for Canadians. The New Democrats would bring to the table the kinds of changes that have been proposed for a number of years to employment insurance funded by employers and employees, to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are well looked after instead of saying, “Suck it up, you get 15 weeks and forget it”.

A recent study called Making It Work: Final Recommendations of the Mowat Centre Employment Insurance Task Force made a number of recommendations. I want to touch on a couple of those recommendations because they relate directly to the bill proposed by the member for Bourassa. The task force talks about the two-week waiting period and how it applies to all employment insurance claims, whether regular or special benefits claims. The task force makes the recommendation that the two-week benefit period should be eliminated for special benefits. It says:

After eligibility is established, applicants must wait two weeks for payments to begin. The two-week waiting period applies to special beneficiaries just as it does to individuals...

It goes on to say:

Other than cost containment, there is no clear justification for the waiting period for special benefits, and it may cause inconvenience or hardship for individuals.

Eliminating the waiting period for special benefits would have a relatively small impact on program costs. As most recipients of special benefits exhaust them, eliminating the waiting period for these beneficiaries would in most cases imply providing the same total benefits earlier.

Eliminating the two-week waiting period for special beneficiaries is an easy and affordable way to enhance support for new parents and caregivers. It would also support the reforms to sickness benefits discussed below.

I want to talk a bit about the proposed changes to sickness benefits. I think a number of us in the House have had meetings with people with episodic disabilities and the severe impact it has their ability to stay in the workforce because of the way sickness benefits are currently set up.

Under recommendation 17, the task force states:

TEST A CHANGE TO SICKNESS BENEFITS TO SUPPORT LABOUR MARKET PARTICIPATION OF PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES

To support the labour market participation of persons with disabilities, periodic use of sickness benefits should be tested. This would allow individuals to qualify for benefits once, and with medical certification take benefits periodically throughout the year without having to re-qualify.

It goes on to say:

There is currently no income support available to help individuals with sporadic or episodic illnesses or disabilities to remain in the workforce or to avoid other forms of assistance, such as provincial social assistance for persons with disabilities or Canada Pension Plan-Disability.

Of course even when people go on some of these other systems, there is a problem for them if they want to rejoin the workforce.

To give a rationale for this change, it states:

In coming decades, Canada will experience labour shortages and an aging population. More Canadians are finding themselves on long-term provincial disability programs. This is not an efficient use of our human capital. Canadian social programs should not create barriers to labour market participation or disincentives to work for those who would like to.

In some ways, Canada's income security framework currently categorizes individuals as either able-bodied and employable or disabled and unemployable. This blunt categorization can be demoralizing for individuals who have the capacity to work part-time and can discourage self-sufficiency. It may also place unnecessary pressure on disability support programs.

It goes on to say:

The OECD recognizes the lack of supports for employment as a primary weakness in Canada's approach to income security for persons with disabilities. “Similar to a number of other OECD countries, Canadian disability benefit systems still too often appear geared to steer people into welfare dependency and labour market exclusion rather than participation”...

Moreover, “the 'all-or-nothing' nature of most disability income supports leaves these individuals with no realistic alternative to long-term dependence on disability income programs, and no realistic opportunity to contribute to society”....

That is an important point to raise. We often hear issues around Canada's productivity, about needing to increase labour force participation. Here we have mechanisms with the employment insurance sickness benefits to encourage that very participation.

I know people in my riding, who have episodic disabilities, have approached me. There are periods of time in their lives where they are very capable of working. Sometimes they are capable of working full time for a number of months and then of course they need to go back on sickness benefits. We need to encourage that participation in the labour market and at the same time provide some income security. That is a valuable resource for employers.

I will touch briefly on the sickness benefit aspect of it.

I know we have had a number of people talk about various cases. I want to talk about the case of Jennifer McCrea. She was about eight months into maternity leave with her second child when her doctor discovered early stage breast cancer. Her doctor told her that she needed six weeks to recover after being on a maternity claim. She went to the employment insurance people and said that she needed sick benefits. She was told that since she was on maternity leave and not available for work she was not eligible for that benefit.

Imagine a young mother struggling with a new child, which can be a challenge at times, and on top of that needing some radical surgery as a result of an early detection of breast cancer being told that because of the way the rules were set up she was not eligible for EI.

Oddly enough, there was another case where Justice Marin ruled that legislative changes to the EI act were intended to give women on maternity leave access to additional sickness benefits immediately before, during and after receiving maternity and parental and that although the regulations required a person to be available for work, it was impossible for a woman on maternity leave to be available for work. Therefore, he said that there needed to be a more liberal interpretation and that the government should change the rules.

The human resources minister agreed, yet we are now in November 2011 and there are still no changes. Women are still losing that ability to have both maternity and sickness benefits where it is required.

We can cite any number of cases where a compassionate, caring, concerned society would say that we need to support people. These are some of the most vulnerable people. When people are sick, they really need that support. If we want to demonstrate that compassion and caring, as the money is there, employers and employees pay for it, members should pass the bill.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Conservative

Mike Wallace Burlington, ON

Madam Speaker, I am honoured to talk about Bill C-291. I appreciate the bill from the hon. member from the opposite side. For myself, there have been severe cancer issues in my own family. I have a family member with lung cancer. It has made it very difficult for that person to work and so on. Also, in my little block alone in Burlington, Ontario, there are three women with MS. The issues are very familiar to me, not just as a member of Parliament, but to me personally.

My issue with the bill is one that I have with a large number of private members' bills. It is asking us to invest past the 15 weeks, but a proper financial analysis has not been done. I would have preferred if the mover of the motion had moved not a private member's bill, because private members' bills are making law, but a motion for the House to consider. The government could then consider the issues and the financial implications.

There are no financial implications in many private members' bills, but I challenge the members to look at the private members' bills that have financial implications. In this one, we are not sure what they are.

We have a Parliamentary Budget Officer from the Library of the Parliament who could do a review of what the financial results would be if the bill passes. I think the bill should be brought there to have a review of what it actually is so we could have an intelligent--

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:30 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker Denise Savoie

Order, please. The hon. member will have about seven minutes remaining when this bill returns to the order paper.

The time 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.

Pursuant to Standing Order 37, the House will now proceed to the consideration of Bill C-304 under private members' business.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

November 22nd, 2011 / 6:30 p.m.

Conservative

Brian Storseth Westlock—St. Paul, AB

moved that Bill C-304, An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act (protecting freedom), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Madam Speaker, it is an honour to be here to present a bill that is very near and dear to my heart and to the House of Commons.

I would like to begin by first thanking the people of Westlock--St. Paul for the trust that they have placed in me in a third consecutive election to bring forward their concerns in this august chamber.

I would also like to thank my friends and family for their support and dedication over the last six years; my parents for their willingness to always pitch in and help; my children, Ayden and Eastin, for their endless patience and love; and, most importantly, my wife Amel, who is my best friend and the rock that anchors our family. Without their love and support, this job would be so much more difficult.

I would also like to thank my colleagues, both past and present, who have stepped forward to support Bill C-304, protecting freedom.

While my bill will have some technical amendments at committee stage, it would help to protect and enhance our most fundamental freedom, and that is the freedom of expression and speech. As George Washington said, “If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter”.

Truly, without freedom of speech, what is the use of any other freedoms, such as the freedom of assembly or the freedom of religion?

The freedom of speech is the bedrock that all other freedoms are built on. This, along with the concept of natural justice and due process, has been woven into the fabric of our great country over the last 144 years. As we were reminded only a few short days ago during Remembrance Day, tens of thousands of Canadians have given their lives to protect these fundamental freedoms. That is why I stand before the House today.

Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act eats away at this fundamental freedom. Most people are shocked when I explain to them that in Canada, right here in our own country, a person can be investigated under a section 13 complaint for having likely exposed a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that the person or persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.

The key word is “likely” to have exposed. I think we can all agree that this is a very subjective and unnecessarily vague definition, not one of the narrowly defined legal definitions that would be far more appropriate for this clause. This is where section 13 truly fails to make a distinction between real hate speech and what I often term as “hurt speech”, or speech that is simply offensive.

This means that if someone has offended somebody and is investigated under section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, intent is not a defence. Truth is no longer a defence. The person would no longer have the right to due process, the right to a speedy trial, or even the right to a lawyer to defend himself or herself. In fact, in 90% of the human rights investigations under the Canadian Human Rights Act under section 13, the defendants do not even have legal advice, because they simply cannot afford it. When the people of Westlock--St. Paul hear about this, they are shocked. This is simply not the Canadian way.

Facing intense criticism in 2008, the Canadian Human Rights Commission hand-picked Professor Richard Moon to provide an evaluation of section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. On page 31 of his report, in regard to the repeal of section 13 and reliance on the Criminal Code hate speech provisions, Dr. Moon states:

The principal recommendation of this report is that section 13 be repealed so that the censorship of Internet hate speech is dealt with exclusively by the criminal law.

This recommendation was dismissed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which in turn provided a list of recommended amendments to Parliament in 2009, none of which has been implemented to date. Thus, even the Canadian Human Rights Commission has admitted with its own recommended amendments that there are serious flaws within section 13.

Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act has been a contentious topic for a number of years now, and it has been widely acknowledged that it does, in fact, impede paragraph 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that everyone has the fundamental freedom to “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication”.

This conflict between section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act and paragraph 2(b) of the charter has been reaffirmed by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which found that section 13 was in fact unconstitutional in September 2009.

A common argument in favour of section 13's right to censorship and its constitutionality is the overruling powers provided by section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an argument that I am sure the opponents of my bill will bring forward.

Section 1 does provide a provision within the charter to ensure that all guaranteed rights and freedoms are subject to:

...such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

There are but a few issues with applying this provision to section 13.

Most importantly, section 13 lacks the ability to demonstrably justify the limits that it imposes on our society. It does not define the difference between hate speech as opposed to hurt feelings and offensive speech.

Second, how can a loosely written, highly subjective, vague law such as section 13 override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a free and truly democratic society?

Section 13, which is intended to protect people from extreme acts of discrimination with regard to hate messages, as previously defined by the Supreme Court of Canada, has instead been used to address differing values or opinions and impedes one of the most basic civil liberties that we hold dear to our hearts, the freedom of expression.

I believe the true issue of debate here is this: at what point and to what extent is censorship justified in Canada today?

As I debate this question, I think of my good friend and constituent Bob Herrick, from Waskatenau, Alberta.

Bob is a very bright and very successful man who, like many in his generation, has had a tremendous life and tremendous experiences to go along with it. He holds some very diverse opinions. No matter what topic we are discussing, from hunting to political philosophy, Bob loves to test our convictions and boundaries. Often while trying to challenge someone's assertions, Bob will go well beyond political correctness and often be even a little bit offensive. It is his ability and his freedom to push the limits of political correctness, however, that truly test the merit of our own beliefs. In society, when we lose the ability to test limits for freedom of expression, we also lose the ability to grow and adapt peacefully as a country.

It is through freedom of speech and expression that we change governments here in Canada, not through riots and revolts. This is one of the unique factors that sets us apart from many countries in the world.

Women such as Nellie McClung gained the right to vote by testing societal norms through expression and freedom of speech.

Layer by layer, brick by brick, our country has grown and successfully developed by utilizing and enhancing our fundamental freedoms. Today that we must continue to fight the tyrannical nature of the bureaucracy to censor free speech and to tell us what boundaries should be placed on our society and what rights we have as individuals.

One might ask how we can ensure individual freedom of speech and at the same time protect people and identifiable groups from direct harm if we repeal section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act. The answer to the question is that we must direct these complaints to a fair, open and transparent judicial system, one that has been tested for hundreds of years within our own country.

With the repealing of section 13, individuals would still have recourse through both the civil and criminal justice systems. Sections 318 to 320 of the Criminal Code provide protection for identifiable groups when public communications invite hatred or harm against them. The continued use of the Criminal Code to address hate messaging would ensure that all individuals would be protected from threatening discriminatory acts while preserving the fundamental right to freedom of expression in our country.

An integral component of the Criminal Code is the need for the Attorney General to approve a claim. This prevents frivolous claims or claims made because an expression merely offended another individual.

It is also important to note that the Criminal Code provides basic provisions to the defendant that are not available through the Canadian Human Rights Act. I repeat. The provisions I am about to talk about are not actually available to Canadians under the Canadian Human Rights Act. These are provisions such as allowable defences; the right to face one's accuser; the right for the defendant to recover costs if a claim is dismissed; and the right to an open, fair and transparent trial.

Those are just a few of the basic liberties available under the Criminal Code. This is a system that has been tried and tested, a system with checks and balances and a system with which our society has entrusted its fundamental freedoms and has seen fit to enforce the rule of law in our country.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy described it best when he said:

We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.

Freedom of speech and the use of censorship on that freedom is not a matter to be taken lightly and should be entered into with the utmost of caution. That is why I personally find it highly alarming for our Canadian human rights investigator, someone entrusted as a gatekeeper of our fundamental freedoms, this valued freedom of speech in Canada, to claim it merely to be an American concept.

This is precisely the mentality that section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act is harbouring and just one more example of how unfit section 13 and the commission are to handle any level of power to censor speech in our country.

Freedom of speech is just as valued here in Canada. In fact, it is the only real tool that free and democratic societies like our own have to fight bigotry and ignorance. Any imposed censorship on this freedom must be taken very seriously and not met with casual disregard.

The solution here is not to fiddle with a broken, repetitive and unnecessary system. I believe the solution is to use the laws we already have and provide authorities with the tools and support necessary to properly and carefully enforce these laws.

The government has already announced that support to enhance the ability of the Criminal Code to better address hate messaging. This step, as well as the one year implementation period in my bill, would ensure the successful transition to a system in which true democracy and freedom of speech can thrive.

It is time we retract the power entrusted to the quasi-judicial bureaucratic system to deal with hate messaging in prevent the future abuse of the system. Freedom of speech is the bedrock upon which all other freedoms are built and, therefore, is too precious to leave under the thumb of censorship imposed by this system. Without freedom of speech, what good are our other freedoms, we may ask.

Finally, I would like to encourage all of my colleagues to stand up and protect our fundamental freedoms, the same freedoms for which we have asked our soldiers to put their lives on the line to protect time and time again. This truly is not an issue of blue versus orange versus red. This is an issue of freedom, transparency and balance for all Canadians.

Canadian Human Rights Act
Private Members' Business

6:40 p.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin Gatineau, QC

Madam Speaker, I would like the members opposite to be as respectful of the right to freedom of expression as they have such little respect for the right to debate. The Conservatives' like freedom of expression, but do not really like debates, as they are constantly shutting us down. At times we do have to question the logic and the merits of Conservative positions.

I would like to pose a question to the member who introduced Bill C-304. Being cognizant—at least I hope he is—of the different burdens of proof in the Criminal Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, does he not think that eliminating recourse to section 13 of the Charter increases the burden of proof and makes it difficult to have any recourse against hate propaganda?