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.