Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the Bloc Quebecois, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-37 today. I will start by saying that I will try to devote most of my speech to the pension fund. I think that is the issue today, not necessarily equipment, although I think that is part of it. Indeed, quality of life for the Canadian Forces also depends a great deal on their equipment, government decisions and especially the perception that Quebeckers and Canadians have of the Canadian Forces.
Unfortunately, I am among those who say that the true worth of the Canadian Forces is not being recognized. The debate is often on the wrong track and centres on equipment or money. Yet, goodness knows, for a few years now we have been pushing for the adoption of a new national defence policy that would set out the challenges, guidelines and parameters for government funding. This could influence the purchase of equipment and change our behaviour on the international stage.
I think this is all closely linked. As I was saying, the true worth of the Canadian Forces is not recognized. I know this first hand. I had the opportunity to train with the Royal 22
Régiment in Valcartier; the soldiers were being sent to Bosnia on relief. One's view depends on whether one is inside or outside the ranks.
I had a rather full week: the troops got up at sunrise, and went to bed very late in the evening after all the physical and psychological training that comes with preparing for a dangerous mission. Spending a day with the Royal 22
Régiment preparing for an international peace mission makes one realize this is not fun and games.
I have also seen the PPCLI at work in my riding, during the ice storm. They did not come as tourists. These men and women spent their time clearing roads and chopping wood for those without power. They worked from sunup to sundown. When they left, I told the PPCLI soldiers that we would never forget them. That is why, from time to time in my speeches, I talk about the PPCLI to express my admiration for these individuals.
Training is one thing, but taking part in operations is completely different. I took part in two. As I just mentioned, I accompanied the ninth rotation to Bosnia. So, there had been other rotations before I went. Some of the people taking part in the ninth rotation had already taken part in the fourth and fifth rotation.
Over there, we can see the magnitude of what happened during the war between the Croatians and the Bosnians. One out of every three houses has no roof; there were huge losses of life. The soldiers spoke about the Canadian camps being shelled. Once, they were called to go get children at a school and take them back to the camp so they would be under military protection, but then they were informed that the children were not allowed in the camp. When the soldiers went back out after the bombing, the children had all died outside the walls to the Canadian camp.
There are not just physical dangers, but also enormous emotional stress. That is why, now, it has been determined that post-traumatic stress disorder is a direct result of this kind of situation.
I also accompanied the minister to Eritrea and Ethiopia where the two camps were separated by an international boundary. I saw dead bodies lying amidst mine fields, left there because apparently there was no time to recover the bodies and the whole area needed to be demined to do it. This creates a great deal of insecurity within the Canadian Forces.
We often think that they are tough people, but they are human beings, too. We need only observe their friendship with the local population as they offer a little solace for the horrors these people live through day by day.
Therefore we think that debating this bill to improve the retirement conditions for Canadian Forces pensioners is a step in the right direction. Recruitment is not the only thing that counts. I believe that the current problem is that young people thinking of enlisting have a choice between private enterprise or the Canadian Forces, a federal institution.
They often decide to enlist in the forces for adventure. Nevertheless, some basic conditions must be met: the salary must be good enough and the pension plan as well. I think that the bill before us will improve the situation in many ways.
I think the government has been rather slow in dealing with the reservists. But, as the saying goes, “better late than never.” In its 1998 report on quality of life in the Canadian Forces, the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs recommended “that the Department of National Defence pursue initiatives to put in place a real pension plan for the Reserves,” because they were not previously eligible for pensions.
Consequently, special attention is being given to creation of a pension plan for reservists. Clearly, reservists may have other jobs. Now, if they want to re-enlist, the time they spent in the militia or reserve will count towards a pension at the end of their career, which is very good. I would like to point out how important reservists are, and will be in future, because people wanting to make a career in the Armed Forces are not exactly beating down the doors of recruiting offices.
I know that considerable efforts are under way at the present time to recruit people. In fact, there is a Canadian Forces recruiting centre is in my riding and it is always busy. This is interesting, but when people enlist they need to know what to expect when they retire 10, 15, 20 or 25 years down the line. This is, in my opinion, important.
Now reservists will have the possibility of accumulating pensionable time, so that when they end their career, be it in the Armed Forces or elsewhere, they will have a slightly better pension plan than before, as they would in the federal public service.
Speaking of the importance of reservists, I again think of Valcartier. Several battalions were deployed to Bosnia during my rotation. One of these was wholly comprised of members of the reserve who had been given leave from their jobs and had signed on for a specific length of time for a mission in Bosnia.
They deserve much credit for this, because they sometimes run into problems getting their jobs back. Employers are more or less obliged to let them go, but when they come back, they sometimes find out someone has taken their place. To improve the reform we have before us, far more attention would have to be paid to members of the reserve, because they will become more and more necessary if we accept the fact that there will be fewer and fewer career soldiers.
Consequently, any improvement that can be made to the situation for the reserve strikes us as very important, and Bill C-37 does so by improving their pension possibilities.
There were other difficulties. For instance, the vesting period, which will be shorter. Members had to serve for 10 years to qualify for a pension. The minimum period for qualifying will now be two years. This encourages people to say, “I will give it a try and, if it does not work, I will at least qualify for a pension after two years”.
Previously, members who became disheartened or left lost their pension entitlement. They needed 10 years of accumulated service to qualify. Sometimes these individuals spoke of the forces in less than complimentary terms to those around them, which might have discouraged others from joining the Canadian Forces.
I think there is real improvement. As far as pension portability is concerned, this legal sounding term refers to the ability members of the armed forces now have to transfer their pensions into their registered retirement savings plans. They could not do that before, but now they can.
This is encouraging to people, who think, “Should I ever leave the forces and be entitled to a pension, I will transfer this money into another retirement plan. This way, I will not lose it”. I feel this is one of the strengths of this bill.
Also, with respect to pension eligibility no longer being tied to service, this will apply to reservists as well as to members of the regular force.
Until now, a member who enlisted for five years and later decided not to re-enlist—as I said earlier, there was a provision requiring that they serve 10 years—lost his or her pension. The same was true for reservists. Those who left the forces, saying they had had enough, lost their entitlement. Today, eligibility is no longer tied to a period of service. A reservist will be able to say, “I have had it with the Canadian Forces. I will take a break for a year or two. I have other obligations right now, but I would like to come back later”. Even if the period of service is not continuous, it will be possible to continue accumulating pensionable service, picking up where he or she left off.
This is an idea that would definitely be of interest to people, because it is much more flexible. This way, they would not be saying, after 5 or 10 years of service, “I have no pension rights. That is it. If I re-enlist, I start at zero again.”
In my opinion, this eliminates a problem that goes beyond recruitment. Of course, the federal government cut back funding to the army in the early 1990s, so that we have dropped from an army numbering 80,000 to one numbering around 50,000. As a consequence, we must now emphasize recruitment. What good does it do to plunge into recruiting while people are leaving by the back door, and we have no retention measures? These measures before us today are retention measures, to encourage people to stay in the forces.
Now, as for the pension, new people can be eligible after 25 years of service. That is another retention measure. It did raise a few questions when we read the bill for the first time. I had an excellent briefing by the Canadian Forces on the subject. Their people came to my office to explain what happens to those now covered by the plan, that is, those who have been in for 18 or 19 years and who were planning to leave in a year or two, that is, after 20 years, which is the current minimum. The question had come up: “Are we going to tell these people, 'You cannot leave after all. You cannot leave in a year or two because we have changed the law. From now on, it will be 25 years.'” So, they told us that it would be optional for those people. That is very interesting, because there are people who have served 18 or 19 years in the army, and I know very well that they are keen to retire. They know that after 20 years they are entitled to a full pension.
They have told me: “We are against this Mr. Bachand. You cannot expect us to put off our retirement for five years. We have made plans: we were going to leave the Canadian Forces in a year or two”. The bill makes this optional. Current members will have the choice of retiring after 20 or 25 years. It will be their choice and there will be no penalty.
Nonetheless, a newcomer to the Canadian Forces will certainly know from the outset that he has to serve in the forces for 25 years. This is not a double standard. People have said to me, “Claude, be careful. It is like a grandfather clause. Some will have more benefits than others”. That is not the case here. Those who are already in the army can leave after 20 years of service or, if they wish, they can serve five additional years under the legislation. However, new arrivals know that it is 25 years of service. Consequently, when they sign their contract, they do so with full knowledge of the facts. It is no different than those who signed a contract 20 years ago. They knew at the time that in 20 years they could retire. Those who sign a contract today know they can retire after 25 years.
This is also a retention measure because there are people who have served in the army for 19 or 20 years who would like to continue. Letting them accumulate more years of pensionable service, because they would be able to serve for five more years, would be very good because it would build up the pension fund.
Some people like being in the army, while others like it less. In general, however, this ensures that everyone can be satisfied to some extent. This will also satisfy the fundamental needs of the Canadian Forces.
Now, I must warn the government, because terrible things have happened with regard to this veterans' bill. The minister said that he supported the adoption of amendments to the legislation and the regulations. Since there was not enough money, he decided to set aside measures that must be approved, debated and voted on in the House.
In terms of veterans, the government decided to proceed through regulations. This means that the governor in council or cabinet will define the parameters. Also this bill leaves the way open for regulations. The government should be extremely careful here. When regulations are used to bypass parliamentarians, democracy is weakened.
As MPs, we receive representations from all sorts of people, especially when they know we are our party's critic for a given portfolio. Since there is a strong military presence in my riding, many service members come to seen me about issues concerning Bill C-37 before us, and veterans affairs as well. When they hear that people are treated differently because regulatory measures were taken instead of parliamentary or legislative measures, some of them take offence.
A case in point concerns veterans. Ten thousand widows were told they would be getting a substantial benefit in the form of a veterans allowance, the veterans being their husbands who are now deceased, to allow them to keep their homes. They will receive money for housekeeping and groundkeeping. We are talking about 10,000 widows who were told that from now on and for as long as they live in their home, they will be getting this allowance, but the widows of other veterans will not.
There is a major problem when 10,000 women are entitled to assistance and 23,000 others are not. I do hope this situation will be corrected. We in the Bloc Quebecois are working on an action plan to ensure that the 66% of women who are widows of veterans are not discriminated against.
A measure that does not help people who need to stay in their homes looks a bit unfair to me. And that is not even counting the fact that when they leave because they are no longer able to keep up their homes, they often end up in long term care. From then on, looking after these people is the province's responsibility, not the federal government's. And yet it is a federal jurisdiction. For once, when the federal government has jurisdiction, perhaps it could look after it properly instead of trying to interfere in all sorts of jurisdictions in Quebec.
Thus, we must warn the government. If there are amendments to this bill, or if, in the future, there are amendments with regard to amounts of money, eligibility, or qualifying periods, they must be brought before the House in the form of a legislative amendment so that the members of Parliament can discuss them. That way, when we get questions from our constituents, we will be able to give them answers and we will not be at a loss.
It was our distinct impression that all widows were going to get help, because the minister had announced on May 12 that he would be ensuring that all widows would benefit from changes for the better, but that was not so. Over the summer they likely realized that the bill would be a bit steep, so they settled on a figure of $69 million, a reallocation, rather than the total measure, which would have included all spouses and likely would have come to $200 million. The government did not have that kind of money.
We appealed to the minister to ensure that the next budget would include enough money to provide this coverage to everyone. There is one condition, however: that something as important as this not be done by regulation, but rather by legislation.
As for the bill as a whole which we have before us today, we are very pleased to see that the conditions and quality of life of those who will be retiring from the army will be improved. That, I think, was important. Not only important, but helpful for retaining people in the Forces. Not only will they be more interested in enlisting, but they will be more interested in making a career in the Canadian Forces because of all these measures.