Mr. Speaker, this is the last reading of Bill C-50. I had informed you at second reading that we were in favour of the bill. In committee, we considered the bill properly and we listened to people. We also accelerated the process, because we feared that the session would end prematurely. It seems this will be the case or this is being actively prepared. Ministers have decided to rush some bills through.
The Bloc Quebecois has agreed to deal with this one quickly, even though the bill has many problems. Thus, we will agree with the bill because it does contain many worthwhile provisions. The first thing we must recognize in this regard is that it greatly recognizes veterans and their widows.
We often give all the credit to veterans. However, I do not want to diminish their credit, because they deserve a lot. These are people, like my father, who decided to fight for our freedom, for individuals rights and for democracy. They deserve a lot of credit.
However, the women who stayed behind, in Quebec and in Canada, also deserve a lot of credit. We must always remember that these women were not inactive while their husbands went off to war across the Atlantic. They were the ones who had to keep the war economy going. They made guns, artillery shells and ammunitions so that the men could use them in the theatre of operations. Not only do our veterans deserve a lot of credit, but so do their widows.
There are some positive measures in this bill. First, there is a new definition of the term “veteran”. A recent case surprised a lot of people. A veteran did not have veteran status. He had gone to fight with our forces in a theatre of operations without having ever enlisted.
Therefore, the bill before us today suggests a new definition so that this kind of situation does not happen again. From now on, one will have to have enlisted and have completed one's military service to be considered a veteran. It was not necessarily the case previously.
We can see that the change in the definition is aimed at plugging a loophole that was opened up in court by a veteran, with the help of the justice system. The Federal Court ruled that he had fought with the others and, therefore, had to be considered a veteran. Today, we would not want these situations to happen again. This is why people will have to enlist and complete their military service.
The other aspect of this bill that we find very interesting deals with benefits for children of deceased veterans. This program had been suspended for some time. The amounts were not astronomical at the time. It was $125 a month. The minister decided to reinstate the program so that first generation children of veterans could have the privilege of receiving benefits to help them pay for their studies. This is important. The fully indexed amount has been increased from $125 to $300 a month. With indexation, the benefits will not have to be adjusted by way of regulation or legislation. It will be done automatically.
Another positive measure is the recognition of prisoners of war. The government is increasing compensation for prisoners of war. As we all know, prisoner camps, and in particular Japanese camps since a distinction is made in the bill, were not five-star hotels like the Hilton. Conditions were not that great.
At the time, soldiers were encouraged to escape from concentration camps, not an easy task. Some of them made it. Of course, they are not covered by this bill. But as I said at second reading, even if a prisoner could have seen in a crystal ball that a few more days in a camp would get him a pension, I do not think it would have mattered much. As I said, there was nothing posh about those concentration camps.
Everyone was urged to try to escape as soon as possible. Officers encouraged soldiers to escape because troops were needed to fight the enemy.
So, these benefits are increased. Compensation for prisoners of war held in Japanese camps is further increased because of the horrible conditions in which they were detained.
The Bloc Quebecois supports these improvements. It is a form of recognition, as I said earlier, for those who put not only their lives but also their health on the line, since several of them came back home with very serious injuries.
I am a member of the Canadian Legion in d'Iberville. Many people were hurt, and not only physically. They sustained injuries that were unknown at the time, psychological injuries. Nowadays, we know a bit more about post-traumatic stress syndrome. Everyone has heard about it.
In those days, people who went to war experienced absolutely dreadful situations. Nowadays, the same can be said of people who served, for example, in Bosnia, or those who served in Eritrea and Ethiopia and whom I visited personally. There was a demarcation line between the two camps. However, you could still see horrendous things. You could see bodies sprawled in the mine fields that nobody would retrieve.
I can understand that, even though soldiers are said to be tough and willing to accomplish their mission, they still feel pain when confronted with such a disaster and such a display of inhumanity. It goes against our values.
Here in our democratic regimes, we tend to settle our disputes through discussion. The House of Commons and the Quebec National Assembly are cases in point. Yet in those countries, they are often quick to resort to arms. And the victims are not only the soldiers who bear arms, but women and children, who often have no involvement in the conflict. They are its first victims though.
These people come back from those theatres of operations often physically diminished and psychologically damaged. Even the World War II veterans I meet still find it difficult to talk about the atrocities they witnessed on the battlefields.
The major flaw of the bill before us is what it does not do. I will explain. There are many forgotten ones in the bill. For financial reasons, 23,000 widows have completely been forgotten or left out in the cold by the bill.
It has taken us aback, since the minister had announced on May 12 that he would make legislative and regulatory changes. It so happens that among the legislative changes he wanted to make some had to do with the veterans independence program, which also applies to their widows. We were quite surprised when the minister came out with new background documents in September announcing his bill. Bills always come with briefing notes and background information announcing the forthcoming introduction of a bill at first reading.
At that time, it became obvious that the program would no longer be dealt through legislation. It meant that changes would not be made through amendments to the legislation. In the meantime, it was decided to proceed through regulatory changes.
This caught our attention. I then got out the regulation dated June 18, which says that widows now benefiting from the privilege will be able to benefit from it as long as they stay in their house. The program is for widows to give them help with housekeeping and grounds maintenance.
We understand the legislator's intention to help widows keep their house for quality of life reasons, of course, but also probably for economic reasons. Indeed, when they no longer have a house, they soon end up in long term care.
The problem is that the former program said that, when a veteran died, his widow would benefit from the program for 12 months. After that, she would no longer be eligible for benefits.
So, the minister said, “Those who now benefit from the program, those who have lost their spouse in the last 12 months, will be able to continue to benefit from it”. He forgot all the others. This means that 10,000 widows will continue to benefit from it, and 23,000 will not.
We may also question many things. Among others, my colleague from the Bloc, who deals with status of women issues, was mentioning to me that it would have been interesting to know whether the government has made a gender specific analysis.
I would like to explain this. The Beijing convention, which is a convention for women's rights, provides for certain conventions and treaties. There is one dealing specifically with the obligation of governments, when legislating, to see whether there is a negative impact on women. If the government decides to make legislation for veterans, we should see if the bill would have a negative impact on veterans' widows. In this regard, I am not sure the government has done its homework.
In fact, we do not intend to let off. We think that it is inadmissible that some persons should be told they are eligible and that others should be told they are not. Those who are not eligible have as much merit as the others. They too saw their spouse go off to war. My own mother saw her husband go off to war. She is still alive. She is living in a long term care facility and could not benefit from this allowance. However, if she still lived in her home, she would be told, “We are going to pay for your neighbour, because she lost her husband less than a year ago, but in your case, since you lost yours five or six years ago, you will get nothing”.
Understandably, some of these widows are coming to see members of Parliament. Some came to me and said, “This is unacceptable. Why am I not eligible? My husband went off to war. Other widows are eligible, why not me?” That is when we started looking into the matter and found out that 23,000 widows were not eligible.
Why are they not eligible? The minister is trying to explain that this money came from a reallocation within the department. Some $69 million was reallocated. A senior official of his department told us in a briefing, “Had we made all of them eligible, it would have cost $200 million, whereas all that could be reallocated was $69 million”. What happened is that they made a regulatory change that no one knew about. On June 18, cabinet met and decided that all those who benefited from the program at that time would continue to benefit from it as long as they lived in their homes, until they entered a long term care facility.
This means that those who no longer benefited from the program are no longer eligible. One can understand the position of a government that says it cannot afford to pay. However, there are other means available to the minister, and it would seem that he did not take advantage of these means. For instance, supplementary estimates were recently approved; that is more money ministers ask for in their respective budgets.
Why has the minister not said that he would like to have more money for his department and point out that he cannot say to 10,000 women that they are eligible for benefits under a program and to 23,000 others that they are not eligible? But it seems that he did not do that. The Prime Minister himself is said to have made a commitment to settle this issue. However, time is running out because, if the House adjourns on November 7, I am not sure that justice will be done to these women. This is one of the problems that we have right now. We should settle this issue tomorrow night, since we will be voting on a motion in which we are asking for a permanent solution to the problem, which would be for the Prime Minister to leave office and let someone else take his place. Then we will be able to continue our work and deal with the kind of issue that we have before us today, one that creates an injustice for many veterans' widows.
When we know that the government had a $13 billion surplus last year, we cannot help but wonder where that money is going. It is used to pay down the debt. Is the government dealing with the everyday problems of those people who really need help? No, it is not dealing with problems faced by the unemployed; on the contrary, it has reduced access to EI benefits. It is not dealing with problems faced by the elderly; in my riding, we are still looking for 800 to 1,000 elderly people because they are entitled to the guaranteed income supplement but have not been told.
The government could—and I agree that it would take $100 million in additional funds—ease the plight of these 23,000 women who have been left to fend for themselves. The Bloc Quebecois does not really understand why ordinary people are given such a low priority. I am sick of seeing people in Quebec City and in Ottawa always doing things for the millionaire club. They are not left to fend for themselves.
The future prime minister, the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard, has probably received government contracts totalling $15 million. But he is not someone who collects welfare. Why is it that it is always the better-off classes who benefit, and people who really need it, including those widows with annual incomes of $10,000 per year, are forgotten? They are left in the dark, while someone promises to try to get their problems solved. That is not enough for us.
The Liberal Party promises that it will now make an effort to compensate the 23,000 widows it had overlooked. In the meanwhile, some of them do not have the money and truly need it. Unfortunately, they will have to do without.
In short, we are extremely disappointed at the way things have turned out for these women. They are being deprived of their quality of life. I know that in my riding we found 200 people who were entitled to the guaranteed income supplement. When they were told they were entitled to it, and then they received it, they got $2,000 more each year, per person.
Just imagine what these senior citizens can do with $2,000. They are able to go to restaurants a bit more often, give little presents to their grandchildren, things they could not do before. It enables them to enjoy a better quality of life; perhaps they can live in a nicer apartment or perhaps buy more clothes—things they could not do before.
And it would be the same for these widows. If we could give them this amount, they would derive great benefit from it, and that is without counting the economic spinoffs in every riding.
We have just had a press conference about the goose that lays the golden eggs for the hon. member for LaSalle—Émard. I refer to the employment insurance fund. It deprives the riding of Saint-Jean of $34 million a year.
As for the senior citizens, if we found those 800 people in the riding of Saint-Jean, we would have recurring economic spinoffs of $2.5 million per year in our riding. That gets to be quite a large amount of money. There are between 100 and 200 veterans' widows who cannot qualify at this time, for the reasons I have just outlined.
People are being denied quality of life. And all the ridings in Canada are being denied economic benefits. Again, where will these women go? They will go to long term care facilities, which are under provincial jurisdiction and the provinces will have to foot the bill. In terms of transfers, again, the federal government pays no more than 14¢ for every dollar spent on health services.
It is a downward spiral and the provinces are increasingly choked by the services they have to provide. Ottawa is passing the buck. It clings to a fiscal imbalance vis-à-vis the provinces and rakes in surpluses. In the area of health alone, the Minister of Finance announced last week a $7 billion surplus. The provinces said, “Great, that is extraordinary. You told us that if you had more than $5 billion you could give us $2 billion of it”. The minister changed his mind a few days later and said he had miscalculated and that he may have spoken too soon. In the end it was a $3 billion surplus.
In other words, the minister could tell the provinces he is not going to give them their $2 billion. The federal government will continue to contribute 14¢ for every dollar, while the provinces contribute 86¢ and have to fend for themselves.
There is a great deal of injustice in most of these cases. In the one before us, there is even more. Many women do not understand how the federal government could abandon them. Many women say, “My husband went overseas. He benefited from the program. Now that he has passed away, I should be entitled to the program for more than 12 months like others are, but I am being told no”.
As I said, we are going to maintain our support for the bill because it contains positive things. Nonetheless, as we proved in asking the question today, we will not forget the fact that 23,000 widows have been left out in the cold and we will defend them. They are being treated unfairly and we will do everything we can to try to correct this injustice.