Mr. Speaker, I am glad to have an opportunity to speak to this bill, which was introduced a couple of weeks ago and has come up today.
I want to divide my comments into a few areas. I am going to talk about the bill itself, what it actually means and what it actually does. I want to chat a little bit about the challenge for military families, coming from a military area. That is the second thing. The third thing I want to do is talk a little bit about EI itself and how this fits into the whole context of what could have been done for EI. That is what I am going to talk about, so members who are here and were planning to doze off can adjust their schedules accordingly.
First, this is a bill that is designed to assist members who are serving in the Canadian Forces. Although it is very specific in nature, does not capture many Canadians, and does not make a huge impact on the national level, it certainly could be argued it would make an impact for certain military families.
It addresses the special situation in which CF members can be placed when they are called to return to duty while they are on parental leave. In some cases such a call could translate into a loss of parental benefits, since parents have a limited period of 52 weeks after the child is born to claim those benefits.
When a child is born, a claim for employment insurance must be made within 52 weeks. This bill would address this by extending the period during which CF members can claim their parental benefits if they are called for duty during their parental leave, extending the benefit from 52 weeks to 104 weeks.
It does not mean that Canadian Forces members would have more than 35 weeks of parental benefits. It is the same as everybody else has, it is just that it recognizes that Canadian Forces members are sometimes not actually here in Canada to start that benefit. According to HRSDC officials this will only affect approximately 60 people a year, and it is somewhere in the range of $500,000 to $600,000 a year.
It is the position of the official opposition that it makes sense to support the bill. In fact, I think we should support it as quickly as we can, get it into committee, and have a look at it. Also, as I indicated a few minutes ago, I do not think it needs a whole lot of study. There are many things in our committee, including a report on poverty that we are hoping to finish that has to be done. However, as soon as this gets to committee, it will get the attention that it requires.
I do want to commend the member for Nepean—Carleton, who is one of the members of this House, like myself, who has constituents who might be affected by this. I am quoting from the Nepean-Barrhaven newspaper from April of this year, referencing the family the member for Nepean—Carleton came across, the Duquette family. The article states:
Four days following the birth of their first son, Jacob, in July 2004, Major Jim Duquette had to leave for duty in the Golan Heights in the Middle East. He returned to Canada in August 2005 and attempted to apply for a deferred parental leave, only to find that the benefits had expired in his time away from home.
“That was really difficult”, said Anne Duquette, his wife. “Part of what got us though in that first year of parenting was the thought that we could have that extra time together”.
During the 52 weeks following a birth or adoption, 35 weeks of parental benefits may be paid.
That is a specific case that was brought forward by the member for Nepean—Carleton. I wish he had mentioned this last summer when I had the occasion to spend many hours in small rooms with the member and the Minister of HRSDC. We might have been able to deal with this last year. Nonetheless, it has now been brought forward.
I come from a strong military area. I come from a part of Canada where we have the east coast navy, 12-Wing Shearwater, Windsor Park, Stadacona, and a very long and distinguished military history in Dartmouth and the greater Halifax area.
One of the great pleasures and one of my great prides is the opportunity to be a member of Parliament for an area that is rich in veterans and also rich in serving members of the Canadian Forces. I was reminded of this the other day when I went to the launch of Senator Bill Rompkey's book about St. John's, Newfoundland and the Battle of the Atlantic. It is a fabulous book. I commend it to all members. If members move quickly, they could get an autographed copy from the senator.
It talks about St. John's, and keep in mind that Newfoundland and Labrador were not part of Canada during World War II, they joined us in 1949. They played an integral role, particularly in keeping the channels open between North America and Europe.
I know, coming from Halifax where a number of the great corvettes sailed from, how important that was. Where I come from, HMCS Sackville is called Canada's naval memorial. It is the last of the corvettes, the last of those great sturdy, rugged, small vessels that kept those shipping lanes open in the cold north Atlantic.
I am a proud trustee of HMCS Sackville. I was a trustee before I was a member of Parliament and I suspect I will be a trustee when I am finished in this place.
When one lives in Halifax-Dartmouth, when one meets people like Allan Moore, Doug Shanks, Hank Einerson, Charlie Carroll and people like this, that I have the opportunity to rub shoulders with on a regular basis, one gets a sense of the great heroism. However, the heroism does not come from what they say because they will not talk about. The heroism comes from being in their presence, knowing what they went through and getting little pieces of information from them about their experience in World War II or talking to Tom Estabrooks about what he went through in the Korean War and talking to our many peacekeeping veterans who have served this country so well.
I think it is incumbent upon us as a country to ensure that all of our social infrastructure, including employment insurance, is designed in such a way that the great veterans of this country, including the very recent ones and the serving members of the Canadian Forces, have full access to those benefits.
I think, living in an area as I do, that we have an even greater respect and a greater understanding of our military. Everyone knows people who have served in Afghanistan. I know many people who have been in Afghanistan. I know people who are in Afghanistan today. I think of a family in my community whose father right now is serving in Afghanistan whose son is on my son's soccer team. Although they keep it inside and they deal with their responsibilities in a very personal, respectful manner, I know how difficult it is when families are called upon to serve their country. All members of the House would share the respect that we have for them.
I have seen how families adjust. I have seen how families make sacrifices. I have seen how families have had to adjust everything from their finances, to the school year, to vacations, in order to have one member serve. We should do whatever we can to make it as easy as possible on those families.
Of course, not everyone who serves comes back the way that we would like them to come back. One of the darkest days that I have had as a member of Parliament was the day in 2006 when we flew back from Ottawa. There were a number of parliamentarians on the plane. As we touched down we all turned on our Blackberrys to the news that Corporal Paul Davis had died. He was one of the first casualties in Afghanistan. His father Jim and wife Sharon are very good friends of mine and I know other members of the House. We would all hope that when people who serve their country and choose to do something to make the world a better place, as Paul Davis did, that they come back obviously in different circumstances. Not everyone does.
I have had the opportunity to meet people in my constituency who suffer with PTSD. I recall sitting on a deck with a constituent. This was a person who we could just tell was a very vibrant individual who joined the Armed Forces as a robust, energetic person who wanted to serve the world. Now in many ways he is a broken person and he needs help. He needs more help than he is getting.
I meet with veterans who do not qualify for the VIP who are having trouble keeping up with their daily chores and obligations.
However, many people do come back and we need to ensure that whatever we do, we know and respect the challenges that they face when they come back.
I get to meet with a number of constituents in that circumstance with my assistant, Percy Fleet, who is a former member of the Veterans Review and Appeal Board. He understands the situation very well. One of the great pleasures of being a member of Parliament is to help veterans to advance their cause and to pay them back in some small tangible way for the service that they have given this country.
We should do more. Though this is a small step, it is a significant step. It will have my support. I want to look at the bill in committee to see who is covered and see whether there are other people who might be covered considering the small cost of the bill.
It seems to me that there may be opportunities. I certainly will not hold the bill up, but we might want to look at some of those considerations.
Over the past year or so, employment insurance has been a hot topic. It has been a hot topic because this country has gone through a difficult time. I want to quote from a report that came out this week from the Citizens for Public Justice, which was developed with funding support from World Vision Canada's programs. CPJ is a faith-based organization. It looks at issues of poverty and it is a great advocate for Canada doing more to assist those most in need.
It produced a report that puts some numbers and figures behind what Canada has been going through in this recession. We all have a sense that things have been difficult, but it has been hard to quantify exactly how difficult it has been, particularly for Canadians most in need. This report, released on Tuesday, said:
The recession also demonstrated the inadequacies of EI. While the rate of EI coverage increased, just over half of unemployed Canadians qualified for EI benefits. Over 770,000 unemployed Canadians did not qualify for EI. Benefits for those who qualified for EI were low, with the average weekly benefit representing a poverty income for households without any other source of income. As many as 500,000 Canadians may have exhausted their benefits in the past few months, as the average length of unemployment increased during the recession. Workers who exhaust their benefits or who do not qualify for benefits at all either need to turn to social assistance or live off of savings or credit. Social assistance caseloads increased across the country, as social assistance had to fill in the gap created by EI.
Employment insurance has been a hot topic and the response of the government has been inadequate. While the numbers have changed month to month, I recall that last year less than half of 1.6 million unemployed Canadians qualified for EI.
There was a call across the country that we should have a national standard, at least during this period of recession, for employment insurance. It was called for by the Leader of the Opposition and all opposition parties. It was called for by labour unions and public policy think tanks. It was called for by the wife of the federal Minister of Finance. It was called for by all the western premiers and just about everybody else.
If we are going to look at employment insurance as a fundamental piece of the social infrastructure of this country, let us do something significant. Let us have a national standard. The government decided that it would not do that and I think that was a mistake.
We have had private members' bills in the House. The member for Brome—Missisquoi, the member for Chambly—Borduas, the member for Acadie—Bathurst, the member for Madawaska—Restigouche, and the member for Sydney—Victoria have all brought forward bills in the House that could have improved employment insurance for those who need help and need help immediately.
There is no shortage of people who have been shortchanged by the employment insurance system. We could get into all kinds of reasons for that. I know that people like to blame different people for what happened on employment insurance. The fact is that at some point in time we have to move from history to current events. We have to look at the recession that came upon this country. It was not as if people were not saying that we should do more. It was not as if the case was not being made by a wide range of people from all political parties and from all across society who said that this is when EI should be invested in, this is why we have an employment insurance system.
This bill brings to mind another case from a year or so ago and that is the case of Trooper Kyle Ricketts. This was brought to national attention by the member for Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte. In this case, I am going to quote from the Ottawa Citizen. It said:
Trooper Ricketts was severely injured by an IED on March 8 while in Afghanistan. He was enduring a dozen or more reconstructive operations and his parents wanted to be by his bedside when that was happening. As the CBC originally reported the military flew Sadie and Maurice Ricketts, who live in Pollard's Point in Newfoundland's White Bay, to Ottawa to help care for their son. The couple, however, was told they will lose the employment insurance benefits they were collecting since they were laid off if they stayed away from their home for more than a week. Officials told the couple that only one of them is entitled to “compassion leave”, meaning that the other would lose EI benefits unless they returned to Newfoundland within a week. The Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development said the case will be revisited.
In the end, I think Trooper Ricketts got taken care of through the heroes fund. It was only due to the intervention of the member for Humber—St. Barbe—Baie Verte.
I use that case to illustrate how many potential ways we could use the employment insurance system, even specifically for the people who choose to serve in this country's military.
We come to this bill now. As the critic for the Liberal Party, I expect all members of the Liberal Party will support this bill. To that extent, we think the government has done a sensible and a wise thing. The problem is it leaves so many holes unfilled as we continue to go through a difficult time.
A report came out this week from the Citizens for Public Justice indicating the statistics it has put together in terms of caseloads for social assistance in Canada. Alberta is a prime example. It went up by 43% during the recession. Ontario and B.C. both went up by 20% or more. They may still be going up.
It is not good enough to suggest that we are at the end of a difficult time. We do not know when the end of a difficult time will be. It may be that for people who do well enough the recession may be over. Now we are looking to see what happens in Greece and Spain and other economies. For many people who were poor going into the recession, it certainly is not over. For those who were driven into poverty during the recession, it certainly is not over.
We have to look at this bill in the context of the overall situation that affects Canadians. We are helping 60 families. It may be that in committee we can look at how we can help others. There are millions of Canadians who go to bed hungry. There are millions of children who wake up hungry, who go to school on an empty stomach, who do not have the social infrastructure that a country as wealthy as Canada could afford. I hope that is something that will be addressed by the government.
On Bill C-13 I offer my support. I hope that at committee we can deal with it reasonably quickly. If we can find a way to strengthen the bill, we should do that. I am pleased that the minister and the parliamentary secretary have indicated that they are open to those kinds of considerations.
The people who choose to serve in our military, the people who choose to go to foreign lands on behalf of Canada in the sincere and honest belief that they are making the world a better place, deserve to be well treated.
The other day I supported Bill C-201 from the hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore. I wish that had been a bill the government could have supported.
We need to have fair standards for all Canadians, but I also believe it is reasonable and fair and aligned with most Canadians that those who serve in our military, those who take on dangerous tasks without complaint, deserve the very best that we can offer them.
This bill goes partway toward that goal, and for that reason, I would be pleased to support it.