Evidence of meeting #20 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was crisis.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Doug Pawson  Executive Director, End Homelessness St. John’s
Jacques Beaudoin  General Secretary, Réseau québécois des OSBL d'habitation
Parisa Mahboubi  Senior Policy Analyst, C.D. Howe Institute
John Milloy  Director, Centre for Public Ethics, Martin Luther University College

3:10 p.m.

John Milloy Director, Centre for Public Ethics, Martin Luther University College

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

First, I would like to thank you for inviting me to join committee members to discuss the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I come to this question from a variety of perspectives. I spent eight years on Parliament Hill as a political staffer, including five in the office of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. I spent 11 years at Queen's Park as an MPP, seven in cabinet, including four years as Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.

I retired from politics to academia. I am currently the director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College, the founding institution of Wilfrid Laurier University. I also serve as the practitioner-in-residence in Laurier's political science department, and I teach in the University of Waterloo's master of public service program.

From all these different perspectives, let me briefly make four observations related to the question before you.

The first involves jobs. As Canada begins to emerge from COVID-19, there is little question that we will face a jobs crisis of unprecedented magnitude. Many jobs lost during the pandemic are simply going to disappear. Youth have been particularly hard hit. The most recent job numbers out of Statistics Canada have been bleak for both non-student and student youth. [Technical difficulty—Editor] parents' basements on a temporary basis to ride out the pandemic are now asking themselves whether this is a permanent situation. So what do we do? Creating the right economic environment is crucial, but we also need to make sure that job seekers have the necessary skills.

During the 2008 recession, I was the minister who brought in Ontario's second career program, which still exists. It was fairly successful in supporting certain categories of laid-off workers in upgrading their skills. We're going to have to go much further than second career and adopt an “all hands on deck” approach, where all of our post-secondary institutions work much more closely with potential employers to ensure their programs correspond to the needs of a changing economy. Continuous intake, micro-credentialing, year-round learning and mandatory experiential learning should all be part of the post-pandemic dialogue.

We can do it. COVID-19 has taught us that, if pushed, our somewhat sluggish post-secondary and training sector can become nimble and creative in altering the way we do business. Just ask all those who had to quickly transform their in-class courses into distance learning due to COVID-19. This doesn't mean the end of literature and theology programs, but there's plenty of room to teach subjects like these in a way that builds needed competencies and gives students practical hands-on experience.

Although the Government of Canada has a key role to play in this transformation, it needs to recognize the leadership of the provinces and territories in this area, which is my second point: Respect jurisdictions. Many Canadians, particularly those in Ontario, often look to Ottawa for leadership in a time of crisis, even in areas that fall under provincial or territorial jurisdiction, and there's a temptation within the federal government to respond by encroaching upon that jurisdiction.

As a former provincial minister, my plea is for the federal government to recognize the leadership of our provinces and territories in areas like post-secondary education and training. Support them, but don't try to create capacity and programming federally that is duplicative. Provinces and territories know their needs. They know their educational institutions and training providers. Yes, by all means, act as a convenor and reshape EI programming, federal support for students and federal tax policies, but do it in direct partnership with our provinces and territories. There is remarkable energy out there, and governments at all levels need to harness it, which leads to my third point.

As the director of a centre at a faith-based institution concerned with public ethics, my advice is not to forget Canada's faith communities as you develop and implement policies and look for partners. Religious voices have something to offer our current public debate. Collectively and individually, they are anxious to see our world transformed into one that focuses on those on the margins and challenges the consumerism and indifference of our society. Canada's faith communities have a long history of involvement in progressive issues and have been active during the current crisis in supporting the lonely, the poor and the vulnerable. They have also turned their attention to what happens next.

I think of the work of Joe Gunn, the executive director of “Centre Oblat – A Voice For Justice” at Ottawa's Saint Paul University, and Sister Sue Wilson, director of the Office for Systemic Justice for the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph in London, Ontario. Their thoughtful commentary on the need for an ethical framework for the post-COVID-19 world is but one example of many voices of faith calling for real change when it comes to issues like income inequality, the environment and indigenous reconciliation, voices that include 43 Lutheran and Anglican bishops who have collectively voiced their support for a guaranteed annual income. Engage and involve these voices.

I am going to change my focus a bit for my final point and address the role of committees like yours.

I was the government house leader during Ontario's last minority government. I recognize the important role committees play in listening to Canadians, advising Parliament, and reviewing legislation and programs. I also understand the power of committees to send for persons, papers and records, virtually unchecked in a minority government situation. Yes, this power can be used to hold the government to account. Unfortunately, it can also be used to go on wild fishing trips and exploit gotcha moments by demanding an endless supply of documents and witnesses from government simply in an effort to make them look bad.

I have witnessed committees paralyze governments as scores of public servants drop everything to hastily respond to a complicated committee request dreamt up on a whim by opposition research, neglecting the needs of citizens and being forced to remove flexibility and nimbleness from programs in order to escape committee scrutiny.

Yes, hold the government to account, but recognize that decisions over the last few months were made quickly in uncharted waters. Lots of mistakes were undoubtedly made by people working in good faith. Resist the temptation to make them the focus of your work.

This is not partisan advice. I would offer the same advice to the Liberals if they were in opposition.

That brings to a close my presentation today, with four admittedly different points: focus on education and training, respect jurisdictions, engage faith communities, and resist the temptation to use the power of committees in a minority parliament to undermine the work of government.

I look forward to any questions.

3:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Dr. Milloy.

Before we go to questions, Dr. Mahboubi, the background you have makes it difficult to see you on ParlVU. You have an artificial background behind you. If you have any way to disable it, that would be quite helpful.

We'll begin with Mr. Vis, for six minutes.

Mr. Vis, you have the floor.

3:15 p.m.

Conservative

Brad Vis Conservative Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon, BC

Thank you to both witnesses for their excellent testimony.

Dr. Mahboubi, I was particularly interested in the point you referenced regarding a temporary bonus to ease the transition for going back to work, and the points you made about the eligibility criteria and the relatively generous nature of the emergency benefit for low-income workers.

In my riding of Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon, food security is a major issue. Our blueberry crop is one of the largest in Canada. Every farmer I'm speaking to right now is telling me that they cannot get the workers they normally get to pick the blueberries during the very small window they have to pick the crop.

I actually asked the Minister of Agriculture yesterday whether she would consider lifting the $1,000 income cap for the food sector at this very critical time. She didn't seem very open to that point. Could you provide any comments on that? I want to thank you for raising this, because it's a great suggestion to help people get back to work. Are there other sectors of our economy that you think could really benefit from a temporary bonus to ease the transition for going back to work?

3:15 p.m.

Senior Policy Analyst, C.D. Howe Institute

Dr. Parisa Mahboubi

Thank you for highlighting those things. As I said, right now as we are moving toward reopening the economy, the program creates great disincentives to work, because the amount of payment is not linked to the income. Many low-income earners, before the crisis, earned similar or even less than the amount of the benefit, so there is no incentive for them to look for any job at the moment while they are in the CERB program.

At the same time, for those who are working and not eligible for the CERB program, it creates great unfairness in the program: Why are some people receiving the CERB and others not? That bonus would help to address the fairness issues.

In terms of the agriculture industry, finding labour in that specific industry has always been a challenge. The temporary foreign worker program has been handy and helpful for this specific sector, to provide sufficient labour to address labour shortages.

June 19th, 2020 / 3:20 p.m.

Conservative

Brad Vis Conservative Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon, BC

Yes, most of the farmers I represent use foreign labour, but many of them also rely on a stable base of seasonal labour from Abbotsford, Mission and the surrounding areas close to the fields.

I'm going to switch direction to both of the witnesses, and I'll have Mr. Malloy respond to this one, please.

Something that neither of you covered but is very timely today relates to infrastructure spending, the delays we're seeing and the impact this might have on COVID-19. Many of the projects funded under this government actually went out under the 2014 new building Canada fund, which were the final dollars remaining from the Conservative program before the 2015 election.

The current investing in Canada plan was announced under the Liberals in 2016. My province of B.C. was one of the first to sign an integrated bilateral agreement with the federal government, and the deadline for community infrastructure projects in Mission was January 23, 2019. That was a year and a half ago, but we have yet to see any announcements. The website states that the final decisions are expected in spring 2020, a timeline they continuously bump back, so unless everything is announced tomorrow, we're into summer 2020. I'm not sure if this is just straight incompetence, but many municipalities are getting very frustrated with this.

In my community especially, we're waiting on a pump station at Miami River, the indoor pool at Kent, and the ice rink in Lillooet, in particular.

What assurance is there for Canadians that the COVID-19 infrastructure program stream under Minister McKenna, which the Liberal government has been foreshadowing, will be able to deliver projects in a timely manner?

Mr. Malloy.

3:20 p.m.

Director, Centre for Public Ethics, Martin Luther University College

John Milloy

Thank you.

In moments like this, I'm glad I retired from politics.

I can't speak to the specifics of what's happening federally, but certainly I can talk about the importance of infrastructure. I hope we see those partnerships, and that the partnerships take into account the views of municipalities and provinces.

The other thing is making sure we have people who can undertake the work. That goes back to my remarks. When I was speaking about post-secondary education, it wasn't simply the university or college sector. I also think about apprenticeships and their importance in making sure we have individuals who go into the trades. We have young people who, right now, are feeling a lot of pain and saying, “What is the future for me?” Certainly the trades are real opportunities.

I apologize; obviously I can't comment on the specifics of what's happening with the federal government, but infrastructure is obviously going to be a huge injection into the economy in two ways: in immediate jobs and in creating that framework. I said, all hands on deck. If we have infrastructure projects, I'm hoping we're also tying in educators, trainers and the unemployed, to make sure that we can take advantage of local labour and that people want to get involved.

3:20 p.m.

Conservative

Brad Vis Conservative Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon, BC

We've had some great testimony on community benefit agreements at an earlier time.

Dr. Mahboubi, how can we get the investing in Canada plan moving? I know that C.D. Howe has touched on this in some of its COVID-19-related briefings. Would you have any recommendations for the federal government to get out the door those infrastructure dollars that the communities need so desperately right now?

3:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Give a short answer, please, Doctor.

3:20 p.m.

Senior Policy Analyst, C.D. Howe Institute

Dr. Parisa Mahboubi

It's not exactly in my area to comment on, but because of the crisis, investing in that area is definitely going to help recovery, because anything that creates more jobs is going to contribute to the economy and help the recovery.

At the same time, we know the amount of spending has been significant and right now governments are seeing less income and spending more, so to make a balance and to be able to spend more on other items is definitely going to be challenging for the government, to rank the priorities and make a decision about which project has to go forward.

Again, in thinking about how we can restart the economy and help it go back to where it was before, some projects are going to be helpful in the recovery.

3:25 p.m.

Conservative

Brad Vis Conservative Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon, BC

Thank you.

3:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Dr. Mahboubi.

Thank you, Mr. Vis.

Next we have Mr. Dong, please, for six minutes.

3:25 p.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I want to thank both panellists for their wonderful opening remarks.

John, it's really good to see you. As a former Queen's Park staffer and Ontario legislator, who also spent four years at TCU, I want to say, for the record, that it was a pleasure and an honour to have served with you for the province of Ontario.

John, there has been some reporting by the CBC showing that very few inspections have been done in our long-term care facilities in Ontario since June 2018. What role do you think that plays in the scale of the current outbreak?

3:25 p.m.

Director, Centre for Public Ethics, Martin Luther University College

John Milloy

I can only comment as an observer, and a former politician, too, who sat around the table. I was never minister of health.

Obviously, I think this has given us an opportunity to look at a lot of systems, including the long-term care system. There's been a big rethink. Long-term care was something that every government has grappled with. I don't know if it's necessarily a partisan issue, but I don't think any government has done particularly well in ensuring that you have both community supports, enabling seniors to live within their communities with supports so they can age at home, and a good and effective long-term care system.

I think there's been a lot of exposure of some of the problems, including with inspections and the ability to find out what's been going on. Oftentimes, seniors don't have a voice and their families can become frustrated. As an MPP I remember meeting with families and then following up with the homes and the ministry, but you often wish that you had come in front of it.

Obviously, it's a concern, but, again, I am only a keen and concerned observer as to what's happening.

3:25 p.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Thank you, John.

The federal government has, as you are aware, made money available to help pay the front-line and essential workers during the crisis, but I've heard from many constituents in Don Valley North, typically those who have been working on the front lines during the COVID period since March. In one case, the person works in a hospital and shares the same office where they do the lab testing for the virus, but they have been left out. They actually never saw the money from Ontario.

Now, I read this morning that the premier of Ontario is planning to cut statutory holidays for retail workers. Obviously, this is not what anyone had in mind when they talked about supporting essential workers. What are some of the things the province could have done to better support those workers?

3:25 p.m.

Director, Centre for Public Ethics, Martin Luther University College

John Milloy

I'm going to go back a bit to what I said. I hope for two things. First of all, I hope that we have a real rethink in our society about essential and precarious workers and issues like sick leave, and even issues around benefits, and obviously with issues around pay. I'm in front of a federal committee and the temptation is to say, “You have to get to the front of the parade”, but that is really a provincial matter.

Obviously, you have a role in voicing your concern, but ultimately the provinces are in charge of this piece of the puzzle as far as provincial workers are concerned. I realize there is a federal piece. I do hope that Ontarians, the opposition in Ontario, and the provinces more generally, will be part of this rethink moving forward.

Where the federal government can play a very valuable role is as a convenor and as a source of support. As I said in my remarks, on everything from EI to tax, those sorts of things, I look to the folks at Queen's Park. I'm hoping that we're looking forward on this. There were mistakes made, but how can we rethink this? How can we rethink the role of precarious workers, because we've seen what an amazing job they do, such as the personal support workers who are being paid a pittance? I was happy to be part of a government that increased their wages. It was one of the first wage increases, but they're being paid a pittance. How do we rethink this? I hope this committee and the federal government encourages it and plays a convening role, but, ultimately, we have to look to Queen's Park and other provincial capitals.

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

That leads to my next question.

How important do you think it is to have a decent wage in place for the working population, especially during this economic recovery, coming out of COVID?

3:30 p.m.

Director, Centre for Public Ethics, Martin Luther University College

John Milloy

I think it's crucial. Again, I think we need to rethink those who are at the bottom, meaning at the bottom of the wage scale. There were some steps made. As I said, we can get all hung up on the partisan aspects and who made what and all that, but there were some steps made at the end of the Wynne government that I think anyone who is looking at it objectively through the COVID lens would say, “Hey, that made some sense”, in terms of sick days, increasing the minimum wage and some of the worker protections. I think now is the time to revisit them. It doesn't have to be all about eating crow and humble pie and all that. You can say, “Hey, the world's changed and I think there's energy out there that says we have to think about those at the bottom.”

I'll put a plug in again for faith communities. Some of the work they've done has been very much about how to deal with those who are struggling. I hope society is going to demand of all of us that we pay closer attention.

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

Han Dong Liberal Don Valley North, ON

Thank you, John.

3:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

Thank you, Dr. Milloy, and thank you, Mr. Dong.

Ms. Chabot, you have the floor for six minutes.

3:30 p.m.

Bloc

Louise Chabot Bloc Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I also thank our two witnesses.

Ms. Mahboubi, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the emergency benefits that have been put in place by the government, and the transition periods. That's what my question is about.

As you know, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit has just been extended for eight weeks. This seemed to us to be an unavoidable decision, since the crisis is still having a major impact on the economy, and its effects are far from being resolved. The repercussions of this crisis have had a particular, even disproportionate, effect on women and low-income workers.

However, many of us in the Bloc Québécois agree with you that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit should have been adapted in order to become employment incentives and not disincentives. The Bloc Québécois has proposed that we follow the employment insurance model exactly. In this way, a person earning more than $1,000—let us say $1,500—could keep half of it. However, the government is telling us that this is not technically possible and that we do not have the necessary tools.

Shouldn't we make what is politically desirable possible? We should take advantage of the recovery to do so.

Is the measure you were explaining to us going in that direction?

3:30 p.m.

Senior Policy Analyst, C.D. Howe Institute

Dr. Parisa Mahboubi

In terms of extending the CERB program until the end of the summer, we thought that was a good call and a good direction to go in. First of all, not all provinces and not all sectors are ready to open the workplaces so that individuals can go back to them. At the same time, there are issues related to children and schools. The approach varies across the provinces. For example, in Ontario there is no summer camp. There is no alternative option for parents with children to be able to return to work during the summertime.

Extending CERB was the right call. It was right to do that. As well, it will give the government some time to think about how they want to transfer the large number of individuals from CERB to EI, if that's the right approach, and to either reform EI and use it as the main income support program or think about what needs to be done about CERB.

At the same time, I would emphasize that extending CERB for another eight weeks is fine, but we need to revise the program. We need to give consideration to some or all of the tools I mentioned here in order to be able to tackle the issues with the current design of the program. What will happen after CERB? What will be needed? We definitely don't want two types of income support programs to run for years.

This will be really important to make a decision about. We really need data and we need to think about how long the crisis will take—

3:35 p.m.

Bloc

Louise Chabot Bloc Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

Thank you.

I'd like to check a point with you.

The employment insurance system is an important stabilizing factor. Shouldn't we focus on more structural measures, such as a comprehensive reform of the system, to broaden access and improve benefits, rather than on a transition period?

3:35 p.m.

Senior Policy Analyst, C.D. Howe Institute

Dr. Parisa Mahboubi

If I understand the question, I want to emphasize that we need a separate program for those who are unemployed, but as for which program is necessary for the crisis, it's necessary to think first about how, for example, we need an income-tested program that links benefits to the monthly income of the individuals. This is something that the government is—

3:35 p.m.

Bloc

Louise Chabot Bloc Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

I'm sorry to interrupt you, Ms. Mahboubi, but I'd like to clarify my question.

Given that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit will end soon, should we not focus on structural measures, such as reforming our employment insurance system, rather than relying on another formula?

3:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Sean Casey

A short answer if you could, please, Dr. Mahboubi.