Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to join those of my colleagues who, since yesterday, have been speaking on Bill C-36.
I extend special thanks to the hon. member for Laval, who spoke yesterday. I listened carefully to her speech. Until just recently, she was the critic on this issue, which I have now taken over. I am pleased to rise today to address Bill C-36.
First, I will take a moment to thank the people in my riding of Repentigny, which I represent here in the House of Commons. I wish them a happy new year. The time is still right in January to extend our wishes.
I also beg the members' indulgence for my raspy voice. I have caught a bad cold, a man's cold that is apparently difficult to get rid of.
I pledge to my constituents of Repentigny that I will spare no time or effort in representing them well in this House and vehemently defending their rights. My colleagues from the Bloc Québécois and myself will continue to doggedly defend the interests of all Quebeckers.
It is my pleasure to stand in this House today to speak on an issue as important as seniors. Before getting into politics and joining the Bloc Québécois, in my former life, I had daily contact with people of all ages, and seniors in particular facing poverty.
Humbly and with the means available to me, I tried to help them. I started by listening to them. I comforted them, I am convinced of that. And I got a better feel for what kind of hardship they were experiencing.
I recall that a month before I went into politics, a woman came to see me in the parish where I was working as a priest. She was in tears. She wanted to move out of her niece's home, because her niece was mistreating her, but she could not afford to live anywhere else. She was on a waiting list for a home of her own. Obviously, I could not solve her problem, but I was able to help her just by listening. I tried to give words of comfort to people suffering from poverty, because the poor really do suffer. I wondered why there was so much poverty among the elderly and why governments had never recognized what a scourge poverty is and tried to eradicate it. The elderly built Quebec and Canada, and I wondered why we did not help them more.
I would like to quote part of a column Pierre Foglia wrote last week in La Presse about the death of Abbé Pierre:
Abbé Pierre was the last in a long line of good people who indignantly refused to accept poverty. ... Now that Abbé Pierre is gone, all we have left are good people.
I wondered why Foglia said that. I know that Foglia felt and still feels today that there are many good people in our society who are doing something about the growing inequalities. But Abbé Pierre was special: he responded with indignation. Foglia also wrote:
Without a sense of indignation, we become accustomed to doing good works instead of working for social justice.
It is not enough to do good works; we also need to have a sense of indignation about the bad things done in our society. I do not claim to be another Abbé Pierre, nor do I claim to be of the same calibre, but I think that that is more or less the main reason I got into politics. Poverty makes me as angry as it made him, especially when it affects the elderly. And if, together, we can improve the lot of our fellow citizens, then I will not have entered politics in vain.
During my recent election campaign, I had the opportunity to tour my riding for the first time. I visited various community organizations as well as seniors' residences. I had the privilege to sit down to dinner with seniors a number of times. And like any good candidate, I went door to door. I saw that many elderly people do not live in any kind of luxury.
I was shocked and even appalled to see such deserving people living on so little, knowing that the government was hiding the extra income to which they had every right. At that moment, I became convinced—and I remain convinced to this day—that my decision to enter politics was the right one and that we, my colleagues in this House and I, could find a way to help vulnerable seniors.
I took the time to talk to these people. I did my very best to inform them of the current and former governments' conscious omission and to tell them that they are eligible for the guaranteed income supplement. I promised to do everything in my power, with the support of my Bloc Québécois colleagues who have been fighting to defend and improve Quebec's rights for so long, to spur the government to action on this issue and ensure that every senior is informed and, above all, receives the guaranteed income supplement and any other income they are entitled to. This has become a personal commitment for me.
Let us not forget that for many years now, the Bloc Québécois has been devoting a lot of energy in this House to reminding the government of its responsibilities and duties toward our seniors, who are often the most vulnerable members of our society, the people who built the country we live in, the people whose quality of life often depends on the level of care they receive. That quality of life is often dictated by their income.
In 2001, the Bloc Québécois criticized the Liberal government's mismanagement of the guaranteed income supplement program. We implemented a major initiative that has enabled us to find 42,000 of these people so far. Often, these people were society's neediest and many of them were deprived of the money they should have been collecting for years through the federal guaranteed income supplement. Thanks to our efforts, about $190 million has been redistributed to some of the poorest seniors in our society. The Bloc Québécois is also asking the government to acknowledge its mistake and give full, not partial retroactive reimbursement to all of the seniors it swindled.
I would remind the House that in December 2001, under the Liberal government, the House adopted the report on the guaranteed income supplement by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills Development, Social Development and Status of Persons with Disabilities. In its report, the committee painted an interesting picture of the situation and made a number of recommendations. I do not intend to repeat the committee's recommendations, but the fact remains that, although Human Resources Development Canada has been aware of the under-subscription of GIS since at least 1993, the problem persists today. I would remind the House that we are now in 2007. It is very sad to think that, for the past 14 years, Human Resources Development Canada, HRDC, could have and should have been helping tens of thousands of people among the least well-off in our society. Instead, it chose to turn a blind eye and deliberately ignore these people, who are so desperately in need. It deliberately chose to take no action.
Let us first take a closer look at the problem surrounding the guaranteed income supplement. The raison d'être of such a program was, first and foremost, to give low-income retirees an additional benefit on top of their old age security. In order to receive it, eligible individuals must apply for it every year when they are filing their income tax return. This is what constitutes the greatest injustice, because many seniors are unable to fill out the forms or even understand their contents.
This bill to amend the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Act finally corrects the irregularities that our seniors have been facing for more than 14 years. However, it still raises a number of issues that remain vague, even though we, the Bloc Québécois, continue to tackle them with vigilance. I have the opportunity to rise and speak here today, and I am privileged, along with my colleagues in this House, to analyze Bill C-36, introduced by the government, which, overall, leads us to believe that this government knows that our seniors have been cheated for far too long.
We understand that the primary objectives of Bill C-36 as a whole are to ensure the availability, accessibility and obtainability of the amounts owing to all potential beneficiaries. We are, however, bitterly disappointed to note that the Conservative government is not undertaking to give beneficiaries the full retroactive amount.
If a Canadian citizen owes money to the government, though, for whatever reason or to whatever department, we all know just how far the government will go to recover the amounts in question. Why should there not be the same commitment to these seniors who have been cheated for so long?
We in the Bloc Québécois believe that a responsible government would refund the total amounts that its predecessor or it itself had voluntarily or involuntarily failed to pay for so long. A responsible government, by means of this quite legitimate gesture, would acknowledge a problematic situation that it had created itself, and also thus acknowledge the outstanding contribution made by those very individuals, our seniors, through their hard work and dedication, to the development of Quebec and Canada.
Furthermore, this Conservative government, with this bill, wishes to create different classes of Canadian citizens. I will come back to this point later.
The government offers all Canadians—except in Quebec where we have our own plan, the Quebec Pension Plan—a federal-provincial pension plan, the Canada Pension Plan. In addition, the first pillar of Canada’s retirement income system is the old age security program and more specifically, the benefits based on income, that is, the guaranteed income supplement and allowance, which are generally paid to seniors aged 65 or more.
The guaranteed income supplement is a non-taxable monthly benefit, which is paid to low-income beneficiaries of the old age security pension. The benefits gradually decrease until they reach zero as the beneficiary’s net income reaches a certain level. Since this supplement is in addition to the old age security pension, we may ask: who is entitled to it? First, people must be 65 years of age or older and, second, must be Canadian citizens or legal residents of Canada at the time the pension is approved. Third, they must have resided in Canada for at least 10 years after the age of 18.
This bill will make it easier for the most disadvantaged seniors to receive the guaranteed income supplement by no longer requiring them to reapply annually. The application will be renewed automatically and the guaranteed income supplement for couples will be based on one and the same return.
This bill will allow seniors who suffer a sudden reduction in employment or pension income during a fiscal year to submit an application for an income supplement based on an estimate of their employment and pension income.
Yes, this bill will amend and fine-tune certain sections of the Old Age Security Act in order to deal with inconsistencies. Yes, it will introduce some measures amending the Canada Pension Plan, which does not at all affect Quebec and its constitutional areas of jurisdiction.
However, how can we, the Bloc Québécois, support expanding restrictions on new citizens who have immigrated to Canada? As I was saying before, for the Bloc Québécois, there cannot be different classes of Canadian citizens, no matter what their background.
In addition, as I mentioned earlier, why would the government only pay retroactivity limited to 11 months, as provided in the act governing the guaranteed income supplement and the allowance?
We are asking the committee to examine the obligation to pay the full retroactivity. This policy would allow for the entire eligibility period to be covered in full.
The Bloc Québécois will ask the Privacy Commissioner to testify with regard to the broadening of the third-party group to which the contributor's personal information may be forwarded. The Bloc Québécois will ensure that amendments to current regulations will not restrict access to the guaranteed income supplement.
The Bloc Québécois is also committed to continuing its longstanding fight with the federal government to have it put in place all the elements required to ensure that seniors who qualify for the guaranteed income supplement are able to receive it.
With regard to interest charged on overpayments, the Bloc Québécois will ensure that the bill is fair for all contributors. Finally, the Bloc Québécois will ensure that the statute of limitations in the case of recovery of overpayments by the government is proportional to the period for which individuals can make a claim for an amount due to them. While the government does not propose to offer full retroactivity for the guaranteed income supplement, it appears to abolish any time limit when it comes to the money that is owed to the government.
We should not stick our heads in the sand and ignore the fact that there is poverty in our midst. Let us also recognize that poverty is a part of the daily life of a great many people, as much in Quebec as in the rest of Canada. I personally rubbed shoulders with poverty not long ago while working as a priest. I was outraged and I am still outraged to see this scourge continuing to affect the lives of so many people, especially the most vulnerable people, those who are older.
If my colleagues have not seen this scourge, they have only to go out into the streets. They will see that there really are such people. They need only walk about their ridings; and if they are nervous about doing that, let them come to my riding. I will be happy to show them.
In closing, let us take some time to reflect and to think of our own parents, who worked all their lives; who raised families, sometimes large families. It is in large part because of them that our life today is what it is. Let us think of these seniors who did so much for us and for our country. Let us ask ourselves whether they do not deserve more respect from their government, whether they are not entitled to receive this minimum that the government wants to give back to them. Let us understand that we are not talking here of people who are well off, to whom we are offering a little extra. No, we are talking about people who struggled all their lives; who worked hard all their lives and who have had trouble making ends meet. Often, these people deprived themselves for the good of their family, for the good of their children. They deserve a minimum of respect from the government.
For the sake of dignity, out of respect, and in recognition of our senior citizens, I call on the government to carefully consider the recommendations made by the Bloc Québécois. These recommendations are no more than the justice and fairness to which our older citizens are entitled. We must never forget that justice is the first of all values; it comes before even love. We can not love someone if we do not treat him or her with justice. Thank you for having listened attentively.