Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, committee members, for inviting me to join you today.
I'd like to acknowledge that I am joining you from the traditional territory of the Tsawwassen and Musqueam first nations.
I would like to begin by acknowledging the work you are doing on the study of the employment insurance program. I am confident that your findings will be helpful as our government moves forward with the modernization of this program.
Last Friday, we learned that Canada gained more than 303,000 jobs in the month of March. This brings the national unemployment rate down to 7.5%, the lowest since the start of the pandemic. While we are encouraged by the fact that we have regained 91% of the jobs lost during the pandemic, many Canadians continue to experience unemployment or reduced hours, especially in light of ongoing restrictions and new lockdown orders. I note in particular the challenges being faced by young people and women.
Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how the EI program has not kept up with the way Canadians work or been agile enough to respond to emerging labour market trends. We also saw the shortcomings of EI as a response to the pandemic.
First, through EI, we could not help all Canadian workers who had been impacted by pandemic-related job loss. Second, we couldn't efficiently process the incoming volume of applications to quickly get money to Canadians so they could pay their bills and put food on the table.
So we made a strategic decision to go outside the EI framework to provide immediate support to all affected Canadian workers. That's how the Canada emergency response benefit came about.
Working across departments and across party lines, in a very short time we were able to design, build, legislate and operationalize this new benefit. Over eight million Canadians received the CERB during the most uncertain of times.
As many of you know, the EI program has been built upon and reoriented over many decades, with different governments having different priorities over the years. As a result, it's become the most complex system within the Government of Canada.
Colleagues, we have before us an opportunity to make EI more inclusive and responsive to the needs of Canadian workers today. Since 2015, we've made important changes to EI, including enhancing provisions for working while on claim, extending parental benefits and creating the family caregiver benefit. Additionally, we made significant changes to the EI program last September to efficiently transition Canadians from the CERB to EI. These changes included a single national employment rate, an hours credit for regular and special benefits, a minimum weekly benefit rate of $500, and simplification measures to increase the speed of processing.
I'll note that over 3.9 million EI claims have been received since last September. This is in addition to the 2.7 million applications received for the CRB, the CRSB and the CRCB.
The temporary changes to EI were put in place for one year and are set to expire on September 21, 2021, meaning that the system will revert back to pre-pandemic parameters at that time. Our work to modernize EI must take into consideration a time frame of September 2021.
We must also consider the fragility and complexity of the EI program itself. We must set priorities not only in terms of the desired policy outcomes, but also in terms of the time it will take to effect a particular change. We must also consider the effect of a change on our ability to make other changes. This is why the sequencing of systemic changes becomes an important consideration.
We can all agree that conversations about changing or modernizing EI have been ongoing for some time. In fact, some of our COVID-related changes to the EI system have been called for by stakeholders for years.
In addition, stakeholders and experts have told me very clearly that they wanted to contribute, but they also wanted to see concrete action.
With this in mind, in the weeks and months to come, our government will be sharing with Canadians both our vision for a modernized and inclusive EI system and our plan to get there, including how we will address the September 2021 reversion to the former system and our plan for ongoing consultation on specific elements of the EI system.
Colleagues, a well-functioning EI system should ensure that benefits are accessible and adequate, equitable across regions and unemployed workers, limit disincentives to return to work and more generally promote a healthy labour market. While this might seem like a tall order, I am confident that we can get there and deliver for Canadians.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.