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House of Commons Hansard #97 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was refugees.

Topics

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE

Mr. Speaker, what I outlined for the minister were our concerns with the amount of authority and power encapsulated with the minister's decisions. One of our greatest concerns with this particular legislation is that it goes too far in sourcing authority with one authority within the Government of Canada.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

NDP

Anne-Marie Day NDP Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles, QC

Mr. Speaker, is the hon. member aware of the provisions in the current legislation that say that when smugglers are arrested, they may incur a fine of $1 million and imprisonment for life? In the context of the bill, can the hon. member tell us how there can be any stronger punishment for smugglers than what is provided for in the current legislation and if he thinks that the government is trying to refocus the legislation on refugees to try to send them back to their own country?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE

Mr. Speaker, the way the question came through to me, and maybe it is a matter of my interpretation of the language, is why penalize the smugglers further.

I do not think that is the issue. I have no problem penalizing the operatives behind smuggling people into Canada illegally. Those who take money from people who are looking for greater opportunities in life, who see Canada as a beacon of hope and who end up paying huge sums of money to get shoved on a ship or, as the member said earlier, in a container to come Canada, should be penalized to the full extent of the law.

What I am concerned about is the individuals who happen pay those moneys under false pretenses, probably knowing it was wrong but, given their circumstances in their home countries, feeling trapped. Those are the people I am concerned about. They need to be treated with fairness and due process when they arrive in this country.

However, the people who are behind those illegal actions that would entrap those individuals in that kind of a campaign are the ones who should be dealt with to the full extent of the law.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

Corneliu Chisu Conservative Pickering—Scarborough East, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today in support of Bill C-31, the protecting Canada's immigration system act, one of the most advanced and modern immigration acts to date.

Members of the House already know that the integrity of Canada's immigration system is a key priority for the government of Canada. To maintain the integrity of our immigration system is also a concern of my constituents in the riding of Pickering--Scarborough East.

Canada has the fairest, most generous immigration system in the world. However, Canadians have no tolerance for people who abuse our generosity and take advantage of our country. We have to take steps to clamp down on these abuses. Our government is determined to strengthen the integrity of Canada's immigration system.

The protecting Canada's immigration system act would make our refugee system faster and fairer. We have already taken actions that underscore this. These include measures to crack down on crooked immigration consultants. We are also cracking down on immigration and citizenship fraud. The legislation in front of the House today is another key part of that effort.

No Canadian thinks it is acceptable for criminals to abuse Canada's immigration system for financial gain through the crime of human smuggling. This legislation would put a stop to foreign criminals, human smugglers and bogus refugees abusing our generous immigration system and receiving lucrative taxpayer funded health and social benefits.

Human smugglers manipulate our immigration system for financial gain. They charge their passengers upwards of $50,000 to be smuggled into Canada. The passage can be extremely dangerous onboard rickety ships that either leak or should not be in commission. Every year, thousands of people die while on these dangerous trips.

We must make no mistake that human smuggling is a despicable enterprise and yet human smuggling networks in Southeast Asia are large and growing. By charging people large sums of money for their transportation, human smugglers are making a lucrative business out of facilitating illegal immigration.

Human smugglers in various countries around the world are working on large operations as we speak. In fact, the international media very recently reported the dismantling of a large human smuggling operation in Togo that was planning to bring hundreds of immigrants to Canada on yet another dangerous voyage in a rickety boat.

These human smuggling arrivals are not events from the past. They are events that are being planned right now and will continue into the future. We must take action now. The human smugglers are playing a dangerous game with people's lives. It is a game the government wants no part of. The legislation before the House is a strong and necessary response to the crime of human smuggling.

This legislation would punish human smugglers. It would also help to discourage those who would rely on human smugglers to come to Canada by this irregular means.

The changes put forward in this bill would enable the Minister of Public Safety to designate the arrival of a person to Canada as an irregular arrival. This designation would make those involved subject to the proposed act's measures. The legislation would make it easier to prosecute human smugglers and strengthen the criminal laws in response to human smuggling.

The bill would make shipowners and operators accountable for the use of their ships in human smuggling operations. It would introduce stiffer penalties and fines, including mandatory minimum prison sentences, for those convicted of human smuggling.

The actions of these human smugglers and the irregular immigrants they bring to our shores represent a real challenge to our ability to conduct rigorous identity and admissibility examinations. The arrivals of the Ocean Lady and the MV Sun Sea taxed our system heavily, particularly with respect to conducting the required identity and admissibility examination in a timely manner.

Human smuggling undermines the integrity of Canada's borders and it poses an unacceptable risk to the safety and security of Canadians. We must be in a position to verify whether these individuals have been involved in any other illegal activity and whether they are admissible to Canada.

The legislation would protect Canadians by establishing the mandatory detention of irregular arrivals for up to one year, excluding those who are under the age of 16. This provision would provide us with the time we need to perform proper investigations, to confirm the identities of passengers and to determine whether they pose a risk to the safety of Canadians before they are released.

The government also recognizes that the best interests of a child must come first and that each situation would be considered on a case-by-case basis. In cases where it is determined that it is in the best interests of a child to remain with the parents or guardian, the Canada Border Services Agency would house the minor child with the parents or guardians.

Like all persons 16 years of age or older who are subject to the mandatory detention provision of the new legislation, the parent of an accepted minor could also avail themselves of the exceptional circumstances provision and request release from detention from the Minister of Public Safety. This provision would provide enough flexibility for the minister to grant release to the parents of accepted minors if, in the minister's opinion, exceptional circumstances warranted release.

We are also introducing measures that would discourage people from arriving in Canada by these irregular means.

Canadians have an acute sense of fairness and have no tolerance for people who pay human smugglers thousands of dollars to come to Canada to jump the queue. Canadian immigrants who have followed all the rules and waited patiently in line to come to this great country have told our government they want us to put a stop to queue-jumpers who come to Canada using illegal means.

Through Bill C-31 we would ensure that the medical benefits received by these arrivals under the interim federal health program are not more generous than those received by the average Canadian.

We would also impose a five-year bar on applications for permanent resident status for protected persons who are part of a designated irregular arrival. We have determined this bar to be a reasonable period of time to serve as a deterrent to migrants arriving in this illegal manner. We believe the five-year bar will reduce the attraction of coming to Canada.

Every eligible refugee claimant would be entitled to a fair and independent hearing before the independent Immigration and Refugee Board, the IRB. However, under the proposed legislation before the House, refugee claimants who are part of a designated irregular arrival and who have received a negative decision from the IRB would not be eligible to appeal that decision to the refugee appeal division. As well, during this time if refugee claimants return to their country of origin from which they are claiming persecution or demonstrate in other ways that they are not in legitimate need of Canada's protection, we can take steps to cease their refugee or protected person status and remove them from Canada.

Taken together these measures underscore the government's commitment to preserving the integrity of Canada's borders and immigration system and our national security. At the same time, we will continue to ensure that those who genuinely need our protection receive it.

However, do not just take it from me. This is what Balan Ratnarajah, president of the Peel Tamil Community Centre, had to say:

We are pleased to see the Government taking action to deter human smugglers who charge victims enormous sums of money.

Those who take part in human smuggling make our immigration system less fair for legal immigrants. We believe that the Government should have the tools it needs to protect the fairness of our immigration system.

We on the government side want to ensure that Canada is not an easy target for human smugglers. We want to discourage migrants from taking part in these ventures that place their lives at risk, and we want to protect the safety and security of Canadians.

These measures are necessary and fair. I urge all members of the House to support this important legislation.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

NDP

Francine Raynault NDP Joliette, QC

Mr. Speaker, as you might suspect, the NDP is strongly opposed to this bill, which punishes refugees instead of offering them a rapid and equitable system.

I have a question. This bill concentrates more powers in the hands of the minister by allowing him to designate safe countries and to restrict the number of refugees from these countries.

Under the old bill C-11, this decision was made by a group of experts, including experts in human rights. Why is this change being made?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

Conservative

Corneliu Chisu Conservative Pickering—Scarborough East, ON

Mr. Speaker, I just want to emphasize what another member said in the House, that the minister does not have outrageous power like those in various dictatorial countries. He would be making his decision on bogus refugees based on consultations on the situations arising in the countries where these refugees originate. The decision would be made in a wise and orderly manner. It is not a matter of one person having all of the power but a decision made in a wide consultation on the facts and events, all which will decide the issue.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, there are several sections of the act. Being changed are all of the following: the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Act.

If I am correct in what I am hearing from the opposition benches, almost all of our criticisms relate specifically to the decision that refugee claimants who have arrived here by irregular entry, largely meaning ships but potentially other means too, would have to go into some form of internment or detention for up to a year. That is what we find most objectionable.

Is the government open to amending the act to take that out and find other means to keep track of new people who have arrived on our shores?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

Conservative

Corneliu Chisu Conservative Pickering—Scarborough East, ON

Mr. Speaker, this is an issue of public safety and security. We need to be able to determine that these refugees are not posing a threat to Canada. Sometimes when they come here with fake passports and documents, we do not know whom we are dealing with. Therefore, it is important that we put the security and safety of Canadians first.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

Newmarket—Aurora Ontario

Conservative

Lois Brown ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Cooperation

Mr. Speaker, I just want to pick up on what the hon. member said about safety and security for Canada.

In 1998, under Liberal immigration policy, a man arrived in Canada under a forged French passport. He was allowed to stay. Although his refugee claim was turned down, he was not deported and later crossed the border into the United States in December of 1999 with a car packed full of explosives destined for the Los Angeles airport.

I wonder if the member could speak to how Bill C-31 would prevent something like that from happening again.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System ActGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.

Conservative

Corneliu Chisu Conservative Pickering—Scarborough East, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is very important for us to protect the safety and security of Canadians.

As members know, I fought in Afghanistan. With the events that are taking place in the world today, it is very important for us to be able to identify threats to the good people here in Canada.

The House proceeded to the consideration of Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration), as reported (with amendments) from the committee.

Speaker’s RulingEmployment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

There are five motions in amendment standing on the notice paper for the report stage of Bill C-316.

Motions Nos. 1 to 5 will be grouped for debate and voted upon according to the voting pattern available at the table.

I will now put Motions Nos. 1 to 5 to the House.

Motions in AmendmentEmployment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:30 p.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Green Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

, seconded by

, moved:

Motion No. 1

That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 1.

Motion No. 2

That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 2.

Motion No. 3

That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 3.

Motion No. 4

That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 4.

Motion No. 5

That Bill C-316 be amended by deleting Clause 5.

She said: Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my hon. friend from Haute-Gaspésie—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia for seconding these amendments.

Bill C-316, a bill put forward by the hon. member for Cariboo—Prince George, I believe has a lot of people confused about the nature of employment insurance for people who have been incarcerated. There has been a lot of media coverage of this and I will just summarize it before I explain why I have put forward these amendments.

The media coverage and the comments from Conservative members of Parliament have tended to be of the nature that average Canadians are shocked to find that people who have been incarcerated get better employment insurance than law-abiding Canadians. If that were true, I would be shocked and I would also support any efforts to take away preferential treatment for people who have been incarcerated.

However, when we look at the act, that is not the case. I have before me the Employment Insurance Act, particularly subsections 8(2) and 8(6). What these subsections do is to establish when people are entitled to their employment benefits. They have to have, of course, an adequate number of weeks of work. They have to show that they are unemployed and, at that point, because they and their employer have paid into the system, they are entitled to collect benefits. However, they are not entitled to sit back and wait, not work for a while, and then go for their benefits later. Instead, they have to apply immediately.

Now, there is an exception to this qualifying period, and it can be extended. According to subsection 8(2) of the Employment Insurance Act:

A qualifying period mentioned in paragraph (1)(a) is extended by the aggregate of any weeks during the qualifying period for which the person proves, in such manner as the Commission may direct, that throughout the week the person was not employed in insurable employment because the person was

(a) incapable of work because of a prescribed illness, injury, quarantine or pregnancy;

(b) confined in a jail, penitentiary or other similar institution;

(c) receiving assistance under employment benefits; or

(d) receiving payments under a provincial law—

—relating to danger to an unborn child, et cetera.

Therefore, let us just be clear on what the current state of the law is.

People in jail do not get to collect employment insurance benefits. They are, by definition, not searching for work, not capable of work. They are in jail. When they leave prison, do they get better benefits than anyone else? No, they do not. This piece of legislation only says that for the people who are entitled to their employment insurance benefits because they have worked and are unemployed, if the period of time in which they could normally have applied for employment insurance was interrupted by illness, pregnancy, and a number of other conditions, including if they happened to be in jail, their qualifying period will be extended.

Most of us hope that we will never be in jail; we are all law-abiding citizens here. However, let us imagine the kinds of situations in which we would now deprive people of the employment insurance benefits to which they are entitled.

Believe me, as I stand here speaking against Bill C-316 and calling for the amendments that we have put forward, which would, to be clear, eliminate the entire bill, I am aware that my position could easily be mischaracterized as though I wanted people who have gone to jail to get preferential treatment, as though I am not siding with law-abiding Canadians against people in jail.

However, let us look at the public policy question here. If someone is incarcerated for more than two years, this act would not help that person. The employment insurance regulations or the current status quo would not extend benefits for so long that someone who has gone to jail for a serious offence could get out of jail and then apply for employment insurance. That would not work.

By definition, the extension of their qualifying period, not an extension of cheques or any additional money, would only apply if they had been incarcerated for a year or less. That applies to certain types of offences.

Under the new omnibus crime bill, that would potentially apply to someone who had grown six marijuana plants, or, to use a real-life example from this chamber, to someone who had refused a breathalyzer test, for example, and might be sent to jail for a year or less.

Let us then imagine the public policy implications of what is essentially punishing this person again. In this light, I would like to read into the record some of the testimony given in committee by a representative of the John Howard Society to explain why it opposes these measures.

Let me commend the committee for the amendment that clarified that the first version of the bill would have applied to someone who was awaiting trial and then found innocent. We now have an amendment, which certainly improves the situation, that says people will only be deprived of employment insurance opportunities, in other words their entitlements, if they have been in jail because they were found guilty of something.

Let me read into the record what Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, said at committee. She stated:

—Bill C-316 would disentitle people to the benefits of an insurance scheme to which they and their employers had contributed. It would create unfairness for claimants...For those convicted and sentenced in a criminal court, it would amount to an additional ex post facto penalty to a criminal sentence that is dubious in law and could lead to a disproportionate penalty.

She continued:

It would also undermine public safety by jeopardizing employment prospects and denying insurance payments to a vulnerable group as they seek to successfully reintegrate into the community. For these reasons, the John Howard Society of Canada urges you to oppose Bill C-316.

The Elizabeth Fry Society did as well, pointing out that there were a disproportionate number of marginalized people in jail, particularly low-income women, first nations, et cetera.

I would like us to step back and reconsider. It may be fun to pretend that our current employment insurance scheme gives a disproportionate benefit to criminals. It does not. It might be fun to let people think that people in jail collect employment insurance cheques. They do not. All I am saying is that if people go to prison, they have, in the words that we are so used to hearing, paid their debt to society. Now we are going to say no, that they have not quite finished paying their debt to society and we are going to pull the legs out from under them. If they were entitled to employment insurance benefits to help them get back on their feet, to help them find work, to be meaningful members of our society, we will kick them while they are down and say that they will not get employment insurance even if they or their employers have paid into it.

There are some crimes that one might describe as victimless crimes, particularly crimes that would apply to this legislation, where people were in jail for one year or less. The trend of the current flood of legislation in the House that seeks to punish people who have made mistakes, that says they can never pay their debt to society, or get back on their feet or be given a chance is worrying. The employment insurance scheme is for people who have been incarcerated for a year or under, maybe for shoplifting, which is not commendable. Driving under the influence and refusing a breathalyzer is not commendable, but we have to give people a chance.

When they have paid their debt to society and get out of prison, they are entitled under the current statute to, at that point, put in their claims. They will not get any more money than others who find themselves unemployed. They simply have the opportunity to have their qualifying period extended. If people were entitled to employment insurance when they went to jail, they are entitled to employment insurance when they get out. They can get back on their feet, hopefully find jobs and swear off whatever it was they did wrong in their lives. Goodness knows, a lot of good people can make mistakes and end up in jail. We ought to give them a helping hand and not pass additional punitive legislation that takes away their right to employment insurance.

With that, I would ask all members of the House to give serious consideration to the amendments we have tabled today.

Motions in AmendmentEmployment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:40 p.m.

Conservative

Ed Komarnicki Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to these amendments, but I am not pleased to support them. Neither would the member for Cariboo—Prince George, for sure. By amending each of the five clauses in the bill, by deleting them, it takes all the provisions out of there and only the title and the enactment provisions will be left, and I suppose that would go as well.

It is fair to say that the government will not be supporting these amendments for the reasons that are obvious, based on what I just said.

Last year, our government passed legislation to prevent federal inmates over the age of 65, who were sentenced to prison for more than two years, from collecting old age security and guaranteed income supplement benefits. This relates to the qualifying period, and I do not think the legislation pretends to say it deals with receiving or not receiving employment insurance while in prison. It deals with extending the qualifying period and the benefits period.

We brought forward the previous legislation because Canadians told us it was not fair that criminals could collect retirement benefits while they were incarcerated, especially since their living expenses were already covered by taxpayers. We are supporting this further reform to our social programs in the interest of fairness and justice for law-abiding Canadians.

Under the Employment Insurance Act as it now stands, people who have been in jail can get an extension, as the member has mentioned, of up to 52 additional weeks of their employment insurance qualifying and benefit periods. We think this EI extension is unfair as it provides preferential access for convicted criminals to benefits over law-abiding citizens.

Let me outline how employment insurance works.

Employment insurance is intended to provide temporary income to replace lost wages while the claimant looks for a job. To be eligible for EI regular benefits, people must have paid EI premiums and have worked a certain minimal number of insurable hours, depending on the region of the country in which they live. They must have worked those hours in the 52 weeks before the interruption of the earnings. This is what is called the “qualifying period”.

When people qualify for EI benefits, a 52-week benefit period is established during which they may collect EI benefits to which they are entitled. Normally claimants must be able and willing to work. However, the qualifying period or the benefits period may be extended for up to two years for people in special situations. People who are unable to look for work because of illness, injury, pregnancy or quarantine are given an extension or they may apply for an extension so they do not lose their right to EI benefits because of the special circumstances or situations that are beyond their control.

To be clear, we are all in agreement that extensions to individuals should be granted for life circumstances beyond the control of the individual, such as injury or illness. However, this is not the case with the person who commits a crime.

To be convicted of a crime, an individual makes a choice resulting in a criminal act. This choice is within the control of the individual. However, the current EI legislation treats imprisonment as a circumstance beyond a person's control. This logic does not follow. It does not make sense to most Canadians who feel this is not fair because people do not commit crimes by accident.

Going to prison is not something that just happens to a person. It is a matter of bad choices, perhaps a series of bad choices. It is not like getting a serious sickness or disease or being involved in a car accident. It is something that people bring on themselves by the actions they have taken. These are people who are convicted and the view is that they should not be given preferential treatment or access over law-abiding citizens who are limited to 52 weeks instead of 104 weeks. As a result, there would be an increase in the cost of the program to ordinary working Canadians if the extension were not removed.

Extensions of the qualifying and benefit periods are not available to most EI claimants, and that is an important distinction and something at which we need look. Why should there be an available extension to someone who is a prison inmate?

That is why I would urge the House to support Bill C-316, which will correct this aberration, and not support the amendments which would take that away.

Now, some will argue that amending the Employment Insurance Act to remove the right of inmates to an EI extension would be unfair to innocent people who have simply been detained before trial and were eventually not convicted. That is a fair point and we agreed with it.

This is why the government moved amendments to the bill that would allow qualifying and benefit period extensions for people who were on remand prior to a verdict, but who were ultimately found not guilty. We have said that just the fact of being in prison or incarcerated is not going to disentitle someone, but actually being convicted will. Anyone who was in prison but not convicted would still be able to apply for the extension.

An extension may be granted for the time spent incarcerated if the person is acquitted, the charges are dropped or there is a mistrial. This is because individuals were unavailable for work because they were charged with a crime they were not guilty of, and it was not something of their choosing. These individuals could apply to Service Canada for an EI extension as long as they could prove they were found not guilty of the offence for which they were detained.

Another objective I have heard about the bill is that denying EI benefits to prisoners is cruel because it leaves them with nothing to live on when they are eventually released. That may have been the case in days gone by, but there are halfway houses now. There are programs in place on which they can rely.

Our government supports legislation to fight crime and improve security for all Canadians. To that end, we believe our initiatives ought to highlight responsibilities as well as rights. People who break the law should understand they are accountable for their own actions.

Bill C-316 should be supported by all members of the House to improve fairness in the EI system.

In previous debate on this bill in both houses and in the committee, I heard the opposition go to great lengths to defend this distinction. I think it is one that most Canadians would not want us to defend.

In other cases, like paternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care benefits, our government has gone further in helping Canadians balance their work and family life and responsibility.

That is why, for the first time ever, we have granted access to EI special benefits to hard-working people who are self-employed as well. These EI benefits come from premiums that are paid employers and employees. Every time there is an extension, it costs the program and it relates to the premiums that are paid. People want to be sure, as we do, that those premiums will result in benefits that can be justified.

We also wanted to be fair to members of the Canadian Forces who were ordered to return to duty while on parental leave or whose parental leave was deferred as a result of a military requirement.

Our government introduced measures to extend the time that EI parental benefits could be taken for these families. We wanted to be fair to people who could not work because they were caring for loved ones or who were seriously ill. That is why we modified the eligibility criteria of the EI compassionate care benefits to broaden the definition of family members.

This is the type of legislation that Canadians want us to proceed with, but they do want to be sure that where the system is found not be fair and equitable that corrections are made. They want to be sure that those discrepancies are taken care of.

It is not fair to say that those who are incarcerated by acts of their own choosing should somehow have an extension to their benefit and qualifying period by an additional period of time when ordinary Canadians do not benefit from an extension such as that.

There is a clear distinction between getting a special benefit or being able to apply for a special benefit when people have been met with circumstances beyond their control and getting a special benefit in a situation where they do have control and their action caused them to lose the ability to make that application.

I think most fair-minded Canadians would say that if individuals have committed a crime, they should not, because of that, be entitled to some kind of special benefit that other Canadians who have not committed crimes are not entitled to. That is the logic and that is why it is important to for us to correct the system. Even though it would result in millions of dollars of savings, it is the principle behind this that most Canadians would find offensive, which is why they want us to take action.

We will take action, which is why we proceeded with this bill. I would ask for the support of all members of the House.

Royal AssentPrivate Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

I have the honour to inform the House that a communication has been received as follows:

Rideau Hall

Ottawa

March 15, 2012

Mr. Speaker,

I have the honour to inform you that Mr. Stephen Wallace, Secretary to the Governor General, in his capacity as Deputy of the Governor General, signified royal assent by written declaration to the bill listed in the Schedule to this letter on the 15th day of March, 2012, at 5:09 p.m.

Yours sincerely,

Patricia Jaton

Deputy Secretary

The schedule indicates the bill assented to was Bill C-33, An Act to provide for the continuation and resumption of air service operations.

The House resumed consideration of Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration), as reported (with amendment) from the committee, and of Motions Nos. 1 to 5.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

NDP

Claude Patry NDP Jonquière—Alma, QC

Mr. Speaker, this is the second time I have spoken to Bill C-316. Before I begin my speech I would like to say that the NDP is often accused of protecting prisoners, but we agree that someone who commits an offence should be incarcerated and pay his debt to society. That is a principle of justice. That is the world we live in.

However, we must not forget that we are dealing with human beings. Our duty in the House is to ensure that these people are rehabilitated and that they have the opportunity to find a job. Some have had hard luck in life. That does not make them hardened criminals, as I have been hearing in speeches in the House over the past few months.

There are two types of criminals. There are people who are in prison for stealing food. Many single mothers with no income get caught stealing food and end up in prison. We have to give people like that the chance to rehabilitate and not kick them while they are down. We live in a society. We have a duty in this House to help these people.

The Conservatives are claiming that inmates can be granted privileges and receive benefits for 52 to 104 weeks. Pregnant women do not have that right. That is why I am rising in the House. The hon. member explained that this represents a minimal cost. Since this privilege represents a minimal cost, rather than getting rid of it, we would be better off extending it to pregnant women who lose their jobs or who become ill and are not entitled to employment insurance benefits. It is true. That is the reality right now.

Rather than also extending this privilege to pregnant women, which would be the logical course of action, the Conservatives would prefer to take it away from inmates. Is this not a good example of the lack of vision or the wilful blindness of the government, which is motivated by its own ideology rather than by common sense?

First, I would like to explain the reason for these 52 weeks. The hon. member explained it very well earlier, as my other colleagues in the House have done. People are entitled to these 52 weeks in accordance with their qualifying period and the unemployment rate in their region.

The Conservative members are simplifying the facts and distorting reality. Inmates are not eligible for benefits while they are in prison. These are privileges that people are granted. Inmates do not have rights in prison.

The people who benefit from this special measure are those who worked enough hours to obtain benefits. They deserve to get them when they get out of prison since they contributed to the employment insurance program. It is workers and employers who contribute to this fund. It is not the government. The government simply manages it. The government has managed the money in our employment insurance fund so well. We can see what is left today.

That being said, Bill C-316 seeks to repeal the provisions of the Employment Insurance Act that allow for qualifying periods and benefit periods to be extended as the result of time spent by the claimant in a jail, a drug treatment centre or another similar institution. When someone goes to a drug treatment centre, it is because he needs help. If we kick him when he is down, we just make matters worse. It will make it harder for him to get back on his feet.

The Conservatives want to abolish the exceptional provision that encourages former inmates to rejoin the labour force and regain their self-confidence. If my memory serves me correctly, it was even the Conservatives who introduced the 52 to 104 weeks in the 1960s. They did so to help people find a job, get training and receive benefits in the meantime. When people get out of prison, that does not look good on their CVs. That is why it is difficult to find a good job after serving a prison sentence. Things are not easy for these people. Rather than helping them, we are digging them a deeper hole. We are penalizing them. We are penalizing them instead of giving women this right. If we were to give women this right, it would cost between $70 million and $75 million, according to our estimates. Pregnant women would be entitled to these privileges when they lose their jobs or fall ill after a pregnancy.

The Conservatives are abolishing an exceptional provision that encourages inmates to rejoin the labour force, regain their self-confidence and have access to paid training. Unfortunately, the Conservatives have failed to come up with any solutions to help pregnant women who are the victims of injustice in this area.

We in the NDP want this to apply to pregnant women.

Can the Conservatives tell us how they intend to assist pregnant women in this area?

Personally, I get the impression that the Conservatives would prefer to waste energy and punish everyone, and that the injustice of this bill is only a pretext for a government that is intent on being tough on criminals, come what may. This bill is a good, though pointless, example. We need to stop it from spoiling the future of thousands of Canadians who would benefit from a second chance.

Sometimes, in life, we are out of luck. Someone here might enjoy a cocktail or two in company. Instead of having two cocktails, that person might have three, and get caught.

That does not make us hoodlums or hardened criminals.

This bill is not good enough for Canadians. The question is not about equality for Canadians with regard to the employment insurance system, nor is it about the alleged favouring of prisoners in the employment insurance system. It is about making the necessary changes to an unfair piece of legislation, and rectifying a situation that is unfair to women on maternity leave. It is my duty to highlight the Conservative government's incompetence in this area, despite the fact that the Conservatives consider themselves the standard-bearers of family values.

The Conservatives do not distinguish between different types of crime. They do not give rehabilitation a chance and their only strategy to prevent repeat offences is to throw people in prison. Yet, in Canada, the figures show that our social rehabilitation system works well and that the crime rate is steadily falling in most provinces.

Regardless of what the member for Cariboo—Prince George says, helping inmates escape the cycle of crime has always worked well in Canada, and we are currently reaping the benefits of this system. It is thanks to these measures, some of them exceptional ones like the one we are debating today, that we have been able to build a solid system. It may be imperfect, but is well intentioned, and it suits us. It is our duty in this House to look after people by making decisions on their behalf. That is the duty of parliamentarians.

In general, former inmates have a lot of trouble finding work after they get out of prison, and their time in jail has a lasting negative impact on their income. Of course, when you have bad luck and you lose your job, when your CV says that you spent six months in prison for stealing a litre of milk from a corner store, it is not very good when you are looking for a job. However, these people deserve a second chance, especially since former inmates are more likely to be unemployed or to hold jobs that pay less than the jobs they held before they went to jail.

Someone who has spent more than a year in jail cannot receive benefits until he has accumulated enough insured hours of work after leaving prison, while if he spends less than a year in jail, he can qualify for employment insurance because of the hours he worked during the extended qualifying period. Employment insurance also provides access to vocational training and to officers who provide job-search support. In a number of cases, the employment insurance program has changed lives in a positive way.

There is a major problem with this ridiculous bill. We must point out that an innocent person may be in jail while waiting for a verdict to come down that clears him. That could be detrimental and costly, and the person could also be refused access to employment insurance.

The solution to the inequities in the employment insurance program is not to abolish an exceptional measure that provides assistance to inmates, but to make a clear-cut change to the legislation in terms of the maximum number of weeks of regular and special benefits.

The Employment Insurance Act must allow new mothers as well as workers who have lost their jobs to receive sickness benefits when they need them. It must allow a mother who is on parental leave to benefit from the same extension of the qualifying and benefit periods as an individual who has been in prison, not the opposite. In this case, the government is taking something away from inmates and not looking after mothers. It would be better to keep what is left for inmates, because it does not cost too much. They said it. They were not even able to give us the real numbers. It would be much better for us to take care of our people.

Moreover, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development acknowledged that there was a problem with the interpretation of the Employment Insurance Act with regard to women on maternity leave and access to the special sickness benefits and regular benefits. She must now make a commitment to rectify this situation, which is unfair to Canadian working women, rather than looking for feeble solutions that are only good for pleasing people who support the Conservatives’ hard line on crime.

It is quite clear that this bill does not reflect the values of Canadians. It does not represent the views of Canadians, and the government must recognize that a mistake is about to be made. We cannot let this bill go forward; it is harmful and adds absolutely nothing useful to the employment insurance system. We must concentrate on the real priorities of Canadian families: jobs, health care, quality of life and workers' rights.

I oppose this bill. We want to correct a situation that we think is unfair. These people have paid in and they are going to have that money taken away. But if we do that, it will not mean that we can give this money to women on maternity leave. We must be fair with everyone and apply this to women on maternity leave, so they are at least entitled to employment insurance if they become sick or lose their job when they return to the work force. That is social justice. That is what it means to help people, to work together and take care of people. Here in the House, we are supposed to make decisions to take care of Canadians.

We in the NDP oppose this bill because it punishes people and takes things away from them, without being able to help others. On the contrary, we should be able to give this to women on maternity leave who still have rights. They will have less to worry about when they go back to work and if they lose their job when they do go back.

The NDP will be voting against this bill.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, I believe the member for Cariboo--Prince George was well intentioned in trying to fill what he thinks is a loophole in the EI system, but he failed to dig deeply into why the extension was first created and why it serves a purpose today, even for only that small handful of people it impacts.

Before I get to the why though, I want to start with the who. The who is Michael Starr. For the benefit of the House, Michael Starr was a Progressive Conservative member of Parliament, first elected in 1952 for the riding of Oshawa. He served under Prime Minister John Diefenbaker as labour minister from 1957 to 1963. He ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1967. Bob Stanfield won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party and while he waited for a byelection, Michael Starr served as the leader of the official opposition.

After politics, he had a great career. He was chairman of the Ontario board for workmen's compensation. He has a collection of civilian citations. There is an Ontario provincial building that is named after Michael Starr. This week, which by the way has been deemed Michael Starr week in Oshawa, people gathered in the Michael Starr building to celebrate Michael Starr's induction into the Oshawa Walk of Fame with all proceeds going to the Michael Starr scholarship fund.

I mention Michael Starr's name for a purpose. It was this Progressive Conservative minister of labour, the Hon. Michael Starr, who introduced this particular change that this private member's legislation would delete. He introduced this in 1959. I want to read from Hansard what he said at that time:

Ordinarily a person who had spent up to two years in penitentiary, would lose the benefit of unemployment insurance contributions, which would impose a further punishment in addition to those levied by the court. This disability is now removed and it will help a great deal in the rehabilitation of [our citizens].

That is what the Progressive Conservatives thought then. I am very interested in what progressive Conservatives think now. As Liberals, we do not base our decisions on ideology. We base them on evidence and sound reasons for doing or not doing something.

Let us look at some of the people who could be affected by the bill. First, it only affects in almost all cases people who are confined to provincial jail for a period of less than two years. We are not talking about hardened criminals. We are talking about those in jail for under two years. Seventy-five per cent of these people have been sentenced to less than three months. There are no murderers, no rapists, no child molesters, no crime bosses. We are not talking about their receiving EI benefits, getting any money; this is just about the grace period.

I could talk about several aspects of the bill that are going to undoubtedly deny other people because of the bureaucratic red tape and federal-provincial black holes that will be created, but I want to focus on the one main reason our party is against the bill.

Many people who end up in jail are there because of poverty. We could argue that it does not absolve them from their crime. However, if we are changing legislation that affects them, we need to understand the reasons they are in jail.

I am sure the Conservatives would like everyone to think they are cracking down on the Charlie Mansons in the world. Let us look at the one group that is most affected by the bill, and that is single mothers.

The National Council of Welfare's 2011 report, “The Dollars and Sense of Solving Poverty”, had a shocking statistic that almost sums up the position on this bill. Eighty per cent of incarcerated women are in there for poverty related crimes. Thirty-nine per cent are there for failure to pay a fine. Seventy per cent of incarcerated women are single mothers struggling with the high cost of living and as a result, crimes of desperation are sometimes committed.

United Way of Calgary issued a report in 2008 called “Crimes of Desperation”. It said this regarding women in jail for their failure to pay fines:

Incarcerating a woman for a poverty-related crime does punish her, but the punishment is for being poor and trying to cope by using a socially inappropriate but readily available means. Given this, the rates of re-offence are significant and costly.

When the member for Cariboo—Prince George appeared before the committee to testify about the bill, he said that he could not believe people would be in jail because of a fine. This is what he said:

I'm surprised, given our justice system, that people are thrown in jail for not paying parking tickets or fines.

Maybe my colleague would be surprised if people were thrown in jail because he is from B.C. which has a very low incarceration rate. However, since B.C. is one of the lowest, maybe he should talk to his colleagues next door whose rate of incarceration because of non-payment of fines is 60% higher.

According to a National Council of Welfare report in 2000, “Justice and the Poor”, in 1997 and 1998, over 40,000 people were in jail in Canada because of failure to pay fines. The same report showed that between 1984 and 1988 the major crime that was charged, accounting for 42% of all charges, was theft under $1,000. The number of charges for theft under $1,000 started to increase in August, when children are going back to school, and peaked in December, just before Christmastime.

The 1995 National Council of Welfare report, “Legal Aid and the Poor”, reported the fact that thousands of low-income Canadians are imprisoned routinely because they are unable to pay fines. The report found that people are still being sentenced for failure to pay fines because of traffic tickets and the Liquor Control Act because it does not take into account people's ability to pay. This report also stated:

The vast majority of people admitted to prison because of fines are there because they have no money to pay, and a disproportionate number are Aboriginal people.

Let us consider a scenario. A woman who is on EI is riding the C-Train on Thursday morning and is caught riding without a ticket because she is too cheap and did not want to pay the $2.50. For this she is fined $150. She goes to court and pays the $150 fine because she has the means to do so. She receives no jail time and her EI eligibility period is not affected.

Let us look at another woman, a single mom on EI who is having an extremely hard time making ends meet. She rides the C-Train and is caught without a ticket because she cannot afford to pay the $2.50. She is fined $150. However, unlike the woman in the previous example, she cannot afford to pay. She may have been charged with previous offences. She may not qualify for community service and therefore will be incarcerated at the Calgary Remand Centre. She could be there for a week and as a result not only would lose a week's EI benefits, but she could also lose her job and a week from the grace period.

The cost to incarcerate this woman at the Calgary Remand Centre is somewhere between $410 a day and $690 a day. Even without that, the cost would be about $1,400. Add in on top of that the cost for the state to look after her children while she is incarcerated. It would be $1,400 in incarceration costs to cover a $150 fine ,all for a $2.50 train ticket.

Maybe for my colleagues on the other side losing a week of EI may not be a big deal, but to this woman it is devastating.

In 1938 a royal commission investigated the penal system in Canada. It said, “Imprisonment for non-payment, when the convicted person has not the means or ability to pay, is, in fact, imprisonment for poverty”. That was in 1938. Therefore, I say to the progressive Conservatives on the other side, as much as it was right then, I still believe it is right now. I would hope that the progressives on the government side of the bench would move to make sure that this bill does not pass.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris NDP St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak, but I am not very pleased to speak to this bill because it is Bill C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act, which would seek to further penalize individuals who find themselves in jail as a result of the commission of an offence, or perhaps they are awaiting trial and may even be acquitted of the offence.

The hon. member opposite has seen fit to take a piece of legislation that is designed to ensure that people who have earned through paying premiums the right to employment insurance and deprive them of some of those benefits in addition to whatever penalty they receive.

In fact, what it says is that there are two people who are equal before the law, one of whom happens to qualify for EI and the other does not. It wants to make the system work as follows. If people happen to be in receipt of EI, they are going to be punished differently and more heavily than another person who is not in that circumstance--

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Conservative Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Mr. Speaker, on a point of order. In the opening of his presentation, the member opposite characterized Bill C-316 as an act to further penalize those who have been incarcerated. I do not think he has read the bill, otherwise he would see that is not what the purpose--

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

I really do not hear anything in there that is indeed a point of order. I think it is a matter of debate on the facts and the way they are presented.

The hon. member for St. John's East.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris NDP St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I do not know if the member was listening carefully but I said that it was an act that would amend the Employment Insurance Act.

This is a matter for debate, but I have no doubt that this legislation would further penalize people who have either committed an offence or may be only awaiting a trial to determine whether they committed an offence. Bill C-316 would unfairly add additional penalties on people and treat them unequally. An individual who may have paid the premiums and was collecting employment insurance would lose that benefit instead of having it postponed, the way it is now. It is an unfair bill.

What is really unfair about the bill is that it is so contrary to the notion of members opposite who talk a lot about their concern about crime and victims of crime, never mind the Christian charity or any other kind of charity toward people. One would think that the Conservatives would be concerned about the rehabilitation of offenders, particularly the kinds of offenders we are talking about here, most of whom serve a sentence of less than a year for some first offence or minor offence. One would think they would want them to be rehabilitated so they could get back into the workforce to be able to support their families.

What are we saying here? Do we want to ensure that people who happen to be in jail for six weeks or three months are deprived of the ability to collect employment insurance when they get out of jail? Who depends on that employment insurance? It is the individual and his or her family. Are we going to deprive the family of three months of employment insurance income because someone went to jail? The individual may have been deprived of income while in jail but that is part of the consequence of being in jail.

I do not know who will vote for this legislation. I did not hear the minister get up and say that they will vote for this because it is a government measure. However, we will find out how mean-spirited, negative, uncharitable and uncompassionate those members are if they support the member's bill. The member did a disservice to his party by bringing the bill before the House. This measure would further penalize individuals who commit crimes for which they are serving usually relatively minor sentences in jail.

We know that many former inmates have considerable difficulty finding work after release from prison, which is why we have the John Howard Society. I do not know if the Conservatives are against the John Howard Society helping prisoners to reform themselves and rehabilitate themselves, something that society wants and desires and we should be encouraging.

We should be encouraging that for two reasons. First, because we want everybody to be a good citizen, even people who have committed an offence. We want them to have an opportunity to reform. Second, because we want to protect society. We want these individuals to be productive members of society so they do not commit further offences and create further victims. I think that is a common goal. I do not know why anybody would want to turn the screw a little tighter, hurt them and their families, and deprive them of a benefit that they are entitled to under law because they paid their premiums. Instead, the government wants to turn the screw a little tighter.

We know that incarceration has a lasting negative effect on how much an individual earns, lowering his or her average annual income already. The average income of a household with children and a parent in prison declines by 22% over the period of incarceration and after the parent is released from prison the household income remains 15% lower than before that parent was committed.

What are we doing here? Are we saying that we will penalize not only the individual but the family even further? What would be gained by that? Is that a deterrence? No. It is a continuation and enforcement of misery on somebody who is already poor. Is that what the government wants to do? I do not know if the government is going to support the bill but we will find out.

That, obviously, is what the member wants to do. Maybe he has talked to his colleagues or maybe has not. I have not heard all of the speeches here. However, it will be a very sad day if the government passes this legislation. I do not think people on this side will support. There are some in that corner. I see one hand in the Conservative corner that is voting with the government.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

March 15th, 2012 / 6:20 p.m.

Conservative

Leon Benoit Conservative Vegreville—Wainwright, AB

He cares about victims.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris NDP St. John's East, NL

He cares about victims. He cares enough about victims that he wants to create more. He wants the children of people who end up in prison to suffer. He wants to ensure that when people get out of prison, who would otherwise, under the current law, be eligible to either receive employment insurance that was interrupted by the incarceration or who had earned an opportunity to participate in an employment program or skills training program, they will be deprive of that, just cut them off. They were in prison and therefore are somehow pariahs on society and should have no chance to use the benefits of the Employment Insurance Act to rehabilitate themselves, to look after their families, to quality for upgrades in skills so they can get better jobs and to be more productive members of society.

No, we want more victims. We want those people to be victims and we are prepared to see their children be victims also. That is shocking. And they say that this in the name of victimhood.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:20 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Conservative Cariboo—Prince George, BC

They should have thought of that before.