Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleagues.
I would like to begin by saying that I will be sharing my time with my very hon. colleague from Acadie—Bathurst. If there is one issue that my colleague has mastered in his 18 years in the House of Commons, it has to be employment insurance.
To begin, I will add to what my Liberal Party colleague said, because he seems to have forgotten to mention that the only reason they were able to balance the budget while they were in power was that they pillaged the employment insurance fund. We all remember that they took over $50 billion from the fund. Now they go around boasting about how they can balance budgets. Frankly, they balanced their budgets at the expense of the poorest people in Canada. If their party really wants to build a more just society, maybe it should go get some money from its friends in the Senate who are now being investigated because they have a lot of money.
In my riding, Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, we had an inkling back at the beginning of my term in 2011 when we found out that the Conservative government wanted to close employment insurance processing centres in our ridings and transfer those jobs—by pure coincidence, I am sure—to ridings held by Conservative MPs.
That was really hard to swallow. We lost over 40 well-paying jobs that had been filled by people who knew the region and knew how to process claims in a fair and just manner. Where are we today? Processing centres in the Gaspé, Rimouski and Sept-Îles have all closed. Once again, they were all relocated to Conservative ridings. That is a strange coincidence.
I want to talk about the situation facing people who claim EI benefits. Without naming any names, I would like to share the story of one of my constituents. In the Gaspé there is only one road, highway 132. This individual receives EI and looks after her affairs. She is looking for work and keeps an eye out in her area. The other morning, she received a phone call from an employment insurance officer who had found her a job. Being an industrious person, she told him how happy she was and asked when she could start. She was told she could start the following Monday. She guessed that the officer, from his office, was not familiar with the Gaspé. Since she lives in New Richmond and would have to go to Chandler—for that is where the job is located—the trip would take her two hours every morning and two hours every night.
This is a situation where the person applying for EI benefits truly needs them. Local knowledge is lost with the local workers who used to process these applications. Now everything is centralized in offices that are very far away from our region, and the Conservatives have completely failed to grasp that the distances can be quite vast in a region. I even heard of cases where people from the Magdalen Islands, in the middle of the gulf, were offered jobs 300 km west. I guess they were supposed to commute by canoe. Frankly, I do not know how they were supposed to get to work. We lost local knowledge, and that is when things started to change back home.
We then found out that the Conservatives wanted to follow the Liberal Party's lead and save a pile of money so that they could now brag about balancing the budget. It is obvious that they did not balance it. In this year's budget, we can clearly see that they took $1.8 billion from the EI fund in order to be able to brag about balancing the budget.
So far, at least $57 billion has been taken from the EI fund. With the budgets the Conservatives brought down last month, it is estimated that another $17 billion will be taken from the fund over the next five years. That is no way to balance the budget. It is a way of transferring debt to people who simply do not have the means to pay it.
Back home, in the regions with seasonal employment, workers need to know that their government is there for them when they need support. They are not getting that support today. As a result, people are thinking about leaving the regions.
We have seen it. People are moving away from eastern Canada because, unfortunately, neither the Conservative government nor the Liberal government before it understood the reality in regions where there is seasonal work. If we want to start making reforms so that people stop filing claims for benefits, perhaps we should start by asking ourselves whether there are enough jobs for people working in the regions.
What is the Conservatives' and the Liberals' long-term vision for creating jobs in our regions? I do not think that criticizing people every time they lose a job and telling them that it is their own fault is going to generate wealth in the regions. Seasonal work areas need support, and that includes training and employment insurance benefits. People also need to be treated fairly.
The Conservatives' budget does just the opposite, and that is worrisome. Unfortunately, they followed the Liberals' example. Their so-called improvements were a step in the wrong direction and are hurting more and more people.
I would like to point out that we are setting records with regard to employment insurance. Under the Liberals, only 50% of unemployed workers were eligible for EI benefits. That is not 50% of Canadians who lost their jobs at some point during the year. I am talking about those who lost their jobs and filed a claim for EI benefits. Right off the bat, 50% of them were not even eligible for EI benefits. We have the Liberals to thank for that.
EI is an insurance policy. Imagine, Mr. Speaker, if you paid for home insurance coverage in case of fire. Your house catches on fire and your insurance company tells you that, unfortunately, you are among the 50% of people whose claims are automatically refused. In my opinion, that is not an insurance policy.
The Conservatives did not stop there. At present, only 35% of the unemployed workers in Canada are entitled to employment insurance. That is a record. The employment insurance fund has become a cash cow increasingly used to eliminate the deficit of the party in power, whether it is Conservative or Liberal. They get satisfaction from mistreating people by bringing forward programs that will hurt the poorest Canadians. What happens to that money? The Conservatives want to give it to the richest 15% of the population. That is not a fair and equitable society. It is a society that gives the elite more than what they deserve, and lets them send money overseas so they can hide it in bank accounts in order to evade taxes. Instead of trying to recover this money, the Conservatives make cuts to Revenue Canada so that the rich can continue to evade taxes. Meanwhile, employment insurance benefits are taken away from the poorest Canadians. That is really unfair and no way to govern a country. If the goal is to make the rich richer, then congratulations to the Conservatives, who have truly figured out how to do that. However, I want a much fairer society, a society that helps people when they need it.
I would remind members that the EI system was created during the depression in the 1930s when there was a huge need for this kind of program. Since then, Canada has recognized that we want a fair and just society. We do not want a country in which the gap between the rich and the poor gets bigger, yet that is what is happening right now. The richest 10% in Canada now control much more than 50% of the economy. We must achieve a better balance, and the government must use the tools at its disposal to ensure that all regions of Canada experience economic growth.
The Conservative government is often accused of caring only about the ridings that voted Conservative. This has sometimes been the case. Did it simply abandon eastern Canada? Frankly, that is how people back home feel. They feel abandoned by their government, as though the Conservative government does not listen to them. That is why people are increasingly seeing that there are other ways to manage this country.
What it will take is a party that reflects them. What it will take is a vote for the NDP.