House of Commons Hansard #90 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was health.


Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

4:20 p.m.


Lorne Nystrom NDP Qu'Appelle, SK

Mr. Speaker, I also want to say a few words in the debate, not for any longer than my colleague in the Bloc Quebecois.

I want to register a very general complaint. Once again we have a bill here that originates in the unelected Senate. In the name of democracy I do not think that is a very wise practice and I do not think it is a practice that would be supported by the overwhelming majority of the Canadian people.

There are many dedicated individuals in the Senate but the fact remains that it is a non-democratic house, a non-democratic legislative body. Over the years going back in the history of the CCF and NDP and more recently joined by the Reform Party, they objected to this kind of practice in the House of Commons where a bill that should originate in the House of Commons originates in the other place, in the Senate of Canada.

The bill before the House today is an administrative bill and a highly technical bill. The main debate on the bill should be done before the committee at the committee stage.

Bill S-3 is an act to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985 and also the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions Act. The bill was first introduced under a different name. It was called Bill C-85 in the last parliament and it was introduced in March of 1997. When the writs dropped for the election on April 27, 1997 all legislation at that time ceased to exist as the Parliament of Canada was dissolved.

This bill has been reintroduced and was passed by the Senate on November 20, 1997 and here it is now in the House of Commons.

The bill covers a number of things. First of all, it governs private pension plans set up for employees working in businesses under federal jurisdiction. I think of the interprovincial transportation companies and telecommunication companies. I also think of the Canadian chartered banks and any other institutions under federal jurisdiction.

It does not cover MP pensions or pensions of federal public servants. It covers only private sector pension plans of companies under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Bill S-3 would also introduce to the Pension Benefits Standards Act the same philosophy that governs the changes to legislation governing federal chartered financial institutions in Canada. That of course is of interest now with the talk regarding the merging of big Canadian banks.

The second part of the bill would deal with the office of the superintendent of financial institutions. It would basically enhance the powers of this office to supervise a pension plan in this country.

There are a number of details in the bill in general that can summarize it. It seeks to clarify ground rules for housekeeping and codify the rules of how to handle controversial issue of the treatment of surplus assets on pension plans. It restores a better balance between the employer and those who benefit from the plan. It enhances the ability of the minister to enter into agreements with provinces to apply and enforce provinces' pension legislation. It sets a prudent person approach as long as the definition of a prudent person remains broadly based. That is really the general purpose of the bill, very administrative and very technical.

I want to at this time without going into detail, flag a number of concerns we have in the New Democratic Party of Canada. Regulations can be drafted by order in council that would unnecessarily pass the parliamentary process. In other words, we are handing too much power to the bureaucrats, a few unelected officials, to draft legislation that is never scrutinized by the House of Commons or by the appropriate parliamentary committee. That is a major concern for us. All too often as parliamentarians we cede too much of our power and authority as law makers of the land to bureaucrats who, despite their good intentions, draft regulations that are accountable to no one. Even the minister and her office would be at a loss to explain the regulations. It could change the whole intent of the bill. We have seen that happen many times in the past.

We are concerned about the solvency ratio in the bill. The solvency ratio is much too high. That is something we should get into at the committee stage.

We are concerned about a number of other things. There is the question of a surplus withdrawal. The whole process seems to be very sloppy and incoherent.

Those are some of our concerns. We look forward to pursuing this bill in committee. Unless the parliamentary secretary and the assistant whip can elaborate on the details of the bill, we will pursue this at the committee stage.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

4:25 p.m.


Marlene Catterall Liberal Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Discussions have taken place between the parties. I believe you will find consent for the following motion:

That, if a recorded division is requested later this day on second reading of Bill S-3, the said division shall be deemed deferred until Tuesday, April 28, 1998 at the end of the time provided for Government Orders.

(Motion agreed to)

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

4:25 p.m.


Ken Epp Reform Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to try to persuade all members present that we should give careful consideration to what we are doing here today. I could say I am standing here as part of the body of sober second thought. Usually that terminology is applied to the Senate but since the bill started in the Senate and has already been passed by the Senate, its sober second thought has become the first thought, and so here we are giving it sober second thought in this Chamber.

The unelected Senate has done another wonderful thing for us. It has now reversed the roles of the House of Commons and its own august chamber. I object to that. I am sure thousands and maybe millions of Canadians do. It is time we straightened that Senate up.

I might not object if the senators had been elected, if the people would have had a voice to say which one gets in there. Instead the prime minister of the day appoints whoever happens to have the best party credentials. Then that person becomes a senator. The other thing that is so unconscionable about that is that senator never has to go back to the people nor to the prime minister to be accountable. We saw that recently. The prime minister who has the right to appoint senators has no right to right to dis-appoint them. I use that term advisedly. Even the prime minister who appoints them cannot hold them accountable.

There is a large flaw in a democratic system when we break that circle of accountability. In a circle everyone is accountable to the person either in front or behind them. That is what happens in a democracy. As a member of Parliament I am responsible to the people in my riding. In return, those people are responsible to correctly choose and direct their member of Parliament so we get good laws in this country. The citizens are in that circle of responsibility.

It is unfortunate when the prime minister appoints a Senate and the Senate ends up initiating laws like this because the circle of accountability is broken. We should not be surprised when that happens, that we have laws that are not as good as they could be.

I will talk about the amendments to the Pension Benefits Standards Act, the bill we are debating today.

I have a little problem suppressing my cynicism. What we have here is a government that is proposing to strengthen the role of the superintendent of pension administration. The superintendent is the person who oversees the building of pension funds in the public and private sectors across the country.

The federal government is appointing a superintendent to oversee pension funds, presumably providing protection for the pension funds of employees and employers but mostly on behalf of employees.

One needs to ask what kind of credentials the government can display. Since 1966 one of the largest pension funds in the country has been the Canada pension plan. It was started by the Liberals. Right from the beginning as data were gathered and statistical information became available it was underfunded. When the Conservatives were nine years in power they did not correct it. The Liberals have been in power for a number of years. That pension fund has been administered in such a way that its present unfunded liability is currently about equal to our national debt, both of which are shameful.

It is true that the national debt is a little bigger. We have about $580 billion of debt that we owe directly because government was borrowing. However, if one were to do the actuarial mathematical calculation to see what kind of money is now needed to fulfil all future obligations of the Canada pension plan, one would see the amount of shortfall is in the neighbourhood of $500 billion, an astronomical number. Yet the government starts a bill in the Senate that says we need a superintendent of pension funds.

I agree on behalf of employees that we need to have the assurance that when pension funds are contributed by employers and employees they are properly managed and properly invested. An accounting should be done. There should be proper security of those funds so that no one can abscond with the money. In the event that businesses run into hard times there need to be protections against those businesses reaching into their pension funds, which really belong to the employees, to try to bail themselves out. We need those regulations.

I agree but, as I said earlier, part of me has trouble suppressing my cynicism when the same government says that it should supervise pension funds so that everything goes well and it has such a terrible track record with its own pension fund, the Canada pension plan.

In this instance I think right now that I will support the measures being proposed in the bill. Of course I object that the bill did not start up here, but so be it.

Most of the measures in the bill are needed and I want to support it. I have a concern with sections of the act that state the superintendent, under the authority of the minister, has the powers to do these different things.

Some of the powers are very important. Anybody who reads the act will see that the superintendent, for example, has the right to demand that any new pension fund be registered with his office within 60 days. That is a perfectly fine and acceptable requirement.

This is a way of providing some assurance and some security for employees who are paying into the pension fund. It helps everybody involved in administering the fund to be accountable to someone. There we come back to the question of accountability again.

I have some real serious concerns on behalf of people who work all their lives. When they approach retirement age they suddenly find the things they were planning on have evaporated right under their noses.

I know of a family back in my riding where that happened. This man worked hard in a company for many years. He was about four or five years away from retirement age when the company, how do I put it politely, spun into the ground. It dug itself into a hole. The bosses decided they would try to do some interim financing by borrowing from the pension fund, which on the surface seemed okay at that time. It would have been okay if it would have been a temporary loan, if the company would have recovered and put the money back.

In this instance it became impossible for the company to do so. I am not even sure there was anything illegal about what it was doing at the time. I do not know those details. However it took the pension money to try to bail itself out. The company still went under. Now the employees, including the person I know who was five years away from retiring, suddenly lost their jobs because the company quit and their pension fund evaporated with it. Now he is dependent on Canada pension for which he is eligible. It is really a drastic situation when people who pay into these funds for years and years cannot trust them.

I guess the beginning and the end of what I was to say is included in these statements. We need to make sure as legislators that we implement rules and we set up regulations correctly. I am grateful that in the House of Commons we have the scrutiny of regulations committee. When the superintendent, under the authority of the minister, makes regulations that apply to the administration of pension funds, the regulations are subject to the scrutiny of the House committee. Hopefully that will give Canadians a little more security in the assurance that their pensions funds will be there for them.

I have problems with some of the powers being given to the superintendent. In some instances they seem to be arbitrary. I have additional anxiety about a superintendent being responsible only to the minister.

I can make an outrageous statement here and I am sure I will not hear a voice of protest from them. Ministers in the present government do not always answer questions in question period. When we ask a question about something usually we get a runaround. Usually we get some vicious attack on our party, even maybe saying that we are not being very nice to ask such a question instead of giving us the facts.

What we have here is a superintendent who is answerable to the minister, but who can ever force the minister to be answerable to anyone?

I would like to see a real demand for openness in pension funds. Some of that is included in the bill. It begins a process. Perhaps it does not go far enough, but it requires that the superintendent get information.

I would like to make sure that everyone with a vested interest in the pension fund, whether it is an individual employee or someone even more distantly interested in the pension fund because of administrative procedures and so on, should have access to the records and administrative procedures being used in the administration of the pension fund.

I conclude by simply saying that the administration of pension funds is most important. We are living in an age in which many of us live longer. I come from a family where people live terribly long. I do not know whether I will keep up the family tradition but I expect to do so. That is true for many of us.

I remember as a young man at university studying mathematics, statistics, actuarial tables and things like that. Back then the actuarial tables we used had a life expectancy for a Canadian male of around 62 years. Now that dates me because those are very old tables. The life expectancy for males in Canada is approaching 80 years and for females it is even higher.

We now live longer in that period of time in our lives when we usually do not have jobs. We have retired and are depending on our retirement income. It is incumbent on the government to do what it needs to do so that there is openness and accountability. Pension funds need to be well administered. People need to have confidence in them. They need the government to actually deliver the funds that are expected when they retire.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

4:40 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

It is my duty, pursuant to Standing Order 38, to inform the House that the questions to be raised tonight at the time of adjournment are as follows: the hon. member for Charlotte, Health; the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore, The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy; the hon. member for Edmonton East, Merchant navy veterans.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

4:40 p.m.


Lorne Nystrom NDP Qu'Appelle, SK

Mr. Speaker, I have two questions for my friend in the Reform Party. I applaud what he said about the bill being introduced in the Senate. I said similar things a few minutes earlier. We therefore certainly agree on that and I would like to elaborate for a minute or so.

This practice started decades and decades ago. Over the last few years it has escalated, which concerns me. When I was first elected in 1968 it was extremely rare that the government would introduce a bill through the Senate. If that were to happen, the Hon. Stanley Knowles would rise in the House and object to it. The practice now is becoming more and more common, which concerns me as a democrat. I am talking about a democrat in a democratic process.

Would the member across the way think that the Senate should be abolished? Do we need that other place, or do we form an elected Senate? The problem with forming an elected Senate, having gone through a constitutional process, is that it is very difficult to come up with a national agreement that would carry in the country. As long as we hold out a dream of electing it and reforming it we might be stuck with the unelected Senate.

I went through the Charlottetown process, the Meech Lake process, the parliamentary committees of the House where there was all party consensus and so on, and the most difficult issue was always the Senate. Triple E sounds very nice in principle, but the province of Quebec is unique and distinct with 25% of the people. The huge province of Ontario has 38% of the people. There are many small provinces. We are a federation with 65% or 70% of our people in two of the ten provinces. Therefore it makes it very difficult to reach an agreement on an equal Senate. Ontario and Quebec do not agree to it because of their size.

If the provinces agree to an equal Senate as suggested in the Charlottetown accord, the powers of that Senate would be diminished. Then what would be the purpose of the Senate? I get back to how we put a round peg in a square hole and ask whether or not the member has some advice for the House.

My other question is on the substance of the bill. I am concerned that the powers of the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions are to be enhanced.

Would the member deal in more detail than he did with the types of powers he thinks will be negative in terms of enhancement and the move away from accountability by the House of Commons of the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions?

The issue is becoming more and more an issue of sensitivity as we are looking at the big bank mergers that are coming down. I know this does not affect banks, but it affects people working in private sector companies across the country that are regulated by federal law and jurisdiction such as our major chartered banks.

I know the member is an expert in this area so I would be interested in hearing him go into detail in terms of the powers he is concerned about being enhanced. I certainly agree with him that we are handing too many powers to that official and that office without the scrutiny of Parliament. This whole process should be democratized. Accountability is extremely important in public life and politics.

On the Senate, how do we put that round peg in a square hole? My second question is with regard to the powers of the office of the superintendent of financial institutions.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

4:45 p.m.


Ken Epp Reform Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I will deal with the second question first because it is going to be the shorter of the two. That pertains to the accountability of this particular superintendent.

According to the bill, this superintendent is actually going to have the right to subpoena. He is going to have the right of the court to demand the presentation of documents and he can seize pension funds and put them under his own administration if in his view there is an improper application or administration of those funds. That is a formidable power. There is a lot of money in some of these funds and it is a very great power. That is exactly what I was talking about. How do you make it more accountable?

My answer is simply this. Right now he or she is accountable to the minister. I would like to see a change in our standing orders that requires that the minister answer specific questions. Sometimes in question period members of the opposition ask rhetorical questions and they deserve a rhetorical answer. Sometimes there are very specific questions asked and these should be something in question period or through some other mechanism of the House where members can get right down to the facts.

Whether it is the Canadian Wheat Board, whether it is any one of the other crown corporations or one of the superintendents in the regulators of the government, the idea of openness and accountability has to be the best protection that can be given to the public.

I am very concerned when even our own Access to Information Act usually gives more whiteouts than it does information. It has to be changed because that is where the accountability is. People are not going to do illegal and wrong things if they know they are going to be found out. The temptation to try it is too great if there are easy ways to hide it.

I am now going to address the issue of the Senate. I could speak for an hour on this topic but I will limit it. The question has to do with the Senate. The NDP wants to abolish the Senate. This is wrong. That is the last thing we need.

In the House 60% of the representatives come from Quebec and Ontario. Everybody else outside of those two provinces feels like a second class citizen. In the west we can say it does not matter who is elected because the election is decided by the time the ballots are cast. Of course now with the new elections act the timing is changed, but even then we do not have the power to elect majority members in this House.

If the Senate is abolished and there is only this place and it is based on representation by population, which is proper, the rest of the country is going to continue to be in distress because it could never have a substantial influence on the final outcome of things. The country would keep on getting things like that dastardly national energy program which so affected the west and still does. The west is still reeling from that all these years later.

The member asks how are we going to get a constitutional approval for a Senate. I appeal to the goodness of people. It is heard over and over again that Canadians are such wonderful people, thoughtful, helpful, generous and that is true. Even the NDP members are very generous, albeit usually with other people's money, but they have a generous heart. This should be approached properly by saying this country has a true bicameral system, a House of Commons and a Senate where the representation is of the people based on population. Every 100,000 people would have a member of Parliament who occupies a seat on behalf of those people. The Senate would represent the provinces equally.

If senators were truly elected and representative and equal in numbers per province, they would have legitimacy and the right to introduce bills such as this one. They could introduce legislation and bring it here. Or they could have proper veto rights or amendment rights to bills that are introduced here and sent over there.

I cannot believe that my fellow Canadians in Ontario and Quebec would say that they are so selfish that they will never give up that power. Right now they have it. There are 24 senators in Ontario, 24 in Quebec, 10 in New Brunswick, 10 in Nova Scotia. B.C., the third most populated province, has six. That is wrong.

If we tell them, if we appeal to their goodness, do members not think that eventually we would come to the point where, out of the goodness of their hearts, they would say they believe in fairness? That is a way of achieving it. Let us have an equal number, maybe six senators per province, maybe ten. Now the powers are balanced.

That is my goal. That is one of the reasons I was attracted to the Reform Party. Having representation by population in both Houses as it is now, but even then distorted, introduces such an inequity that it perpetuates a feeling of dissatisfaction and disunity in the country. This proposal would add greatly to our feelings of unity of co-operation as fellow Canadians. It would be a wonderful change. We should never think of abolishing that honourable place, the Senate. Let us make it honourable. Let us make it truly honourable by electing it.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

4:50 p.m.


Michelle Dockrill NDP Bras D'Or, NS

Mr. Speaker, I concur with my colleague from Qu'Appelle with respect to where this piece of legislation has initiated. If it is all right with the Speaker I would like to talk about why I believe this piece of legislation will not improve pension benefits for senior citizens.

Not acting on opportunities to improve pensions and therefore benefits simply adds to the financial struggles of too many vulnerable people. It is beyond me how this can be the goal of any Canadian government. If the letters I am getting from seniors are any indication, the government will have a lot of explaining to do during the next election.

This bill is part and parcel of the government's piecemeal approach to updating the public pension system. The entire set of proposals from the Canada pension to senior benefits has met with opposition from the business community and seniors. The seniors benefit proposal has universally been characterized as too complicated and unworkable by financial planners.

Maybe that is why the finance department has been up to its elbows in a redesign that has no end in sight. The cornerstone of this half finished pension reform is an unqualified failure and the entire policy has no integrity. The finance minister knows that seniors are watching every stumble.

The bill before us provided an opportunity to diminish the government's attack on older Canadians who have claimed what author John Myles calls the citizen's right to cease work before wearing out.

However, in Bill S-3 the government is proposing a mechanism to take the surplus out of private pension plans rather than offer incentives to improve pension plans. This is the wrong message to send. The government's role is simply to do what it can to add to the quality of life of citizens. It can do so by encouraging the improvement and strengthening of pension funds in an attempt to increase benefits.

Pensions and medicare have institutionalized the concept of retirement. Imagine a society where retirement is not institutionalized, where we are not granted the right to a peaceful time in our final years, free from the struggle of the labour market. We have this right today and cutting pensions is an attempt to take that away. To deinstitutionalize retirement, destroying the institution of retirement one pension cut at a time means a person never stops working regardless of age or health.

The evidence is irrefutable that the private sector does not provide enough money by age 65 to create a suitable retirement nest egg for the vast majority of Canadians. This is why there has been consistent public pressure throughout the 20th century for the government to step in. Now it is stepping back from that mandate and the result is clear.

If hon. members go to fast food restaurants and shopping malls they will see some seniors who want to be working, but they will mostly see seniors who have no choice but to stay on the job.

The destruction of retirement, one pension cut at a time, is big brother's right wing dream of social engineering, a sick utopia being administered by the finance department. Canadians do not want the finance department carrying out centrally planned social engineering experiments on their senior citizens. They want pensions the way they were working well before these experiments became so fashionable in corporate and government boardrooms.

If there is one constant theme in the government's scorched earth campaign against the long held Canadian consensus in favour of public pensions it is a complete lack of interest in making life better for seniors. We have seen it with the Canada pension plan where seniors' hopes for a little more money so some can literally turn up the heat another degree next winter were put through the shredder at the finance department. Hopefully it is using the same shredder on the proposed seniors benefit.

The seniors benefit is like some foul monster worthy of the X Files television program, speaking a language that even financial planners cannot understand and striking fear into the hearts of seniors everywhere.

Again the government is slashing benefits by cancelling the old age security and guaranteed income supplement and letting loose the cynically titled seniors benefit.

It should be pointed out that although the government's plan to institute a seniors benefit has been stopped dead in its tracks at least for a while, this did not come about because the government was sensitive to the needs of seniors. The government was unmoved by the outcry from seniors groups and their disbelief on seeing the planned benefit.

No, it was the outcry of wealthy Canadians through their financial planners who said this plan makes it difficult to organize the complicated financial affairs of better off retirees. This group saw the losses involved and together with lower income Canadians delivered a universal message. Thankfully this wretched seniors benefit has been put on hold, and that is the strength of universality.

A nation is not a thing to be divided and conquered by its own government. We are a nation of citizens who deserve to be treated with equal respect. Universality is about equality and balance and the government's approach to destroy universality by expanding means testing for pensions through the seniors benefit has simply upset the fine balance of universality and equality born from the Canadian soul and enshrined in the institution of retirement that we have erected as a symbol of our nation. To dismantle these things is to dismantle Canada.

Bill S-3 has some good intentions. The bill strives to set clear ground rules for housekeeping, restores a better balance between the employer and those who benefit from the pension plan and enhances the ability of the minister to enter into agreements with provinces to apply and enforce a province's pension legislation.

However, the bill also adds unaccountable power to bureaucrats in the name of lowering costs and only addresses the issue of taking a surplus out of a pension fund. This is what most seniors and future seniors are concerned with.

Bill S-3 is an opportunity for the government to address the need to use the surplus wisely. There could have been something in the legislation which encourages pension fund managers to find constructive ways to use any surplus, to perhaps leave the surplus in a fund for the good of those who receive benefits. But the legislation does not do that, which is a shame.

We should be improving benefits or striving to improve benefits. After all, the goal here is to improve the quality of life of our senior citizens.

The government cannot even be bothered to appear to be striving to improve benefits. Clearly, a discussion on how to use any surplus for the good of beneficiaries is lacking in this bill.

Canadians are a prudent people. We like to know there is money in the bank for a rainy day. Statistics show that for the vast majority of seniors old age is that rainy day.

In December Statistics Canada announced a 2% rise in the rate of seniors' poverty over many years of decline, largely attributed to the long established pensions in the country. However, that is not the most telling statistic.

I will quote from a StatsCan report. It states:

A large percentage of the elderly population have incomes near the low income cut-offs. Consequently, rates for seniors are particularly sensitive to small income shifts. The rise in the elderly low income rate reflects the fact that more seniors fell just short of the cut-offs.

Senior citizens are hanging on by a thread in a world where governments are cutting pensions. The government is making cheaper medicine more difficult to obtain and social assistance for the victims of this wild west economy is being rolled up into meaningless tax cuts just so the wealthy can smoke a few more cigars.

The StatsCan report of just five months ago, three days before Christmas, makes it clear that seniors are amassing on the last rung of the economic ladder. It reminds me of the hundreds of thousands of refugees amassing in the city of Dunkirk during the second world war with nowhere to go, looking across the sea for any sign of hope.

This government has millions of economic refugees staring at it through wizened eyes and all the government can think about is who will blink first. It is shameful. This is not about blinking, it is about eating and staying healthy and warm.

There was recently an elderly gentleman from Cape Breton who had to resort to a public plea over radio for help. Unable to pay for his expensive heart medication and facing a refusal for help from the cash starved provincial health plan, the man said he expected to die the next day.

Faced with a member of their community dying in such appalling circumstances, Cape Bretoners responded, as they always do in Atlantic Canada, with generosity. The senior is now being taken care of, but for how long?

What about the thousands of others we know are suffering the same indignities across this country? If the government does not care about them, who will? It will not be multinational drug companies or the multinational insurance corporations. I doubt it will be the banks who are bent on service charging senior citizens right into the grave. The banks are probably the ones who came up with the phrase “You can't take it with you”.

This is the job of the government. If the government is going to treat people the way corporations do, then why have a government? It seems the marketplace is crowded with organizations trying to figure out ways to get their hands on people's money in exchange for nothing but promises and apologies.

Seniors were not born yesterday. They know the government should return to its only market niche of good government, adding to the quality of life of its citizens. Why will the government not through this legislation encourage pension managers to search for ways to increase benefits and help seniors become more independent? This bill makes the improvement of pension plans unlikely and that makes seniors and future seniors less secure. So why bother?

It is part of this government's disturbing pattern of behaviour in the area of pensions. Why did this government announce it was going to cancel the old age security and guaranteed income supplement which Canadians knew they could use as a building block for their retirement, a building block that would not shrink every time they earned a dollar of their own through an RRSP or some other form of investment? Why does the government plan to replace it with a seniors benefit which will give a couple about $18,000 and then take away every dollar of seniors benefit for every dollar earned?

It seems that the government has taken its cue from thieves lurking around banking machines, lying in wait for senior citizens. Seniors are only withdrawing their own money paid through pension contributions and taxes.

Why is the government forcing seniors to work harder, making it harder for them to earn money for their final years, and then taking away their pension, dollar for dollar, with the seniors benefit? Why has the government put senior citizens on a treadmill? Senior citizens do not need to be on a treadmill. They have worked hard all their lives. They have paid taxes. They have defended this country, with their lives in many instances. They have raised families, built businesses, passed on their lessons learned and made their communities better places for all of us. After all that, all the government can come up with in terms of social policy for seniors is to put them on a treadmill.

I think the finance minister needs an education. He needs to learn that senior citizens have a right to cease work and he has a responsibility to ensure that when the private sector uses them up and throws them away it is his responsibility to take them in and thank them for the contribution they have made to this country. That is his job.

We are compassionate people and a Canadian government devoid of compassion is un-Canadian. This is the unseverable cord of this nation's definition of patriotism.

The Minister of Finance says that all of these pension initiatives are designed to maintain the viability of benefits for seniors. If he can maintain them, then he can surely role up his sleeves, get to work and go one step further to improve them. If he does not like the idea of improving benefits, he should step aside and allow someone else who has the stomach for the job to do it.

How can anyone not be interested in caring for the elderly in this country? How can you say no to that? How can you not want to improve pensions and benefits and improve the lives of our wonderful senior citizens?

People who cannot bring themselves to care for senior citizens should think of this. We are all pretending here. We are all senior citizens. We run pensions at our own peril. We are hurting ourselves because we all have our senior years to look forward to. That is who we are hurting when this House passes legislation like the recent downsizing of the Canada pension plan benefits program and, God forbid, the seniors benefit.

How can the government on the one hand slash the Canada pension plan, old age security and the guaranteed income supplement by claiming it is running out of money and then present this bill today with no encouragement to improve pension funds? Is that how we want to teach our children to handle finances? As soon as you get ahead, just throw your money away.

The government is speaking out of both sides of its mouth and seniors have stopped listening. The government should give senior citizens a little more credit.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:05 p.m.


Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I know there are other members who are waiting to give speeches, but I would like to ask the member one brief question.

Is the member aware that the old age security and GIS programs are in fact not being cancelled? Is the member aware that if a person was 60 years of age or older as of December 31, 1995 they would continue to receive the old age security and the GIS, or that they would have the option to transfer to the senior's benefit if in fact that was in their best interest?

I want to know if the member is aware that those programs are not being cancelled.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:05 p.m.


Michelle Dockrill NDP Bras D'Or, NS

Mr. Speaker, in response to the member's question, yes, I am aware of that.

I would like to say that a lot of my comments today have come from the perspective of senior citizens whom I have both talked with and received correspondence from in terms of their concern for their future with all of these changes that the government has proposed.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:05 p.m.


Lorne Nystrom NDP Qu'Appelle, SK

Mr. Speaker, I have a comment that I would like to make which arises out of what my friend from Mississauga South stated. The member made a comment about the seniors benefit.

One of the concerns that I have about the seniors benefit is that I think we are going to end all pretence of universality in this country and that really concerns me as a citizen.

It is very ironic that the Minister of Finance is the son of one of the founders of the national social programs in this country, along with people like Stanley Knowles and other members of the New Democratic Party.

With the seniors benefit, if someone earns a few dollars, they will lose money in terms of their seniors benefit. After they earn a few more dollars, they will lose even more money. After a certain level it will all be gone.

Therefore, people who have saved money for their retirement, who have a middle-class income, all of a sudden will not have a seniors benefit. I am talking about people who were not 60 years of age by the year 1995.

If that happens we will basically have a welfare program and there will be a lack of political support for that program. It will become more and more of a welfare program. There will be a means test and an end to universality.

What a legacy for the Liberal Party of Canada to leave this country. Here is a party which used to pretend in opposition that it was a progressive party which stood up for ordinary citizens. It talked about social programs and the redistribution of wealth in this country.

Here is a party that makes Brian Mulroney look like a raving socialist. It even makes you, Mr. Speaker, look like a raving socialist. I am sure that you would not even advocate, coming from a very progressive Edmonton background, the end of universality for pensions in this country. We have a Liberal Party that is a throwback to the conservativism of the last century. It wants to end universality.

I want to know whether the member for Bras d'Or agrees with me or not.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:10 p.m.


Michelle Dockrill NDP Bras D'Or, NS

Mr. Speaker, that is a really taffy question. Certainly I agree with my colleague.

One of the things I would like to make a point on concerns the people of Bras d'Or.

As I have said in this Chamber on numerous occasions with respect to the problems that are occurring both in Bras d'Or and in Atlantic Canada, what we are finding is that our population is aging rapidly and we have a serious problem with respect to the exodus of our young people.

Contrary to what we hear from the other side of this House, I am not aware of very many jobs that are being created at my end of the country. Therefore, our young people are leaving at a very rapid rate.

As the seniors critic, I am doubly concerned with respect to what is happening with our population in Bras d'Or and how those people perceive these changes will affect them.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

Is the House ready for the question?

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Some hon. members


Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Some hon. members


(Motion agreed to, bill read the second time and referred to a committee)

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:10 p.m.


Marlene Catterall Liberal Ottawa West—Nepean, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I think you would find consent in the House to see the clock as being 5.30 p.m. so that we may move to Private Members' Business.

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

Do we have unanimous consent to see the clock as being 5.30 p.m.?

Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

Some hon. members


Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985Government Orders

5:10 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

For the benefit of those in the gallery I will take a second to explain what is going on.

Normally the House proceeds to Private Members' Business at 5.30 p.m. However, because the House has finished its scheduled business early there has been a request to see the clock as being 5.30 p.m. and we need unanimous consent to do that.

This is why, even though it is not 5.30 p.m., I say “It being 5.30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of Private Members' Business, as listed on today's Order Paper”.

The House resumed from March 16 consideration of the motion.

Labelling Of ToysPrivate Members' Business

April 22nd, 1998 / 5:15 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mr. McClelland)

There are more members who wish to speak than there is time for. We have 45 minutes, which includes 5 minutes for responses, which may or may not be applied in this circumstance. Given that there are more people who wish to speak than time allows for, I remind members that they do not have to take 10 minutes just because they have 10 minutes at their disposal.

Labelling Of ToysPrivate Members' Business

5:15 p.m.


Gary Lunn Reform Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, we are talking about Motion No. 85 brought forward by the NDP member for Acadie—Bathurst. The motion concerns the labelling of toys that contain phthalates. There is apparently scientific evidence to suggest this substance causes cancer.

I have not followed the research on this topic but I am sure the member has done his research. If there are toy companies that produce toys containing phthalates, I would agree with the member wholeheartedly that there should be legislation that these toys must be labelled.

I am not an expert. I am reading only from a few reports. It is the first I have heard that phthalates cause cancer. Someone even suggested to me that these toy companies actually produce soothers containing this substance which are used by infants. I find that absolutely amazing. History has shown this is not the first time horrifying things have happened.

Providing that the science is correct, I would speak in support of this motion. I have to go further and say that we should ban something like this and not just label it. I give a qualified yes because I obviously have not done the research. I am not challenging the research done by the member. I read that tests conducted in U.K. laboratories reveal widespread presence of phthalates in soft plastic toys and other products, particularly teething rings.

A September 1997 report on the subject concludes that the primary problem is that phthalates leaking from these products are being ingested by children. Phthalates are indeed toxic and Greenpeace has been effective in lobbying European toy manufacturers and distributors to pull some of these products off the shelves.

I have two small children at home, a two-year old and a four-year old. I see some eyebrows raised. I am not that old. I am young enough to have a two-year old and a four-year old. I think there are a few grey hairs but I am trying to fight those. There are problems with toys which I have seen even in the few years we have been dealing with this.

I would support the member in this initiative. It is a qualified yes. Unless somebody can tell me differently I would be very in favour of it. I thank the member for bringing this motion before the House.

Labelling Of ToysPrivate Members' Business

5:15 p.m.

Vaudreuil—Soulanges Québec


Nick Discepola LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Solicitor General of Canada

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak in response to the motion put forward by the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst regarding phthalates contained in plastic toys.

The hon. member's motion states that the government should enact legislation mandating toy manufacturers to label toys containing phthalates in order to allow parents to make an informed decision when buying products for their children.

It seems to me that this no doubt well-intentioned motion is somewhat premature. The fact is that there is no conclusive evidence linking all phthalates in toys to health risks for children. In fact, my predecessor already inquired about this, and there has never been a reported case of a child experiencing ill effects from phthalates in this country or anywhere else. That is why the government is not supporting this motion at this time, which does not mean that the government is taking the matter lightly. Quite the contrary.

Health Canada officials are currently investigating the potential health risks of phthalates in polyvinyl chloride or PVC plastic toys.

If at any time clear evidence of health risks from phthalates are established, appropriate action will immediately be taken to protect the health of Canadian children.

Health Canada's investigation of potential health risks from phthalates includes ongoing information exchange with the department's counterparts in the United States and in Europe, with industry, advocacy groups and health associations, as well as a comprehensive literature assessment on the potential toxicity of phthalates.

As part of this investigation, Health Canada officials have undertaken a scientific risk assessment on phthalates in various PVC plastic products. Specifically, they are trying to determine the presence of potentially toxic substances and conducting tests to see if these substances can in fact be absorbed by children.

The department has developed a test protocol and is currently assessing polyvinyl chloride products to validate test procedures. Test results should soon be available to help determine the risks represented by phthalates.

Two of the most valuable tools at the government's disposal are the Hazardous Products Act and the Hazardous Products (Toys) Regulations, which are both administered by the Products Safety Bureau of Health Canada. The legislation in effect totally bans the sale of certain toys while others are not allowed on the market until they meet certain very precise safety standards.

The mission of Health Canada's Product Safety Bureau is to prevent deaths and injuries linked to the use of products. In order to reduce the potential dangers of products intended for children and to promote their safe use, the Bureau operates on a number of levels, particularly by enacting legislation, setting standards and informing consumers.

The Bureau's activities dovetail with those of Health Canada's national information and education program. Child safety and the prevention of injuries linked to the use of consumer products constitute one of the program's key objectives.

I am certain that Health Canada's sound research, coupled with dialogue and consultation with governments, industry and NGOs, will make it possible to clarify the issue and constitute a solid and informed basis for measures the Government of Canada might take in future in this connection.

This well thought out approach reflects Health Canada's decision to have a solid and informed assessment of the risks in order to gain an understanding of the complex health issues,.and to act accordingly, especially where children are concerned.

In reacting in a rigorous and thorough manner to this potential health hazard, we are following up on an ongoing government commitment to ensure the health and safety of all Canadian children.

The Health Protection Branch of Health Canada is making every effort to reduce health risks associated with the natural or artificial environment which can lead to injury or death.

The main responsibilities of this branch are, first, to assess and control the nutritional value, quality and safety of food products; second, to assess and control the safety and effectiveness of drugs, cosmetics, medical instruments, radiation emitting devices and other consumer products; third, to identify and assess environmental risks, and to monitor, prevent and fight diseases; and fourth, to provide laboratory services such as those required for the analysis and evaluation of plastic products containing potentially dangerous phthalates.

At the Health Protection Branch, these various programs are bound together by the government's desire to ensure the health and safety of Canadian children. Of course, this concern is shared by parents and other caregivers, public health workers, product manufacturers and retailers.

By mobilizing all available resources, knowledge and expertise and by co-operating with partners from various sectors, the government has effectively reduced potential risks to our children's safety.

I will conclude by saying that I find this to be a worthy motion, but in light of the efforts already undertaken by Health Canada and because of the lack of information, as mentioned by the member of the Reform Party, I think it is a little premature at this time.

Labelling Of ToysPrivate Members' Business

5:25 p.m.


Suzanne Tremblay Bloc Rimouski—Mitis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak on Motion M-85 put forward by my NDP colleague, the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst.

The motion reads as follows:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should enact legislation mandating toy manufacturers to label toys containing phthalates in order to allow parents to make an informed decision when buying products for their children.

I would like to thank the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst for giving us the opportunity to discuss the safety of the manufactured products that we buy and in particular the potentially toxic products used in the production of children's toys.

Today, Earth Day, is the perfect time to ask us the following questions: In what kind of environment do we want to live? Do we want a healthy environment for our kids? Should we let companies put their profits before the quality of the products they sell? Should our governments legislate to protect our environment and ensure that the legislation is enforced?

The motion before us deals with phthalates. This is a chemical product that is used to make many plastic products more malleable. They are found in a number of children's toys among other things.

Recent scientific studies carried out in several European countries show that these products can cause cancer, liver damage and infertility. These same studies indicate that children, particularly preschoolers, are more vulnerable.

The Vinyl Council of Canada and the Canadian Toy Manufacturers' Association have denied that phthalate-containing toys are dangerous. They have asked that any decision be postponed pending the results of a study underway at Health Canada. But it could take Health Canada months if not years to examine all toys and determine which ones release phthalates. It could take this department a long time to determine the acceptable level of this product in toys.

Why are manufacturers putting people's health at risk by waiting to withdraw their products until phthalates have been proven dangerous? By that time, parents could end up with sick children, and the government would have to bear the cost of any health services needed to restore them to health or to treat them for permanent damage.

Last December, Denmark's environment minister condemned the industry for trying so hard to deny any problems with phthalates instead of looking for safer alternatives. Other substances could be used to make plastic more malleable. Why not use substances that are recognized as safer?

In several countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Argentina, Spain, Belgium, and Italy, stores have voluntarily withdrawn these toys at the request of governments as a preventive measure. This has involved losses for them, but they believed that children's health was more important.

When in doubt, the consumer's interest should always prevail. For example, it is common in the food sector to see a company withdraw all its products from the shelves because a few people got sick. It is a matter of respect for customers.

In 1997, Health Canada issued a warning because children's health could be affected by the lead contained in blinds made of polyvinyl chloride. The fact that these products had been widely distributed before it was realized that they could be dangerous shows the importance of prevention.

The motion before us today at second reading does not even demand that all phthalates be prohibited. It merely asks that a label be put on children's toys containing phthalates, since they could potentially be dangerous. This would allow parents to make an informed decision as to whether they are prepared to take the risk of having their children chew on toys that could release toxic substances. The label put on these products would not say that they are harmful, but it would inform consumers, as is the case with the labels found on all stuffed animals, cereal boxes or other consumer products.

Just this morning, La Presse reported that a five-year old girl was found to have a high level of lead because she kept chewing on a pendant that she received as a Christmas present. Health Canada issued a warning and the American manufacturer voluntarily withdrew the product from the market.

It is only natural for young children to put things in their mouths. It is part of their development and discovery process. This is why it is worrisome to see that teething rings, rattles and other toys that children often put in their mouth for hours may contain toxic substances.

Phthalates are dangerous products. In the laboratories where they are used, they have a label with the warning “Avoid contact”. Since phthalates account for 10% to 40% of the weight of some toys, they can be mechanically released when children chew on these toys.

Studies conducted by the governments of Denmark and Holland, and by Greenpeace's laboratories in Great Britain, show that the quantities thus released largely exceed the acceptable level, up to 40 times according to the European Commission's scientific committee on toxicity, ecotoxicity and the environment, which conducted a study on a phthalate, di-iso-nonyl. These substances get into a child's saliva and then into the digestive tract, poisoning the child.

At the present time, the manufacturers are claiming they meet Canadian standards, which is true, but in reality there are no Canadian standards for acceptable quantities of DINP phtalate or di-iso-nonyl phtalate. There is a loophole in the Hazardous Products Act, since a product not specifically listed in the act is legal, regardless of its level of toxicity.

As far as plastics are concerned, these are not regulated by the Hazardous Products Act. Thus Health Canada has no way of protecting the public from dangerous additives which may be in these plastics. Health Canada could not, therefore, ask retailers to withdraw these products.

I must, however, put the government on guard against the trend toward deregulation, which is being felt in all areas. I am totally in agreement with elimination of the over-regulation that exists in certain areas, in order to simplify and clarify the wording of legislation for the benefit of all. But eliminating red tape must not be confused with deregulation, which would lead to decreased public safety.

At a time when our health system is overburdened and experiencing financial problems, it must be realized that preventive measures will not only save considerable amounts of money, but also a great deal of suffering in the medium and long term.

A child's early years are crucial to physical and intellectual development. Young children are highly susceptible to minimal quantities of toxic substances. This is why it so crucial to ensure they live in a healthy environment and the consumer products in this environment are safe. Healthy children will grow into active and fulfilled adults.

I support this motion and I ask the government to always do the utmost when people's health is at risk because of toxic substances. Human health should get more priority than corporate financial interests, even if companies try to influence the government towards more lenient regulations.

Liberal members are suggesting that the Hazardous Products Act already protects people, but, if the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst had not raised it, the issue of phthalates in children's toys would not have been taken up by Health Canada. In a previous study, the department tested vinyl toys for the presence of lead and cadmium only.

I congratulate the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst on his motion, and I hope it will be passed. It has already generated discussion on the safety of children's toys and forced Health Canada to study this issue.

In conclusion, the hon. member has also reminded us that we should always be on the alert and demand that public safety take precedence over the marketing of consumer products. On behalf of those children who have no voice, and as a preschool education professional with 35 years experience, I sincerely thank the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst for this motion.

Labelling Of ToysPrivate Members' Business

5:35 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative Charlotte, NB

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to the following motion by the member for Acadie—Bathurst:

That, in the opinion of this House, the government should enact legislation mandating toy manufacturers to label toys containing phthalates in order to allow parents to make an informed decision when buying products for their children.

The motion was introduced following Greenpeace's allegations about additives in vinyl toys. It alleged that the phthalates esters, a common family of chemical products, represent a danger to children. It would cause any of us to be concerned when we recognize there could be a danger.

However there is an important point to make. The particular esters we are talking about have been used safely for over 40 years in toys as well as in health sensitive applications, including blood bags, catheters, IV tubing and surgical gloves.

It is not just toys that we are talking about. It is a wide range of medical products. No other plasticizer has been subjected to the same level of scrutiny and testing as the one in question here tonight.

The product we are talking about actually softens plastic and makes it pliable. That is all it does. That is why it is used in children's toys and that is why it is used in surgical tubing. Obviously that tubing is subjected to a lot of stress and has to be able to withstand it.

Last fall Health Canada released a report conducted by the product safety bureau's environmental health directorate. It concludes that the lead and cadmium present in these vinyl consumer products do not pose any significant risk to children. It is important to remember that.

More important, Health Canada has undertaken a risk assessment of phthalates and will be releasing the results of this testing very soon. In fact it should be late this spring or very early summer. In the best interest of parents and children I would suggest that we wait for the risk assessment to be done.

In all fairness, any decision to label toys should be based upon pure science. We have to depend on that. Obviously, if we do not depend upon pure science, the significance of labelling would be seriously undermined. That is the only responsible way to proceed. It has to be based on pure science and the research that is necessary to determine whether or not there is a danger. That is why we are suggesting that we should wait on that.

This party does not have a problem with the member's motion because it is coming from the right place, right here where it should be. The scientific evidence I have been able to gather in the last number of months points to the fact that Health Canada is taking it very seriously and we are going to wait for those results. No scientific evidence shows that there is any kind of a health risk.

I talked about our party respecting the motion and how much work the member has put into it. Our party will be the first to approve appropriate labelling, should the scientific and regulatory agency state that this chemical in question presents any kind of a risk. I want the public to know that. I want members on the government side as well as members on this side to know that.

It is important for all of us to know that some of the Danish studies which were alluded to and examined by Greenpeace have been discredited for what they call producing unrepeatable results. In the scientific world it means that results can be achieved through a certain process. If there is a problem, that should be repeatedly done proving the same stated fact at the end of the test. In this case it did not. They were also using what we consider false methodology. I am sure a few chemists in this room tonight know exactly what I am talking about.

Standards have to be put in place by Canada's health and safety bureau. There needs to be a regulatory standard for intake just as the European Union has already done in terms of the theory to put in place maximum daily intake of DINP.

Based on what we know and the scientific evidence out there, unfortunately we cannot support the motion until the necessary scientific protocols, which are important in the scientific community, have been established and Health Canada has in place regulatory powers under Health Canada's product safety bureau. That is why we are waiting. We will wait for the scientific jury to report back to us and we will make the appropriate decision at that time.