Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House again to continue the debate on Bill C-44, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Income Tax Regulations. Although the title itself does not tell us much, the bill would make a series of improvements, most of them through the employment insurance program, to Canadian families that desperately need the support of their government. For that reason, as I indicated at second reading, my NDP colleagues and I are pleased to support the bill.
However, we take our role as the official opposition seriously. We hold the government to account and even when we agree with the intent of a particular piece of government legislation, we will work hard to ensure it is the very best bill that it can be.
To that end, we went into the committee hearings on Bill C-44 hoping to make the process work. Committee is where we have the opportunity to go through a bill clause-by-clause to question the minister, or in this case ministers, responsible for the bill and to hear testimony from both experts in the field and from individuals who would be impacted by the proposed legislative changes. We then go through the bill with a fine tooth comb to address concerns because, with the current government in particular, the devil is often in the details.
Because we support Bill C-44, we went into committee hoping that a spirit of co-operation would prevail and that we would collaborate to make the necessary improvements to give parents of critically ill, murdered or missing children the support they so desperately needed. I cannot tell members how profoundly disappointed I was when the government members on committee reverted to the old caricature of themselves and refused to entertain a single amendment proposed by opposition MPs. Honestly, it was a disgrace.
I will give one example of an area where we could have made an important improvement to the bill.
In order for parents of murdered or missing children to receive the government grant, they would have to have earned $6,500. Presumably, that threshold was set to show some kind of attachment to the labour force. Leaving aside the broader question of whether it is necessary to prove such attachment in the first place, I asked the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development in committee why she chose to adopt a threshold based on earnings as opposed to hours worked. Obviously, under her rules, somebody who worked for minimum wage would have to work many more hours to qualify for the benefit than somebody who made $150 an hour. Why would we create such an unequal threshold when people at the lower end of the wage scale would likely need the financial support even more than those at the higher end?
I encouraged the minister to explore other ways of proving attachment to the labour force. The minister responded by saying that they could not use hours worked to prove attachment to the labour force because:
—that would not be compatible with the eligibility of self-employed workers who have opted into the EI system. Their eligibility for EI special benefits is based on financial figures, on dollars earned, because we cannot measure their hours. There's no way to validate that.
Really? We do not trust the self-employed to report accurately, so we will punish those workers who earn minimum wage or work part-time because the government cannot create a nuanced enough system to ensure that the bill is fair to everyone. Really? Is that what the government is saying to parents of murdered and missing children?
We in the opposition could not move the necessary amendments in committee because they would have been ruled out of order. However, the minister had, and still has, the opportunity to right this wrong. Changing the eligibility criteria is the right thing to do and it would not throw the government into financial crisis.
Let us be clear about the numbers here. According to the Canadian Police Information Centre, there were 25 abductions by strangers in 2012. Helping 25 families will not break the bank, but even if it did, it is absolutely the right thing to do and the minister should not be creating artificial barriers by means testing eligibility for support. The Conservatives' failure to reconsider these provisions is an absolute disgrace and belies the spin that they are sincere about wanting to help families in crisis.
I would say the same thing about the other amendments my NDP colleagues and I were pushing for in committee. I know I will not have time to repeat them all in the House today, but let me continue to highlight some of the most obvious areas where we could and should have found common cause.
I will begin with the most egregious example where the Conservatives' strict adherence to talking points trumped common sense. Clause 5 of Bill C-44 states that leave for critical illness would end on the last day of the week that the child died. New Democrats tried to move a modest amendment that would have extended that leave for another two weeks after the child's death to give the parents time to grieve and to bury their child.
Our proposed amendment was supported by the Canadian Association of Social Workers, Ronald McDonald House Charities, the Canadian Association for Community Living and the Canadian Labour Congress. Fred Phelps, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Social Workers was almost incredulous when he asked the committee, “would compassion not dictate that families require time after death to mourn and bury their child?” For most Canadians, the answer would have been a resounding yes, but sadly, compassion does not appear to be the government's forte and the bill is proceeding unamended.
Let me give another example. The bill as it currently stands defines children as those under 18 years of age. Why is that? In many cases children are defined not by age but by their dependency on their parents. For example, many dental and health insurance plans cover so-called children until they reach the age of 18 or they complete school; 18 is not a hard and fast cutoff. I would argue that this should be the case in Bill C-44 as well. Particularly, it is essential that the definition of child be expanded beyond the age of 18 for disabled children.
As the minister herself acknowledged, the criteria she used were emotional dependency and emotional maturity. Clearly, those criteria would apply to some disabled Canadians who may well be over the age of 18 but for whom the emotional attachment to their parents is every bit as real as for those children who fit the current definition in the act.
As Tyler Hnatuk, representing the Canadian Association for Community Living made clear at committee:
...caregiving responsibilities for parents of children with disabilities often continue much longer in life than for other families, and so certainly I want to recognize the need and the duties that carry on throughout a lifetime.
The parenting of a child with a severe disability is a lifetime commitment.
It would have been easy for us to allow for the expansion of the definition of the word “child” in this bill. That is why the New Democrats on the committee moved an amendment that would add child to the list of terms that could be defined through regulations, which would allow the government to expand the definition to include dependent children over the age of 18. Again, we are talking about a very small number of families who would be impacted, but for those families the concern is very real.
It is not good enough for the Conservatives to vote no just because the amendment came from the NDP. The Conservatives should have put partisanship aside and acted in the best interests of Canadians. That is what they were elected to do, but if they cannot even do it on a bill that has all-party support, how are we ever going to make the committee process work on the more contentious matters that are referred to our committee? Is it really that foreign a concept to the government that detailed scrutiny of its bills may actually lead to better legislation? Committee work used to be an integral part of the legislative process under governments of all stripes, but under the Conservative Prime Minister, that work is wholly devalued.
Here is another example. Clause 6 of the bill provides leave for the parents of murdered or missing children. We all support that provision, of course, but would it not make sense to allow parents to take that leave on a flexible basis rather than mandating that it be taken in consecutive weeks? We were not suggesting that the total number of weeks be increased. We simply wanted to allow parents to apportion their leave to suit their personal circumstances. Oftentimes their dealings with the judicial system occurred months down the road. Why would we not allow them to use some of their leave time during that critical time? Again, that flexibility found broad support among the witnesses who gave testimony before our committee.
Let me give a sampling from the very people whom this bill is intended to help. When asked whether it would be helpful to create flexibility with respect to the leave provisions of the bill, here is what they said.
Mr. Bruno Serre, whose daughter Brigitte was murdered in January 2006 at the age of 17 during her shift at a gas station in Montreal, said:
I think that would be a very good thing.
For example, if this happened to someone and, after 10 weeks, they felt ready, they could return to work. In my case, I went back after five weeks, but I wasn't really capable.
So it would help to have hours or weeks banked. Five probably would have been used and then there would be 30 left, which could be used over the years. But there should be no expiry date. For example, it could be decided that the recipient would have one year to use these 35 weeks, as is sometimes the case in the government. Instead, this should be spread out over two or three years. Some trials can take place three years later.
If someone has used all the weeks and the trial comes up, that person will relive the tragedy. When the trial comes up, you relive the day when you learned about the death of your loved one. So there are other steps to take. If the person doesn't have any weeks left, he or she will have to go through the same situation again that happened at the very start. That person will be lost and unable to work.
Being able to bank the weeks for later would be a very good solution.
Christiane Sirois concurred. Ms. Sirois' son was kidnapped on November 1, 1984, when he was 8 years old. When asked about the desirability of creating greater flexibility she said:
My answer is yes, without hesitation. I support what Mr. Serre said: there should be banked hours, should a person need them.
This doesn't apply for me. I haven't found my son, but I can put myself in the shoes of people who have found their child. I do not dream about finding him alive after 28 years, you can be sure. But I understand. I am suspended. What will happen when I find his little eight-year-old body or what's left of it? This will happen one day, for sure. I will relive 28 years stored up in my memory. It is important to be prepared for this, that is certain.
That is why it is crucial that these victims have a minimum amount of financial assistance to help them survive. Because listen carefully: you don't really live with this, but you survive.
Lastly, let me add the words of Ms. Céline Hotte, whose life changed forever when her daughter was murdered. Here is what Ms. Hotte told us in committee:
For 10 to 17 years after the events, I had to deal with the perpetrator's parole requests and the issue of halfway houses. To contest these requests, you need to put together a file. This takes signatures from people in the village where he lived. This isn't easy to do. You also have to read about everything he did in prison. This isn't easy. You cannot talk to him—that's not what I want to do anyway. You have to read the reports. He never followed the recommendations. Each time, it put me right back into the situation I had gone through.
Clearly there is widespread agreement that every circumstance is different and that there must be enough flexibility to allow for accommodation.
That is certainly the conclusion drawn by Canada's Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, who in her testimony also encouraged the government to allow for flexibility. She focused particularly on the administration of justice and the court process:
We know that if there is a murder, the court case may be several years down the road, so to provide an option and some flexibility—for example, a parent may choose to take a certain amount of time at the time of the crime, and then, if the criminal court process is two years down the road, they may need to have time then as well. Also, in some cases the person responsible may not be apprehended for a while. I'm just saying adding that flexibility would provide parents of murdered and missing children an opportunity to take the time when it's appropriate for them, when they need that time.
Clearly, there was broad-based consensus about what needed to be done to make Bill C-44 as effective as possible for the people it was intended to help. The only people offside were the members of the Conservative caucus, presumably at the direction of the minister responsible and the Prime Minister.
I make these points more in sadness than in anger. We had the perfect opportunity to improve a bill that we all agree is worth supporting. This did not need to be an exercise in rigid partisanship, where the Conservative members of the committee automatically oppose anything proposed by the NDP. Frankly, the victims of crime deserve better. The parents of critically ill children deserve better. The Canadian public deserves better. They deserve a concerted effort from all their elected officials to make Parliament work. In this instance, on Bill C-44, the Conservative members on the human resources committee let Canadians down.
Now at this point members may well wonder whether we will continue to support the bill. Let me reassure them. My NDP colleagues and I will of course vote in favour of Bill C-44. My point is simply that we could have achieved more, that we could have improved the bill in meaningful ways, but that we failed to seize that important opportunity.
That does not mean that baby steps in the right direction are not worth taking.
First, one of the proposals included in the government's bill would amend the Employment Insurance Act to allow mothers and fathers currently on parental leave to access EI sickness benefits if they fall ill during their parental leave. This is a welcome and long-overdue amendment. There are few Canadians who would disagree that new parents who are very often already stretched both physically and financially should not be penalized if they become ill while on parental leave.
I am a little puzzled, though, as to why the minister would have stopped short of extending this benefit further. If she appreciates the injustice of denying sickness benefits to those whose circumstances change while on parental leave, then why did she fail to apply the same consideration and logic to workers who are laid off while on parental leave? Why would we solve one injustice and at the same time wilfully ignore the other?
My bill does take that extra step. It would fix that wrong. It recognizes that those on parental leave, the very same physically and emotionally drained new parents who sometimes become ill while on parental leave, can find that they have been downsized or laid off, through no fault of their own, while on parental leave.
As it currently stands, parents in that situation are denied benefits. Inexplicably, the government is content to leave them twisting in the wind, unsupported by even the meagre support provided by EI.
On the upside, my private member's bill also includes provisions to cover the self-employed in this benefit arrangement. I am pleased to see that the government has at least adopted them.
I do want to reflect for a moment on whether the EI program is the best vehicle for delivering the larger package of supports contemplated by Bill C-44. As members can tell from my phrasing, I obviously do not think it is. It bears pointing out that at one time the government agreed with me.
As recently as 2011, the Conservative Party platform stated, “Funding for this measure will come from general revenue, not EI premiums”. The Conservatives were right to adopt that approach. Whether one is a waged worker, senior manager, professional or stay-at-home parent, the devastation of a critically ill child is the same. All Canadians who find themselves caring for their seriously ill child are incurring a myriad of expenses that go beyond lost wages, and they all deserve our support.
What happened to make the government change its mind? The grant for parents of murdered and missing children will be paid from general revenues and not through EI. However, with respect to critically ill children, the Conservatives have ignored their election promise and are paying for their commitment through EI. I don't need to remind anyone in the House that the EI fund is not the government's money. It is a fund to which only workers and employers contribute. Therefore, for the government to draw on that pool of money to create a photo op on a policy announcement, no matter how positive, is surely beyond the pale.
I know my time is almost up, but I ask that the House indulge me for one more minute so that I can make a final point.
New Democrats support the bill. It is not a question of ideology or partisan politics; it is about assisting families in their time of need. However, let us be clear. The bill does not go far enough to help the families of missing and murdered children, nor the parents of kids who are critically ill.
Also, the bill does not go far enough in making reforms to EI. These measures completely fail to address the greatest challenge with EI, which is the lack of access for unemployed Canadians.
The bill will clearly pass, and by all means let us do it quickly, because we have to get on with tackling the larger question of comprehensive EI reform. We must make EI accessible and effective for all Canadians. Nothing less will do.