moved that Bill C-228, Antipoverty Act be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, in the history of the Bloc Quebecois, the issue of poverty and social marginalization has always been a major one, as shown by the work done by the hon. member for Québec and our long time employment insurance critic, the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques. We have always been concerned about how, from a legislative point of view, we could be sure of being able to make a contribution to improving the situation of the least advantaged members of society.
I first introduced the bill we are discussing today back in 1995. If I remember correctly, the parliamentary secretary was not in the House at that time. The bill, a little like yourself, Madam Speaker, has aged very well and it remains extremely pertinent to this day.
In 2000, when the women's march was held in Quebec—that extremely well publicized popular event with its theme of “Bread and roses”—the Quebec human rights commission issued a public policy statement to the effect that poverty was still the most important problem of present day Quebec. I think that in 2003 that statement continues to hold just as true.
The National Council of Welfare, an advisory body which advises the Minister of Human Resource Development, has said that in 1999-2000, that is the latest year for which there are statistics available, 4,900,000 people in Canada were considered poor. There being no official poverty index in Canada, low income level is used. The yardstick set by Statistics Canada is that people are considered poor if they spend more than 20% of their income on vital necessities, that is clothing, housing and food. Concretely, this means that for the year 1999-2000, a person who spent 55% of his income on essential goods was considered poor.
My bill now before the House is very reasonable. It does not have nearly the same scope as the legislation that was introduced by the Government of Quebec in the National Assembly and passed last June. As members will remember, the Government of Quebec chose to invest $1.34 billion in the fight against poverty and social exclusion over the next three years. It is so important—and the member for Québec, who has always been supportive in this fight, will agree with me—that the bill was considered a rather unique piece of legislation, one of the most forward-looking in North America. Of course, that does not come as a surprise for those who know the Parti Quebecois. Its roots and its commitment to social democratic values have always been quite strong.
My bill therefore should be unanimously passed in this House since it is a reasonable piece of legislation that will not require additional resources from the Treasury Board or the government. Rather, it relies on a tool that already exists, namely the Canadian Human Rights Act. Not the charter. As we all know, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms can only be revisited through constitutional negotiations. Bloc members certainly do not want to go that route.
The Canadian Human Rights Act was passed in 1977. It provides guarantees to all those using services under federal jurisdictional, such as chartered banks as well as transportation and communications services, so that they can have redress if they are being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, conviction for an offence for which a pardon has beengranted, and so on. There are 12 prohibited grounds of discrimination, but social condition is not one of them.
Social condition is important because eight provinces have added this prohibited ground of discrimination to their Human Rights Code.
Therefore, the purpose of my bill is to add this to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, as eight provinces have already done. It is extremely important because, if social condition had existed as a prohibited ground, some of our fellow citizens would have had recourse in many specific circumstances.
For example, you will recall the amendments to the Employment Insurance Act, when Lloyd Axworthy was the minister responsible for that legislation. A perfect epitome of the left side of the Liberal Party when he was an opposition member, he introduced one of the most reactionary, discriminatory and unacceptable bills, one that brought us light years away from the just society Pierre Elliott Trudeau had hoped for.
If social condition were already a prohibited ground of discrimination, one significant measure that we could take, for example, is to help a young person, a labour force entrant, who wants to qualify for employment insurance for the first time and who has to accumulate 910 hours of insurable employment. For all intents and purposes, it is almost impossible for a new entrant, a young person working for the first time, to be eligible for employment insurance.
Several legal experts and analysts have said that if the Canadian Human Rights Act had included social condition as a prohibited ground, as defined by the courts, including the Court of Appeal of Quebec, it would have provided an extremely useful recourse for these people.
Obviously, receiving employment insurance sets one very much apart. To say that a particular group can or cannot qualify for employment insurance is discriminatory.
Employment insurance would also help those who cannot open a bank account or receive services from financial institutions, especially chartered banks. In the 1960s, there were twenty chartered banks operating in the riding of Hochelaga—Maisonneuve; today there are only four.
We are familiar with the discrimination and lack of sensitivity. Banks want to focus on business clients, small to medium-sized business and even large business clients. Often, they are not attuned to the need for microlending.
It is inconceivable that in a society as rich as Canada and Quebec, people who want to access microfinancing should have a really hard time. It is certainly not the attitude of charter banks as we know them that will solve the problem.
What is suggested in my private member's bill is a mechanism similar to something that exists in France. The Canadian Human Rights Commission is not a partisan organization. Its role is to investigate and mediate, and it can call for a human rights tribunal as it deems appropriate.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission, with its chief and deputy chief commissioners and its other full time and part time commissioners, would be mandated by the House to examine all the bills introduced by the Crown, that is members of the cabinet, and advise on their impact on poverty.
Therein lies the paradox on poverty. When the Senate set up an inquiry in the 1970s, poverty was associated with aging. Nowadays, in the years 2000, 2001, and 2002, we have to recognize that many people on the labour market live in poverty.
The most incredible part is that the legislator, Parliament, can pass legislation that could have a terrible impact on disposable income.
Of course, the issue of employment insurance is a concrete example. The issue of charter banks and the openness that we showed toward foreign banks is another example. There is the whole review of the Immigration Act, where the government increasingly wants an immigration based on economic reasons, at the expense of one based on humanitarian grounds.
I hope that the Minister of Foreign Affairs will deal with this issue. He is associated with the left wing of the Liberal Party, the militant left wing, the “Trudeau” left wing, the just society left wing, but I sense that he is being increasingly assimilated by the system. Still, I know that when we make representations to him, he can sometimes show some sensitivity at the last moment.
Having said this, when the Canadian Human Rights Commission receives the mandate to do so, it will have to take a prospective look at each of these bills. Then, when the Minister of Justice tables a report, this House will have some benchmarks, some reference points.
In the mid-nineties, I was a member of this House. Think of how different the situation could have been if the Canadian Human Rights Commission had had the necessary expertise when we debated the Employment Insurance Act.
Of course, some people were pleased because it was said that the Canada assistance plan would be amended and there would be a little more leeway regarding employability measures. However, in hindsight, we realize that the employment insurance program was an act that already offered very broad coverage. There have been years where 80% of those who were part of the workforce could take advantage of that legislation.
Today, I was looking at the figures—I was actually discussing them with the member next to me, the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques—and there are only 3 out of 10 people in the workforce who qualify for employment insurance.
The notion of insurance, the protective role that the employment insurance program was meant to play has been completely eliminated, despite the fact that the Canadian government, in its budget revenues, in its own revenues, is helping itself to the employment insurance fund without investing one single penny in the program.
Canada is one of the few industrialized countries in which the government does not contribute to the funding, to the operations of the employment insurance fund, but sets, through regulations, the contributions that employers and employees have to make, again even though it does not contribute one single penny.
I have received some extremely important support for this bill and was pleased to get it. This morning I received a letter from the Canadian Conference of Bishops, and I have the support of the CSN, the Fédération des femmes and literacy advocates.
Once again, this is a reasonable bill. It will make it possible to take one more step, to mandate the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and one of its extremely important aspects is that it calls for a statutory debate of six hours on poverty issues.
Words will not be enough. This government is particularly cowardly and insensitive as far as poverty is concerned. When we did last have a debate on this issue in Parliament? Every time it can, the government sidesteps its responsibility.
We are certainly not in a position to compare the extraordinary record of the Parti Quebecois as far as poverty is concerned. I looked at its record and at all the measures that have been adopted in Quebec. It is pretty unbelievable: $1.37 billion for 6 million people. There have been some really concrete measures, such as $500 million put into social housing.
We are aware of the correlation that exists between low rental housing and the ability to cope with poverty. The record here is pretty impressive, with concrete measures and very specific objectives: 40,000 new units or renovations.
In this regard, there are certain communities where construction is not the answer. Hochelaga—Maisonneuve, for example, has virtually no vacant land, so this is a place for renovation of the existing housing stock.
There are plans for the construction or renovation of 40,000 housing units. Then there is the annual indexing of social assistance, abolition of the penalty for shared accommodation, and abolition of the housing test.
Perhaps the members for English Canada are less aware of this, but in Quebec we have had the collective for the elimination—