Human Resources Committee on Nov. 24th, 2011
Evidence of meeting #14 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was homelessness.
A recording is available from Parliament.
On the agenda
- Karen Jackson Senior Associate Deputy Minister, chief operating officer, Service Canada, Department of Human Resources and Skills Development
The Chair Ed Komarnicki
I'll call the meeting to order.
We've been waiting for the members to arrive. We realize that the bus situation is rather interesting from the House to here, but we have the two ministers and department officials here for one hour, so we want to be sure and start. We will have each minister make a presentation.
I'd like to welcome both ministers. It's a great pleasure and honour to have you here and for me to be sitting on this side of the table, for sure, and after your presentations we will have a five-minute round of questioning, alternating among the parties.
We will adjourn a little early today. We'll probably adjourn about 25 minutes after the hour because we have to deal with the estimates.
Without saying much more, we'll ask Minister Finley to proceed. Please go ahead.
November 24th, 2011 / 3:35 p.m.
Diane Finley Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
First of all, I'd like to introduce my officials who have joined me here today. Karen Jackson is the head of Service Canada and Alfred Tsang is our chief financial officer.
Mr. Chair, committee members, I am pleased to speak to the 2011-2012 supplementary estimates (B) for the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development.
I would first like to say a few words about the broader economic context, if I may.
It is clear that the global economy remains fragile, and although we can be proud of Canada's financial position, we really aren't at the end of the challenges of the global financial situation. That's why as a government we remain focused on job creation and on economic growth. As the Minister of Finance has said, our approach to balancing economic efforts with deficit reduction is working and we will continue our G-8-leading approach to economic stability.
As one of the largest departments in the Government of Canada, HRSDC must also reflect the short- and long-term fiscal realities we are facing with solid leadership and stewardship for Canadian taxpayers.
This brings me to the supplementary estimates for my department.
First, I am pleased to point out that money committed in Budget 2011 to increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement for our most vulnerable seniors has already been dispersed.
This is the largest top-up to the GIS in 25 years and will mean that 680,000 seniors will receive more money this year.
These changes mean that a single low-income senior may receive up to $600 more a year and that a low-income couple may receive up to an additional $840 a year.
Secondly, I'm requesting $2.4 million to implement the rollover and carry-forward provisions introduced in budget 2010 to the Canada disability savings plan.
As announced in budget 2010, this proposal will allow a deceased individual's registered retirement savings plan, registered retirement income fund, or registered pension plan to be transferred tax free to the registered disability savings plan of their financially dependent child or grandchild with a severe and prolonged disability. This $2.4 million under vote 1 will go towards the implementation of these provisions.
You will also note that as a reflection of the increasing popularity of the Canada disability savings grant program, we are increasing our statutory grants forecast by $43.8 million.
This is good news for families with children who have severe and prolonged disabilities. It represents another way in which our government is supporting Canada's families.
Under vote 5, most of these proposals are unspent funds carried over from previous years, with one notable exception, and that is the increase of $5 million for the new horizons program.
This delivers on a Budget 2011 commitment and reflects our government's priority of combatting elder abuse and encouraging the active participation of Canada's seniors in our communities.
Third, I want to talk about the Canada student loan program. I'm sure that most members of this committee will have noticed the $149.5 million writeoff of unrecoverable debts under this program, which is under vote 7. Let me put this number into some context, if I may.
The vast majority of Canada student loans--87%, to be precise--are repaid in full. The default on student loans has decreased to all-time lows under our government, thanks in part to changes in the repayment assistance program. This program helped approximately 160,000 borrowers find repayment options last year, ensuring a balance between the need to repay loans with the ability of low-income students to afford these payments. This program ensures that the payments for low-income students do not account for more than 20% of that student's income.
The debts included in this one-time writeoff cover a three-year period, and all reasonable efforts to collect them have been exhausted over six years; when an individual has not made a payment in six years and CRA considers the debt unrecoverable, the government writes it off.
The perceived increase from the estimates of 2007-08 is a result of two factors. The first is the combination of three years of loan writeoffs into this one submission. The second is that the Government of Canada started the direct financing of student loans only a short time ago. The first loans were issued 10 years ago, so any students who studied for a year or two and then did not repay their loans when they came due would only recently have run out the clock on the six-year limit.
This proposal was introduced as part of supplementary estimates (C) in March of last year, but because the election occurred before the passage of these estimates, this proposal has been re-introduced in our supplementary estimates (B) for this year.
Let me conclude by saying that our government's focus remains squarely on economic growth and job creation. In fact, we've seen close to 600,000 net new jobs created since the depth of the recession in July 2009, and we continue to focus our efforts on getting unemployed Canadians back to work.
HRSDC will continue to prioritize programs that ensure we have the most skilled and productive workforce in the world.
This includes ensuring young people have access to student loans as they pursue post-secondary education and upgrade their skills.
It also means faster processing for foreign credential recognition so that new Canadians can enter the workforce more quickly and contribute more fully to our communities.
Finally, it means that we will remove barriers, provide programs, and increase services to older workers so they can remain in the workforce longer and continue to contribute to our economy.
I will now ask Minister Raitt to say a few words about the aspects of the supplementary estimates that affect the labour program.
Lisa Raitt Minister of Labour
Thank you very much, Minister.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
If I may, I'd like to introduce my deputy minister, Hélène Gosselin, who is here to make sure that I answer the questions as factually as possible, with all the data you may be needing.
I'm very pleased to be here as Minister of Labour to talk to you about the labour program and the importance of healthy and productive workplaces for our economy, but doing so in the context of the 2011-12 supplementary estimates (B).
As Minister Finley pointed out, the goal of our government is very clear: we want to have continued economic recovery. In our view in the labour program, this can't be achieved without an emphasis on constructive labour relations and on workplace health and safety. Those two elements actually work together in order to promote a stable, productive, and innovative industry.
The labour program services to the federally regulated sector support the underpinnings of a healthy economy. You know, a work stoppage in a major industry such as transportation can have immeasurable economic consequences. Considering the current economic climate, quite frankly, work stoppages come at a price that we simply can't afford to pay.
In 2008 our government commissioned a study to better understand the causes and the effects of strikes and lockouts in the federally regulated private sector. The study was conducted by a gentlemen by the name of Mr. Peter Annis, who is now Mr. Justice Annis. He's an expert in industrial relations.
What this study showed was that there is a general degree of consensus among all stakeholders--management as well as labour--that better labour-management relationships actually reduce the risk, the frequency, and the duration of work stoppages. It's these improved relationships that are the first step towards achieving greater productivity through more flexible and innovative workplaces.
Mr. Justice Annis recommended that the government use modern dispute resolution techniques to better address industrial relations challenges, especially in the era of global competitiveness, so that's why in budget 2011 the Government of Canada announced an investment of $1 million over two years--and $500,000 in ongoing funding thereafter--for the preventive mediation program. This funding will help the labour program do more to help employers and unions build and maintain constructive working relationships with each other.
Through this program, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is going to provide services that are customized to meet the needs of the particular workplace, including workshops and training. Grievance mediation is also available to help the parties informally resolve whatever workplace disputes they may have. These services are delivered jointly to both employers and to unions by mediators with extensive experience in labour relations.
The program uses modern dispute resolution techniques and helps unions and employers establish those strong relationships that are needed before any formal labour dispute could arise. But if a labour dispute does arise, our federal mediators and conciliators assist the employers and the unions in resolving their differences without resorting to a strike or to a lockout.
In the last five years, 832 collective agreements have been finalized, and 792 of those were reached without a work stoppage. In other words, with the assistance of conciliation and mediation, parties reach or renew their collective agreements in 94% of the cases in the federal jurisdiction.
I will give you some examples. In the last year, the labour program's Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been instrumental in helping organizations like the BC Ports, the Port of Quebec, and the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation reach those new collective agreements.
I will switch gears. The Government of Canada is also actively working to improve labour conditions internationally. As part of our bilateral trade agenda, the labour program works with other countries in order to cooperate on issues including social justice, improved global working conditions, and respect for international labour rights and principles.
Canada's recent labour cooperation agreements with the Dominican Republic, Peru, Colombia, Panama, and Honduras include comprehensive labour provisions based on respect for the ILO's--the International Labour Organization--fundamental labour rights and principles. These trade and labour agreements are very important drivers of the nation's long-term prosperity and growth. Our free trade agenda is creating jobs for Canadian families, and we're creating a level playing field for Canadian businesses to compete internationally through these LCAs.
The labour program also ensures the health and safety of Canadian workers as part of its mandate under part II of the Canada Labour Code. The program has been doing this for more than a century. It is a high priority and an ongoing commitment.
When it comes to health and safety, the activities are both proactive and reactive. Proactively, we educate employers and we inspect high-risk industries like air transport, longshoring, and road transport, but we also respond by investigating serious accidents and fatalities, as well as situations where there are work refusals.
As well, workplace health and safety has come to take on a definition that is broader than physical safety. A safe and healthy workplace also includes mental health. With this in mind, the labour program is providing technical expertise in the development of a national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace, an initiative championed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. I'm very proud to say that Canada will be a world leader in developing a workplace psychological health standard.
Studies show that higher productivity in workplaces happens where morale is high. Employers who treat their employees with compassion spend less money on sick leave and less money on hiring and training new employees. It's an approach that fosters trust, and that, of course, promotes harmony between labour and management.
It's clear that maintaining a successful workplace requires a multi-faceted approach. Therefore, we must bolster our existing services to ensure healthy workplaces and, in turn, improve our economic prosperity.
The Government of Canada is demonstrating as well that it's committed to caring for the workers affected in Canada's recovering economy. Our government launched the wage earner protection program, or WEPP, as it's known, to help workers manage one of the toughest challenges they can face: going without their hard-earned pay because an employer has gone bankrupt.
In budget 2011, we announced an additional $4.5 million annually to protect more workers. We extended the WEPP to employees who lose their jobs when their employer's attempt at restructuring takes longer than six months and eventually is unsuccessful and ends up in bankruptcy or receivership.
Mr. Chair, these are just some of the ways that our government's economic action plan is working for Canadians and strengthening our economy. I hope that you and the committee appreciate the overview and that it has been helpful for you in some measure. I look forward to responding to any questions.
The Chair Ed Komarnicki
Thank you, Ministers, for the presentation and the information.
We will go to five-minute rounds, starting with Ms. Crowder.
Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC
I'm going to make a brief statement, which doesn't require a response, and Madam Morin is going to pose the question.
I just need to say that the official opposition is very disappointed that we only had one hour with two ministers and no availability of the department to respond to questions. Part of our responsibility as parliamentarians is to practise due diligence in the oversight of things like estimates, so it's very disappointing that we don't have access to.... Particularly since the minister indicated this is one of the largest departments, I'm surprised that we couldn't find an hour with officials.
Madam Morin will now ask a question.
Marie-Claude Morin Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, QC
Thank you, Jean.
I want to start by thanking the ministers for meeting with us today to answer our questions, even though we do not have much time.
I must admit that I have many questions. If we don't have enough time to get through all the answers, I would very much appreciate if you would provide them in writing.
First off, two reports came out recently. Hunger Count 2011 was released about a month ago, and the Campaign 2000 report card was tabled yesterday. Both reports advocate investing in affordable housing as the first step towards reducing poverty.
Since we are on the topic of affordable housing, I would like you to speak briefly to the issue of homelessness. I see that the money earmarked for homelessness research was not all spent and that there are now more funds available. Does that mean the government acknowledges that homelessness has gone up in Canada? Is that what the government has observed?
Next, I want to discuss the severe housing shortage on reserves across the entire country. The best example I can think of to illustrate that shortage is Attawapiskat, where they have pretty much declared a state of emergency. I see that non-budgetary funds for reserve housing have not been exhausted; there is a $247-million surplus. I would like to know why.
Lastly, the budgetary funds for subsidized housing were underused to the tune of $157 million, whereas non-budgetary funds were overused by more than $1 billion.
I would like answers to those questions. As I said, if you don't have enough time to answer them all now, I would appreciate receiving that information in writing.
The Chair Ed Komarnicki
Minister, we have three questions there. You can answer them in whichever order you wish. We'll give you about an equal amount of time to answer the questions posed.
Diane Finley Haldimand—Norfolk, ON
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I counted more than three questions, and I must admit that I did not fully understand all of them. I will try, nonetheless, to answer as many as possible.
We're proud of the work that we've done on affordable housing and homelessness: on and off reserve, for seniors, for the disabled, and for families in need, quite frankly.
You asked about homelessness. We signed a homelessness partnership agreement strategy with the provinces. After all, they're the ones closest to the ground; they know where the real needs are.
Because of the nature of homelessness, it's almost impossible to determine how many people really are homeless. I don't mean to sound facetious in the least when I say that you can't go out and do an enumeration of them like you might for an election: they don't have a door to answer when you knock on it, unfortunately.
So we have estimates, but those estimates are as broad as they are long. What we do know is that unfortunately there are people who are homeless. That's why, with the new homeless partnering strategy, we changed it in two fundamental ways.
We recognize that homelessness isn't just an urban problem. The previous program was focused on specific communities across the country. We also opened it up to rural areas like my own Haldimand—Norfolk, where the numbers may not be large but the effects of homelessness are just as serious for those who are going through it.
The other thing we did with some of the funds was to make sure we were addressing the mental illness needs of the homeless, which are pervasive. We considered this to be a big improvement.
We provide funding through CHMC for affordable housing and housing programs on reserve. We also provide funding off reserve.
Our economic action plan included $2 billion that was broken out with specific funding for seniors, for the north, for aboriginals, for the disabled, for the renovation of existing affordable housing, and for the construction of new affordable housing.
As for having funding left over for specific projects, that would go to the administration of those programs. Quite often, there is a situation wherein people have been in negotiations for a particular project and negotiations have been delayed, so the start has been delayed. We carry money over from one year to the next because we want to make sure the projects get completed.
I'm sorry, but I do not understand your references to the million dollars not spent and the billion dollars overspent.
The Chair Ed Komarnicki
In any event, your time is up.
We will move to Mr. Devinder Shory.
Devinder Shory Calgary Northeast, AB
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, Ministers, for coming out this afternoon.
I want to talk about the economy also, Minister Finley, but before that, I want to talk about something that is really near and dear to my heart, and that is of course foreign credential recognition. As you know, in Calgary Northeast, my riding, we have a large number of new Canadians and also Canadians born in Canada who have their professional qualifications from overseas, from outside of Canada.
The fact is.... This is in no way or shape a request or a recommendation for a lowering of the standards we require in any profession, but at the same time, it is clearly in Canada's interest to fully utilize all the human resources available to maximize our economic activity.
I know you are aware of the study this committee has been doing on the foreign credential recognition process and how we can move forward to ensure that foreign-trained individuals can contribute to the Canadian economy to the fullest. I would like your comments on two things. Would you like to comment on this committee's current study? Also, would you please make any observations you would like to on the FCR process?
Diane Finley Haldimand—Norfolk, ON
Thank you very much. This is a subject that's near and dear to my heart. I've been working on it since I arrived the first time at HRSDC, almost six years ago, and while I've been in other ministries. I've maintained my interest and involvement in it for a couple of very simple reasons.
Number one, we are facing and will be facing in the next 10 years a critical shortage in labour and skills right across the country, in a wide range of sectors. Some of these shortages were rather acute even during the worst of the recession in different sectors and in different parts of the country.
While we do need to make sure we're doing everything to help Canadian-educated people and people who are already here in Canada get those jobs or fill those jobs and have the skills they need to fill those jobs--and by the way, we're a doing a lot on that front--we also have to make sure that those who are coming to our country with aspirations of working in fields where they've had significant professional training have the opportunity to use those skills. It's good for them, it's good for their families, and frankly it's the best thing for their communities here in Canada and for our country.
That's why we've done a number of things, primarily through two programs. One is through the Foreign Credentials Referral Office, which is under the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration. The office helps people find their way to places where they can get their credentials evaluated, see what opportunities exist within Canada for different jobs, and get a sense of how big the labour market is for them, but also through the foreign credential referral program.
This is something I was very proud to participate in, with the unanimous agreement of all of our premiers and our Prime Minister a few years ago. It consists of two parts. One is establishing national standards for regulated professions so that instead of having a hodgepodge of standards across the country for nursing, let's say, we'd have one standard. So people who are here and trained in New Brunswick, let's say, can work in Alberta if that's where they choose to live, and they can work in their field and have their credentials recognized. It also makes it easier for newcomers who want to work. They have to choose only one standard and they can apply.
The second part is making sure--and we have some 67 agreements in place now--that we meet what's known as the new framework. This is a guarantee to newcomers who apply to professions and have participated in the framework that they will have their credentials evaluated against the Canadian standards and get an answer within one year as to whether they qualify. If they don't, they will be told what they need to do to qualify and perhaps even how to get those credentials.
These are ways in which we can help newcomers get evaluated before they get to the country and help them get to work as soon as they get here. It's in everybody's best interests.
Devinder Shory Calgary Northeast, AB
Minister, I honestly want to thank you for all your hard work, because I have lived through it. When I came to Canada, I had my law degree. I don't want to go into details, because I want to talk about the economy here, but honestly, thank you very much on behalf of a lot of new Canadians.
The steps you have taken in the last few years have been noticed, not only in Calgary but all across Canada. We can see the results. It took me seven years to get back to my profession and today we are talking about one year. Thank you so much. I congratulate you on that one.
The Chair Ed Komarnicki
Thank you, Mr. Shory. With that, you've used up all of your time--
The Chair Ed Komarnicki
--so we'll move on to the next questioner. You obviously hit an area that the minister was quite keenly interested in and the time went by fairly quickly.
We'll move now to Mr. Patry.