Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this very important piece of legislation, a piece of legislation that has been a long time coming.
Before I get into the legislation itself, I do want to take this opportunity to thank the people of Churchill riding for their support of myself and the staff in my office. I believe that by re-electing me they were also showing support for the work that the staff in my office have done over the last three and a half years in acting and speaking on their behalf in the Parliament of Canada. Churchill is a huge, very diverse riding, with aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations that are almost an even split. There are industrial communities and very poor communities. I truly thank the people from the riding for their show of support.
Within the riding I have 31 first nation communities. The unemployment rates in those communities are extremely high. I am not talking about 15% to 20% unemployment. I am talking 70%, 80%, 90% or 95% unemployment in a number of those communities, so I can tell the House that it has been a very tough haul in the last few years.
Many who do work in those communities work at seasonal and part time employment. A lot of that employment is reliant on winter roads: logging and the shipping of equipment and goods over those roads while they are in place. Others fish, trap and are guides at some of the best world class fishing and hunting lodges. Others find work in the construction industry in the spring, summer and early fall, the only times that we are really able in the north to do a lot of those things.
Through no fault of their own, the seasonal and part time workers have suffered severely under this Liberal government's employment insurance strategy. It is no wonder, because I listened to a previous Liberal colleague indicate that the Liberal government planned its program so that people would not be dependent on EI. I do not know which people on EI he knows, but most I know would gladly be working rather than be on EI. They do not plan their lives to be on employment insurance.
I suggest that when a government has a warped sense of guidelines as to what a program is based on, chances are that it will come up with a program that does not meet the needs of the unemployed. That is why we saw people struggling to survive on low EI payments or being forced to go on welfare. Let us be clear about this: when the government cut EI payments, the numbers on social assistance increased and the numbers using food banks increased. In my riding alone, in the year 1998, EI benefits were reduced by just under $17 million. A riding of about 78,000 people saw a reduction of $17 million in money coming in. Most of those people had very low incomes.
Who suffered from this misguided Liberal program? Those people exactly, those least able to cope: the aboriginal and seasonal and part time workers and the women, pregnant or otherwise, were those whose suffering was greatest.
This program failed drastically to meet the needs of those people and not at a time when there was not money in the program to benefit those people. With huge surpluses in the program, what did the government do? It used those dollars to make it seem like the government, with its great planning, was reducing the deficit.
That was not the case. It was not the government that was doing a darn fine job of management. It was the government doing a darn fine job of ripping off those people paying into EI, the employers and the workers who were out there working and supporting a program that they wanted to have available for workers who did not have the opportunity to work. The workers who are out there do not begrudge paying EI, but they want to know that the dollars in the EI program are going to unemployed workers and to training and not going to making the finance minister or the Prime Minister look good. They want the money to go to what it was designed to do.
Before I get into more of my thoughts on the government's misuse of EI dollars, I also want to comment on an article I have in front of me. My staff often think I am a little crazy because I read almost everything that comes across my desk. I often find really good work. This is from Health News , from the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine. It is from an article from early last year called “Can Unemployment Make you Sick?”
It's not just the fact of losing a job and an income. People's identities can be highly tied to their jobs—traditionally the case for men—so a job loss can be psychologically traumatic. —The stress of job loss can produce actual biochemical changes in the body (although not all of those are necessarily negative). —higher levels of cortisol, prolactin, growth hormone, cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol, as well as lowered immune reactions compared to when they were still working.
I listened to all these people that have been talking today on EI and I ask them to think of the number of adult men in the fishing industry, in the part time jobs and the seasonal jobs in my riding. How many fall into this category?
The article continues:
Among adult men in particular, unemployment is associated with a higher risk of heart disease. Unemployed workers visit doctors more often and are admitted to hospital more frequently than employed people. There's even evidence of an increased death rate among unemployed people—particularly unemployed middle aged men—with suicides, accidents, heart disease and lung cancer accounting for the increased mortality.
Did these people need the added stress and hassle of the Liberal government's employment insurance plan cutting the number of weeks that they were able to work, adjusting the intensity rule and not allowing them to get as much from their benefits as before? Did they need that? No. Added to the stress, they got an employment insurance program that did not meet their needs. They were made to feel like criminals for wanting their own dollars that they put into unemployment. Also, the government could make itself look good.
The government has come up with this legislation and I should note that they waited long enough to do it after the great work of members of this House of Commons. I want to commend my colleague, the member for Acadie—Bathurst, as well as a number of Bloc members who worked very hard to continually bring up the issue of changes needed in the EI program, time and time again.
It must have been two and a half or three years before the government finally listened and came up with this legislation, saying yes, it would identify some of the areas that need to be changed. Is it going to solve the problem? Not a chance. The problem is still there, and again, not because the dollars are not there in the EI program. They are there. I believe it is $38 billion a year we are looking at. That surplus is going to be a huge amount of money, which was intended for the use of unemployed workers and those who needed training. These changes are definitely not going to meet those needs.
There are some other areas we could look at improving. The government could have looked at amendments to eliminate the two week waiting period for apprentices. I hope and I am sure they will be introduced at committee stage or in the House of Commons later on. Why on earth, with a surplus in the fund, would the government not put in place amendments allowing apprentices this? These men and women are apprenticing. They are in the workforce, but they want to go back to school. They need money coming in. EI will pay them, but there is a two week waiting period.
Why on earth is there a two week waiting period? Why on earth do they have to be penalized for being in the workforce and continuing their education? Why on earth would the government put in a two week waiting period and leave it there when there is a surplus in the EI program? There is no reason whatsoever other than to give a pat on the back to the finance minister.
We could increase the maximum insurable earnings and give those people who are working in high income jobs the opportunity to pay in on that and then get an increased amount back. Also, the qualifying period should include any period of employment, 52 weeks in the 260 weeks preceding. Give a fair chance to people who are going out there looking for whatever job they can get. It can be sporadic, with a week here or a couple of days there, but they are out there, so give them a fair chance to benefit from the employment insurance plan.
Again, as a number of Bloc members have mentioned today, allow the self-employed to be active participants in the EI program. It is not as if the program is suffering. It is not as if these people would not willingly pay into the program. A good insurance program does not look at how it can cut and slice and take away parts of itself. It looks at how the program can be enhanced. Let us enhance the program and allow more people to access it. Allow the self-employed to pay into the program and access it.
We need to allow persons receiving workmen's compensation payments to continue making EI payments. Right now they are restricted from doing so. I have situations in my riding where persons who are getting workmen's compensation do not have payments made to EI or CPP due to the nature of the way the structure has been set up. As a result, they are in a crucial period.
Madam Speaker, I know you are giving me the timelines, so I just want to follow up and say that I also support the setting up of a separate commission or insurance board to look after EI.
I also have just one comment. I suggest that what has happened with the Liberal government is that the finance minister is acting as Robin Hood and Prince John has joined him in taking money from the unemployed and giving it to the rich.