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House of Commons Hansard #99 of the 39th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was seniors.

Topics

MarriagePetitionsRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

Paul Steckle Liberal Huron—Bruce, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour this morning to present, on behalf of a good number of constituents in my riding of Huron—Bruce, a petition dealing with the issue of marriage. They are petitioning this Parliament to reopen the issue of marriage and to repeal or amend the Marriage for Civil Purposes Act in order to promote and defend marriage as the lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Regina—Lumsden—Lake Centre Saskatchewan

Conservative

Tom Lukiwski ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform

Mr. Speaker, I ask that all questions be allowed to stand.

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

Is that agreed?

Questions on the Order PaperRoutine Proceedings

10:05 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

The House resumed from January 29 consideration of the motion that Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Canada Pension PlanGovernment Orders

10:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Liberal Peter Milliken

When this matter was last before the House, the hon. member for Nanaimo—Cowichan had the floor and there are eight minutes remaining in the time allotted for her remarks. I call, therefore, upon the hon. member for Nanaimo--Cowichan.

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10:05 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, before the House adjourned yesterday I said that New Democrats would support Bill C-36 going to committee but that we strongly felt that a number of issues in the bill needed to be addressed.

Many seniors in my riding are facing dire circumstances and, in terms of livability and affordability, this would have been an opportunity to look at some other measures within the bill. It was a chance to actually fix some of the problems that are occurring with CPP and OAS.

I also want to talk about housing. I have heard some heartbreaking stories from seniors in Lake Cowichan in my riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan who have told me that when it comes time for a couple to go into assisted living or long term care the couple is often separated. One member of the couple needs to move to Duncan where the person can get the care that he or she needs. We now have a senior travelling from Lake Cowichan to Duncan on a daily basis to look after his or her loved one. That is just one of the many issues facing our seniors and we need to look at where we are investing our energy.

A group of women in British Columbia called Women Elders in Action, WE*ACT, has put together a very good document about pensions in Canada, “Policy Reform Because Women Matter”. One of the things it talks about is that a quarter of a million seniors are living under the low income cut-off. Many may ask what low income cut-off means.

The low income cut-off is the most consistently used measure of poverty in Canada. Several years ago Statistics Canada found that average Canadian families were spending about 50% of their total income on food, shelter and clothing. It arbitrarily estimated that families spending 70% or more of their income, 20 percentage points more than the average on the basic necessities, would be in dire circumstances.

Let us think about the fact that 70% of our income would go to what most of us would consider the basic necessities. We have a significant number of women in Canada who are living under the low income cut-off. In Canada I would suggest that it is probably something that most of us would find unacceptable.

Canadian men and women work hard all their lives and when they reach the age of 60 or 65 they fully expect to retire with some dignity and to have access to a pension that ensures their quality of life, which means that they do not have to struggle to have their basic needs met, like food, security and shelter.

According to WE*ACT, from 1990 to 2000 about 65% of people receiving old age security and guaranteed income supplement were women compared to 35% of men who tend to rely more heavily on occupational pension plans and RRSPs for income.

I need to re-emphasize that figure of 65%. We have a significant number of women in this country who, once they reach the age of 65, are living in desperate poverty. Many of these women have spent much of their working life in low wage jobs or in non-standard employment which is a lovely word to describe the fact that women are often in part time, seasonal or contract employment. This means that they have never had the opportunity to contribute to a private pension plan and therefore are totally reliant on Canada pension, old age security and the guaranteed income supplement. As well, many of these women have had employment gaps and do not have the full years of entitlement.

Some drop-out provisions have been made but many of these women have also been looking after aging parents or have had the primary responsibility for child-rearing. The fact that they have been in non-standard employment, low wage employment or part time employment significantly affects the quality of their retirement years. In addition, women traditionally outlive their spouses so they often end up single and relying again on substantially reduced pension plans.

Why would this matter? I acknowledge the fact that many men who retire are also poor but a substantial amount of research talks about where women go so does the rest of the community. In the WE*ACT report, according to Esping-Andersen there is a strong case for a woman-friendly social contract because improving the welfare of women means improving the collective welfare of our society.

With this opportunity to look at CPP and OAS, it would seem critical that we actually look at the people who are living in these dire circumstances in our society.

This report from 2004 made about 23 recommendations and a number of these recommendations were never acted upon. The report included a recommendation for reforming the public pension system to ensure people had adequate living conditions. Some of the recommendations talked about private occupational pensions, some taxation considerations and the need for indexing, and then some overall recommendations around policy changes to support these other changes.

A number of things are really important, and I will not read the full details, but they talk about providing education on all aspects of pensions that is accessible and understandable to women of all ages. They talk about providing problem solving counsellors for people who have questions or concerns and a 1-800 number that is easily accessible and, I might add, staffed because we know Canadians are struggling to access the 1-800 numbers provided by the government services. People often have lengthy delays in accessing information. They also talk about providing seniors with a list of government programs for which they might qualify upon making application to receive the pension and ensuring they are informed of all future changes to pension policy in Canada, including analysis of the differential impact on men and women.

We also need to look at affordable child care, adequately paid maternity leave, parental leave and so on, but we also need to look at pay equity so that by the time women reach the age of receiving CPP and old age security they have been in jobs that recognize the value of women's work. It would be timely to revisit the important pay equity report that came out a couple of years ago but which has never been implemented.

Although New Democrats will be supporting this going to committee, we see that there needs to be some substantial changes to this legislation to ensure that fairness and affordability are there for all Canadians when they retire.

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10:10 a.m.

NDP

Denise Savoie NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Act. It gives me the opportunity to speak on behalf of the many seniors in Victoria whom I met last December and this January. I met seniors who advocate on behalf of other seniors, like those in the Greater Victoria Seniors organization or the seniors at the James Bay New Horizons Society. These seniors are worried about their pensions and their ability to cope with inflation.

Seniors make up 18% of greater Victoria's population. There are approximately 55,500 seniors and of that number approximately 5,600, largely women, are living in poverty. It is disgraceful that our seniors in Canada and in Victoria have to live month to month. That should not happen in Canada.

This bill is largely a housekeeping bill to modernize the administration of benefits, with several clauses on interest amounts owing to Her Majesty. It is a lost opportunity to make substantive changes in the lives of seniors. It was an excellent opportunity to fix some of the problems facing seniors. I would like to speak to a few of the issues that were raised with me.

Speaking about the bill's provisions on the interest on amounts owing to Her Majesty, there is nothing in this bill about the interest on amounts owing to pensioners from miscalculations on old age security, the guaranteed income supplement and CPP between July 2001 and March 2006, when it was fixed, as my colleague, the member for Hamilton Mountain, pointed out to the minister. For that, it seems, we are going to have to wait and to continue to badger the Conservative government to get action for redress.

There are over four million seniors who rely on OAS, GIS and CPP for their incomes. While past changes and some increases in payments have helped alleviate some of the most dire poverty faced by many Canadian seniors, there are still too many falling between the cracks of our support systems in Canada. In fact, 165,000 seniors have no income other than OAS and GIS benefits.

I also want to raise the issue of the income disparity between men and women that my colleague has just referred to. The income disparity throughout their lifetimes is of course reflected in women's retirement income. Women's lesser wages and varying degrees of participation in the labour market affect their contributions and thus payments from CPP.

As an example, I would like to stress that data demonstrating gender differences in coverage show that the average monthly retirement pension paid to pensioners aged 65 to 69 was $533 for men and only $299 for women in that year. Nothing in this bill addresses this issue. There have been many reports providing some solutions to this problem, as has been pointed out by many speakers before me.

There is nothing in this bill, either, to address the under-subscription of OAS and GIS. It is necessary, still, to apply for these benefits. Many seniors who are either not able to apply or not well enough informed lose this important source of income. This is not insignificant. The sums in question are considerable. The 50,000 seniors who were eligible for OAS but did not apply in 2004, for example, sustained a total income loss of $250 million per year. It is often women who fail to apply for these benefits.

Last year, Parliament adopted the seniors charter. If we want to do more than pay lip service to the rights enshrined in the seniors charter, we must begin to explore all possible means of creating better income security and well-being for those who have worked hard all their lives.

Recognizing some of the problems faced by seniors in B.C. and their inability to advocate on their own behalf, 15 seniors' organizations formed the Seniors' Advocacy Steering Committee in British Columbia. Echoing the seniors charter, they passed a motion asking for the establishment of a seniors' advocacy group. We ask the Conservative government to support the motion and to begin by creating a seniors advocate, as already approved by Parliament. This simply complies with the will of Parliament.

There is a demonstrated need for public education and awareness initiatives on the rights of seniors, as we have already pointed out. There is a need for an ombudsman for seniors with respect to all government services and programs.

We know, for example, that there is a need to better coordinate provincial and federal programs. I would like to give a specific example from Victoria. Some of my constituents report that they are regularly advised by the provincial government to apply for federal CPP disability instead of the provincial disability program. However, people on CPP disability have been refused access to at least two programs that are available to those on provincial disability, for example, the homeowner grant that helps to pay a portion of property taxes and the monthly bus program.

This illustrates that an ombudsman or a seniors advocate could help to bridge those gaps. Seniors should not be denied these services just because they are on federal or provincial disability. It is cases like these, as I have said, that demonstrate the need for a seniors advocate.

We must put words to action. We recognize older Canadians as creative, active and valued members of society. We know what contributions they make in each of our communities to social cohesion, family support, mentorship and community volunteering. We have enshrined the right to income security for every senior living in Canada. I believe that it is time to pass to action through amendments at the committee level. I hope the committee will review some of the problems that have been raised, take them seriously and review, for example, the existing process for receipt of income support.

It is also time to act on a national home care program. I know from speaking to some seniors in my community that they want to live as independently as possible for as long as possible. The absence or the cost of home care, which is prohibitive for many people, force them into higher cost facilities or into hospital.

It is time for the government not just to pass simple administrative housekeeping bills, but to really give follow-up with serious action and to redress and correct the reality that many seniors in Canada are living in poverty and isolation. That should not happen. Their contribution calls for more fairness for all.

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10:20 a.m.

NDP

Catherine Bell NDP Vancouver Island North, BC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for her remarks on this important issue. I was lucky enough to attend a meeting the other day with seniors who were talking about health care and pensions. Some of the things they told me about their personal experiences and others that they represented included how seniors, women seniors primarily, were living in poverty, were having a hard time paying for their medications and were looking for affordable situations in which to live.

One of the things they talked about was home care, which is so desperately needed in my riding and in this country, as we have heard from other speakers, so I would like to thank the member for mentioning home care and how it relates to assisting seniors and some of the costs that seniors have to face.

Women especially are traditionally lower paid. We know that women still earn 73¢ for every dollar that men earn. With regard to improvements to our pension system and opportunities to access it in a more timely fashion with respect to the GIS, could the member elaborate on some of those things that would go a long way to assisting seniors and also would help them to live a dignified life in their old age?

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10:20 a.m.

NDP

Denise Savoie NDP Victoria, BC

Clearly, Mr. Speaker, economic vulnerability is not just about insufficiency of income, but also about loss of dignity, isolation, and social inclusion. I remember very vividly an older man whom I met in January. I stopped by his house and felt bad because he had such difficulty coming to the door, but he said that he wanted to speak to me. It seems that he was struggling on a very limited pension to remain independently in his home while suffering from very serious arthritis and having difficulty moving.

That is an example of where a national home care program could allow seniors to live out their days in their homes with support. It would also act in a preventive way. Someone going into a home from time to time could prevent more serious problems from occurring, problems that are far more costly to the system, and it would allow seniors to remain in good health for much longer.

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10:25 a.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan

Conservative

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

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask the member if she realizes that we are talking about trying to get a bill that will make it easier in the future for seniors to access benefits. We seem to be getting carried away by the situations that some seniors are in.

The situations she is talking about and bringing up in regard to this bill are situations that I hear a lot about in Blackstrap. A lot of seniors indeed do not have good access to health care. There are stories of seniors who lived in a community for years and could not be put into an old folks home there because of the amalgamations of the health districts; they were swept away into a community that is over 100 miles away from their families. And because of Saskatchewan's NDP government, the roads are not very good, so people cannot even visit their relatives. I am talking about the member's counterparts in that province.

As for the health care she is describing, that is true. It is there. The seniors are indeed having some day to day struggles, but in our province our provincial government is responsible for that, and many of the seniors are very upset because of some of the conditions they are living under and some of the communities they have--

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10:25 a.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

We have run out of time, but I will allow the member for Victoria a brief response.

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10:25 a.m.

NDP

Denise Savoie NDP Victoria, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am glad to hear the member raise some of these issues. While reading the bill this week, I was worried that the Conservatives were living in a parallel reality. I am glad they are hearing some of the same concerns.

There is a lot in this bill about interest on amounts owing to the Crown, but very little on amounts owing to pensioners. We know that due to miscalculations pensioners in Canada are owed a very large amount, yet the Conservative government refuses to address that issue.

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10:25 a.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Bill Blaikie

Resuming debate, the hon. member for Repentigny for his maiden speech in the House.

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10:25 a.m.

Bloc

Raymond Gravel Bloc Repentigny, QC

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.

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10:45 a.m.

Bloc

Yves Lessard Bloc Chambly—Borduas, QC

Mr. Speaker, first I want to congratulate and thank the hon. member for Repentigny. He gave us his appreciation and analysis of the situation, and I want to stress the quality that he displayed in telling us about his experience and in sharing with us his rather exceptional course.

My colleague described the plight of those seniors who are affected by this injustice on the part of the Canadian government, an injustice that has prevented them from having access to the guaranteed income supplement. He showed very clearly how the government acted, so that these people would become ineligible for these benefits through their own actions.

Without getting into the sordid aspects of life, I wonder if my colleague could tell the House about the impact of such a measure on the most vulnerable seniors in our society. Indeed, the first criterion to qualify for this supplement is that the person must have a low income. In other words, we are targeting the most needy. With Bill C-36, an effort is being made to allow these people to now have access to this guaranteed income supplement. However, they were robbed of $3 billion, and I am not using excessive language here.

I wonder if the hon. member could elaborate on this point and remind us of the impact that these measures have had on the elderly.

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10:45 a.m.

Bloc

Raymond Gravel Bloc Repentigny, QC

Mr. Speaker, thank you for allowing me to respond to my colleague from the Bloc Québécois.

As a parish priest I would often visit homes where seniors lived in the basement in abject poverty. These people experienced a great deal of insecurity. They were unable to pay for electricity or cover daily expenses. They lived in extreme poverty at a nephew's home or even with strangers. Often I had the sense that they were being abused. Some people would take away what little benefits these seniors received and save money at their expense.

Seniors would confide in me. It pained me to see their situation and I am certain that some seniors even passed away in these conditions. I often conducted funerals for very poor people and I think that for a 75- or 80-year-old widow or widower—especially widows, since there are more women than men in this situation—it is not healthy to live in insecurity, or to live in a basement 24 hours a day.

I have met a number of people like that. Often they would just cry. They are people who do not want to bother anyone. They would ask me not to talk about it with the person who took them in because they would be mistreated even more. I encountered this often. It always brought to mind what Lacordaire said in a famous statement he used. He said that when people leave us we must remember them. There are two ways of remembering. We can remember in our mind by recalling past events. However, Lacordaire said we might forget some. But, if we remember with our hearts then we cannot forget because the heart is the organ of love and this allows us to bring people back to life and make them immortal.

For everyone who died in distress and in poverty, I often quoted Lacordaire to say that we must not forget them. We must remember with our hearts to keep them with us and to immortalize them. I think this can have an impact on society as a whole.

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10:50 a.m.

Bloc

Robert Carrier Bloc Alfred-Pellan, QC

I too wish to congratulate our new colleague from Repentigny, Mr. Speaker. I think that we all stand to benefit from his life experience and his empathy for people across Quebec, and Canada as well I hope.

I wanted to tell him that what struck me most in this bill was the exception concerning new immigrants, these new Canadian citizens who, while having been recognized by our government remain excluded from the guaranteed income supplement. I think that is a great injustice. My riding regularly welcomes new Canadian citizens. The same must be true in the ridings of many of my colleagues. I know how hard these people strive over the course of many years, landing in a country where they have to be sponsored, to ensure that they have sufficient income.

Are we intent on penalizing them for the longest time possible, especially once they have been recognized as Canadian citizens? I would like to know what my hon. colleague thinks of this exception concerning our new Canadian citizens who have been officially recognized as such.

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10:50 a.m.

Bloc

Raymond Gravel Bloc Repentigny, QC

Mr. Speaker, referring this bill to committee will allow us to review all these types of exception, be it people coming to Canada from abroad or seniors, whether Canadian-born or immigrant. I think that there is a degree of fairness, a degree of justice that is required. If these people have suffered injustices, these injustices must be remedied. If our seniors in this country are vulnerable, so are those coming from abroad. At committee, we will be able to see whether these people have suffered any injustice; we will have an opportunity to look at changes that could be made to Bill C-36.

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10:50 a.m.

Bloc

Jean-Yves Laforest Bloc Saint-Maurice—Champlain, QC

Mr. Speaker, I too would like to pay tribute to the fine performance of the previous speaker, the hon. member for Repentigny, who is the Bloc Québécois’ new critic for seniors. As the hon. member for Alfred-Pellan said, I think that this appointment will bring a sensibility to the House that was previously lacking and will impart a much higher tone to the debates on this subject.

It is a great pleasure for me to rise today on Bill C-36 which will correct, at least in part, one of the greatest injustices done to older people in Quebec and Canada.

There are several reasons why it is a particular pleasure for me, including the fact that this may have been the battle into which the Bloc Québécois member who preceded me in Saint-Maurice—Champlain, Marcel Gagnon, threw himself the most, that is to say, the battle for seniors and for the guaranteed income supplement.

I am very pleased today to see that his constant efforts over many years have now resulted in this matter reaching the public stage and the production of a bill—a bill that still needs to be improved, of course, but that still does much to correct a situation that so occupied him.

The statistics tell it all. Some 42,000 people in Quebec out of the 68,000 in 2001 will now receive the guaranteed income supplement. It will amount to as much as $6,600 a year per person.

There is another reason why I am especially happy with the progress made in this regard. The riding that I represent, Saint-Maurice—Champlain, was determined in late 2005 to be one of the 10 poorest in Canada. It is also a riding in which the number of older people is constantly increasing. These people found themselves impoverished because they could not access a program that would have helped them improve their situation, including among others the guaranteed income supplement. The result was even more poverty in the riding I represent than would otherwise have been the case. We had poverty that was fixable. The fact that it was not fixed is due to the negligence of the previous Liberal government, all to the detriment of our most disadvantaged citizens, as a number of other speakers have pointed out.

That inaction on the part of the Liberal government is truly troubling. The Department of Human Resources and Social Development had known since 1993 that many older people who were eligible for the program were not enrolled in it and were not receiving the money they were entitled to. There were 68,000 people in Quebec who were not enrolled. They did not know that they had to register.

That is absolutely scandalous. We say that we live in a developed, democratic society, when at the same time what we were seeing was scandals, speaking of the time between 1993 and today. This was quite common in the riding I represent, Saint-Maurice—Champlain. Friends of the party in power received millions of dollars under a program called the sponsorship program. Everyone knows this, and I see nothing wrong with pointing it out. The sole purpose of that program was to buy the conscience of Quebeckers. Meanwhile, that same party knew that there were people who did not have access to money that they should have been receiving. Nothing was done to correct this.

Millions of dollars were spent, handed out to friends of the party, money that was turned back over to the party on top of that. Older people, who built Quebec and Canada, were abandoned, as if those people did not need that money. Better that it should be wasted and we should help our friends.

Personally, I think it is appalling that during the same period there was a two-tier system. There were other people who did not have access to this program for a variety of reasons: in some cases, because they were illiterate; in others, they were disadvantaged by physical limitations, language barriers, problems with social integration or homelessness. Some people were living in places that were too remote, others belonged to aboriginal communities. In large majority, and at higher rates than for others, those people did not have access to the guaranteed income supplement.

Nor is the present Conservative government necessarily exempt here. When we see that illiteracy was one of the things some people did not have access to the guaranteed income supplement, we may wonder whether the recent cuts made by the Conservative government to funding for literacy groups will not have a similar effect on this program or even on other programs. People do need assistance, particularly older people, who account for a very large majority of illiterate individuals.

This is why I am serious in asking the Conservative government to review the cuts to funding for literacy groups announced last fall. These cuts could once again lead to unfairness, such as we saw with the guaranteed income supplement.

The guaranteed income supplement program is still a paradox. To me, the program's title, “guaranteed income supplement program”, seems to be just a front. For many years, no one had any guarantee that he or she would be getting benefits to improve his or her precarious financial situation. As we know, this program is for the elderly. They called it the guaranteed income supplement program, but many people did not get that guaranteed income.

Why did the government use the term “guaranteed” if the program was not going to apply to everyone? If we say that a program is guaranteed, then the guarantee must be universal. Those who designed this program should have taken all necessary measures to allow and guarantee automatic access for those who qualified, namely Canadian citizens over the age of 65 whose income is insufficient. Indeed, this program is linked to people's tax returns.

Again, one wonders why it was called the “guaranteed income supplement program”. I find that the principle of universality was not applied and that we did not facilitate access to this program, in order to help society's most needy.

I will conclude by going back to a few recommendations, particularly the one where the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities recommended that retroactive payments be made to those who were deprived of the guaranteed income supplement.

As the hon. member for Repentigny mentioned, the Bloc Québécois will maintain pressure to ensure full and total retroactivity. After all, these people were not deprived of only half of their benefits; they did not suffer a partial prejudice. The prejudice they suffered was total because they did not get their benefits.

Once again, I think that the Bloc Québécois has done an excellent job. We will keep up the good work in the coming months, so that this legislation can be satisfactorily amended and passed.

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11 a.m.

NDP

Dennis Bevington NDP Western Arctic, NT

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate my hon. colleague on his presentation on this issue. We in the New Democratic Party as well are concerned about opening bills like this without substantive changes that can make a difference to Canadians in all places in the country.

My experience in discussing Canada pension plan issues with my constituents in northern and remote communities is that the system is not working for them. Quite clearly the cost of living is so high in those areas and seniors are living on fixed incomes under the Canada pension plan. The plan does not recognize the geographic differences that affect the cost of living for individuals. It is a real question of fairness.

In the community of Tuktoyaktuk, the cost of living is probably 200% more than the cost of living in cities such as Edmonton or Montreal. Our seniors are in dire straits. I do not know if that fits with other rural communities across the country, but would the hon. member comment on whether this pension system is working fairly across the country? Canada is such a large geographic area and the cost of living cannot always be equalized. How does the hon. member feel about this?

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11:05 a.m.

Bloc

Jean-Yves Laforest Bloc Saint-Maurice—Champlain, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for his question.

Obviously, a number of inequities exist in our country, and particularly in Quebec. There are probably inequities associated with the guaranteed income supplement or the old age pension.

For example, at present, the greatest inequity in Quebec has to do with the equalization system. We currently have a major fiscal imbalance, which the Bloc Québécois would like to see corrected as soon as possible.

In my opinion, the greatest inequity stems from the equalization program. That program is entirely unsatisfactory for all Quebeckers, not just for seniors.

Added to that is the inequity affecting some of our seniors, and we must certainly question several programs intended to distribute the wealth throughout Quebec and Canada.

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11:05 a.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan

Conservative

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

Mr. Speaker, when I hear members say that they would like this legislation looked at further for substantial amendments, I wonder if they understand that it is not so easy when it comes to making substantive changes or amendments to the CPP because we have to have three-quarters of the provinces or the orders in council and three-quarters of the population to agree. To get all of these provinces together to make these changes would be a somewhat formidable task. That is why we are anxious to move forward with this legislation because that has been done to get the provinces to agree to this point to bring these changes to the act.

I wonder if the member would like to comment on whether substantive changes should be done, if this would be so easy, because even if this legislation passes, we still have to go back to the provinces.

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11:05 a.m.

Bloc

Jean-Yves Laforest Bloc Saint-Maurice—Champlain, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to add that I certainly support the bill.

I hope to see some improvements to certain recommendations, particularly the recommendation concerning retroactivity. I am aware that Bill C-36 is a first step, which will allow us to eventually go even further with respect to providing support for seniors.

I firmly believe that this is an interesting bill and that it constitutes a first step, since it corrects several injustices. However, we must not think that our work can stop as soon as the bill is adopted. The Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities must continue its in-depth study to determine whether there are other ways to improve the situation of our seniors.

Canada Pension PlanGovernment Orders

11:05 a.m.

Bloc

Claude DeBellefeuille Bloc Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to congratulate the member for Saint-Maurice—Champlain on his speech.

It is almost a year since I was elected as a Bloc Québécois member. In my previous life, I was a social worker, and I managed a community organization that worked with vulnerable and disadvantaged seniors. We had a service called the tax clinic, in which we helped and encouraged seniors to fill out their income tax returns. Every time, we were very surprised—because the volunteers were well trained—that we had to tell seniors that they could apply for the guaranteed income supplement. To my great astonishment, I met several dozen seniors who had been entitled to it for a number of years but who had not sent in the form.

When you meet the elderly you are often struck by the anxiety they feel. A simple government logo on a letter can frighten them, because they do not really know how to communicate with offices to get access to forms and other documents.

I am giving you very tangible evidence of the need for legislation like this. However, I would like my colleague to explain, once again, why it is so important to provide for complete retroactivity. Because there are still a lot of seniors who have not been paid back or who are affected by the fact that information was not communicated appropriately.