House of Commons Hansard #19 of the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was money.


Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Souris—Moose Mountain Saskatchewan


Ed Komarnicki ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Madam Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to speak about the employment insurance program. I thank the hon. member for raising the subject.

I will address the specific issue of the two week waiting period in Bill C-241, but first I would like to outline our government's strategic approach to EI through Canada's economic action plan.

While Canada is better prepared than almost any other country to weather the worldwide recession, we certainly are not immune to it. We know people are facing uncertainty and are concerned. We know that those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own are facing difficult times ahead. We feel for these people and we are working to protect them. We have taken and continue to take action to ensure that help is there for Canadians and their families when they need it most.

To this end, we consulted widely with Canadians. In fact, prior to introducing our economic action plan in budget 2009, we conducted the most extensive prebudget consultations in the history of our country.

Through our plan, among other things we are proposing to extend EI benefits, while investing an unprecedented $8.3 billion in the Canada skills and transition strategy. Our aim in all of this is to improve employment insurance in areas where the need is the greatest.

One of the things that came up time and time again through our consultations was that EI benefits needed to be lengthened in order to provide greater assistance to those facing longer-term challenges in looking for work. That is why through our economic action plan, for the next two years, we will make available nationally the five weeks of extended EI benefits that have been previously available through a pilot project only, in regions with the highest unemployment. The government will also increase the maximum duration of benefits to 50 weeks, up from 45.

Some 400,000 Canadians could benefit from these changes. This measure will provide financial support for a longer period to unemployed Canadians who would otherwise have exhausted their benefits. This means unemployed workers will have more time to seek employment while receiving EI.

This is very important and a point I cannot stress enough. Exhaustion of EI benefits is difficult on any family. Canadians who are unemployed for extended periods will have more time to find work under our plan.

It is putting the dollars to use where they are needed the most. This approach better suits the needs of Canadians than simply eliminating the two week waiting period of which the member speaks. There are several reasons for this.

First, it is important to look at why there is a two week waiting period in the first place. The two week waiting period serves to ensure that EI resources are focused on workers dealing with significant gaps in employment. In fact, if we eliminated the two week waiting period, claims would not be processed any more quickly. The additional processing required by eliminating the waiting period would generate a significant increase in volumes associated with short spells of unemployment. This would put further pressure on service standards and processing resources.

These additional strains and pressures on the system could lead to even longer wait times for people to have their claims processed.

On these points, we are backed up by David Dodge, the former governor of the Bank of Canada. On December 18, Mr. Dodge appeared on the CTV Newsnet program, Mike Duffy Live. Some of us still remember that program and many have watched it.

When asked whether eliminating the two week waiting period for EI was an expenditure worth making, Mr. Dodge responded unequivocally. He said, “The answer is no. That would be probably the worst waste of money we could make...because there's a lot of churn in the labour market, just normal churn”. Mr. Dodge also said, “that two weeks is there for a very good reason...the real issue is that some of these people are going to be off work for a rather long period of time”.

Therefore, that is where we are directing our efforts. I think what the former governor of the Bank of Canada was trying to say at that time was those who were off for longer periods of time were the ones who were in more desperate straits and needed the help to a greater extent.

The fact is that during these uncertain times, some people may be off work for longer periods. That is why EI help needs to be targeted in such a fashion, so they will receive that help when they need it.

It is worth noting that the Bloc's proposal to eliminate the two week wait period would not provide any additional assistance to workers who exhaust their EI benefits. For those who exhaust all of their EI benefits, eliminating the two week period would simply mean their benefits would start two weeks earlier but they would also end two weeks earlier.

We believe that providing EI claimants with five additional weeks of benefit is better targeted than the two weeks the opposition is proposing. Five weeks is better than two weeks. I wonder if the member would not agree with me that is a significant improvement and an advancement to the program. This is better targeted help. This is smarter help. It is help that is needed more.

Providing an additional five weeks of benefits would go further in helping those who need our help the most, those who are having difficulty finding work over the long term. They will derive greater benefit from having five additional weeks of benefits as opposed to only getting two weeks of additional benefits at the beginning of their EI claim period.

Looking at the bigger picture, our economic action plan focuses not only on the benefit side of EI, but equally on the importance of training. We are increasing funding for training delivered through the employment insurance program by $1 billion over two years.

This large investment will help to respond to the higher demand for labour market programs and training owing to increased unemployment. As a result, thousands more EI eligible clients could receive training and be better prepared when times improve.

In this regard, I would like to highlight something else David Dodge said, “I think the Prime Minister's right, that we do have to concentrate on improving the skills of people, and with that improvement in skills...we will find opportunities going forward”.

We are making an investment into the future. We are making an investment in people so when the economic circumstances change they will be ready to meet the challenges.

I agree with Mr. Dodge. We do need to concentrate on improving skills and training, and that is what we are doing.

Our plan also takes into consideration the needs of long-tenured workers who have been laid off. To help these long-tenured workers change occupations or sectors, we are introducing a pilot project that would extend EI benefits to them so they could pursue longer term training.

We are also proposing that workers with severance or other separation payments be eligible for earlier access to EI benefits if they use some or all of their payments to purchase skills upgrading or training.

With our plan, not only are we proposing to extend benefits, we are also proposing to freeze EI premium rates for 2010 at the same rate as 2009. This will provide a projected $4.5 billion stimulus over two years.

This stimulus means more money for employers to keep or hire employees. This means more money in the pockets of hardworking Canadians.

Through our new strategic training and transition fund, we are also providing significant funds to help meet the different training and support needs of workers who do not qualify for EI. This will include those who have been out of work for a prolonged period of time. Up to 50,000 individuals are expected to benefit from this training and other measures.

Rather than looking at just one aspect of EI and tinkering around the edges, we have looked at the economic and labour market as a whole. We have put forward EI measures that are targeted to the needs of Canadians. Our actions are forward-looking and better suited to help those who need it most.

Members of the Liberal opposition should be reminded that their former Liberal minister of human resources, Jane Stewart, had this to say about the two week waiting period, “the two week waiting period is like a deductible in an insurance program. It is there for a purpose”.

In the end we have to look at the entire package. The entire package not only helps those who are on EI for a longer period of time, but it allows them to upgrade their skills and retrain. We have to look at the broad picture by investing billions of dollars into skills training and retraining.

We are looking at the big picture. We cannot take just one segment of it like the bill proposes to do. We have to look at it globally, which we have done. I think Canadians will find it acceptable.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:55 p.m.


Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to join in this debate.

On behalf of my colleagues in the Liberal Party, I commend the member for Dartmouth—Cole Harbour, our critic for HRDC, who does a tremendous job on the EI file and on his whole critic portfolio. This is an issue and a subject on which he has done a great deal of work. I have a great deal of respect for all he has accomplished.

On this particular issue of the two week waiting period, the position of our critic and the position of our party will be to support this bill as we did in the last Parliament. A similar bill was brought forward in the last Parliament and we supported that as well.

I and many Canadians are very concerned with what has gone on in the economy of late with 129,000 jobs being lost just in the month of January. Many people are facing the great dilemma of whether to fill their oil tank, their prescriptions or their fridge.

I am concerned when I hear the parliamentary secretary state that David Dodge figures this is the best way to do this. I bet it has been quite some time since David Dodge had to walk in the back door, look at his wife, who is trying to feed four kids, and wonder where the next quart of milk is coming from. It is something he probably has not had to experience.

The unemployed are the most vulnerable and they need help and they need it now.

In reference to the five weeks, this is something the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development has come back with in many of her answers to the question about the extension. The reality is that the five weeks applies only to those who quality for maximum benefits. If people qualify for 30 weeks they do not get 35 weeks. If they qualify for 32 weeks they do not get 37 weeks. People need to qualify for maximum benefits in order to qualify for those five weeks. This is something the government has been stating but we have not received clarification on this. I would hope the government takes the proper steps to ensure those five weeks are extended to all claimants through these very difficult and trying times.

The reference was made to a former minister, Jane Stewart, who handled the HRDC file a number of years back in past Liberal governments, and to the changes that were made through 1990s. We know that the EI system had been bankrupt coming into the early 1990s. We know that the Auditor General did not want EI revenues and the EI program run through an arm's length or a separate account but through general accounts. However, with inflation and an unemployment rate at 12% through the Mulroney days, our economy was in turmoil.

In order to salvage the EI program in the mid-1990, unprecedented steps were taken. Maybe those steps were necessary. I know the government likes to refer back and say that the Liberals made these cuts when they were in control but it forgets the second part of that where it was saying that the cuts did not go deep enough, that the cuts should have been greater.

The Liberals did make cuts and some of the changes that were made in the mid-1990s did alter the system and put disincentives in the system that hurt many people. I think we could probably get consensus on that on this side of the chamber.

As unemployment came down, more people were working and paying into the fund and with fewer people drawing out we all know the success story that was the EI surplus.

Changes were made in mid-2000, 2003 and 2004, including the doing away of the divisor rule and a number of changes that took some disincentives out. We know that every change in the system has a cost and that there is an accounting for every change and adaptation that is made. Coming into the debate late, I am not sure what the costing is on this or whether or not my colleague had put that forward.

Members of our caucus have put forward a number of pieces of EI legislation through private members' bills. My colleague for Sydney—Victoria has a private members' bill on extending sick benefits to those receiving benefits who have catastrophic health concerns. If one is battling a catastrophic disease or receiving cancer treatment, there should be an extension of health benefits paid through EI because we want those people to be totally focused on getting healthy.

One of the greatest concerns about any change in the system now is with what the government has done in establishing the arm's length agency to administer it. As we go into these trying times, we do not know if it will be able to stand up to a recession. We hope it will. When witnesses appeared before the HRDC committee, the actuaries were very concerned about the $2 billion limit that was put on the establishment of this arm's length agency. They thought the figure should have been closer to $10 billion or $12 billion. I guess we will see. If we continue to bleed the jobs that we are losing of late in this economy, the system will certainly be tested.

I think that those who lose their jobs are the most vulnerable people in our society. They should not go without a paycheque for a week or two weeks. We see that the increase in the time to turn around those benefits has increased over the last two years. I believe it is wise. I commend the member for putting this bill forward and I look forward to supporting this when it comes to the floor for a vote.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.


Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Madam Speaker, I am glad to join in the debate tonight on an issue that means quite a bit to not only the people I represent in Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, but to people across Canada.

The bill would put in place something for which we, in the NDP, have been calling for quite some time: to end the two week waiting period before a claimant can receive employment insurance benefits.

The bill closely resembles the bill of my colleague from Nickel Belt and is a component of my own private member's bill that we will debate here in the House in the coming weeks.

As I stated, the bill is important to the people in my riding but is even more important to Canadians who will be forced to apply for employment insurance, which is becoming all too common these days. When workers lose their jobs, are laid off or watch as the company they have been employed by dissolve before their eyes, the last thing they need is a gap in their income.

Unfortunately, that is about the first thing they get. They need to wait for two weeks before they are eligible to receive a stipend from employment insurance, the same insurance they have paid into in good faith for the term of their employment. It is an unnecessary hardship. It is a hardship that is being thrust upon people at the worst time when they have enough to worry about.

To hear our Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development talk about these people, it is not difficult to spot the contempt and suspicion she has for the unemployed. We must remember that she thinks it is very lucrative to be on EI. I think that is a shame. To her, people on EI are lazy or even look forward to receiving benefits. She does not recognize that it is a benefit that they paid for in good times with the expectation that they would be able to count on it in lean times.

Even for those lucky enough to quality for the benefits, they are forced to wait. They are forced to exhaust severances and dip into hard-earned savings while they wait.

It is very telling. It shows the level of respect the Conservatives have for the unemployed. It shows the lack of compassion they have for the unemployed and it shows the shortsightedness they suffer from as well, because there is no better short term economic stimulus available to the government than employment insurance.

This is not something I am wishing were true or just making up. It is a fact. Employment insurance has the single best multiplier effect out of the stimulus tools available to the government. It has a multiplier of $1.64 for every dollar the government spends on it. Therefore, basically, when people receive EI, they are not the ones taking big vacations. They are out spending the money in their communities. Hence, the economic stimulus is even greater. It has the best bang for the buck.

It is certainly better than tax cuts that flow directly into savings accounts in most cases. It is even better than infrastructure spending because it flows directly to the places where the economy is doing its worst and helps to shore up those local economies. It is not bogged down with red tape and has an established and reliable delivery system.

People on EI spend their EI cheques within two weeks of receiving it. Best of all, it has already been paid for by the workers of this country. It really does not cost the government anything. It just needs to lose its dependency on using the premiums it collects to fund other government expenditures.

It is extremely important that people do not need to wait two weeks for their cheques at the beginning. The problem is that at the end of the day there are less people who qualify for EI so the two weeks would actually benefit these people.

The government already knows all of this and is choosing to ignore it. It was told as much by Ian Lee, the director of the MBA program at the Sprott School of Business back in the prebudget consultations. It just chose to ignore it. The Conservatives like the program the way it is.

For the present government and the Liberal government that preceded it, employment insurance has been the cash cow that funds their real priorities, priorities like corporate tax breaks and dirty sponsorship deals, things that really matter to these hard right, entitled politicians.

We have been told that over $54 billion have been built up in the employment insurance fund. The fund has been building up because over the last 15 years successive governments implemented deep cuts to benefits and changed the ineligibility rules.

That money, which was meant to be used as an emergency fund for the workers, has been basically stolen from them and used for all kinds of expenditures.

Statistics show that in 2006 and 2007 fewer than four in ten unemployed workers were able to access benefits. Is that not a shame? The impact on qualification was even greater for women. In 1996, the maximum weekly benefit was $604. Now the maximum is only $447, with the average person getting about $335 a week.

These trends go the wrong way. We need to reverse them. If people do not have access to their EI funds when they need them the most, where do they go? They go on welfare. I think that is a shame.

We can see that a lot of money should be available and there should be no reason for a person to have to endure a waiting period at all. In a time when we are witnessing our economy shedding jobs at an alarming rate, there is no way people are collecting EI because they are lazy or because it is so lucrative that there is no point in looking for another job.

In many cases, especially in a riding such as mine, there are no other jobs for these people. They have a choice to make. They can tough it out and wait for the mills and mines to get back to work, which is something the government does not seem to want to help very much, or they can leave. Sadly, we are witnessing more and more departures.

White River, a community in my constituency, is shrinking at an alarming rate. Is that what we want for our smaller, more vulnerable communities? Does everyone have to abandon their rural roots and take low-paying service industry jobs in the bigger cities? I do not think that has to be the case. I do not believe we have been elected just to sit on our hands and watch that happen.

There are things we can do and mechanisms we can trip to try to stop the bleeding. Reducing the waiting period for EI is an important one that we must continue to fight for.

We are not the only ones calling for these changes. The Bloc recognizes that the two week waiting period should be eliminated and that other changes should be made to employment insurance. The Canadian Labour Congress, the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, the Centrale des syndicats du Québec, the Conseil national des chômeurs and unemployed workers themselves are calling for these changes.

They see the benefit of protecting our workers and their communities now, immediately. They see the benefit in keeping our unemployed workers in their communities, allowing stores to stay open and rent and mortgages to be paid. They see the real difference a few weeks of EI benefits can make in earlier access.

These are exceptional times. Exceptional times deserve exceptional responses from governments, but we are not getting that from our current government. It is out to make the hard times harder. Shame on it.

It has tacked on a few weeks of EI, and it would seem that is it. That is all it is going to give to the workers of our country. It has not made it more accessible. It has not made it more substantial. It has not done much, and that is patently wrong. The government has all kinds of money for tax breaks for corporations--money that comes in part out of the EI fund, as we have seen--but when it comes time for the unemployed and their real and pressing needs, sorry, the cupboard is bare. I cannot accept that, and neither can my colleagues.

We will be standing to support this motion when it comes to a vote, and I can only hope that when the time comes, the government will recognize the need for this measure and support it as well. It is extremely important that people have access to their EI as soon as possible.

I can say that the NDP will be supporting this motion. The Bloc will be supporting it because of course it is a Bloc motion. I can only hope that the Liberals and Conservatives can support it as well.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.


Josée Beaudin Bloc Saint-Lambert, QC

Madam Speaker, I would like to begin by thanking my colleague, the member for Brome—Missisquoi, for introducing Bill C-241.

This is the sort of bill that would provide real, invaluable assistance to tens of thousands of workers who have lost their jobs or unfortunately will lose them because of the serious economic crisis we are going through.

Over the years, workers who lose their jobs have suffered countless injustices.

Do we need to remind this House that the percentage of unemployed workers who receive employment insurance has shrunk from 84% to 46% in the past 20 years?

Do we need to remind this House that Liberal and Conservative governments have siphoned off more than $57 billion belonging to workers? And that this money will likely never be returned?

In light of this, the waiting period only adds insult to injury for the unemployed, at a time when what they really need is a helping hand from the government.

What exactly is the purpose of the waiting period?

It is very simple: this is nothing more and nothing less than a way of punishing people for losing their jobs. Let us keep in mind that in order to draw EI benefits, a person has to have fallen victim—and I emphasize that word—to a layoff that has nothing to do with failure to perform, and even less to do with voluntary departure. These are people who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves without a job between one day and the next.

So what exactly does the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development want to punish them for?

Another aberration, and again according to the minister, the reason for the waiting period is that this is supposedly an insurance, like other kinds of insurance, and all commercial insurance does include a deductible before one gets any pay-out.

I have never heard such an unfortunate expression of cynicism in this House. In comparing the state to a business, this government is demonstrating what little empathy it has for the less well off members of society. By denying its social role, by virtue of which it is supposed to redistribute wealth rather than contributing to the inequalities, it is demonstrating a doctrinaire and ideological vision that is totally inappropriate.

But let me get back to the bill from my Bloc Québécois colleague who, on the other hand, is demonstrating a real understanding of the difficult situation in which workers who lose their jobs find themselves.

It must be understood that it is not a matter of adding two weeks of benefits, but merely of changing the start date of payments, so that unemployed workers are not in an untenable situation for the first two weeks.

According to Human Resources and Skills Development estimates, such a measure would cost some $900 million. Nine hundred million dollars is far less than the $57 billion confiscated—to avoid using unparliamentary language—from working men and women.

So $900 million would be plowed back into the Canadian economy, as the government itself admits in its assessment of the economic spinoffs from EI-related measures in the last budget.

In this period of recession, that means $900 million which would benefit not only the unemployed workers but also the businesses where they would spend the money they received.

When a person loses his job, and his sole source of income is EI benefits, it is rather a rarity for his first reflex to be investment, contrary to what the Prime Minister implied in a CBC interview during the last campaign.

What interpretation can one put on the scandalous comment he made at that time that Canadians should look on the bright side and take advantage of the weakness of the stock market to buy some stocks?

This kind of behaviour unworthy of a Prime Minister shows us just how profoundly disconnected this Conservative government is from the harsh reality that this crisis has created for hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.

Bill C-241 would provide some relief. This measure, simple yet concrete, efficient and direct, has been called for by dozens of groups representing workers' interests and by unions as well.

This is a perfect opportunity for the government to show goodwill and openness with regard to one of the greatest injustices ever committed by this government.

I invite the members opposite to give us their support so that this bill can be passed as quickly as possible.

The sooner this bill receives royal assent, the sooner the unemployed can receive the benefits to which they are entitled, those they have been paying into week after week, month after month, year after year.

When they pay their premiums, they do not skip two weeks. They cannot decide to stop paying for two weeks of the year. They have to pay every week.

Why should the government force them to wait two weeks before they can access their money?

And I must emphasize the word “their”, because apparently, previous governments, like this one, did not seem to understand this nuance, although it is fundamental, between the government's money and that of unemployed workers.

Yet government members fully understand, for instance, the difference between money they receive as salary and money paid to them by the House of Commons to carry out their responsibilities as MPs, for example. These are two different accounts, completely separate, that have nothing to do with each other, just as public accounts have nothing to do with the money paid by contributors to the system.

Fortunately, the government listened to the Bloc Québécois, which has always stood up to defend workers. Yes, it is thanks to the Bloc Québécois that the Conservatives agreed to separate those two accounts. It is thanks to the hard work of my colleagues who tirelessly denounced the deficiencies in the system.

I would like to talk about the contributors' money for a moment. It is truly appalling that in 2006, barely 64% of those who paid into the system were eligible for employment insurance. That is less than two thirds. And we are talking about workers who, I repeat, pay into the system week after week. The fact that the system is so inaccessible is positively scandalous, since, although they finally agreed to separate the employment insurance account from the federal treasury after years of pressure, they have definitely not done anything to improve the pitiful coverage provided to workers.

But, once again, as I was saying earlier, the Bloc Québécois was there to throw a lifeline to this government, which is sinking further every day into the depths of indifference. However, as a last resort, we especially want to throw a lifeline to the workers, and let us hope they do not have to wait two weeks for it.

In closing, I would like to congratulate my hon. Bloc Québécois colleague on his foresight and his efforts to really do something for unemployed workers.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:20 p.m.


Brent Rathgeber Conservative Edmonton—St. Albert, AB

Madam Speaker, it is certainly a pleasure for me to rise and speak in opposition to Bill C-241 proposed by the hon. member for Brome—Missisquoi.

I can assure my hon. colleague and all members of the House that his concerns for the plight of unemployed workers are shared by all members of the government, including this member. In fact, I am sure there is not a single member in the House from whatever party who is not equally concerned with the needs of laid off workers and their families. Each and every one of us has stories of hardship in our own riding. All members of the House are determined to do whatever we can to help our constituents.

As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources previously said during this debate, one of the things that came up constantly through the government's consultations was that EI benefits needed to be lengthened in order to provide greater assistance to those facing long-term challenges in looking for work. That is why the government's economic action plan has provided that for the next two years we will make available nationally the five weeks of extended EI benefits that had previously been available through a pilot project only in regions with the highest unemployment. The government will also increase the maximum duration of benefits to 50 weeks, up from the current 45.

As a result, 400,000 Canadians could benefit from these changes. These measures will provide financial support for a longer period of time to unemployed Canadians who would otherwise have exhausted their benefits. This means unemployed workers will have more time to seek employment while still receiving benefits from the employment insurance mechanism.

It is my opinion, and I believe the opinion of members on this side of the House, that this approach better suits the needs of Canadians than simply eliminating the two week waiting period. The fact is that during these uncertain times many people will be off work for longer periods of time. That is where our EI help needs to be targeted and that is where this government has targeted.

To address the most pressing needs of workers today Canada's economic action plan is investing $8.3 billion for the Canada skills and transition strategy. To ensure that more Canadians could access the training and skills upgrading they need to land the jobs of the future, our government has invested unprecedented amounts in training programs.

These investments will help 160,000 people, including long tenured and older workers, get retrained to find a new job and put food on the table for their families. The government will also help those who normally would not qualify for employment insurance access to training they need to re-enter the workforce.

Ensuring that our country has the best educated, most skilled and most flexible workforce in the world is vital for our long-term economic recovery. Supporting the development and training of unemployed workers will keep the Canadian economy growing and our communities prospering. Equally important, with the right training, people can get good jobs and have better opportunities for themselves, their families and their future.

We listened to the concerns of many employers and also employees. This is why the government is freezing EI premium rates for 2010 at $1.73 per $100. This is the same rate as 2009 and is projected to provide $4.5 billion in economic stimulus.

To help companies and employees adapt to the current economic downturn we are also extending the duration of work sharing agreements by 14 weeks to a maximum of 52 weeks. This will enable Canadians to continue working while companies adjust to a temporary slowdown and recover.

To complement this measure we are also proposing to increase access to work sharing agreements through greater flexibility in the qualifying criteria. This measure will help many Canadians stay working through these uncertain economic times.

The government has weighed the options and decided to focus our resources on helping workers and families that need help the most. Our actions will provide more support to Canadians for a longer period of time, something that this bill will not do.

It is clear that the government has listened and responded to the needs of Canadian workers and their employers to enable them to get through this rough economic patch as quickly as possible.

Like all elements of the government's economic action plan, these improvements in investments will help Canadians weather the current economic downturn and come out stronger than ever.

Therefore, with all due respect for the good intentions that this bill attempts to portray, I urge all members of the House to defeat this bill. Instead, I call on all parties to work together with the government to advance Canada's economic action plan, the real long-term solution to our current challenges.

In closing, Canada's economic action plan will help more Canadians for a longer period of time with much more lasting benefit. I think that deserves wholehearted support by all members of this honourable House.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:30 p.m.


The Acting Speaker NDP Denise Savoie

I thought we were at the adjournment debate, but there are two minutes left.

The hon. member for Gatineau has two minutes to speak.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:30 p.m.


Richard Nadeau Bloc Gatineau, QC

Madam Speaker, these two minutes are very important. The more we talk about this, the better. I am convinced that at the end of my speech, more members will be thinking about voting for Bill C-241, which aims to remove the waiting period.

It is important to understand that the two week waiting period at the start of the employment insurance benefit period means that benefit recipients have to go without this income. We are talking about first aid. Even though the government is adding five weeks at the end of the benefit period, not everyone gets to that point. People need assistance from the government at the beginning of this difficult time. It is very important to understand that people receiving employment insurance need this help to take care of their own immediate needs and those of their family members.

It is not because the federal government lacks money that we cannot go ahead with this. It is a question of political will.

I will conclude by saying that $54 billion has been pinched from the employment insurance fund. This bill would cost $900 million. The money is available. We need to help workers and eliminate the two-week waiting period.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:30 p.m.


The Acting Speaker NDP Denise Savoie

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

6:30 p.m.


Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Madam Speaker, on June 30 I asked the minister two questions about infrastructure in aboriginal communities and post-secondary education. I am going to turn to infrastructure first.

We have heard a lot of sound and fury in the House over the last couple of days on Attawapiskat. In the Attawapiskat issue, the school was designated as a priority for the 2009 year due to health and safety requirements, overcrowding, and curriculum requirements. There have been a number of comments made in the House about the fact that there were no health and safety concerns and there were inspections done.

In fact, in the government's own documents, dated December 3, 2008, it was the high school that on June 13, 2007, had no immediate health and safety concerns. In another memo from the department itself on March 17, 2008, a number of schools were identified as being problems for the department and for the minister. In two of those schools, North Spirit Lake being one, where the chief had recently expressed concerns about the continued delay of the start of the project, the department noted that there was no real issue, just sitting in an opposition party riding.

Today in an interview with APTN, the minister, when asked about the political ties, said, “If you come to Alberta, every riding but one is Conservative. Many schools that are built in Alberta are going to be on Conservative turf. Sometimes that's just the way it is”. In addition, in the same interview with APTN, the minister indicated that the government has a list that starts with health and safety issues, and then it works down that list.

My question for the parliamentary secretary is this. It was announced today that a new school will be built for Burnt Church. Since 2006, this is the first announcement of a school being built. How many other schools have been built since 2006, if any, and in which ridings? What criteria were used in selecting those schools to be built?

Turning to post-secondary education, today at committee we heard from the department about post-secondary education and the importance of it. I am going to pose my question and then give some background in case I run out of time.

Much is made about accountability, as rightly it should. Since the government has been talking consistently about accountability, why did it stop working with the Assembly of First Nations in the joint accountability initiative?

Today in committee, we heard that under the review of the PSSP, the department has already been examining options, including the 100% grant and some changes to that. It is examining perhaps an income-tested option. It is examining the fact that aboriginal and first nations students on reserves may be required to apply for student loans.

Consultation is an important part of this process, as identified in the Auditor General's report of 2004. I would question the fact that consultation, when options have already been developed, is not consultation. First nations will be simply presented with those options, then asked for their opinions on those options. A fulsome consultation would have first nations at the table developing the options that the leadership could then review with their constituent communities.

Again, I would ask the government, why did it stop that joint accountability initiative that was in place, which could address some of the concerns that have been raised in the Auditor General's report.

6:35 p.m.

Vancouver Island North B.C.


John Duncan ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development

Madam Speaker, I actually thought we were in adjournment proceedings and that I would be responding to a question that had been asked days earlier, not today, and not new questions. Therefore, I will comment very briefly.

I was at the same committee meeting today and based on the interpretations I just heard from the hon. member opposite, it would seem that we heard two different things.

What I did hear very clearly was that some of the initiatives we are taking are not top down. They are based on a lot of dialogue coming from first nations and from aboriginal leadership first and foremost.

It was very clearly stated by departmental officials today that political considerations on the funding of schools are not how they make their decisions, and the member opposite knows that. The member who asked the question in question period today knows that as well, although he was not at the meeting earlier today.

I am pleased to rise to speak to the question posed much earlier. I think January 30 is the date that was mentioned.

Time and again this government has reaffirmed its commitment to work with aboriginal communities to make a real difference in their lives, from infrastructure, to employment, to health services. We are working in partnership across government to improve the quality of life for aboriginal Canadians.

Budget 2009, Canada's economic action plan, is no exception. The action plan contains $1.4 billion over two years for specific initiatives aimed at improving the well-being and prosperity of aboriginal people in Canada. Our government has focused priorities so that aboriginal Canadians can play an even greater role in the Canadian economy.

In addition to this new budget spending, aboriginal families and communities will continue to benefit from almost a billion dollars annually in first nations community infrastructure needs, including housing, water and waste water systems, education facilities, and other infrastructure such as roads, bridges and community facilities.

Just today the minister was in New Brunswick announcing a new school in Burnt Church. That is an important announcement. That is one of the 10 new schools announced as part of budget 2009, Canada's economic action plan. More will be announced in the coming days and weeks. I am sure that the member for Nanaimo—Cowichan will be listening very intently to those announcements.

We know that infrastructure funding alone is not enough to address all of the challenges. We are investing $200 million over three years to support aboriginal skills and training to ensure aboriginal readiness for opportunity-driven initiatives and to improve labour market outcomes.

The government is working closely with its partners to achieve measurable results for all aboriginal people and all Canadians.

6:40 p.m.


Jean Crowder NDP Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Madam Speaker, with respect to the parliamentary secretary's comment regarding this period being adjournment proceedings, my two questions on January 30 specifically had to do with infrastructure and education and the post-secondary review that is going on. I was adding information.

I want to reiterate my questions. Have any other schools been announced since 2006? If yes, how many and in which ridings? What criteria were used in selecting the schools to be built?

My question was about moving money around and my not having any confidence that the government was actually doing what it said it was going to do.

My second question was around accountability and post-secondary education. There was a joint accountability initiative between the Assembly of First Nations and the department. Why did the government withdraw from that process?

6:40 p.m.


John Duncan Conservative Vancouver Island North, BC

Madam Speaker, we had a two-hour meeting with officials today on this very subject. The member opposite had every opportunity to ask those questions. She also had every opportunity to research those questions. It is a very simple ask. All I can say is that we will provide that information. I do not happen to have it, but I am sure that I could have it within a few minutes, if I have been given any notice at all.

The member and I share geography. We are both from Vancouver Island. We both have some very similar constraints, issues, concerns and first nations communities. To summarize, my endorsement by first nations was based on progress by this government on specific claims, residential schools and the common table. We are making progress—

6:40 p.m.


The Acting Speaker NDP Denise Savoie

The hon. member for Davenport.

6:40 p.m.


Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Madam Speaker, historically, Canada's reputation of action in the area of human rights has been exemplary. When confronted with brutality and violence by regimes or warring parties brought upon innocent victims, Canada has always spoken out loudly and forcefully in defence of those not in a position to defend themselves. Canadians are proud of the legacy of Lester B. Pearson and his historic and transformational role in promoting and facilitating peacekeeping among nations.

Around the world the blue beret is a proud symbol of Canada's role on the international stage. Canadians have occupied an integral role in crafting the responsibility to protect doctrine and the subsequent change to the concept of peacemaking. The so-called three Ds that have marked Canadian foreign affairs--diplomacy, defence and development--are an approach that has earned the respect of the world. Indeed, new U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed her commitment to these principles as the new guiding standards of United States foreign policy.

With such realities in mind, it is distressing to see that in the face of recent international crises in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, the government has neglected Canada's traditional role as a leader in human rights. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a long, drawn-out war officially ended years ago, yet at least 40 women are raped daily, 45,000 Congolese are killed monthly and 250,000 have been displaced since the end of August. This is not a situation that is improving on its own and the status quo is clearly unacceptable by any reasonable standard.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is not alone in its experience of the government's indifference. Where is Canada's voice and commitment in regard to the situation in Zimbabwe? Zimbabwe's people continue to endure suffering associated with political and civil strife. They have an inflation rate that is over 200%, making even the most basic commodities beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. There is ongoing discrimination, food shortages and a cholera epidemic, and up to 1.3 million Zimbabweans are suffering from AIDS.

In spite of this desperate human suffering, Zimbabwe's autocratic president has restricted humanitarian assistance from non-governmental organizations. The responsibility to protect doctrine makes clear that those nations committed to the convention have a right, not to mention a duty, to intervene on behalf of people where governments cannot provide assistance, or the government is acting deliberately in a harmful manner. Deliberate acts of oppression in Zimbabwe have led to a complete depreciation of political and economic capital that would allow action on the part of the government. This is a disaster of truly epic proportions.

Sadly, we are witnesses to similar atrocities in Sri Lanka. Vigils have been held all over our country for family members in Sri Lanka who have been caught in the crossfire. As those who meet to call attention to the situation in Sri Lanka light candles of remembrance, the flames serve to remind the government that its own leadership has diminished Canada's role from a guiding light to no more than a burning ember.

Close to a quarter of a million people are trapped in northeastern Sri Lanka and there is no end in sight to the violence there. What action has the government taken to signal its leadership in this crisis? The need to act is clear and Canada must live the principles it helped enshrine in the responsibility to protect doctrine. I am not altogether sure that our government understands the gravity of allowing situations like these to continue without ensuring that our voice is heard.

Simply put, will the minister answer whether or not his government will resolve here and now to return Canada to its place of leadership in the international community?

6:45 p.m.

Calgary East Alberta


Deepak Obhrai ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

Madam Speaker, contrary to what my colleague is saying, I want to assure him that Canada continues to speak loudly on the international scene. Canada's guiding policy and this government's guiding policy is shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We will continue following that.

On the other hand, my hon. colleague spoke about key situations in three countries. From the onset, I share those concerns with him in all of the three countries and the three situations he has highlighted.

I want to assure the hon. member that the Government of Canada, my government, has been working on those three areas very strongly and has made our voice on these issues known to all these governments.

On DRC, I went to DRC myself and I visited across the whole country. I saw the atrocities that were being committed. Canada has a chair at the Great Lakes conference, one of which I chaired in Nairobi. We very strongly put the rest of the world's position that all parties must come to the table, respect the rule of law and ensure that violence is stopped, specifically gender-based violence.

The member is absolutely right that so many lives are being lost in the Congo, and that continues. We are very much disturbed by what is happening right now in Eastern Congo. We will continue to raise our voice to ensure that people come to the table and that human rights are respected in the Congo.

As for Zimbabwe, I again share his concern about what is happening there. The positive sign is that there is a unity government right now, after a lot of pressure from the African Union. However, we have a wait and see the attitude. We want to see some positive action happening by that government. Unfortunately, initial reports indicate that is not taking place. We are highly concerned with that. I agree with him that it is cause for concern.

Canada will continue providing humanitarian assistance to DRC, to Zimbabwe and to Sri Lanka, but we will not provide assistance to the governments. We will continue with international forums to ensure we put pressure on all parties to come to the table.

As for Sri Lanka, we are highly concerned with what is happening in there. That is why an emergency debate took place. The Government of Canada has called for an immediate ceasefire so humanitarian assistance can reach the people of northern Sri Lanka where the civil war is going on.

We are working with our partners, like India and other countries, to put pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those people.

I share my hon. colleague's concerns. I can assure him that the Government of Canada is taking a very proactive stand on these issues.

6:50 p.m.


Mario Silva Liberal Davenport, ON

Madam Speaker, it saddens that my hon. colleague and his government refuse to ever speak about the very important key cornerstone of international doctrine, the responsibility to protect doctrine, which is something Canada had played a major role in.

Canada worked hard from the beginning of the 20th century to assume control of its external affairs. In the years following Canada carved itself an image that has endured in the eyes of people across the world. This image has been one of good and caring members of the international community, committed to the rights and dignity of citizens all over the world. It has been our creed long before the responsibility to protect.

This image of honourable purpose has enshrined itself in Canadian values and in our national identity. It was Thomas Jefferson who once said that care of human life and not their destruction was the first and only object of good government.

This applies as much abroad as it does at home. Canadians do not turn their backs to the atrocities that are committed in countries around the world. We have always acted to protect human rights, and we absolutely must regain this position of leadership that is our heritage and our obligation.

6:50 p.m.


Deepak Obhrai Conservative Calgary East, AB

Madam Speaker, I can assure my hon. colleague I have nothing against what he is saying. That is exactly what we are going to do. He has talked about the right to protect.

Where I differ with him is when he says we have not taken any action. Under the same conditions that he has talked about, the leadership role of Canada and the right to protect, Canada and this government has taken very strong action and continues to take very strong action.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs and I, everybody, have been on the phones. We are talking to our allies, looking for common ground to go and address the issues he has highlighted. He is concerned, we are concerned, every Canadian is concerned.

I can assure him, right now, that we will continue speaking forcefully on those issues.

6:50 p.m.


Richard Nadeau Bloc Gatineau, QC

Madam Speaker, we were somewhat surprised a few days ago when the member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, a Reform Conservative, declared that the members of his party were not buddy-buddy with artists.

This was a surprising but candid statement. The Reform Conservative member said out loud what all his colleagues are thinking and revealed the contempt that the Reform Conservatives have for our artists.

The cultural industry in Quebec represents 314,000 jobs, 171,000 of those direct ones. In Montreal alone, the cultural industry in 2005 generated economic spinoffs of $1.4 billion, and was responsible for a growth rate of 4.7%.That is huge.

The culture of Quebec is a kind of formidable business card distributed by such greats as Robert Lepage, Cirque du Soleil or La La La Human Steps.

Last fall, the Reform Conservative government was true to form with respect to Quebec when it announced $45 million in cuts to programs for artists touring abroad.

The Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages announced that $22 million of that money would be transferred to the Olympic torch relay for the 2010 Vancouver games. Just a few days ago, the Reform Conservatives were back in the spotlight with a new program, the Canada prizes, and some $25 million in funding for foreign artists to perform and exhibit in Toronto.

Yet no fewer than 23 broadcasters in 17 different countries from Japan to Belgium wrote to the Prime Minister asking his government to reinstate programs to help Quebec and Canadian artists tour internationally. He did not even take the time to reply.

Members have repeatedly questioned the Reform Conservative government about its approach to the cultural sector. We have learned that it made unjustified cuts to the touring program. Then the government announced $25 million in funding for a program known as the Canada prizes, which nobody seems to know anything about. The government tried to distance itself from the project once it realized that it was a boondoggle. But it is hard to just walk away when the budget text repeats exactly what the promoters wrote last summer. And they talk about the prudent management of public funds.

The Reform Conservatives are attacking artists, art and culture for purely ideological reasons. They will regret it because Quebeckers feel that culture is the very soul of our nation.

The headaches caused by the Reform Conservative decision to eliminate the PromArt and Trade Routes programs that supported tours abroad are just beginning. The International Exchange for the Performing Arts, CINARS, predicts that, within three years, 3,300 international performances, some 2,000 jobs and no less than $24 million in direct revenues will be lost because of the Reform Conservative cuts.

That is reason enough for Quebec to take control of its own cultural development. It is more important than ever for the federal government to transfer all culture-related responsibilities and funding to the Government of Quebec.

6:55 p.m.

Peterborough Ontario


Dean Del Mastro ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage

Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to rise to speak to the questions asked. A number of things were raised by the member from the Bloc Québécois, and I will certainly do my best to speak to all of them.

I first want to address one of the things that offends me as a Conservative member, and that is the constant language used by the Bloc to the effect that there is some kind of ideology opposed to artists within my party, which there absolutely is not. However, there is a very parochial ideology within the Bloc, a very narrow ideology that causes them to be fixed on given issues to the exclusion of others.

The member talked about money that has been lost or potentially could be lost in industry in Quebec. Has the member stopped to think about how much money has been lost in Quebec through the Bloc's actions with respect to the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Plains of Abraham? Has it thought of that? A lot of money has been lost. A lot has been lost by Quebec City, and the Bloc should think about that.

Tourists would have gone to Quebec City, spent money, provided employment and supported the city. The Bloc claimed it was a victory that people were scared away. There were 150 threats sent to the chair of the National Battlefields Commission, some threats so serious that the commission felt it needed to cancel the event to prevent people from potentially being harmed, including artists who were coming from all around the world. That is what the Bloc did. I will not be preached to about ideology. That is the most ideologically driven party in the House of Commons.

With respect to the Canada prizes that the member referred to, my party believes in rewarding Canada's most prominent artists, which is why it has introduced the Canada prizes. The $25 million endowment earmarked for the prizes will not only heighten the visibility of Canada as a leader in arts and creativity, but will also give Canada's emerging artists an unprecedented opportunity to showcase their talents to the entire world.

To ensure the model chosen will be in the spirit of our commitment to celebrate creativity and the arts, we are currently examining various models for the Canada prizes and consulting with the cultural community. We intend to make the Canada prizes the ultimate showcase for artists from across the globe. Standing shoulder to shoulder with them will be artists from right here in Canada.

With respect to the overall budget for arts and culture, Madam Speaker, you would know that this particular budget has the greatest amount of funding in support of arts and culture in the history of the Canadian government. That is not ideology. We did not put the most money in support of arts and culture in the history of the government of Canada because we are ideologically opposed; it was because we are ideologically supportive of the arts and culture in Canada. That is why we did it, and I am very proud of it.

6:55 p.m.


Richard Nadeau Bloc Gatineau, QC

Madam Speaker, here is an example of what I was talking about earlier.

Last fall, because of the Reform Conservatives' cuts, the La La La Human Steps dance company had to tell its Italian partners that it was cancelling the performance of its opus, Amjad, which was to be staged at the Ferrare theatre in Leonardo da Vinci's homeland. Fortunately, Gisberto Morselli, the manager of the theatre, paid out of his own pocket to bring the Quebec dance company to his venue. That is an exceptionally rare situation that is not available to many artists.

There is a solution to the problem the Reform Conservatives have created, and it is this: now, more than ever before, all responsibility for culture must be transferred to the Government of Quebec, together with all of the funds earmarked for it.

7 p.m.


Dean Del Mastro Conservative Peterborough, ON

There is another solution, Madame Speaker. The members of the Bloc can start voting in support of arts and culture in this country. They can start supporting budgets that put substantially more money behind artists and behind arts and culture in this country. That is a choice the Bloc could make, but it has made the choice to vote against artists. Then it tries to divide Quebeckers and Canadians because it has a very parochial ideology. That is unfortunate, but it is not going to change the fact that this government is going to continue to support arts and culture in this country. We are going to continue to stand with artists because we believe in them.

7 p.m.


The Acting Speaker NDP Denise Savoie

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 7:01 p.m.)