Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-44, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Income Tax Regulations.
Bill C-44 would provide a series of improvements, most of them through the employment insurance program, to Canadian families who desperately need the support of their government. For that reason, we are pleased to support this bill.
In fact, some of the provisions of the bill were lifted straight out of my private member's Bill C-362, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I will consider myself flattered. Let me review which parts of Bill C-44 were lifted from my bill.
First, one of the proposals included in the government's bill would amend the EI Act to allow mothers and fathers currently on parental leave to access EI sickness benefits if they fall ill during their parental leave. This is a welcome and long overdue amendment. There are few Canadians who would disagree that new parents, who very often are already stretched both physically and financially, should not be penalized if they become ill while on parental leave.
I am a little puzzled though as to why the minister would have stopped short of extending this benefit further. If she appreciates the injustice of denying sickness benefits to those whose circumstances change while on parental leave, then why did she fail to apply the same consideration and logic to workers who are laid off while on parental leave? Why would she solve one injustice and at the same time wilfully ignore the other?
My bill does take that extra step. It would fix that wrong. It points out that those on parental leave, the very same physically and emotionally drained new parents who sometimes become ill while on parental leave, can through no fault of their own find that they have been downsized or laid off while on parental leave. As it currently stands, parents in that situation are denied benefits and, inexplicably, the government is content to leave them twisting in the wind, unsupported by even the meagre support provided by EI.
On the upside, my private member's bill also includes provisions to cover the self-employed in this benefits arrangement, and I am pleased to see that the government has at least adopted that.
Let me move on to special benefits that Bill C-44 would provide for parents caring for a child with a critical illness or injury.
While support for these parents is important and, frankly, long overdue, I am concerned that parents are only eligible if they have worked a minimum of 600 insurable hours over the past year. More than anything, this raises the question for me of whether the EI program is the best vehicle for delivering this parental support.
I would point out that at one time the government agreed with me. As recently as 2011 the Conservative Party platform read, “Funding for this measure will come from general revenue, not EI premiums”. The Conservatives were right to adopt that approach.
Whether one is a waged worker, a senior manager, a professional, or a stay-at-home parent, the devastation of a critically ill child is the same. All Canadians who find themselves caring for their seriously ill child are incurring a myriad of expenses that go beyond lost wages, and they all deserve our support.
What happened to make the government change its mind? The grant for parents of murdered and missing children will be paid from general revenues and not through EI, but with respect to critically ill children, the Conservatives have ignored their election promise and are paying for their commitment through EI.
I do not need to remind anyone in the House that the EI fund is not the government's money. It is a fund to which only workers and employers contribute, so for the government to draw on that pool of money to create a photo op on a policy announcement no matter how positive is surely beyond the pale.
As tempting as it is for me to go on about that theme at greater length, let me leave the Conservatives' partisan antics aside and return to the policy itself.
Mercifully, I have never experienced the anguish of parents whose child is diagnosed with a serious illness. I can scarcely imagine how difficult and frightening it must be. It is precisely at life-altering moments like those that we all need not just our friends and families, but our communities and our government as well. At the very least, government must ensure that their burden is not increased by adding financial worries to the heap. Surely that is one of the principal ways in which government directly serves the needs of the community, of people, of taxpayers.
I am pleased that the government has finally moved to provide a basic level of financial assistance for those Canadians. It is not enough of course. Families going through serious illness incur enormous expenses, and EI benefits are a maximum of 55% of income, but it is a start.
Having said that though, a few other questions must also be addressed.
The government says that it intends to make these benefits available to the parents of children who are “critically ill or injured”. I am deeply concerned about how the government intends to define “critically ill or injured”.
As it stands now, compassionate care benefits have been available to parents of a child who faced “a significant risk of death within 26 weeks”. That incredibly cold and narrow definition of serious illness will certainly keep program costs down, but it fails a huge number of the very same Canadian families the government says it wants to help.
Serious illness just does not work that way. Health care does not work that way. Families do not work that way. The Canadian Cancer Society points out that parents of critically ill children have been reluctant to submit claims for financial support because they did not wish to acknowledge that their child had a significant risk of dying.
Of course, through the advance of research, survival rates are, thankfully, increasing. For example, over the last 30 years, childhood cancer survival rates have improved substantially. They have gone up from 71% in the late 1980s to 82% in the early 2000s, and the five-year survival rates have increased for several types of childhood cancers.
Obviously, I am not a health care professional, but I cannot imagine that the government's insistence on a formal declaration of near imminent death is medically wise, never mind emotionally tolerable. Rarely are parents or doctors comfortable being so categorical about a child's prognosis, and to put parents in the position of requesting such a declaration so they can access desperately needed financial assistance is, to me, unconscionable.
In reality, many childhood illnesses that were considered terminal even five years ago are no longer so. Childhood cancers are notorious for peaks and valleys, remissions and recurrence, and increasingly, cure. The current black and white definition of critical illness means the parents of the child that faces a difficult and uncertain course of chemo or an organ transplant, but whose child has a reasonable chance of survival cannot currently access this benefit. Surely the minister appreciates that those parents need support too.
It is a situation that the minister must ensure is remedied in the regulations attending this bill. The definition of “critically ill or injured” must not be conflated with “significant risk of death within 26 weeks”.
Let us move on to some of the other provisions in the legislation before us.
Bill C-44 provides for changes to the Income Tax Act that will facilitate a direct grant to the parents of missing or murdered children in Canada. Importantly, there is a caveat. The missing child must be missing on account of a suspected breach of the Criminal Code.
A couple of concerns come to mind immediately. First, while this grant is unique in the legislation insofar as it is not part of the employment insurance system, it is nonetheless tied to the income of the parent. In order to apply for the benefit, a parent must have earned a minimum of $6,500 in the last calendar year. I wonder what the government has in mind with respect to stay-at-home parents, for example, whose child is missing as a result of a suspected breach of the Criminal Code. That parent, who may have other children to care for, who may be a caregiver for an elderly parent, who undoubtedly has responsibilities in his or her own home and community, has no access to this benefit.
Why has the government tied this grant to income? Surely all parents of children missing in a suspected criminal case need and deserve the financial support that permits them to focus on the crisis in their family.
Second, and I spoke to this in response to the minister's speech just a few minutes ago, I am still not sure I understand the rationale behind providing support only for parents whose children are missing “as a result of a suspected breach of the Criminal Code”. If I am understanding this right, if a family were to go wilderness camping, say, and their toddler wandered away from the campsite and ended up missing, the parents would not be eligible for any support during their time of frantically searching for their child. Why is that? Why is that awful situation any less worthy of support? Did the government's need to feed the rhetoric of its law and order agenda take precedence over good public policy here? I am simply not understanding why the Criminal Code caveat was deemed necessary to add in this bill.
That takes me to the larger context of the bill. I have acknowledged that the legislation before us today provides a small but important improvement for new parents who get sick while on parental leave. I welcome the additional support for parents of critically ill or injured children and those whose children are missing or murdered. Those are indeed positive changes, and I am pleased to see that the government is taking steps, tentative though they are, toward developing an understanding of working Canadian families and the struggles that they face.
What the legislation does not do speaks volumes about the government's view of the appropriate use of the EI fund. At a time when at least 1.4 million Canadians are out of work, the government crafts EI legislation that provides a benefit only for people who are not, in fact, unemployed. How ironic is that?
While the official number says unemployment sits at about 7.3%, we all know that the number is much closer to 14%. The government knows that as a result of its policies, hundreds of thousands of Canadians are not included in that number. Those no longer looking for work or who are employed in part-time, temporary or casual employment are not counted in the official figures.
The real unemployment rate is a frightening indictment of the government's failed economic policies. The fact is that 300,000 more Canadians are unemployed today than during the recession. This is a government with no industrial strategy and a government that is overseeing the decimation of the manufacturing sector.
The fact is that Statistics Canada pointed out last spring that there were almost six unemployed workers for every reported job vacancy in Canada. The fact is that the government's failed economic policies have devastated workers and families across the country. Its economic action plan is comprised of little action and lots of advertising.
To add insult to injury, while Canadians continue to suffer the consequences of the Conservatives' discredited and ineffective trickle-down policies, the government has moved to restrict and undermine the very social safety net that was designed to help families weather such economic downturns.
Less than half of unemployed Canadians now qualify for EI benefits. Fully 60% of unemployed men and 68% of unemployed women get no support whatsoever from EI and 870,000 Canadians have no access to EI benefits, despite the fact, again, that employment insurance is a program entirely paid for by workers and employers, a program funded without a nickel from the government's treasury. That is an historic low.
No doubt the government is proud of successfully shutting more than half of unemployed Canadians out of the insurance system for which their own hard-earned wages have paid. It hurts workers, small businesses and communities, but it helps build that EI surplus, which successive Liberal and Conservative governments have raided to the tune of $54 billion to pay down their debts and to finance more corporate tax cuts.
The government has no understanding of the devastation that job loss can bring to a family. There are 1.4 million Canadians officially out of work. Those families are on the knife-edge of poverty. They are losing their homes and savings. Their kids cannot join sports teams or travel with the school band or, far too often, start the school day with a decent breakfast.
However, the Prime Minister betrayed his lack of compassion and understanding for unemployed Canadians when he told the American Council for National Policy, in 1997:
In terms of the unemployed, of which we have over a million-and-a-half, don't feel particularly bad for many of these people. They don't feel bad about it themselves, as long as they're receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance.
Who knew that when Mitt Romney accused 47% of Americans of being work-shy layabouts, that he stole the line from the Prime Minister? Not to be outdone, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development said, “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it”.
With that kind of cabinet leadership, it is no wonder that the prevailing attitude of Conservative backbenchers toward the unemployed is, in the now infamous words of the member for South Shore—St. Margaret's, they are “no-good bastards'”. What a way to blame the victims for the government's failed economic policies.
The Conservatives say that they are focused like a laser on jobs, but clearly their focus is on job cuts not job creation.
The stark reality is that unemployment in Canada is unacceptably high and access to employment insurance benefits is at a record low. When one of the 40% does manage to jump through the myriad of hoops designed to disqualify people from benefits, they can only get benefits that max out at $485 per week and are available to them for shorter and shorter periods.
I will remind members again that all of that must be seen in the context of one overriding truth, and that is the employment insurance system is 100% funded by employees and employers. Indeed, the Conservative fondness for Tea Party politics is evident again.
EI begins to look more and more like U.S.-style private health care coverage. Sure, companies offer insurance, provided people are young, healthy, have no pre-existing condition and are statistically unlikely to ever claim a nickel from them. So it goes with Canada's EI.
Sure, we have employment insurance. Individuals and their employers will have to fully finance it with significant premiums, of course. However, goodness, if they ever actually want to use the safety net they paid for, the government will throw up as many roadblocks as it possibly can. They have to wait two weeks without any money, even after filing their claim, and they cannot get benefits if they have not worked immediately prior to their claim, even if they have paid into the fund for many years. If they somehow manage to clear those hurdles and they do get benefits, it is only 55% of their wages. Retraining for a transitional economy, new skills? Oh dear, no, the government does not do that.
Where is the comprehensive study of the employment insurance program? Where is the strategic analysis and the comprehensive reform the system so clearly needs? Where is the jobs strategy, the skills training, the second career program, the forward-looking, aggressive and progressive programs to get Canadians' skill sets renewed and retooled and to get Canadians back to work? Where is the vision? Where is the leadership? In fact, there is none in the bill, not from the government.
We have before us a bill that provides important support to, by the government's own admission, perhaps 6,000 Canadians. However, we are puzzled. None of those 6,000 Canadians are actually unemployed. Do they need and deserve government support? Absolutely. Can I remind the minister of the very first line of the Service Canada website, which stipulates, “Employment insurance provides temporary financial assistance to unemployed Canadians who have lost their job through no fault of their own while they look for work or upgrade their skills”.
The bill before us today would do absolutely nothing to support that mission statement. It would provide financial assistance to not a single, unemployed Canadian. It fails completely to address the urgent needs of the at least 1.4 million Canadians without work, without a paycheque and, increasingly, without hope.
On this file, the only leadership is coming from this side of the House of Commons under the leadership of the member for Outremont, the leader of the official opposition. We are the only party that offers policies to extend access to EI benefits, not to limit it further.
When will the government listen to Canadians, as we have done, and undertake a strategic review of the entire program, with a view to: extending EI stimulus measures until unemployment falls to pre-recession levels; eliminating the two week waiting period; returning the qualifying period to a minimum of 360 hours of work, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment; raising the rate of benefits to 60%; and improving the quality and monitoring of training and retraining?
That is the kind of support unemployed Canadians, and the Canadian economy, needs from the government.