Madam Speaker, as the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, I am proud to be responsible for a department that touches the lives of so many Canadians. Programs that support employment, workplace skills and learning, such as employment insurance, the Canada student loans program and the Canada education savings grant, are all part of this mandate.
These programs all aim to help improve the standard of living and the quality of life for all Canadians by providing workers the support they need to find and to keep work. As such, any motion that deals with helping unemployed Canadians make the transition into employment is of great interest to me and the department that I represent.
Before going into this debate on today's motion, let me underline the overall labour market picture and the tremendous gains Canada has made over the last few years.
Canada's 6.8% unemployment rate is well below its peak of 12.1% in 1992. The good news is that all regions of this country have seen a falling unemployment rate. The rate in the Atlantic provinces fell from 15.7% to 10.4%. Quebec's rate fell from 14.3% to 7.9%. Ontario's rate fell from 11.5% to 6.8%. The rate in the western provinces is down from 10.2% to 5.1%.
We now have less long term unemployment than any other G-7 country. Canada has enjoyed significant job growth, faster than any other G-7 country. In 2004, and so far in 2005, the level of employment has risen by close to 280,000 jobs. The Atlantic provinces created 13,000 jobs, Quebec created 51,000 jobs, Ontario created 107,000 jobs and the western provinces created 108,000 jobs.
The labour market is inclusive. Canada's 67.2% labour market participation rate is at a near record level and above the U.S. rate of 66%. The foregoing statistics, in my opinion, are a tribute to all Canadians. As the Government of Canada, we are only one player in the whole labour market equation.
At the same time, we must not forget those areas of the country and those Canadians who are not benefiting to the same extent from the expansion in our economy. As Canadians, we are a much stronger country when we are all pulling together. That is why employment insurance is a valuable program and the reason today's debate is important.
Employment insurance matters to Canadians. It plays an important role in our labour market for millions of Canadian workers, employers and communities across Canada. The EI program provides workers with temporary income support while they look for another job. It also helps clients who cannot work for reasons of sickness, childbirth or parenting, or need to take time off work to provide care and support for a gravely ill family member.
The employment insurance program also provides for active re-employment measures to help clients acquire the skills needed to return to work quickly and to stay employed.
In 2004 and 2005, approximately 635,000 Canadians participated in employment program interventions and a further 50,000 young Canadians participated in the summer career placement program. Over 220,000 Canadians found employment or became self-employed through these measures.
The government is committed to ensuring that EI remains relevant to the needs of Canadians. Let me give some context.
Today's debate is timely as it follows the tabling of the government's response to recommendations by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities dealing with this important national program which have provided us with considerable food for thought. It comes on the heels of the release of the most recent EI monitoring and assessment report that provides us an annual snapshot of how the program is performing.
Given the size and the complexity of the program and its impact on individual workers, communities and our economy, care must be exercised in implementing any changes to employment insurance. A balanced approached is called for so Canadians can have adequate benefits and reasonable entrance requirements while avoiding any changes that could jeopardize our labour market, economy and sustainability of the program.
An excellent way of getting feedback on specific issues is for annual EI monitoring and assessment reports. We need to ensure that EI can continue to serve Canadians in our dynamic labour market as well in the future as it does now.
As we know, the Employment Insurance Act allows the government to implement pilot projects to test new approaches before deciding whether to implement them nationally or permanently.
The hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst has proposed that we calculate EI benefits based on the best 12 weeks of earnings over the past 52 weeks. In fact, on February 23, the Government of Canada announced enhancements to the EI program that take into account many recommendations that were brought forward concerning EI. Indeed, one of the pilot projects that we announced in February aims to address the same issue as the best 12 weeks proposal. However, we do not support the motion because we feel the government's approach of a best 14 weeks benefit rate calculation balances the need to ensure income adequacy while maintaining work incentives.
The best 14 weeks pilot project aims to ensure that EI benefit levels are more reflective of full time work patterns for workers who experience weekly changes in their hours of employment and earnings. It is designed to test whether this benefit rate calculation will encourage workers to accept work that could lower their weekly benefit rate and they may otherwise refuse.
The new enhancements also include two additional pilot projects in areas of high unemployment that will test the labour market impacts of reducing the hours new and returning workers need to qualify for EI from 910 hours to 840 hours when linked with employment measures and increasing the while-on-claim threshold to encourage more people to accept work while collecting EI benefits.
At the same time, we also announced extensions to a pilot project that provides five additional weeks of EI benefits which is designed to help address the annual income gap faced by workers with limited work alternatives and transitional boundary measures in EI economic regions at Madawaska-Charlotte, New Brunswick, and Bas-Saint-Laurent-Côte-Nord, Quebec, until October 2006, pending a boundary review.
These enhancements demonstrate the government's ongoing commitment to meet the needs of Canadian workers and regions while maintaining sound management of the program.
These latest enhancements build on past adjustments based on ongoing monitoring of the program to identify areas where some fine tuning may be required. A good example was the elimination of the intensity rule in 2000, which was not working as had been originally intended.
Another example involved the modification of the clawback provision to make it fairer to low and middle income claimants.
We also adjust to the changing trends in the labour market.
In December 2000 we enhanced EI's ability to help parents balance family and workplace demands by doubling the duration of maternity and parental benefits from six months to one full year, a move that resulted in a significant increase in the number of parents accessing parental benefits.
Alongside our efforts to make adjustments to EI that meet the needs of Canadian workers, premium rates have been reduced for 11 consecutive years.
In 2005 the EI premium rate was reduced to $1.95 for $100 of insurable earnings, compared to a rate of $3.07 in 1994. As a result, employers and employees now pay $10 billion less in premiums than would have been the case using the 1994 rate.
Our goal is to maintain the sound management of the EI program while ensuring that it remains responsive to Canada's labour market.
We also have to be proactive in meeting the challenges of today's economy. Just the past week, I helped open the Newmarket Human Resource Centre of Canada for Students . I was impressed by the enthusiasm of our young people and our partners in the community, including employers, to help open the doors for young Canadians to help them get over that incredible challenge to finding work, with no experience.
I only point this out because in each community each Canadian is faced with the challenge of accessing and creating opportunities for employment.
Human Resources and Skills Development has been active on many fronts. We know that today's labour market requires Canadians to hone and sharpen their skills so they can remain engaged in the workforce. We know that lifelong learning is a key for each and every one of us.
What about those Canadians who are in seasonal economies, whose jobs are essential for our economy and their skills crucial? The same learning principles apply to all Canadians. The fact is, people change and industries change. Nobody can afford to pretend a situation will remain static.
However, there is another challenge that faces us. What about those Canadians who feel they have been left behind and who perhaps do not have the strong foundations that will allow them to absorb new training? Indeed, the Government of Canada is working with the provinces, the territories, employer groups, labour and the non-profit sector to develop a comprehensive strategy to support learning, literacy and essential skills development.
My colleague, the hon. Minister of State for Human Resources Development, will be a major force in this endeavour, along with the National Literacy Secretariat which is investing $30 million in collaborative efforts to enhance literacy and essential skills in communities across Canada.
HRSDC has also put in place the aboriginal human resources development and the aboriginal skills and employment partnership to enhance the skills of Canada's aboriginal workforce.
If we accept the need for lifelong learning, it follows that skills development must continue on the job to meet that need. That is why the Government of Canada is also developing a workplace skills strategy aimed at ensuring the Canadian workforce is highly skilled, adaptable and resilient.
By shaping a labour market that is flexible and efficient, the strategy also responds to the needs of employers for productive, innovative and competitive workplaces.
With those objectives in mind, Budget 2005 invested another $125 million over three years to strengthen apprenticeship programs in Canada, to test new workplace skills development initiatives and to spur discussions on skills issues among business, labour and training leaders.
As a government, we are committed to maintaining and raising the skills level of Canadians. We see this as critical for two reasons: to help individual Canadians find stable and well paying work, good quality, high paying jobs to improve their standard of living and to take part in society; and to secure Canada's economic competitiveness, productivity and prosperity, especially at a time when other leading industrialized nations are investing heavily in the literacy and essential skills of their citizens.
Clearly, we cannot do this alone. We have worked and will continue to work with the provinces and territories as well as stakeholders in the public, private, non-profit and voluntary sector to further boost the literacy and essential skills of Canadians. Literacy and essential skills are nurtured in families, in schools, in the workplace and in communities, with special recognition for the voluntary sector.
As we can see, a great deal has been done across the board to ensure that we are responding to the needs of unemployed Canadians while at the same time looking ahead to the future to ensure that Canadians have the opportunity to develop their skills for this new economy.
While much has been accomplished, still a great deal more needs to be done. Therefore, I call on the members of the House to work with the government as it seeks to ensure that EI can serve future generations of clients as well as it does the current ones. It is only by working together that we can ensure the responsiveness and relevance of this important national program will continue to help Canadians build their skills for a better future and for a better quality of life.