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House of Commons Hansard #91 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was jobs.

Topics

Port of QuébecPrivate Members' Business

7 p.m.

Conservative

The Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

I declare the motion defeated.

I wish to inform the House that because of the delay there will be no private members' business hour today. Accordingly, the order will be rescheduled for another sitting.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

7 p.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Mr. Speaker, health is a priority for the vast majority of Canadians. Year after year, survey after survey confirms that Canadians want to preserve their universal public health care system. But there is currently a looming threat to our public health system in the form of the trade agreement Canada is negotiating with the European Union. This ambitious agreement covers services, agriculture, intellectual property and much more. According to Canada's chief negotiator, this is an unprecedented agreement.

To protect our existing and future public health care services, Canada must insert clear reservations excluding these services from the agreement. Yet the government is refusing to tell us whether it will exclude Canada's public health care system. We also have reason to believe that some provinces will not be asking for the exclusions that are critical to preserving our public services. Moreover, the exclusion process requires provinces to add public services they wish to exclude to a negative list. Because each province is doing this on its own, the process is complex and chaotic and will create major differences between them.

On Monday, health experts came here to Ottawa to explain to us what Canada has to do to prevent a potential agreement from eroding our health care system. Michael McBane from the Canadian Health Coalition, Michèle Boisclair from the Association des infirmières du Québec and Marc-André Gagnon, a pharmaceutical researcher from Carleton University, agree that Canada must add reservations in order to exclude health from the agreement.

Those reservations have to clearly define what we mean by public health care services. What is more, according to these experts and a dozen or more other health care stakeholders, Canada and the provinces should make sure that the reservations protect future public health care. For example, if Canada wanted to have a universal drug insurance plan in future, the free trade agreement must not allow insurance companies or the governments we do business with to sue our government.

That is the risk we are facing with the free trade agreement currently being negotiated. According to experts from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the reservations in NAFTA, which was negotiated years earlier, do not protect our future public health care, and the member countries could dispute medical insurance coverage expansion.

We also believe that this agreement must be fully debated by the general public, by all members of Parliament in the House of Commons and in committees. We deplore the lack of transparency and democracy that the Conservative government is imposing in this case in particular, and also in a number of other cases.

What we want are free trade agreements that encourage trade while respecting our public services, which are so important to Canadians. It is possible to encourage economic exchange without bargaining away our common resources, our health care system, the education of young people, and water, to name but a few of these services.

And so, this is what I am asking today: will this government commit to protecting our public health care system by putting it, as well as Canada's future health care services, on the list of exclusions?

7:05 p.m.

Simcoe—Grey Ontario

Conservative

Kellie Leitch ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Madam Speaker, our government's top priority is the economy. We have weathered the economic storm and the world has noticed. At every turn, we hear great excitement about Canada's resilience and what we offer is a stable business destination in these difficult times. This resilience in due in part to our ambitious pro-trade plan, the most ambitious of such plans in our nation's history.

Since taking office, we have taken action. So far, we have concluded free trade agreements in nine countries. Canadians can now sell their products, services and expertise in countries as diverse as Panama, Jordan and Switzerland at very competitive access terms. We are in negotiation with many more countries, including India and, of course, the countries of the European Union which is the focus of today.

Despite its current economic challenges, the EU remains the largest market in the world. I can say that the EU itself remains committed to a broad, ambitious trade agreement with Canada. The benefits for Canadian workers and their families are clear: a 20% boost in bilateral trade and a $12 billion annual boost to Canada's economy. That is the equivalent of 80,000 new jobs or a $1,000 increase to the average Canadian family income.

With 60% of our economy and one in five jobs dependent on trade, the message is clear. At a time of deep economic uncertainty, Canada needs this agreement to grow its economy and spark new jobs and prosperity. Our government believes that there is no better job creator than free and open trade, which is why we have been working shoulder to shoulder with our European partners to conclude an agreement this year that benefits Canada.

We are pleased with our progress so far in areas like goods, services, investments and government procurement. We are closing in on the last remaining issues to be resolved and developing paths forward on all of them. I can assure the member that our government will vigorously advance and defend Canada's interests at every turn.

A final agreement will directly benefit Canadian businesses, workers and families. Unfortunately, there are some who do not share this view, people using the same tired arguments that free trade will hollow out Canada's economy, drain its resources and erase its culture. We heard these arguments during the great Canada-U.S. free trade debates in the 1980s. None of these predictions have come true. What free trade did do was very beneficial to the Canadian economy. It created millions of Canadian jobs and gave our businesses the kind of access to the American marketplace that other countries only dream about.

Despite those facts, some continue to resurrect the same arguments. The NDP has raised the issue of our public health care system in the context of the Canada-EU trade negotiations. An agreement with the European Union would exclude all social services, including health care. The government has stated this many times.

The Government of Canada has preserved in all its trade agreements the ability of Canadian authorities at all levels to regulate health care services based on Canadian objectives and priorities. The negotiations with the EU are no different.

It should also be noted that there will be nothing in this agreement that could force Canada to privatize health care services. Again, that is true for all of Canada's free trade agreements.

Free trade with the EU will mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Canada's economic success story. Hard-working Canadians can count on their government to stand up for their interests and open new markets like the EU for years ahead so that we can continue to create Canadian jobs.

7:10 p.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Madam Speaker, the global trade agreement will leave the door wide open to the privatization of health care. As far as I know, health is not a consumer good. No one chooses to become ill or to pay for treatments. It is quite different from consumer goods that are sold on grocery store shelves.

I see that the government still does not want to commit to protecting our public health system. What a pity. It will be Canadians who pay the price. Canadians have not been consulted and may pay dearly for the decisions of this government. This will affect not just the citizens of today, but those of tomorrow.

Another problem with this agreement is the extension of patents. It is not just the NDP who are saying so. Health experts—more than 15 came on Monday—municipalities and researchers do not agree. Extending drug patents is questioned by many. If no one is committed to excluding patents, who then will do so?

7:10 p.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Madam Speaker, despite its current economic challenges, the EU remains the largest trading market in the world. As I mentioned before, the EU is committed to a broad, ambitious trade agreement with Canada. The benefits to Canadian workers and their families are clear: a 20% boost in bilateral trade and a $12 billion annual boost to Canada's economy. That is the equivalent of 80,000 net new jobs or a $1,000 increase in the average Canadian family income.

An agreement with the European Union will exclude all social services, including health. The Government of Canada will preserve the ability of Canadian authorities at all levels to regulate health care services based on Canadian objectives and priorities.

7:10 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Madam Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to ask the member opposite to answer the question that I asked in the House on December 1, 2011. Unfortunately the question was not answered by the parliamentary secretary at that time. My question was:

An HRSDC study found that, despite being eligible, more than 125,000 seniors are not receiving the old age security benefits they deserve. The government has known this since 2009. It has known about the problems in the program.

Why has the government not acted to ensure that all Canadian seniors receive the benefits to which they are entitled?

The answer from the parliamentary secretary did not address my question. Talking points were rattled off about the new horizons program, but there was nothing on why more than 125,000 seniors, who are eligible, were not receiving their benefits.

New Democrats have long argued that we need to automatically enrol seniors who qualify for GIS. Changes should be made to the legislation so Revenue Canada can automatically check for individuals who become eligible for GIS and automatically enrol these individuals in the program.

The Conservative government is well aware that the OAS and GIS are critical if we hope to keep seniors above the poverty line. In fact, the government's own response to petitions presented in the House, calling on the Conservatives to end seniors' poverty, trumpeted how successful the OAS and GIS had been in reducing the levels of poverty for our seniors.

There are many factors that have been left out of the musings of the government. The truth is that OAS is economically beneficial to all of society. Seniors on OAS spend all of their money in their neighbourhoods. That is money reinvested in our economy, in small businesses that in turn create jobs. Seniors pay taxes. OAS is not a burden on the economy. It is an investment in the economy. Seniors are not the liability the government pretends. They are an asset and they contribute to the well-being of us all.

My question remains. It is a call that government account for the poorest seniors because these seniors are the only ones who will qualify for OAS and, in particular, GIS benefits.

Eligibility for GIS is based on a maximum income, other than OAS, of $15,888 per year for an unattached person over 65 and $20,976 for a married couple. Individuals living just above the income thresholds are ineligible for GIS benefits. This is not a lot of money for living expenses, after rent and bills are paid, particularly for unattached seniors.

There are some seniors struggling to make it on reduced incomes because they are not aware that they qualify for additional benefits. This GIS money can make the difference for someone, give them the opportunity to afford food, medicine or pay their bills. By simply ensuring that seniors are getting the money they qualify for, their quality of life, their dignity is assured.

My question was about rights for the poorest seniors. I will now be very explicit in my question. Will the government automatically check for individuals who become eligible for GIS and automatically enrol these individuals in the program?

7:15 p.m.

Simcoe—Grey Ontario

Conservative

Kellie Leitch ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Madam Speaker, I am glad to answer the hon. member for London—Fanshawe's question. I am glad she brought up the issue of seniors who do not receive old age security benefits for which they are eligible. This provides me an opportunity to clarify things.

In order to receive OAS pension benefits, Canadian seniors need to apply. It is unfortunate that some people actually do not know this and are suffering unnecessary hardship.

It is very disconcerting to hear that seniors do not receive the benefits to which they are entitled. In such situations it is certainly not because the government is withholding that information.

We reach as many seniors as possible to give them the information about the CPP and OAS, as well as the GIS.

One way is through direct mail. Every year we send over 600,000 applications to Canadians who are not yet receiving their CPP or OAS to encourage them to apply. Recently we mailed over one million statements of CPP contributions, targeted at seniors who were not yet receiving their CPP retirement pensions, in part to remind them that this pension was available to them.

Another way is through public information campaigns and various outreach activities to seniors. Employees of Service Canada's mobile outreach services have delivered hundreds of seminars and appeared at many community events across the country to get the message out about CPP and OAS.

We also work with community organizations that serve seniors. These organizations have been very helpful in educating seniors about their pensions and what pension benefits are available to them.

We collaborate with the Canada Revenue Agency to use tax records to identify seniors who may be eligible for benefits.

The staff in our service centres are trained to ask seniors if they know about these benefits, and our citizen service specialists do more than just give out information; they actually help eligible seniors fill out their application forms. In addition, we are making special efforts to contact seniors who are harder to reach because they may be homeless, live in remote areas, do not speak English or French or have disabilities.

People who are already receiving the GIS may not always know that they have to renew their application each year. However, we have changed the renewal process so that almost all GIS recipients apply only once and have their benefits automatically renewed by filling out their income tax forms. If they do not file their income tax return or complete their application by the deadline, we send them a reminder.

The public pension system is the cornerstone of our financial support from government and of what we provide to Canadians in their later years. It is a solid, sustainable and well-designed program and we are doing our best to see that everyone who is eligible has access to it.

7:20 p.m.

NDP

Irene Mathyssen NDP London—Fanshawe, ON

Madam Speaker, this is a situation that can be remedied. The maximum benefit that one can receive from OAS and GIS combined is $1,191. That is just over $14,000 a year, and barely enough to cover rent in most cities in this country. This is a travesty and we can afford to fix it. We can also afford to make sure that seniors who qualify for GIS receive their GIS.

The money to support seniors is readily available. We have the money to lift seniors out of poverty in the present, and we have the money to address additional expenses the government will face in the future as our population ages.

Instead of investing in Canada, the Conservatives have chosen to saddle the treasury and Canadians with corporate tax giveaways, billion dollar fighter jets and prisons we do not need.

The government can find people who do not pay their income tax. It can find them right away. Why can it not find the seniors who have not been able to access their GIS? Surely we can do better.

7:20 p.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Madam Speaker, our government really wants to provide the best quality of life for Canadian seniors.

We are listening to seniors.

We know that seniors are concerned about the economy and maintaining their standard of living in retirement. In Canada we have one of the best regarded retirement income systems in the world.

We want Canadian seniors to know that there are many federal programs designed especially for them and their particular needs. Far from keeping these programs under wraps, we are promoting them as much as possible, because we want every eligible senior to take advantage of them. We are doing just that.

As I mentioned before, I hope the member opposite decides that she will tell the seniors in her riding all about them. I tell my constituents in Simcoe—Grey about them as frequently as I can.

7:20 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Denise Savoie

The motion to adjourn the House is now deemed to have been adopted. Accordingly, the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m., pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 7:22 p.m.)