Evidence of meeting #10 for COVID-19 Pandemic in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was economic.

A video is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

3:35 p.m.


Marc Miller Liberal Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Soeurs, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Kwe. Tansi. Ulaakut. Good afternoon.

As we are learning from past experiences in responding to pandemics in Canada, and specifically in first nations, Inuit and Métis communities during H1N1, we need to recognize and understand from that experience that these communities have a higher risk of being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. That remains the case.

The first nations and Inuit health branch continues to provide effective, sustainable and culturally appropriate health programs and services that contribute to the reduction of gaps in health status between first nations and Inuit and other Canadians. I would like to remind members of the House and all Canadians that improving the health of indigenous peoples is a responsibility shared by federal, provincial and territorial, and indigenous partners. Our common goal continues to be to work together in partnership to ensure that indigenous communities receive the care they need. By working together, we can save lives.

As of May 19, we've seen 198 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in first nation communities on reserve and 16 cases in Nunavik. It is important to note for the House that of those mentioned cases, 148 first nation cases have recovered, and the entirety of the Inuit cases in Nunavik have recovered. This is due to incredible first nations and Inuit leadership in stopping the curve, aggressive screening and testing when cases manifest themselves in communities, and the amazing work in tracing contacts as quickly as possible when a case arises in a community. It is thanks to that aggressive action and the passage of time that these cases have recovered.

In addition to the direct funding of approximately $300 million that we've provided to indigenous communities and in addition to business support in excess of $300 million, to date more than $107.8 million in funding has been allocated by my department specifically toward the health response to COVID-19 to ensure the procurement of supplies and nursing services in communities, as well as preparedness measures led by the communities themselves, the leadership of which has been exemplary.

We continue to monitor closely the situation in northwestern Saskatchewan in particular, and to support communities in response to the outbreak, we've provided $2.3 million in funding that has gone towards the northwest Saskatchewan pandemic response plan. This pandemic plan is a collective effort of first nations, Métis, municipal, provincial and federal partners. Meadow Lake Tribal Council and Métis Nation Saskatchewan in particular have undertaken an exemplary collaboration in leading the response to this significant and concerning outbreak.

Indigenous Services Canada also continues to work with the northwest communities incident command centre in the area, including provincial health authorities, first nations and Métis communities to support their efforts through increased access to testing, enhanced surveillance, strong contact tracing, and infection prevention and control measures.

We are all focused on the health response that will save lives. I want to reassure first nations leadership that we are committed to supporting first nation communities in activating their pandemic plans and providing the support and collaboration with provinces that best respond to each community's needs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Urban and off-reserve first nations, Inuit and Métis communities face unique issues when it comes to preventing and fighting the spread of this virus. Since the start of the pandemic, urban and off-reserve indigenous organizations and local community organizations have been working around the clock to provide direct services to indigenous peoples.

We acknowledge that COVID-19 has placed additional pressure on the activities of these organizations and has increased their overall spending. In response to these needs, we've taken immediate steps to support these organizations through the indigenous community support fund. A total of $15 million has been allocated to regional, urban and off-reserve indigenous organizations. These organizations can also receive funding from other federal initiatives under Canada's economic response plan, such as Employment and Social Development Canada's reaching home initiative, and the additional funding allocated to shelters for women who are fleeing violence and to sexual assault centres.

Additional funding for food banks has also been made available to Canadians, including indigenous peoples and northern communities, to meet their urgent food needs. In addition to federal funding, the provinces and territories along with individuals, through charitable donations, play a role in supporting these organizations.

However, we acknowledge that more support is needed. We're actively working with communities to identify the support that they need. We're working with government partners to explore other ways to further assist urban and off-reserve indigenous organizations.

As part of our COVID-19 economic response plan, and as mentioned by Minister Monsef earlier today, Indigenous Services Canada is currently distributing $10 million to its existing network of 46 emergency shelters on first nations reserves and in the Yukon to support indigenous women and children fleeing violence. In response to the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the Government of Canada committed to working with territories, provinces, and indigenous governments and partners to develop a national action plan that will address violence against women, girls and LGBT and two-spirit people.

To that end, we are supporting national indigenous organizations in reaching out to their members to identify their priorities and best practices, and further understand how they want to be involved in the co-development and implementation work that lies ahead. That's why last week my colleague Minister Bennett attended the Yukon engagement session on violence against indigenous women and girls, co-chaired by Yukon territorial minister, Jeanie Dendys, and women and gender equality minister, Maryam Monsef. The engagement session was a great opportunity to allow Yukon to share wise and promising practices, initiatives, priorities, challenges and views regarding the systemic and disproportionate violence experienced by women and girls and LGBT and two-spirit people, with jurisdictions and other stakeholders from across the country.

In addition, we've recently concluded a proposal-based process to distribute $15 million to organizations that provide critical services to first nations off reserve and indigenous peoples living in urban centres. This funding is part of the government's indigenous community support fund. To date, over 94 proposals have been supported through the urban and off-reserve stream of the indigenous community support fund. This includes support for friendship centres as they continue their important work to serve urban indigenous communities in the face of this pandemic.

Supporting indigenous youth is another key area of our focus. Among our recent measures, we've included in the nearly $9 billion for post-secondary students and recent graduates, a one-time increase of $75.2 million in 2020-21. This is dedicated to providing support to first nations, Inuit and Métis Nation students impacted by COVID-19 so that they can continue, maintain and pursue their academic studies. To be clear, this funding is in addition to the existing distinctions-based support for first nations, Inuit and Métis Nation students pursuing post-secondary education and the Canada emergency student benefit funding, which is available to all Canadian students.

We are also working with indigenous partners, including youth organizations, to support and promote indigenous resources for youth. For example, We Matter is an indigenous-led youth organization focused on life promotion and messages of hope and resilience. They have developed important tool kits that are available for youth, teachers and support workers to help youth and those who support youth.

In closing, let me reiterate that we are committed to responding to and supporting the evolving needs of first nations, Inuit and Métis communities and individuals as we transition together through the various stages of this pandemic.

Meegwetch. Nakurmiik. Marsi. Thank you.

3:45 p.m.


The Chair Liberal Anthony Rota

We'll now go to Mr. Kurek.

Mr. Kurek.

3:45 p.m.


Damien Kurek Conservative Battle River—Crowfoot, AB

Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. It is an honour to once again stand in this House.

I have no doubt that every member of the House would say that they believe in democracy. Monday will be a chance to prove it, prove that the extraordinary impacts we are facing as a society do not hamper democratic responsible government.

Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine faced impossible odds when trying to structure a working government prior to the bringing together of the British North American colonies. They were faced with a choice about democracy. They chose to respect the people and the then-colonial legislature and to do what was right, a decision that helped build the foundation for what became Canada, the nation we know and love today.

We need to bring Parliament back. Our democracy and our rights depend on it. Responsible government depends on it.

Parliament is the keystone of Canadian democracy and should be allowed to function in its full authority. It is the only way that all corners of this great nation can be represented, where there is a free and unfettered exchange of ideas. That does not mean that we can't respect public health guidelines, as some have suggested.

We can utilize technology to ensure that those who can't be here in person can still ensure that their regions are heard. We can ensure that only a safe number of MPs are physically present in the House at a given time. We can plan around cafeterias being closed, and we can make do with fewer staff.

Legislatures across Canada and many parliaments around the world have figured out a way to make it work. We owe it to our constituents. In fact, we owe it to Canadians, and we owe it to every person who has fought for our freedom throughout our history to make sure that our democracy functions.

I've heard from hundreds and hundreds of constituents who have expressed fear, a fear that the Liberals are using this pandemic to exert a level of authoritarian rule over this country that is both unprecedented and dangerous. These are strong words. However, the evidence keeps piling up, from the executive overreach within the government relating to the gun grab, to the haze of misinformation and lack of accountability on all fronts. The first bill they proposed would have given them unlimited taxation and spending power for a year and a half, and they continue to refuse to provide clarity on the budget or an economic update, even when we are to see our national debt surpass a trillion dollars and government expenditures half a trillion dollars.

The Prime Minister seems to like the tightly controlled atmosphere of his cottage appearances. He gets a few questions for about half an hour a day, promising billions of dollars with few details. It seems to be carefully choreographed, and this was confirmed when we saw that it was none other than the state broadcaster that was asking the lion's share of the questions. It's also limited to the Ottawa press corps, representing a narrow band of perspectives in this country. The “cottage chronicles”, as they are referred to by some of my constituents, do not replace the fundamental role that Parliament needs to play in Canada.

Where does that leave us? I exhort every member of the House, every member who has a seat in this chamber, whether they be members of the opposition or members of the government, to stand up for what's right, to stand up for their constituents, to stand up for our democracy and to call on Monday for a modified return of Parliament in its full authority.

We'll find out on Monday how all members of the House feel about this issue. We need to remember that Parliament, not a Prime Minister who flirts with this authoritarianism, gets to determine what happens. This speaks to a principle that sets the pretext for what we do here, and that is parliamentary supremacy, not press conferences.

With the support and feedback of my constituents, I join with my Conservative colleagues to make it clear that Parliament needs to be brought back.

I conclude with this: We need to show the world that a pandemic has not diminished Canadian democracy. In the words of former prime minister John Diefenbaker, “parliament is more than procedure—it is the custodian of the nation’s freedom.”

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

3:45 p.m.


The Chair Liberal Anthony Rota

We'll now go to Mr. Redekopp.

3:45 p.m.


Brad Redekopp Conservative Saskatoon West, SK

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

First, I would like to thank the people of Saskatoon West. It is certainly my honour to do what I was elected to do, which is to work for them and support them during this pandemic. Many of them have had a difficult time dealing with COVID-19. There have been uncertainties, hardships and difficulties for students trying to graduate and for newcomers waiting for permanent resident status or citizenship, and for those who have lost loved ones, whether from COVID-19 or other things. It's been a very difficult time to be visiting in hospitals, and dealing with mourning has certainly been very hard for people.

Yet the people of Saskatoon West have persevered. They have been delivering food, encouraging others and just behaving very well, so I want to give a big shout-out to the people in my riding in Saskatoon West. You've gone above and beyond and have made us all look very good.

It is great to be here in the House today holding the government to account. Democracy doesn't function over Zoom. It needs in-person meetings. John Diefenbaker said that “parliament is more than procedure—it is the custodian of the nation’s freedom.” The elected legislature is the beating heart of our government. Without it democracy breaks down. It's so much more than questions and answers.

Holding the government accountable produces concrete improvements, and during COVID-19, in very few sessions, the opposition has forced the government to enhance wage subsidies, offer students supports, reduce penalties for part-time workers, prevent new workers from losing benefits, authorize credit unions to deliver loans and connect employers with potential employees. These improvements came from opposition MPs questioning the government, but there's much more to do.

The Liberal government is still letting Canadians down. As an example from my riding, Percy H. Davis Ltd. is a customs broker with four offices in Saskatchewan, including an office in my riding. The government has deferred GST and customs duties until June 30 to reduce costs and improve the cash flow of importing companies. However, the program has created an unintended consequence, namely, that the importer can defer the payment of GST and duties but the customs broker has to assume the liabilities for those duties. If a business happens to go bankrupt, it's the customs broker who still has to pay these fees. As a result, they're being forced to collect the GST and duty up front, which completely negates the whole purpose of the program. Therefore, I'm calling on the government to provide a waiver or suspension of customs broker liability for duties and taxes owed during the deferral period.

My office has received hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls on many other things, including CERB, wage subsidies, business loans and travel issues, and we've been helping constituents. These issues are important but they're short-term issues.

Another critical purpose of a properly functioning democracy is developing good medium-term and long-term policies. For example, there's been talk of restarting our economy with a focus on green technology. It is wise to use this opportunity to re-examine what we are doing and why. We have to make tough choices and part of that is learning from the mistakes of others. For example, the Liberal government in Ontario tried to implement green power generation and ended up creating the most expensive electricity in Canada.

We definitely have to treat our planet well and minimize pollution. We have to improve technology to minimize carbon output, but we have to balance that with maintaining our resource base. We have to recognize that much of Canada's wealth comes from exporting resources. We can't destroy our economy in the process.

Another example is the oil industry, which is very much alive. Despite the slowdown from COVID-19, energy demand will continue to rise over time. Renewables will increase, but they can't keep up with demand. Fossil fuels will be required for many years to come. This is especially true in the third world. Fossil fuels are lifting people out of poverty. You can't say to somebody who has never had lights that they can't have electricity, or you can't force someone to continue cooking with smoke-filled fire that causes lung and breathing problems. We can't eliminate the demand for energy.

We must create technology to produce cleaner energy in all forms, including fossil fuels. Canada can demonstrate best practices to the world. Our oil and gas industry is already viewed as the best in the world. We have the best human rights policies and the best wages. We have environmental practices that are the best in the world. Our safety record is second-to-none, and our companies are constantly innovating, creating new and cleaner processes and technologies to extract our resources. The oil industry will be very much alive for many years to come and Canada must lead the way in producing the best oil for the world.

There are more examples I can give, but I want to turn to my final point. What is the long-term economic impact of this COVID-19 pandemic? Here again it is absolutely critical that we have a functioning Parliament. When we ask the government for an economic update, the Liberal government lets Canadians down by not answering.

The Liberals have abdicated their responsibility to provide financial information and instead are relying on the PBO. It's not the PBO's job to produce economic updates and budgets. They're supposed to be a means of sober second thought. It is the finance minister's job to assess the cost of programs and predict revenues. This arithmetic produces a budget. This is hard work, but a competent finance minister can figure it out.

What is our deficit going to be this year? We don't know. Apparently, we're going to have a trillion-dollar debt when this year is over, but the government lets us down by staying silent. A functioning Parliament can continue to ask questions and keep the government accountable.

What are the longer-term implications? Every amount of money we are spending now is being put on our credit card. At some point, that credit card maxes out, and then what? If we think back to World War II, we had very high short-term borrowing, followed by 20 years of booming growth. The debt was brought under control by a roaring economy. Our economy has been plodding along at roughly 2% growth for the last 20 years. Growth is not going to save us this time.

In the mid-1990s, finance minister Paul Martin faced a major problem. Canada's debt had gotten too large as a percentage of the GDP. It was about 68%. Interest costs were dragging the government down. He had no choice but to cut program spending and raise taxes. The debt was brought under control by austerity.

What will happen this time? The Liberals proudly campaigned on slowly decreasing our debt-to-GDP ratio. In one year, it's going to go from 33% to 50%, and possibly higher. If deficit spending continues for several more years, that ratio could hit 60% or more. What magic debt-to-GDP number will plunge Canada into crisis? The government must answer these questions.

We have to have a functioning Parliament in order to continue pressing the government and holding it to account. The future of our country depends on it.

Thank you.

3:55 p.m.


The Chair Liberal Anthony Rota

We'll now go to Mr. Genuis.

3:55 p.m.


Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

It is the most sacred obligation of a government to protect its people, especially from threats they cannot see. Citizens must be able to trust their government to act responsibly and to act in the public interest in preparing to respond to long-term threats, to be ready with a plan so that we could pull that plan out if we need it.

However, if governments fail to plan for moments of crisis, when they ignore potential threats and bet that good times will last forever, then they violate the most sacred obligation and they break trust with the people they govern. When that trust is broken, public trust in our governing institutions is undermined. This COVID-19 pandemic, striking at this time and in this way, was an unknown, but it unfolded in a way that we should have been planning for, that we had every reason to be prepared for.

In 2003, in the immediate aftermath of the SARS outbreak, the Government of Canada created the Public Health Agency specifically to ensure that we were ready to respond in case of situations like this. SARS and COVID-19 are both part of the same family of viruses. They are both coronaviruses. We created a specific agency of government in response to the last coronavirus outbreak in order to prepare us for the next coronavirus outbreak, to build a plan and to amass resources to fight something like SARS—that is, another coronavirus.

However, in in the last four years under the Liberal government, a massive stockpile was destroyed and not replaced. The Public Health Agency spent money on climate change programs instead of on preparation. We sent vital supplies to China at a time when we were almost certain to face shortages here. It quickly becomes clear that there was no plan.

In the months leading up to the outbreak, the Minister of Health repeatedly told Canadians that the risk was low. She attacked those who said otherwise, accusing them of spreading misinformation and fear. She said in the House on February 4, with regard to how Canadians can be assured that we're getting the right information, that “One way might be if the opposition does not sensationalize the risk to Canadians”.

Instead of attacking the opposition for raising legitimate questions during the early months of this year, the health minister should have been busy preparing. She should have been preparing to roll out a plan that her government had already worked out long in advance. Being prepared to protect our country in the event of a crisis is a sacred obligation of government, and in spite of the lesson of 2003, the government had no plan for the next coronavirus pandemic. When it comes to this sacred obligation to keep Canadians safe, they let us down.

What would a plan have included? What would it have achieved and what could it still achieve even at this relatively late stage?

The data from the countries around the world that have been most successfully fighting COVID-19 identify five key elements of an effective strategy, elements that would have kept us safe while limiting economic devastation. These elements are border measures, masking, testing, tracing and distancing. We can learn from remarkable success stories like Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand and the Czech Republic, who effectively implemented some or all of these elements.

By border measures, I mean that ideally through limiting flights and through screening at the border, we could have kept COVID-19 out or at least bought ourselves some extra time to put systems in place. The health minister declared early on that border measures would not be effective. The government did eventually close the border, but it was too late, and even after we were told that screening was in place, massive gaps persisted.

Masks provide a physical barrier for the transmission of droplets that can carry COVID-19. There has been plenty of good science available for a long time to suggest that encouraging people to wear masks would limit the spread of this disease. Bizarrely, public health authorities in the U.S. and Canada were critical of mask wearing, even suggesting that it could be counterproductive. This bad advice, thankfully now reversed, represents a scandal of epic proportions. Why, without a shred of evidence, were supposed authorities saying that people shouldn't use a barrier to block droplet transmission? It is as if they imagined the droplets that carry COVID-19 have some mystical, spiritual properties that make them impervious to physical barriers. A droplet is a physical thing, obviously impacted by the presence of a physical barrier, which the officially designated authorities now acknowledge.

The science on masks, though, never changed. Nobody did a new study that immediately and dramatically reversed some previous conclusion. In reality, there was a shortage of masks, which led officials to present misleading information about their usefulness. Even with the shortage, people should have been advised much earlier to deploy homemade cloth masks, which do provide some level of protection, and many experts knew this all along. This government presented misinformation on the mask issue when lives hung in the balance.

On testing and tracing, effective systems of testing and tracing would mean that people were regularly and rapidly being tested for COVID-19, that new testing technologies were coming on-stream quickly and that we were using cutting-edge technology to trace the possible path of the virus every time we found a new case.

Tracing can be done in a way that respects civil liberties as long as there is appropriate independence from government and sufficient oversight. I am sympathetic to those who have concerns about this, but a tracing mechanism with appropriate safeguards is a much lesser infringement on personal liberties than an indefinite requirement that we all stay home.

Finally, there is distancing, something that we are all doing, but distancing alone isn't going to solve this because we cannot distance in the matter that we are at present for very much longer. People are frustrated with the seemingly never-ending quarantine of healthy people, not least because they increasingly have a hard time trusting the government when it comes to information. They are frustrated by a government that was wrong about preparation, wrong about risk levels, wrong about hoarders, wrong about masks, behind on testing and still has not put in place a national framework for tracing.

Now we're approaching the end of May. Where is the plan? Where is the public health plan for adaptation and management of this crisis post-quarantine?

Much could be said about this government's spending measures, but all of those things are ultimately downstream from fundamental questions about how the government is and is not managing the public health issue such that we will be able to re-energize our economy before we are in an acute debt crisis. Effectively targeted bridging measures are the right policies for a short period of time, but no community of people can enjoy prosperity for long without most of them working. As a result of this crisis and measures already committed to, generations to come will have to live with higher taxes, lower social spending or both. That too is why we need a real plan to fight COVID-19 as quickly as possible.

The government will no doubt respond to some of these criticisms by saying that they were following public health advice. Governments must always listen to a broad range of experts, including both those within the federal public service and those outside of it. Listening to the experts means experts in the plural. It does not mean turning one qualified expert into some kind of infallible authority. It does not mean ignoring the experience of public health officials in other countries who are pursuing a different set of policies and are having more success.

From our leaders we also expect precautionary decision-making. If some experts think border closures will work and some experts think border closures will not work, it is probably safer in the face of an impending pandemic to close the border. Experts can give advice on the likely outcome based on their models, but it is politicians who decide the degree to which we should apply precautionary thinking in responding to that advice.

What do we do now?

It's too late for some things. It's not too late for others. A couple of months ago, I co-authored a piece for The Epoch Times on this issue, in which I said the following:

Our current approach to fighting this pandemic emphasizes general isolation. With a limited supply of masks and limited testing, this is the only way.

In an ideal response, though, people could still leave their homes, but everyone would have access to and be encouraged to wear protective masks in most situations when out and about. Certainly, everyone would continue to be encouraged to regularly wash their hands. Anyone who thought they might be exposed to the virus would get tested immediately and get the results immediately. This way, those who had the virus would know right away and could stay away from others. In the event of errors in awareness or testing...masks, gloves, and hand-washing would still greatly limit transmission. When a case is discovered, those who had been in contact with or in the same area as that person could be immediately notified and immediately tested.

If we had these measures and practices in place, there would be much less of a need for people to stay in their homes. The virus could be tracked and contained even while life continued.

This piece was published on March 31.

This government has a sacred obligation to act to keep Canadians safe, and the government let us down. Public health and our economy have suffered as a result. Now we need to see the plan for adaptation and for reboot. Canadians are innovative. They are ready for a challenge, and I remain optimistic about the future of this country in spite of the challenges. We have overcome bigger things before, but real political leadership is badly needed now more than ever.

Thank you.

4:05 p.m.


The Chair Liberal Anthony Rota

Before we go on to the next speaker, I'd like to remind the honourable members that we do have interpreters on site, and they have to keep up with what we're saying. I know we get excited and we tend to speak very quickly—I do it myself—but I want to remind everyone out of respect for the interpreters to speak at a more reasonable pace—not slowly, just at a regular pace.

Ms. Rood, please proceed.

4:05 p.m.


Lianne Rood Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I'll take a moment to send my deepest condolences to all who have lost a loved one to COVID-19 and to wish a speedy recovery to those who are currently battling it. This truly is a difficult time for us all. We're fortunate to have all the great men and women on our front lines taking care of us, making sure that we're taken care of if we're sick, and also feeding us.

These unprecedented times started out with a glimmer of hope that, despite all that is being thrown at us, we'll face it together as a unified nation, all in this together. As time goes on, it's becoming abundantly clear, though, that this government's version of together unfortunately doesn't include the majority of my constituents in Lambton—Kent—Middlesex.

With each announcement and new government program, the question I keep hearing, whether from businesses or seniors, is “How is this supposed to help me?” There are so many cracks in the government's plan, and while the official opposition is doing everything it can to identify those cracks and help get support to the most vulnerable, the government not only ignores most of our proposals but has also attempted unprecedented power grabs.

While the tab for the support programs continues to accumulate, so many people and businesses continue to be left behind. A key industry left behind amidst all the government's support programs is agriculture. Whether it's a lack of labour, processing capacity issues, market access issues, inadequate BRM programs or food safety issues, this government has done very little.

When thinking about agriculture, processing capacity has been an issue for years, with the COVID-19 crisis further exacerbating this problem. Rob Lipsett of the Beef Farmers of Ontario has said it's “the biggest issue we've been trying to address at all levels of government”. With the closure of the Ryding-Regency plant, processing capacity issues have come to the forefront. The current situation is dire for beef farmers and they need a cash infusion program from the government.

Minister Bibeau has said that $77 million promised for food processors has a goal of increasing capacity but is also to address short-term needs. How does this make sense when processing capacity is a structural problem? When questioned further, the minister just encourages producers to access the funding available through existing BRM programs. This is nothing new and not helpful to all our struggling producers. Yet again the Liberal government is showing us the different ways that it is continually letting down farmers and producers. It's obvious that farmers are not its priority.

When referring to the government's spending announcements on agriculture, Marcel Groleau, president of the Union des producteurs agricoles, said, “I think they missed a great opportunity today. It's an announcement that is completely insufficient. Of the $250 million for farmers, there is about $125 million in new investment. Half of that is what producers would have gotten anyway.”

The B.C. Fruit Growers' Association said, “the financial support package to the Canadian agriculture industry announced...is profoundly underwhelming.”

When it comes to BRM reform, we can see that the Liberals are just recycling old promises. We've repeatedly called on this government to take strong action to support our farmers and producers, including reforming BRM programs. The bulk of what the government announced for agriculture amidst COVID-19 was $125 million for AgriRecovery. This is not new money but a reannouncement of money that's already budgeted for in the yearly budget.

The minister has avoided questions. Where is she on where producers can access this money? Knowing that the program is difficult to work with and inaccessible, the minister has responded by telling producers to use an online calculator and to still apply. Great, farmers now have an online calculator to figure out how quickly their farmhouses are burning and whether they qualify for the government-issued bucket of water to be delivered at an undetermined point of time in the future.

Our producers and our farmers are being left behind, and they deserve better. This country is facing many trade disputes, especially when it comes to agriculture. Particularly with China, market access issues are at the forefront. Exports of commodities such as soybeans, canola and pork are facing additional challenges. The government says it is committed to helping farmers, but to their disappointment, the government has ignored all their pleas. On April 1, it even raised the carbon tax by 50%.

My constituents and millions of Canadians are facing significant and sustained hardship. With stagnant revenues and rapid debt accumulation, many are struggling to stay above water. At the very least they were hoping that their government would show them some type of mercy and hold off on raising their taxes.

To add insult to injury, the Prime Minister and the finance minister continue to deny the real impacts of the carbon tax. This outrageous claim that the carbon tax puts more money in Canadians' pockets keeps getting repeated over and over. No, our businesses and farmers' budgets don't balance themselves. On top of the direct costs, it's becoming harder and harder for our farmers to compete internationally against those who aren't burdened by punitive taxes.

I've heard from farmers in my own riding that they will be planting less corn this year, partially due to their drying costs having skyrocketed with the carbon tax. This is wrong, and the government isn't doing anything about it.

Food security has also become top of mind, especially when considering the reports of empty shelves throughout this pandemic. Coinciding with the lack of financial support for our farmers and producers, many of our family farms are experiencing hardships and are expected to go bankrupt. With just a fraction of what has been asked for being given to the agriculture sector, it is estimated that up to 15% of our farms, or about 30,000 farm families, will go out of business. This could be stopped if immediate and meaningful support is provided to safeguard our food security, and a critical sector of our economy and rural communities.

Canada's Conservatives will continue to press the Liberal government for real financial support for our agriculture sector. In fact, we have proposed a student jobs program to fill labour shortages in agriculture and agri-food. This could be a new federal program that would match students and young people with available jobs. I've heard from many farmers in my own riding that this would really help, but this government isn't moving on our proposal. For young Canadians, this could be an incredible opportunity to work in agriculture and gain valuable knowledge about where our food comes from. For our farmers and ranchers, they could get a great source of local labour to help fill the labour-shortage gaps.

This is just another example of a constructive Conservative solution to help those affected by COVID-19.

The government is also using this pandemic to seize the opportunity to circumvent democracy, bypass parliamentary accountability, and fundamentally change our firearms laws through an order in council. Rather than being accountable to parliament and having expert witnesses called to testify and analyze these changes, the government is bringing uncertainty and division to many of my constituents and millions of law-abiding Canadian firearms owners. This firearms ban will do nothing to protect public safety. Taking firearms away from law-abiding hunters and sport shooters does nothing to stop dangerous criminals who obtain their guns illegally. Instead, there should be investments made to support police anti-gang and anti-gun units, youth crime prevention, the CBSA firearms smuggling task force, border security, and increased funding for access to mental health and addiction treatments.

These are more constructive Conservative solutions to help combat gun violence. I hope the Liberals heed our calls. We all want a safe country, but needlessly attacking law-abiding firearms owners does nothing to improve public safety.

Another problem I continually hear about from my constituents is Internet access. Lambton—Kent—Middlesex is a rural riding and getting high-speed Internet access is a challenge for many, not to mention the cost of the service. During this pandemic I've had constituents who have seen monthly bills of $500. I have seen no concrete solution from the government to help people in this situation. Being at home amidst this pandemic is difficult. With children learning online and people working from home, high-speed Internet accessibility is a necessity. We need to ensure that rural Canadians have access to this service and don't have to pay exorbitant prices for it.

These are unprecedented times, but despite all of this happening, I am hopeful that all Canadians will get the help they need, and not just a select few. I am working hard every day to ensure that my constituents of Lambton—Kent—Middlesex are heard, and I am committed to fighting for them and getting the answers they deserve amidst this COVID-19 pandemic.

4:10 p.m.


The Chair Liberal Anthony Rota

We'll now continue with Mr. Barsalou-Duval.

Mr. Barsalou-Duval, you have the floor.

4:10 p.m.


Xavier Barsalou-Duval Bloc Pierre-Boucher—Les Patriotes—Verchères, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

First, I want to say that I'll be sharing my time with the member for Joliette and the member for Thérèse–De Blainville. Each member will have the floor for about three minutes.

Under the current circumstances related to COVID-19, as transport, infrastructure and communities critic, I'll use my time to speak about an important issue for me. I had the opportunity to ask the Minister of Transport questions about this issue on several occasions in a virtual meeting of the special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the President of the Treasury Board answered my questions. I didn't find his responses particularly convincing, to be quite honest.

The issue is the travel credits provided by companies to consumers whose flights were cancelled.

Many people are suffering as a result of the COVID-19 situation, since the economy has virtually come to a standstill. People have lost their jobs, and some of them had already purchased airline tickets. They want to be able to pay their bills and mortgage, make their car payments, and make payments like everyone else. These people had hope when they saw that the economy was doing well. They decided to take a trip and to have a good time with their families. Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they lost their jobs. In addition to not taking a trip, they can't obtain a refund.

Imagine the state of these families. Some people paid $1,000 for a small trip, but others paid $2,000, $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 or $15,000. There's no limit to what airline tickets can cost, depending on the destination and the number of family members travelling. Understandably, when someone pays $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000, they aren't very happy to have to pay that amount when their flight has been cancelled. Some people also paid for their trip with their credit card. They didn't necessarily have the money right away, but they thought that they would repay the amount after their trip. Today, they can't pay the amount.

We must show solidarity with everyone. We've seen that the government is standing firmly in solidarity with the airlines. However, we also want the government to stand firmly in solidarity with the individuals who are affected by this crisis and who would like to be able to pay their bills.

The airlines are certainly also affected by the crisis. Some airlines have lost 95% of their revenue. We understand this. However, we don't believe that the public should be responsible for funding the operating costs of these companies. If the companies need help, the government has implemented programs, such as the wage subsidies and the loans for large companies announced last week.

Some companies have already benefited from these programs. For example, Air Canada has already requested the 75% wage subsidy. Better yet, it obtained $788 million from Export Development Canada, or EDC, to cover operating costs. This means that the government is funding these companies. The government is continuing to help the companies, but it isn't even asking them to reimburse their customers in return.

The strange thing here is that this violates the law. The government isn't requiring these companies to follow the law. Perhaps the reason is that these laws are Quebec laws and the Civil Code. We don't know why, but it seems that the federal government always has a hard time dealing with Quebec laws.

According to the Civil Code and Quebec's consumer protection act, when a service isn't rendered, even in cases of force majeure, the customer is entitled to a refund. When a customer has paid for a service, they're entitled to a refund when the service hasn't been rendered.

The government seems to have a great deal of difficulty understanding this. A federal institution is supposed to protect passengers and travellers, and that institution is the Canadian Transportation Agency. However, this agency told the airlines that, under the current circumstances, it believes that a 24-month travel credit is sufficient.

It's quite odd that the agency meant to protect consumers is actually protecting the airlines. Canadian federal institutions are providing a strange type of service. The even stranger thing is that the government isn't doing more to stand up for these individuals. Instead, the government is standing up for the airlines.

We're not asking for anything complicated. We're asking that the legislation and rules that exist and work be enforced. For any other service provider, any other company, this situation would be completely unacceptable. There seems to be a free pass for the airlines. We know that one airline in particular is closer to the government. Under these circumstances, people are wondering why the government isn't listening.

We've taken all sorts of steps. I said that I asked the minister questions. I've actually asked several ministers questions about this issue. My leader spoke about the issue at a press conference today. Option consommateurs approached us. The organization also approached the government and wrote to the Minister of Finance, the Canadian Transportation Agency and the Minister of Transport to explain that the government is currently telling businesses to engage in illegal practices. How can a government allow companies to engage in illegal practices? The government has been warned.

Option consommateurs asked me whether I was willing to sponsor a petition for the organization. I told the organization that I was willing to do so, of course. As members of Parliament, we have the right to sponsor petitions that can be tabled in the House of Commons. The clerk authorized the petition. In a few days, the petition obtained almost 5,000 signatures. This means that many people are affected by this situation. Not just two or three privileged people are affected, but many people.

We're sometimes told that companies will go bankrupt. Take Air Canada, which received over $800 million from the government. Its financial statements showed $6 billion. Some people say that this may seem substantial, but with major expenses, a big figure like that means nothing. I agree, but let's consider the following. This company claims that it's losing $20 million a day in operating costs. If we divide the $6 billion in its coffers by $20 million, the company has cash flow for a year before it runs into financial difficulties.

I'm not sure whether the average person who purchased airline tickets has a year's worth of cash before they run into financial difficulties. Most people are no longer able to make their payments after a paycheque or two. Who's the priority? Does the government want to help people who are struggling to make their payments or a large company that has enough money in its coffers for the next year? That's the real question.

Of the $6 billion in Air Canada's accounts, $2.6 billion belongs to customers. That amount isn't $2.6 million or $2.60. We're talking about $1,000 or $2,000 airline tickets. The company is refusing to refund the money that belongs to customers. Everywhere else in the world, particularly in the United States and in the European Union countries, there's enough common sense to say that companies must reimburse customers if flights are cancelled. In Canada, we live in another world, a world where airlines take precedence over individuals and consumers.

We believe that these companies must reimburse their customers. The government hasn't heard the last of us. In any event, it won't win. The airlines can't confiscate this money forever. It's illegal. Three class action lawsuits have already been launched against these companies whose practices are illegal.

The government is defending the indefensible. Rather than continuing to defend questionable practices, it should be telling these companies that they won't receive any money until they reimburse consumers, people who are entitled to a refund.

The strange thing is that the government is speaking to these companies. We need only look at the registry of lobbyists to see that calls are made almost daily between these companies and the government. The government has had many opportunities to let these companies know that consumers are entitled to receive their money. They spent this money on trips that they couldn't take.

These people are being offered a 24-month credit. However, I'm not sure that these people will be in a strong enough position to travel in a few months. I'm not sure that they'll want to travel or that they'll be healthy enough to do so. I'm not sure that their employers will allow them to travel. I'm not even sure that they'll be able to pay for their ticket.

The company is telling them that they'll have $2,000 if the ticket cost $2,000, but that there's no guarantee that the ticket will still cost $2,000 in six months. If the ticket price increases to $4,000 or $5,000, then it's too bad for them. They'll need to pay the difference.

So we can understand their frustration.

We won't give up.

4:25 p.m.


The Chair Liberal Anthony Rota

Mr. Ste-Marie now has the floor.

4:25 p.m.


Gabriel Ste-Marie Bloc Joliette, QC

Mr. Chair, first I would like to congratulate my colleague from Pierre-Boucher—Les Patriotes—Verchères for his excellent speech on the importance of protecting consumer rights.

We're talking about airline tickets here. When you look at what's being done in Europe, the United States and around the world, air carriers are required to reimburse consumers for tickets they've paid for where trips have been cancelled. Assistance programs are bound by this condition. Canada is the lone exception. I therefore strongly encourage my esteemed colleague to continue the fight with Option consommateurs. This has to change; consumers must be reimbursed.

I'm going to talk about emergency economic support measures. Many measures have been introduced to support workers' incomes. My colleague from Thérèse-De Blainville, who will be speaking immediately after me, will tell you in greater detail about the new changes being made to urge people to go back to work.

The employment insurance system was initially intended to support incomes in an economic crisis. We're currently in the midst of a health crisis and the system has failed. Consequently, the government has introduced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy.

The wage subsidy was initially 10%. It was a half-baked system. The government told businesses to withhold amounts from the payments they were required to make to it. The Bloc québécois looked at what was being done elsewhere in the world, in Denmark, for example. We made some demands, and we're pleased with what has been put forward.

Fixed costs are a serious problem for SMEs. That's an important point. The organizations representing SMEs have been telling the government that and telling us too since the crisis began. Wages are an issue, but fixed costs are too, and they have to be addressed. That's why we managed to add a measure to the motion passed in the House on April 11 requiring the government to introduce measures to support and assist businesses with fixed costs.

We waited, but we got virtually nothing. You could say the mountain laboured and more or less brought forth a mouse. There was rent assistance, but it's awkward, very limited and poorly put together. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the CFIB, has demanded that the program be completely overhauled.

The Conseil québécois du commerce de détail, CQCD, reports that 40% of its members who are entitled to assistance say the owners of the premises they lease for their businesses refuse to join it. It's not working for nearly half of SMEs that are entitled to assistance because landlords don't want to cooperate. They ultimately feel it's preferable to write off their losses because then they'll have fewer hassles and, ultimately, less tax payable. It's not working.

We discussed this in the Standing Committee on Finance meeting yesterday afternoon with the management of CMHC, which will manage the program. They said they were surprised it wasn't working. Logically speaking, it's true that landlords would have every reason to enter into this kind of agreement, but, in actual fact, nearly half of them prefer to write off the losses. They can't be bothered. So the program is poorly put together, poorly suited. That has to change.

There's assistance for rent, which represents a significant portion of fixed costs. The Prime Minister noted this earlier. However, all other fixed costs have to be considered as well. Every SME has its own structure and fixed costs, such as wages. It's not just about rent. In the case of businesses, yes, but that's not always the case for other SMEs. We need flexibility and a program in order to help them.

Our humble proposal is that a refundable tax credit be introduced for fixed costs.

The business would first have to prove it's been affected by the current crisis and has experienced a decline in revenue. For example, that might mean a 30% drop in recent months. Then it would be questioned about its fixed costs and asked to provide proof, just as it usually does when filing its year-end tax return. It would receive a refundable tax credit equivalent to half of its expenses. Why half? Simply because the government's rent assistance program for SMEs covers 50% of its rent expenses.

Getting back to the emergency rent assistance program, since building and commercial property owners don't necessarily want to participate in it, we're asking the government to provide assistance equal to half the cost directly to the SME renting the premises. It could make do with that and it would be more effective. Why not do that since a large number of commercial landlords don't want to join this program?

Furthermore, as regards our fixed costs tax credit proposal, SMEs that want it could include their rent expenses. This method would be further to the motion adopted in the House ordering the government to introduce a measure to assist SMEs with fixed costs. A simple refundable tax credit for fixed costs would work well.

The rent assistance program also has to be changed as a result of a serious problem. SMEs are required to prove they have suffered a decline in revenue as a result of COVID-19, which is normal. However, it has to be a 70% decline. That's neither the 15% that was the case for the first period covered by the wage subsidy nor 30%, as was the case for the others. It's more than double. This specifically targets small businesses whose turnover has collapsed. I think we need fixed costs assistance that covers a larger percentage of SMEs. The criterion could be set at 30%, as is the case for the wage subsidy, and the same figure could be used for the fixed costs tax credit.

To recap, on April 11, the House adopted a motion directing the government to introduce measures respecting fixed costs, but, apart from the introduction of a modest rent assistance program that doesn't work and must be completely overhauled, as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business stated, nothing has been done. We therefore request a tax credit.

We also have another request. SMEs are currently in considerable difficulty. Under the emergency loan program, they may apply for a $40,000 loan, and, if they repay it on time, the government will allow them to retain $10,000 in the form of a grant. We ask that the government make a more sustained effort by increasing the $10,000 amount to $20,000. That would really help businesses, especially with their fixed costs. Economic activity has stopped, and none of the lost income can be recovered. We therefore ask the government to provide more assistance to SMEs by doubling the portion of the loan that may be retained as a grant. This is important for us.

Today, the Minister of Finance announced the details of his loan program for large businesses. Those businesses will have five years to repay their loans. We believe the same condition should apply to SMEs. Rather than require them to repay their loans before the end of 2022, they should be granted a five-year period as well.

I've discussed fixed costs, but now we're going to talk about amendments that should be made to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. This will be very interesting. I now turn the floor over to my colleague from Thérèse-De Blainville.

4:35 p.m.


The Acting Chair NDP Carol Hughes

The honourable member for Thérèse-De Blainville has the floor.

4:35 p.m.


Louise Chabot Bloc Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Thanks to my colleagues for their excellent speeches on issues concerning the current crisis. Yes, it's repeatedly called a health crisis, but it's also an economic one, and I would add that it's a social and humanitarian one as well.

I'm going to use my 10 minutes to review a matter of considerable importance to the Bloc québécois and to me personally as well. As the party's employment and labour critic, I believe we as a party have been on the offensive from the outset and have come up with more proposals than non-responses.

We know the government's response was the prompt introduction of a Canadian emergency benefit. That benefit was helpful, and we should remember why. The employment insurance system, as we know it, has not been reviewed in 40 years and includes rules that have become obsolete. As a result, in this crisis, it wasn't up to the task for which it was established.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit has provided an income during the crisis to many workers who were ineligible for employment insurance. We subsequently saw that some people fell through the net, and we therefore improved it.

I'm thinking of seasonal industry workers. It was initially said that they had not lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. However, we were forced to admit that, if they hadn't lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, they were prevented from finding, or hoping to find, a job by COVID-19. Consequently, necessary and beneficial adjustments were made for workers.

The Canada Emergency Student Benefit was introduced last Friday. In a motion passed on April 29, we agreed that the Canada Emergency Student Benefit was necessary. We all agreed. The Bloc moreover vigourously demanded it, as it did other measures such as assistance for our seniors.

Students experienced a crisis as well. First, there was an educational crisis, and we know that their lives have been disrupted in that respect. Second, they were afraid they wouldn't be able to find jobs. Contrary to the opinions of some, our students are far from lazy or from disliking work. On the contrary, work for them is an extension of their student life or something that will ultimately provide them with the necessary financial resources to resume their studies. That counts. They're an entire generation that we don't want to sacrifice. We supported that assistance. We demanded it.

However, we also demanded that the workers and students receiving these necessary support measures, the CERB and the CESB, not be deprived of them for returning, as we hope they do, to high-quality jobs as soon as possible. We would like life to turn out that way, but it won't. The unemployment rate is 17%. We had a black Friday when two million jobs were lost in a single day. I think we need to continue this emergency support but still allow the economy and work to resume. We can't think about recovery or economic recovery without considering workers or the essential role students play.

Paragraph (e) of the motion we adopted on April 29 reads as follows: (e) the government ensure that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) are offered in a manner that meets their objective while encouraging employment in all circumstances;

What saddens me, not to say angers me, is that we gave our word in paragraph (e) of the April 29 motion. A commitment was made. In a previous life, I conducted many negotiations with employers at the local level and governments at the national level.

When you sign a contract or a collective agreement, or when you ultimately negotiate something, you have to keep the word you give. That's not the case here. We agreed, in making that commitment, looking each other in the eye, that something should be done to prevent a person who had an incentive to work, who earned more than $1,000, who earned $1,001, from being subject to an all-for-nothing policy, in short, to prevent that person from losing the $2,000 CERB or the $1,250 CESB.

That undermines an economic recovery, a recovery, and it also undermines a commitment in which we agreed, here in the House, on the ground rules of our governance, of our Parliament.

In my opinion, giving your word is a serious matter. If the minister responsible for the negotiations, the first deputy minister, were present, she, who largely conducted the negotiations, could tell us how fundamentally important it is to give one's word.

One may feel cheated because something has been broken. When we give our word on commitments and proposals, we expect to keep it.

Among my questions to the ministers today, I asked at least four questions on this point. Asking questions but not getting answers is another disappointment. Is it the question that isn't right? I don't think so; there are no bad questions. I wouldn't say there are bad answers, but we at least deserve answers.

The Bloc made two points. First, we asked what the conditions were. Second, we acknowledged that interim rules had been adopted so we could have a parliamentary life and operate within the framework of the crisis, but, at the same time, we could not commit to something the conditions of which were not met by the other party.

In the past 10 minutes, I have spoken to you about questions concerning employment and labour for which I feel we are already struggling for answers. However, one day we'll have to consider certain questions. We're in transition; we're recovering. Some things must be improved, and other things must be reviewed. I'm thinking of the CERB, which will come to an end. When it does, what will happen to the employment insurance program? What will happen to all those workers who were ineligible for it? How will we make the transition, particularly in the measures we wanted to introduce concerning employment incentives and to improve the employment situation? Ultimately, we want to support workers and students and tell them they need this but that they are capable of improving their situation.

I will close by saying that responsibility cannot fall to a single party in any negotiation, contract or commitment.

I therefore encourage the government to tell us by Monday when and how it will honour the commitments it made on April 29.

4:45 p.m.


The Acting Chair NDP Carol Hughes

The honourable member for Burnaby South.

4:45 p.m.


Jagmeet Singh NDP Burnaby South, BC

Thank you, Madam Chair.

I'll be sharing my speaking time with the very honourable member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie.

Thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts during this crisis.

Before I go any further, I want to take a moment to express on behalf of all New Democrats our condolences to the friends and family of Captain Jennifer Casey. It's a really tragic loss of life. Her work is something that she was very proud of. She spent time here in Ottawa, so there are lots of folks in Ottawa who had connections with Captain Casey. She studied at Carleton, and folks knew her as someone who was always a positive person, willing to help out anyone who needed it. People talked about how proud she was of the work she did with the Snowbirds' Operation Inspiration and with the Snowbirds in general.

I also want to send our best wishes for a quick and speedy recovery to Captain Richard MacDougall, and to his friends and family as well, as he was injured in the operation also.

Madam Chair, there has been some talk about what Parliament should look like. I just want to touch on that very briefly.

Parliament is here to serve the people we represent, and it should always be here for that purpose. During this crisis, our goal as New Democrats is to ensure first and foremost that the priority of every government program must be to ensure that help gets to people.

One of those things is directly getting help to people through things like the CERB. We are going to continually push to make sure people don't fall through the cracks. Right now, there are far too many people who are desperately in need but who cannot access the CERB due to a minor loophole or a criterion they don't meet.

I want those folks to know that we see you, we hear you, and we are going to continue to fight to make sure you are not forgotten. We want the CERB to function in such a way that anyone who needs it, anyone who is desperate right now, anyone who is struggling right now should be able to access it. That's the way the program should be designed.

During a global pandemic, for some reason the government seems focused on designing programs to exclude a mythical person they think is not going to receive help at the risk of those who need it most falling through the cracks. To me, that is the wrong approach. I would rather ensure a program does not miss anyone, and if some receive help who don't need it, we can easily tax that back next year during the tax season.

We believe that there are ways to use this space, use the tools of Parliament to continue to push the government to deliver more. That's what we've been able to do so far. Using a combination of virtual and in-person sittings, we've been able to push the government, and we are proud that we were able to raise these concerns that so many people were being missed by the government.

We got commitments to include students, and then students were included. We got commitments to address the fact that seniors were completely missed, that those who are the most vulnerable did not have any increased support during this difficult time. We pushed the government and succeeded in achieving that as well. We brought in motions for Canadians living with disabilities, who are also being forgotten by this government. There was a commitment made, but to date there is still no help for Canadians living with disabilities, no increased support, and we're going to continue to push for that.

We talked about increasing the wage subsidy from 10%. We cited countries like Denmark, the U.K. and Sweden. which are doing at least 75%, and the government weeks later agreed to going to 75%.

We have fought for and achieved some significant gains for people, for workers, during this crisis, and we want to continue to do that. It should be done in a way that's safe, that ensures the most access possible for members of Parliament so that they can represent their constituents, and it should follow the expert advice of public health professionals.

One of the areas where we want to continue to push this government is something that I want to make really clear is no longer a choice. It is no longer a choice for someone to have paid sick leave or not. It must be guaranteed. Every Canadian needs access to paid sick leave of at least two weeks. We are suggesting that during this difficult time it might be a difficult burden for businesses at this point, so we are saying the government should implement paid sick leave for all Canadians of at least two weeks by using the CERB and the employment insurance programs that exist.

We need to deliver. That is something that should no longer be a question. It should be answered in the affirmative. We need paid sick leave for all Canadians.

No longer should Canadians have to make that difficult choice about going to work. Do they go in to work, knowing that they might infect a colleague? If they stay home, they won't be paid, because there's no paid sick leave. Then they risk not being able to pay their bills or not being able to put food on the table. That is not a choice Canadians should have to make. That's why we're going to continue to push for paid sick leave.

It's not a call that we're making in isolation. We have heard from provinces. Provincial leaders and governments have raised this concern. Businesses have raised this concern. Paid sick leave is vital, and we're going to continue to push for it. Specifically, we've heard some leadership from Premier Horgan, who said that this is an opportunity for the federal government to step up and provide leadership in a federal program that provides paid sick leave.

The guideline from public health officials is clear: people must stay home if they're sick. As I said, they can't do that if they have to choose between doing the right thing and working a day for pay.

We'll continue to urge the government to do what must be done and to provide paid sick leave for all workers under existing federal programs such as employment insurance and the CERB.

The other really troubling part of this crisis that has been simply heartbreaking is that the impact of this pandemic has been borne on the backs of seniors, particularly seniors living in long-term care homes. It is heartbreaking when we think about that for a moment. If we just pause and think about those who are most vulnerable, those who have lived their entire lives sacrificing and working to be a part of building up this country, it is not just heartbreaking that those seniors are the ones who have suffered the most, it is wrong.

What we are saying is that we need the federal government to show leadership to push for a care guarantee. What does that mean? It means we want to know that seniors are guaranteed good-quality care. Loved ones want to know that their parents and grandparents are cared for, and workers need a guarantee that they will have the equipment they need to stay safe and have a good salary to be able to work and do their job.

I know the Prime Minister has said that he doesn't believe it's his job, that it's not the federal government's job, that it's not the Prime Minister's job to address long-term care, that it's a provincial jurisdiction. In the face of 82% of the deaths from COVID-19 being seniors in long-term care, in the face of the military being called in to long-term care homes, I reject the idea that the federal government has no role to play. The federal government can play a role.

One of the most significant roles the federal government can play is to fund long-term care and to increase funding for health care. The federal government can acknowledge decades of neglect and decades of reduction in health care transfers. At one point, our health care transfers were 50:50 in terms of responsibilities between provincial governments and federal, and now they're closer to 80:20, with 80% of the responsibility being borne by the provinces and 20% coming from transfers from the federal government. That is simply wrong, and it needs to be reversed.

Someone told me to think about the fact that our armed forces, those men and women who provide incredible service for our country and are proud to help out in any way that they can, whether it's a disaster or serving abroad, had to be called in to care for seniors in long-term care homes. That is something we should be ashamed of—not that we should be ashamed of the hard-working men and women, but that we should be ashamed of the fact that it got to that point.

That's why I'm saying to the government, yes, you can play a federal role. You must play a learship role in fighting for better for these seniors so that this never happens again.

The Prime Minister likes to say that what's happening in long-term care in Canada is the provinces' problem, but what does he think about the fact that applying Stephen Harper's cuts to health transfers has faced the provinces with a $31 billion revenue shortfall over 10 years?

These are cuts that were planned by the Conservatives, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. They were implemented by the Liberal government and Prime Minister Trudeau.

In Ontario, we've also learned something else. It's something that's been clear across the country, but in Ontario it's been glaring. Those seniors who lived in for-profit homes were the most vulnerable. They were four times more likely to die from COVID-19 in a for-profit home than in a not-for-profit. That evidence alone should make it very clear that profit has no place in the care of seniors.

I will make it really clear: As New Democrats, our position is that we need to remove profit from any care of seniors. We've heard from the previous health minister, Ms. Philpott, that if you look at the business model of companies that are trying to make profit when it comes to seniors, the fact they are clearly trying to make money is going to impact the way they deliver care. It means that they are going to cut services. It means they're going to cut staffing. It means they're going to cut corners to generate that profit. If nothing else, it means that in order to generate a profit some of the money won't be reinvested into care for the residents. Some of the money will be siphoned to profit.

For-profit long-term care homes are extremely lucrative. We're talking about revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Now, those revenues are made by the company, meaning they don't go to the staff and they don't go to the residents who need the care.

One of the things that we need to make absolutely clear is that we know some immediate fixes. We need to get profit out of the system. We also need to make sure that workers are paid good salaries so they can work and do their jobs.

Workers in long-term care homes often have to work in multiple centres. It means that they risk exposure to illnesses or potentially spreading illnesses. They don't often have the protective equipment they need. To put these workers at risk, and to put these residents at risk, is something we should consider a risk to all of us.

We need to look at families that want to know that their loved ones are being cared for. Families need to know that their parents and their loved ones are being cared for and that's the care guarantee.

I want to turn quickly to the future of the CERB. We know that this crisis has had a massive impact on our economy and on jobs. There are many sectors that are going to be impacted differently. Those involved in live music, entertainment, festivals and cultural activities are in the sectors hardest hit and will be some of the last, or slowest, to recover. We need to look at a more permanent solution or a longer extension of the CERB to help out those folks impacted.

We also need to look at the impact of this crisis on exposing some of the weaknesses in our system. The fact is that our social safety net is not there. The fact is that we cannot go back to normal. We need to go forward to something better. That's what we're committed to doing: pharmacare, dental care, head-to-toe health care coverage. Investment in people now is the best way to recover. We're going to hear from Conservatives who are going to talk about debt and deficit as a way to raise fear and have people be afraid to invest in one another, to take care of one another. I think that is the worst thing we can do. We've seen in the past that when we invest in people we have better results.

I'll wrap up with this. I talked about this earlier. Any cent of public dollars that goes toward supporting businesses has to be focused on supporting workers. Every dollar, every cent has to be connected to job protection or job creation. We don't want to see any money go to a company that's going to pay more money to its CEO, give bonuses or give money to its shareholders. Money must be strictly allotted to job creation and job protection.

Finally, there's no way that any money should go to a company that is using offshore tax havens to cheat the system. That should not be allowed. I again call on the government to fix its proposals to end CEO bonuses as well as offshore tax havens.

Money should go to people, not to the profits of companies.

Thank you very much, Madam Chair. I'm sharing my time with—

5 p.m.


Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

We'll now go to the honourable member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie.

Mr. Boulerice, go ahead.

May 20th, 2020 / 5 p.m.


Alexandre Boulerice NDP Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Madam Chair, I want to congratulate the leader of the NDP for his excellent speech.

In my introduction, I will be talking about health care, a topic he addressed at the end of his speech. He in a way opened the door for me by saying that, as New Democrats and progressives, we think that health care shouldn't be a business that seeks to make profits and money. We don't want long-term centres that care for our seniors serving mainly to line the pockets of their executives or shareholders.

People will say we're exaggerating, that we should be more flexible and that there could be exceptions, rules and a framework. I don't know whether everyone has heard this story, which goes back a few weeks. Many things are happening now, and we tend to forget them these days.

I want to go back to the case of the private Herron CHSLD, in Dorval, where an absolutely horrific crisis occurred. Montreal's public health authorities had to take over management of that private institution. People entered the facility at one point and realized that seniors had died and that their bodies were still in their beds. Bodies lay on the floor because they had fallen and no one had been there to pick them up. Patients had not been washed in weeks. Some had not eaten for days and were dehydrated because they hadn't been given water. Workers were so underpaid and their working conditions so poor that they left the premises when the crisis began. As a result, there weren't enough staff to care for the seniors and elderly patients.

It cost between $3,000 and $10,000 a month to live at the Herron CHSLD. These people had paid thousands of dollars every month, and some were injured or ill or had died in a total absence of dignity. As a community, we must ensure that this kind of thing never occurs again.

The situation in Quebec is worrying, although we've recently seen a glimmer of hope. People are beginning to come out of confinement, there has been a certain amount of economic recovery, and businesses are reopening. We hope it'll all go well. I encourage everyone to continue exercising caution and to abide by the rules. It must nevertheless be understood that more than 3,800 deaths have occurred in Quebec since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a figure that represents more than 50% of cases in Canada.

Once again, I want to thank and congratulate all the workers in our health care system who are making enormous sacrifices and displaying incredible courage. They do not stint on the number hours they must work. However, legitimate demands are emerging, in particular, from nurses, lab technicians and other health professionals. These people are getting tired and are entitled to a vacation this summer. I also hope that, in the next few years, they will be entitled to better working conditions, higher wages and more protective medical equipment.

Talking about courage, I'd like to tell the story of Marcelin François, one of the people who answered the call and was involved in providing care to seniors. He worked in a factory five days a week and in CHSLDs on weekends. He had registered with an employment agency that assigned people from one CHSLD to another, a practice that was already quite risky and that ultimately led to his death. Mr. François contracted COVID-19 while working at a CHSLD and died in mid-April.

I mention Mr. François because you should know that his wife, family and he arrived in Canada a few years ago by a route that made the headlines and was the subject of much discussion in the House: Roxham Road. Mr. François was in fact a refugee, and asylum claimant, who did all he could to give his family a new chance and a new life.

His is a dramatic story, but one that also explodes some myths and prejudices. Here in the House, refugees and asylum-seekers have often been described as people who pose a danger to our society, who want to take advantage of the system and take our place. At times, we have even heard parties further to the right than ours say they were potential criminals.

One realizes from this true-life example that this man and his wife had come here to participate in our society, to help our society. This man wanted so much to help society that he went to work in the riskiest possible place and paid for it with his life.

Remember that all these asylum-seekers, most of whom come from Haiti but also from African and Latin American countries, have actually come here for a new life, to escape oppression and misery. I think we should be able to reconsider the way certain columnists and even certain media view the contribution these people make and the way we should treat them.

What we of the NDP want is for the process to be expedited for all these workers who currently provide essential services to the public and who have no status because they are asylum-seekers so that they can be granted a status, at least permanent resident status, which would afford them a degree of protection and confidence in the future. We're talking about a few hundreds of individuals. I think that, if these people put their health and safety at risk to care for and protect our seniors, the least we can do would be to recognize that contribution by affording them a little more security of status in Quebec and Canada.

With respect to essential workers, I want to signal the work done by all the individuals in our cities and towns, all the municipalities, who maintain our services so we can still enjoy potable water, garbage collection and buses that run in our cities to ensure our communities operate properly.

As I said a little earlier today, municipalities unfortunately receive no assistance from the federal government. The municipalities are currently an administrative creature of the provincial governments. We are well aware of that fact.

We of the NDP are convinced that, in a crisis such as this, we can sit around the table, discuss issues and find solutions. This wouldn't be the first time a special federal-provincial-municipal program was introduced. That has occurred tens of times with respect to infrastructure. We could repeat the process now because the municipalities are truly in a bind and increasingly ringing alarm bells.

At a press conference just yesterday, the mayor of Montreal issued a heartfelt statement about the coming fiscal abyss, wondering where she could find $500 million.

The municipalities, which are not allowed to run deficits, have two remaining options: either raise property taxes, which would be catastrophic in the current situation, or reduce public services.

Considering a figure as impressive as half a billion dollars, what municipal services do you think can be cut? The situation is impossible and unmanageable. I think the federal and provincial governments must cooperate because neither the transit corporations nor the municipalities currently have access to programs such as the emergency wage subsidy. They are genuinely left to their own devices.

Unfortunately, the federal government is also dragging its feet on another issue, and this is absolutely incomprehensible. I'm talking about the asymmetrical bilateral agreement between the governments of Quebec and Canada on social housing. We've known this was coming for months now. The first time we discussed the need for a social housing agreement between Quebec City and Ottawa was two and a half years ago, in 2017.

We'll be running into a wall in July, when a housing crisis will occur. With rising rents and lost jobs and reduced incomes for people, they'll no longer be able to stay in the housing they now enjoy and will be forced to find other accommodation.

The rental vacancy rate in Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie is 1%. What other housing can these people find? Will they have to move to other neighbourhoods? Will they have to relocate their families, and will their children no longer be able to attend the same schools in September?

We've been dragging our feet for years now and we'll feel the consequences this summer, in July. If we could at least reach an agreement, we could start work to provide social housing and affordable housing for next year, for 2021 and 2022, to avoid making the same mistake again.

One federal government minister warned us in February that this was coming. Nothing has happened yet, and it's now past mid-May.

Is this because we're engaged in a petty squabble over who'll decide on standards and money and what flag will fly over the building?

I consider these squabbles utterly appalling, at a time when lives are at stake. I discussed a simple solution a little earlier: that we send Quebec the $1.5 billion that it's owed and that has been sitting here in Ottawa for two years. Quebec has a good program, AccèsLogis, on which there has been virtually unanimous agreement. We could use it to begin new housing construction.

Among the somewhat odd things the Liberal government is doing, there is its tendency to turn a blind eye to tax havens while falsely arguing that we want to set workers against each other. No, we don't want to set workers against each other. We're simply saying that a person who doesn't pay his fair share of tax, for example, shouldn't expect to receive taxpayer assistance.

This lax government turns a blind eye and overlooks the fact that businesses cheat by sending their money to the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and Barbados. By maintaining the status quo, this arrangement enables them to take the public's money and avoid paying their taxes, while this costs us tens of billions of dollars every year. This is utterly unacceptable.

I'm going to discuss another Liberal government shortcoming. Large companies receive money, and that's fine, because the crisis has hit everyone. They have a lot of employees and we want them to continue their operations. The Minister of Finance has announced a new assistance program for large businesses in addition to the 75% wage subsidy. Companies can rely on two programs, which is promising. However, could we request commitments or demand guarantees in some instances that these amounts actually serve Canadian workers?

The NDP very much suspects that this money will be used instead to pay bonuses to officers or dividends to shareholders or to provide employment for people who do not work in Quebec or Canada. For example, Air Canada is a company that benefits simultaneously from the two programs. And yet it continues to lay off employees. The machinists union contacted us to discuss some absurd situations.

Several aircraft in the Air Canada fleet operate around the world, but especially in the United States. Those aircraft require daily maintenance. Air Canada, which is receiving assistance from Quebec and Canadian taxpayers, currently leaves its aircraft in the United States, and American workers are maintaining them. Given the billions of dollars provided to Air Canada, we could demand that it repatriate its aircraft to Quebec and Canada so they can be maintained by Quebec and Canadian workers. That's unfortunately not the current situation, and we find it utterly deplorable.

We're also concerned about Internet access. The present crisis clearly shows the extent to which the Internet has become a vital public service for economic activity, communications and our ability to continue working via telework and videoconferencing.

Two federal funds have been established to cover more territory and serve more communities that do not have Internet access. One of them is managed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, and the other, the $1.7 billion universal broadband fund, is managed by the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. One of our fears is that contracts may be awarded to telecommunications giants and that they will parcel the work out to subcontractors, who will take a percentage of the profits and outsource to other subcontractors.

Ultimately, how will the regions and territories covered be selected? Will authorities act in the interests of the telecommunications giants and their subcontractors or in those of the public, of the people who currently don't enjoy this absolutely vital service? We will continue asking questions on this subject.

I would like to take this opportunity to say that I very much appreciate the opportunity to have five-minute discussions with the ministers during these plenary committee meetings. However, this subject is a good example of an issue for which the debate parameters should be slightly expanded so that we can discuss matters that concern people but which are not necessarily related to the pandemic or the current crisis.

5:15 p.m.


Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

The honourable member for Nanaimo—Ladysmith, Mr. Manly.

5:15 p.m.


Paul Manly Green Nanaimo—Ladysmith, BC

Thank you, Madam Chair. It's an honour to rise in the House again and to be here.

I'd like to acknowledge that we are on the traditional territory of the Algonquin first nation as uninvited guests. To them I say meegwetch.

I'd like to acknowledge the hard work of my staff members, who have been working overtime during this crisis. Answering the phone calls and the emails, and dealing with constituents in crisis, is difficult work. I really appreciate what they've done, and I know the constituents do as well.

I'd like to thank the government for its response, and I know that many Canadians have needed help and are getting help. The opposition and members of the Liberal backbench have brought forth all kinds of issues and gaps in the programs, and the government has been responsive and has been helping Canadians. I think it's really important at this time that we have this unity, working together, because our constituents and Canadians are important. They need our help, and playing politics during a pandemic and a crisis isn't the right thing to do. Working together to make sure that we deal with people, and help them with their problems, is the right thing to do.

There are still many needs that people have. For small businesses, too many are still falling through the cracks and are unable to access relief. A lot of micro-businesses are having problems. Some landlords won't sign the new CECRA program. In cases where landlords refuse to co-operate, commercial tenants should be able to apply directly to the government. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business's latest report found that half of small businesses surveyed cannot make their June rent. We're asking the government to allow tenants to access the 50% rental funding when landlords don't agree to opt in to the CECRA program. We're also asking that the government ease the 70% revenue drop criteria for CECRA so more businesses can apply.

CEBA, the business account, still requires a business chequing account. I know that the government has promised changes to that, and I'm looking forward to hearing about those changes. This is something that opposition members have brought up a number of times.

Many in the arts and music industry who rely on summer business will need a lot more help to survive until next year. I'm thinking about all of the festivals and the industries behind them that support them. RSM Productions in Nanaimo, a sound and lighting company, has lost all of its contracts. It is a company that needs help.

Municipalities have experienced staggering drops in revenue, and increased costs. They must continue to provide essential services including police, fire, water, sewage and waste management, regardless of those lost revenues. They're going to have trouble collecting property taxes from businesses and homeowners in financial distress. In my community, they've had free public transit, but ridership has been down to next to nothing anyway. The FCM estimates that municipal transit systems are incurring monthly losses of about $400 million due to diminished ridership, part of at least $10 billion to $15 billion in near-term, non-recoverable losses due to COVID-19.

We need to help municipalities. I understand that they are under provincial jurisdiction, but we work with municipalities with the green infrastructure fund and with the gas tax, and we need to be able to help municipalities weather this storm.

Aboriginal friendship centres have been asking for more help. I know the Tillicum Lelum Aboriginal Friendship Centre in my community provides a broad spectrum of important programs for the 12,000 urban indigenous people in my riding, including a health centre, youth and elder housing, a safe house for homeless youth, a home for single moms and a food hamper program. It also provides mental health and addiction counselling, and continues to provide that online during this crisis. It's an integral part of the urban indigenous community, and it's seriously struggling. It hasn't received any funding yet, and it's expecting to receive maybe $25,000 to $30,000. I'm hoping that the government steps up with more funding for urban aboriginal organizations.

Many non-profit organizations are suffering. In B.C., non-profits contribute $6.4 billion to the economy and employ 86,000 people. However, 78% are facing serious disruption, 74% have seen a large decrease in funding, and at least 19% are shutting down permanently.

I was disappointed to see the government contract with Amazon rather than Canada Post for delivering PPE. That's because of the way Amazon treats its employees. We see that Jeff Bezos is now on track to becoming the first trillionaire. In contrast, our Canada Post employees are paid well, they work hard for their money and they return that money into our economy. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has great ideas for how it can improve things in our economy, including public banking and more energy-efficient delivery systems, so we really need to be supporting our Crown corporations rather than a trillionaire.

Our airlines have really let down passengers. The local chamber of commerce bought tickets to go to two separate conferences, and when they cancelled those tickets they got a voucher for 11 months from the day of cancellation. How are they going to use that for the annual conference next year? That's completely useless to them. I have constituents who have tickets that the airline said they needed to use before September, but there are no bookings before September. Therefore, the airlines are letting people down. We need to stand up for consumers in this country the same way that the Europeans and the Americans do and make sure that the passengers get a refund or at least a voucher that they can use. Eleven months is ridiculous. Four months is ridiculous.

People living on CPP disability need relief and really need a permanent increase in their benefits so that they are on par with the benefits that the province gives people on disability.

With our health care system, we've seen the need for improving health care, and we know there's a $15 billion deficit just in maintenance in our health care system; and our long-term care system needs to be brought into the health care system properly so that our seniors are not abandoned to a for-profit model.

Regarding CPP, OAS and GIS, our seniors have been asking for a raise in these things for a long time. They deserve it. The cost of living in my riding has gone way up. Because real estate values have escalated in the last five years, the cost of renting a place has driven up the cost of living. We need to take these things into consideration. It's not the same in every part of the country, but in some parts of this country it is out of control.

I know there are worries about fraud in the relief programs, but we see fraud in other areas. We see polluters who abandon their messes, declare bankruptcy and then leave it for us, the citizens and the taxpayers, to clean up. That's privatizing the profits and socializing the losses, and that needs to end.

We also need to make sure that offshoring of wealth, whether that's legal through loopholes or illegal through tax evasion, is stopped. We lose about $19 billion a year in taxes, through tax evasion or tax avoidance.

One of the things I've been talking about here for a while is a guaranteed livable income. It's similar to the basic income or universal basic income that's proposed, but we base it upon a basket of goods, the same way that a living wage would, so that people have the things they need to survive. It's an idea that has gained support across the political spectrum, but the Greens have been talking about this for several decades. In fact, 50 Canadian senators have written to the Canadian Prime Minister, calling for a minimum basic income for Canadians. The GLI establishes an income floor below which no Canadian can fall. It's something whose time has come.

This crisis has shown us that there are a lot of issues we need to deal with. One of the things it has taught us is that life is more important than money, and when we work together we can get things done. I look forward to continuing to improve the programs the government has put forward.

5:25 p.m.


The Acting Chair NDP Carol Hughes

Good day and good evening to you all.

Our next meeting will be at noon tomorrow.

The meeting is adjourned.