Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to speak today. I want to thank the hon. member for Toronto—Danforth, who seconded the NDP motion on employment insurance, for giving such prominence to the employment insurance issue. The problem faced by seasonal workers across the country is so serious as to warrant putting before the House a motion that will be debated all day today.
Let us examine this motion:
That, in the opinion of the House, employment insurance benefits paid to Canadians in areas of high unemployment (10% or greater unemployment rate) should be based on either: 1) the best 12 weeks of income in the last 52 weeks preceding the claim; or 2) the best 12 weeks of income since the beginning of the last claim, whichever is shorter.
I believe this is a step in the right direction, but I have to add that it is not what is really needed. Many Canadian workers are aware that I toured Canada in 1998. I have talked about it time and time again in the House of Commons. The purpose of this tour was to see how other parts of the country, besides the riding of Acadie—Bathurst, were affected by this problem.
At the time, the minister responsible for employment insurance said the problem existed in Atlantic Canada and nowhere else in the country. I travelled through 10 provinces and one territory, the Yukon. Everywhere I went, this problem existed.
The problem, as everyone knows by now, was so serious that during the various elections the Liberals would always tell voters that if they voted Liberal, then changes would be made to EI. They did that every time.
I remember one of our colleagues who used to be in the House of Commons, Georges Farrah, the representative for the riding of Bonaventure—Gaspé—Îles-de-la-Madeleine—Pabok. His first day at the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, a session the Minister of Human Resources Development attended, he made an appeal to the minister on behalf of the people of Gaspé and Îles-de-la-Madeleine. He said people were unable to qualify for benefits and that the divisor of 14 was the hindering factor for workers.
The current member for Beauséjour—Petitcodiac clearly said—and I have the newspaper clippings to prove it—that officials in Ottawa did not understand seasonal workers and that the government needed to make changes to the system.
The former member for Shediac—Cap-Pelé, Bernard Richard, who is now the New Brunswick ombudsman, is someone who is quite respected in that province. One newspaper reported that Bernard Richard demanded that the federal government find solutions to the employment insurance program.
I introduced a bill in the House of Commons after tabling my report on my tour across Canada. The report included 15 recommendations. The Liberals and the Conservatives chose to vote against the bill. I want to thank the Bloc Québécois for voting in favour of it. We fought hard to improve the employment insurance system for seasonal workers.
That said, the following question might be asked today: why take the best 12 weeks in an area with an unemployment rate of 10% or greater? I predict someone will ask that question.
The reason is as follows. Bill C-2 was introduced prior to the 2000 election—I remember it quite clearly and, obviously, so do other members of the House of Commons. Subsequent to that election, we realized that not many amendments had been made. The parliamentary committee had written a report that went beyond Bill C-2. Then it made a number of recommendations that the government completely ignored.
During the 2004 election, a few more minor amendments were made, such as extending the number of weeks by five. We called for additional changes, but we were told that they would be made after the election.
The problems with EI are extremely important. The former Prime Minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien, struck a parliamentary committee comprising Liberals to travel around the country and identify these problems. After the report was tabled, the current Prime Minister even decided to follow up on this work. This committee still exists, as a matter of fact.
When the committee started to draft its report, the senator from Madawaska, Ms. Ringuette-Maltais, made a dissenting comment to the effect that it did not go far enough. However, the Liberal Party did not share that opinion.
It is our responsibility as members of this House to have parliamentary committees. The report of the Subcommittee on Employment Insurance Funds presented another 28 recommendations in February 2005. The Liberal Party had agreed to use the best 12 weeks. The Liberal members of the committee had even voted in favour of the report, which refers to the best 12 weeks, so that it could be tabled in the House of Commons. However, after the budget was tabled, the minister announced in a press release that she was in favour of the best 14 weeks in regions where the unemployment rate is 10% or higher.
Today is an opposition day, and we are proposing that the House adopt the best 12 weeks instead of the best 14, and we are using the government's own motion to do it. So we hope it will be adopted.
Consider the seasonal regions. We do not choose where we are born. We do not choose our parents. One fine day, bingo, we are here. We are born, and we learn whatever language we are taught. Nature, not us, determines who we are. However, I do think that Acadia, along Chaleur Bay, where I come from, is the most beautiful region in Canada.
My colleague over the way says he might like to move to Quebec in order to have a view of the beautiful St. Lawrence as it flows into the Atlantic. That is not far from where we live, but our cousins in Gaspé have the same problem we do. In fact, when the people of Gaspé and the North Shore invited me to Forestville, there were 2,500 people out in the streets. Workers from the local businesses, business owners and clergy were out to show us that this is no longer a political matter. It is a human matter. It is time the EI problem were addressed.
For Canadians in the regions who have to accumulate 14 weeks to qualify, the divisor is 14. If there are regions where 17 weeks are needed, then the divisor is 17. Yet there are regions where there is high unemployment and 12 weeks are required. Twelve weeks is 420 hours with an average work week of 35 hours.
So why punish these people and tell them the figure will be 14? They are already getting only 55% of their income, so they are being punished twice.
A problem has developed in the southeast of the province, where people work 17 or 18 weeks out of the year. Some 1,500 people there broke the law by stockpiling time. The Liberals understood the problem and settled it by proposing the 14 best weeks, since there are 17 or 18 weeks worked.
But the problem is not limited to this one place. People must be treated the same everywhere. Since the minimum required to quality for EI is 12 weeks, it is completely normal for those to be the best 12.
People who work in the fishery or forest industry—whether in northern Ontario, Kapuskasing, Hearst, Hornepayne, Manitouwadge or White River, or in northern Alberta, or in Prince George, British Columbia—everywhere I went, have the same problems with EI.
This week in parliamentary committee, when we were debating Bill C-280 proposed by the Bloc Québécois, the parliamentary secretary was worried. If money were taken from the employment insurance fund and put into an independent fund, our country could be driven to the verge of bankruptcy. We balanced our budget and paid our debts with it when we had a deficit.
Is it really up to working people who have lost their jobs to pay for the country's deficit and balance the government's budget? They are attacking families, children. They are taking money from these families that could be used to help them buy food and clothing and send their kids to school. They are creating poverty in Canada, and that is totally unacceptable.
When we speak about employment insurance, it is not only in Acadie—Bathurst. Newfoundland has similar problems. We could talk to the Minister of Natural Resources who said that he has the same problems in Newfoundland because it is a fishing region. It is not the fault of the working people if the fishery stocks have gone down in the Atlantic Ocean. It is not the fault of the fish plant workers if the fishery stocks have gone down around the Gaspé coast. It is not the fault of the working people, with all the high technology now even in the forestry sector, that the woodcutters have been removed. Even there they only have short weeks which are not enough.
Some are under the impression that if we bring it down to the best 12 week of earnings, it will encourage people to quit their jobs and go home. Who is encouraged to quit their job and take 55% of their wages? As a matter of fact, the law is very clear in employment insurance. If people quit their job, they will not have employment insurance because they will not qualify. This is an excuse the government is using to not give employment insurance. It is only an excuse to take that money and use it to balance the budget and have a zero deficit.
I recall in 1986 when the Conservatives moved the account from employment insurance to general revenues. People were on the street because they did not want the change to employment insurance.
The minister responsible for employment insurance in 1996 was Doug Young. When he was in the opposition in 1989, he asked all New Brunswickers to fight back against the changes in employment insurance because they would be a disaster for New Brunswick. In February 1993 Jean Chrétien himself, when he was in opposition and leader of the Liberal Party, said the Conservatives were wrong to make changes to employment insurance because the problem was not the people. He said we should not punish people. He added that the problem was economic development, and we had to create jobs and put people to work.
Sadly, in the fall, when the Liberals were elected, they continued to make the changes that the Conservatives had been doing which was to cut employment insurance. When the Liberals took the money from EI and put it in general revenues, it gave them a way to get money. Then they became greedy. It is not the workers who depend on EI any more. It is the government that depends on EI for all those surpluses. Some $46 billion of surplus on the backs of workers who lost their jobs is totally unacceptable in this country.
The employment insurance surplus is about $46 billion. It is no longer working people who depend on employment insurance but the government itself, which needs it to balance the budget and have a zero deficit.
In the case we are talking about, the best 12 weeks, people made arguments such as it would cost too much, be too expensive, cost $150 million.
For the information of the House and all the hon. members, I asked our researchers to look into this. When we were in parliamentary committee, some people from Human Resources Canada came and gave us some figures because we were pushing for the 12 best weeks out of 52. The best 12 weeks would cost $320 million.
In the minister's remarks after the budget was tabled, he announced some changes, saying that the 14 best weeks would be used, the number of hours would be reduced from 910 to 840, and one could also have earnings of $75 a day. The cost would be $300 million.
If the costs of the 12 best and 14 best weeks are compared, which would be $320 million compared with $300 million, the difference is $20 million and not $150 million. That is not very much—$20 million—to help families, children and industry, when they have a surplus of $46 billion. Just last year, in one year, the government generated a $3 billion surplus.
I ask my Conservative colleagues, who opposed the recommendations on employment insurance—apart from an independent fund—to take a look at their colleagues from Newfoundland and Labrador and support them too. I ask all my colleagues in the House of Commons and in the Bloc Québécois to support the changes requested in the motion. I ask my Liberal colleagues to do a very honourable thing next week and support the motion before the House of Commons.
I am sure that working people will thank everyone in Parliament, all the political parties, because finally they will have put their political partisanship aside and done something for people in need, for working people.