Mr. Speaker, as always, it is a great honour to rise in the House representing the people of the region of Timmins—James Bay. This debate is on Bill C-44, which would amend the Canada Labour Code, the Employment Insurance Act, the Income Tax Act and income tax regulations, to allow workers to take leave and draw EI at times of serious illness of their children or of a child who has disappeared or been killed as a result of a horrific crime.
This is the kind of debate that is instructive for Canadians, because they look more and more on this Parliament as an increasingly dysfunctional place, where people are trained like seals to speak through a little message box, to bark when they are told to bark and to stand when they are told to stand. Yet in this debate we see that this is where our expertise as members of Parliament really comes together, because there is not a member in the House who has not dealt with one of these instances or who has not sat down with a family member or a young mother whose child is going to CHEO in Ottawa or SickKids in Toronto, whose need for EI benefits is so obvious. They come to us. All of us across party lines have experienced a situation where we see the system and we see that people are falling through the cracks.
Therefore, I am glad that within this Parliament, which sometimes seems so fractious, we can show Canadians that this is the kind of work that gets done outside of the House within our offices and that we can come together and try to find some good solutions.
I think of the young people whom I have dealt with in my office. As the years go by I seem to have a little shrine for the little ones we have lost along the way, like Sylvain Noël, a wonderful young boy. I have a picture of him with us and the Timmins firefighters as they made him an honorary member just before he passed.
I think of young Trianna Martin, age four, who died in a house fire in Kashechewan when there was not a single firefighting unit in the community to save her. I have her picture.
I keep a picture of Charlie Hunter who died in a residential school and nobody even bothered to tell his parents. For 40 years his family worked to get that little boy's body home. I was so proud to be there when Charlie Hunter did come home.
I think if Courtney Koostachin from Attawapiskat, one of the many young people from the James Bay coast whom we see suffering with cancer. I have her picture.
Of course I have a picture of young Shannen Koostachin, who was the great youth leader from Attawapiskat.
I know each of their families and each of their stories. I think of the other young people who fortunately did get treatment and lived, but I also know the struggles the families went through, so this bill touches all of us.
The bill also speaks to a need to look at how the economy is structured in this country, because I have heard it said by some of my Conservative friends that technically there is no unemployment, rather there is just a gap between the market and services, as though people are just widgets and digits that we can move around: if we have a high level of unemployment in the Maritimes, just ship them to Fort McMurray and everything will be fine. However, we know that this blind belief in the market, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, is really about being blinded by the horrible mysticism of money, that it is not just widgets and digits, that there are people and communities.
Employment insurance was part of the fundamental driver to build a sustainable economy in Canada. It is not a honey pot to be raided, as it was raided during the Paul Martin years to the tune of $50-something billion to be used elsewhere. It is not something to be seen by some, such as the present Conservative minister, as a disincentive wherein easy access to EI benefits allows people to stay on their couches. That is a misunderstanding of what insurance is. People have a right to free public health insurance. People have house insurance because they need insurance in times of need. Therefore, employment insurance, just like car insurance or house insurance, provides people access to it in time of need
Why is that important for the economy? At the present time, we are suffering through a long-drawn-out economic downturn. We have 1,377,000 Canadians out of work at this time. We must think of the effects of that on those families.
Up until the 1990s, if they paid into EI, or unemployment insurance as it was called then, which most of them would have done, 70% to 80% of those people would have been eligible for benefits. As the crash hit them, their families would have been cushioned until they managed to get a bit of breathing room and they moved, found other employment, or were retrained. However, of the 1.37 million unemployed Canadians right now, there are 870,000 who are not eligible at all.
When these people are not eligible, what happens is their savings are eaten up right away, and if they are still not working, they lose their other assets. That has a long-term impact on the economy because people are going from being contributing members to society to watching whatever security they have being eaten away. That is why EI is so important. It is to get people through that period so they can get back on their feet.
Bill C-44 plays a small but very crucial role for the families who at the time when they are receiving benefits, and again, only 40% of the people who are eligible are getting them right now, their child gets sick. We have seen this, where their benefits suddenly are not able to help.
With this bill we are seeing the recognition by all parties that within the statistics there are times when the role of government is to ensure that we are there for individuals. It is a basic principle of what good government is about. Good government is about setting policy that ensures we see the value of the individual citizens of the country. The government cannot do everything. That is understandable. It cannot serve all needs. In every one of our offices we meet people who would like government to do this, that or the other thing. It is simply not possible. However, we can set the terms to ensure that at specific times of crisis and need, the program will be there.
I cannot think of a situation harder for any family than the death or sickness of a child and the stress that it puts on the larger family. Not just looking at it from a social point of view, or from a moral point of view, but it has an impact as an economic driver. When a family is in crisis like that and more and more relatives are having to be drawn out of the workforce to help a young single mother or the family, it has an impact. The overall effect of the bill would not be large, but for the families affected, it could have a huge impact.
We have a number of questions about taking this bill to committee. We need to do due diligence with the bill. One concern the New Democrats have is the promise that the funding was going to come out of general revenues. Why is that important? The problem is that since the EI fund has been raided over the years and since we are in a major economic downturn, we are seeing a deficit in the employment insurance account. We want to make sure that it is sustainable. It has to be sustainable. Programs need to sustain themselves. We are concerned that if we are adding more draw on EI we are going to find ourselves with a greater deficit, and we are going to see the government turn around, tighten the screws and make eligibility requirements even more difficult. When only 40% of the people right now in a time of great economic distress are receiving EI benefits, we do not want a situation where the government comes back to us and says that the deficit is getting worse and we now have to deal with a new EI problem.
Within the House there should be the goodwill to ask how we ensure that employment insurance remains sustainable, how we keep it from being raided in the future and how we ensure that we have the programs in place to help the parents of sick children, or children who have been victimized, missing or murdered, that allows the family the space to grieve and to deal with that. How do we do that and sustain the program? That is our job as parliamentarians.
I look forward to the bill going to committee, hearing the witnesses and coming back with a final version of the bill that we can all look at.