Mr. Speaker, before I begin my remarks I would like to congratulate you on your election to the chair. I believe you are the third elected Speaker that we have had in the history of the country.
I would also like to take the opportunity to thank the voters of Egmont for returning me for the fourth time in the last general election. I believe we came into the House at the same time, Mr. Speaker, so we must have been doing something right for our constituents.
This is the fourth time the people of Egmont voted for me. I am both humble and grateful that they bestowed the honour upon me. The riding of Egmont extends from the new city of Summerside on the eastern boundary all the way west to the North Cape. With the exception of the aerospace industry in Summerside, most of the industries in the riding of Egmont are seasonal in nature.
It is a very important fishing area of Atlantic Canada, with 12 small craft harbours in existence and a very lucrative lobster industry. Farming is a very important part of the economy of my riding with exceptional potato producing areas and dairy and swine industries. Forestry plays a smaller but vital role. Tourism is an ever growing part of the economy of Egmont. The construction industry also plays a vital role in the riding.
The unemployment insurance program is a vital program for the people of my riding because most of the industries are seasonal in nature. They must have this program in order to survive.
As I stated earlier, I have been here 12 years and I have seen the evolution of this file, the EI-UI debate, through the previous Conservative government and our own EI bill. Now, as a newly appointed member of the HRD standing committee, I will be playing a closer role with the program to see that it becomes a more responsive program for the people of Canada.
I heard people say how unfortunate it was to have time allocation invoked to get the bill through the House, even after we have gone through the last two federal elections with EI being one of the more prominent issues in the election debates. Both times the people of Canada have returned this government. They must be supporting our concept of employment insurance much better than the proposals that were set forth by the Conservatives, the Alliance, the Bloc Quebecois or the NDP governments.
Maritimers have also heard criticism that perhaps Atlantic Canadians should go to where the jobs are. The most mobile people in Canada are the people from Atlantic Canada. If we were to go to the oil fields of Alberta, for example, we would find that most of the workers there are maritimers. If we were to go to Fort McMurray, we would see that over half the population of that city comes from Newfoundland and other parts of Atlantic Canada.
We always respond to where the jobs and have done so since Confederation, whether it was out immigration to the Boston states as we call them, or to Toronto when there were job opportunities, or to Vancouver when there were job opportunities or to Alberta where there are job opportunities now.
I know people who work the seasonal industries in my province. In the fishing industry, for example, workers fish during the spring and summer. They go to Alberta to work the rest of the year. Then, they return to Atlantic Canada to go back to the jobs where they grew up as sons of fishermen, hoping one day to replace their parents in the fishing industry.
Critics of the government claim that the contents of Bill C-2 represent backtracking on the reforms introduced in 1996. Nothing could be further from the truth. The government promised that if a monitoring process indicated that the changes were not producing the desired results, then legislation would be changed. Today this is what we are doing. We have found that the bill, as passed by the House a number of years ago, has a number of flaws in it. We are moving to correct those flaws.
It was generally agreed during the early days of this government that the unemployment insurance scheme needed to be replaced. It did not respond to the new economy in the 21st century. After much consultation with Canadians and despite the outraged cries of the opposition, some of whom did not want an EI program at all and others who wanted a guaranteed annual income, the government brought in a program to replace the old regime with the employment insurance program.
The new plan was designed to be sustainable, to be fairer, to encourage work, to reduce dependence on benefits, to assist those most in need and to help workers get back to work and stay at work. The program was implemented with the knowledge that being new it would not necessarily be perfect. We knew that with time we would likely identify areas requiring improvement. The legislation allowed for a period of continuous monitoring and assessment of the program to measure its impact on people, communities and the economy.
This is not the first time that adjustments to the EI regime have proven necessary. The government acted quickly in 1997 to launch a small weeks project in order to correct a disincentive for some people to work weeks with low earnings.
As the member for the area who identified the weakness, I knew that potato grading companies could not find workers. If people came into the potato warehouses for one, two or three days during the week, their benefits would be cut in half by their response to that call to go to work. This obviously was a disincentive to get people to work. We immediately moved to correct that.
Our studies and discussions with Canadians have shown us that many parts of the EI program are working well. There are some provisions that have proven ineffective, particularly toward seasonal workers. We have always had and we will always have seasonal industries. These industries are vital to our economic well-being.
On Prince Edward Island, in Prince county alone, 65% of the workforce works less than a 12 month period in one year. I take offence with anyone who suggests that these changes will simply make it profitable for industries to gear up for a short season. I would like to comment that the seasonal businesses which are profitable, when they have such a short window of opportunity, are very fortunate.
It should be noted that seasonality is determined by a much higher power. If mother nature did not co-operate these businesses could no longer be profitable and the basic existence of many of them would be put into jeopardy.
As for the employees, if the EI program was not in place what would they do to support their families without an income? We are talking about the reality of seasonal workers across Canada, not just in Atlantic Canada. Because these industries by definition employ people for only part of the year, we must always remain watchful to ensure that our economic and social programs do not exclude these people from living and working.
While EI aims at helping all unemployed workers, we must also recognize that some groups, such as seasonal workers, have particular needs and the program has special features built in to benefit seasonal workers across the country.
The hours based system, for example, takes into account the fact that seasonal work often involves long hours of work per week. It also identifies a sector of the workforce, even with part time work over the full year, that can now qualify. For example, an employee who works in a seasonal job can accumulate hours in smaller numbers in the pre and post season in order to qualify for benefits which previously he or she was not entitled to.
As I have mentioned, one of the intentions of the EI program is to reduce dependence on benefits by all Canadian workers, including seasonal workers. The so-called intensity rule was therefore introduced to discourage use of EI benefits by reducing the benefit rate of frequent claimants.
The unavoidable fact is that many seasonal workers have no choice but to resort to EI benefits. There simply are not enough job opportunities available to them in the off season. That is why Bill C-2 proposes removal of the intensity rule. This translates into a maximum of $988 for a 26 week period and $1,710 for a maximum 45 week claim in the pockets of Canadians. If there was a maximum claim of 26 weeks, they would only get $40 more a week when the intensity rule is dropped. It may not seem like a very large amount of money, but for someone making $200 a week this represents a very large portion of that person's income.
I encourage all members to support this program and get these measures through as quickly as possible for the benefit of all seasonal workers in Canada.