Madam Speaker, it is a special privilege for me to participate in this debate. I am going to spend my time talking about what this government has been doing and proposes to do in support of older workers who sadly find themselves displaced from a job at a time in life when it is not easy to find a new job.
I want to preface my remarks by saying that I have tremendous confidence in the Minister of Human Resources Development. He has put a set of options on the table that I believe are historic. They are based on extensive consultations which took place earlier this year. They are packaged in a format that Canadians can easily understand. I am confident that when the message is fully out and all the options are fully explained, Canadians will significantly support what it is we need to do to put Canada's social security safety net on a solid foundation for the future.
I have had a number of round table discussions in my riding of Algoma over the last few weeks. I have met with a wide cross-section of the community to discuss how these options might affect them and to elicit their feedback. I have been most impressed with some of the things I have learned. I will not dwell on those items today. I am not finished those consultations and in fairness to the participants, I want to give them a summary of those meetings. I will report their comments, the consensus and disagreements to the standing committee and to the minister by early December.
I get the sense that Canadians agree something has to be done to improve how we take care of those in need, how we make sure our young people get a proper education, how we take care of older workers who find themselves displaced. I am confident that the proper choices will be made when legislation is proposed next year.
I especially want to spend time talking about the men and women who have devoted their lives to building this great nation. I know hon. members will agree that older workers deserve the same consideration as do all Canadian workers. Of course older workers generally find change much more difficult to deal with than younger workers, which is quite understandable.
In years past workers could count on being at a job from their late teens or early twenties until it was time to retire. Unfortunately and regretfully times have changed and the world of work has changed. Our country is very much enmeshed in the global
economy and it is not so easy for people now to look forward to a lifetime of work at the same workplace.
We require of our citizens and of ourselves a lifetime of learning and adaptation, but there are older workers who find themselves trapped. We are all creatures of habit. After spending 25 years or more at one job it is quite a challenge to suddenly be out of a job and faced with finding another job. This is usually a shock to the worker and his family. If it is part of a large lay-off in the community it is a shock to the entire region.
Canadians are resilient. We have adjusted over many decades and I am sure we will be able to do so in the future. This government is certainly not abandoning older workers during the reform of our social security system. They are very much full participants in the reform process.
This stage of social security reform is a learning process and we are learning from the measures we have already taken for older workers. For example, I remind hon. colleagues that the government did not abandon older workers who were hard hit by the decline in a large number of this country's industries. We have seen tremendous dislocation over the last 10 years. We have not and will not abandon those in need. The coming changes will ensure that those in need are protected.
One program that has been most helpful and has come into play in a number of difficult situations is the program for older worker adjustment, commonly known by its acronym POWA. Through absolutely no fault of their own many older workers find themselves out of a job and sadly with very little chance of finding a replacement job. This is where the program for older worker adjustment can be so helpful.
Canadians want us to show compassion for those individuals, those hard working men and women who have contributed to the economy of Canada for the greater part of their lives. Let me emphasize that POWA is not a disincentive to seek work. By helping older workers adjust because they cannot find a job is not keeping them away from the workplace but simply providing a safety net or a bridge until they can make an adjustment or until their old age pension comes into play.
This program is only one of a broad range of options available to older workers. As I say, it is only one measure the government has taken to support older Canadian workers. POWA has been a carefully crafted program that addresses the needs of workers. It is a fine example of government innovation and partnership between the federal government and various provincial governments to provide long term income assistance to older workers with little or no re-employment prospects.
I can say from personal experience and the experience of hundreds indeed thousands of workers in my riding of Algoma that a number of laid off workers have benefited from the program for older worker adjustment. Since 1990 we have seen the loss of nearly 4,000 mining jobs in the community of Elliot Lake. In this group of nearly 4,000 workers many hundreds have been in the awkward age of 55 to 60.
The program for older worker adjustment has been of significant help to many hundreds of laid off workers in Elliot Lake and the north shore region of my riding. While POWA cannot solve the financial problems of every individual family, it can play a major part in making life a lot easier during a very difficult time for these laid off workers.
I would like to point out another example of where this government has exhibited its extreme interest in older workers. In the province of New Brunswick there is the New Brunswick job corps program. It is a proactive program that helps older workers get back into the labour force. It is different from the program for older worker adjustment. It recognizes the need to try different things in different areas and is a newer initiative.
I will explain how the New Brunswick job corps initiative works. I will use the example of Gilles, which is a name I will use for the purpose of this discussion. He is a 53-year old worker who was on social assistance. Like many others his age, he had years of work experience but could no longer find work. At 53 it was very difficult; the new technology had simply pushed him aside. He was in danger of getting caught in the welfare cycle and Gilles being a proud person did not want to be on welfare.
Thanks to the federal government's strategic initiatives program, we have been working in partnership with the New Brunswick government and since last July Gilles has been employed through the New Brunswick job corps. This older worker is now employed by the city of Bathurst in its parks, recreation and tourism department. How does Gilles feel about this? To quote him he says: "I would rather be here than on welfare". I do not think it matters so much the kind of work Gilles is doing.
I am certain all of my hon. colleagues will agree that very few people who find themselves on welfare, family benefits or unemployment insurance actually prefer to receive their income through those programs. As the Prime Minister has often said the very best form of assistance and the best form of income is a job. One can achieve the dignity of bringing home a paycheque with which to purchase the family's food and shelter.
People like Gilles, and there are many thousands, can benefit from the kinds of initiatives this government is bringing forward
that will give people a chance to have dignity each day as they bring home a well earned paycheque.
The strategic initiatives program is a partnership with the provinces and territories. Together we are funding projects on a 50:50 basis. In the New Brunswick example it is a $40 million investment over five years. This new kind of partnership, along with POWA which has been in existence for a number of years, is an example of the leadership of this federal government in trying to get this country back on the right road. Another example is job link in Ontario, a creative idea to allow welfare recipients broader opportunities to get back into the workplace.
Gilles is only one of about a thousand participants in the New Brunswick program. Older displaced workers between the ages of 50 and 65 are given a guaranteed annual income of up to $12,000 in return for a minimum of 26 weeks of work. It gives these deserving men and women the opportunity to feel good about themselves. They are doing meaningful work and contributing to the prosperity of their province.
The strategic initiatives program is enabling us to test innovative and cost effective ways of reforming our social security system. It is helping us to determine the best approach to creating lasting employment, to understanding what is needed in education and training and to adjusting income security measures so they address the realities of the 1990s.
Of course the question often comes up: What have you done for us lately? This past Friday on behalf of the Minister of Human Resources Development I was involved in the announcement of a major study that will eventually help us to understand measures needed to assist older workers and other laid off workers.
This major study was announced in Elliot Lake. It will provide valuable information, research that is available nowhere in the world on what happens to the community, the businesses, older and younger workers, families, spouses, children, teenagers, when there is a major layoff in a community.
The study will be undertaken by a research team from Laurentian University in Sudbury in co-operation with the community. It will study the long term effects not only on displaced workers but on their community.
Something like 4,000 jobs have been lost since 1990 in a community where the population was roughly 18,000 and several more thousands in the nearby north shore. There is only one mine left with about 550 workers. In spite of that some marvellous things are happening in the community of Elliot Lake and the surrounding area. You would be surprised at how vigorously the community has responded to the tremendous challenges it faced when the major layoffs occurred. I am very proud to have this community and this region in my riding.
I believe this study will show that this occurrence and the response of the community will be an example to the rest of the country on how to deal with major layoffs. Imagine nearly 4,000 workers out of a population of 18,000. That is nearly 25 per cent of the entire population. They had good paying jobs in the mining sector. Take 4,000 jobs out of a community and see what happens if there is no creative response.
Come and visit the area and see the miracle that is occurring, the response. In fact the population did drop a little bit. It is about 13,500 now. Projections are that it will soon start growing if it has not already done so.
This research announcement is again a partnership initiative with the province. The federal government will invest a little over $2 million under the innovations program. I believe great things will be learned from this exercise.
In Quebec the federal government recently announced joint assistance to help eligible unemployed older workers between the ages of 55 and 59 whose benefits after unemployment insurance and other normal assistance programs had run out. Major lay-offs which meet the program criteria are designated by federal, provincial and territorial ministers on a case by case basis after being assessed according to a range of socioeconomic factors.
The government is not sitting back, lying down and waiting for things to happen. We are acting proactively to anticipate what Canadians need.
This is all part of social security reform. Older workers are invited, in fact encouraged to give their views to the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development during the committee's current public hearings. Their input is welcome and will be given as much consideration as that of any Canadian. Of course all citizens are entitled to express their views to their member of Parliament. I am sure that each member will ensure the minister and/or the committee will hear their views. It is important that we reach a consensus on how to repair the social safety net.
As I said earlier, older workers are full participants in social security reform. Through the various programs and services that address their needs we will gather valuable information. I assure the House that the information will be reflected in our development of new social security policies and programs.
I have been focusing on older workers particularly. The critical needs of our older workers must never be forgotten. The workplace has changed permanently and we must be creative in our search for solutions.
I would like to conclude there. I mentioned earlier the round tables that I have had in my riding. I have been amazed at how much I have learned sitting around a table with average Canadians. We were all equals at the table. With all due respect to this place, I have learned as much around the table over a cup of coffee with average Canadians as I often have at meetings here in Ottawa. It is amazing the insights that one can get and garner
from the experiences of folks who are living with their problems in their communities every day.
I encourage those members who have not already planned their round tables or public meetings to do so. They are well worth the trouble.