Thank you, Madam Chair.
I am very pleased to have this opportunity to appear before you today to discuss Bill C-343, which I have been working on now for almost four years.
The bill, entitled An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Employment Insurance Act (family leave), has two parts to it. First of all, it proposes amending the Canada Labour Code to provide unpaid leave to employees who are required to be away from work following a suicide, the disappearance of their child or the commission of a criminal offence against a member of their immediate family.
The leave of absence proposed in the bill would work as follows. For the parents of minors, a leave of absence of up to 104 weeks would be available in cases of death resulting from a criminal offence or serious bodily harm requiring the employee to stay with the child. The same would apply to a missing child: the parents could retain their work attachment and take a leave of absence of up to 52 weeks. For the spouse, common-law partner or parent, the bill provides for a leave of absence of up to 52 weeks for death by suicide, and 104 weeks if death is the direct result of a criminal offence.
This bill also amends the Employment Insurance Act to allow these individuals to receive a new type of special benefits for family leave. Having said that, for parents whose minor children are missing or suffered serious physical injury as the direct result of a criminal offence, for parents whose children committed suicide, for an employee whose spouse committed suicide, for the parents of a minor child who died as the result of a criminal offence and for an employee whose spouse died the result of a criminal offence, eligibility for the new benefit would be based on the current rules for special benefits. A beneficiary would have to have accumulated at least 600 hours of insurable earnings in order to be eligible for up to 52 weeks of benefits.
In December of 2007, the Quebec National Assembly led the way in this area when it passed Bill 58. Under that legislation, employees and their families who are victims of crime are entitled to take unpaid leave and still keep their jobs for a period of up to 104 weeks. The families of Quebec workers who are mourning a suicide or have a missing child are entitled to 52 weeks of benefits.
Unfortunately, current federal legislation discriminates against the 275,000 Quebeckers whose work falls under the Canada Labour Code. These workers do not benefit from their job attachment and are simply entitled to 15 weeks of sick leave. Up until now, the inaction of lawmakers in this area has resulted in two tiers of workers being created: those who are able to get through difficult times with their jobs intact, and those who are forced to chose between losing their jobs and returning quickly to work. Furthermore, it is one thing to allow people to take leave, but if they have no income to live on in the meantime, the results will be the same. They will have no choice but to return to work quickly. It is that much more difficult for them, under the circumstances, to rebuild their life.
In the opinion of the Bloc Québécois, which has always shown concern for victims and their families, the federal government should immediately follow Quebec's lead. It is a well-known fact that suicide, violent crimes and disappearances cause great psychological distress for many parents and spouses. The waiting and worrying, mourning and often feelings of depression are part of the everyday lives of victims' families, often for extended periods. Indeed, in case of murders and disappearances in particular, more than two years can sometimes pass between the criminal act and the completion of the investigation. Throughout that period, family members are deeply affected by the events and cannot resume their normal activities. They have access to support and help, but they have no financial support. Additional financial worries are the last thing they need.
It is terrible to think that these people are simply being left to fend for themselves and have to keep working throughout that period as if nothing had happened, because they have to provide for their family, as we all do.
These people need time to come through such an ordeal and gradually rejoin the workforce at their own pace. It is in order to help these families that I am fighting today, and calling for the cooperation of all the parties. After all, given their pain and suffering and the other effects of violent acts, are the victims' families not victims themselves?
The mourning process following a disappearance, murder or suicide is longer and more complex than in other instances, particularly when rape or violence has taken place. People are more likely to experience feelings of frustration, rage and powerlessness. This is especially true when a crime or suicide is involved.
Those who oppose my bill claim that these new measures will be too costly. I have heard some members of Parliament say that this bill will cost $400 million, which is incorrect. Fortunately, this kind of tragic event giving rise to the payment of 52 weeks of benefits is rare. For the same reason, there are few people who will be eligible for these new employment insurance benefits if the bill passes.
Every person has his or her own way of mourning the loss of a loved one, but for some eligible people, the loss of income associated with EI benefits is not an option. It is also clear that, for some people, remaining at work is a way to return to a normal life after a certain period of time. There are also people who do not work or who cannot find work that is insured under the Employment Insurance program, or who do not work enough hours to be eligible for benefits.
Therefore, self-employed workers are automatically excluded. Individuals who have not worked a minimum of 26 weeks in the year preceding the criminal act or the disappearance would not be eligible. They represent approximately 18% of the labour force. Acts of suicide by a single person or individuals without close family members would also be excluded.
For all these reasons, we are nowhere near the $400 million projected by this government. Although it is difficult to determine exactly how many people would receive the benefits created through this legislation, a Bloc Québécois study has established that approximately 8,000 people would be affected by this bill's provisions.
With the benefits set at $340 and the eligibility threshold at 65%—which is one of the goals of the Bloc Québécois' overall agenda—the cost would be approximately $50 million a year. However, based on the current eligibility threshold of 45%, it is realistic to assume that an investment of $30 million would be needed were Bill C-343 to pass. Thirty million dollars a year to encourage victims' families is a very small amount of money.
The Employment Insurance program is adequately funded by workers and employers to allow families afflicted by such a traumatic event to receive benefits. The government is not actually investing anything in employment insurance.
Since I have been working on this project, I have received messages of support from ordinary people and from civil society. It is clear that this initiative touches people and means something to them. A number of citizen efforts have emerged from the solidarity observed among these families. For example, in 2004, Quebec families affected by these tragedies came together to create the Association des Familles de Personnes Assassinées ou Disparues, a Quebec organization that helps the families of victims.
Right from the start, the AFPAD has supported our bill enthusiastically, because it includes most of their demands. In fact, I would like to express my thanks to its president, Mr. Michel Laroche, for his cooperation on this issue. Their unrelenting efforts to support families have allowed members of the Association to realize that families must be able to come through their ordeal without financial worries.
AFPAD members actually met with the Conservative caucus in 2007. They expressed their total support for the bill. I hope that they intend to keep their promise three years later.
The Association québécoise Plaidoyer-Victimes, of which Ms. Arlène Gaudreault is President, is another example of aid groups that were set up out of solidarity for victims and their families. I want to thank her for her devotion and hard work.
In closing, I sincerely believe that these measures will provide indispensable support for victims' families who are currently going through a very difficult period without any financial support. I got involved in politics to bring about change, and I hope that my colleagues will be as touched as I am by what the families of these victims are going through now.
Thank you, Madam Chair.