Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-50, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act and to increase benefits.
I have 20 minutes to talk about this bill, but it is not very long, so I will give a brief history of employment insurance.
I would like to start by emphasizing the extent of the employment insurance problem in Canada. Workers are unable to qualify for EI and receive the necessary benefits. There are more bills currently before the House of Commons that target employment insurance than for any other program. I was just counting the number of bills that have been introduced in the House and are under study.
The NDP has 12 bills on EI before the House. The Bloc Québécois has six, and the Liberals, two. Maybe they do not believe there are many problems with the system. The Conservatives have one. The Bloc Québécois has only six bills, but each one addresses a number of problems, which makes for fewer bills.
In 1986, the Auditor General said that employment insurance funds should be placed in the consolidated revenue fund. That is when the employment insurance problems began. That is when the government's cash cow was created. The government began to realize that employment insurance funds were going into the consolidated revenue fund. It was easy to tell Canadians to tighten their belts, that there was a deficit and that it was impossible to balance the budget. Subsequently, however, EI funds arrived by the shovel full. It was a good place to get money, which had been placed where it should not have been.
I recall a demonstration was held in 1988 when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney visited Inkerman, New Brunswick. The people were already demonstrating against the changes being made by the Conservative government of the day.
I cannot repeat enough that on July 31, 1989—I remember it well and it can be verified in the archives of L'Acadie nouvelle—the Liberal opposition stated in the papers through the former member for Acadie—Bathurst that all New Brunswickers should fight all of the changes to EI made by the Conservatives because they were disastrous for New Brunswick.
I think it is important to speak of the past. In the spring of 1993, the Liberal leader at that time, Jean Chrétien, sent a letter to a group of women in Trois-Rivières telling them that the problem was not the unemployed but the economy. The economy had to be fixed and assistance to the unemployed could not be cut because they were becoming victims.
Surprisingly, in the fall of 1993, with the election of the Liberals, the changes continued. I cannot say that the changes were any worse than those made during the Conservative era, because we did not know how far the Conservatives would have gone, but the changes continued under the minister responsible for human resources at the time. I think Mr. Axworthy was heading what was known as Employment and Immigration at the time
Then, there was a new appointment, that of Doug Young, the member for Acadie—Bathurst. It was the period of the great changes in 1996. We reached a point where only 33% of women and 38% of men qualified for employment insurance under the Liberals.
Let us talk about economic crises. I do not want people to forget the past. Do you think there was no crisis for plant employees and fishermen in 1992-93 when groundfishing was banned and fishing stopped in the Atlantic? At the time, they were labelled lazy in Atlantic Canada. People said they did not want to work. They said that they were going to put them in their place. That is what the Liberals did at the time. And then they began to build surpluses at the rate of $7 billion or $8 billion a year. They were EI surpluses. Where did the money go? It went into the consolidated revenue fund, under the fine formula of Brian Mulroney, who was Prime Minister of Canada in the 1980s. They put the money from EI into the consolidated revenue fund.
It was not workers who were depending on employment insurance any more, it was the government so it could boast that it was paying off the deficit and balancing its budget. On whose backs? On the backs of the workers.
I was elected in 1997 because people had had enough of that in my riding. They had had enough of someone from the area who should have understood the problem and the plight of seasonal workers. If he had understood the situation, he would not have made the changes, or most importantly, he would have told the Prime Minister to get him out of there and put someone else in if it had to be done. I am talking about cutbacks. That is what happened.
They said here in the House that the problem existed only in the Atlantic provinces and not elsewhere in the country. At that point, I went to meet working people all over Canada, from Newfoundland to Whitehorse. I visited 10 provinces and Yukon, 21 municipalities and regions. I took part in 52 public meetings in two months. The people told us what the problem was all over the country. That was when I made 13 recommendations. We are in 2009 now and still talking about the same problems.
The Liberals want to appear now as the saviours of employment insurance, but it is only temporary. It is clear, that is what they said. But it is temporary. Supporters of their party or ours who think the Liberals are going to made big changes to employment insurance and make them all eligible tomorrow morning should forget it. It is just temporary.
When the NDP tabled a motion in the House of Commons in June 2005 to make it the best 12 weeks, it was the Liberals who voted against it. The Conservatives were in favour of the best 12 weeks.
Some people may know that I am the last in a family of 11 children. In 1972, I had to leave home and go to work in northern Ontario. I was not the only one who had to leave home and go to work in the north of this province. The 11 members of my family left New Brunswick. If anyone knows how tough it can be in the regions where there are no jobs, I think I am one of those people. I was fortunate enough to work, to get a job. I was fortunate enough to be able to return home and get a job in the Brunswick mine. I was lucky. I was fortunate enough to work for the United Steelworkers, to act on behalf of workers, and defend local people who were destitute because of what the Conservative and Liberal governments had done. I had that opportunity.
I had the honour and privilege to be elected by the local people to come and work for them here in Ottawa.
We have always supported employment insurance bills in the House of Commons so long as they were moving in a positive direction. I am not talking about budgets because some people will say we may have voted against budgets that made changes.
Some people say now that there is nothing for seasonal workers in this bill, and that is true. It is a bill for long-tenured workers, those who have worked 17 years or more without ever drawing employment insurance benefits, or very few, under 35 weeks over the last five years. That is what the bill is. Some people are saying that they were ignored. Yes, seasonal workers were ignored. However, we are talking about Bill C-50 currently under study.
When the government introduced the criterion of the 14 best weeks, that was of no benefit to people in Ontario, where unemployment was low. Nonetheless, the majority of Ontario members did not vote against this measure, and it was adopted. When the government wanted to extend benefits by five weeks, not everyone in Canada was able to benefit, since this measure targeted the regions where unemployment was high. All the same, the others gave their support.
For my part, I would not be ashamed to vote today in favour of Bill C-50, but I do not want us to simply take this bill and make it law tomorrow morning. That is not our responsibility. It would be our responsibility if the bill were complete. That is why, this morning, I liked the position of the Bloc Québécois that this bill be sent immediately to committee so that it can be studied and amendments can be made, and if possible, be changed. That is what Parliament does. That is what the people have sent us here to do: make bills and changes to improve the lives of citizens, of Canadians and Quebeckers. That is what the people have sent us here to do. That is our responsibility.
On the other hand, if Conservative or Liberal governments do not want to grant employment insurance benefits to persons in need who have lost their jobs because they consider them lazy slackers, we shall say no to that.
Our Canadians and Quebeckers are brave people who want to get up in the morning to go to work, to earn good pay and a good income so they can feed their children and their family, and send their children to school so they can receive a good education, so the next generation is better than the one before. They have a right to that.
For example, in France, if a person loses his job, he receives 80% of his salary. When I raised this matter in France last July to some parliamentarians, they told me that this was the workers’ program and it was the workers who contributed to it. If the people want their money, that is fine; it is money that goes back into the community. I said this to the House last week, or earlier in the week.
The idea that a change in employment insurance would be an inducement not to go to work is an insult to workers. It is as if GM were given $10 billion and then the company did nothing more and closed its doors because it was not given enough money. It is as if the government were to decide to give billions of dollars in tax reductions to big corporations, and after receiving it, those corporations stopped investing because they had received enough money. Yet the government has no hesitation about granting tax reductions to the big corporations and those persons.
Since we have such a large deficit today, perhaps the government should eliminate the huge tax reductions it is offering the big corporations that have made money. Perhaps it should instead assist the corporations experiencing problems in times of economic crisis, like the forestry and fisheries sectors, for example, where the price paid for lobster has fallen to $2.75 for small lobster and $3.50 for large.
In the fisheries, for example, the price paid for lobster has fallen to $2.75 for small lobster and $3.50 for large lobster. The amount of $65 million was injected into the fishing industry, but fishers were receiving only $15 million. The money did not go to the fishers. We must inject money for changes to employment insurance and to bring in the 360 hours we have been demanding for so long. It is not true that this would cost over $4 billion. It is more like $1.148 billion to help out these workers who are having difficulty making it through to the time when they start working again.
We have to accept the fact there are seasonal jobs in this country. Parliament has to accept that reality. This is what happens to us. We do not all have the good fortune in this country to go to work in a mine that is there for 45 years. I had that opportunity, but not everyone does. Not everyone has the good luck to go to work in a paper mill that lasts 100 years. All the same, though, the Bathurst paper mill lasted nearly 100 years but it went down too this time because of the economic crisis. As a result of the global way of doing things, the forestry mills lost money and closed their doors. People have to be prepared for that. They need training, and we encourage it. We want people to be able to change jobs and continue working, but at the same time, employment insurance is there so that people are not thrown onto welfare. This program belongs to the workers and employers who contributed to it. They pay for the system themselves. The government does not pay a penny. Actually, it steals money from the system. Fifty-seven billion dollars was taken from the employment insurance fund belonging to working people. Those who are really dependent on employment insurance are governments, both current and previous.
Last month I met some fishers from my riding who said they would not even qualify for employment insurance benefits this winter. It is the same in the Gaspé, where I spoke with some fishers. The problems in the fisheries and with lobster are well known. These people would not qualify for employment insurance. What is being done to help them?
This all amounts to saying that we are here to work hard to ensure that changes are made to employment insurance. Regardless of who is in power, we will work hard for change. I can say, though, that the Conservatives and Liberals have never exactly been the friends of the unemployed. The economic crisis in the Atlantic region started in the early 1990s. That was when the biggest cuts to employment insurance were made, with the support of the Conservatives.
The question about the bill before us today is whether we are going to vote it down. Are the figures accurate? We do not know. We do not know whether it is 190,000 workers. I hope not, because we do not want people to have lost their jobs. It might cost a billion dollars, but so what? It is their money. There is a $57 billion surplus in employment insurance, and so what? We want the government to think about these things and have a heart.
We are here in Ottawa to represent Canadians. Everyone wants to have a job and never lose it. We need to have this much respect for our workers and not treat them like lazy slackers who will not go to work any more once they get employment insurance benefits. That is unacceptable.
We will support this bill so that it can be studied. We are going to work hard to improve it so that workers are treated fairly and we will continue to make other changes for working people.