Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak on this issue today. It stems from a government bill, namely Bill C-36, to amend the Canada Pension Plan and the Old Age Security Act.
We are pleased with this initiative, but only to some extent. As previous speakers have mentioned, this is an initiative to make access to the guaranteed income supplement simpler and more practical by streamlining the process. This is something we have been calling for for many years, but have been systematically turned down by both the previous government and, for the past year, this government.
Because it deals with the old age security program, this bill also affects the benefits paid to pensioners, and particularly the guaranteed income supplement.
A problem arose, which my colleagues have raised, where low income seniors had to meet two criteria: age—they had to be 65 years old—and the number of years of residence in the country. These were the two criteria for applying, provided, of course, they had limited income. In this respect, however, regulations were made, which restricted and, in many cases, prevented access to the supplement.
My hon. colleague pointed this out earlier. In 2001, there were 272,000 people in Canada who were denied access for objective reasons that I will get into later. In Quebec, 68,000 individuals were affected. Our colleague Marcel Gagnon, who was the member for Saint-Maurice—Champlain at the time, fought tirelessly to have more of them receive the supplement, providing them with information about their rights and helping them, naturally, with the appropriate procedures.
The objective reasons I referred to were of the following nature. People were told they had to reapply each year. Many were not even aware that they were eligible for this supplement and, thus, did not apply for it the first year. Others did not know about the requirement to reapply annually.
Which of these people were the most vulnerable? It was those in poor physical health. Often it was also a matter of mental health. And there were actual physical limitations. Among those identified are people who have never worked or who have not filed income tax returns because they did not have any income or so little income that they did not think they needed to file a return. Aboriginals have been particularly affected, as have residents of remote communities, semi-literate people, those who do not read either of Canada’s official languages, persons with disabilities, people suffering from disease and homeless people.
We see that there is a range of people who are, I would say, disabled concerning their obligations to obtain one of their rights. A further complication was added to prevent them from obtaining this right. Over the years, especially since 2001, a major offensive has been led against the previous government for it to correct the situation and, for the past year, against the current government.
So how does that translate into money?
It was between 1993 and 2001 that people began to become aware of the situation—and it continues now, but less significantly. Seniors have been deprived of $3.1 billion. These people are among the most disadvantaged in our society.
What surprises me is that this does not seem to have touched the members of the previous government very much, because they took all those years to make an effort to correct the situation. In the present government we can observe some sensitivity to correcting the situation for people applying now, but no sensitivity for the people who have been deprived of this right. The situation is serious.
I do not want to be too hard on the present government, but when it was in opposition, some of its members were outraged by this situation, just like us. What happens when these people begin governing the country? How do people end up changing their attitude to such an extent? Why, when people are in power and can correct such a large injustice, do they not do so?
The two main political parties in Canada, who have until now taken turns in government, seem to have quite a particular propensity for attacking seniors.
We must also look at the problem as a whole. One of the recurring problems is the lack of will to support older workers who are forced out of the labour force because of massive layoffs.
There was the POWA, the Program for Older Worker Adjustment, but it was abolished in 1997. POWA helped workers aged 55 and over who lost their jobs and were unable to find new jobs for various reasons, the first of which being the unwillingness of employers to show generosity in hiring older workers first. That means that these people cannot find work because of their age. Some of them worked in the same trade for 20, 30 or 40 years and it is not easy for them to learn a new one. Furthermore, an average of 20% of the people laid off these days are 55 and older.
Since 1997, the year the Liberals abolished the POWA, we have been fighting to get an income support program for older workers.
The present situation contributes to the impoverishment of seniors who retired because they reached retirement age or because they were laid off. And here, I am referring to some massive layoffs.
Last week or the week before, the government announced the creation of an expert panel to study the situation. In fact, the government made that commitment last year, during the budget debate.
It was even part of last year's budget amendments. Ten or eleven months ago, the government made the commitment to proceed very quickly with this study and was supposed to report to the House when Parliament resumed after the summer recess.
Despite the fact that, whenever we asked questions about this during the last year, the current minister's predecessor told us every time that the study was underway, that progress was being made and that we would soon see results, we learned a week and a half ago that nothing had been done and that the government was setting up a committee now to do this study. Obviously the House of Commons was not told the truth, and that is a polite way of putting it. We were told something that was not the truth because it was false to say that the study was underway when it has not even started yet.
The second problem with that committee is that workers are not represented. It is made up of representatives of organizations that do not necessarily have that expertise. Surprisingly, the human resources and social development committee toured the country last fall to examine the issue of employability in Canada. One of the issues dealt with at that time was precisely the employability of seniors. How is it that we are being told today that this committee will do exactly the same work without even waiting for the results of the work currently done by our committee, which should be released before we adjourn in the spring?
It is rather amazing to see the extent to which the government will resort to delaying tactics not to honour its obligations to seniors who lose their jobs in massive layoffs. It systematically refuses to provide income support to those people, which tends to confirm what I was saying earlier about this government's tendency to target seniors.
Back to the guaranteed income supplement. It is time for the government to deliver. The parliamentary secretary said that we have to manage public funds carefully. Then she said that it will be very difficult to reimburse the money owed to these people because they are so hard to find. Her statements do not hold water.
The first demonstrates not only a lack of sensitivity but also a lack of empathy toward the poorest people in our society because everyone knows that whatever she says about keeping public funds under lock and key, we have a government that has generated budget surpluses for the past 12 years. On September 25, the Government of Canada announced a $13 billion surplus for the past fiscal year, yet it has responsibilities to seniors who often do not have enough income to pay for basic necessities, such as food, housing, clothing and a reasonable standard of living.
This morning, our colleague from Repentigny shared with us a very moving account of his previous job experience helping these people. He told us about the suffering and the isolation they are forced to endure. This isolation is caused in large part by their low income, which makes it impossible for them to contribute to society in any way.
The parliamentary secretary also said that it is hard to find these people. But if we know how many of them there are, we must know where they are. When it was a matter of finding a way to bring money into government coffers, they had plenty of ideas, plenty of ways to do it. For example, when it came time to bring in the GST and the QST and other provincial sales taxes, they found ways. In Quebec, a harmonized sales tax was implemented. Quebec passes on the Canadian government's share: 6%. Why have we not done something similar for seniors?
Many of these seniors are forced to ask the province of Quebec for help, either through the Quebec pension plan or social assistance. Why is there no agreement? Why have we not considered that the Canadian government could correctly identify these people by their income and that Quebec also had records that could be used to conduct the appropriate verifications to ensure that the guaranteed income supplement is given to those who qualify? Why has this not been done? The answer seems just as clear to me today as in the past. There is a lack of political will, which stems from the ideology of the two political parties, one after the other, an ideology based on supporting the wealthy people of our society and the people who contribute to society by providing jobs.
We know that a minister who temporarily became Prime Minister was able to take advantage of retroactivity for his business beyond the 11 months allowed for seniors. There was no skimping on the number of years and this was done for other businesses, too. When it comes to making exceptions for corporate taxes, there always seems to be a way. The answers we are given do not pass muster and are completely unacceptable in the current context, considering the injustice committed against our seniors.
In closing, I would like to point out that I limited myself to this aspect because my colleagues discussed possible amendments to allow our eligible seniors to access the guaranteed income supplement program. I deliberately discussed retroactivity in particular because I believe that if we do not include a provision in this bill to allow for retroactivity, we would simply be maintaining the same injustice, which is entirely unacceptable.
We, the Bloc Québécois, want no part of that. We encourage our colleagues of the other parties to come to their senses, to embrace justice, to embrace their sensitivity, and finally grant our seniors the right to receive their guaranteed income supplement benefits, which they should have been receiving since 1993. Thank you.