Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in the House tonight to support this private member's bill.
I congratulate my hon. colleague, the member for Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore. Having read his bill and having been present in earlier hours of debate, I want to say that this is one of the most important pieces of private members' business that has come before the House. It deals with an issue that affects Canadians right across the country, no matter where they live, no matter what their background, no matter what socio-economic class they come from. It is a private member's bill that deals with a very grave and important issue.
To refresh people's memories, Bill C-206 would provide employment insurance benefits to people who leave employment to be caregivers to family members who are seriously ill or undergoing severe rehabilitation. It is modelled on the EI parental benefits program. The bill simply and straightforwardly would enable Canadians to leave their workplace to care for a family member, knowing that their job and income would be protected for the designated period.
I cannot think of an issue that is more important to so many people across the country. That is one reason the bill has received tremendous support.
In my own province the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities is probably the major organization that deals with issues around disabilities and deals with this issue of caregiving. This is a major issue that faces that organization and their members. I am very glad that the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities is supporting my colleague on this bill, as are many other organizations across the country. These include the Alzheimer's Society of Sudbury-Manitoulin, the Alzheimer Society of Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma District, the Alzheimer Association of Saskatchewan, the Alzheimer Society of Ontario, Muskoka and Kingston, VON Canada, Hospice Huronia, the Canadian Mental Health Association in Ottawa, the Canadian Caregiver Coalition in Ottawa, the Canadian Cancer Society, and the list goes on. It is a very strong indication that people understand the importance of this bill and why it needs to be supported.
In speaking to the bill today, like many people, I have had personal experience about what it means to be a caregiver when a family member is sick, or in my case, in palliative care. In my situation, my partner of 24 years, Bruce, was dying of cancer. Like many family members in other situations, I faced very difficult choices about what to do. One struggles to keep commitments at work and at home to care for the family member. There are very difficult choices. My colleague has outlined many stories from Canadians and the struggles they faced.
In my own situation, in 1997 I was very lucky that I worked for the Hospital Employees' Union in British Columbia, which was very sensitive and understanding of its employees. It was willing to give me time away from work so that I could participate in the care of my partner when he needed it, in the most critical time when he left the hospital and came home, basically to die. If I had been in a work situation where I had not had an employer that was willing to provide that kind of compassion and support to me as an employee of that union, I would have been in a very difficult situation.
I did not have savings that I could have used to stay home. I did not have family members who could provide income support. I recognize that in my situation I was able to cope, as difficult as it was.
We have to recognize that in most situations across Canada, when one member of a family unit is working but is also placed in the position of trying to care for another member of the family unit, and it might be a child, a sister, a spouse or partner, or a parent, employers often are not able to make arrangements. People may not work in a situation where there is a collective agreement that has some sort of provision. They may actually be in a situation where their employer just does not give a damn about the situation.
The bill says that under the employment insurance program we should be entitled to receive the kind of benefits, just as we would when our employment is terminated. We can use EI now for parental leave. It seems to me that this would be the most logical expansion of the program, especially when we consider that the EI fund has now accumulated a huge surplus. It is over $40 billion. This is money that is paid into the fund by employers and employees. Government money is not involved in the fund. It is a very legitimate use of the insurance program, to extend it for caregiving purposes.
I have had a lot of feedback in my riding about this bill. One person in particular, a member of an aboriginal family, described to me the circumstances they found themselves in of having to care for family members not just once but on several occasions, where family members were terminally ill.
As a result of losing employment, one of the real tragedies of the status quo is that people lose their pension benefits. They actually lose pensionable earnings because they have to quit work.
The bill is important. I want to address some of the concerns and myths the government has put forward in debating the bill. It has suggested that it would be very expensive, that it would cost a huge amount of money to do this, yet there is no evidence to suggest that.
What the government fails to take into account is that not having this kind of provision through EI actually costs our health care system a huge amount of money. For every dollar that would be spent on this kind of caregiver program, we would actually save $4 to $6 in health care costs. We would be creating a supportive environment, with support programs, palliative care programs and programs for sick children. This would actually save dollars in the health care system. I would also note that Mr. Romanow in his report strongly recommended that a caregiver program be approved.
One of the other myths the government puts forward is that somehow if a program did exist, a person would only need about six weeks. In my own situation a minimum of 10 weeks was what I required to be at home in order to care for my partner. To suggest that the period could be limited to six weeks, I do not think is any kind of representation in terms of the realities that are out there.
In closing, I congratulate my colleague from Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore. He has produced a fine piece of legislation that is not only worthy of debate, but is worthy of support. I hope very much that members from all sides of the House will agree that the bill should now go to committee where we can get into detailed examination of it and debate the issues in it. It is very worthy of that support. I urge members to agree to support it and to send it to committee.