House of Commons Hansard #77 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was loan.


The House resumed, from September 21, consideration of the motion that Bill C-269, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (improvement of the employment insurance system), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Speaker's RulingEmployment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

11 a.m.


The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

I am now prepared to rule on the point of order raised by the hon. Government House Leader on Thursday, September 21, 2006, concerning the requirement for a royal recommendation for Bill C-269, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (improvement of the employment insurance system), standing in the name of the hon. member for Laurentides—Labelle.

I would like to thank the hon. government House leader for having drawn this important matter to the attention of the House. I would also like to thank the hon. member for Winnipeg Centre, the hon. member for Mississauga South, the hon. member for Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean, and the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst for their contributions on this point.

In raising his point of order, the hon. Government House Leader listed five grounds on which Bill C-269 infringes the financial initiative of the Crown: it reduces the qualifying period for benefits; it increases the weekly benefit rate; it repeals the waiting period for benefits; it increases the yearly maximum insurable earnings and it extends coverage of the Employment Insurance Plan to the self-employed.

The Chair has examined the bill carefully and I have concluded that all of these elements would indeed require expenditures from the EI Account which are not currently authorized. I note as well that the summary of the bill lists three further ends which, at first glance, appear to me to involve other increases to expenditures.

Such increased spending is not covered by the terms of any existing appropriation. Funds may only be appropriated by Parliament for purposes covered by a royal recommendation, as explicitly stated in Standing Order 79(1). New purposes must be accompanied by a new royal recommendation.

I would like to address a second question raised by the hon. members for Winnipeg Centre, Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean and Acadie—Bathurst concerning the employment insurance account. In their interventions, they asserted that the funds in the account are paid by workers and employers and do not constitute government funds.

As Speaker, I of course remain strictly neutral on matters of public policy. I would however like to remind the House of the current status of the Employment Insurance Account. As I stated in a ruling on June 13, 2005 at p. 6990 of the Debates:

Sections 71 to 77 of the Employment Insurance Act establish the operation of the Employment Insurance Account as part of the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Amounts are paid out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund and charged to the Account—

As Bill C-269 envisages the expenditure of funds from the Consolidated Revenue Fund, I must rule that, on the grounds just enumerated, Bill C-269 requires a royal recommendation. I will decline to put the question on third reading of this bill in its present form unless a royal recommendation is received.

Today's debate, however, is on the motion for second reading, and this motion shall be put to a vote at the close of the current debate.

It being 11:05 a.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business.

Resuming debate, the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs.

11:05 a.m.

Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo B.C.


Betty Hinton ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join in today's debate. The Bloc Québécois, through Bill C-269, is calling for what, in effect, would be a radical alteration to the employment insurance program, fundamentally altering the way the program is managed by the government and accessed by Canadians.

As we consider such radical changes, it is important to keep in mind that on balance the existing EI program appears to be working very well. Ongoing reviews of the program have concluded that, by and large, EI is meeting the needs of those for whom it was designed.

While it is true that changes have been made to specific aspects of the program from time to time, these changes have been to respond to particular circumstances. Changes like these can help ensure the program will continue to meet the legitimate needs of those it was set up to serve.

This government is open to looking at proposals that will improve the existing EI system but those proposals must be consistent with the program's basic objectives and based on sound evidence.

It might be useful to take a moment to remind the House what those basic objectives are. The first, of course, is that EI is to provide financial assistance by replacing a portion of employment income lost in times of temporary unemployment. It is an insurance program. Premiums are paid and coverage is provided.

The second is that the program seeks to promote a positive attachment to the labour market. We do not want to create a culture of dependency on EI. Employment is the ultimate objective and our new government's priority continues to be to help Canadians participate in the labour market.

The third is that EI must be run on a financially responsible and sustainable basis. Any proposals for change must be looked at in the context of these three principles.

Let us look at what that means for Bill C-269. For example, let us take the bill's proposal to reduce the eligibility requirements for EI to a flat 360 hours of work in all parts of the country. That is approximately 45 days. There are two problems with this proposal. The first has to do with encouraging attachment to the labour market. Research shows that our EI system already has some of the most accessible entrance requirements among OECD countries for unemployment benefits.

The annual EI monitoring and assessment report for 2005 found that 80% of the unemployed in Canada who had paid into the program and who had a qualifying job separation were eligible to receive benefits.

Members may recall that more than one of the members opposite who spoke to Bill C-269 during the first hour of debate mentioned a figure of between one-third and 40% of the unemployed being able to access EI.

Let me say what these figures really represent. The 40% figure is called the beneficiary to unemployment ratio or BU ratio and it is not a good measure of EI access. First, it includes many unemployed individuals who have not paid premiums, such as those who have never worked, who have not worked in the past year or who have been self-employed.

Second, the beneficiary to unemployment ratio includes individuals who paid premiums but are eligible for EI benefits because they voluntarily quit their job or were unemployed for two weeks or less, which is the length of the waiting period.

In fact, the number of individuals included in the BU ratio who were not eligible for EI benefits because they have worked too few hours is quite small. Again, if we consider people in situations for which the program is designed, access is very high, 80%. These people who have been laid off due to restructuring or shortage of work, people who have found themselves in a situation where their only choice is to leave their job due to illness or injury or because, after exploring all other options, they quit with just cause due to something such as harassment.

The question is: At a time of skills and labour shortages, as we are now experiencing in Canada, will we encourage a more positive attachment to the labour market by making it even easier to obtain EI benefits?

Reducing entrance requirements may create disincentives to work, since research indicates that some workers may choose not to work beyond the minimum hours required. It would also have only a marginal impact on the number of additional individuals who would be eligible for EI.

Because of regional labour market differences in this country, the existing EI system is based on a variable entrance requirement for eligibility. Variable entrance requirements are adjusted monthly to reflect unemployments rates by region. As unemployment rates increase, entrance requirements are lowered and the duration of benefits increases. This means that unemployed workers in areas of high unemployment are not disadvantaged when it comes to qualifying for EI.

Adopting a flat entrance requirement, such as Bill C-269 proposes, would disproportionately benefit those living in regions with lower unemployment rates or those in high unemployment regions where access may be more difficult due to limited work opportunities.

The member Laurentides—Labelle mentioned that she was on a tour with colleagues to discuss the daily realities of the EI program in several regions of Quebec, such as Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Saguenay, Gaspésie-Îles de la Madeleine, Bas-Saint-Laurent and Laurentides.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight recent actions our government has taken to assist areas such as the ones the member recently visited.

In June of this year, our new government announced the extended EI benefits pilot project. This project provides up to five additional weeks of EI benefits, to a maximum of 45 weeks, to EI claimants in high unemployment regions. This pilot project is intended to help seasonal workers whose combined annual weeks of work and EI benefits are not sufficient income each week of the year and who, as a result, experience an income gap when their EI claim runs out before they return to their seasonal job. This pilot project will test whether providing additional benefits will address this income gap and, at the same time, whether it has an adverse labour market effect on other EI claimants.

Our new government has also extended the transitional measures in the EI economic regions of Madawaska--Charlotte in New Brunswick and Lower St. Lawrence and North Shore in Quebec until the conclusion of the national review of EI boundaries which is currently underway.

These measures mean that claimants in the two regions require fewer hours to qualify for EI and receive benefits for a longer period than would be the case without the transitional measures. Another three pilot projects are underway in these regions and other regions of high unemployment, such as the best 14 weeks, working while on claim and the new re-entrant pilots.

All of these changes are evidence of the government's recognition that the EI program needs to be flexible in order to adapt to the changing realities of these regions.

What about the proposal in Bill C-269 to eliminate the two week waiting period for EI benefits? Since 1971, the waiting period has been fixed at two weeks. The two week waiting period represents a basic co-insurance feature of the program that is similar to the deductible for other insurance plans. It eliminates very short claims which individuals should be able to cover on their own. It will also allow verification of claims as it would otherwise be difficult to verify whether people had really become unemployed or laid off for just a few days.

The waiting period also provides time in which claims can be set up and payments started. It is important to note, however, that the EI waiting period can be waved in response to certain circumstances. For example, to help Canadians acquire skills, multiple waiting periods have been eliminated for claimants participating in apprenticeship programs. Also, when parents share EI parental benefits only one waiting period must be served.

I have outlined just a few of the reasons the House should not support the bill but there are many others. The government is not against making changes to the EI Act when warranted but we do not see the changes proposed in Bill C-269 as either timely or necessary.

11:15 a.m.


Brian Murphy Liberal Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Laurentides—Labelle for having introduced Bill C-269.

It gives me great pleasure to rise in the House and speak to the bill. I am wondering, by way of background, why the Prime Minister is afraid to go to Finland to meet his EU counterparts. It might be that in 1997 the Prime Minister referred to our nation as a failed northern European welfare state. It might be that he called us, we maritimers, having a culture of defeat.

However, the lessons of the EU and, in particular--

11:15 a.m.


Lynne Yelich Conservative Blackstrap, SK

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I believe we are debating a private member's bill on unemployment and I think the member's opening remarks are irrelevant.

11:15 a.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

I thank the hon. member for the point of order. I am sure the hon. member will get to the point.

11:15 a.m.


Brian Murphy Liberal Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

Absolutely, Mr. Speaker. Every bill has a story and every bill has a background. The background of this bill is to learn the lessons of the EU and the UN. The UN has made a declaration that is very clear and has made statements that we should look to reforms of our EI system. The lessons of the EU are that nations like Ireland have improved their economy greatly by bringing all of the regions into the fold of the Republic of Ireland.

I also want to bring back to the fullness of this debate the contextual setting that Maritimers find themselves in. In recent surveys, Maritimers are found to be hard-working individuals, working on average 36 hours per week, which is at the high end of the national average. If we ask any medical professional in the Maritimes about this, they will say that the pay is average to high, but the hours are excessive and that is having its effect.

There are pockets of prosperity in the Maritime provinces. My own region of Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe consistently performs with an unemployment rate under 9% and a population growth rate over 4%.

Eminent scholar Donald Savoie, in his most recent book, Visiting Grandchildren: Economic Development in the Maritimes, indicates that as a region Atlantic Canada is catching up on the EI contribution scale, to the point where we can talk intelligently about contributions, that is, premiums, and the draw-down, that is, programs, of EI. This bill is precisely about that paradigm and that debate. Do we increase the programs? Do we increase the premiums? Do we reduce the programs? Do we reduce the premiums? The program-premium paradigm is something to keep in mind when we discuss reforms such as these.

Bill C-269 is an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act, to tinker with the system to make it better for Canadians. For that reason, and not because we ascribe to all of its bits and pieces, we suggest that this bill be sent to committee for study.

EI touches every riding in this country. It touches the young and the old. It touches men and women. It touches families and children. Families are put in destitute positions if parents are not eligible for EI.

How the EI system works is that if there are two years or more of surplus, a committee recommends annually that premiums be set at a certain level. There are two ways to deal with such surpluses, and that is to reduce premiums or improve programs.

Members will remember that in 1990 a previous Conservative government dealt with the fund by lengthening the space between government and EI. In recent years, we have seen that the Liberal government, working on the surplus redeployment scheme, introduced programs specifically with respect to maternal and paternal leave. Here I pay homage to the hon. member for Mississauga South, whose private member's bill, such as this one is, was successful in raising the maternal and paternal leave to one year from six months. That was a private member's bill and a bold initiative supported by the Liberal government.

The vast majority of workers contribute to the employment insurance fund without ever benefiting from it. If that is because they never need to, that is a good thing, but if that is because they cannot access it or are not eligible, that is a bad thing.

EI does help those most in need, that is, seasonal workers and the seasonal economy. I speak with some experience geographically with respect to the seasonal economy. The seasonal economy contributes 25% to the GDP of this country, but also, we have workers and industries facing crises or distress, with businesses that downsize or move to developing countries.

Yet despite all of this need, somewhere between two-thirds and 40% of workers who lose their jobs are not eligible for the benefits. We must ensure that the EI program works for those who need it and that Canadian workers throughout the country get the very best coverage under the scheme that we as parliamentarians promise to give them.

The nuts and bolts of this bill are that the qualifying period would be reduced to 360 hours. There would be an increased benefit period. There would be an increase in the rate of weekly benefits to 60%. There would be a repeal of the waiting period. There would be an elimination of the distinction between a new entrant and a re-entrant to the labour force. It would eliminate the presumption that persons related to each other do not deal with each other at arm's length. There would be an increase in the maximum yearly insurable earnings to $41,500, with an indexing formula brought in.

Many of these changes might add up to too much stress on the federal budget to implement wisely and at once, but it is worth sending the bill to the committee for study. I now will pick parts of the bill that I think are particularly attractive.

In June, the government renewed the pilot project for older workers, and for seasonal workers, I should add. As I stressed before, this was good Liberal policy. It also should be increased and improved upon as the pilot moves to tier one or level one programming.

I would also have the committee retain the studying of the effective difference between our regions. It may be that difference between eligibility between regions is a more effective way to deal with the surplus.

The two week waiting period seems constant with the real world of insurance benefits paid otherwise, but there does not seem to be any reason to discriminate against new entrants as opposed to re-entrants.

Much of the bill can be studied and improved at committee. The changes that might come out of that study and recommendation process would be such that the most vulnerable workers would benefit: single parents trying to break the vicious cycle of poverty, low-paid workers in service employment, young workers trying to pay off their huge student loans, and older workers trying to get back into the workforce or trying to find a new job after losing their long time factory jobs or jobs in the sectors of this country that are going through transformation. Many of these people would benefit from the enlargement of the program in all or some of the ways recommended by the bill. It is why I suggest that the bill be sent to committee for study.

In recent years, important changes in the workforce, such as self employment, people creating their own businesses, and the evidence of fewer permanent jobs and more contractual workers, have created a far different landscape with respect to employment than existed in the times of our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers.

Fewer and fewer people keep one permanent job their entire lives. Today, people work on contract; they have no benefits and no guarantees. They are self-employed and therefore not covered by employment insurance.

Such changes as those included in Bill C-269 have been requested by many groups in my riding. I particularly draw members' attention to the Business and Professional Women's Club of greater Moncton.

It is a sad story that we cannot provide coverage for people who have grown their own businesses and who employ other people, just because of the corporate veil that exists. For instance, a young professional woman, building her business from zero or from one employee up to 15, is given a choice between whether she should stay at home and have a child or run her business as she has done successfully in the past dozen years. This does not seem to be a fair choice. It is the kind of amendment that should be looked at in committee with respect to making the EI system work. It does not seem fair that someone should have to choose between having a child or running a business, not in a sophisticated, cosmopolitan country such as ours, a country that seeks to be on the world stage. We owe much more to our citizens.

I remind all members of the House that the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recommended as follows:

The Committee recommends that the State party reassess the Employment Insurance scheme with a view to providing greater access and improved benefit levels to all unemployed workers.

With 40% of workers who have lost their jobs not having access to the program and with people who have grown their businesses and are self-employed not covered because of the corporate veil situation, we need to look at the bill at committee. I recommend the bill to committee for further study and I thank the hon. member for her bill.

11:25 a.m.


Peter Julian NDP Burnaby—New Westminster, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise on behalf of the New Democratic Party caucus to say that we support moving Bill C-269 to committee. The simple reason is that over the last 15 years we have seen a deterioration in the lives of Canadians families from coast to coast to coast. Indeed, Statistics Canada tells us that 80% of Canadian families are actually earning less in real terms than they were in 1989. For 80% of Canadian families, real income has fallen.

If we look at each of the levels, which is how Statistics Canada slices up the population, we see that the 20% of Canadians with the lowest incomes have seen their incomes fall by more than 10%. Their real income is lower now than it was in the late 1980s. Canadians who are in the second 20% have actually seen their incomes fall. They have lost about a week's salary over the course of a 15 year period. Middle class Canadians as well have lost about a week's income over the past 15 years. It is like missing a paycheque. Indeed, they are earning less now than they were in the late 1980s. Even upper middle class Canadians have seen no improvement in their situation. Their real income has declined.

As for the wealthiest of Canadians, there is no issue. As everyone is well aware, we have seen skyrocketing incomes for lawyers and CEOs. Their incomes are higher than they have ever been. We are now seeing more and more disparity between what is happening with the pampered and privileged and what is happening with most Canadian families.

Most Canadian families are earning less than they did before and are working longer and longer hours. Overtime has gone up by over a third in that same period. Canadians are earning less and working longer. Why is this? It is because of the economic policies we have seen, both from the former Liberal government and the current Conservative government, which of course favour the wealthiest of Canadians to the exclusion of everybody else.

Statistics Canada also tells us that most jobs created in today's economy are temporary or part time in nature. Most jobs created in the economy now, an economy created by the Liberals and continued by the Conservatives, actually do not have the right to have pensions or to have the benefits that come with those positions. Increasingly what we are seeing is the marginalization of most Canadian families.

It is no secret. When we knock on doors in many parts of this country, we hear people say that it gets harder and harder to make a go of it. Statistics Canada tells us why. The jobs that are created today are temporary and part time in nature. In most cases, they do not include pension income, so people who have worked for their entire lives cannot have any expectation that their golden retirement years are going to be any better.

A large part of the reason for all of these fundamental changes and this degradation in the quality of life of most Canadians, who are not favoured by the economic policies that favour only the wealthy to the exclusion of everybody else, is the changes to employment insurance that were brought in by the former Liberal government. We see a catastrophic situation for families in many parts of this country. People are unemployed and do not have any access to the insurance scheme that was supposed to actually support them in the event of job loss or, as we are seeing increasingly, in the event of jobs being part time or temporary in nature.

When jobs are temporary in nature, we need to have a safety net. That safety net has been ripped apart. It has been cut into little pieces. Two-thirds of those who are unemployed can no longer access insurance. The NDP fought for unemployment insurance, just as it has fought in virtually every battle where working families have made any progress. The NDP has been behind that progress, whether we are talking about health insurance, pensions or unemployment insurance. As everyone knows, it is the NDP that has forced the governing party of the day, whether Conservative or Liberal, to actually do something for working families.

We have a situation now where two-thirds of employed workers cannot access employment insurance. We have huge billion dollar surpluses in the employment insurance pot, moneys paid by Canadians from coast to coast to coast. The government of the day, whether Liberal or Conservative, has taken that money to use for its own private purposes. Those funds have not been allocated to the purpose for which they are intended, and that is to support Canadians in their time of need, when they are unemployed.

We have to make changes. We have to start addressing the fact of lower and lower quality of life for the vast majority of Canadian families.

As you well know, one approach would be to set up an employment insurance system that would really support people regardless of where in Canada they live—whether they live in Acadie—Bathurst, in northern Quebec or Ontario, in Manitoba or in British Columbia. Regardless of where they live, these people should have access to an employment insurance system that works.

As I am sure you are aware, the NDP member for Acadie—Bathurst has been fighting this fight for years in this House so that people who have lost their jobs can get fair treatment.

It often makes more economic sense for businesses to hire seasonal workers who can be laid off easily. When they lose their jobs or are laid off, we want them to have something to turn to and we want the social safety net to protect them and their families. This is why we support Bill C-269.

The bill would improve a system that has been disastrous for many regions of the country. In northern New Brunswick, when seasonal workers lose their jobs, they do not have a social safety net to protect them, and in two thirds of cases, they are not eligible for employment insurance even though they have been paying into it for years.

Thus, the bill proposes changes to these absurd rules, which exclude two thirds of unemployed workers, in order to improve the situation for most people who lose their jobs involuntarily. We all know the reasons for such job losses. Indeed, in many regions across Canada, seasonal work does not guarantee workers an annual income that is sufficient and steady enough to allow them to avoid resorting to employment insurance benefits.

As several other critics have said, this bill would reduce the qualification period to 360 hours of work. This is much more reasonable than the changes proposed by the Liberal government and better than the Conservative government's failure to act. This bill would increase the duration of the benefits period, which is very important in order to ensure a social safety net. It would also increase the rate of weekly benefits to 60%. All these measures are intended to offer our workers greater protection.

We must now face the reality that, in the softwood lumber industry for example, thousands of workers have lost their jobs since the signing of that inadequate softwood lumber agreement. For this reason, the need for an employment insurance system that works is now more urgent than ever.

For all these reasons and because of the 4,000 jobs lost in the softwood lumber industry in the past three weeks, the crisis is now even worse than before, which is why the NDP will support this bill. Indeed, the bill will improve the quality of life of people across Canada and will change their day-to-day lives.

11:35 a.m.


Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak this morning about Bill C-269, which, for the people who are watching, seeks to amend the employment insurance program in order to restore its true character and its real role.

I am very happy about the NDP's position, announced by the member for Burnaby—New Westminster. The NDP will vote in favour of this bill. I am also happy about the position of the member for Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, who will vote for the bill. However, he did not announce the position of his party, the Liberal Party. I would have liked to know whether the Liberal Party will vote in favour of the bill. I hope it will, and I urge it to do so.

This morning, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs acknowledged that this bill represented a radical alteration. That is at least something. It is a radical alteration. But the parliamentary secretary did not see the need for such a change. The problem is that the Conservatives are not aware of what workers who are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs go through.

She also went on about the fact that my colleague from Laurentides—Labelle, who introduced this bill, had toured Quebec to discuss it. The parliamentary secretary did not see the point of such a tour, because pilot projects are already under way in various regions, some of which she mentioned. Therein lies the problem. The government is using band-aids and patches to try to solve a serious problem. The parliamentary secretary does not want to acknowledge that, yet she boasts of having implemented pilot projects. None of these pilot projects is remedying the situation.

A number of the measures in Bill C-269 are designed to improve access to employment insurance. Less than 40% of people who are contributing to employment insurance and for whom employers are contributing to employment insurance can hope to receive benefits if they are so unfortunate as to lose their job.

The people who are receiving employment insurance are getting such low benefits that families are continuing to sink into poverty. Even a very important United Nations committee recognized that the program, as it exists in Canada, is reducing families to poverty. The committee members admonished Canada as a result.

This bill also seeks to increase the number of weeks of benefits, without distinguishing between economic regions where employment rates may vary. All individuals and families who lose their source of income experience the same difficulties and hardships regardless of whether or not the unemployment rate is high.

The bill also seeks to broaden the safety net for self-employed workers so that they have protection when they can no longer work.

I will not go over every provision of this bill as my colleagues have already done an admirable job of that. However, I would like to say to the Conservative Party that the current rules are discriminatory, particularly towards women and youth. Only about 38% of those who lose their jobs can expect to receive employment insurance benefits. Of these, 43% are men, 33% are women and 14% are youth. Individuals working in certain types of excluded jobs are affected more drastically.

Our colleague opposite says that 80% of individuals can expect to receive employment benefits; his statistics are based on current rules, which exclude a large number of workers from receiving benefits as soon as they are affected. These figures cannot be used. It is not being entirely truthful to use these figures as my colleague did this morning.

Furthermore, employment insurance premiums have become hidden taxes. Year after year, over the course of the last 12 years in particular, the employment insurance account has generated surpluses as a direct result of the restrictions applicable to employment insurance . These surpluses have been used for other purposes with the result that $50 billion has been diverted from the employment insurance account. This money does not belong to the national treasury but to the workers and their employers.

Every year, since 1997, the Auditor General of Canada has told us how much was diverted. Last November, she reported that we had surpassed the $48 billion mark.

Surpluses on the order of $13 billion were recently announced, of which $2 billion came from the employment insurance fund. That means that we have now reached and surpassed $50 billion diverted from the employment insurance fund. This scheme was adopted under the Liberal regime. When the Conservatives were in opposition, they denounced it as we did. Now that they are in power, they are pursuing this scheme; in other words, they are cheating workers and employers by using the money in their employment insurance fund for other purposes.

Last year, like every year, particularly since 1997, the Bloc Québécois came systematically back to this problem and introduced bills. Last year, we introduced Bill C-278, which mirrored many of the amendments we want to make to the act now, and the Conservatives voted against that bill. I hope that this year the Conservative members will realize how offensive their actions are to workers and to the public in each of their ridings.

I regularly receive letters, and I received another one this morning. Nearly every week, I receive two or three letters from other ridings. One of them comes to me from Mégantic—L'Érable. It is about a family in which the man and woman are both affected. In three pages, it describes all of the hardship caused by being unable to access employment insurance after paying in to it. These people are now middle-aged, and I note the insensitivity of the Conservatives, like the Liberals before them. However, I think that now that the Liberals are in opposition they will be able to reflect a little more on how they laid waste to the employment insurance fund. I hope that they will be voting the same way as we do.

To conclude, I would point out that the diversion of $50 billion has been accomplished on the backs of workers, fewer than 40% of whom have any hope of drawing employment insurance. This is a serious economic crime, one that has been committed at the expense of the unemployed and their families, and of regions in each of my colleagues’ ridings. This is a loss of over $30 million per year in their ridings, money that is not flowing into the regional economy. This is an exacerbating factor in the fiscal imbalance for each of the provinces, and particularly for Quebec, because these people who are not receiving employment insurance after paying into it all their lives end up in the ranks of social assistance recipients.

This is completely unacceptable. We should be rebelling against it, and I urge all my colleagues in the House to vote for Bill C-269.

11:45 a.m.


Bradley Trost Conservative Saskatoon—Humboldt, SK

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak today on this legislation. In particular, before I go into my speaking notes and through a more detailed assessment of the bill, I want to begin with a personal story, so I am changing slightly what I was going to talk about.

I was listening to hon. members discuss the situation in their ridings and across the country. I thought it might be helpful for the House to remember just how employment insurance works and how it actually impacts people, not just the unemployed, but all Canadians.

Before I became a member of Parliament, and I realize as one of the younger members of Parliament that is not as far back as it is for some people, I graduated from high school and worked for a year overseas as a volunteer. When I came back, to earn money for university, I began to work in a bakery. I started with the 4 a.m. to 12 noon shift. Working for a minimum wage at those hours, I was really motivated to get a quality education and one that would help me be productive.

I cut bread for two hours in the morning and usually ended my day by doing dishes for two hours. I was the baker's assistant. I worked for some people who had been there much longer than I had. They had only planned to be there for a few years and then move on. For me, it was only one year before I started doing what became ultimately a geophysics and economics degree at university.

Again, we were all working for low income wages, minimum wage and as bakers' assistants, which was not much in a small town bakery. It was not a large chain. However, we all paid unemployment insurance. Let us remember not what was deducted from our wages but what our employer paid because as a small business person he was not able to add that onto our wages, that really came from our wages too.

The people working were mostly older ladies in their forties, fifties, and even sixties. They were older to me because at that time I was 18 or 19 years old. They paid into EI but they would never be able to draw money out. We lived in an area of rural farming with low unemployment. As one book on the House of Commons described a federal riding in that area, the riding of Yorkton—Melville was the land of the working poor.

I bring up this story to remind everyone that this money that is paid into EI does not come from somewhere up in the sky, not from a magical pot, but it comes from ordinary working Canadians, people who are paying in by working in minimum wage jobs year after year, going to work every day, secure jobs but not jobs that pay great.

People who are earning $6, $7, $8, $9 or $10 an hour are not getting rich and this is a tax that they will often never receive. That should be remembered every time we talk about increasing benefits or changing the benefits because it is these people who will be paying for it. It is not rich corporations somewhere. It is ordinary working Canadians because it is their money which we must protect.

When I think of those people, I also think of other places where I have worked such as tree planting in the summer as a university student. We cry for the needs of university students to help them out after summer work but all summer long they pay into EI but cannot receive it, so university students whether they work or not, aid does not always make a difference. Those who work often do not get the benefit from EI.

We see this in rural Saskatchewan where farmers are ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. Why? Because they farm during the regular season, but in the winter when they only haul grain and they live off the farm income to try to support the farm during the rest of the year, they are ineligible. They pay in when they work for small manufacturers such as Morris in Yorkton and Bourgault in St. Brieux. They work jobs in the oil patch and they continue to pay in.

Before I begin my speech, let me remind the House that no matter how compassionate the motivations may be, ultimately when we take these benefits and expand them, we are taxing hard-working Canadians. We are taking often from the working poor. It is those people whom we should remember before we get too far into legislation to hand out benefits everywhere.

I will now get into the main body of my speech. The bill seeks to introduce a flat 360 hours of work entrants requirements to qualify for EI benefits regardless of regional unemployment rates.

With respect to having flat entrants requirements across regions, it is important to point out that variable entrants requirements ensure that as unemployment rates increase, entrants requirements are lowered and the duration of benefits increases. Adopting a flat entrants requirement would actually be of more benefit to those living in low, not high, unemployment regions.

That is why to ensure relative consistency across the regions entrants requirements are adjusted as employment varies. This helps areas where there is higher unemployment, parts of Quebec, parts of Newfoundland, etc. For example, if one lived in a region with an unemployment rate of between 13% to 14% and worked 420 hours during the qualifying period then one is entitled to 26 weeks of EI benefits.

With respect to the duration of EI benefits, evidence continues to indicate that the length of these benefits is meeting the needs of most Canadians. On average, individuals use less than two-thirds of the EI entitlement before finding employment. In fact, only a small percentage of claimants entitled to 45 weeks of benefits use them in their entirety. The duration of EI benefits is clearly sufficient for the majority of the claimants.

In this bill it is proposed to increase benefit levels. Again, I remind the House, a 55% benefit level aims to provide a balance between adequate temporary income and maintaining work incentives. It is there to be a help, not a solution for everything.

In addition, measures are in place to ensure that those in low income families with children are provided for by enabling them to receive up to 80% of their insured earnings through the family supplement.

Another feature of the bill proposes to increase the yearly maximum insurable earnings, one of those technical government terms, to $41,500 from the current $39,000 by introducing a new indexing formula. I say a new indexing formula because section 4 of the EI act already contains an indexing formula under MIE.

Under this formula, the MIE is linked to average weekly earnings and calculated annually, and since 1996 it has remained at $39,000 while average industrial wages have increased to an equivalent level.

In October the chief actuary actually reported the average wage had increased and surpassed the MIE. This means that the MIE at $39,000 is already rising. There is an index formula that is working. It is bringing it up to $40,000 for 2007 providing Canadians with access to increased insurance and higher benefit rates. It means the system already works.

There are several other aspects of the bill and one I will note which is the two week waiting period that the bill proposes to repeal. First of all, the current two week waiting period allows for efficient verification of claims. It allows for the administrative aspects of the claims to be processed and most importantly it upholds the insurance aspect of the program. While employees bear the cost of the two week period, this is in some ways offset by the fact that they pay lower premium rates, though I remind the House, in an economic sense, all costs come from the worker.

This adjustment would add a $700 million cost to the program, a cost, as I noted in my early story, that ultimately comes from the working poor.

Canada's government is committed to providing opportunities for all Canadians to participate and succeed in Canada's growing economy. It has done this through many ways, not just to unemployment but to increase the economic activity through policies that build this country, through policies that create wealth.

That is why I will vote in opposition to the bill.

11:55 a.m.


Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my hon. colleague for bringing this issue before the House. Bill C-269, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act deals with fundamental questions of fairness in regard to the current Employment Insurance Act.

I believe that the basic principle of any law and the true measure of its success is directly related to, among other things, the actual successful implementation of the legislation. I am of the firm conviction that all government programs must start with a clear goal as well as attainable objectives that allow for the success of the program to be effectively measured.

Therefore, I would simply ask the member from the Bloc Québécois this question: What is the actual objective of these amendments? Perhaps more specifically the question might be: What exactly is the impact he expects should these changes be adopted?

If we were to pass this bill, how would we measure its successful effectiveness? It has recently been suggested that these types of bills represent patchwork solutions to the challenges faced by Canadians. I disagree.

Let me be very clear, I absolutely support the bill we are discussing here today. I say to my colleague that we must always look for ways to improve our programs, strive for more social equity, and always be willing to overhaul well-intentioned programs that may not meet their fullest potential.

I will be supporting this bill at second reading, so that we might see it reach the committee phase and then we can hear what the logic is behind each change the member is recommending. We will be able to clarify the specific goals and targets the bill hopes to reach.

Do I think that the bill is perfect? No. However, I do want to see if there are ways to make the bill stronger, more effective and more efficient.

To the members of the House, most notably the Conservatives who plan to vote against the bill, I ask this: Why not bring the bill to committee? I ask those members what they find so ideologically unpalatable about employment insurance that they are not even willing to let a committee consider how to improve it?

I would like to turn to the issue of poverty and social justice. One of the oldest and most revered tenets of social justice is the concept many of us have heard growing up and that is the so-called golden rule, “do onto others as you would have them do to you”. In other words, take care of those in need. We must ensure that our programs and policies reflect the basic tenet of social justice.

Earlier in this debate it was mentioned that many people who pay into the EI fund never receive a penny from it. If we can ensure that those who truly need help get the assistance they require, then we can be justifiably proud that fellow Canadians are helping each other in their times of need.

We should be proud that those of us that are better off, lucky enough never to need the EI fund, are helping those who are not as fortunate. That goes to the heart of what it means to be a Canadian.

I know that each and every one of us receives countless emails lobbying against poverty. It is sad that such lobbying should even have to take place. Such actions should come naturally to us, without need for lobbying. With the revisions contained in this bill, I believe it will go part of the way to help alleviate poverty in our society. Will it do the whole job? Probably not, but it is a step in the right direction.

Increasing the number of people who benefit from EI will undoubtedly help some of those on the cusp of poverty to indeed be able to help themselves.

Let us also take a moment to discuss the question of election promises. During the last election the Conservatives ran on a commitment to set up an EI program that would be independent of the government with an autonomous fund. We already see that the Conservatives have abandoned this promise just like the one they shattered on income trusts.

We hear nothing about the health care wait times even though it is supposedly one of the five mystical priorities. Especially upsetting is the government's assertion that it is the opposition that has somehow gridlocked this Parliament. This may come as news to the government, but debates, amendments and committees are all a part of a parliamentary democracy.



Lynne Yelich Conservative Blackstrap, SK

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I want to make a correction. I do not believe that we have broken an election promise as the member said. I do not believe that was in our election platform, so I would like to correct the record.



The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

Order please. Debate on Bill C-269 has now concluded. All that remains is the right of reply, which belongs to the bill's sponsor, the hon. member for Laurentides—Labelle. She has five minutes for her reply.



Johanne Deschamps Bloc Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to end the debate on the second reading of Bill C-269. I intend to summarize everything we have been hearing for months about unemployment in Canada and the disgraceful way people who lose their jobs are treated.

Canadian governments, whether Liberal or Conservative, have never treated workers' money with respect. It is clear that they see employment insurance not as a kind of group insurance designed to help the unemployed, but as a way to fill their coffers at the expense of the destitute.

It is urgent that the Liberal and Conservative members act responsibly and do their duty by putting an end, once and for all, to the pillaging of the employment insurance fund. Let us not forget that the government took more than $50 billion right out of the pockets of workers and employers.

Unemployment in Quebec and Canada affects a lot of people. First, it affects workers who lose their jobs and cannot find another in the short or medium term. It also affect families who must cope with the loss of their only available income and the deterioration of their financial situation. Is the Canadian government really proud of the fact that it is forcing its citizens to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries?

Entire regions are affected by unemployment, since a plant closure means direct and indirect losses of revenue. Once laid off, workers have limited buying power, which has a direct impact on the economy of the regions.

The government has been praising itself for months for the constant decrease in unemployment in Canada. The official unemployment rate has absolutely no bearing on reality, because with the changes made to the system, hundreds of thousands of Quebeckers and Canadians who lose their employment will never be entitled to the EI to which they have contributed.

I am sick of hearing about the Conservatives treating the unemployed in this country as though they are lazy and unambitious. Unemployment is much more destructive than that. Let us talk about the people from the Gaspé Peninsula and the North Shore, for example. Do you honestly believe they take pleasure in doing nothing? Do you not think they would much rather be working?

Today's labour market is far removed from the labour market on which the current employment insurance measures are based. Recent types of employment such as seasonal work, part-time employment or self-employment, prove that the current system does not correspond to reality whatsoever. The textile and softwood lumber crises prove it. How can the government say that the people who lost their employment in five sawmills in Mont-Laurier should just go find another job? This is unrealistic and ridiculous. Mont-Laurier is not Edmonton. A 50 year old with 30 years of experience in sawmills does not get a new job at the snap of his fingers.

The proposed improvements in Bill C-269 are not charity for workers. They are simply fair compensation, a correction of an injustice that has been going on for far too long.

Bill C-269 corresponds to reality and the concerns of the workers, the employers, the unions, the chambers of commerce, the social agencies and the groups defending the interests of the unemployed. That is what all those people told us during consultations held by my colleague from Chambly—Borduas and myself over the past few months. These consultations confirmed the need to improve the system.

This economic crime, which is being perpetrated at the expense of the regions and workers, must stop. It is our duty, as parliamentarians, to give workers back the money that rightfully belongs to them and to provide them with access to insurance to help them during hard times. We must put an end to the lean times that workers and the regions have been going through for too long.

With the Auditor General of Canada, labour federations, chambers of commerce and the Bloc Québécois all pushing in the same direction, the government should understand that there is a problem and that we must find a solution. But support for the proposed amendments does not end there. Even the UN has gotten involved, recommending that:

Canada reassess the Employment Insurance scheme with a view to providing greater access and improved benefit levels to all unemployed workers.

I will conclude by saying that unemployment affects everyone, regardless of political stripe or constituency. As proof, I have some research findings that show that a number of my colleagues from the other parties represent ridings where the unemployment rate is wreaking havoc.

Given that I have little time here in this House, I could provide them with a list—

12:05 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

It being 12:05 p.m. the time provided for debate has expired.

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

12:05 p.m.

Some hon. members



12:05 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

12:05 p.m.

Some hon. members


12:05 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

All those opposed will please say nay.

12:05 p.m.

Some hon. members


12:05 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

In my opinion the nays have it.

And five or more members having risen:

Pursuant to Standing Order 93 the division stands deferred until Wednesday, November 8, immediately before the time provided for private members' business.

The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-16, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, as reported (without amendment) from the committee.

Speaker's RulingCanada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

At this time, I would like to share with the House a ruling by the Speaker.

I am referring to the act to amend the Canada Elections Act. There are three motions in amendment standing on the Notice Paper for the report stage of Bill C-16.

Motions Nos. 1 to 3 will not be selected by the Chair as they were defeated in committee. Consequently, the House will proceed to consider the motion to concur in report stage.

Speaker's RulingCanada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.

Niagara Falls Ontario


Rob Nicholson ConservativeLeader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform

moved that the bill be concurred in.

Speaker's RulingCanada Elections ActGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?