House of Commons Hansard #6 of the 37th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was benefits.


Ways And Means

11 a.m.

Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel Québec


Alfonso Gagliano LiberalMinister of Public Works and Government Services

Mr. Speaker, there have been discussions among the parties and I believe you would find unanimous consent that a division be deemed to have been requested on government orders Ways and Means Motion No. 1 and that the said division be deferred until 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 6.

Ways And Means

11 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Is that agreed?

Ways And Means

11 a.m.

Some hon. members


Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11 a.m.

Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel Québec


Alfonso Gagliano Liberalfor the Minister of Human Resources Development

moved that Bill C-2, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and the Employment Insurance (Fishing) Regulations, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11:05 a.m.

Laval West Québec


Raymonde Folco LiberalParliamentary Secretary to Minister of Human Resources Development

Mr. Speaker, our parents always equated work with health. Our Prime Minister often tells us work is dignity. Meeting our own needs and those of the people who depend on us is also a source of pride, self-esteem and hope in the future. That is why this government has worked so hard, and continues to work so hard, to sustain the economic health of this country. We are very much aware that prosperity creates jobs, many jobs.

Since our government was first elected in 1993, more than 400,000 jobs have been created in Quebec. As a result, there has been a five point drop in the unemployment rate, to a 25-year low.

We are proud of Canada's economic performance. There are 2.1 million more jobs today than when we took office in 1993. We know that all Canadians benefit from this economic growth in one way or another. However we also know that they do not all benefit from it equally.

Therefore it is our collective responsibility to help those who, through no fault of their own, have difficulty providing for their needs. For this reason we have dynamic and effective social programs such as employment insurance.

The old employment insurance system was in need of updating. We therefore organized a broad consultation in all regions of the country. Then in 1996 we carried out an indepth reform of this program, which is one of the cornerstones of our social security system.

We are all aware that the labour market is constantly evolving. As technologies develop, markets become globalized and new forms of work are developed, change is taking place more rapidly than ever. We therefore wanted to ensure that our employment insurance program can effectively meet any shortages in the labour market.

Given the extent of the reforms, we promise to monitor the short and long term effects very closely. For this reason we included an annual evaluation mechanism that enables us to identify and correct certain provisions that are not having the desired effect.

This mechanism is very useful. In 1997 we used it to correct certain deficiencies by introducing the pilot project for small weeks.

One of the objectives of our employment insurance reform was to encourage people to work. In order to better achieve that objective, we introduced the short week pilot project and we have made various adjustments along the way. Today, we are continuing in the same direction with this bill, which seeks to ensure that the program is fair and effective.

As members will recall, Bill C-44, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act, was introduced last September. This legislation was at second reading at the time of the election. Canadians supported the legislation and gave the government a clear mandate to advance the proposed changes. Bill C-2 is the same bill with an additional minor amendment concerning EI fishing regulations.

Members will recall that enhanced EI parental benefits came into effect on December 31, 2000. Payment of similar benefits to self-employed fishers requires an amendment to the EI fishing regulations. However, because of the election, amended regulations could not be approved by the House in time for December 31.

Amended regulations were tabled by the Minister of Human Resources Development and are being considered by the House. Bill C-2 would make these amendments retroactive to December 31, 2000, so that fishers can have access to the same types of benefits as other Canadians. This is the fair thing to do.

We want to provide additional help to those who are looking for work. We also want to correct certain provisions that are less effective than anticipated.

First, we are going to eliminate the intensity rule. The purpose of this rule, introduced in 1996, was to reduce the reliance of frequent claimants on employment insurance and to encourage work efforts.

Over time we have noted that this intensity rule did not produce the anticipated results and is instead seen as a penalty on workers living in communities where job opportunities are limited. Therefore we are correcting the situation.

Moreover, in those regions where seasonal industries are major economic catalysts, we will closely co-operate with the communities and with all our partners to help them diversify their economy and create jobs.

The bill also amends the criteria governing the clawback provision. That measure was introduced in the late seventies to deter high income earners from frequently relying on employment insurance.

The clawback will not apply to first time claimants and claimants collecting special benefits, namely sickness, maternity or parental benefits.

Moreover, this clawback provision should reflect today's economic reality. Therefore, we want to ensure that it targets only taxpayers with higher than average incomes.

Therefore the net income above which benefits must be paid back by repeat claimants would increase from $39,000 to $48,750. The maximum repayment would be limited to 30% of net income above this clawback threshold.

The government places a high priority on the welfare of families. Therefore, we have taken into consideration the case of parents returning to the labour market after having taken an extended time off to care for their children.

The regulations governing re-entrants' eligibility for regular benefits will be amended to ensure that parents of young children who return to the labour market are not unduly penalized because of their absence. This measure is in addition to the higher parental benefits that have been in effect since December 31, 2000.

As members know, since that date, all Canadian families that have a new child can enjoy much longer and much more flexible maternity and parental benefits. Thanks to these new measures, a large number of parents will be able to spend more time with their young children.

The bill improves our employment insurance system even further. It benefits parents and Canadians in all regions of the country who are looking for work. It also demonstrates our commitment to carefully scrutinize the effects of this very important social program.

We are also extending until 2006 the mandate of the Canada Employment Insurance Commission to continue closely monitoring the effects of the program.

I am very pleased that the economic situation in Quebec and in Canada has greatly improved. The amendments proposed to the House today will better help those who live in regions where seasonal work and unemployment are higher than average.

Our ministers travelled throughout Quebec and Canada. They met with workers and they found out for themselves that some provisions of the employment insurance program were not producing the anticipated results.

This is why we are proposing these amendments today. These amendments are improvements to the former law.

Our government promised to act. It is fulfilling that commitment.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Val Meredith Canadian Alliance South Surrey—White Rock—Langley, BC

Mr. Speaker, are there not any questions and comments?

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

The first three speakers on this bill will have a maximum of 40 minutes without questions and comments. That could only be addressed through unanimous consent.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Ken Epp Canadian Alliance Elk Island, AB

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I humbly request unanimous consent to ask the parliamentary secretary a few questions.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

The Deputy Speaker

Is there unanimous consent?

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Some hon. members


Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Some hon. members


Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11:15 a.m.

Canadian Alliance

Val Meredith Canadian Alliance South Surrey—White Rock—Langley, BC

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate you on your appointment to the chair.

Bill C-2 was known in the last parliament as Bill C-44 and is known more by its unofficial title of the Liberal Atlantic Canada re-election strategy. The parliamentary secretary has explained some of the details of the bill so I will not go into them. However, I will say that the official opposition does not support the approach the government is taking on these amendments.

We are not alone. There are people and organizations across the nation who feel that this is not the right direction to take: the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the St. John's Board of Trade on the east coast, the Vancouver Board of Trade on the west coast and probably all the boards of trade in between. Even the Canadian Federation of Labour has problems with the bill.

When the bill was first introduced last fall, this is what Catherine Swift, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, had to say:

After several years of making some steps in the right direction on EI policy, this is a U-turn that hearkens back to the 1970s—a big spending government promoting dependency on programs, instead of solid economic growth. We thought they had learned something from the mistakes of the past.

We also have the International Monetary Fund report. Last week the finance minister was bragging about how the IMF supports Canada's economic incentives and economic and fiscal policies and said that he had received high praise from the IMF. However, he chose to ignore paragraph 8 in the report, which I should like to read into the record. It states:

Comprehensive reforms enacted during the 1990s to the Employment Insurance (EI) system and to social assistance programs and the introduction of the National Child Benefit have enhanced the flexibility and efficiency of the labour market, boosting employment growth and helping to reduce structural unemployment. Pressures to ease the impact of some of these reforms—particularly the 1996 EI reforms—have intensified as they have become more binding. The Government has mitigated the intended effects of some of the reforms and has proposed to rollback others. In particular, the IMF staff sees the proposed elimination of the intensity rule, which was designed to discourage frequent use of the system, as sending the wrong signal. Frequent use of the system, along with the provision of extended EI benefits for high unemployment regions for a prolonged period of time, has had adverse effects on the behaviour of both workers and employers, has significantly raised reservation wages in high unemployment regions, and has reduced labour mobility. In addition, the recent experience in the United States suggests that labour market flexibility is an important factor in fostering the rapid adoption of productivity-enhancing new technologies. Therefore, the IMF staff continues to endorse the implementation of new measures to reduce the frequency of EI use (such as experience rating of the EI premium rate, which would tie the rate for individual firms directly to the use of the system by their workers) and the elimination of regional extended benefits.

This quote is from the International Monetary Fund, which the finance minister seems to think is highly supportive of government policies. This is one area in which it has recommended and suggested to the government that the change in direction is not in the best interests of the economic future of our country.

If IMF support is so important in all other areas and if its recommendations are so valid in all other areas, why does the government turn its back on the recommendations that the IMF put forward on the EI insurance program?

The question is, with this coming from the IMF, why would the government go in this direction which retreats from the very policy that the IMF claims is having a beneficial economic impact on Canada.

We in the official opposition feel that it is extremely important to get the bill before the standing committee on human resources so that the committee can hear witnesses and have an indepth study to look at the EI program and the benefits and lack of incentives that are being proposed.

We would like to put Bill C-2 before the House of Commons and have the government, which said it was in favour of parliamentary reform, let the bill pass through to committee in a very real and meaningful way.

Let us see whether the government will seriously listen to all aspects of the discussion from witnesses who have a lot to say about the legislation. Let us see whether the Liberal government will actually allow committees to do their job, to listen to witnesses and to come up with recommendations to change the legislation and make it more meaningful.

The Canadian Alliance would like to see whether or not the government is willing to look at some of the concerns that have been expressed. One concern that has been expressed is that the legislation is taking the control or responsibility from the EI commission and placing the rate changes in the hands of cabinet.

There is a real concern out there, not only in the Canadian public, among workers and employers alike, but in labour commissions and labour organizations, that the government is trying to control this fund to a degree that we have never seen before. Instead of having the employment insurance program at arm's length from government, the government is reaching in and bringing in total control over the EI program.

One has to ask oneself why this would happen. Why would the government want to have this kind of control? A surplus of $40 billion may be all that is needed to see why a government would want to do this. The EI fund is reaching the point of having a $40 billion surplus. I think the government would like to see this as its personal slush fund to use at will rather than for the purpose it was intended.

The chief actuary for the fund has indicated that a $15 billion surplus is all that is required in the program. I would like to look at last year alone. EI premiums last year were $18.511 billion. That is money coming in. EI benefits paid out were $9.3 billion. That leaves a $9.211 billion surplus in this fund which the cabinet wants to control. I suggest that is the wrong direction for the country to take. It is wrong from the employer point of view and from the employee point of view. It is wrong from every way we look at it for the cabinet of a government to have control over that kind of money, which was put in place for a specific reason.

I am sure the poor working person who is paying employment insurance premiums does not want to continue paying an inflated amount of money so that the government has access to a huge surplus fund to use whenever it wants. When these surpluses were brought to the attention of the government, what did it do? It reduced premiums by 25 cents, a small, piddly amount.

The reality is that every worker could stop paying EI premiums for two years and we would still have the surplus in the account that is required, according to the chief actuary, to have a stable fund. We could go two years without any premium payments and the fund would be where it should be.

We must ask ourselves why the government is so intent on keeping employment insurance premiums to a level that gives it surpluses every year, to the point of building a surplus fund of $40 billion. The reason is so that the government can balance its books. It is balancing its books on every working person and on every business person who provides jobs for working people. That is not fair. It is not right and it has to stop.

In its August 1999 unemployment insurance bulletin, the Canadian Labour Congress states “The UI fund must be separated from the government accounts, and the authority and autonomy of the UI commission must be strengthened”. That needs to be brought before the committee of parliament. It needs to be reasoned out. We need to find a way of strengthening the EI commission, of putting it at arm's length from government and taking control of it away from the Canadian government and cabinet.

This is only a drop in the bucket for the government, which takes things out of the public eye, away from commissions that do business up front, and puts them behind the doors of a cabinet meeting. It puts things beyond the reach of ordinary Canadians to understand or to know what is going on.

It is distressing to me to see that we will be continuing this direction with a government that has told Canadians it will be more transparent and more open. We see that the very first legislation to be introduced in the House of Commons is doing precisely the opposite. The government is taking something that is open and transparent and putting it behind closed cabinet doors.

More than anything else, the thing that distresses a lot of Canadians and me personally is the importance that the government places on making small amendments to the employment insurance legislation rather than looking at creating an environment of long term permanent jobs for Canadians across the country from coast to coast.

Five years ago the Liberals announced changes to EI. The Prime Minister stated “we wish to provide an incentive for people to work instead of receiving social benefits”. We have to wonder why the government is turning away from that challenge.

The Minister of Finance, the Minister of Human Resources Development and the Prime Minister have said that the best way to help unemployed people is to put them to work, to give them jobs, to have jobs created so that they can find employment. I suggest that the government has done little to create any employment. The parliamentary secretary claimed that there were 400,000 jobs created in Quebec and 2.1 million jobs created across the country. I challenge her, in that it was not the federal Liberal government that created those jobs. The small business community and the business community created those jobs.

The Minister for International Trade pointed out last year that 85% of these new jobs were created due to trade. Most of the increased trade is due to the free trade agreement and NAFTA, and let me remind Canadians of elections past when the Liberals opposed the free trade agreement and NAFTA. They violently opposed free trade and NAFTA until they formed the government.

There are some things that the government could do. The first is to substantially reduce personal income tax.

By leaving money in the hands of consumers, the government could have increased the purchasing power of Canadians. It does not take a rocket scientist to know that by increasing the purchasing power of Canadians one increases jobs. There are provinces that have shown that this works. There are provinces that had the courage to do what had to be done and they saw the benefits. The federal government did not have the courage.

If the government really wanted to do something concrete, something that would benefit the economy, it could have developed a vision for a national transportation infrastructure strategy program.

I am amazed that the government has such little insight and foresight and such little incentive to place the country in a position where we can compete in the North American marketplace and compete internationally.

The Liberal government is not even paying lip service to the development of a national transportation strategy. While our economy has grown, we are still relying on a transportation system that was built almost a half a century ago. We think the system should be adequate enough to service our people and our goods. In many places, the movement of people and goods is in total gridlock while the government sits back and does nothing.

The port of Halifax is a very good example of what could have been. Two years ago Halifax was bypassed as this continent's Atlantic super port. Halifax has an excellent port. It is much more convenient to Europe. Why was it bypassed? It was bypassed because there was no adequate infrastructure to move the goods from the port to the North American trade market, to the cities and towns that would be using the materials brought in. There was no adequate railroad access to the market. Why did New York get it instead of Halifax? It was because there was no adequate infrastructure program in place to support the Halifax bid.

Think of the jobs that the transportation infrastructure strategy would have created, not only in Atlantic Canada but in the north, long term jobs that would have benefited the future economy. Where is the strategy, the planning and the insight? The strategy is not there. The vision is not there.

The government wastes money on grants and all kinds of things, but it does not put money where it would have a meaningful impact on the growing economy of our nation. It is not just Atlantic Canada and Quebec, it is also the north. The north has the capacity and the potential of some major developments and megaprojects. The north is an area of traditionally high unemployment and it is waiting for something to happen.

The aboriginal community in the Northwest Territories is prepared to negotiate for the Mackenzie River pipeline. There is also talk of a gas pipeline from Alaska coming down through the Yukon to join the existing pipeline network that currently extends as far as northern Alberta. Alaska is also seeking a rail link from that state to join our northern rail lines that only go as far as Fort Nelson and Dease Lake in northern B.C.

People in the Northwest Territories are also talking about extending the Mackenzie Highway from its current northern terminus at Wrigley all the way to Inuvik. The extension of this highway would assist in opening up the vast untapped mineral reserves of the Northwest Territories.

Let us not forget our new territory, Nunavut, which would like a road link with the rest of Canada. While these projects would undoubtedly cost billions of dollars, they will also return billions of dollars to the federal government coffers through taxes and royalties. Equally important is that they would provide hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of man years of employment, good paying long term employment.

If the Liberals were truly interested in an employment strategy for the country, they would be in extensive negotiations with the territories, the western provinces, the American and Alaskan governments, northern aboriginal communities, environmentalists and the business community on how they could develop our north. However there was not a passing reference to this kind of development in the Speech from the Throne, not even a mention of developing the north.

Instead of co-ordinating projects that would employ thousands of individuals, they tinker with the EI bill by making minor amendments. They are more concerned about keeping people on employment insurance than they are in providing them with good, long term, full time employment.

Nevertheless, because of the Liberal's lack of vision we are limited to debating a handful of amendments to the EI act. There is no vision of moving forward in a strong dynamic way by making great changes and great projects. We are talking about minor changes to an existing bill that does not address the serious problems of employment.

We will not spend a lot of time on the details of the bill at second reading. We want to move the legislation before a committee. We want to see whether the Liberal government is intent on opening up the process of reforming parliament to allow real discussion and real debate on employment insurance and what it should be doing and what it is doing. We want to see whether things can work differently and better.

We want the first bill being debated in the House of Commons to go to committee. We in the opposition will make a commitment to go there with an open mind. We hope the government will go there with an open mind as well, so that we can hear witnesses and people who specialize in this area and, if necessary, make changes to make the legislation better. I would like to see the bill serve as an indication of the willingness of the House to do things differently for the good of all Canadians.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

11:35 a.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak today on the occasion of the start of debate on Bill C-2 on employment insurance.

From the start it is important to establish clearly the point we have reached in this debate. In January 1997, the reform of the employment insurance plan took effect. It was supposed to attune the plan closely with the realities of the labour market and enable people to return to work quickly.

However there is a major flaw in the system. Under cover of the reform, which was to improve employment insurance, the plan started pumping money to the Minister of Finance of Canada. It became one of the best tools in the fight against the deficit on the backs of the unemployed, workers and employers.

The federal government wondered how to go about collecting as much money as fast as possible and as quickly as possible, and on the backs of whomever would be the easiest. It turned toward society's most disadvantaged, the unemployed, people who were not necessarily solidly organized in social terms, and imposed the employment insurance plan on them.

I will provide an example for members. The employment insurance plan is based on contributions by employers and employees, and benefits are paid. In 1994 the surplus was $2.3 billion; in 1995 it was $4.3 billion; in 1996, $5 billion; in 1997, $6.7 billion; in 1998, $7.3 billion; in 1999, $6.5 billion; and in 2000, $5.6 billion. The surplus is approaching a total of $30 billion to $31 billion.

Accordingly, the federal government, since imposing the new employment insurance plan, has taken $31 billion more from the pockets of employers and employees than it has paid out to the unemployed as benefits.

I will not use the word that we would use back home because it would be considered unparliamentary, but the government has plumped up its coffers by making employers and employees pay excessively high premiums and by tightening the screws across the board.

First, it looked for a way to reduce benefits to a bare minimum. One thing it came up with was the intensity rule. For the past three or four years we have been telling the government that this rule has to go. Finally it listened to us and introduced a provision to that effect in Bill C-44. The intensity rule is federal bureaucracy at its best. The federal government is saying that our seasonal workers are unemployed because they want to be, because they simply do not want to work. The idea is that it will give people 55% of their average earnings the first time they draw EI benefits and bump them down to 54% the next time around. It figures this will encourage people to get out and work.

Let us take someone earning $600 a week. This is not astronomical—it amounts to $30,000 a year. If such a person worked 18 to 20 weeks, at $600 a week, his employment insurance cheque would normally be $330 a week. The intensity rule would lower this to $300. This means that the government has pocketed the $30 difference, a loss that is keenly felt at this income level. The federal government has siphoned off quite a bit this way.

The demands for changes to this rule of intensity, which the government has finally decided to change, are nothing new. They have been around for a very long time.

The government imposed a program that would collect as much money as possible to battle the deficit. I have already given some examples of the amount of money it has generated. As a result, the program no longer has any credibility.

Today, about 40% of the unemployed qualify for benefits. If this were a private insurance plan, no one would subscribe to it. When we pay premiums for a car, a house or other kinds of insurance, we expect to get some benefits in the end. This one is a mandatory program to which everyone contributes. The Liberals changed the rules in 1997 and now everyone pays into it.

Young workers start contributing as soon as they start to work, even if they do not work the 910 hours required to qualify. Women returning to the workforce contribute as soon as they start to work. If the young worker has not accumulated 910 hours, “so long”. No question of paying him or her any benefits. Although the worker has contributed, there is no entitlement to benefits. Today's bill does nothing to correct this.

A system has been created, a way of doing things that works to the detriment of the people in our society who are the worst off. It has, however, been realized that the surplus accumulated over the years has to be put back into the system one day in the context of the present legislation. There was a provision that the government could decide to use this money for other purposes within one economic cycle. That it has done.

At the end of the economic cycle, it should put these surpluses back into the system but it does not want to do that. Making lower income earners contribute has worked just too well.

For example, people pay premiums on their income up to $39,000. Someone earning $100,000 pays premiums on the first $39,000 but not on the difference between $39,000 and $100,000.

Similarly, someone earning $45,000 pays premiums on the first $39,000 but not on the additional $6,000. This is assuming that person contributes to the employment insurance program, because many people do not. During his last mandate, we even informed the Prime Minister that he was not contributing to the employment insurance program. After 30 years as a member of parliament, he did not know that. We informed him of that fact.

There are others who do not contribute, including all the professionals who work but do not pay EI premiums. This means that these people did not do their share in the fight against the deficit.

When there are surpluses, as has been the case in recent years, people expect lower taxes. For some, it is the way to get something back for helping to fight the deficit. However, those who do not pay much tax, those earning $15,000, $18,000, $20,000 or $25,000 per year—and there are many who earn such salaries and even less than that—do not really need a significant tax reduction but rather an acceptable and adequate employment insurance program that will provide them with a decent income when they find themselves between jobs. The bill still does not provide such a program.

This issue was the subject of a major debate during the previous parliament.

The debate was so important that during the election campaign the Prime Minister was obliged to recognize that a lot of errors had been made in the reform. He said, for example, on November 4, 2000 “We realized that it was not a good decision in that we should not have done it”. He was talking about the cuts to the employment insurance plan his government had imposed.

The Prime Minister himself has recognized that the government made a mistake. Bill C-44 had been introduced before the election campaign and people were rightly saying that it was not enough. It was in reaction to this position that he said “It is true, we did make major mistakes”.

The problem today is that the bill before us is the same one we had before us prior to the election. During the election campaign, the Liberal Party noted very clear messages on this. It told the public that significant changes would be made.

For example, I quote the Secretary of State for Amateur Sport, who said during the election:

Once a Liberal majority is elected, we will reinstate the process and make sure that the changes are effective and meet the needs, for the most part, of the people of the Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean and Canadians as a whole.

The Minister of Public Works and Government Services, who is also responsible for Quebec, also supported the arguments in favour of changes to the employment insurance plan. The Secretary of State for Amateur Sport continued, speaking as well for the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, “The government is open to discussion”.

There is a problem in this government, because we did not know who speaks on its behalf, except that now we know, the bill has been introduced.

On the subject of this bill, the remarks of the Secretary of State for Amateur Sport and the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, who is also responsible for all of Quebec, were rebuffed by the government. Once again with the administration of the employment insurance account, it would appear that it is not those who want improvements who have won but the Minister of Finance. Money must continue to flow from the pump for him because he needs it and he is still getting it the way he always did.

This attitude is unacceptable. Politicians cannot expect to be taken seriously by public opinion if the government keeps acting this way.

If one makes a promise during an election campaign and, immediately after winning the election, one forgets one's promise, this fuels frustration and cynicism toward politicians. The Liberal Party is truly responsible for that.

There is even worse. Cynicism does not stop people from eating. It is something very difficult to bear and very damaging to democracy but today we have a situation where Canadians expect significant corrective measures, a situation where people going through hard times expected much more than what they are seeing.

It has been proposed that the intensity rule be abolished. It would be interesting to increase the average benefits from 50% to 55% for everyone. However we have seen that 55% is not enough. The thing to do would be to increase this percentage to a higher level, something like 60% of the average salary. Thus the unemployed could count on a decent income between two jobs, which was the intent of the employment insurance plan.

Even if economic growth is optimal, some seasonal jobs will not reap the benefits. Economic growth is important because it is essential to job creation and is part of the fight against poverty.

In forestry, agriculture and tourism, the fact that the economy is in good shape does not necessarily translate into a significant increase in benefit weeks or hours of work. As we have pointed out, the jobs in these seasonal industries are also seasonal. These workers are therefore entitled to a minimum acceptable income.

There is also the whole issue of maternity and parental leave. After much lobbying, the government reduced the number of qualifying hours from 700 to 600. It may interest members to know that before the reform, however, a woman needed 300 hours to qualify for maternity leave.

If the government had just stuck with the requirement in the 1997 regime—20 weeks of work at 15 hours a week, or 300 hours of work—nothing would have changed and more women would have been able to qualify.

At the time the federal government took advantage of the situation and raised the requirement to 700 hours, or 20 weeks at 35 hours. That is many weeks. The result was that far fewer women were able to qualify. For five years, we were stuck with a regime that was divorced from the conditions workers actually face.

I will give an example. In 1989, before all the reforms, 82% of unemployed women qualified for benefits. We saw this percentage drop dramatically as soon as the Liberals introduced their change. In 1994, benefits had dropped to 59% of earnings. The downward trend continued, and in 1999, 38% of unemployed women qualified for EI.

This behaviour is totally unacceptable especially because, with the increase in precarious jobs and part time jobs, the number of people contributing to employment insurance but not eligible for benefits has increased. This is the ideal clientele for the Minister of Finance. On the one hand, he collects the money and, on the other hand, he does not give it back.

The same thing has happened with young workers. In 1989, 98% of young people between the ages of 20 and 24 were eligible. In 1999, only 24.9% were.

This means that only one young adult out of four is eligible. In Bill C-2, there is no provision in this respect. They have decided not to change their tune. I have already asked questions on this and I received the same answer as when I asked about the intensity rule “This rule has been put in place because people are unwilling to work hard. If we cut their income, these people are going to go back to work”. This is the point of view expressed by the Prime Minister himself when he referred to the unemployed as beer drinkers.

This is the bureaucracy went by for four years. People were systematically penalized. They were told they would lose benefits because they did not want to work. We realized that after three years of studies on this matter. During that time, a lot of people lost money and could not afford to meet their mortgage or car payments or to raise their families. This is unacceptable.

Today the government is proposing that the measures be retroactive to last October. These people should benefit from retroactivity back to the date the plan came into effect because it is inhumane. Canadian workers are being treated like economic guinea pigs. It is totally unacceptable.

The conception that people are a little lazy and do not want to work is being applied to young people. The minister herself told me “If we take away the discrimination toward young people, they will all drop out”. That is the exact same conception as for seasonal workers.

When young people drop out, it is not because they do not want a job but rather because they have a problem. We see nothing to that effect in the new bill. It is as if the new bill would not change anything. This is not acceptable to me.

We have in front of us a system that does not function well. Everybody contributes from the first hour worked. There is a dramatic drop in the number of contributors who qualify. We have seen it with women and young people. There are those who earn more than $39,000, as I was saying previously, and women who just do not qualify any more. More and more women could not qualify for the employment insurance system.

Average benefits also dropped considerably. The tables have been changed. Instead of being eligible for 40 weeks of benefits after a certain number of hours of work, people now qualify for only 32, 33 or 34 weeks, which means less income, and the creation of what has been known as the spring gap. People will live through that again this year.

Last summer there was an attempt to change the regional map. In my area, people applied for unemployment benefits between July 9 and September 17. Because the minister had changed the regional map without reasonable consultation having taken place prior, 565 hours were required to qualify instead of 420 hours previously. Instead of being eligible to 32 weeks of benefits, they were given 21.

We should remember what happened as a result of public protests. It was a few months before the election. The federal government was paying a lot of attention to these things. It decided to correct the situation. On September 17, it said it would return to the old rules: 420 hours to qualify and 32 weeks of benefits.

However it cannot correct the situation that it created with the summer gap between July 9 and September 17. These past few weeks there are people in my region whose benefits are running out. It did not correct that situation, while it would have the opportunity, in legislation such as the one we have before us, to say it made no sense to create for two months sub-citizens, sub-unemployed, people who do not have what is required to qualify.

Some people came to my office. They were two friends who worked in the same business. One said “I submitted my request on September 15 and got 21 weeks of benefits”. The other said “I went on September 18 and for the same length of employment I got 32 weeks of benefits”. Where is the justice in this?

At the time, when this correction was made, the minister told us that it would take a legislative change. The legislation would have to be changed. Legislation cannot be changed like that. Changes cannot be retroactive.

Today the legislation is being changed. This would be an excellent opportunity to amend the act and to restore the dignity of an EI system that would provide the benefits that these people deserve. There is no such amendment, even if the Prime Minister himself was made aware of the situation.

I wrote him last December asking if there was really no way to address the situation so as to provide these people with more acceptable conditions. I am still waiting for an answer.

The government is now making some corrections that were suggested as important a very long time ago, dealing with the intensity rule, eligibility for special benefits and clawback. According to the present system, seasonal workers who make a lot of money, particularly in the building industry, have to give it back when they file their income tax, when they earn more than a certain amount.

A solution had to be found, because no one enjoys giving back part of the money earned during the year, money used to keep the family, and having to give it back suddenly in March and April.

I do not think we would like to live with this kind of situation given the kind of work we are doing. If we were told in February or March that for the purpose of our personal income tax return the vacation allowance should be considered as a supplement and returned to the government, we would not find it very interesting.

We are still faced with a situation or a government approach that is unacceptable. We have a fundamental problem that is reflected in the spirit of the Speech from the Throne. I quote the only sentence referring to employment insurance in the Speech from the Throne “There was a time when losing a job also meant immediate loss of income for workers and their families. And so Canadians created Employment Insurance”.

That is a complacent statement. It is as if, when employment insurance was created, we had solved all the problems of the unemployed people who needed income between two jobs. Rather, it is the opposite. It is unemployment insurance that was created soon after the war in order to provide people with sufficient income. It is only when the plan was changed under the Liberals that it became the employment insurance plan.

We had an unemployment insurance plan under which people, through collective solidarity, could get a decent income between two jobs. The name of the plan was changed and not only the packaging but also the content were changed. It has become a money pump for the finance minister. It has become a way to make sure the government gets as much money as possible. This certainly does not meet the objective outlined in the Speech from the Throne, which was to ensure an income for workers and their families.

I think employment insurance has been one of the main factors in the increase in poverty in Canada over the last five or six years. We keep hearing about concerns for children with respect to the child tax benefit. It is not a bad program per se but we must remember that if there are poor children, it is because there are poor parents to begin with. If the situation were different, if employment insurance had not been cut as it has, many children would be much better fed every day in their families.

A lot of people would not have to resort to food banks at the end of each month. We are talking here about money and an insurance program, a program based on contributions. Society as a whole, workers and employers contribute collectively to offer those who lose their jobs some form of income. But cuts were made to this program, which changed it into a program promoting financial dependency. I think an important social pact that existed in Canada was also broken.

For many decades now the resource rich regions of Canada supplied the raw material, the basic resources our society needed to function. Now that we have also developed the new economy, this employment insurance plan has put an end to an existing agreement. Under this agreement, the resource regions that had industries, such as forestry, agriculture, tourism and fisheries, were to develop their resources but because these industries do not operate all year long, the plan would provide adequate income to workers so they could have a decent life in their own region. However the government put an end this agreement unilaterally.

One the one hand, it has decided to apply to seasonal workers the principle that they do not work because they are lazy and that putting more stringent conditions into the plan will make them work harder. Benefits will be cut and workers will have to manage.

On the other hand, the government was supposed to invest in the diversification of regional economies and thus counterbalance the effects of the tightening of the employment insurance plan. But that money never came, and when it did, it was invested inefficiently.

We witnessed the HRDC boondoggle. A program called the transitional jobs fund was used for electioneering purposes, especially in 1997, to help the Liberals win more ridings. We have never seen so much investment in Bloc ridings as we did then. The Liberals had carefully targeted the ridings where they wanted to get results. But this did not resolve the social pact issue.

Right now, resource regions have to adapt, and they have had to bear a disproportionate share of the fight against the deficit. Now that we have surpluses, they cannot get their fair share. I think there is a basic problem with the implementation of the plan.

There is also another important aspect. The employment insurance program has been in place for five years now. It is reviewed every year. It is in its fourth year and we are waiting for the report. We hope the report will be published soon and it would be important to have it before the end of this debate. Maybe we could adjust things based on the report.

Apart from the financial problems the unemployed may have, there is a need to bring the plan in line with the labour market. Among other things, the Bloc Quebecois has proposed that self-employed workers be eligible on a voluntary basis. Why not put this possibility on the table? Today, with the new reality of the workplace, why can we not be more flexible and find a way to make the program more acceptable, since many people work part time and 18% of the people are self-employed?

The answer is always the same: the basic principle is not to provide people between jobs with a decent income but to accumulate as much money for the finance minister, so that he can invest in all kinds of activities with the money of those who are the worst off.

It is much easier to force a worker whose status is precarious, a young man or a young woman starting to work at 15 hours a week and getting a pay cheque for the first time, to contribute to the plan. How can he or she protest and say “ It does not make sense for me to contribute when I do not even qualify”. Before these young persons get organized and make representations, things will not change much.

People have learned their lesson. I am now very satisfied with the public's reaction to Bill C-2. I just received a call from a representative of the Mouvement autonome et solidaire des sans-emploi du Québec. I asked him if he had a problem with the fact that we considered it unacceptable for the government to legalize the misappropriation of these surpluses and, as a result, that we oppose the bill even though it proposes some improvements we have been asking for a long time. He answered that he did not because the association thinks that the bill is a disgrace. The government ought to be ashamed of trying to use blackmail by saying “I stole $100 from you and I am giving you $8 back, so you should be delighted”. When someone takes $100 from me he owes me this sum and he must give me back $100, not $8. Otherwise it is unacceptable to ask us to be delighted because we are getting $8 instead of the $100 owed us.

I think that in this regard we are on solid ground. Unions and other representatives of the workers and the unemployed know very well that we stand for social equity. This is what the population wants and it needs no explanation. We are going to defend social equity and I am ready to debate our position at any time.

People know very well that if we just agreed with the bill, the $30 billion surplus would just disappear into the system. The unemployed would never benefit from the surplus. All the sacrifices they had to make in the fight against the deficit would not earn them anything while other groups would benefit from those sacrifices.

Management of the system must appear to be fair for people who contribute to the plan, for the employers and the employees.

Seasonal workers are at the mercy of economic cycles. Unemployment rates are down in every region of Canada. In many places, the 10%, 12% or 13% unemployment rates we saw a few years ago are now 7 or 8%. However in those areas seasonal workers do not necessarily work a higher number of weeks. For them the situation did not change. They need to qualify for employment insurance to get an income for the winter months and the months when the industry they work for slows down. When the unemployment rate suddenly decreases in an area, instead of needing 420 hours in order to qualify, they will need 500, 560 or 600, and in the end they will get benefits for fewer weeks.

This has given rise to a situation where there are problems not only in rural areas but also in cities where there has been a big drop in the unemployment rate. There are situations where people have to work 700 hours in order to qualify and they end up being 7, 8 or 10 weeks without any income. It is not a very interesting situation in which to be.

This debate is closely connected with the issue of globalization. We must not forget that the 1994-95 employment insurance reforms were carried out because the International Monetary Fund and other organizations urged Canada to put its fiscal house in order. To be productive, Canada had to create programs that were quite similar to those of the United States.

The government tried to bring our employment insurance system in line with the American system. Sometimes it forgets to look at both sides of the fence.

Even in the United States, for example, for the waiting period, there is, just like in our system, an old principle stating that during the two first weeks, the claimant is considered to be unemployed and, therefore, he gets no benefits. That principle dates back to the time when workers did not start paying premiums the moment they started on the job. A person had to work 20 hours a week for 15 weeks in order to qualify. Now that everyone contributes right from the first hour worked, this archaic waiting period ought to be done away with, but it is still in the plan.

This is another element the government should change. There is a $30 billion surplus and the bill involves about 8% of the annual surplus in the employment insurance fund in recent years. If there is an annual surplus of $6 billion, that will mean $500 or $600 million will be put back into the fund, which is about 8% of the surplus. The government keeps the rest, which should go to employment insurance. This is unacceptable.

The government must be brought around to changing this, and I hope that will happen during the committee hearings. It will be very important for all groups wishing to make representations to come and do so. People have met with the Secretary of State for Amateur Sport, the Minister of Public Works and Government Services and probably with ministers in the maritime provinces as well, and just about everywhere else, and have been told changes would be forthcoming. Those people are not very happy this morning to learn that this bill contains nothing of what was promised to them. The only way they can get their point across properly is in a parliamentary committee.

Members can be certain that those of us in the Bloc Quebecois will be open to people having an opportunity to be heard, so that amendments that reflect the points they have brought up can be introduced.

I am anxious to see the Secretary of State for Amateur Sport and the Minister of Human Resources Development contradicting each other on issues on which they have theoretically reached agreement secretly during the election campaign.

Somebody, somewhere, must have said “Yes, there will be changes and here is the list”. I am eager to see, when these requests are made public, who will win the battle going on among the departments under the responsibility of the current Prime Minister? Who will win in the end? Will it be those who are seeking improvements or those who want the system to remain the same and to continue to grab as much money as possible?

We, from the Bloc Quebecois, have the advantage of being able to speak publicly on this subject. We do not have to hide behind cabinet secrecy or government solidarity. I can assure the House that we will fully assume this responsibility.

We were expecting much more since the Prime Minister had admitted that it was a bad reform.

Why is there an extension of the evaluation period of the system? We learned in the bill that the annual evaluation, which was to apply for a five year period, would go on for many years. The message is aimed at those who are waging a trench war to obtain improvements to the system. We will have to fight for the issues that we raised on a day to day and year to year basis.

There are encouraging signs. We have long said that we are against the intensity rule and finally the government has decided to do something about it. Our arguments are just as strong on many other issues, including discrimination against young people and women. In the end I am convinced that the government will have to act.

We do not have an election every year and this government's sensitivity is lower following an election. It seems to diminish until the next election gets close. That is a reality with which we have to live but we still believe that the soundness of the arguments and strength of the people who come to tell us what they are experiencing will allow our views to prevail.

In recent weeks I also spoke to Françoise David from the Fédération des femmes du Québec. Mrs. David wishes to make representations to the parliamentary committee reviewing these issues, as do the union representatives and officials from the Associations de défense des chômeurs. I am convinced that in the end we can arrive at a positive solution.

I would like to refer to a release issued by the CLC, the Canadian Labour Congress. The title of the release is to the effect that two thirds of the unemployed will still not qualify. This morning Hans Marotte, who is the spokesperson for the Associations de défense des chômeurs, said the same thing:

The current bill does not in any way solve the issue of eligibility to the plan. The current program will simply improve a number of minor conditions for people already in the system, for example, by abolishing the intensity rule.

However the issues of insurability and the return of the right of access to the plan for those unemployed have not been resolved. In view of all this, clearly we cannot vote for the bill unless it is thoroughly changed.

The Bloc Quebecois proposed two things. First, we recommended that the bill be split into two bills. One would be debated later and would cover the whole issue of management of the fund surplus to enable it to be come an independent fund or a payroll tax. This indepth debate would be held in the coming weeks or months.

The other bill would concern the list of improvements to be made to the plan which we should vote on soon. We are ready every day to do so.

The argument that the Bloc Quebecois is holding up the vote on improvements is totally false. We are ready to vote on improvements at any time but we will not be duped into approving a clause that would enable the government to retain control and legalize the misappropriation of surplus funds. The bill currently permits that.

The government is shifting responsibility for setting the contribution rate from the employment insurance commission to itself. If the bill is passed, next year, when the rate is set, the government would not have to take the needs of current workers into account. It would have to take the needs of labour into account along with its own financial requirements and this would justify anything the government wants to do.

The reason this clause is included in the bill is that we are at the end of an economic cycle. If there is such a change, the government would have to put money back into the system and it is not ready to do that.

What people living with the employment insurance plan want, whether they be employers or employees, is a system that gives value for money. In an insurance plan, when there are surpluses, either premiums are reduced or the terms and conditions are improved but no third party grabs the surpluses and uses them for some other purpose. Those who pay premiums are the ones who should benefit.

We have before us a bill that is totally unsatisfying and inadequate. This is a bill that would not satisfy the unemployed, workers, employers or unions representing workers. This is a bill in which the government is trying to make a fool's deal with us, a deal where it would give us some little improvement, while what is needed is a comprehensive employment insurance reform. Such reform would ensure that the plan would be administered by the people who pay into it and give dignity back to it, so that it can really serve the unemployed and not pay for the federal government's debt.

We all have efforts to make regarding the debt. We have done some in the past but there are people who did not get the return on their investment that they deserved. On their behalf, the Bloc Quebecois will oppose this bill as long as the changes deemed necessary have not been made.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.


Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, first I want to wish you good luck in your new position as Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. I am sure the future holds interesting promises.

Second, I wish to thank the electors of Acadie—Bathurst who have put their trust in me for a second mandate as their representative in the House of Commons. I have always said that it was an honour and a privilege to represent the people of Acadie—Bathurst.

It is also a pleasure to rise today in the House to speak to Bill C-2. This bill was long in coming. Yet, as I will explain later, it does not go far enough. It was long awaited by those who have to rely on employment insurance benefits because of the EI economic region they live in.

As we know, legislation was passed in 1996, which may even be responsible for my getting elected in 1997, because of changes that the Liberals had brought to employment insurance. Members will remember that my predecessor, Doug Young, introduced changes to employment insurance and described people back home as lazy and do-nothings, people who did not want to work. He did not defend the interests of our region.

We ended up with a bill on employment insurance similar to the one before us today, which needs to be amended.

Bill C-2 now before us is an unfortunate one. In May 2000, through a motion that I had introduced in the House of Commons, I made a request to change employment insurance. My colleague and neighbour, the hon. member for Miramichi—there did not seem to be any problems in Miramichi—asked that changes be made to the EI plan rather than to the legislation.

The House passed my motion unanimously. All members present in the House of Commons supported my motion requesting that changes be made to the employment insurance plan. In October, with Bill C-34, we proposed changes to the EI plan. Why was it not passed? Because the Liberals preferred to wait till the last minute, because they knew that the Canadian Alliance was against all changes to the plan.

The Canadian Alliance had its leader come to Bathurst, New Brunswick at the Keddy's Hotel to meet the Alliance candidate, Jean Gauvin. The day before, the Alliance leader had said in western Canada “No changes to EI. There should even be more cuts”. Once in New Brunswick, he told Jean Gauvin, his candidate, that if the Canadian Alliance were elected it would save EI and help Atlantic Canadians. He was speaking from both side of his mouth.

The next day, in Hamilton, Ontario, he said “EI will be cut in Atlantic Canada. These people have to be put back to work. They do not want to work and are dependent on employment insurance”.

Again this morning, we heard what the Canadian Alliance member had to say.

The Canadian Alliance does not understand our country. It does not understand working men and women. It does not understand the jobs in the country. It is time it got out of Alberta and B.C. and came down to the Atlantic.

I hope that we go to committee. I hope the parliamentary committee travels across the country. I will invite it to come to my home area. I hope Jean Gauvin will have the guts to sit in the hall and listen to the Canadian Alliance's feelings on employment insurance.

That party's leader said it would not change EI and that if elected it would protect the working people. The Alliance is two-faced. It was two-faced when it said that if elected it would refuse the pension plan. Now its members must look at it again for the good of their families. That is what they are saying now.

That party's leader said he would never take up residence in Stornoway because it was a grassroots party, and he moved into Stornoway. He said he would never use a limousine and he used one. I am sick and tired of listening to how the Alliance feels about our country and especially how it treats working people.

I will now switch topics because I do not want to spend more time on the Canadian Alliance. The Liberals are the ones who made the changes. They listened to the Reform too much when it was in the House of Commons.

We have the example of Hamilton, Ontario, right now. Workers went on strike. When the strike was over the company decided the workers had nothing to do with the strike and wanted them to return to the 85% level of production needed. They punished them by not allowing them to collect employment insurance.

The Liberal government supports Stelco which is against steelworkers local 5328. That type of program is against working people. It is not acceptable.

The surplus in the employment insurance fund is $32 billion and all of it was taken right out of the pockets of workers without their permission. I have put it this way because I am not permitted to use the word that comes to mind, although according to the definition in the dictionary, it is stealing. That is what it is; $32 billion was taken from men and women who have lost their jobs, the least well off in our society, who have no means of defending themselves, who cannot afford big name lawyers to take their case to court. These people cannot defend themselves.

It is a disgrace what the government says in the throne speech:

Now Canadians must undertake another national project—to ensure that no Canadian child suffers the debilitating effects of poverty.

It is a disgrace because 1.4 million children do not have enough to eat. These children are hungry today. What does the government say in the paragraph just before this one? It says:

There was a time when losing a job also meant immediate loss of income for workers and their families. And so Canadians created Employment Insurance.

The government should have gone on to say that these people were robbed by the Liberals. It should have said so in its throne speech because that is what happened. What the government did was a disgrace.

In October, not long after a motion to make changes to the employment insurance plan was introduced and approved in the House and the Liberal government said it would amend Bill C-34, it called an election.

With all due respect, the members from Madawaska—Restigouche, Beauséjour, Gaspé—Îles-de-la-Madeleine and my opponent, Bernard Thériault, all said “We want to be in the Liberal Party. We want to be in the governing party because we want to be part of the government so that we can change things”.

Bill C-2 is exactly the same as the one introduced before the election. This is a disgrace. It really is disgraceful to hear candidates like Bernard Thériault say to the population in the Caraquet area that when the Prime Minister came for a visit in Belledune, he did more in five minutes than I had done in three and a half years.

The people from the Acadian peninsula and Acadie—Bathurst did not believe that. This is why he did not get elected. People woke up and decided they would not be bought for 5%. This is what happened in my area.

How many times have I said in the House that there is a big difference between a seasonal worker and somebody working in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. The situation is completely different for a seasonal worker.

The Liberals must realize that it is impossible to find cod under the ice in Chaleur Bay in February. They must realize that blueberries cannot be picked under the snow. They must get this into their heads.

It is about time the Liberals understood that we cannot cut Christmas trees in July. This is the way the industry works in the region. Given the quotas imposed by the government, we cannot cut wood in winter in our region, in New Brunswick and in Atlantic Canada.

As I have said many times already, the people in major urban centres are always happy to receive our 2x4s to build their houses but people in my area have no choice. When the fishing season is over, it is over. There are no other jobs. Putting the cart before the horse is not the way to go. Let us put the horse in front of the cart and be sensible about the way we work at improving the economy so that people can find work. Do not take away their last resort, the only way they have to put food on the table.

It is totally unacceptable that in 2001 children are going to school on an empty stomach. The throne speech tells us that the government wants to put an end to child poverty but it is the Liberals themselves who made them poor. This is a fact.

They say they want to help people get an education so that they are better trained but they penalize people who work in the construction industry. Nowadays people who go to a technical school or a community college are penalized. Before they were not penalized when they received unemployment insurance benefits to finish school or improve their training. Now there is a two week penalty. In the meantime they have no income. For someone who works 12 months a year, this makes no sense.

People working in the industry, for example, who wanted to become better in their trade and obtain more knowledge, were being sent to community college and did not have a two week waiting period for employment insurance. The first day they entered community college they are paid.

Today what do people get? People feel they are finished because they have no money to buy food or provide for their families. Employment insurance was not meant to hurt working people. The $32 billion does not belong to the Minister of Finance to balance his budget on the backs of people who lost their jobs. The billions of dollars in the fund was to help individuals who did not have jobs. The throne speech said that Canadians chose to have employment insurance, but the Liberals chose to take it away from them. That is not right and it is not fair. It is totally unacceptable.

Back home, in the Acadian peninsula, in the Bathurst area or in Gaspé, we have jobs in various sectors. Some people work in the forest industry, others in the fisheries, while others work in tourism. Back home there is no more work after August 15. All the visitors are gone. Work starts on June 15 and ends on August 15th.

All those who work in the tourism industry have a problem. As for the fisheries, the lobster season starts May 1 and ends June 30th; herring fishing starts August 28 and goes until around September 15 or 20. After, there is nothing, absolutely nothing. Does it mean we should close down the Atlantic fisheries, that we should lock it up? We will have to close it down and it will be all over. It is a pity.

Yesterday, a lady in Moncton called me from Albert county. She had called the new Liberal member for Beauséjour—Petitcodiac. I do not know if there is a word to describe this member. I will not say his name in the House. She told him she had a problem with her employment insurance. He said that all the members are from Ontario and that we are too small a number to bring about changes to the employment insurance, we are on our own.

He should never have run if he feels he is too small and on his own. He should be in politics to speak up for the people of his area, this is what the campaign was all about. I invite the new members from our region who are very familiar with the issue of seasonal work to help their Liberal colleagues acquire a better understanding of this issue.

Whether in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland, the situation is the same as in northern Ontario, Manitoba or British Columbia. A logger without a job is just that. One cannot change a logger into a cook. That is the problem. The same thing goes for plant workers. We need those workers.

Hopefully we will not fight when the bill goes to committee. Today, I tried to describe the real problem facing our regions. Families are being destroyed and people arev killing themselves because they do not have anything to eat. Heads of families call to say they have nothing to give their kids during the spring gap, from February to May. They have nothing left.

What is the solution: work, employment insurance, welfare? No. We need a better system. The only way we can have a better system is by sitting down and talking like civilized people and by listening to the problems of Canadians, of workers across the country. Workers are workers, whether they are in the Gaspé Peninsula, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, northern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon or the Northwest Territories, and we must understand them.

It is not easy for those people who are struggling in an industry that is very dear to us. People in Ottawa love to eat fish and lobster but there is no lobster in Lake Ontario or in Lake Huron.

There is, however, in Chaleur Bay in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Pacific Ocean as well. An understanding of and an openness to our seasonal industries is required.

Once again, and I will keep on repeating this, it should be possible to speak to one another and find solutions. It is not a question of considering Bill C-2 again and passing it as quickly as possible. The people concerned are tired of being studied. Action is required now.

I urge the parliamentary committee to visit my riding to see what it is like for men and women who work in fishplants and for woodcutters. I invite them to pay us a visit and get the whole picture. Perhaps then they would understand the situation.

The leader of the Canadian Alliance drew up the plan in half an hour in Bathurst. He understood that changes to the employment insurance were needed. The only problem was that when he left he forgot that the Atlantic provinces belonged to Canada and said that we should cut them again. That is how fast he forgot.

I hope the Canadian Alliance is willing to work for the better of Canadian men and women and that it has an open mind, not just for big corporations, but for the little guy and the little woman who works day after day to try to make a living.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to speak about the problems in our region. I can, if necessary, provide further details. What we need are real solutions that make EI accessible to those who need it.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:35 p.m.


Diane Bourgeois Bloc Terrebonne—Blainville, QC

Mr. Speaker, given what we were told about the employment insurance bill, it is obvious that it will be detrimental to Canadians.

The hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst has eloquently described the negative impact the Liberal policy has had in his riding. I would ask the hon. member if his constituents are aware of this negative impact and how far they are prepared to go to get some respect.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:35 p.m.


Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, first, I want to thank the hon. member for Terrebonne—Blainville for her question and to congratulate and welcome her to her first term in the House.

Regarding how far the people back home are prepared to go, I would say they have been holding demonstrations since 1988 when the first changes were made. That is when the Conservatives under Brian Mulroney began to change the EI program. In 1986, when the government took employment insurance funds to add to the consolidated revenue fund, the people kept right on demonstrating.

Will they have to hold demonstrations all of their lives? There were 2,500 to 5,000 of them taking to the streets. The same question is being raised again this year. Will the men and women in the crab fishery be allowed to have a solidarity fund? Fishers do not have any money to invest in the fund and the government says that it cannot force them to put money into the fund. Afterward, these workers will slip into a so-called gap.

Here is what happened. The people back home took to the streets not because they wanted to but because they had to ensure that the changes that were so crucial to them would be made. I am sure the people will fight to the end, until the right changes are made.

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:35 p.m.


Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the member for Acadie—Bathurst for pointing out some of the many shortcomings in Bill C-2 and itemizing how it fails to help the people, at least in the riding of Acadie—Bathurst.

We have many similar problems right across the country with EI system that has ceased to become an employment insurance system. How can we even call it an insurance program any more when it does not provide benefits for unemployed people who need them?

Could the hon. member expand on some of the specific problems with Bill C-2? The government changed the clawback provisions. However, even though it tried to change the intensity rule, it failed to touch on the way the benefits are calculated or what we call the divisor rule. Under these new rules workers who make applications now are getting $130 or $200 a week on their first paycheques, instead of $430 which was common in the old days.

It is not difficult to see why there is a huge surplus in the fund. First the government makes it more difficult to qualify and if people are lucky enough to qualify, which is like winning the lottery, it will gouge the actual benefit they receive by using the divisor rule and calculating the dead weeks.

Could the hon. member itemize those shortcomings in the way the benefits are calculated?

Employment Insurance ActGovernment Orders

12:40 p.m.


Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, that is another place where the workers are being hit very hard, both men and women.

I have an example of a working woman in my riding who should have been allowed to collect employment insurance based on 52 weeks. She was not making much money; she made $2,736. She had the hours needed to qualify for employment insurance. However, according to the employment insurance rules, it only went back 26 weeks to calculate the money. In that 26 weeks the woman made $629 and received $34 per week in employment insurance. It is a real shame. If the benefits were calculated the right way then she would have received $150 instead of $34.

I have another case of Mr. Réginald Raîche called me yesterday. He had worked and earned wages of over $350. Because the calculations were based on 26 weeks, instead of all his hours of work being calculated, he is receiving only $74 instead of receiving over $200.

That is the type of case where we have to have an open mind and make changes. That will not encourage Réginald Raîche to work more. He had a hard time getting 10 weeks. He was trying hard, even calling my office to ask for help to get some hours. He said he did not want to be on welfare. He wanted to work but there are no jobs in his riding during the winter. There are probably no jobs in some parts of the riding of my dear colleague from Winnipeg or in the ridings of some of my colleagues from the Gaspé coast. There is no work and that is the reason some changes have to be made.

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12:40 p.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate the hon. member on the three specific examples he gave us of all that needs to be changed in employment insurance and the need for an indepth reform of the system, which serves more to accumulate surpluses for the government than as a true employment insurance plan.

I would like to ask him a question about the fate of older workers. The program for older worker adjustment has not been in effect since 1995, when it was set aside. The government has programs for active measures. Today, workers aged 50, 51, 52, 53 or 55 do not necessarily have the skills for retraining in another field. Jobs in different sectors do not necessarily correspond either.

I was expecting the federal government would do something in this regard. Employment insurance money could be used or a way found to establish a bridge with old age pension benefits.

Does he agree with me that it would be relevant with respect to the surplus in the employment insurance fund, in the case of people who have contributed for 15, 20 or 25 years, to have something added to the bill so that older workers could have a proper program and so there could be something to help carry them over to their old age pension?

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12:40 p.m.


Yvon Godin NDP Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, I first want to thank the Bloc Quebecois member for his question. Yes, something could be done.

What is going on now is regrettable. I did not say much about the divider. One can work 420 hours over a 12 week period and divide by 14. Again, we are stuck with the divider. Bill C-2 should eliminate the divider rule.

As for those aged 50 and over, it is not easy—and I am sure you would agree with me, Mr. Speaker—with the new technology, to go back to a community college and try to learn how to operate a computer and become an expert in the new technology.

We need a program to help these people. Back home, there are plant workers who tell us “We have worked for 35 or 40 years in a fish plant; give us our pension, do something”.

For example, in the case of those over 50 and out of work, we had a system whereby they would work for six months and then let someone else take over for six months. That program worked well but only lasted five years. It had a positive effect in my region. People felt useful to the community. They felt useful in today's world and they did not find themselves with nothing at all.

Perhaps the bill should include such initiatives to help those who lose their job at a certain age because of the new technology or cuts. We must help them upgrade their skills or find something else. An employment insurance program should be in place to help these people. We now find ourselves with something that makes no sense.

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12:45 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative New Brunswick Southwest, NB

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate you on your appointment. I am not sure whether to chastise you, criticize you, or promote you. During the last parliament you were the government whip. I guess I am giving you some credit because it was a very tight majority. You never lost a vote in that three and a half years.

Although it is difficult for us on this side of the House to say it, I think you did an extremely good job. Despite our political differences, I think your colleagues recognized that. I wish you the best in the chair. Being a former NHL referee, as has been mentioned many times, it comes naturally to you. This is probably a tougher forum than some of the ones you have refereed.

Bill C-2 is a replacement for Bill C-44 which died on the order paper when the election was called. It was to address some of the difficulties the government incurred following its draconian moves on the EI file in 1996. At that time The government inflicted a lot of punishment on seasonal workers.

It really revolved around the intensity clause, which meant that if one collected employment insurance over a period of years, one would lose 1% of the benefits, up to 5% if one collected over what is called a 20 week cycle over a five year period. In other words if one was a claimant for five years, one would lose 5% of the benefits. That would bring it down from 55% to 50%.

That does not seem like a lot of money to any one of us in the House, but my colleagues and I have done a quick calculation based on a minimum wage worker. Many workers in New Brunswick and other parts of Canada are earning minimum wage. In some cases it is as little as $6 an hour, or $240 a week before taxes, before EI premiums, CPP and all other deductions are taken off. With a $240 paycheque, how much does one have at the end of the day? It is not very much. I suggest in the order of $200 with any luck.

When our jobs ran out what did we do? Was there a safety net? There was, and it was called unemployment insurance. The name has now been changed to employment insurance. I guess it is a more positive name. No one wants to use the word unemployment. Employment insurance is the instrument we would look at for some protection and support when we are unemployed.

The intensity rule meant that a minimum wage worker would be entitled to $120 a week in employment insurance. That is what their benefit would be if they were unemployed. It would be 5% higher, somewhere in the order of $126, maybe $130 tops, if one had not claimed employment insurance at all. Basically, that is the straw that broke the camel's back.

The government was not being very responsible or responsive to its citizens at the time. I know some of the ministers in Atlantic Canada simply played hardball with the seasonal workers. They basically told the workers to get off their rear ends and go to work not realizing that work does not come that easily in some parts of Canada, particularly Atlantic Canada. I am still surprised at my colleagues from the united alternative, formerly the Reform Party, when they talk about lazy Atlantic Canadians. They have made that statement more than once. In fact it hung them in Atlantic Canada in the last election. They were out campaigning hoping to get elected while calling the people lazy, the very people they would have been representing in the House of Commons.

Seasonal work is not the type of work that most of those people would prefer. They would prefer full time jobs, 52 weeks of the year, but unfortunately that is not possible in some parts of the country.

When the government brought this in, it received a lot of criticism. In fact, that criticism was borne out in the election of 1997 when the Liberal Party lost 19 seats in Atlantic Canada because the feeling was that the government was not being responsive to the people it represented.

Atlantic Canada is the poorest part of Canada. We do not have oil in the ground at $40 a barrel. If we did there would be a big difference. We do not have a car manufacturing capacity and the benefits of an industrialized society. We will give all levels of government credit for making advancements but there is still a long way to go.

We still have fish plant workers and fishermen. We have woodworkers and people employed in the tourism sector. All of those are seasonal workers, workers who can only make a living part of the year and at the end of the year they are left to draw employment insurance.

When the government realized that it had lost those 19 seats in 1997, it decided it would do something about it. On the eve of the election last fall, it brought in a bill that would address this issue. In other words, it would eliminate the intensity clause. It decided that it had made a mistake, that the 5% punishment on seasonal workers was too much and that it was going to change it. I give the government credit for doing that.

Unfortunately, the legislation was held up in the House by the united alternative party because it does not believe in that. There was just too much generosity in the package for minimum wage workers for members of that party to swallow, despite the fact that they have swallowed themselves whole on the pension issue. They made a career of attacking big government and the generosity of government, and destroyed many political careers in the process, only to find out that every single one of them will eventually jump on the pension bandwagon which they chastized, criticized and condemned for the last 10 years of their lives. What else would we expect them to do on this bill? What do they do? They attack little people.

The government can be attacked on this as well because it is addressing the intensity clause. In so doing, it has eliminated the commission.

The commission is the body set up by the government to determine what the rate will be. Currently employees are paying $2.25 into EI. That is their premium. The employer is paying 1.4% above that. Effectively the employer is paying over $3 and the employee is paying in $2.25.

What has the government now done? By stealth, it has limited the capacity of the commission to establish the rate because the rate is too high. The rate could be set at $1.75 for the employee. That is borne out by the auditor, the chief actuary of employment insurance premiums. He states in his report:

It is likely that a rate as low as 1.75% could also be set for the year 2001 and kept for the indefinite future. Although this rate would contain a smaller margin of safety, the current surplus would still make it a reasonable option.

The government has simply eliminated the ability of the commission to set the rate because it is sitting on a $35 billion surplus in the fund. This is expected to grow to $50 billion in the next two years while the commission is suspended.

The rate could go down to $1.75 because the interest on that $35 billion today has to go back into the fund. That helps keep the rate lower. The reason the government will act in stealth is that the EI surplus is just a bookkeeping entry. The government even wants to eliminate that, because once it eliminates that entry it will be free to cash in the $50 billion and use it as it so desires. In fact it already has; this is just a paper transaction.

This will effectively allow the government to keep the rates higher. If it does not have the $35 billion, the interest on which helps to keep premiums lower, it will then have the ability to sneak premiums up when necessary. This is why the entire bill has to be revisited. The ability of the government to suspend the commission has to be eliminated.

The government has a history of acting in this way, especially on this file. Who else but this lonely group of us at this end of the House of Commons will stand to defend the lowly, seasonal, minimum wage workers? I give the NDPers credit. They consistently support the little guy, and that is what we are doing. We cannot leave it up to the government to do it because it has a horrible history of ignoring the little people.

What happens when those safety nets disappear which we see happening at the municipal, provincial and federal levels? What do the little people have to fall back on? We are not talking about the generosity of government. We are talking about a fund that they have paid into, expecting it to be there when they need it. It is called insurance.

How many times have we heard about people being duped by insurance companies where they pay in but cannot collect? It is pretty well the same. The government wants them to pay in. It wants them to pay premiums higher than they should be, but it does not want them to go to the fund when they need help.

For example, we have government departments acting in collusion to hit little people who cannot defend themselves.

I refer to an article that appeared in Saint John's Telegraph-Journal on Friday, February 2. The headline reads “Tax case against auctioneer thrown out” and is subtitled “Justice: Revenue Canada unfairly targeted businessman, judge rules”. The article about a businessman says that “Saint John auctioneer Tim Isaac's tax evasion case has been thrown out after a judge ruled that he had been unfairly targeted by Revenue Canada”.

Isaac survived this witch hunt only because he had the financial wherewithal to hire a lawyer to defend him. The judge came down hard on the Department of Revenue, which is now called the CCRA, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency. The better words for that would be “Revenue Canada”. That is what we used to call it.

Now we find the same thing happening to the lowly clam digger. What do clam diggers do? They go out right now in sub-zero weather—they go out in summer as well—to harvest clams in the mud flats by digging them up by hand. It is back breaking labour. These people are the working poor, there is no question about it. They average $6 an hour, maybe $8 an hour if they are lucky enough and strong enough.

I have just found out that there is another witch hunt underway, but this time it is Revenue Canada, now called the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, working with DFO, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and HRDC, Human Resources Development Canada, to take a look at some of these clam diggers' claims. They will also take a look at some of the buyers of these clams, because somehow they feel that the tax man is being cheated. This morning HRDC officials confirmed that they have had numerous third party reports concerning claimants drawing EI who have not worked, who did not dig enough clams to actually claim the benefits they are claiming. That is the long and short of it.

What are third party reports? Are they hearsay evidence? We do not know. No one knows. These are rumours, the same kind of rumour that allowed the tax people to go after Mr. Isaac. He hired a lawyer and the government was chastised severely by the judge in that case.

In this particular case we have 33 to 36 interviews by government officials—interview is basically another word for interrogation—of the lowly little clam diggers to determine whether or not they dug clams. They had no counsel in the room with them. They had no one representing them. Not one of them, and probably not all 36 of them pooling their resources together, could afford a lawyer.

Is this the type of government we have?

When people get desperate they do desperate things. One of the things that people want to do when they get desperate is to feed and clothe their children, particularly when it is the kind of winter that we are having now in eastern Canada.

We will never know what goes on in that room when two government officials interrogate the lowly clam digger. That is digging to the bottom of the barrel when one goes in and violates people's rights or, as our justice critic says, the charter of rights. Do the government officials read the clam diggers their rights when they go into the room and interrogate them? My feeling is no, the officials probably do not, because they know that they can kick the bejesus out of these little people, get away with it and have a minister sitting right over there defending their actions. In fact, it was government orders from right here in Ottawa that caused them to do this.

I am not criticizing the local HRDC officials, because if they do not carry out their actions, they are gone too. The government does not have any compassion for its own workers and has even less compassion for the disenfranchised, which is what these people are.

That is why when we stand up in the House we defend the little guy, because no one else is going to do it. The little guys cannot afford a lawyer or a consultant and there will be no one on that side of the aisle to come to their defence, and very few of us on this side. That is one of the few things I can give the Bloc credit for as well. It is not very often I defend the Bloc. They will defend their lowly woods workers and fishermen. The NDP will defend the little guy as well. So will we. The majority in the House will not do that.

This type of harassment of little people has to cease and desist. If the ministers involved had any respect at all for human life and human dignity they would get together, share the information, consult with the members on this side of the House and find a better way of doing this. In the middle of winter when it is damned hard to be make a living as a clam digger, what is now being done is wrong.

We will be proposing amendments to the EI bill. We are prepared to support it with some amendments. We do not want to go back to the old days of what they called the lottery, of working 10 weeks and loafing for 40. There must always be a balance between a system that is too generous and one that is too miserly and too hard on the workers. That is the type of balance we want to strike. That is the reason we will support anything that comes in to help the little guy, but we do not want to flip-flop too much the other way and make the system too generous.

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1:05 p.m.


Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, I extend my personal congratulations and thanks to you in recognition of your appointment to the chair.

I also wish to thank the great people of Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore in Nova Scotia for giving me the honour of being their representative twice in a row.

I have a question for my hon. colleague from New Brunswick, who lives in a very beautiful part of the world. An awful lot of people were hurt by the EI changes, not only working people but small business people. We all know that if a business were to go into a certain community and say that it would drop $20 million there, both federal and provincial governments would bend over backwards to do anything they could to get that business in there. Yet communities like Saint John, New Brunswick, or St. John's, Newfoundland, had almost $100 million ripped out of the local economies because of the changes to EI. It meant devastation for small business, families and workers in those areas.

Could the hon. member please elaborate on why the Liberal government would take away that money from those hard working people and then give it away in tax breaks for major corporations?

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1:05 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative New Brunswick Southwest, NB

Mr. Speaker, I do not know the complete answer, but it is the history of this particular party to do that. I do not want to make it sound as if big business is the enemy, because it is not. We have an economy that is chugging along pretty well and hopefully we will be able to survive the downturn in the American economy, which has hit the United States much worse than it has Canada.

It is not simply them versus us and governments always supporting big business. We must have big business and I have big business owners in my riding who are very good corporate citizens. However, if I am right about the direction the member is taking in his question about grants going to big business, which is that maybe some of the money should go to Canadians who really need the help, I do not think most of us would disagree.

That is the balance governments have to strike: governments must not only do good but appear to be doing good. That is always difficult. I know that when we talk about loan guarantees to companies such as Bombardier and so on, it is easy to criticize them, but even though Bombardier is a large corporation and a very successful one, in the marketplace those types of guarantees are sometimes important for corporations. Sometimes governments have to make them. Oftentimes, if they had their druthers, they would rather not, but there is globalization. I know that the NDP's view of globalization is not quite the same as our party's, and I think some of their concerns are justified, but on balance we need to have corporations, big and small.

My belief is that if all corporations, big and small, were healthy, we could do without some of the things we are actually talking about here today. Unfortunately that is a perfect world and we do not live in a perfect world.

The bill we are talking about today is about support for little people when they need it, and I think that is one area we can agree on.

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1:10 p.m.


Paul Crête Bloc Kamouraska—Rivière-Du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, QC

Mr. Speaker, I listened with great interest to my colleague's speech and I noticed that he was aware that on this issue his arguments were often those of the Bloc Quebecois.

There is a matter of equity that goes beyond the various positions members may have on the national issue. Obviously we have created a monster with our employment insurance program. That monster has killed social equity, particularly the pact made with Canada's and Quebec's resource regions.

The member talked about amendments he would like to make to the legislation. I would like to know if these could be brought in quickly so we could vote on two bills as suggested by the Bloc Quebecois and so people could benefit from improvements to the program as soon as possible. There would be a first bill aimed at improving the program, and a second bill, which we could debate later on, on the issue of the employment insurance fund surplus.

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1:10 p.m.

Progressive Conservative

Greg Thompson Progressive Conservative New Brunswick Southwest, NB

Mr. Speaker, as has been mentioned in the House, perhaps the whole EI file should go to committee, not just the specifics in the bill.

One of the points I did not make, which is not part of the bill, is about the EI boundary situation. Every four or five years these boundaries are changed, based on census data and so on. It is almost like redistribution in a political district. Some of those changes have imposed a lot of hardship in rural New Brunswick.

In my own riding it has, because we have fishing communities now lumped in with bigger areas like Saint John and Fredericton that have higher levels of economic opportunity or, in other words, lower unemployment. Seasonal workers in those larger areas are brought into these higher areas of economic development, which means they have to work longer hours for fewer benefits. The numbers are very much distorted by some of these bigger centres.

I would like the committee to take a look at how we could fine tune some of those districts to take into account some of the difficulties that are brought in when the larger centres put these rural areas at a disadvantage simply because the unemployment rates in those areas are lower. It becomes very complex. Once one part of the equation is changed, it all has to be changed, but it is one thing I would like to see discussed.

Last summer I personally organized public meetings in my constituency on that very matter, and the government did change those boundaries. Even though it is a five year process, the government said I was right, that these people were being treated unfairly. The government said it would be changed and did put it back to where it was over about a four year period. It is just a temporary fix.

The whole question of EI should be viewed by the committee in the hope of improving it from top to bottom, including the boundary situation, which is very unfair to rural seasonal workers.