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House of Commons Hansard #120 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was chair.

Topics

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

6:50 p.m.

Conservative

Dick Harris Conservative Cariboo—Prince George, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise as the sponsor of this private member's bill, C-316, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act (incarceration).

The opposition members have tried to go a lot of different ways to take the focus off the real purpose of the bill. They have tried to make their presentations a little more believable or palatable as they oppose it. They are getting away from the fundamental purpose of the bill, that is, to take away the favourable treatment under the Employment Insurance Act that a convicted felon has over hard-working Canadians who would find themselves in the same circumstances having to apply for EI.

Let me give an example. We will take person A. Person A has been working for a couple of years and makes a decision to break the law, goes to court, gets convicted, and spends a year in jail. I know that some of the members over there do not understand this. Person A spends 12 months in jail, comes out, goes to work for a couple of months, maybe gets laid off and applies for EI. Under EI, he or she would have had to have worked in the previous 12 months, but in reality he or she only worked for two months.

This is where it is unfair. The year that person A spent in prison is as if it had never existed. It never existed that he or she went to jail for a year because the EI Act says that the period from the time person A was convicted until his or her time of release is wiped out. Whatever he or she did after getting out of prison is just added on to the period he or she had worked before. Therefore, that convicted felon could apply for EI and get it because he or she has had that extension.

Here is person B. This is a true story. This is a young lady who has been working for four or five years and paying EI premiums. She finds that her skill levels put in jeopardy her ability to continue working without fear of being laid off. She makes a personal decision to leave her job and go into a year's training to get an upgraded certification, which she pays for herself. She completes that training. With her certificate she gets a new job that pays better money and has more opportunity. She works for two months. The company she works for has some financial problems and she gets laid off. She goes to EI to collect employment insurance and is told that she does not qualify because she did not work in the previous 12 months.

That is not fair at all. That is what this bill is all about. It is not about penalizing. It is about bringing a sense of fairness to the act. That is the essence of this bill.

If this bill is passed it will change the provision which allows convicted offenders to receive extensions in their EI qualification period and their EI benefit collection period. They can add a year on either side. The average Canadian cannot do that.

Our government believes, and I support, that the right to an extension should be provided only to Canadians who deserve it. It should not be available to convicted felons who become incarcerated. Members must remember that nobody just breaks the law by accident. The culpability lies with the person who commits the act. There are penalties to pay. They pay the penalty. That is fine. They come out and they have paid their penalty to society.

However, they should not be rewarded under the EI Act and given more favourable treatment than ordinary working Canadians who may find themselves in a similar set of circumstances, except for the prison.

As well, convicted felons can double the qualifying period when hours are counted to determine benefits or they can double the period for which benefits are taken. The average hard-working Canadian simply cannot do that.

As the act now stands, these conditions are certainly more favourable to the released offender than they are to a majority of EI claimants, and that is most unfair. That is what the bill is all about. We could nickname the bill the EI fairness bill to bring fairness to the EI system.

Under the standard system of EI rules, for law-abiding citizens to be eligible for EI benefits they must have paid premiums while they were working, they must be available for work and they must have accumulated a certain number of hours work within the qualifying period. I want to go over this again just so folks get it. People must have worked within the qualifying period, which is normally 52 weeks, before they lost their job through no fault of their own. That means, generally speaking, if they have been out of work for more than 52 weeks they are not eligible to receive EI benefits. Those are regular hard-working Canadians who lose their job through no fault of their own.

These same rules do not apply to someone who has been working, commits a crime and goes to jail. The rules are much better for them than they are for the first person I described.

The EI program does make exception for people who are not able to accumulate the required number of hours within the 52 week qualifying period because of circumstances beyond their control, not because they committed a crime and went to jail. That was within their control. These are circumstances beyond their control. The EI program will extend the qualifying period for up to two years for people who cannot work because of special circumstances beyond their control, such as pregnancy, illness, injury or quarantine.

After an EI claim is established, a person normally has 52 weeks to collect the benefits. This is referred to as the “benefit period” and may be extended to deserving people up to 104 weeks for similar reasons that I have just mentioned.

Qualifying and benefit extensions apply to both regular and specific benefits, which are maternity, parental, sickness and compassionate care benefits.

Under the current act, claimants may also have their qualifying or benefit period extended beyond the usual 52 weeks for each week they are confined in a jail, in a penitentiary or a similar situation. The EI Act puts in the same box people who have had circumstances beyond their control, such as pregnancy, illness, injury or quarantine, in the same category, the EI Act unfairly puts them in with a convicted felon who goes to jail. Now that just does not seem right.

Do members know what? Since the bill was introduced, I have had so many calls asking what the bill is all about. When I explain the bill to folks and tell them about the favouritism that a convicted felon gets over a hard-working Canadian, the most common response is, “You've got to be kidding. I could not imagine that provision exists for someone who commits a crime and goes to jail”. They say, “Well, good for you. Get your bill through and we'll take that out of there”.

What we are trying to do with Bill C-316 is get rid of the favouritism that is extended to convicted felons and we want to bring some fairness back to the way people qualify and receive benefits if they are unable to work.

It is very simple and I ask all members in the House to support the bill because it is really important.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7 p.m.

NDP

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

Mr. Speaker, I would like to rise today to say, on behalf of the NDP, that we completely refuse to support Bill C-316.

It is not favourable treatment, as the hon. member said. A prisoner who is serving a sentence of less than 52 weeks is there because of a minor crime. He is not there because he killed someone or committed a major crime. He is in prison for a minor offence.

Suppose the person worked for 15 years and was then sentenced to less than 52 weeks in prison for committing a minor crime. Under the current legislation, that person can claim employment insurance benefits when he gets out of prison because he has to return to society. Suppose that person served a sentence of 30 weeks in prison. He has to return to society.

How would such a person reintegrate into society? How would he go about looking for employment? How would he approach different workers in a small or large business, depending on his occupation and training? This person was in prison for a certain period of time and therefore has to reintegrate into society. In all likelihood, he will have a lot of difficulty doing so because people do not want to have anything to do with former inmates.

Someone getting out of prison receives EI benefits in exactly the same way as everyone else who is entitled to receive EI benefits after having worked for a certain amount of time, and this period during which he receives benefits will allow him to find a job and return to society.

If this person is not given this time to reintegrate into society, he will not be able to earn a living and there is a good chance he will return to petty crime, which would only send him back to prison. This person, therefore, has a right to a period of EI benefits.

This bill would repeal the provisions that extend the EI qualifying period and the payment of EI benefits to a claimant who has been in jail or prison or any establishment of that sort. This is completely discriminatory and does nothing to address the real flaws in the Employment Insurance Act.

To understand the negative impact of these amendments to the Employment Insurance Act, we have to look at the facts.

Currently, the legislation stipulates that where a person proves that the person was not employed in insurable employment for one or more weeks during the qualifying period because the person was confined in a jail, penitentiary or other similar institution, that qualifying period is extended by the same number of weeks during which he or she was detained and was thus unavailable for work, to a maximum extension of 52 weeks. The maximum qualifying period, as we know, is 104 weeks.

Having spent 52 weeks in prison, a person applies and is entitled to 52 weeks. All the other measures are applied as well, but it depends on the unemployment rate in the region and the number of weeks worked before going to prison. This measure does not, of course, apply to inmates who are detained for more than a year.

I want to come back to the story of the woman who prompted the hon. member to introduce this bill. She went to the member's riding office and told him her story. She told him that she went back to school after having worked for 15 years. Then, when she was looking for work, she became sick and was diagnosed with cancer. She went back to see her MP to find out whether she could get employment insurance benefits.

Two wrongs do not make a right.

Instead of dealing with the woman's request properly and helping her find a solution, and instead of introducing a bill to amend employment insurance, the member combed through the bill for something else he did not like. He discovered that a prisoner can have spent time in jail, be released, claim employment insurance and be entitled to receive it. The member figured that was not fair, but the two scenarios have nothing to do with each other. As I said, two wrongs do not make a right. The two have nothing to do with each other. He is mixing up two completely different issues.

What the member should have done was introduce an amendment to the bill to enable the woman to collect sickness benefits during her cancer treatment, then, once she recovers, to collect employment insurance benefits so that she can reintegrate into society because she is unable to work.

It is abundantly clear that this bill is a badly disguised attempt to further restrict access to employment insurance for people who have paid into the system, and this at a time when fewer Canadians than ever before are eligible.

Furthermore, if these former inmates are denied employment insurance to help them get out of the cycle of poverty and petty crime, they will be forced to turn to social assistance.

This downloads the cost onto the provinces, and the provinces will have to foot the bill when these people are released, if they are not given access to employment insurance.

When I first became aware of Bill C-316, my first thought was this: who on this planet could possibly oppose the rehabilitation of our most vulnerable citizens? Who could possibly oppose the rapid reintegration of people into the labour market?

When he appeared before the committee, the member for Cariboo—Prince George explained what led him to create his bill. During his testimony, the member said he had been informed of an unfortunate situation facing one of his constituents, as I said earlier.

As he was reading the legislation to try to help his constituent, the member for Cariboo—Prince George learned of the measures that are available to inmates and he was outraged.

It should come as no surprise that I do not believe that this way of doing things serves any purpose or is constructive in any way. A society makes progress by constantly improving its legislation and not by regressing and bullying more and more people.

The Employment Insurance Act does have shortcomings that this government should hasten to address in order to make the system more accessible and fair for everyone, particularly for unfortunate people such as the one we just spoke about or for women who lose their jobs when they return from maternity leave.

What is even worse is not that the government is doing absolutely nothing to resolve the shortcomings in this legislation and to help Canadians; the worst thing is that this government prefers inflict more pain on other people who have certain rights.

Why not find positive solutions and introduce a bill that would extend the qualifying period and the benefit period for people who are not covered under the current legislation, such as the woman who wanted to upgrade her skills but fell ill?

In the end, we must simply conclude that, when people go to a Conservative office to ask for help, they come away empty-handed. I am certain that the woman who, one day, asked for help from her Conservative member was not thrilled to see that this government has done nothing to resolve her problem and that it now wants to do away with the special provision for inmates—in the interest of fairness, or so it claims.

In his testimony in committee, again to explain the merits of his bill, the hon. member for Cariboo—Prince George said that it was completely unfair to grant favouritism to someone who has committed a crime but not to someone who has gone back to school to upgrade her skills.

I would like to remind the House that this information is false and borders dangerously on misinformation. Inmates are not granted any favouritism when they receive employment insurance benefits. They are simply on standby to receive their benefits because they worked before going to prison.

If the inmate is eligible for benefits, it is because he—out of his own pocket—and his employer contributed enough to the employment insurance plan for a specified period of weeks.

If a person who wants to upgrade his skills or go back to school in order to enter the labour market falls ill, then that person does not have access to employment insurance benefits because he did not contribute to the plan for the number of weeks or hours required. It has nothing to do with the fact that the person was an inmate but everything to do with whether that person worked the number of weeks required to be eligible.

It is important to remember that when a law is amended it must be amended for the better.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

May 9th, 2012 / 7:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

Is the House ready for the question?

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Question.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

The question is on Motion No. 1. A vote on this motion also applies to Motions Nos. 2 to 5. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

No.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

All those opposed will please say nay.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

In my opinion the nays have it.

And five or more members having risen:

Employment Insurance ActPrivate Members' Business

7:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Speaker Conservative Andrew Scheer

Pursuant to Standing Order 98 the recorded division stands deferred until Wednesday, May 16, immediately before the time provided for private members' business.

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

7:15 p.m.

NDP

Rosane Doré Lefebvre NDP Alfred-Pellan, QC

Mr. Speaker, on February 8, 2012, I rose in the House to ask the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism about the very worrisome situation at the Laval immigration holding centre, which is in my riding of Alfred-Pellan.

I was not satisfied with the answer and therefore I thank you for giving me the opportunity to again speak about this matter in the House today.

Things have happened since the last time we discussed this matter. In fact, Bill C-4, the subject of my question, has now been replaced by Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Act.

There are three immigration holding centres in Canada: one in Toronto, one in Vancouver and one in Laval, in my riding. Refugees who cannot prove their identity are incarcerated in this facility, which looks like a prison. In fact, in Laval, the centre is located in a former penitentiary. Detainees are put in chains when they are moved and they are separated from their families.

The centre tells the refugees that the process for verifying their identity will take just a few days, but some will spend weeks, even months, at a place that operates as a medium security prison. It is terrible because, contrary to what the government believes, newcomers and refugees are not criminals and should not be treated as such.

Studies show that such prison stays will have adverse psychological effects on these individuals. Newcomers in these refugee centres are not entitled to access to psychotherapists or consultations with social workers. In fact, individuals with behavioural problems or suicidal individuals are transferred to a maximum security prison or are simply separated from the others.

This brings me to a number of questions. Is this the federal government's roundabout way of limiting immigration and the number of refugees in Canada?

We are talking about individuals who have left everything behind in their country of origin, in order to find refuge and to emigrate to Canada, a welcoming and developed country. I would like the government to put itself in their shoes for a minute. It must be awful to leave one's country for safety reasons and arrive at a place thinking it will be a welcoming land, only to quickly realize that you are given the same status as a criminal.

Some people prefer to suffer and put up with the pain rather than go to a hospital in chains.

Allow me to ask you a question: is there an emotion that hurts more than physical pain? The answer, Mr. Speaker, is humiliation. No one should be humiliated. However, that is what happens to new immigrants in these immigration detention centres. That is simply unacceptable.

We have learned that the government plans to make cuts of $84.3 million, or 5.3%, by 2015, and that includes a 13.1% cut to the Immigration and Refugee Board. We wonder how the government plans to remedy this situation. Passing bills such as Bill C-31 and making these types of cuts will stretch immigration processing from a few months to several years.

Why is the government doing nothing to remedy this situation, which is unbearable for newcomers? When will the government get down to work and suggest some real solutions?

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

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for giving me the opportunity to speak on this important issue.

Let me be clear in outlining the circumstances that would lead to someone being detained when the person arrives in Canada. First, if officials suspect that someone is a criminal, has committed crimes against humanity, is a war criminal, or otherwise poses a threat to the safety and security of Canadians, that person will be detained.

Second, under Bill C-31, protecting Canada's immigration system act, anyone who arrives as part of a human smuggling event will be detained once that person arrives in Canada, except for anyone under the age of 16, who is exempt from detention. The reason is that they often do not have correct documentation.

It is important to also point out that the architects of the human smuggling events are also on the boats, among everyone else. Accordingly, it is important to detain these individuals until their identity is discovered and verified and their risk to the safety and security of Canadians is verified.

I think detaining foreign nationals for these reasons is what any responsible government would do. I know my constituents sleep better at night knowing that these people are detained and that our Conservative government takes the safety of their families seriously.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the NDP. Surely the NDP is not saying that it wants these people to be let free into our communities, among our constituents and theirs, before we know if they pose a threat. The NDP claims it wants people to be released more quickly, but yet again the NDP has shown that it says one thing and does another.

Under Bill C-31, the refugee determination process will be streamlined, resulting in genuine refugees receiving Canada's protection more quickly while criminals and refugee claimants will be removed faster.

The current refugee determination process takes almost two years for the first hearing. Under Bill C-31, it will take only two to three months for a first hearing. This means that anyone who is detained as part of a human smuggling event and found not to be a risk will not have to wait two years to have their claim heard and be released. Instead, anyone who arrives and is found not to be risk and found to be a bona fide refugee will be released in a few short months.

In addition, in response to the concerns raised by this NDP member's colleagues and experts, our government has acted in good faith and agreed to provisions to add additional detention reviews to Bill C-31. This means even more opportunity for those who have come as part of a human smuggling event.

Unfortunately, the NDP has criticized these important amendments. Instead of working collaboratively and being practical, the NDP has decided to oppose and be ideological. This is very unfortunate, but it is not surprising, because the NDP has a habit of complaining; then, when the government acts to work with the NDP to fix a problem, the NDP does not support it.

I urge the member for take her own advice, work with our government to improve the detention provisions in Bill C-31 and support this very important piece of legislation.

7:20 p.m.

NDP

Rosane Doré Lefebvre NDP Alfred-Pellan, QC

Mr. Speaker, what is surprising is seeing the parliamentary secretary confusing “criminals” and “refugees”. We are talking about refugees who are incarcerated, families who arrive with young children. The men and women are separated. They are treated like real criminals and are imprisoned. They sleep in dormitories. It is appalling.

I do not know if the parliamentary secretary has ever gone to visit one of these immigration detention centres. I pass by one of these centres every day when I am in my riding, for it is not far from my house. Armed security guards from the Canada Border Services Agency patrol the roof. People come out of there with their wrists and ankles shackled.

These situations are completely unacceptable considering what these people have been through in their own countries. It is absolutely appalling to think that, as a G8 country, Canada would treat people who come here seeking refuge as common criminals.

I therefore ask the parliamentary secretary why she is confusing refugee families, people who arrive here in good faith, with criminals. Does she not understand the difference between the two?

7:20 p.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, the NDP's position that those who have been found to be a risk to the safety and security of Canadians or whose risk has not yet been determined be released from detention or onto the street is incredibly irresponsible.

I know my constituents do not agree with that position, and I hope the member's constituents are listening closely, because I doubt they support this position either.

Our government has taken reasonable measures to ensure that people are detained when there is a justifiable reason, and we do not apologize for that. What is more, when the NDP has a chance to vote for reasonable measures that will streamline processes and result in people who have been determined to not be a risk being released from detention more quickly, the NDP members vote against them, proof yet again that the NDP says one thing but does another, and proof again that the NDP is not fit to govern.

7:20 p.m.

NDP

Dan Harris NDP Scarborough Southwest, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is very interesting to hear the parliamentary secretary talk about saying one thing and doing the other. If members remember, the Conservatives said nothing about changing OAS and the age of retirement, yet they did just that.

On February 13, I rose in the House and asked when the government would introduce a jobs plan for Canadian families. We are talking about families who have a hard time making ends meet and who struggle to pay the rent and buy groceries.

I asked specifically about when the government would help the people of Toronto. I asked the question in light of a study showing that Toronto is a place of skyrocketing costs. The study also showed that Toronto has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and described how many of the unemployed simply lose hope and give up. This is absolutely unacceptable.

Many Canadians are hurting, but by way of a response to my questions, I got a bunch of Conservative double-talk, faulty numbers and an absence of hope. However, I, as well as many Canadians, knew at that time that the Conservatives' budget had yet to be introduced, and we were hopeful that there would be something for struggling families in Toronto.

We are hopeful that the government will do what a government is supposed to do: help those it is supposed to serve. We were all hopeful that the government would introduce real initiatives to help Canadian families by providing such things as a jobs plan, a national housing strategy and a national transit strategy; instead the government introduced a 425-page Trojan Horse, a political tool used to change laws out of sight of the public and accountability.

While the Conservatives were focusing on their so-called budget and on cynical parliamentary tricks, they failed to take the time to introduce one measure to help Canadian families make ends meet.

Where is the jobs plan that would help Canadians gain some measure of security and help many more re-enter and maintain their participation in the economy?

7:25 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

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to respond to the member for Scarborough Southwest on the state of Canadian families.

Child poverty rates have been cut by almost half since 1996. That represents solid, incremental change for the better. This success does not come about by accident. No, it comes from the strong leadership of our Prime Minister and his unwavering, intentional support of families. Our government has been quite clear that we firmly believe that families are the building blocks of Canadian society. Since 2006, the many actions our Conservative government has taken to support Canadian families have meant that the average family of four will save over $3,000 per year in taxes.

Let me provide a few examples of how our government has provided support for Canadian families.

First and foremost, our government provided choice for parents in child care when we implemented our 2006 campaign promise and brought in the universal child care benefit. This direct payment to Canadian parents provides about $2.6 billion each year to 1.5 million families and has lifted an estimated 55,000 children and 24,000 families out of low income.

Budget 2007 introduced the child tax credit, which provides tax relief to families with children under the age of 18. Budget 2009 and budget 2010 included additional investments for Canadian families, including improvements to child benefits.

Budget 2010 improved the taxation of the universal child care benefit to ensure that single-parent families received tax treatment comparable to two-parent families. It also allowed parents with joint custody to split child benefits equally throughout the year when a child lives in both households.

In 2011-12, the federal government is providing over $6 billion in support for early childhood development and child care through transfers to the provinces and territories. This is the largest single investment of its kind in the history of Canada.

In 2011, about 1.5 million working Canadian families are expected to benefit from the working income tax benefit. Our government is working on behalf of Canadian families.

Every action that is taken to improve the strength of families is in the interest of building a better Canada for our next generation of Canadians. No government in Canadian history has been as focused on the well-being of families and on ensuring that they are not unduly burdened by job-killing taxes or social programs that are inflexible and do not provide choice to parents.

Sadly, we have seen the opposition vote against these measures time and time again. Why will the opposition not support our efforts to support Canadian families?

7:25 p.m.

NDP

Dan Harris NDP Scarborough Southwest, ON

Mr. Speaker, while the parliamentary secretary gave an answer, if she would bother to have enough respect for the people of Toronto to actually listen to the question instead of speaking to her neighbour, she would have heard that I was asking about a jobs plan, not about early childhood education.

However, while we are talking about it, the child tax credit certainly does not—

7:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

Order, please. We will allow some additional time for the hon. member, but I want to remind the hon. member that it is the normal practice that we do not make reference to a member's absence or presence in the chamber in the normal course of debate. We will start again, and the member will be allowed the time accorded by the adjournment debate rules, as he normally would have had.

The hon. member for Scarborough Southwest.

7:30 p.m.

NDP

Dan Harris NDP Scarborough Southwest, ON

My apologies, Mr. Speaker. I was making reference to the fact that the member was not paying attention.

I was asking about a jobs plan. That is really what is missing from the government's plan. Hundreds of thousands of unemployed Canadians are looking for work. As I mentioned in my statement a few minutes ago, many people have given up that job search. They have lost hope. They have stepped out of looking for jobs, which is certainly not helping the Canadian economy. It is not helping families to succeed. Yet, the government members do not even have the respect for Canadians, for Torontonians, or for other members of the House to actually pay attention when we are asking a question.

I would like to ask the parliamentary secretary why she does not have enough respect to actually listen to the questions being asked.

7:30 p.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, let us be very clear. The best way to escape poverty is to have a job. That is why this government has created over 700,000 net new jobs since the downturn of the economy. Our government provides almost $2.5 billion each year to provinces and territories to enable the delivery of critical services and supports to Canadian workers who need help making the transition to a new job. We also recognize that families are the most important building block of society. Our government provides over $14 billion per year to benefit families with children.

I should also state something specifically about the poverty rate which the member opposite has offered. The poverty rate for children has almost halved in recent years. The rate peaked at 18.4% in 1996 under the Liberal government and dropped to under 9.5% in 2009. We have also seen improved living conditions for these families who continue to live below the poverty line. We have made real progress in reducing poverty by providing jobs for Canadians.

7:30 p.m.

NDP

Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to comment on what the member has just said. The jobs that she talks about certainly will not cover the job losses that the Conservatives are going to add.

With respect to the issue I wish to talk about today, I hope to impress on the government that there is still work to do with respect to addiction in first nations communities. As the remainder of the black market OxyContin works its way through our first nations communities, there is still an opportunity for the government to assume its role seriously as the primary provider of health care for our first nations people. Once again, I will try to impress on the government that the way to deal with the problem is not by turning off the taps and adhering to a narrow ideological view.

Finally, I am also calling on the government to take action with regard to addictions, to treat them as seriously as it has treated other public health crises, such as H1N1.

In March, I asked what the government planned to do about the looming crisis that would hit places like Cat Lake First Nation, which was reporting an addiction rate of 70% to the drug which was being phased out. We know that the government had been warned time and again about the problem that was only growing in many first nations communities. I was merely repeating calls that had been made, very publicly, by officials of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Chief Stan Beardy spoke honestly about the incredible rate of OxyContin addiction in northwestern Ontario. Despite the many warnings, the government sat on its hands. Health Canada only addressed the issue of legitimate prescriptions and not addiction.

Addiction is a moral issue. It is an issue as old as civilization. It will not bend to opinion. There are moral issues that attach themselves to addiction. Crime, violence and abuse are the obvious ones. However, at the very heart of the matter, it is an issue of health. The problems that lead to addiction will not disappear with the OxyContin supply. It is just not that easy. We know that when one drug supply dries up, those addicted look for other substances to fill the void.

In the current budget, there were significant cuts to agencies that could have helped deal with the issue of first nations' addictions.

I believe it is time for the government to consider the advice of Dr. Claudette Chase, a family doctor working in northern Ontario, who says that we need to treat the epidemic as if it is an epidemic. When it was H1N1, there were extra nurses and flu clinics all over the north. That model could be used again to stem the tide and help in the recovery process for those who are addicted.

In March, the Minister of Health accused me of fearmongering, leading many to wonder if the Conservative government would rather play petty partisan games or was actually that far out of touch.

I will ask again, will the government finally get off its hands and help our first nations communities deal with addiction?

7:35 p.m.

Oshawa Ontario

Conservative

Colin Carrie ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, I would like to talk about our concerns regarding the abuse of prescription drugs in first nations communities.

I know that members of this House are also concerned about this issue. Our government takes the misuse of prescription drugs seriously. That is why we are working with other health partners to develop a targeted strategy to address this problem.

A few first nations communities struggle with various kinds of addictions. However, first nations leaders and communities are expressing particular concern over the ripple effects from the recent decision by Purdue Pharma to cease distribution of OxyContin and replace it with OxyNEO. The reason behind this is that, unlike OxyContin, OxyNEO cannot be abused as the capsule is in a gel form.

Through the non-insured health benefits, NIHB, program, we will continue to ensure that first nations and Inuit clients who received coverage for OxyContin during the three months prior to February 15 will continue to receive coverage for OxyNEO. Any new requests will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and coverage may be granted in exceptional circumstances, such as for individuals with cancer or palliative pain.

Changes to the listing status of long-acting oxycodone under the NIHB program are consistent with the changes made in the public drug plans for the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Some individuals who obtained OxyContin illegally or through multiple sources may experience withdrawal if it becomes harder to obtain OxyContin.

Department officials from Health Canada will continue to work with first nations leadership and the provinces to ensure short-term stabilization as well as monitoring of individuals going through opioid withdrawal. This support is in addition to the care offered by provincially funded treatment facilities.

We are also addressing the abuse of prescription drugs by funding community substance abuse treatment programs. We are investing close to $90 million a year to support a network of 58 drug and alcohol addiction treatment centres and prevention services that benefit close to 550 first nation and Inuit communities throughout Canada.

Working in co-operation with first nations, various Health Canada programs fund a variety of projects. Other treatments for drug dependency are also available.

The NIHB program provides coverage for methadone and Suboxone for the substitution treatment of opioid dependency. Suboxone is available for clients who are unable to take methadone due to life-threatening adverse reactions, such as a serious cardiac reaction to the drugs.

The NIHB program will also review requests for Suboxone from health providers on a case-by-case basis to help ensure first nations and Inuit clients who may not have access to methadone treatment can safely access substitution treatment without leaving their community.

Between December 7, 2011 and May 8, 2012, the NIHB program has approved 95% of the requests received for Suboxone coverage. When looking specifically at the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the program has approved 99% of the requests received with the remainder pending receipt of further information.

I would like to assure the House that Health Canada will continue to monitor and address this ongoing problem.