Mr. Speaker, what a pleasure it is to rise again to address a very important piece of legislation that my colleague has brought forward. I first must applaud my colleague for advancing an issue that is important to his constituents and individuals for whom he is trying in a very effective way to advocate. He, along with the others who helped him bring this bill forward to where we have it today, has done an incredible job in making sure that we have advanced this debate. My understanding is that it is because of those efforts that we will continue to see this discussion take place in the weeks and months ahead, as the minister responsible will have the mandate to do the consultation that is so extremely important, because as we move forward, we want to make sure we are moving in the right direction on this very important issue.
For many years we often talked about EI, EI benefits, and the way we have evolved from a time when somebody who was laid off or released would have virtually no benefits whatsoever. Then we had a government that ultimately brought in a national program. As some provinces attempted to deal with it, we had a national government that recognized that there was a need to work with Ottawa in an attempt to bring forward a program that is really there for the worker.
When I think of the many different programs that government administers, for which government is ultimately responsible, I like to think that this is one of those programs that is probably at the very heart of protecting the interests of workers.
Over the years we have seen changes that have been made to tune it up, to improve the program, and we have something here today that is adding progress to that debate, that ongoing discussion, with the idea that we will see some very tangible actions in the not too distant future.
It is with pride that we think of the last budget and some of the things we have already incorporated into the EI program, something I believe we would all like to see enhanced in whatever way we can. It is important to provide opportunities for individuals to have the choice about when it is in their best interests to start receive those benefits.
I would like to read a couple of very tangible points that were introduced in the last 2017-18 budget, dealing with how we have enhanced EI benefits and leaves for parents. It is important to recognize that the Government of Canada is moving forward on those commitments to better support Canadian families by increasing the flexibility of maternity and parental EI benefits to better reflect the needs of Canadian families. This is something we have seen in a number of different measures, but this hour is to focus on some of those specifics.
These changes will provide more flexibility to pregnant workers to better take into account their particular health and workplace circumstances when choosing when to begin their maternity benefits. That is the type of flexibility that will have a real, tangible impact for many Canadians in all regions of our country. In fact, according to the “Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report 2014/2015”, there were approximately 169,000 maternity claims that were paid $1.1 billion in benefits, and 191,000 parental claims, of which 86% were by women and 14% by men. This group was paid $2.5 billion in benefits.
That gives a sense of the number of recipients in this program and the amounts that both workers and employers are contributing into what I believe is a very worthy program.
Between October 6 and November 4 of 2016, consultations were held to hear Canadians' perspectives on more flexible EI, maternity, and parental benefits and corresponding leave provisions under the Canada Labour Code, as well as their experiences in balancing work and caring for newborns and recently adopted children. A round table discussion with stakeholders was also held in November 2016. A summary of the consultations was posted online in February 2017.
I would like to emphasize the importance of flexibility. A pregnant woman now has the flexibility to claim benefits earlier, before the child is born. I have listened to many members talk about the importance of that flexibility in the work environments that women often find themselves in, whether it is on a cement floor in a factory, behind a welding machine, or any other job. Whether it is the woman's decision or the advice of medical professionals, it may be in the woman's best interest to use more maternity benefits before the child is born. This takes place, and we recognized it in the last budget. That is one of the reasons we made that change and provided the flexibility that is so critically important.
It went from eight weeks to 12 weeks to build in additional support. We need to recognize that not all pregnancies are the same and that not all women are engaged in employment in the same manner.
Nowadays, more and more fathers want to be at home to provide the care. It was very encouraging to see the number of fathers, which was roughly 14% back in 2014-15, and I suspect the increase in fathers wanting to take those early years is because they are so very important. I have been in politics for many years, and one of my regrets was not having as much time as I would have liked with my children, now young adults, when they were infants. Having that additional flexibility and allowing both parents the opportunity to share those life experiences after a child is born or providing a mother the opportunity to have additional weeks of leave prior to the child being born, for whatever reasons, we see as a very strong positive.
One of the common themes of this government is to assist Canada's middle class and those aspiring to be part of it in a very tangible fashion. Some of the actions in the last budget refer specifically to EI and making the necessary changes.
I will bring it forward to what we are talking about today, which is that there are always areas where we can improve.
We can in fact do better. I believe my colleague has provided that to us tonight, the ability to have that discussion, explore the issue, maybe listen to what other members have to say on the record, and look at what has been said in committee. We understand that there have been some amendments and changes since the bill was before the House last. That is one of the ways we believe the standing committees can play a very productive role.
I appreciate the opportunity to share a few thoughts and words on this particular piece of legislation.