Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to speak today about Bill C-291, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act , which was introduced a few weeks ago by the hon. member for Bourassa. This bill is extremely important since it is designed to change the way the current employment insurance system works, particularly for people with serious illnesses.
Sadly, in the past, the Liberals were not shy about dipping into the employment insurance fund, which, at that time, had a surplus of $54 billion—money that belonged to Canadian workers. During the 12 years that they were in power, they could have padded the coffers, but they did not. On several occasions, they were also in a position to modernize the Employment Insurance Act, but unfortunately, they did not do that either. Nevertheless, today, I am very pleased to see that the Liberal members are finally joining the NDP in order to modernize the Employment Insurance Act once and for all. This bill has been introduced in the House a number of times.
Since coming to power, the Conservatives have been unable to remedy the situation. Rather than helping workers, the Conservatives are giving billions of dollars in gifts to large corporations, which, in return, are closing their Canadian branches and exporting our good-quality jobs abroad. It is time to stop playing politics and do something to resolve the real problems affecting our society. It is time for all the parties to join together to help Canadians who are suffering from serious illnesses. It is time to forget the mistakes of the past and focus on viable, long-term solutions in order to help workers and their families. Most of all, it is time for all members of the House to unite and work together.
Unfortunately, Canada's Employment Insurance Act has remained unchanged for 40 years, since 1971. It does not meet the current needs of Canadians. What is more, Canada is one of the worst G8 countries when it comes to employment insurance coverage. Some G8 countries are much more progressive, and Canada is the only one that does not offer at least one year of benefits to those with serious illnesses.
As all of my colleagues know, coverage in cases of serious illness is currently 15 weeks. Employment insurance exists to help Canadian workers, and our society is changing. The population is aging, and the types of illnesses affecting people are changing. Employment insurance must be updated to adapt to Canadians' new needs.
My colleague from Bourassa introduced a bill that is in line with employment insurance changes the NDP would like to see. This bill would eliminate the mandatory two-week waiting period for employment insurance benefits and would increase the benefit period from 15 to 50 weeks.
There are many diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and especially cancer, that are very serious and that take longer than 15 weeks to treat. Unfortunately, the current Employment Insurance Act provides just 15 weeks of benefits.
We have a lot of facts about cancer. I would like to take a moment to talk about one of my constituents who cares very much about this bill. Her name is Marie-Hélène Dubé. My colleagues have probably heard about her. She is battling thyroid cancer for the third time in five years. She is a young mother in her forties. Instead of feeling sorry for herself and battling the disease alone, Marie-Hélène Dubé decided to help all Canadians who, like her, have a serious disease. She circulated a petition calling on the government to modernize the Employment Insurance Act by introducing the very changes reflected in Bill C-291. To date, Marie-Hélène has collected over 430,000 signatures from across Canada. Four hundred and thirty thousand Canadians agree that the Employment Insurance Act is outdated and should be changed.
I would like to point out that this is the largest petition presented in the House of Commons since 1992. In order to recuperate from a serious illness, one must rest. That is extremely important. One must avoid all stress and take time to recover. The last thing people need when sick is to worry about paying their bills, like the mortgage, the electricity bill or anything like that. They need to have peace of mind in order to focus all of their energy on fighting the illness. Offering the possibility of receiving up to 50 weeks of special benefits for illness does not mean that all beneficiaries will use all of those weeks. At present, only 31% of beneficiaries collect the maximum 15 weeks of benefits. The goal is to extend the benefit period for those who truly need it, in other words, Canadians with serious illnesses.
I find it interesting that my Liberal colleague from Bourassa is the one who introduced this bill. As I said a little earlier, this bill has been introduced many times in the House. It was part of our 2011 election platform. The NDP has been fighting for this for several years.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, nearly 50% of the population will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. In Quebec alone, there are currently over 44,000 people fighting some form of the disease. It causes tremendous stress, and the treatment and remission period is typically a lot longer than 15 weeks. On average, cancer treatment lasts about 38 weeks. Thus, 15 weeks is not even half as long as people with cancer need for treatment. Many people who have cancer are forced to return to work before their treatment is complete. Also, the waiting period before they can collect their first payment is so long that some people are forced to go back to work after the first treatment. Cancer treatment is extremely difficult. Even people being treated with small doses of radiation therapy, which is the mildest form of cancer treatment, are seriously affected. Other forms of treatment are even more difficult.
The current employment insurance sickness benefits simply are not adapted to the reality of Canadians, especially when, on average, those benefits run out seven weeks before cancer patients begin to receive treatment under Quebec's public health system. Asking a person to fight a serious illness in only two months is just not right.
A study showed that on average, patients go through 23 weeks of treatment with no income. Earlier I talked about 38 weeks in total, on average. Most patients see a significant drop in their income, to the tune of roughly $12,000 per household. Some 80% of the participants in the study suffered a significant financial impact. Some 44% of the respondents had to dip into their own savings and 27% went into debt. One person in five went back to work before having fully recovered from their illness, for financial reasons. The proportion of patients with a full-time job goes from 61% before treatment to 45% after treatment. Some 16% lost their job and some did not return to work because of the effects of the treatment or the lack of accommodation in the workplace. It is therefore important to accommodate people who are not lucky enough to have private insurance or the possibility to take extended leave for financial reasons.
We have to look at this bill humanely in order to help all Canadians deal with serious illnesses in the future.