This week, I changed much of the tech behind this site. If you see anything that looks like a bug, please let me know!

House of Commons Hansard #208 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was witnesses.

Topics

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

5:50 p.m.

Portage—Lisgar Manitoba

Conservative

Candice Bergen ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety

Mr. Speaker, in the few short minutes that I have I want to bring the debate back to the actual bill and its contents.

My hon. colleague, in his remarks, talked a lot about what the provinces that have their own provincial witness protection programs have asked us, the federal government, to do. We have responded to those requests. What they did not ask for was more money to implement their programs. What they asked for were some changes so that they could get identity documents changed for the people under their purview and protection. We have responded to that by saying that they could be federally designated. There is no cost associated with that. I wanted to clear that up.

However, I also want to ask my hon. colleague if he has looked at how the legislation has broadened the way that people involved in the witness protection program can be protected. Right now it is only their name and address that is protected, which is a very narrow and small amount of information.

Has my hon. colleague looked at that part of the bill and would he comment on whether he supports that?

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

5:50 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, absolutely, the bill includes a lot of improvements. I congratulate the government for having brought forward a number of improvements.

I do not think the provinces are in any way naive here. When they ask for more services and more resources, everyone understands that those resources do not come for free. Quite the contrary, I think the government needs to put forward a serious plan of action, one that would bring forward the programs that it is proposing and realize them concretely, but also that we can fully discuss at committee how these resources are going to be paid for.

I would love to hear the government, which always tells us how well it manages our economy, tell us exactly how it will manage to provide resources to our provinces that require the help. Again, unfunded mandates are a problem that we see an awful lot of in the United States. I would like to see Canada buck that trend and actually start working in partnership with our provinces. That is something that I think—

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

5:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

Order, please.

Questions and comments, the hon. member for Honoré-Mercier.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

5:55 p.m.

NDP

Paulina Ayala NDP Honoré-Mercier, QC

Mr. Speaker, earlier, when I asked the member opposite a question, I said that protection involves costs. People need to be protected; they might need to be moved, professionals may need to be paid.

In this bill, the eligibility criteria for this program would be expanded. That looks great on paper, but there are costs involved. To those who say that their government has done a lot to protect witnesses and that it has tried to take action, I would say that the government needs to put its money where its mouth is. A great bill without the necessary budget to make it work is nothing but smoke and mirrors.

I would like my colleague to talk about the lack of funding, when it is funding that is needed to make this program work.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

5:55 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member and congratulate her on the work she does in her riding.

To answer her question, this government does nothing but boast. It says that it is bringing in programs, that it wants to help people. But when it comes time to pay the bills, the government is nowhere to be found. It is completely against raising taxes, and it is so ideologically driven to reduce the federal deficit that it finds itself in big trouble.

The Conservative government must consider how it will pay for the programs it is introducing. Employment insurance is a good example of how this government simply did not understand that saving money at others' expense is no way to operate and no way to work with the provinces. It is just moving spending from one level to another, but there is only one set of taxpayers. This government is having a hard time understanding that cutting at this level creates a nearly dollar-for-dollar increase at the provincial level.

It is truly unfortunate that the government has decided to transfer this responsibility. It is a bad idea. I do not think that this is what the provinces asked for during the discussions. They did not ask the government to give them additional responsibilities without covering the cost of those responsibilities. This is critical, but unfortunately, the Conservative government is having a very hard time understanding it.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

5:55 p.m.

Blackstrap Saskatchewan

Conservative

Lynne Yelich ConservativeMinister of State (Western Economic Diversification)

Mr. Speaker, I listened with great interest to the questions asked and the continued insistence and focus of the NDP members on the RCMP resources, and what questions they are going to be asking at committee. The parliamentary secretary assured the House that money was not the focus of the bill, that the focus was on regulations.

Does the member and his party intend to hold up the bill at committee, in spite of assurances that this is a regulatory change and not about money? Are they are losing focus on supporting the bill?

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

5:55 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the minister for that question but I am perplexed as to why she came to that conclusion. We are here to collaborate and to help. Everyone agrees the bill needs to be brought forward and needs to be put into effect as soon as possible, subject to the discussions at committee.

As for which party is going to be causing any kinds of delays at any particular level, I do not see how any party at this point is creating delays. The Conservative Party should be looking at why it took so long to bring the bill forward in the first place. The Air India inquiry started many years ago and the requests from the RCMP have been known for years. Again, I applaud the Reform Party member who brought the private member's bill forward ages ago, which we supported. The government had ample opportunity since to bring changes forward and it simply has not. As far as delaying tactics, I do not think they come from this side of the House.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, the member is aware that the primary purpose of the legislation is to enhance a program that was established in the nineties in regard to the witness protection program. We recognize the value in terms of witnesses who are compromised by testifying, whether it is against organized crime or a potential terrorism act. In order to get them to testify, the idea of expanding the program through the legislation will provide an additional tool for our police agencies across the country.

I wonder if the member would comment on just how valuable that is in terms of supporting our police forces, in this case the RCMP, by giving them yet another tool to use. This could be a very valuable tool in terms of being able to secure prosecutions in the future.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6 p.m.

NDP

Philip Toone NDP Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, QC

Mr. Speaker, the member is absolutely right that more tools presented to the RCMP is going to lead to a better success rate as far as our prosecutorial ambitions are concerned. I have a certain difficulty with the Liberals telling us how we can improve the bill when they had so many opportunities to improve the situation in the past. I do not understand why today they are now saying this is the right way forward, when in the past, when even small modifications were proposed, they were always refusing it.

I congratulate the Liberals for finally moving forward. Perhaps being the third party has helped them realize that they need to present concrete ideas to the Canadian people. I am happy that we are all moving together and I look forward to the debate at the committee stage.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6 p.m.

NDP

Isabelle Morin NDP Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very happy to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-51, which is intended to make witnesses in Canada safer.

Naturally, the NDP will support the underlying principle so that the bill can go to committee. However, the NDP is once again asking the government to broaden criteria for witness protection program eligibility to ensure the safety of all Canadians who might be in danger.

To that end, my colleagues in the House will recall the remarks made by the member for Trinity—Spadina last November. She stood up, as I am standing today, to urge the government to support the work of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and our local police forces. The federal witness protection program does not have enough funding, its selection criteria are too narrow, and there is not enough co-operation among the three levels of government when it comes to protecting witnesses.

My colleague from Trinity—Spadina also pointed out that our local police forces and the RCMP have a very hard time convincing witnesses to speak out against street gangs, a scourge that also affects my riding, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine.

The NDP is committing to building safer communities. One of the ways we plan on doing that is by improving the federal witness protection program and giving police forces additional tools to combat street gangs. I speak from experience with the urban context in my riding, but it is just as important to protect potential witnesses who live in the suburbs or in rural areas across Canada.

In Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, the police are working hard to combat the influence of street gangs. My riding is a suburb of Montreal. We are talking about Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Uptown and the suburbs of Lachine and Dorval. Street gangs and human trafficking are serious problems in an area of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. There is a lot of prostitution, drugs and $25-an-hour hotels, if you know what I mean.

Eastern Lachine also has a lot of problems with drugs and street gangs. Members of the Dalbé-Viau high school community, which is in the area, are afraid because people often come to recruit students after school. The police are very focused on the issue of street gangs in my riding.

When the local population feels safe, it co-operates with the local police force in order to better serve the neighbourhood. However, our police forces do not have enough resources. For local communities in Canada, strengthening the federal witness protection program will improve co-operation with local police forces and the RCMP in their efforts to fight violence and will increase the safety of our communities.

I am talking about the lack of resources. The east end of Lachine has a big problem with street gangs. However, we are lucky because the local newspaper, Le Messager Lachine & Dorval, publishes two pages every week where police station No. 8 provides information about crimes that were committed and asks for help from the community.

I believe this is a good example of a local newspaper working together with the police force. However, it also shows that the police force really must lack resources, since it has to go through the community newspaper to ask for help from witnesses to crimes involving street gangs. This does not happen in other parts of my riding. When such crimes are committed in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, the newspaper does not work with the police force. The police have to go out and find witnesses, because it is not easy and they are very afraid.

Earlier I talked about prostitution in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine. As indicated by a Conservative member, one who has worked very hard on the issue of human trafficking, victims are often the ones who become prostitutes. It is very difficult to seek them out and get their testimony. These victims are afraid for themselves and their families. They do not always trust the police; they have to be sought out. If they are not given adequate protection, of course they will be less likely to give testimony.

Since 2007, the NDP has been asking the government for this on behalf of Canadians who do not have legitimate protection. We are thrilled that this is finally before the House today. We have been calling for this for some time, and as my colleagues have mentioned, this government has been in power for seven years. The Liberals did not take care of this matter either. We need to do something, and fast.

I would like to focus on three key points that, I think, still need to be discussed regarding Bill C-51: expanding the eligibility criteria, co-operation with the provinces, and insufficient funding.

As for expanding the eligibility criteria, for quite some time now, the federal witness protection program has been criticized for its eligibility criteria, which are too strict, because not many witnesses are admitted to the program.

According to a Public Safety report, only 30 of the 108 cases assessed for the program were accepted in the year ending on March 31, 2012. This translates into an admission rate of 28%. Since we are good parliamentarians, this compels us to really look at the program's shortcomings and ask some questions here today.

We are talking about witness protection. But the government says it is tough on crime. I do not understand. To be tough on crime, we need help from witnesses. That is the key to solving crimes. If there are no witnesses to provide information, charges cannot be laid. It is key that we protect witnesses because if we do not, they will not come back. No witnesses will ever come forward, and that will not set a good example for others. In the case of street gangs, it is often internal witnesses that come forward. If gang members know that one of their gang friends told the police about a crime that had been committed and then that friend is never seen again, it is a given that they will not want to testify.

The eligibility criteria have been expanded. Bill C-51 says the following, and I quote:

expand the categories of witnesses who may be admitted to the federal Witness Protection Program to include persons who assist federal departments, agencies or services that have a national security, national defence or public safety mandate and who may require protection as a result;

Bill C-51 will expand the eligibility criteria for the witness protection program—and I am very happy about that—in particular, by including a new group of eligible people, those who assist federal departments.

Consider the case of a person who wants to testify against an organized crime group or a street gang. Think about the stress such individuals will experience and the courage they will need to testify. Add to this the fact that these witnesses will most likely be testifying against someone they know. This is where the federal witness protection program comes into play.

As I said earlier, federal departments and agencies that have a mandate related to national security, national defence or public safety will also be able to recommend witnesses for the program.

Human trafficking is a real problem in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. Many young women work as prostitutes, often without earning any money themselves, because they have a pimp. The documentary Avenue Zero addresses this issue. It raises a number of questions and paints a picture of the human trafficking problem in Canada today. The documentary was filmed in various parts of the country and ends in my riding. It is not a Quebec production as such, but the closing scenes were filmed on Saint-Jacques Boulevard in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, where a number of seedy hotels used by prostitutes are located.

I recall very vividly a victim who gave testimony to a female RCMP officer responsible specifically for human trafficking. The victim recounted how it had taken her a very long time to testify against the people who were abusing her and forcing her into a life of drugs and prostitution.

It makes my skin crawl. She initially testified that she did not always trust the police because it was hard for them to think of a prostitute as a victim. She stated that she was now very happy because she knew that the City of Montreal was working hard to make officers assigned to neighbourhood police stations more aware of the fact that, in the world of prostitution, prostitutes are not always the criminals, but rather the victims.

She explained how she needed a lot of time and courage, how she feared for her life, and for the lives of her sister and parents. She had to go to the police, but that was hard to do without being spotted. Once she arrived at the station, she had to tell everything she knew and the police recorded it all.

These actions require extraordinary courage. There is no denying the existence of vast sex trafficking networks in Canada. Proposed legislation on human trafficking is before the House right now because trafficking is going on around us and the victims require protection.

When I see that there were 30 people under witness protection, I have to ask myself some questions.

The same goes for drugs. Often, the people involved are young. The Polyvalente Dalbé-Viau is a high school in Lachine, which is in my riding. Lachine has a troubled history because of street gangs. There was once a cannabis café in Lachine. That brought a lot of problems to my neighbourhood. Since then, people have been going to the school and recruiting young people to sell drugs, recruiting young women to go into prostitution, and bullying. If nobody wants to testify against such people because there is no protection, as I said earlier, then what is the point of the program?

Another purpose of Bill C-51 is very useful:

(h) extend the period during which protection may, in an emergency, be provided to a person who has not been admitted to the federal Witness Protection Program;

I think that this is important too because the bill will extend the emergency protection period. It will eliminate some technical problems related to coordination among provincial programs.

The second point I want to discuss about the federal witness protection program is co-operation with the provinces. I think that is very important. As a number of my colleagues mentioned, a certain level of coordination is necessary, but right now, that coordination is not consistent. Ontario and Alberta have called on the government to revamp the witness protection program. Bill C-51 would allow for the designation of provincial and municipal witness protection programs so that some provisions of the act apply, which I think is very good.

It would also authorize the RCMP commissioner to coordinate, at the request of appropriate, non-political officials of a designated program, the activities of federal departments, agencies and services in order to facilitate a change of identity for persons admitted to the designated programs.

As I said, I think that is very important.

And, since the government does not seem to be paying attention, I will repeat what we have been saying all day: there is not enough funding.

It is clear that changes cannot be made and more people cannot be protected unless there is more funding. That makes no sense at all. How can the Conservative government improve the witness protection program if it does not allocate the necessary funding and personnel?

The government must invest money to bring these measures to fruition, as called for by the RCMP. Why did the Conservatives refuse to provide additional funding for this program? No one knows.

It will be very difficult for local police forces and the RCMP to work with the existing budget and effectively manage the growing demand for this program.

If I recall correctly, the current program cost $9 million during the 2012 fiscal year, which is not that expensive. However, if we want to protect people, we have to allocate the money needed. One plus one equals two. This will put a huge operational burden on witness protection groups.

As my colleague and friend mentioned earlier, it is difficult for local police forces to set budgets for protecting witnesses. The context varies from one city to the next. A city like mine, Lachine, has lots of expenses related to all kinds of other things. In my opinion, based on the new criteria, many witnesses will be accepted into the program. We cannot keep accepting people and then refuse to pay for them. That makes no sense. Perhaps the Conservatives do not realize how much money this could cost.

The RCMP websites states the following:

There are instances when the costs of witness protection may impede investigations, particularly for smaller law enforcement agencies.

The RCMP website states that, under the current criteria, there is not enough money to conduct in-depth investigations. There is a shortage of witnesses and no money to protect them.

Today, the Conservative government is telling us that it will admit more witnesses because it is expanding its criteria. That is a good thing; I agree. It is a step in the right direction. But they are telling us that they will admit more witnesses without providing more money. That does not make sense.

We are also concerned about transparency. In May 2010, the RCMP submitted a report to the Minister of Public Safety in which it requested that the witness protection program be enhanced. We were never informed of this. We managed to obtain a copy of this report in December 2012 through the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act.

The government has difficulty being transparent and this is another prime example of that.

In conclusion, this is definitely a positive piece of legislation. I am very pleased that the criteria are being expanded. I believe that protecting victims is the most important consideration in these cases but that this is an area that needs improvement, as proven by the fact that only 30 witnesses were admitted to the program in 2012. If we want to punish crime, we must first be in a position to call witnesses in order to ensure that a crime was indeed committed and that the investigation will be conducted efficiently. In my opinion, it will be difficult to use these new tools without the necessary funding. When the bill is studied in committee, I hope that the government will be open to discussing the possibility of making amendments.

Today, the parliamentary secretary often repeated that the objective of the bill is to expand the criteria. That is fine, but we have to be able to use these new criteria and apply them with the help of the requisite resources.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:20 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, we have made reference to this bill throughout the day as one that brings us forward in recognizing the importance of the witness protection program. Ultimately, we would like to see it go to committee.

We had a couple of concerns or ideas on the issue and expressed those to the parliamentary secretary in hopes that the government would be open to ideas that might improve the legislation. One is the possibility of having a separate body created to oversee admission to the witness protection program. The second is a mechanism to deal with disputes between protectees and the RCMP.

Could the member provide some comment on those two thoughts?

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Isabelle Morin NDP Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for the question.

When a Liberal member rises and says that we should create an independent organization to protect witnesses, I immediately have to wonder why this has not been done in the past. The Liberals were in power long enough to do something about it.

That said, if the Liberals propose this in committee, although I am unfortunately not a member of that committee, my NDP colleagues will definitely question the witnesses in that regard and try to ensure that better decisions are made.

We support this bill at this time, so that it can be sent to committee for further examination. I am sure that everyone will be open to these kinds of things.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:20 p.m.

NDP

Rathika Sitsabaiesan NDP Scarborough—Rouge River, ON

Mr. Speaker, my question to my hon. colleague is with respect to the fact that parliamentary secretary after parliamentary secretary stands in the House and asks the NDP to applaud the work the Conservative government is doing. To this point the New Democrats have said good job on bringing witness protection measures forward, but, first, what took so long, and, second, we know the three important aspects of the witness protection program are the eligibility criteria, support to the provinces and funding. We see that the first two are being addressed somewhat in this bill.

The government is addressing some of the concerns raised in the Air India inquiry, as well as by the RCMP and the provinces, but how does my colleague from Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine think the government plans to fund them when there are no concrete measures in this bill for funding allocations?

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

NDP

Isabelle Morin NDP Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for her very relevant question.

My speech had three main points, one of which was co-operation with the provinces. I think this aspect will be improved. Another point was expanding the eligibility criteria for witnesses, and this aspect has been improved considerably.

In the case of Air India, one witness was ready to testify, but unfortunately he died. So, there were no more witnesses, because people were afraid. That is normal.

I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be young and get caught up in a street gang. By all accounts, if I were to testify and denounce someone, I would need to be absolutely certain that I would be protected. It is extremely stressful; it would take a lot of courage to do it.

It is important to provide the tools needed. It would not require much funding. We could compare this to other government spending: for instance, one minister orders photo ops that cost millions of dollars, while another uses a helicopter like a taxi cab. Then the Conservatives tell me there is not enough money to protect witnesses. Come on. What country are we living in?

To answer my colleague's question, there are flaws. The RCMP made three recommendations. It needed more money and the government has not come through in that regard. I hope that the government will be open during review in committee, that it will move forward and invest more money in this. If we want to protect witnesses, then we need money.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

NDP

Tyrone Benskin NDP Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to follow up on my Liberal colleague's question with regard to the commission, so to speak, that would oversee the witness protection process. I am wondering if my colleague from Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine would offer her thoughts on the importance of keeping that separate from the RCMP, in a way that does not put undue leverage in the hands of the RCMP in terms of bringing a witness forward.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

NDP

Isabelle Morin NDP Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, as my colleague said, it is important to decide whether we want an independent agency to take care of that.

A study is absolutely essential. Witnesses can confirm this for us. Do we need an independent agency? I think so. We will have to study this matter further.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

We have time for one short question and response.

The hon. member for Trois-Rivières.

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:25 p.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have been listening closely to the debate for hours. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no funding set aside for this program. I would be pleasantly surprised to see something in the budget, but I will not count on it.

I am very disappointed to see that the government is asking everyone to do more with less. It is asking that of us, of the RCMP, of everyone except itself. The bill does not reflect any of the recommendations that came out of the Air India inquiry, for one. That inquiry recommended a transparent eligibility process and more rigorous accountability.

Finally, what is this wishful thinking? What are the Conservatives doing by giving us this bill and asking us to find a way to make it happen?

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:30 p.m.

NDP

Isabelle Morin NDP Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member from Trois-Rivières for his excellent question.

That was the key part of my speech. The Conservatives do not understand the costs that will be incurred at the local level. If they did, this bill would not be before us today.

As I said, improvements need to be made in three areas. It is true that the Conservatives improved two of those, but they are basically asking us for a miracle. I am sorry, but these days we cannot do more with less. And that is exactly what the Conservatives are trying to have us believe. That is what they always say. They say that less money will be allocated, but the same services will be available and that more people will have protection with the same services. That is not possible. We can see it happening now. Ministers are telling us that everything is fine, that cuts have been made to very important departments—

Safer Witnesses ActGovernment Orders

6:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

Order.

The hon. member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine will have two minutes for questions and comments when the House resumes debate on this motion.

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

Employment InsuranceAdjournment Proceedings

February 11th, 2013 / 6:30 p.m.

NDP

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

Mr. Speaker, once again, I rise to speak to a topic that is becoming increasingly urgent as we approach the infamous EI black hole.

Protests have been mounting in recent weeks. Workers are increasingly frustrated and the minister is ignoring the thousands of people across Canada who are denouncing this reform.

She would rather play word games to try to put this issue to rest, but Canadians are not fooled. This is not a clarification of the EI rules. It is a radical reform that poorly conceals a Conservative ideology of attacking our social safety nets and the diversity of our economy. The employment insurance program does not have overall regional economic objectives. There are monthly quotas that the investigators must meet, but that is very different. The investigators did not save $500 million last year by combatting fraud. There were hundreds of millions of dollars saved because there were errors in the system, most often on the Service Canada end.

Statistics even show that less than 1% of employment insurance payments are the result of fraud. A reporting mistake made by a claimant or a Service Canada employee does not necessarily constitute fraud.

Will the minister agree to stop treating all unemployed workers like fraudsters and criminals?

This past fall, I asked the minister why she had decided to end the pilot project that provided five additional weeks of benefits and allowed seasonal workers to get through the infamous spring gap. This pilot project, which the minister herself deemed useful and effective, was used to get through the period where benefits had run out, but income from seasonal work had not yet kicked in. This measure had been in effect since 2004 in those regions of Canada with high unemployment rates. The government decided to implement it across the board as part of its action plan to deal with the most recent recession.

Canadians learned in the last budget that this measure would be eliminated altogether. But what will happen in regions where the unemployment rate is still high? In her answer to my question, the minister told Canadians that the unemployment rate had gone down enough for this measure to be withdrawn.

This pilot project was created to support regional economies that rely on seasonal employment sectors, primarily regions in eastern Canada. Let us therefore follow through on the minister's logic and look at the facts.

Between January 6 and February 9, 2013, the unemployment rate in certain regions was up to 17.3% in Newfoundland and Labrador, 11.2% in Prince Edward Island, 10.9% in western Nova Scotia, 16.2% in eastern Nova Scotia, 13% in Charlottetown, 17.6% in Restigouche, and so on. Although the Canadian unemployment rate is 7% right now, how can the minister not take into account the regional differences, the seasonal nature of work in the regions and the fact that many regions are facing a high unemployment rate, as I just described?

Does the minister believe that those rates are low enough to permanently abolish a pilot project that was helping Canadian families to get through the off-season without starving to death?

Employment InsuranceAdjournment Proceedings

6:35 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 hon. member regarding her concerns about employment insurance and seasonal workers.

Employment outcomes for all Canadians is something that this government is very concerned about.

Our government is focused on job creation. In fact, we have helped to create over 900,000 jobs in the country since the downturn of the recession.

As the hon. member already knows, our country faces ongoing skills and labour shortages. Therefore, it is important that we make changes now to ensure the employment insurance program is working effectively for Canada and Canadians.

The fact that the extended EI benefits pilot project came to its intended end date certainly does not mean we have abandoned seasonal workers. Thankfully, Canada has some of the strongest growth in the G7. That is why the temporary extra five-week pilot project was allowed to expire.

This EI pilot program was a temporary measure. It was brought forward in 2008 and extended to 2010 by Canada's economic action plan, to help EI recipients during the recession. This project was always meant to be temporary. In fact, a couple of the regions that were covered by the pilot finished early because they had 12 consecutive months of unemployment below 8%. One of the regions under this pilot had almost 5% unemployment for a significant period of time. All EI claimants, including those who are seasonal workers, can continue to benefit from other recent EI measures introduced by our government.

One important improvement that we have made includes the variable best weeks initiative, coming into effect April 7, 2013. This change takes a pan-Canadian approach to calculating EI benefits. This means that people living in regions with similar labour market conditions will now receive similar EI benefits.

We have also introduced, through economic action plan 2012, a new national working while on claim pilot project.

Previously, EI claimants could earn an equivalent of 40% or $75 of their weekly benefits without seeing a reduction in their benefits. However, if their earnings were above that threshold, their benefits were reduced dollar for dollar. This created a disincentive to accept work beyond that earning threshold.

Under the new working while on claim pilot project that came into effect August 5, eligible claimants are able to keep EI benefits equaling 50% of every dollar earned while on claim, up to 90% of their weekly insurable earnings used to calculate their EI benefit amount.

The intent is to encourage claimants to accept all available work while receiving EI benefits and earn some additional income while on claim.

As our government remains focused on jobs, growth and long-term prosperity, we are committed to supporting workers and ensuring that EI enables a strong and competitive workforce for all Canadians in every region of the country.

Employment InsuranceAdjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

NDP

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

Mr. Speaker, my first question is: where is the job?

I have asked this question in the House before and I will ask it again. What is the Minister waiting for? Will it take the occurrence of serious and regrettable incidents for her to take action and reverse this measure?

Right now, thousands of Canadian families are readying themselves for the spring gap. There is an urgent need to act if we want to avoid catastrophe.

Will the minister take the time necessary to meet with people from the regions?

She needs to go see them. They want to talk to her. She needs to listen to their problems and try to really understand their financial situation.

Given her government's ill-conceived policies, could she, at the very least, show some openness, some willingness to discuss and consult with them? This should have been done from the beginning.

These people are on the cusp of a black hole. They can see it coming. They are about to be swallowed by it.

Employment InsuranceAdjournment Proceedings

6:35 p.m.

Conservative

Kellie Leitch Conservative Simcoe—Grey, ON

Mr. Speaker, our government is making significant investments to help Canadians in every region of the country find work. Connecting Canadians to available jobs in their local area is vital to supporting our long-term economic growth and productivity as well as the quality of life for all Canadians.

These changes are about helping unemployed workers and providing them with opportunities to get back into the workforce.

The changes we have made to employment insurance are needed to ensure that this program remains fair and efficient. In other words, these changes are designed to help Canadians find work faster and keep it.

As I have said many times in this place, personal circumstances will always be taken into consideration, and for those who are unable to find work, EI will continue to be there as it always has been.