House of Commons Hansard #97 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was refugees.

Topics

The House resumed consideration of Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration), as reported (with amendment) from the committee, and of Motions Nos. 1 to 5.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

NDP

Claude Patry Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Speaker, this is the second time I have spoken to Bill C-316. Before I begin my speech I would like to say that the NDP is often accused of protecting prisoners, but we agree that someone who commits an offence should be incarcerated and pay his debt to society. That is a principle of justice. That is the world we live in.

However, we must not forget that we are dealing with human beings. Our duty in the House is to ensure that these people are rehabilitated and that they have the opportunity to find a job. Some have had hard luck in life. That does not make them hardened criminals, as I have been hearing in speeches in the House over the past few months.

There are two types of criminals. There are people who are in prison for stealing food. Many single mothers with no income get caught stealing food and end up in prison. We have to give people like that the chance to rehabilitate and not kick them while they are down. We live in a society. We have a duty in this House to help these people.

The Conservatives are claiming that inmates can be granted privileges and receive benefits for 52 to 104 weeks. Pregnant women do not have that right. That is why I am rising in the House. The hon. member explained that this represents a minimal cost. Since this privilege represents a minimal cost, rather than getting rid of it, we would be better off extending it to pregnant women who lose their jobs or who become ill and are not entitled to employment insurance benefits. It is true. That is the reality right now.

Rather than also extending this privilege to pregnant women, which would be the logical course of action, the Conservatives would prefer to take it away from inmates. Is this not a good example of the lack of vision or the wilful blindness of the government, which is motivated by its own ideology rather than by common sense?

First, I would like to explain the reason for these 52 weeks. The hon. member explained it very well earlier, as my other colleagues in the House have done. People are entitled to these 52 weeks in accordance with their qualifying period and the unemployment rate in their region.

The Conservative members are simplifying the facts and distorting reality. Inmates are not eligible for benefits while they are in prison. These are privileges that people are granted. Inmates do not have rights in prison.

The people who benefit from this special measure are those who worked enough hours to obtain benefits. They deserve to get them when they get out of prison since they contributed to the employment insurance program. It is workers and employers who contribute to this fund. It is not the government. The government simply manages it. The government has managed the money in our employment insurance fund so well. We can see what is left today.

That being said, Bill C-316 seeks to repeal the provisions of the Employment Insurance Act that allow for qualifying periods and benefit periods to be extended as the result of time spent by the claimant in a jail, a drug treatment centre or another similar institution. When someone goes to a drug treatment centre, it is because he needs help. If we kick him when he is down, we just make matters worse. It will make it harder for him to get back on his feet.

The Conservatives want to abolish the exceptional provision that encourages former inmates to rejoin the labour force and regain their self-confidence. If my memory serves me correctly, it was even the Conservatives who introduced the 52 to 104 weeks in the 1960s. They did so to help people find a job, get training and receive benefits in the meantime. When people get out of prison, that does not look good on their CVs. That is why it is difficult to find a good job after serving a prison sentence. Things are not easy for these people. Rather than helping them, we are digging them a deeper hole. We are penalizing them. We are penalizing them instead of giving women this right. If we were to give women this right, it would cost between $70 million and $75 million, according to our estimates. Pregnant women would be entitled to these privileges when they lose their jobs or fall ill after a pregnancy.

The Conservatives are abolishing an exceptional provision that encourages inmates to rejoin the labour force, regain their self-confidence and have access to paid training. Unfortunately, the Conservatives have failed to come up with any solutions to help pregnant women who are the victims of injustice in this area.

We in the NDP want this to apply to pregnant women.

Can the Conservatives tell us how they intend to assist pregnant women in this area?

Personally, I get the impression that the Conservatives would prefer to waste energy and punish everyone, and that the injustice of this bill is only a pretext for a government that is intent on being tough on criminals, come what may. This bill is a good, though pointless, example. We need to stop it from spoiling the future of thousands of Canadians who would benefit from a second chance.

Sometimes, in life, we are out of luck. Someone here might enjoy a cocktail or two in company. Instead of having two cocktails, that person might have three, and get caught.

That does not make us hoodlums or hardened criminals.

This bill is not good enough for Canadians. The question is not about equality for Canadians with regard to the employment insurance system, nor is it about the alleged favouring of prisoners in the employment insurance system. It is about making the necessary changes to an unfair piece of legislation, and rectifying a situation that is unfair to women on maternity leave. It is my duty to highlight the Conservative government's incompetence in this area, despite the fact that the Conservatives consider themselves the standard-bearers of family values.

The Conservatives do not distinguish between different types of crime. They do not give rehabilitation a chance and their only strategy to prevent repeat offences is to throw people in prison. Yet, in Canada, the figures show that our social rehabilitation system works well and that the crime rate is steadily falling in most provinces.

Regardless of what the member for Cariboo—Prince George says, helping inmates escape the cycle of crime has always worked well in Canada, and we are currently reaping the benefits of this system. It is thanks to these measures, some of them exceptional ones like the one we are debating today, that we have been able to build a solid system. It may be imperfect, but is well intentioned, and it suits us. It is our duty in this House to look after people by making decisions on their behalf. That is the duty of parliamentarians.

In general, former inmates have a lot of trouble finding work after they get out of prison, and their time in jail has a lasting negative impact on their income. Of course, when you have bad luck and you lose your job, when your CV says that you spent six months in prison for stealing a litre of milk from a corner store, it is not very good when you are looking for a job. However, these people deserve a second chance, especially since former inmates are more likely to be unemployed or to hold jobs that pay less than the jobs they held before they went to jail.

Someone who has spent more than a year in jail cannot receive benefits until he has accumulated enough insured hours of work after leaving prison, while if he spends less than a year in jail, he can qualify for employment insurance because of the hours he worked during the extended qualifying period. Employment insurance also provides access to vocational training and to officers who provide job-search support. In a number of cases, the employment insurance program has changed lives in a positive way.

There is a major problem with this ridiculous bill. We must point out that an innocent person may be in jail while waiting for a verdict to come down that clears him. That could be detrimental and costly, and the person could also be refused access to employment insurance.

The solution to the inequities in the employment insurance program is not to abolish an exceptional measure that provides assistance to inmates, but to make a clear-cut change to the legislation in terms of the maximum number of weeks of regular and special benefits.

The Employment Insurance Act must allow new mothers as well as workers who have lost their jobs to receive sickness benefits when they need them. It must allow a mother who is on parental leave to benefit from the same extension of the qualifying and benefit periods as an individual who has been in prison, not the opposite. In this case, the government is taking something away from inmates and not looking after mothers. It would be better to keep what is left for inmates, because it does not cost too much. They said it. They were not even able to give us the real numbers. It would be much better for us to take care of our people.

Moreover, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development acknowledged that there was a problem with the interpretation of the Employment Insurance Act with regard to women on maternity leave and access to the special sickness benefits and regular benefits. She must now make a commitment to rectify this situation, which is unfair to Canadian working women, rather than looking for feeble solutions that are only good for pleasing people who support the Conservatives’ hard line on crime.

It is quite clear that this bill does not reflect the values of Canadians. It does not represent the views of Canadians, and the government must recognize that a mistake is about to be made. We cannot let this bill go forward; it is harmful and adds absolutely nothing useful to the employment insurance system. We must concentrate on the real priorities of Canadian families: jobs, health care, quality of life and workers' rights.

I oppose this bill. We want to correct a situation that we think is unfair. These people have paid in and they are going to have that money taken away. But if we do that, it will not mean that we can give this money to women on maternity leave. We must be fair with everyone and apply this to women on maternity leave, so they are at least entitled to employment insurance if they become sick or lose their job when they return to the work force. That is social justice. That is what it means to help people, to work together and take care of people. Here in the House, we are supposed to make decisions to take care of Canadians.

We in the NDP oppose this bill because it punishes people and takes things away from them, without being able to help others. On the contrary, we should be able to give this to women on maternity leave who still have rights. They will have less to worry about when they go back to work and if they lose their job when they do go back.

The NDP will be voting against this bill.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, I believe the member for Cariboo--Prince George was well intentioned in trying to fill what he thinks is a loophole in the EI system, but he failed to dig deeply into why the extension was first created and why it serves a purpose today, even for only that small handful of people it impacts.

Before I get to the why though, I want to start with the who. The who is Michael Starr. For the benefit of the House, Michael Starr was a Progressive Conservative member of Parliament, first elected in 1952 for the riding of Oshawa. He served under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker as labour minister from 1957 to 1963. He ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1967. Bob Stanfield won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party and while he waited for a byelection, Michael Starr served as the leader of the official opposition.

After politics, he had a great career. He was chairman of the Ontario board for workmen's compensation. He has a collection of civilian citations. There is an Ontario provincial building that is named after Michael Starr. This week, which by the way has been deemed Michael Starr week in Oshawa, people gathered in the Michael Starr building to celebrate Michael Starr's induction into the Oshawa Walk of Fame with all proceeds going to the Michael Starr scholarship fund.

I mention Michael Starr's name for a purpose. It was this Progressive Conservative minister of labour, the Hon. Michael Starr, who introduced this particular change that this private member's legislation would delete. He introduced this in 1959. I want to read from Hansard what he said at that time:

Ordinarily a person who had spent up to two years in penitentiary, would lose the benefit of unemployment insurance contributions, which would impose a further punishment in addition to those levied by the court. This disability is now removed and it will help a great deal in the rehabilitation of [our citizens].

That is what the Progressive Conservatives thought then. I am very interested in what progressive Conservatives think now. As Liberals, we do not base our decisions on ideology. We base them on evidence and sound reasons for doing or not doing something.

Let us look at some of the people who could be affected by the bill. First, it only affects in almost all cases people who are confined to provincial jail for a period of less than two years. We are not talking about hardened criminals. We are talking about those in jail for under two years. Seventy-five per cent of these people have been sentenced to less than three months. There are no murderers, no rapists, no child molesters, no crime bosses. We are not talking about their receiving EI benefits, getting any money; this is just about the grace period.

I could talk about several aspects of the bill that are going to undoubtedly deny other people because of the bureaucratic red tape and federal-provincial black holes that will be created, but I want to focus on the one main reason our party is against the bill.

Many people who end up in jail are there because of poverty. We could argue that it does not absolve them from their crime. However, if we are changing legislation that affects them, we need to understand the reasons they are in jail.

I am sure the Conservatives would like everyone to think they are cracking down on the Charlie Mansons in the world. Let us look at the one group that is most affected by the bill, and that is single mothers.

The National Council of Welfare's 2011 report, “The Dollars and Sense of Solving Poverty”, had a shocking statistic that almost sums up the position on this bill. Eighty per cent of incarcerated women are in there for poverty related crimes. Thirty-nine per cent are there for failure to pay a fine. Seventy per cent of incarcerated women are single mothers struggling with the high cost of living and as a result, crimes of desperation are sometimes committed.

United Way of Calgary issued a report in 2008 called “Crimes of Desperation”. It said this regarding women in jail for their failure to pay fines:

Incarcerating a woman for a poverty-related crime does punish her, but the punishment is for being poor and trying to cope by using a socially inappropriate but readily available means. Given this, the rates of re-offence are significant and costly.

When the member for Cariboo—Prince George appeared before the committee to testify about the bill, he said that he could not believe people would be in jail because of a fine. This is what he said:

I'm surprised, given our justice system, that people are thrown in jail for not paying parking tickets or fines.

Maybe my colleague would be surprised if people were thrown in jail because he is from B.C. which has a very low incarceration rate. However, since B.C. is one of the lowest, maybe he should talk to his colleagues next door whose rate of incarceration because of non-payment of fines is 60% higher.

According to a National Council of Welfare report in 2000, “Justice and the Poor”, in 1997 and 1998, over 40,000 people were in jail in Canada because of failure to pay fines. The same report showed that between 1984 and 1988 the major crime that was charged, accounting for 42% of all charges, was theft under $1,000. The number of charges for theft under $1,000 started to increase in August, when children are going back to school, and peaked in December, just before Christmastime.

The 1995 National Council of Welfare report, “Legal Aid and the Poor”, reported the fact that thousands of low-income Canadians are imprisoned routinely because they are unable to pay fines. The report found that people are still being sentenced for failure to pay fines because of traffic tickets and the Liquor Control Act because it does not take into account people's ability to pay. This report also stated:

The vast majority of people admitted to prison because of fines are there because they have no money to pay, and a disproportionate number are Aboriginal people.

Let us consider a scenario. A woman who is on EI is riding the C-Train on Thursday morning and is caught riding without a ticket because she is too cheap and did not want to pay the $2.50. For this she is fined $150. She goes to court and pays the $150 fine because she has the means to do so. She receives no jail time and her EI eligibility period is not affected.

Let us look at another woman, a single mom on EI who is having an extremely hard time making ends meet. She rides the C-Train and is caught without a ticket because she cannot afford to pay the $2.50. She is fined $150. However, unlike the woman in the previous example, she cannot afford to pay. She may have been charged with previous offences. She may not qualify for community service and therefore will be incarcerated at the Calgary Remand Centre. She could be there for a week and as a result not only would lose a week's EI benefits, but she could also lose her job and a week from the grace period.

The cost to incarcerate this woman at the Calgary Remand Centre is somewhere between $410 a day and $690 a day. Even without that, the cost would be about $1,400. Add in on top of that the cost for the state to look after her children while she is incarcerated. It would be $1,400 in incarceration costs to cover a $150 fine ,all for a $2.50 train ticket.

Maybe for my colleagues on the other side losing a week of EI may not be a big deal, but to this woman it is devastating.

In 1938 a royal commission investigated the penal system in Canada. It said, “Imprisonment for non-payment, when the convicted person has not the means or ability to pay, is, in fact, imprisonment for poverty”. That was in 1938. Therefore, I say to the progressive Conservatives on the other side, as much as it was right then, I still believe it is right now. I would hope that the progressives on the government side of the bench would move to make sure that this bill does not pass.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak, but I am not very pleased to speak to this bill because it is Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act, which would seek to further penalize individuals who find themselves in jail as a result of the commission of an offence, or perhaps they are awaiting trial and may even be acquitted of the offence.

The hon. member opposite has seen fit to take a piece of legislation that is designed to ensure that people who have earned through paying premiums the right to employment insurance and deprive them of some of those benefits in addition to whatever penalty they receive.

In fact, what it says is that there are two people who are equal before the law, one of whom happens to qualify for EI and the other does not. It wants to make the system work as follows. If people happen to be in receipt of EI, they are going to be punished differently and more heavily than another person who is not in that circumstance--

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Mr. Speaker, on a point of order. In the opening of his presentation, the member opposite characterized Bill C-316 as an act to further penalize those who have been incarcerated. I do not think he has read the bill, otherwise he would see that is not what the purpose--

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

I really do not hear anything in there that is indeed a point of order. I think it is a matter of debate on the facts and the way they are presented.

The hon. member for St. John's East.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I do not know if the member was listening carefully but I said that it was an act that would amend the Employment Insurance Act.

This is a matter for debate, but I have no doubt that this legislation would further penalize people who have either committed an offence or may be only awaiting a trial to determine whether they committed an offence. Bill C-316 would unfairly add additional penalties on people and treat them unequally. An individual who may have paid the premiums and was collecting employment insurance would lose that benefit instead of having it postponed, the way it is now. It is an unfair bill.

What is really unfair about the bill is that it is so contrary to the notion of members opposite who talk a lot about their concern about crime and victims of crime, never mind the Christian charity or any other kind of charity toward people. One would think that the Conservatives would be concerned about the rehabilitation of offenders, particularly the kinds of offenders we are talking about here, most of whom serve a sentence of less than a year for some first offence or minor offence. One would think they would want them to be rehabilitated so they could get back into the workforce to be able to support their families.

What are we saying here? Do we want to ensure that people who happen to be in jail for six weeks or three months are deprived of the ability to collect employment insurance when they get out of jail? Who depends on that employment insurance? It is the individual and his or her family. Are we going to deprive the family of three months of employment insurance income because someone went to jail? The individual may have been deprived of income while in jail but that is part of the consequence of being in jail.

I do not know who will vote for this legislation. I did not hear the minister get up and say that they will vote for this because it is a government measure. However, we will find out how mean-spirited, negative, uncharitable and uncompassionate those members are if they support the member's bill. The member did a disservice to his party by bringing the bill before the House. This measure would further penalize individuals who commit crimes for which they are serving usually relatively minor sentences in jail.

We know that many former inmates have considerable difficulty finding work after release from prison, which is why we have the John Howard Society. I do not know if the Conservatives are against the John Howard Society helping prisoners to reform themselves and rehabilitate themselves, something that society wants and desires and we should be encouraging.

We should be encouraging that for two reasons. First, because we want everybody to be a good citizen, even people who have committed an offence. We want them to have an opportunity to reform. Second, because we want to protect society. We want these individuals to be productive members of society so they do not commit further offences and create further victims. I think that is a common goal. I do not know why anybody would want to turn the screw a little tighter, hurt them and their families, and deprive them of a benefit that they are entitled to under law because they paid their premiums. Instead, the government wants to turn the screw a little tighter.

We know that incarceration has a lasting negative effect on how much an individual earns, lowering his or her average annual income already. The average income of a household with children and a parent in prison declines by 22% over the period of incarceration and after the parent is released from prison the household income remains 15% lower than before that parent was committed.

What are we doing here? Are we saying that we will penalize not only the individual but the family even further? What would be gained by that? Is that a deterrence? No. It is a continuation and enforcement of misery on somebody who is already poor. Is that what the government wants to do? I do not know if the government is going to support the bill but we will find out.

That, obviously, is what the member wants to do. Maybe he has talked to his colleagues or maybe has not. I have not heard all of the speeches here. However, it will be a very sad day if the government passes this legislation. I do not think people on this side will support. There are some in that corner. I see one hand in the Conservative corner that is voting with the government.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

Conservative

Leon Benoit Vegreville—Wainwright, AB

He cares about victims.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

He cares about victims. He cares enough about victims that he wants to create more. He wants the children of people who end up in prison to suffer. He wants to ensure that when people get out of prison, who would otherwise, under the current law, be eligible to either receive employment insurance that was interrupted by the incarceration or who had earned an opportunity to participate in an employment program or skills training program, they will be deprive of that, just cut them off. They were in prison and therefore are somehow pariahs on society and should have no chance to use the benefits of the Employment Insurance Act to rehabilitate themselves, to look after their families, to quality for upgrades in skills so they can get better jobs and to be more productive members of society.

No, we want more victims. We want those people to be victims and we are prepared to see their children be victims also. That is shocking. And they say that this in the name of victimhood.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

They should have thought of that before.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

I hear the member say they should have thought of that before they committed the crimes. So we are going to visit the sins of the father upon the children. That sounds to me like a bad movie. If I do something wrong, my children should not have to pay because the government—

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Cariboo—Prince George, BC

It's called responsibility.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris St. John's East, NL

It is called responsibility. I have heard before that it is called responsibility. Therefore, the parents are responsible, the children should suffer and we are prepared to see that happen. That is the kind of logic and lack of compassion that we are hearing from the other side. I hope every Canadian is watching this and hearing how people think over there. I am afraid to repeat it because it seems to me that it is actually true.

As I say, I am glad to have a chance to talk about this but I am very sorry that this kind of bill is before the House. I hope that other wiser heads over there with more compassionate and charitable views actually prevail and say that if people commit crimes, they will go to jail. The judge decides how long they will be there. I do not want members opposite saying that people should be deprived of the opportunity to rehabilitate because they happen to have been in jail.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Conservative

Ryan Leef Yukon, YT

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I am sure my hon. colleague did not exactly mean what he said when he speculated what I was thinking in terms of attacking offenders' children. He said that I wished for that. That is certainly not the case. We are dealing with people who have committed crimes and are in jail. It is certainly no reflection on how I feel about families. I think that was specifically his speculation on how I feel about victims. He accused me of wanting to create more victims and I certainly do not want to do that. It was a little over the top.

Employment Insurance Act
Private Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

I would simply say that the comments of the hon. member for St. John's East did come somewhat close. Members are cautioned about alluding to the presence or absence of members in the House. This is one of the reasons that there is in fact a Standing Order that suggests that. As I said, the hon. member was coming close to that but did not quite cross that line. There was no transgression, so we will carry on.

Before I recognize the hon. member for Burnaby—Douglas, I will let him know that I will have to interrupt him at 6:30 p.m., which signifies the end of private members' business for today.