House of Commons Hansard #38 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was crime.


6:35 p.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan


Lynne Yelich ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Social Development

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to provide the answer requested by the hon. member on the extended EI benefits pilot project.

This represents a continuation of the previous pilot that will provide more information about the labour market effects of the initiative, while continuing to respond to the needs of seasonal gappers on an interim basis.

Seasonal work presents unique challenges for individual Canadians. Often these individuals face a limited working season, sporadic work durations and, in many rural areas, a lack of off-season alternatives.

To address this issue the government has announced the extended EI benefits pilot project, which will provide access to five additional weeks of benefits to EI claimants, up to a maximum of 45 weeks of benefits. This project will continue to test whether providing additional weeks of EI benefits will help to address the annual income gap faced by seasonal workers whose weeks of work and EI benefits are not sufficient to provide income throughout the year, and have any adverse labour market effects on other EI claimants.

The extended EI benefits pilot will run for 18 months, offering the same level of benefits, in all the same employment insurance economic regions originally included in the increased weeks of employment insurance benefits pilot project, with the exception of three regions where economic conditions have strengthened significantly over the past two years. By retaining the same regions, we will ensure we have the information necessary to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the pilot in those regions.

The extended employment insurance benefits pilot project is good news for seasonal workers. It demonstrates the effectiveness and flexibility of the employment insurance program in meeting the needs of Canadian workers. It also demonstrates the government's commitment to exploring solutions to address the unique needs of individuals who are employed in seasonal work.

During the course of the extended employment insurance benefits pilot project, the government will have the opportunity to gather more data and gain a better understanding of the project's effect on the labour market, while continuing to provide seasonal gappers with access to additional weeks of benefits.

I wish to stress, however, that this is an interim measure and the government's priority continues to be helping Canadians participate in the labour market.

6:35 p.m.


Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, that is the problem. It is another interim measure. While this was an experimental measure, over the last two years that it was applied it gave meaningful results recognized by the minister and the Employment Insurance Commission. It is hard to understand why it was not adopted permanently.

The parliamentary secretary is not answering my question. Why was Montreal not included? Montreal has dozens and dozens of seasonal workers. In the hotel industry there are some 74,000 seasonal workers. The unemployment rate is greater than 9%—more specifically it is 9.4%. Why did this not apply to Montreal?

In closing, does the minister intend to vote with us on Bill C-269? This will bring order to all the pilot projects that always make seasonal workers uncertain about where they stand, make them subject to interim measures and leave them without any income, in most cases, during the period commonly known as the gap.

6:35 p.m.


Lynne Yelich Conservative Blackstrap, SK

Mr. Speaker, the regions where economic conditions have strengthened significantly over the last two years have not been included in the new pilot project.

Turning to the subject of older workers, I would like to point out that many older workers are employed in seasonal industries and this pilot project will continue to offer them assistance. In addition, as promised in the Speech from the Throne and delivered in the budget, the government will undertake a feasibility study of measures to help displaced older workers. This includes the possibility of income assistance and retraining.

In undertaking these and many other measures, we are demonstrating our commitment to assisting workers and strengthening Canada's labour market.

6:40 p.m.


Robert Thibault Liberal West Nova, NS

Mr. Speaker, well maintained, safe and efficient wharves set a fishing community apart. They can make the difference between a prosperous and a marginal season and it is imperative that the Government of Canada develop and maintain a responsible policy to manage these wharves and protect a way of life.

In opposition it seemed that the Conservative government recognized the importance of maintaining our wharves and protecting a way of life. In fact, the member for Cumberland—Colchester—Musquodoboit Valley was particularly vocal about this issue and the community of Digby in my riding was one of his favourite topics of conversation. It seemed that he could hardly speak to a reporter without attacking the Liberal government for having divested ownership of the Digby Wharf to the Maritime Harbours Society. Now that the Conservatives are sitting on the other side of the House, they are silent on this issue.

I recognize that the situation in Digby is not the fault of the government but it alone has the capability of fixing the problem. However, the minister prefers to play politics rather than do the right thing.

I would like to speak about the Digby Wharf in a bit more detail. In 1999 the Department of Transport transferred ownership of the wharf to the Maritime Harbours Society, along with $3 million for the upkeep and maintenance of the facility. This transfer has been a dismal failure.

Seven years later, the wharf is in a state of dangerous disrepair and serious allegations have been raised about the use of the funds by the society. After several years of legal proceedings between the Maritime Harbours Society and the Department of Transport, the arbitrator has finally reported his findings and has found no wrongdoing on either side, although he did point to a very poor contract by the federal government.

With this process completed, there is no longer any reason to delay returning control of this wharf to a community that depends on it for its livelihood and yet the government continues to do nothing, preferring to play politics with the issue. The government would rather blame the previous government for its mistakes than take responsibility and fix the problem.

When the Conservatives were in opposition they said that they would take quick and immediate action to resolve this situation. During the election they repeated that promise and yet five months into their mandate they have done zero.

A month ago I raised the issue in the House and asked the minister when he would take action on this file. I asked him to return control of the wharf to the people of Digby and to ensure that his government invested the necessary money to protect fishing and the regional economy.

Instead of addressing the root problem of this issue, the minister chose to play politics at the expense of the people of Digby. He stood in the House and accused me of not doing anything over a 13 year period. I have only been here for five years and when the decision was made on the Digby Wharf it was a Conservative who represented West Nova. The minister owes it to the people of Digby to take action on this file and return control of the wharf to the people of Digby.

When will the minister do the right thing? When will the government assume ownership of the wharf and invest the necessary money to ensure the safety of the fishing fleet and the long term economic sustainability of this region?

6:40 p.m.

Fort McMurray—Athabasca Alberta


Brian Jean ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to answer the question on behalf of the minister. I can say that playing politics is the expertise of the party opposite. After five years as a member and never having raised this issue before, I wonder why the member expects us in 103 days or 108 days to get it done when he himself had well over five years to try.

I am pleased for the opportunity to discuss this issue and answer the concerns raised by the hon. member for West Nova regarding the Port of Digby because there is nothing more important to the minister than this port.

In October 1999, Transport Canada actually transferred the regional-local Port of Digby in Nova Scotia to the Maritime Harbours Society in an effort to solve the issues that were plaguing it at that stage, which is what we see today. It was transferred pursuant to Transport Canada's port divestiture program, which is what the federal government has been doing for some time.

The Digby Harbour Port Association did not avail itself of the opportunity to take it over at that time. However, that does not mean a good idea has to go to waste today. The transfer included a $3 million contribution that was to be used exclusively for eligible expenditures directly related to the port's operation and management.

My understanding, which was brought forward by the member, is that the arbitrator found that there was no malfeasance and no problem with what actually took place with the $3 million contribution from the federal government at that time.

However, following the transfer, public concerns were raised concerning the management of the contract and the accountability of the Maritime Harbours Society. This was with respect to the operation of the port and the way federal contribution funds were spent.

As a result, Transport Canada entered into a lengthy process of audits and legal proceedings to ensure we could find out what was going on. This led to the arbitration and to the result that nothing bad took place. The department took these allegations very seriously and wanted to ensure these funds had not been used for any other purpose other than for what they were intended. It is for that reason that Transport Canada used all the legal recourses that were available under the circumstances to get to the bottom of it and find out what was going on.

The dispute with the Maritime Harbours Society concerning the use of the contribution funds provided when the Port of Digby was transferred is now concluded, as the member knows. The arbitration is on the Transport Canada website and I welcome anyone watching today in TV land to take the opportunity to look at the arbitration decision.

The Maritime Harbours Society now wishes to sell the Digby Fisherman's Wharf to the local community. The potential sale of this wharf by Maritime Harbours Society to the Digby Harbour Port Association would consist of a private sale between two parties, and this government does not interfere in a private sale between two parties unless our help is requested.

However, due to the contractual obligations of the initial transfer from Transport Canada to the Maritime Harbours Society, it still requires ministerial consent. Prior to the last election, the minister granted that approval to facilitate the ownership of the port by a community group.

I myself have issues with wharves in my riding and I can assure the member that this government and the minister will do all they can to help the community group and the people of Digby.

Concurrently, the minister made a proposal to release the Maritime Harbours Society from certain other contractual obligations. As the member knows, a lot of money is left over. The minister has stated publicly that he would honour this commitment. Department officials have met with the Digby Port Harbour Association as recently as April 5 and I assure the member that those meetings are ongoing.

I would like to reiterate that the solution for the Port of Digby's future has come from a local source. The minister and this government encourage that local source to get involved so it can take place.

6:45 p.m.


Robert Thibault Liberal West Nova, NS

Mr. Speaker, the member's answer highlights the problem. In the five years that I have been here I have worked with three different transport ministers and have watched each of them try to resolve this problem by waiting for the legal ramifications, legal studies and arbitration to be done. The Department of Transport always advised the minister on which direction to take, as it is advising the minister now.

The answer in Digby is for the Department of Transport to take over the wharf and to turn it over to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which agreed in 2005 to take it over and manage it under a harbour authority, like every other fishing harbour in the community, which is what Digby actually is. It should never have been at Transport Canada. That would be the ideal answer, with the support of the federal government.

The problem is that the Minister of Transport is getting his advice from the people who made the mistake. They are the ones who are representing the minister in these discussions with the Maritime Harbours Society. They would have to admit infallibility and I do not see that happening very soon. That is why I encourage the minister to appoint an independent group, an independent body, an accountant or a lawyer, to do these negotiations with the Maritime Harbours Society, someone who has nothing to protect and has an unbiased nature in representing the government. Surely there is a Conservative accountant or lawyer somewhere who can do that work. That would help.

I have heard the member's previous answers to what the needs of western Atlantic Canada are, which is to move everybody to Alberta. The herring fleet , the scallop fleet and the lobster fleet cannot make it up the Athabasca River. They need the Digby Port. It is a fishing port and it always has been.

I would encourage the member and the minister, as I have done in private conservations, to go outside of the department and get independent advice. This is not a problem that was caused by the minister but he can resolve it and I would be pleased to work with him to do so.

6:45 p.m.


Brian Jean Conservative Fort McMurray—Athabasca, AB

Mr. Speaker, the department transferred the port, along with a substantial financial contribution, to the Maritime Harbours Society, which is a private entity that deals with this matter. We are prepared to help facilitate the transfer to the local port authority and the government would be prepared to do that. That is how the government sees its role in this particular move.

As far as my personal belief on how Canadians should have the ability to move, I do not have a problem with the charter. If Canadians want to move from one part of the country to the other, like many of my friends and relatives moved to Newfoundland to build some oil refineries and work in the oil industry, that is their right under the charter.

Does the member have a problem with the charter and the ability of people to move from province to province?

6:50 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

The motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly, this House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m. pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 6:50 p.m.)