Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Bras d'Or—Cape Breton.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Bill C-44, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act.
The bill does a number of things. It extends the period for the application of certain provisions of the Employment Insurance Act. It changes the method of calculating the maximum yearly insurable earnings. It exempts persons who receive certain special benefits from being considered as new entrants or re-entrants to the labour force. It removes the reduction of the rate of weekly benefits. It changes the premium rate applicable to insurable earnings. It reduces the number of cases in which benefits have to be repaid and it makes various other consequential amendments.
While I rise to indicate that the NDP supports the bill, the word support almost gets caught in my throat, because we do have some grave reservations around the legislation and what it attempts to do.
While it does take a step toward addressing the critical conditions of Canadian workers, especially those who are working in seasonal industries such as forestry, fishing, tourism, transportation, the auto industry, construction and various other trades, it does not go far enough, and I emphasize this, for the many workers who need help but cannot get any because some provisions of the Employment Insurance Act make them ineligible for EI benefits. While it is a step in the right direction, we feel a lot more has to be done.
The changes that are spelled out in the bill are changes that are important for people living in the Atlantic provinces. I should state right at the outset that people in the Atlantic provinces are not lazy, as the Canadian Alliance would like the public to believe. We are not lazy. We are not unwilling to go where the jobs are. We are not indifferent to the opportunities available to us.
In the Atlantic provinces we are very industrious. People in the Atlantic provinces are hardworking. They are more than willing to go to where the jobs are if the opportunities do not exist in the Atlantic provinces. Unfortunately over the years, because of the treatment of the Atlantic provinces by the Conservative and Liberal regimes, we have not had the opportunities to succeed on our home turf in the same manner that others have had.
However, I am pleased to say that I have travelled to many parts of Canada. Everywhere I go I always run into Nova Scotians, Newfoundlanders and New Brunswickers, people who have gone to where the jobs are because they are determined to care for and look after their families, so much so that they will pull up roots from the Atlantic provinces and move elsewhere to provide a living for their families.
We will dispel the myth being put out there by the Alliance. It indicates that people in Atlantic Canada are looking to the Alliance for guidance and support. That is far from the truth.
To turn to the government, the reason we have concerns about the bill is that we feel the government has not had the desire to make any real substantive changes. It is quite interesting to note that the changes being made are coming on the eve of an election.
The government has not learned yet that people in Atlantic Canada are not naive enough to accept handouts at the time of an election. While it is important to make changes, and these changes are important, let us not delude ourselves as to the timing. The government has had seven years during which it could have paid some very serious attention to unemployment in the Atlantic provinces and to making the situation much better for people who are unemployed.
While there are changes in the legislation that will have a positive effect on the lives of those who are unemployed, we still feel that major changes are required if one is to deal adequately with the problem of unemployment.
It is important when we are talking about unemployment not to treat unemployment after the fact, not to be coming in when there is a problem and saying that we will fix this and patch it up by doing this, this and this. There is an important connection between unemployment and the attitude that we in society take to preventing unemployment. We should adopt a preventive approach. There is a connection.
In that regard we should be looking at the kinds of training we are providing and the kinds of jobs we are putting forward for our youth. It is very important to invest in the young people of our country in a meaningful way. Yet look at what is happening to a lot of our young people. They are attending university and struggling to obtain an education so that they can become productive members of society, and they find themselves faced with huge tuition fees.
In Nova Scotia I believe we pay the highest tuition fees per capita in the country. Yet we expect our young people to be able to eke out a living for themselves under those conditions. What happens is that they come out of university with high debt loads before they even have an opportunity to have a job. In terms of student debt, they owe anywhere from $25,000 and up. That is one measure the government should be looking at very closely if it is concerned about this cycle of unemployment and this cycle of dependency that comes from unemployment.
We should also be investing in our women, in looking at the kinds of opportunities that should be made available to our women. Regardless of what people may say about how far we have come in terms of gender equality, it is still pretty much a man's world out there when we look at business, industry and various professions. I had the opportunity not too long ago to speak to the Canadian Society of Civil Engineering. The first thing that struck me when I looked around the room was that there was a whole roomful of men with one or two women in that profession.
Yet we know that when it comes to designing infrastructure and looking at what is important for our society, women, who constitute at least 50% of our society, have a very important role to play. Quite often they bring a much different perspective to what the needs are than men do. We must have that balance in our approach.
The government should be looking at the kinds of things that support women in the jobs they are doing, in the professions they are seeking. We had a good example of how that was not done until the government was forced to the wall when we look at the pay equity issue and how hard we had to fight to have it dealt with by the government. All of this ties in with the question of unemployment.
We can look at investing in our minority groups and in the aboriginal people of our country. When we look at the conditions on reserves and in the aboriginal communities we see that the poverty rate is much higher than elsewhere, as are the death rate, the incidence of diabetes and all kinds of things. Also the unemployment level is much higher.
Yet when opportunities come up whereby aboriginal people are desirous of making a living for themselves, when they want to enter into sharing resources and make a living in a very productive way, we see the government taking a hard line rather than sitting down and starting negotiations before a crisis arises, a crisis where we can look out on the water and see small fishing boats being rammed by huge government boats. These things are not right.
This is not right. This all ties in with the attitude that we have when we approach problems and start devising legislation. Is obtaining votes the only motive for devising change in legislation? Do we devise change only at a time when we feel it will be popular to do so?
I suggest that we talk about the high degree of unemployment in our aboriginal communities and that we look at the lack of opportunity that quite often exists for people of minority status. I look at people who have come here from other parts of the world and are driving taxis. All they can do is drive taxis because we have some kind of magic formula which determines that only people born in Canada who have degrees in engineering can be engineers, or that only people born in Canada who have degrees in trades can perform those trades. We have to change our attitudes if we want to make the country work, if we want to produce a society that is fair and just.
I will conclude on that note. We have to be serious about the underlying root causes of the problem and not just tinker around with the symptoms of the disease. Let us deal with the disease itself, bring about a cure for that disease, and work hard to make the country the kind of country of which we all can be proud.