House of Commons Hansard #79 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was registry.

Topics

The House resumed from November 22, 2011, consideration of the motion 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.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members’ Business

11 a.m.

NDP

Rosane Doré Lefebvre Alfred-Pellan, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak today about Bill C-291, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act , which was introduced a few weeks ago by the hon. member for Bourassa. This bill is extremely important since it is designed to change the way the current employment insurance system works, particularly for people with serious illnesses.

Sadly, in the past, the Liberals were not shy about dipping into the employment insurance fund, which, at that time, had a surplus of $54 billion—money that belonged to Canadian workers. During the 12 years that they were in power, they could have padded the coffers, but they did not. On several occasions, they were also in a position to modernize the Employment Insurance Act, but unfortunately, they did not do that either. Nevertheless, today, I am very pleased to see that the Liberal members are finally joining the NDP in order to modernize the Employment Insurance Act once and for all. This bill has been introduced in the House a number of times.

Since coming to power, the Conservatives have been unable to remedy the situation. Rather than helping workers, the Conservatives are giving billions of dollars in gifts to large corporations, which, in return, are closing their Canadian branches and exporting our good-quality jobs abroad. It is time to stop playing politics and do something to resolve the real problems affecting our society. It is time for all the parties to join together to help Canadians who are suffering from serious illnesses. It is time to forget the mistakes of the past and focus on viable, long-term solutions in order to help workers and their families. Most of all, it is time for all members of the House to unite and work together.

Unfortunately, Canada's Employment Insurance Act has remained unchanged for 40 years, since 1971. It does not meet the current needs of Canadians. What is more, Canada is one of the worst G8 countries when it comes to employment insurance coverage. Some G8 countries are much more progressive, and Canada is the only one that does not offer at least one year of benefits to those with serious illnesses.

As all of my colleagues know, coverage in cases of serious illness is currently 15 weeks. Employment insurance exists to help Canadian workers, and our society is changing. The population is aging, and the types of illnesses affecting people are changing. Employment insurance must be updated to adapt to Canadians' new needs.

My colleague from Bourassa introduced a bill that is in line with employment insurance changes the NDP would like to see. This bill would eliminate the mandatory two-week waiting period for employment insurance benefits and would increase the benefit period from 15 to 50 weeks.

There are many diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and especially cancer, that are very serious and that take longer than 15 weeks to treat. Unfortunately, the current Employment Insurance Act provides just 15 weeks of benefits.

We have a lot of facts about cancer. I would like to take a moment to talk about one of my constituents who cares very much about this bill. Her name is Marie-Hélène Dubé. My colleagues have probably heard about her. She is battling thyroid cancer for the third time in five years. She is a young mother in her forties. Instead of feeling sorry for herself and battling the disease alone, Marie-Hélène Dubé decided to help all Canadians who, like her, have a serious disease. She circulated a petition calling on the government to modernize the Employment Insurance Act by introducing the very changes reflected in Bill C-291. To date, Marie-Hélène has collected over 430,000 signatures from across Canada. Four hundred and thirty thousand Canadians agree that the Employment Insurance Act is outdated and should be changed.

I would like to point out that this is the largest petition presented in the House of Commons since 1992. In order to recuperate from a serious illness, one must rest. That is extremely important. One must avoid all stress and take time to recover. The last thing people need when sick is to worry about paying their bills, like the mortgage, the electricity bill or anything like that. They need to have peace of mind in order to focus all of their energy on fighting the illness. Offering the possibility of receiving up to 50 weeks of special benefits for illness does not mean that all beneficiaries will use all of those weeks. At present, only 31% of beneficiaries collect the maximum 15 weeks of benefits. The goal is to extend the benefit period for those who truly need it, in other words, Canadians with serious illnesses.

I find it interesting that my Liberal colleague from Bourassa is the one who introduced this bill. As I said a little earlier, this bill has been introduced many times in the House. It was part of our 2011 election platform. The NDP has been fighting for this for several years.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, nearly 50% of the population will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. In Quebec alone, there are currently over 44,000 people fighting some form of the disease. It causes tremendous stress, and the treatment and remission period is typically a lot longer than 15 weeks. On average, cancer treatment lasts about 38 weeks. Thus, 15 weeks is not even half as long as people with cancer need for treatment. Many people who have cancer are forced to return to work before their treatment is complete. Also, the waiting period before they can collect their first payment is so long that some people are forced to go back to work after the first treatment. Cancer treatment is extremely difficult. Even people being treated with small doses of radiation therapy, which is the mildest form of cancer treatment, are seriously affected. Other forms of treatment are even more difficult.

The current employment insurance sickness benefits simply are not adapted to the reality of Canadians, especially when, on average, those benefits run out seven weeks before cancer patients begin to receive treatment under Quebec's public health system. Asking a person to fight a serious illness in only two months is just not right.

A study showed that on average, patients go through 23 weeks of treatment with no income. Earlier I talked about 38 weeks in total, on average. Most patients see a significant drop in their income, to the tune of roughly $12,000 per household. Some 80% of the participants in the study suffered a significant financial impact. Some 44% of the respondents had to dip into their own savings and 27% went into debt. One person in five went back to work before having fully recovered from their illness, for financial reasons. The proportion of patients with a full-time job goes from 61% before treatment to 45% after treatment. Some 16% lost their job and some did not return to work because of the effects of the treatment or the lack of accommodation in the workplace. It is therefore important to accommodate people who are not lucky enough to have private insurance or the possibility to take extended leave for financial reasons.

We have to look at this bill humanely in order to help all Canadians deal with serious illnesses in the future.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members’ Business

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

Before we resume debate, I believe the hon. member for Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound is rising on a point of order.

Comments by the Member for Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound
Points of Order
Private Members’ Business

February 13th, 2012 / 11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Larry Miller Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound, ON

Mr. Speaker, I believe that some members in this House and the media misunderstood the point I was making last week during debate when I argued that the confiscation of firearms was often the first thing that authoritarian governments do.

While calls and e-mails of support from my constituents and from Canadians across the country indicate that they understood the point I was trying to make, and I do stand by my beliefs, but, because of my respect for the House, I want to reiterate my withdrawal and apology for referencing two individuals in the way I did.

Comments by the Member for Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound
Points of Order
Private Members’ Business

11:10 a.m.

Liberal

Denis Coderre Bourassa, QC

Mr. Speaker, I accept my colleague's apology, but I would urge the House to be very careful when making references to Hitler, who was a tyrant. We have commemorated tragic events such as genocides. Today, people should look to the Internet and consider Godwin's law. These types of comparisons should never be made lightly. We know the damage that this has caused and I hope that decorum will prevail in the House.

That said, I accept my colleague's apology.

Comments by the Member for Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound
Points of Order
Private Members’ Business

11:10 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound for raising the matter in the House to clarify his remarks.

I hope I will not prolong this episode, which I think has been unpleasant and worrying for all of us, by asking if the member's apology is predicated on the notion that the registry had anything to do with confiscating weapons.

Comments by the Member for Bruce—Grey—Owen Sound
Points of Order
Private Members’ Business

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

It is not the practice of the House that we debate the content of what a member is rising on in a point of order. It is the practice of the House that, when a member rises and withdraws remarks and/or apologizes, we accept that and move forward. If members would like to discuss this among themselves, that is at their discretion.

Resuming debate. The hon. member for Malpeque.

The House resumed consideration of the motion 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.

Employment Insurance Act

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Malpeque, PE

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-291. I congratulate the member for Bourassa for putting the bill forward.

I would also like to recognize the work of Jean-Claude D'Amours and Mike Savage, who in past Parliaments tried to move this serious issue forward.

I would like to provide some background on this issue.

Bill C-291 would amend the Employment Insurance Act by amending the waiting period and maximum special benefits. In summary, the bill states that enactment 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 when special benefits for illness, injury or quarantine are paid.

Bill C-291 is an important bill. It would bring the system up to date. It would make us more comparable with many other countries.

The EI act in this regard has not been amended since 1971. This is really a matter of social justice. This is about instilling a better social safety net for people affected by health issues due to factors beyond their control. These changes would improve the lives of workers and their families affected by sudden health issues.

These two improvements follow on two improvements that were made by previous Liberal governments: compassionate care and maternity leave. Those two improvements are widely accepted by the population. They are seen as important aspects of the employment insurance system and Canada's social safety net.

There is an opportunity here for the government to step up to the plate and do the right thing for those people affected by health problems. Even though the private member's bill came from the third party on this side of the House, there is a real opportunity for the government to seize the moment and ensure that this legislation is carried through Parliament because it would improve our social safety net.

I want to talk a bit about the reality of what this amendment to the EI act would do.

I expect every member of Parliament has probably had many constituents in their constituency office talking about the fact that 15 weeks of sick leave under the present legislation is woefully inadequate in terms of assisting those people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves out of the workforce and more than likely in treatment. Cancer is one of the most prominent causes.

One of the most difficult conversations that I have with constituents is when the partner and/or the affected individual tells me that the affected individual has just started chemo or radiation treatment, is out of income and has nowhere to turn. We have to tell those individuals that the reality is the legislation specifies 15 weeks. We all know that 15 weeks is not long enough. What happens to those individuals? Some of them can go into the system within the province.

In our community there are all kinds of fundraisers to assist these people. In fact, we had a benefit for my cousin's son a week ago Friday night. He is 44 years old and has cancer in three spots. The community comes together and raises funds to help these individuals.

We all know in the House that the system is not meeting the need. Going from 15 weeks to 50 weeks is the right thing to do.

If we were to put ourselves in the place of those individuals who are perhaps the breadwinners of the family, starting perhaps their third chemo treatment, now knowing they are out of money, the mortgage has to be paid, food has to be put on the table, the car payment has to be paid and they have to pay for some of their drugs, we can only imagine what that stress does to them. What is the cost of that stress on their ability to get better? What is the stress on that family? It is so unnecessary. This small change could alleviate that concern.

I really think everyone in the House has faced those moments. There is enough on the individual's mind who is taking the treatment. Fifteen weeks is not enough. The EI system itself, as it currently stands, is cruel in its denial. The government, if it would see the way, could overcome that problem. The bottom line is 15 weeks of sick leave is just plain unacceptable.

To improve it would not be really costly. It would bring us up to where many other nations are at the moment. Such a step would improve the ability for an individual to regain his or her health by eliminating that stress and concentrating on health improvement. It would also lessen the burden on provincial resources. It would allow that person to get back into the workforce faster so that that individual could contribute to the economy and provide for his or her family.

Here is a specific example of why I think the EI system in this regard is cruel. I had an individual come into the office in early December. He had Crohn's disease and so had applied for employment insurance. In part, because of the way the Minister of Human Resources has undermined the system by taking away the ability for people to do claims by closing down many of the offices, this person's file had not even been processed yet. It had been eight weeks. The individual firmly believed that as a result of that additional stress of wondering where the dollars were going to come from, he ended up in the hospital for a longer period of time. Part of the reason was that, before he went to hospital, he had cut back on his drugs. It became a problem of whether he would provide food for the table or buy the drugs.

That ends up costing the whole system, including the individual. It is just wrong. Therefore, not only is it the weeks, it is that fact that the minister has undermined the system in terms of its ability to function.

What concerns me is the fact that the spokesmen for the government thus far in this debate, the Conservatives, seem to have stopped speaking. Perhaps they are ashamed of the government's position. I wish some of the backbenchers over there would stand and speak up. The government's excuse is that we are in a time of fiscal restraint. That is an excuse. This would be good for the economy and it would be good for individuals. The government has an opportunity to do something right to support the EI system and make it better. I ask the government to seize this opportunity and support the bill.

Employment Insurance Act

11:25 a.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

I am rising to speak to Bill C-291. It is a good bill that everyone is asking us to pass. All members of the House, no matter what their political affiliation, have had to face the same situation: people are knocking at our doors asking for this help. It would be interesting, for once, to set aside all partisanship and really tackle the problem. It is important for the House to pause and study employment insurance and benefits for those suffering from a serious illness or injury.

We are still dealing with the economic distress resulting from the 2008 recession. It is not over. We are not yet out of the economic downturn. We have never had such high unemployment. After four years of economic difficulties, Canadian households have exhausted their savings and maxed out their lines of credit. In such conditions, it is understandable that if one family member becomes seriously ill, the family cannot cope financially. The income is gone and there is absolutely nothing to fill the gap.

There is a reason why food banks have never been so busy. There is a reason why the demand for meals-on-wheels services has spiked. People have no more money. They do not have the financial means to meet their daily needs. Just imagine if, in addition, they cannot earn a living because of a serious illness or injury.

Employment insurance is the best tool for dealing with this type of situation. In fact, 66% of Canadians do not have income protection insurance and 66% of Canadians are not covered by collective agreements. In addition, private or group income protection insurance is often not enough even if people do have it. There are limits and constraints, which means that, even with some type of insurance, people do not have what they need. This is what Bill C-291 will address.

The money is there to cover the benefits. Contributors pay into the employment insurance system and their money is managed. Paying into the system fosters a sense of solidarity. Contributors pay into the system to protect themselves against the risk of unemployment or sickness. Yet, they are being told that their money will be managed differently. They have been gouged to the tune of $54 billion. This is extremely sad and serious. If the money was still there, there would be no problem with the employment insurance system. The money would be there to pay for claims to be processed. There would be enough money to pay more public servants to deal with the massive influx of claims. There would be enough money to cover the needs of people who want one year, that is 50 weeks of sickness benefits. The money would be there. Corrective measures have been undertaken. This is not easy in the midst of an economic recession. However, it is because we are in the midst of an economic recession and people have exhausted all other means at their disposal, all other sources of income, that we must support them. This is where we are at.

There have been delays in processing. And yet people already face a two-week waiting period. We want this two-week waiting period to be a thing of the past. People do not ask to be sick. They do not ask for permission to be injured. They just are. As the luck of the draw would have it, they are no longer able to work. Employment insurance is probably the only tool that can guarantee all these people that falling ill will not necessarily result in poverty.

The time is ripe for debate. How many of us have seen people who are still unwell after 15 weeks? A chemotherapy treatment can last for six months. If the treatment period is doubled to ensure that there is no relapse, that makes a year. I can guarantee that after one year of chemotherapy, you lose a lot of weight. Fifteen weeks does not give people ample opportunity to get the proper care they need. It certainly does not make their treatment experience peaceful.

People are faced with a major void after only 15 weeks. Too often, collective agreements rely on employment insurance. Employment insurance plans are excluded from collective agreements because there is government-sponsored employment insurance. In that it is our duty to bridge the gaps, we must do so effectively.

I call on my colleagues opposite, many of whom have medical training. I can see one such member right now. She could convince her colleagues that 15 weeks for a chemotherapy treatment is quite unreasonable. The people telling the Conservatives this are not only experts, but also their constituents. My constituents come to me asking for help out of their own contributions to employment insurance. People pay into the system, so they are entitled to receive benefits. Everyone wants this guarantee, this protection against poverty.

This amendment to the law addresses a major shortcoming, which explains why too many people become poor following an accident or illness. Being sick is already frightening enough, but because of the employment insurance waiting period, Canadians are also faced with the prospect of poverty.

The NDP has always supported this bill, even before the Liberals did. It is not a problem for me that this bill has come from the Liberal Party. It does not matter who is introducing the bill; what matters is who it is protecting. That is what is important. It protects my constituents in the same way as it protects theirs. I would call on all members to join us in backing this essential protection.

In closing, I would like to mention an important fact. In Canada, given our good social safety net, the main cause of personal bankruptcy is divorce. In the United States, the main cause of personal bankruptcy is illness, and the other causes lag far behind. In Canada, sickness is much further down the list. It needs to be even further down the list, and we must combat poverty.

Employment Insurance Act

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak to Bill C-291, which 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 also eliminates the two-week waiting period when special benefits for illness, injury or quarantine are paid.

I would like to congratulate the member for Bourassa on his employment insurance bill. As my colleague just said, all members, regardless of which party they belong to, must examine this bill and decide whether or not to support it. This is a very important bill. Our party has raised the matter a number of times. Former NDP member Dawn Black introduced Bill C-420 in the first and second sessions of the 39th Parliament. Ms. Black reintroduced the same bill as Bill C-316 during the second session of the 40th Parliament. The bill would have extended the maximum period for which benefits for illness, serious injury or quarantine may be paid from 15 to 30 weeks.

During the third session of the 40th Parliament, the NDP member for New Westminster—Coquitlam introduced a similar bill to extend the maximum period for which special benefits for illness may be paid from 15 to 52 weeks. He introduced that bill again on November 15.

I truly believe that it is time for this bill to move forward. Earlier, one of my colleagues mentioned Marie-Hélène Dubé, a Quebec woman with cancer. I remember seeing her on the current affairs program Tout le monde en parle, where she spoke candidly about her disease. Ms. Dubé discovered that, after having worked her whole life, she would receive just 15 weeks of employment insurance sickness benefits. She made it her mission to circulate a petition. She asked several members to present it. The member for Bourassa, several Bloc Québécois members and I have presented the petition, which has raised awareness among MPs not only of Ms. Dubé's case, but of the consequences such a loss of earnings can have for a person with cancer or a long-term illness.

I wish to congratulate Ms. Dubé. After what she went through, she could have easily told herself she would never again need these benefits and done nothing. Instead, she thought of other people and gathered 430,000 signatures from across Canada. If people had been more informed about her efforts, I am sure she could have doubled or tripled that number.

Employment insurance exists in order to help people who have lost their jobs and are looking for a new one. Over the years, EI has expanded to provide income for individuals in special circumstances. One example is parental benefits. So, employment insurance can take many forms. The system is meant to protect people's incomes.

It is important to remember that workers and employers are the ones who pay into the EI system; it is not the government. EI is an insurance system that allows people to look after their colleagues, those who suddenly learn that they have the misfortune of having developed cancer after working their entire lives. Has any family not been affected by cancer? It could be a brother, sister, cousin, uncle, aunt, father or mother. In my case, my mother died of cancer.

No one is exempt from this. Let us think about someone who has cancer. In most cases, treatment is absolutely necessary and, in the case of chemotherapy, for instance, can last up to one year. Someone who has a heart attack usually needs some time to rest. Whether someone has a heart attack, heart disease or a long-term illness, the last thing they need is a financial burden on top of their illness. That is the worst thing that could happen. That could prolong the healing process and have a very negative effect on their health.

The least we can do for colleagues, workers and employers, is examine the issue, especially the case of prolonged illness. Doctors and specialists can provide a medical certificate enabling the person to be on leave for 50 weeks. I do not know whether the member for Bourassa was thinking of this type of illness, but I do not believe that he was talking about people with the flu or a cold. It is not about that. We are talking about long-term illnesses, those that force people to stay home for a number of months, or more than 15 weeks.

For example, consider someone who has worked their entire life and contributed to employment insurance. They were lucky because they were able to work all their life. All of a sudden, they come down with a dreaded illness. We do not wish it on them. We do not even wish it on our worst enemy. We tell such people that if they need employment insurance, they can have it, and at least get through their treatments. That would be the right thing to do.

I must say something about the Liberals. They had the opportunity to take action. They were in power for 13 years. They could have done it. We asked for it. We introduced bills for 50 weeks and 30 weeks of benefits. We asked that the two-week waiting period be eliminated. This waiting period should not even exist. People should not be without income. They have payments to make. The Liberals could have done it.

I find it sad—and I think the public needs to know, if it has not already noticed—that the Conservatives did not even rise today to give their opinions, to say whether they are for or against this bill, which is good for our society and all people—the workers. I get the impression that they will be against it. They have not even given their opinion on a bill introduced in the House of Commons. Normally, members from all parties speak. They give their opinion. Today, we are having a one-hour debate. Unless it is to impose closure in the House of Commons or to say that certain bills have to be debated in less than two days, they do not even bother to rise when a bill they are against is introduced. I find that sad for our MPs. I do not know whether the government told them not to rise. This is a fine example of the Prime Minister's “my way or the highway” iron grip.

This is a very important bill for workers and the government members are not even bothering to stand up and state their opinions. Are they ashamed? Is the Conservative government too ashamed to rise and tell our workers that it will not give them their employment insurance benefits when they become ill? These people have worked hard; they receive employment insurance benefits for 15 weeks and then nothing. I can see it coming. They work their entire lives and help build this country only to end up on social assistance. I bet there is not a single worker in Canada who would not be willing to help his or her colleagues get employment insurance benefits. I would have a hard time believing that.

It would not cost so much. Maybe the Conservatives do not want to speak today because they have their own bill to introduce. Their bill would pass because it needs a royal recommendation. Maybe that is it. We might be getting a big surprise in 2012.

I sincerely hope that Bill C-291 passes and that the government, having failed to rise today, will rise on the day of the vote to vote in favour of the bill.

Employment Insurance Act

11:45 a.m.

NDP

Olivia Chow Trinity—Spadina, ON

Mr. Speaker, here in Canada, according to the Canadian Cancer Society, one out of two Canadians will be or is at risk of developing cancer.

If one looks at the House of Commons, out of the over 300 members of parliament, half are at risk of developing cancer. All across this country there are thousands and thousands of cancer patients who have just been diagnosed. On average, they have to wait at least seven weeks, or almost two months, before treatment starts.

The treatment, on average, takes at least nine months. There are the CT scans for them to take and chemotherapy or an operation or radiation treatment. Yet, when they are going through this kind of surgery or treatment, they are told by the government, “Sorry, you cannot receive any employment insurance beyond 15 weeks.” That is less than four months.

Imagine, people are already going through a lot of stress, their bodies are stressed, their mental health is stressed and their families are under stress. Then on top of that they are told that the employment insurance they have contributed to every two weeks all of their lives to cover them when they fall sick will end not quite four months after they claim it. They are told they cannot get any more employment insurance.

Yet most of these Canadians, on average, are still going through treatment. According to the Cancer Society it takes at least nine months to receive treatment. This means that they are either going to have to remortgage their homes, go into debt or use up their savings in order to continue their cancer treatment.

This is exactly what happened to Marie-Hélène Dubé. She is a 40-year-old woman who has had cancer over and over again. She has collected thousands and thousands of signatures, in fact half a million. One would think this government would listen, but the Conservative government is out of touch with the reality of people in Canada. It is not listening. It is ignoring the desires of half a million Canadians who have signed a petition to say that we have to extend employment insurance benefits to at least 50 weeks.

The New Democrats have said so for many years. It was in our election platform of 2011. The member of Parliament for New Westminster—Coquitlam, sitting right behind me, our fisheries critic, introduced a private member's bill that would do exactly what the bill before us would do. Our past leader, Jack Layton, said many times that EI had to be extended to least 50 weeks, or close to a year, for people who have a serious illness.

Canadians should not have to go into debt or lose, on average, $12,000 per household, which is how much money they end up using because of their illness. They should not have to wait for two months. Surely there should be a benefit period that would last beyond 15 weeks.

In England it is 52 weeks; in France it is 12 to 36 months, depending upon the kind of illness; and in Germany it is 78 weeks. We are incredibly behind in the way we treat people suffering with a serious illness.

It is not just people who have cancer: there are a lot of illnesses that take a long time to recover from. For example, for people who have had a stroke or who have liver disease or some kind of heart problems, it takes them more than two or four months to recover from those serious illnesses.

It is not as if these Canadians are asking taxpayers for their money; this money belongs to them. If we look at the demographics, most of the people suffering from a longer lasting illness, by and large, are older Canadians. They have contributed to this EI fund for many years, for most of their lives.

One would think this is just natural. However, after all these years, why do we have a system like this?

When the Liberals were in government, they gutted the EI program. They changed the waiting period, they changed the criteria, they changed the benefit period and they took $54 billion out of the EI program, money that in fact belongs to Canadians who have contributed to the employment insurance fund.

What happened then? Because the Liberals gutted the program and used the surplus for their own purposes, the Conservatives said, “That's fine. We'll make it into a law”. They then established a separate body for the EI funds, and limited the separate EI fund to $2 billion.

Employment Insurance Act

11:50 a.m.

An hon. member

And legalized it, too.

Employment Insurance Act

11:50 a.m.

NDP

Olivia Chow Trinity—Spadina, ON

Exactly. My colleague is absolutely right. This has legalized the theft of the $54 billion of Canadians' hard-earned money in the EI fund, which they had contributed to every two weeks. As a result, people like Marie-Hélène Dubé are not allowed to get their EI money.

This is not just about her. On average, right now, as of today, we note that there are 328,770 claims for special benefits under the EI program. A third of them are for a serious illness requiring more than 15 weeks of treatment.

We are talking about over 100,000 Canadians who have their employment insurance benefits cut off just at a time they need these the most, at the time they are under stress and need the government to support them so they can get some of their money back. They are told, “No. Sorry, your benefits are gone”. As a result, they are disqualified or they run out of benefits and end up having to use their savings or to go into debt.

This is completely irresponsible behaviour because household debt in Canada has been going up tremendously. We know why: this is one of the reasons. We have all these Canadians who fall sick and really need help but have to go into debt, take out a line of credit or borrow money, or find other ways to make ends meet. Some them whom I know start paying rent with their credit cards and then pay 18% to 20% interest on that debt. They become more and more indebted.

We know that a third of Canadians are worried sick that they are one or two paycheques away from getting into trouble. They are getting into trouble precisely because the Conservative government, and the Liberal government before it, is out of touch with the reality of ordinary Canadians who desperately need help when they are sick.

Let us collectively approve this private member's bill and get it to committee so that it can become law and people who are sick and have cancer, like Marie-Hélène Dubé, will finally get the money they deserve.

Employment Insurance Act

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

The hon. member for Bourrassa has five minutes remaining on his right of reply.