Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development.
I am very honoured because this department is at the centre of issues about which I feel passionately. It is also at the centre of challenges that our country must meet if we want to continue paving the way to success in this 21st century.
As hon. members are aware, the Prime Minister announced the creation of the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development in December 2003 to better position the government, to strengthen Canada's social foundations and to build a true 21st century economy.
I am proud to be the parliamentary secretary of a department whose vision touches on the well-being and fulfilment of every single Canadian. That vision is a country where individuals have the opportunity to learn and to contribute to Canada's success by participating fully in an open and efficient labour market.
The department's mission is to improve the standard of living and quality of life of all Canadians by promoting a highly skilled and mobile labour force, and an efficient and inclusive labour market.
The bill that the House is considering today would give Human Resources and Skills Development Canada the legislative foundation we need to realize this comprehensive vision and mission.
Bill C-23 sets out:
The powers, duties and functions of the Minister extend to and include all matters relating to human resources and skills development in Canada over which Parliament has jurisdiction....
We will continue to work in partnership with the provinces and territories, employers and employees, and other key stakeholders.
The passing of this legislation will give the minister and the department and the Minister of Labour and Housing the authorities required to effectively fulfil this mandate.
Bear in mind that this legislation does not create any new programs or services. It only reflects changes to the machinery of the government announced by the Prime Minister in December. The bill also lays the foundations for a new harmonized code governing the disclosure of personal information. This code will be more efficient and more transparent and will reflect our commitment to ensure continued protection of personal information.
It would also enable us to strike a fair balance between the need to protect Canadians' privacy and the use of such information for the effective administration of programs and services.
The Privacy Commissioner has expressed her solid support for the privacy code in this legislation. She said, “We think this is a very positive measure. We urge you to adopt it”.
I would like to take the time to remind the House of the importance and breadth of the mandate of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. There are many reasons why the average Canadian is more likely to be in contact with the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development than most other federal departments and those reasons relate to the diverse programs that we offer.
The department is responsible for $20 billion in benefits for Canadians. By providing employment insurance benefits, for example, the department assists Canadians during times of transition, such as job loss or sickness. EI benefits also enable parents to be at home with a newborn or a newly adopted child or to care for a gravely ill family member.
Our employment programs, which include employment insurance active measures and the youth employment strategy, help thousands of unemployed Canadians each year to develop skills and fine good sustainable jobs.
Our workplace skills strategy assists employers across the country through initiatives like the sector councils and labour market information.
The department's learning programs, including the Canada student loans program and the Canada education saving grants program, help make post-secondary education more accessible to millions of Canadians.
I also want to mention particularly the National Literacy Secretariat which funds projects to support literacy across the country, in every community that is represented here, including my own.
Under its labour program, the department provides mediation and conciliation services to resolve labour disputes affecting the federal government.
Our programs for the homeless include many initiatives to help communities across the country address problems with housing and homelessness. The Regional Homelessness Fund and the Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative represent two of these initiatives.
As I am sure the House will agree, all these programs have a very direct and positive impact on the lives of Canadians.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight how the department will be focusing its efforts in the future.
Given the demographic trends, the rate of growth of our labour force is slowing. Although this phenomenon is not unique to Canada, we lag behind a number of our international competitors in terms of positioning ourselves to enhance productivity. We can no longer rely on the quantity of our labour force to support economic growth. We, like many other industrial economies, must rely more and more on the quality of our labour force to remain competitive and to spur economic growth.
Therefore, Human Resources and Skills Development's priority will be the development of Canada's human capital. By human capital, I mean the sum total of all our citizens' skills. Canada's success as a nation and the well-being of us all increasingly depend on how we develop this human capital.
This will be the department's contribution to the government's broad objective of sustaining and enhancing a productive and innovative economy, a vibrant and healthy society, and an efficient and inclusive labour market. We want to see a nation where all our citizens can readily acquire the skills and knowledge they need to succeed and where everyone adopts and values a culture of lifelong learning.
For individual Canadians, our focus on human capital will mean increased earnings, sustained employment and enhanced health and social well-being. For employers, human capital will mean a skilled, mobile labour force and increased investment in training and innovative workplaces.
We will build a human capital strategy on three pillars. The first is lifelong learning, which I have mentioned. The second is modernizing our employment programming. The third is a national workplace skills strategy.
Developing a culture of continuous learning is a prerequisite to ensuring the quality labour force the new economy calls for. At a very early age, Canadians have to have access to skills development opportunities. Moreover, they will have to develop and practice their skills throughout their working lives.
To support lifelong learning, Human Resources and Skills Development will continue to improve the Canada student loans program as well as enhance the Canada education savings grant to encourage low income and medium income families to start investing for their children's long term education. We will also be reviewing student debt measures and support for part time students.
We know we face some major challenges in our learning goals for Canadians. Eight million working age Canadians lack the literacy skills needed to meet the demands of the knowledge based economy. Raising literacy and essential skill levels will be critical to improving the quality of our workforce and contributing to Canada's social prosperity.
The second pillar of our human capital strategy will see the renewal of the department's employment programs to foster a productive, adaptable and resilient labour force.
We will develop an integrated labour market strategy to respond to emerging labour market trends and work with the provinces to update labour market programming to better reflect the realities of work in the 21st century. Part of this involves strengthening employment insurance and making it more responsive to the current labour market realities.
This is why the budget included a number of measures to this end, such as a new premium rate setting mechanism to increase transparency and accountability and to provide increased rate stability by setting a ceiling on employment insurance premium rates. This mechanism will ensure that the rates paid by workers will not exceed the current rates over the next two years.
In addition, unemployed Canadians will receive more support through three new pilot projects launched in high unemployment regions.
This is to allow clients new to the labour market, or returning after an extended absence from it, to access EI benefits after 840 hours of work rather than 910 hours, when linked with EI employment programs, and to calculate EI benefits based on the “best 14 weeks” of earnings over the 52 weeks proceeding a claim of benefits. This will mean that for individuals with sporadic work patterns, EI benefit levels do a better job of reflecting their full time work patterns. Last, it will increase the “working while on claim” threshold to allow individuals to earn the greater of $75 or 40% of benefits so that they can continue to work without reduction in their benefits.
Continuation of the pilot project that provides workers in high unemployment regions with five additional weeks of regular benefits is another improvement.
There is the extension of the EI so-called transitional boundaries in the economic regions of Madawaska-Charlotte, New Brunswick, and the lower St. Lawrence North Shore of Quebec for another year.
Of course, EI is only part of the answer since we also need to address the growth of self-employment and the requirements for continuous skills upgrading. As we need to enhance our employment programs in support of labour market participation, this means we will renew our efforts to bring in those at the margins of the labour force, like aboriginal Canadians, new Canadians and older workers. We want all Canadians to be able to develop and use their full skills and talents.
The third pillar for developing our human capital is our workplace skills strategy. We are focusing on the workplace because it is ideal setting for Canadians to gain skills, to re-skill and to up-skill for the new economy. The workplace skills strategy will encourage skills development and use through collaborative partnerships with business, unions, learning and training institutions, and sector councils.
Recognizing the important role workplace learning can have in improving labour market productivity and the quality of Canada's workforce, the recent budget announced significant new investments of $125 million over three years.
First, it will strengthen apprenticeship systems in Canada. The government will continue working with the provinces and territories and other partners to enhance interprovincial mobility in the skilled trades and support high quality apprenticeships for all Canadians
Second, it will also support the testing of new skills initiatives that are demand driven and targeted to employed people. A new workplace skills innovation initiative will encourage employers to invest in the skills development of their employees and inform them of government labour market policy and programming.
Third, we will also foster dialogue on workplace skills issues through the workplace partners panel, comprised of business, labour and training leaders. The new panel will be a forum for sharing best practices and innovations and increasing industry leadership and commitment in the area of skills development.
The strategy will also support workplace innovation through demonstration projects and enhance and refine existing tools to support skills development in the workplace.
The department also will continue to advance the government's foreign credential recognition program. Between 2011 and 2015, we expect that virtually all of Canada's net labour growth will come from immigration.
We must find new and better ways of attracting skilled immigrants and helping newcomers integrate into our labour markets so that they can apply the skills and work experience they bring with them. This is why we are investing $68 million over six years to help find better ways to assess and recognize professional credentials and work experience earned outside of Canada. Through the efforts of a broad range of partners we will develop foreign credential recognition processes that are fair, accessible, transparent and consistent all across the country.
These processes will also be rigorous in order to protect the health and safety of Canadians. For example, we have reached an agreement with the provinces and territories and key medical stakeholders on improved procedures for licensing foreign trained doctors. A similar initiative is underway for foreign trained nurses and consultations will soon begin with other health professions.
We are also supporting the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers on an action plan to integrate international engineering graduates more quickly and efficiently into the Canadian labour market. In addition, we will be working with employers and sector councils to find ways to recognize the skills and prior experience of immigrants seeking work in non-regulated occupations, which make up 85% of the Canadian labour market.
Our goals for human capital development will only be achieved by working closely with our partners, including the provincial and territorial governments, businesses, unions, sector councils, education and training institutions, community organizations and municipalities. We will continue to respect provincial jurisdiction while recognizing that the federal government has an important role to play.
The legislation under consideration today also will enable the department to continue its work on other priority issues that matter intensely to Canadians. A key priority issue is the renewal of the aboriginal human resources development strategy and work with communities through the urban aboriginal strategy to find solutions to the issues that aboriginal people face in our cities.
The department will also work to ensure that official language minority communities have the tools their members need to participate in and contribute fully to Canadian society.
I would like to thank the members of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons With Disabilities for their work on the bill.
I believe I have demonstrated that the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development has a major role to play in helping Canada to address the challenges of the knowledge-based economy and provide an even better future for every person, community and business in the country.
With the mandate, authority and necessary tools this legislation provides, the Department of Human Resources and Skills Development will be able to assist individual Canadians to learn and continually develop their skills. This crucial investment will, in turn, enable our citizens to contribute to Canada's economic success and to their own well-being and sense of fulfilment.
The passing of the legislation will, therefore, help ensure that Canada continues to be internationally recognized for the quality of life we offer to our citizens and for its vital and innovative economies.
For these reasons and for the fact that a standing committee of the House and the House endorsed the division of the former HRDC department, I strongly support the legislation.