Madam Speaker, what an honour it has been to have the opportunity to represent the people of Elmwood—Transcona throughout the course of a very challenging time in our history.
I was elected not quite a year ago with the general mandate to defend the interests of working people here in Ottawa and to try to make Parliament work for people. That has been foremost in my mind and in the work of the NDP throughout the course of this pandemic, which could not have been foreseen at the time of the last election. Nevertheless it is our responsibility as public office holders to deal with it, in the best way we possibly can.
Many things have been called into question about the way we did things before the pandemic. There are many urgent questions about how we deal with the particularities of the pandemic and the challenges it presents.
We have heard a lot from other opposition parties today about the challenge to parliamentary process. Is that the main thing that the people we represent are concerned about? It is certainly something that is important. It matters how things work here. It matters that we are able to hold the government to account, but is it the main thing that ought to preoccupy us on a day when the income support program that has been sustaining Canadian households throughout this pandemic expired yesterday at midnight? I think not.
I think it is incumbent upon us to be a little flexible in our understanding of parliamentary process at this time. We can continue to talk about the role that the government played in creating this situation, where Parliament has not had more time. Nevertheless, we find ourselves here and have to respond to that situation. I hope Canadians will have been paying attention to the way that the government manufactured this sense of urgency and judge its members appropriately at election time.
We can talk about the economic crisis. It was severe. There is a lot that Parliament and the government need to do to avoid the economic threats that the pandemic presents. Of course, the CERB has been a very important part of heading off those threats to the economy. It has helped the economy continue as best it can in very difficult circumstances by ensuring that people have money to pay their landlords to stay housed, by ensuring that people have some money to put food on the table, and by ensuring that people have some money to spend in their local economy to help businesses that are struggling.
Those are all things that are very important, but first and foremost what we are called to respond to is the very real story of human tragedy that the pandemic has given rise to. We know that what people are struggling with, and what is top of mind for them, is a sense of fear because they have lost their jobs. In some cases people have gone back to work, which is great.
For other people, their entire industry has been called into question, with the future of their industry being on the ropes. Not only are they not back to work, but they are not sure if there will ever be work to go back to, in the industry that they worked in before, in the way that they knew it prior to the pandemic.
We know people have been overtaken with grief at the loss of loved ones, particularly in personal care homes. They were not able to go to visit someone at the height of the first wave. We are concerned as we enter into a second wave that families will find themselves in that position again, or that families will be limited to one visitor or none at all for a relative in a hospital. It may not be that someone is sick with COVID-19, but because they have another issue that has landed them in the hospital, concerned family members are challenged by not being able to see them.
We can think of people living in indigenous communities who have been abused for far too long. They worry about systemic problems that have led to overcrowded housing and a lack of clean drinking water, and what it will mean for their communities, families and loved ones if the virus enters their community. There have been travel bans put in place. It has made life hard for people.
These are the things that people are really worried about and they have been foremost in the minds of the NDP members and our work.
What can Parliament and government do to support Canadians as they deal with all of those consequences of the pandemic, on top of the challenges that they already had in their lives? As they try to manage that stress and they try to show compassion and care for the people around them, what can we do to ensure that we do not pile additional unneeded stress, particularly financial stress, on top of all those many concerns?
That is what the Canada emergency response benefit was meant to do. It was something that we had to fight for, initially. I remember sitting here, in this very place, prior to the initial lockdown, listening to the NDP leader question the Prime Minister about what they were going to do to support families as we headed toward lockdown. I remember, very distinctly, the Prime Minister talking about tinkering with the employment insurance system, a system that has long been broken and not serving Canadians well who have paid into that insurance program to support them when they are out of work. We knew that was not going to be enough. We knew that playing at the edges of that broken employment insurance system was not going to support Canadians through it.
New Democrats pushed for a basic income for all Canadians during this time that would be taxed back from those who did not need it at the end of the fiscal year, as a way to get help out as quickly as possible to as many Canadians as possible. We negotiated with a government that was determined to have an exclusionary approach to income, to decide who was deserving and who was not deserving. That is how the CERB was born.
Then, in the subsequent months, we spent a lot of work championing the cause of many different groups of Canadians who were left out by that exclusionary approach. I am thinking especially of persons living with disabilities, because we did, through multiple rounds of negotiations, finally convince the government to make some income support available for persons living with disabilities. It was not the kind of support we wanted to see. It was to be a one-time payment. It is shameful that that money has not yet been delivered. It was meant to be an emergency support payment, and people living with disabilities in Canada are still waiting.
Seniors were left out. It could be that the income of some seniors who have the good fortune of having a defined benefit plan did not change, but their circumstances changed. The support networks that they knew, the friends and family who would come and help them to do laundry and get groceries, were now being asked not to go to their parents' place or their grandparents' place. That meant that in order for seniors to replace the work that was done in that support network, money was required for laundry services, for grocery delivery, for whatever it may be.
We fought hard to try to get support for seniors as well. That payment was made, but it was only a one-time payment. We know that this pandemic is going to last a long time. That is why we need better solutions that build towards a better Canada that supports its seniors and that supports its people living with disabilities.
We fought for students who were left completely out of the CERB, notwithstanding the fact that we all knew that their summer employment prospects were not going to be the same as they had been before and that finding a job that could support them in paying their tuition in the fall was going to be impossible. Also, not every student is a kid living in their parents' basement. That is the impression we got from the government, while negotiating for the student benefit. That is simply not true. A lot of students are supporting themselves and supporting families as they go to school. They have to pay rent and put food on the table, and they were not able to get employment.
The government finally, after New Democrats pushing for students to be on the CERB, set up an entirely separate benefit that paid less. One of the reasons the government said it was justified in paying students less and having a whole separate administration, bureaucracy and program for students was because they were going to have an excellent summer work program that was going to top up students' benefits. That came to be known as the WE Charity scandal. That money has not flowed to students in any way, shape or form. That employment was never created. In fact, we found out that that money really was a targeted benefit for certain wealthy and well-connected friends of the Liberal Party, including their own family members, to the great shame of the government.
Part of the reason why we are in the urgent scenario that we are in is because they did such a terrible job of that. It was so obscene that the Prime Minister felt he had to prorogue Parliament just to escape scrutiny from it. That meant that Parliament did not have the time it ought to have had, and could have had, if Parliament had not been prorogued.
The economic challenges of the pandemic are not going away. They are not going to go away until we get back to normal, and that is going to take a significant amount of time. As I said earlier, the CERB expired yesterday at midnight, so we now find ourselves in a position where a significant portion of the over four million people who were still on CERB now do not have anything in place. We heard some discussion of this earlier in the House, and I think everybody is quite right to feel a great sense of frustration at the government that it came to this point. The NDP had negotiated a series of summer sittings, once every two weeks, partly to check in and make sure that the government was not misappropriating funds or spending them on its friends in inappropriate ways. It is a good thing we had those summer sittings, because we learned a lot about what the government was doing behind closed doors.
However, we did not get to have the last one, during which we could have done one of two things.
First, we could have considered legislation for the government's new program. We know that they knew the details, because they announced all of the details of the program the day after the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament. The idea that this was not ready to go or that we could not have had that discussion in August is simply false. We know they were ready to have that conversation, but they decided not to for reasons that had to do with their own political interests and nothing to do with the public interest. I submit that in that moment the government lost sight of the real stories of human tragedy that the pandemic has engendered and the importance of the role of government in supporting Canadians through this time. Had that been foremost in their minds, they would not have prorogued Parliament. They would have brought this legislation to us then.
Second, the NDP called for Parliament to resume earlier, for an earlier Speech from the Throne. Anybody familiar with Liberal election platforms for the last 30 years could have mocked up that Speech from the Throne on the back of a napkin in about half an hour. There was nothing special in that Speech from the Throne; there was nothing new. There was nothing even particularly eloquent about it. There was no good reason to wait on this important work for that Speech from the Throne, so we could have gotten that done. They could have done that a lot sooner. It was a canned speech as far as I am concerned. We could have been dealing with this and subjected it to more and appropriate scrutiny.
However, there is no doubt that there is an urgent need for this help, because we find ourselves where we find ourselves. We can play the blame game, but I think Canadians want us to move beyond that. Assigning political blame should not be a recipe for paralysis in a crisis.
We do need to move forward. We do need to have something to replace the CERB. Finally, after weeks of no communication, the Liberals got serious about talking to opposition parties, and we were able to push them to stop the cut that they announced in August to the CERB benefit, from $2,000 a month to $1,600 a month, and get them to maintain that benefit level for Canadians who needed it. That was a real, productive outcome of those negotiations, even if they happened late.
Likewise, we were able to secure improvements to the government's sick leave plan, a sick leave plan that, incidentally, the government was opposed to for a long time. The NDP had to make it a real priority in our negotiations with the government to get a commitment to paid sick days for Canadians in the context of the pandemic. Then it took months for the Liberals to announce a plan, and when they finally announced it, they prorogued Parliament. There has been delay after delay after delay, but I think we have shown that when the government is finally ready to work, we are there ready to get to work right away. We are ready to make improvements to these measures on behalf of Canadians.
I will say once again that when it comes to laying blame for the situation that we find ourselves in, although this is not a recipe for us to not ensure there is something in place for Canadians, in a democracy the ultimate mechanism for accountability is an election. Even though we are going to do our job and make sure there is a program for Canadians in their time of need, I do hope that Canadians remember at election time, whether it is in a month from now, a year from now or three years from now, that the Liberal government was prepared to play political games with their futures and, if nothing else, even if this legislation passes expeditiously, to rob them of the time to plan for what the replacement would look like.
We know in this minority Parliament that it takes negotiation among the parties to get something passed. Canadians know that. They are not fools. Notwithstanding whatever the government announced in August, Canadians did not know what they could rely on until this moment, until there had been negotiations, and they will not know until the legislation is passed. That makes it very hard for them to plan for their futures.
That has been a theme of the government: It has been ragging the puck and making it hard for Canadians to plan month to month. We saw it with a couple of eleventh-hour extensions of the CERB. The government wasted that time instead of using it to come up with something that could have either replaced the CERB or extended the CERB for a longer period. We saw month-to-month extensions and then an extension over the summer, but that time was not properly used to develop an alternative that Canadians could rely on.
Despite the fact that we are prepared to support these measures as a matter of urgency, the paid sick leave provisions are not what Canadians deserve. Canadians, like workers in many other jurisdictions internationally, should have the right to 10 paid sick days from their employer on a permanent basis, regardless of what the illness is. In the bill the Liberals presented before, Bill C-2, we saw a very restrictive approach to these sick days and know they are only temporary. When the new bill is tabled, I am hoping and expecting very much to see expanded eligibility that makes it easier for Canadians to avail themselves of this sick leave, which is not quite COVID-specific. I hope it is just a stepping stone to get to the point where Canadians have permanent sick leave.
It is also relevant to the pandemic. What we want to do is take as many barriers off the table for Canadians that would cause them to question whether they are eligible for this benefit or not, because we saw this in the story of CERB and the attestation, as well as with the concern over the fraud provisions in Bill C-17. Canadians are honest, by and large, and they are deeply concerned about applying for benefits that they are unsure they qualify for. What was really important when it came to sick leave was to ensure that Canadians had the maximum level of comfort to be able to avail themselves of those provisions. Let us remember why these sick days are such an important tool for the pandemic. It is so that when Canadians wake up and are feeling sick, whether they are sneezing, coughing, have a headache or feel sick to their stomach, they can make the call to not go into work to protect their colleagues and their communities from the spread of a virus that we know is spreading rapidly. This is what we are asking people to do to prevent the spread of the virus, and they need the tools to be able to do that. Paid sick leave is an important tool.
We have pushed to try to make this as easy to access as possible in the context of a government that does not want to see 10 permanent sick days allocated to Canadians as a matter of right. That is unfortunate, but it is a battle we will continue to fight, notwithstanding supporting this legislation today. What we are doing today is getting something in place that can serve Canadians now. It is not building back better. It is not what we would like to see when it comes to having immediate solutions that build toward a brighter future. It is a band-aid solution, but one that is badly needed in the circumstances.
I hope one day Canadians will have a government that is willing to respond to a crisis in a way that sets us up to have a better future beyond the crisis, rather than just limping through. That is something Canadians can count on the NDP to continue fighting for here in this chamber.