Madam Speaker, I am pleased to be rising so soon on third reading of this bill, in that the NDP recognizes how important it is that these measures come into place to support people who, facing the end of their regular EI benefits in a very difficult economic context, need an extension of those benefits to take place. New Democrats have been very happy to support that measure and to work collaboratively to see the bill pass quickly.
That said, there are a number of things that are not in this bill that New Democrats think are a problem. The problem is not just in the sense of missed opportunities to make progress on some long-standing issues, such as the EI sickness benefit, but also in the sense of being a problem for many people in crisis right now as a result of the pandemic. To be sure, that relates to the EI sickness benefit, because there are people facing long-term conditions such as cancer who have had their normal course of medical treatment prolonged due to delays in the medical system caused by COVID.
It is also the case for people who are facing a new condition, long COVID. Even though the really intense initial period of sickness may have passed, there are some serious long-term recurring chronic conditions that are presenting themselves, whether as fatigue or shortness of breath or things of that nature. Those folks are falling through the cracks because Canada has not yet recognized long COVID as a condition. We have seen some leadership in other countries in creating specialized clinics and getting on track to research what this means as it emerges, but Canada, unfortunately, is not among those countries.
What that means is that private insurers here are able to say that people are not suffering from a condition they recognize, and so people are not getting access to their private benefits. It also means that folks have been falling through the cracks in some of the government benefits as well.
In the case of long COVID in particular, people who are facing these kinds of symptoms do not know when the symptoms are going to crop up. Sometimes it is very often and sometimes it is more infrequent. The symptoms appear sporadically, so people are not able to search for jobs because they cannot tell an employer in good faith that they are going to be able to regularly report to work. A condition of the Canada recovery benefit is that people actively seek work.
These are how those kinds of cracks develop. It is why the NDP thought it was important in the early days of the pandemic, and we argued very vigorously for a more universal approach, one that would capture all of these different kinds of situations, not because we had identified them all in advance but because we knew there would be unique challenges and situations that we could not hope to identify in advance. That is why a universal approach to income support would be better—one that would capture seniors, for instance, who did not lose their jobs due to COVID but had to face additional costs. It is the same for people living with disabilities and for other groups, such as students.
That is why New Democrats thought a universal approach was important. It was a very conscious decision of the Liberal government not to adopt that approach. We have spent a lot of time worrying about the people who are falling through the cracks and a lot of time fighting for policy solutions that will help them, but we are just not seeing enough of those solutions in this bill. Who does it leave behind? It leaves those people behind.
I have heard the government say how important it is to move this bill forward, and we agree completely. I think it is fair to say that virtually all of the government speeches today at third reading condemned the Conservatives for their procedural delay tactics on a number of bills in the House, saying that they really should not be doing that with Bill C-24 because it is very important to get it passed.
We heard that at committee yesterday. I had proposed a very simple amendment, and this talk about delay and about the importance of getting this done came through, even though there is really no disagreement, and we see that with this bill. All parties have worked to get this bill through very quickly.
The fact is that we are only on the sixth sitting day since first reading of the bill. It is atypical for Parliament to have a guaranteed passage of a bill, but let us be clear that the bill is already guaranteed to pass at the end of the day, and rightly so. I am glad for that.
I hope all this talk about delay around Bill C-24 is not disingenuous. It is certainly misguided. I am trying to be parliamentary, despite the facts that I am trying to describe.
What I am trying to say is that I have heard very clearly from Liberals that they are very concerned about all the people on EI regular benefits who are facing a deadline at the end of the month. That is a concern we share. However, I would put to the government, what about the people who have seen their EI sick benefit expire already? Those people are already in the situation the Liberals are beseeching us to avoid when it comes to people who are on EI regular benefits. Not only do they find themselves in that situation, but also find themselves gravely ill with various kinds of conditions.
We really think it is important and have really been hoping that it be addressed, particularly because the government did not table this bill right away in January. In particular, we knew that we wanted to address the issue of people using the sick day benefit to self-isolate after non-essential travel. There was all-party agreement that this was not an appropriate use of that benefit. It was not foreseen when the benefit was negotiated and designed.
We had hoped that the delay meant the government was going to address some other very urgent and pandemic-related issues with simple solutions, like extending the EI sick benefit to 50 weeks, something that the House of Commons has already expressed support for, first by majority vote in favour of a Bloc Québécois opposition day motion, and then by unanimous consent. There was a unanimous consent motion reaffirming the House's commitment to that motion. Twice now the House has called for this. Once the government opposed it, and the other time it did not.
I do not know what more it would take to get this extension of the EI sickness benefit done. We have unanimity, apparently, in the House of Commons. We have a bill designed to reform the EI Act. We have a very simple legislative change that needs to be made. It needs to be implemented and although there can be complications in its implementation, let us get the ball rolling. It cannot be implemented until we make the legislative change.
The Liberals could propose an implementation date, a coming into force date, something they think would give them a reasonable period. We have the commitment now in Parliament. Let us get the legislative job done and assign a date for government to implement it by.
We have to get going on this. It is just wrong, frankly, to have a whole bunch of sick Canadians who have been advocating for this, some of them for years, and to cause them to continue to not only have to deal with their illness but also to become political advocates to get something done on which there seems to be widespread agreement. It is cruel. We had an opportunity yesterday to do something about it.
We know that bills and proposals that require public spending cannot be introduced by anyone but the government; yet members do it. The Bloc Québécois members have been very keen to remind us all that they have a private member's bill to extend the EI sickness benefit to 50 weeks. They will also have to reckon with the fact that that private member's bill, to be votable at third reading, will need a royal recommendation.
I have a private member's bill to extend the sickness benefit to 50 weeks. I know that if we get through that long process in the course of a Parliament, which would be lovely and I hope that we do, it would also need a royal recommendation. At that point, I will fight as hard as I can to find a way to either get the recommendation or some way around it.
It is ridiculous that a long-standing tradition that goes back to when we were ruled by a monarch, by hereditary right, could get in the way of democratically elected representatives doing the right thing on the EI sickness benefit. I think that is ridiculous. I have been frustrated in other fora, frankly, with the way that some of our long-standing traditions, whether for prorogation or dissolution of Parliament or royal recommendation, get in the way of democratic decision-making. I would add the Senate to that list as well.
There are a lot of ways in Canada where the democratic will of Canadians, expressed through their parliamentarians, their members of Parliament are thwarted by some of these traditions. I like a lot of the traditions in the House. I am a believer in Parliament. However, I do not think that means that we should self-censor and not challenge those things when they get in the way of what is in the best interests of people in Canada.
I do not apologize for taking that thought to the government. I do not apologize for being willing to challenge those things and to try to seize on any opportunity I can to get good things done, like extending the EI sickness benefit to 50 weeks, which I know many members share across party lines as a goal in the House. I will continue to do that and to try to come up with new and creative ways of doing that, instead of just doing those things that so far have not been working. I think this was a missed opportunity. While I am glad for all of the people on EI regular benefits and we will continue to work in the spirit of collaboration to protect their interests and to protect their household finances, I am not going to do that by passing over in silence the incredible missed opportunity that we have had on the EI sickness benefit here.
I would be remiss also if I did not mention something that I spoke to it in my last speech. I think it bears repeating. There was time taken to table this bill. We have known for a long time now that there were a lot of people who were struggling financially before the pandemic and who have ended up applying for the CERB. In some cases they were told to. In fact, mean, a lot of provincial social assistance programs require people to apply for any other income assistance benefit they could be eligible for.
The application for CERB was a no-fail process. It was that way for the right reasons: the money needed to get out quickly, and all of that. What that meant is that in some cases people who were on social assistance were required by their provincial government to apply for the CERB and then got it. Now they are being told to pay it back. While they were receiving it, they were not receiving their social assistance. Where is the money supposed to come from?
This is not a new problem. We have known that this was shaping up to be a problem a long time ago. Campaign 2000 was calling for an amnesty as early as last summer, so this is no a surprise. It is not something that caught the government off guard, unless it was not paying attention in the first place and ought to have been. This is something we could have been doing in this legislation to address a very urgent need. I was frustrated to hear the minister responsible for this bill characterize the bill as just narrowing down and focusing on what is urgent.
The plight of sick Canadians who need a benefit to help them keep their homes while they deal with their illnesses in the context of the pandemic and who have already been cut-off from their benefits is urgent. If this is not urgent, I do not know what is. It is the plight of low-income Canadians who were told by provincial governments they had to apply for CERB, or of kids aging out of foster care at 18 in the pandemic, who were told that before they apply for social assistance they had to apply for the CERB, and who are now being told to pay it back with money they do not have. They are facing crushing debt. Even if they do not have to repay it by the end of this tax year, having that hanging over their heads is going to make it really hard for them to get a decent start in life. We all know that. Someone would have to be pretty darn rich for a long time to think $14,000 in debt does not matter and can be brushed off.
I know the former minister of finance forgot about a $40,000 bill, but that is not the situation of most Canadians, not at all. It is a debt of $14,000, $16,000 or $18,000 for a young person who just aged out of foster care and cannot get a job because of the pandemic, and who is wondering what their future looks like and may be told by the Canada Revenue Agency, a pretty serious organization in this country, that they are going to owe that $14,000 or $16,000 until they can pay it off. When is that going to be? When they get their first job in this difficult economy, whenever that will be, they will have to pay for their rent and food. It is not as if all of those wages are going to be available for them to pay back their debt to the Canada Revenue Agency.
I think there is a legitimate question here about the public interest and the extent to which Canadians are really going to benefit from the government's demand for this money back from the people who cannot pay it back. Given the time that has been taken, not only from January until now to prepare this bill but also the time we have lived through since the pandemic began, particularly since the first extension of CERB in the summertime when groups began to identify this problem and call for amnesty, there have been lots of opportunities to figure out how to do it and to present a coherent plan to Parliament that would work. There has been lots of time to quantify this problem. I asked the minister yesterday if she had an idea of how much money Canada would make if all the people who need a low-income CERB amnesty repaid their debt tomorrow. How much money would that be?
We do not have an answer to that. I hope they will follow up with an answer and I hope they do have the answer, because it seems to me that unless that is a compelling number, we should not be worrying a lot of people who are already struggling with the anxiety and real financial challenge of what, on the government books, would be a relatively small debt, particularly relative to all the spending that has taken place to get us through the pandemic.
The government will know I am not criticizing that spending. There are aspects of it I might criticize, particularly the money that was set aside for the WE Charity that never resulted in any concrete or tangible benefit to Canadians or Canadian students. In the details, there are criticisms to make, but we are not opposed to the idea that the government needed to step in to provide a lot of support to get our economy and Canadians through this.
This is relative to that spending and the work that the country is going to have to do to manage its finances going forward. We should be letting these folks off the hook for something that, in some cases, was frankly beyond their control. I do not think they were acting in bad faith. Being compelled by provincial governments to apply for this benefit is not something they could just say no to, because then they would not qualify for provincial assistance. They cannot just walk out on the street and get a job, so I ask what they were supposed to do.
Can we not extend some compassion to the folks in this situation in this difficult time and clear that debt, instead of making it a 20-year project for them to pay off with whatever small amounts of disposable income they may have and get for themselves? Instead of sending all of that to the CRA, they might be able to keep some of it for themselves or to invest it in something that improves their situation in life or affords them some opportunities to live a little and enjoy their life, as they work hard to try to get by. Those are the kinds of small, but important and tangible things that we would potentially be taking away from some of our most vulnerable people, when we refuse the idea of an amnesty.
I think that is important to bear in mind, because we do not just have a financial responsibility here, but I think this has been a time when members of Parliament and the government have been, and ought to be, called to meet the moral responsibility of this place and to really think about the long-term interest in people. I think that if we do not proceed with this kind of amnesty, we would be failing people in that regard.
I just want to end on that note. Yes, these are important reforms. Yes, we needed to move forward quickly. We have done that in good faith. We in the NDP have tried to use the opportunity to press other important and related issues. Unfortunately, we did not find enough support on the other benches to make that happen. We stand ready to help the government quickly, in the fastest way possible, expand the EI sickness benefit. The only thing getting in the way yesterday at committee was the need for a royal recommendation. The only thing getting in the way was the fact that the government is not on board. If the government would kindly get on board with helping out sick Canadians, as is the will of the House of Commons, we will act as we did on Bill C-24 to move that through quickly and without delay, so that those folks who are already not receiving any kind of income assistance could get it.
I hope that some of the issues that we have been able to raise in this debate have been heard by the government and that we will soon see some kind of concrete response in legislation, in the case of the EI sickness benefit. If they are able to do the CERB amnesty without any legislation and it can happen more quickly, that would be awesome. We would support that too, but if there is legislation required, we would hope to see it come forward quickly. We regret that this was not already a part of the legislation before us and that we were not able to make it part of it, but let us get on with making sure that we are not just talking about who the government has decided to help through all of this, but that are actually filling the cracks so that there is not a long list of people who need support and have not received it.