House of Commons Hansard #380 of the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was language.


Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

4:40 p.m.


Bob Nault Liberal Kenora, ON

Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to this legislation. It is probably one of the only opportunities I will ever get to talk about far-reaching legislation, if it moves in the right direction, that will be very historic for a riding like mine.

As members know, I represent 42 first nations in my riding. A majority of those first nations live in isolated communities. There are three distinct cultural groups, but there are also dialects within these communities that are not necessarily reported by all.

I represent a large population of Ojibway, Cree and what we call Oji-Cree. Within these groups, there are subgroups. This is what I found out very early on in my political career, in the late 1980s, early 1990s, when I travelled up north to visit the communities. I used to bring an interpreter with me when I was talking to the elders. They would speak in their own language because they felt more comfortable. Sometimes I brought an interpreter who would tell me that the community we were going to was hard to understand, even though it was 100 miles away from the previous community I was at, because of its unique isolation and the fact that its language had evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years.

Therefore, Bill C-91 is absolutely critical for a riding and a region like mine if we are to build the kind of society, a diverse and culturally-appropriate world, for indigenous children and their parents.

If we go to northern Ontario, we will find that in a lot of the communities the older people and the elders still speak their language. However, there is a struggle in the communities for the children to continue to learn their language. As I said in one of the questions I asked, modern technology, like TV and satellite, has brought the English language into their home and more young people are speaking that language versus their own.

I would like to also acknowledge the efforts of members who brought forward changes to have indigenous languages translated in the House. That is absolutely important to all of us.

I will spend my time today talking about the role of the commissioner, which is extremely important. That person will have the obligation under the act to ensure that as we move forward, the preservation and promotion of indigenous languages is one of the paths going forward.

Language falls under the branch of education. We know that a high quality, culturally-appropriate education is one of the elements in further developing a modern relationship with indigenous peoples across Canada. Yes, to foster a learning environment, children must have access to clean water, safe and affordable housing, social infrastructure and health services. Creating and maintaining this type of environment is key to providing a supportive space for children and youth. I think we are all committed in this place to ensuring that happens.

Within the Kenora riding, which I have represented since 1988, then took a break and came back, we have many examples of language revitalization efforts. The Kwayaciiwin Education Resource Centre in Sioux Lookout is an example of that. I would ask my colleagues who will be looking at the bill in committee to think about the role of this resource centre and others across the country in bringing these languages back into existence and full use. Therefore, I want to speak directly about what the resource centre does.

Not only does the resource centre provide educational opportunities and services for indigenous children and youth for 21 first nations communities, but it also publishes educational materials, children's books and instructional resources in a variety of indigenous languages, including titles such as “Ariel's Moccasins”, published in Oji-Cree and “Signs of Spring”, published in Ojibway.

We cannot bring a bill like this into the House of Commons without understanding the process of how we teach young people. Just like we teach English, French or any other language across the country, we need resources, like books that cannot be bought anywhere else in the world but have to be built one book at a time in Canada. This resource centre has been delivering that job and the opportunity to bring books to young people all across those 21 first nations. It gets many calls from across the country to look at how to translate into the individual languages of the communities across the nation and put them into books, so we can start at kindergarten age, at grade one, and on it goes. Therefore, the resources are available in their language in order to be successful.

I have visited the resource centre many times and can attest to the true passion it has for working with indigenous languages.

The other example I want to bring to the attention of the House is Kiizhik School. It is located in the city of Kenora. It opened its doors in 2015, with 15 students. It has continued to grow exponentially ever since. As the first school of its kind in Ontario, it works to close the educational gap for indigenous students in the area by implementing curriculums that include indigenous heritage as a subject of study, rather than a framework for education.

I have had the opportunity to visit the school. This is the example I was referring my colleague from Edmonton to, about a school in an urban centre that has the opportunity to have young people, whether they live on reserve nearby in first nations communities or in the city of Kenora, to learn and be educated in their own language. That is unique and is obviously another form of education. Like French immersion, this is an Ojibway immersion school. The kids are starting off in kindergarten, and the school is getting bigger every year.

The school provides access to traditional languages and elements of indigenous culture that public schools are currently unable to provide. By teaching Ojibway, using an Anishinaabe sound chart, holding vibrant powwows, interacting with the Anishinaabe community and integrating the Ontario mainstream curriculum, students are going past surface learning and truly learning about the culture of who the Anishinaabe people are.

Education is crucial to the revitalization of indigenous languages, and the work being done by organizations like Kwayaciiwin Education Resource Centre and the Kiizhik Education Corporation are leading the way.

When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report in 2015, the government committed to implementing all 94 calls to action. Through Bill C-91, the government is pleased to be delivering on a number of the calls to action related to indigenous languages.

Call to action 15 calls upon the federal government to appoint, in consultation with aboriginal groups, an aboriginal languages commissioner. It goes on to specify that the commissioner should help promote aboriginal languages and report on the adequacy of federal funding of aboriginal languages initiatives.

I have been to every school in every first nation in my riding, and this is one of the main topics of discussion with all the teachers and school boards in those communities. They would like more resources, more language teachers, more opportunity to teach in their language. This gives us the opportunity to go down that path to see this can happen for our young people, now and in the future.

Canada has never before had a national indigenous language commissioner. The indigenous language act, and all that it would establish, including a commissioner of indigenous languages, is a significant step forward in Canada's efforts toward reconciliation with indigenous peoples. The importance of this undertaking cannot be overstated.

I have talked about the new commissioner today because it represents a path. As we all know, it is going to take a number of years, not just weeks or days, to put forward the kind of process that will make a difference. This is true even with respect to languages like Ojibway or Cree, which are not disappearing anytime soon. They are very vibrant, strong languages with a lot of speakers. Nevertheless, a lot of young children are not speaking these languages because of where they happen to live.

The government spent the summer engaging with indigenous peoples at the community level through direct workout-type sessions with first nation, Inuit and Métis peoples across Canada. I am very interested in the way the commissioner will work with the Métis people, as there is large group of Métis in my region. I am looking forward to seeing how that process will work. Generally speaking, in my area, and I think in yours as well, Madam Speaker, Métis people go to public school and separate school and they do not necessarily live in first nation communities. We must have an understanding about how the education process will work for them.

Many indigenous peoples who were engaged by Canadian Heritage felt that the role of an indigenous languages commissioner should be to support local and regional indigenous institutions and not duplicate existing resources. I look to my colleagues who will be working on this legislation to remind themselves that not one size fits all. What we do in northern Ontario and how our education system functions is not the same as for the Cree in northern Quebec, a place in which I have travelled extensively. I understand that its system is set up in a particular way. I like the idea that we are here to support local initiatives. We will find ways to make things happen.

That is why the commissioner and his or her work is absolutely critical to the success of this legislation, as well as to the success of building up indigenous languages, which we all think are important to our culture and our Canadian society. Going forward, it will make a difference in our relationship with indigenous people. They will feel very much at home in their own land when they are able to take courses and speak their own language in school. The first time they take science in Oji-Cree, I would like to be in the room, That will be an interesting story to tell, of a book about science that is written in an indigenous language.

The commissioner will acknowledge that indigenous languages are best reclaimed, revitalized, maintained and strengthened by indigenous people, and will create a framework for a flexible, sustainable approach to funding Indigenous languages.

I wanted to ensure that I had the chance to speak to this, as this is the most important legislation we in the House will pass this term. This will have far-reaching implications for society long after we are gone, and young people are given the opportunity to speak their language.

I suggest very strongly for the House and its members that we move the legislation very quickly and that we find ways to work together. I think we all agree, in principle, that this is important legislation. Some say it is historic. For me, as a member of Parliament who represents a riding in which 40% of constituents are indigenous, the bill is one of the main reasons I came here.

I look forward to working with all colleagues. I am not on the aboriginal affairs committee, but I know it will do a very good job of reviewing this to ensure we get it right, so young people can learn in their own language and so we can provide the kinds of materials and resources, like books, that reflect their own culture. That is a very important part.

That is what I wanted to say. I am thankful for the opportunity to say a few words today.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

4:55 p.m.


Gérard Deltell Conservative Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Madam Speaker, it has been a real pleasure for me to listen to the very impressive and interesting speech by my colleague based on his experience, his constituents and his riding. That is exactly what we are here for. We are here to represent our people.

I think more than half the members of Parliament have indigenous communities in their ridings. In my case, my riding is a suburb of Quebec City. The Huron-Wendat Nation has been established there for thousands and thousands of years, but especially since 1697. I want to share my experiences and those of the indigenous people who live in my riding, but unfortunately, there are only 60 days to go in this legislature.

This piece of legislation is very important. We want it to succeed. On the other hand, we want to let all the people who want to speak to it speak. I put my name on the list, but unfortunately, I will not have a speech today.

Does the member agree that each member who would like to make a speech on the issue should have the occasion to do so?

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

4:55 p.m.


Bob Nault Liberal Kenora, ON

Madam Speaker, if it means not getting this legislation through the House, I would disagree with the member. However, if he wants to sit for 24 hours a day so everyone gets to speak, I am quite prepared to do that. If people really want to speak that badly, let us stay and keep it going until everyone gets to speak. However, I do not think we should ever use the excuse that everyone wants to talk, and therefore, this legislation will not make it through the House. Yes, of course I would have liked to have seen this legislation last year or the year before, but we all know how processes work in this place.

This being almost my 20th year now, I have seen practically all I need to see about how the place operates, or sometimes does not operate. This is an opportunity for us to work together on behalf of Canadians in a non-partisan way.

When I was the minister of indigenous affairs, I became frustrated with the partisan politics played between the parties, to the detriment of first nations people. This might be the time we can change that channel, do the right thing, and make sure we get this bill through before we go to the polls and people decide—

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.


The Assistant Deputy Speaker NDP Carol Hughes

Sorry, I have to allow for other questions.

Questions and comments, the hon. member for Salaberry—Suroît.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.


Anne Minh-Thu Quach NDP Salaberry—Suroît, QC

Madam Speaker, I thank my colleague for his compassionate speech, which shows the importance he places on the recognition of indigenous languages.

What bothers me, however, is that, although 84% of Inuit people in the 51 communities that make up Inuit Nunangat say that they can speak Inuktitut, the bill makes no mention of the 11 proposals made by that community.

If this is so important for reconciliation and culture, particularly since Inuktitut is officially recognized in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern Labrador, why is there no mention of it in the bill?

Why is the government ignoring these 11 proposals, which were presented to the federal government a long time ago?

That makes it look like the government is once again imposing colonialism on Inuit people.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.


Bob Nault Liberal Kenora, ON

Madam Speaker, I do not want to show my age, but I was the minister when Nunavut was created and we signed the self-government agreement, so I have a very good understanding of the importance of language and Inuktitut and the people in the region of Nunavut.

I want to remind the member that we have not forgotten about the people of the north, because the Northwest Territories' funding went from $1.9 million to $5.9 million this year for all nine of their indigenous languages. We increased funding in Nunavut from $1.5 million to $5.1 million annually for Inuktitut.

We are not forgetting about the importance of the languages in the north. I do not think the bill is intended to have a precise explanation of each language in it. It is intended to be a process and a framework to allow the Inuit and their languages to flourish in the north and to put in place the resources locally and regionally to make sure that can happen.

I leave it up to the aboriginal affairs committee to have a look at this to make sure that we did not make a mistake as it relates to the Inuit in the north, because they are a very large part of our mosaic, and we want them to be equally proud of their language and have it as robust as ever.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5 p.m.


Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

Madam Speaker, I am from Calgary, and I am aware that in that city, on September 22, 1877, we came together and we became treaty people, with the settlers as well as the Blackfoot, the Stoney-Nakoda and the Sarcee people. I am proud to say that we share the land with them today. We build community with them today in the spirit of reconciliation and moving forward.

The hon. member mentioned in his speech the approach we are taking in implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations and moving forward on historic investments in first nations education and the national housing strategy, which has components completely carved out for indigenous people.

I was struck by the words of Chief Perry Bellegarde when he said that language fully embraces the spirit of indigenous peoples. Language means everything to allow that identity to emerge. I wonder if the member could speak to the role of the commissioner and how that is going to work on the ground in places like his community.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.


Bob Nault Liberal Kenora, ON

Mr. Speaker, because we have not, over decades, had a robust system to make sure that first nation languages are alive, vibrant and thriving, there is a lot of work that will have to go on in first nation communities and schools and in the cities and small towns where a lot of indigenous people live, whether they be status or whether they be Métis or Inuit. We want reconciliation to be alive no matter where people live. One of the things that has always been a stumbling block for us is jurisdiction. The issue has been that the feds were in charge of indigenous people and the provinces and communities had nothing to do with it. This is an opportunity for us to do just that with education and with language, because we can do that almost anywhere.

I want to thank my colleague and National Chief Perry Bellegarde and others for the fine work they have done.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.


Scott Reid Conservative Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, ON

Mr. Speaker, my question relates to the Inuit, who are not necessarily very happy with this Liberal piece of legislation. Their concern is that it does not address the particular concerns of their language, Inuktitut. Fundamentally it does not address the fact that the Inuktitut language is so strong a language, so robust, for reasons that have to do with demographics and geographical isolation and so on, that its concerns are very different from those of any other indigenous language in the country.

I recognize the member's willingness, in his response to a previous question, to address the concerns of the Inuit. Frankly, I do not know how this can be achieved, given the small number of days remaining in the House before the end of this session. Of course, the bill has to go through the Senate as well. I wonder if he could address how, in practice, we could deal with some of these practical issues that are not likely to be resolved in just a moment.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.


Bob Nault Liberal Kenora, ON

Mr. Speaker, a comment I have been making over the last few minutes is that I feel that part of the commissioner's job is to identify problems, mediate conflicts and help find solutions. Under this legislation, the commissioner of indigenous languages would be empowered to provide those kinds of services and would have the ability to find ways to make things work at a local and regional level. If the commissioner had those tools, I think we could find solutions to some of the problems of the Inuit up north that they think are not reflected in this bill. The commissioner's ability to do his or her job would be far-reaching and would include the opportunity to find solutions to some of the issues being presented by the Inuit themselves.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.


Jim Eglinski Conservative Yellowhead, AB

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to rise today in the House and speak for the first time in our new chamber. It is an honour to get up and speak to such an important bill, one that will probably have historic meaning as we go through it.

I do not totally support the bill the way it is written. I have concerns with some of the language. However, I very much appreciate the need to bring it before the heritage committee and study it as soon as possible. Indigenous languages are so important to our first nations people. They must be recognized, respected, revitalized and retained. With over 70 dialects, this makes this portion of the bill so important.

I am speaking to this bill today because I feel so strongly about the need to protect our heritages. This bill would create an independent commissioner for indigenous rights, confirm the government's belief that indigenous language is part of section 35 of the charter, and allow the translation of federal services into indigenous languages. What a wonderful thing it is. It has been too long.

Over two years ago, the Liberals promised an indigenous language act. With just 60 days left in this parliamentary session, it is quite unlikely this legislation will become law before the upcoming fall election, unless we all work together in earnest. This is another failed promise by the Liberal government.

This is just another portion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings that the government failed. The Liberals promised much, but failed to deliver. They promised language legislation in December 2016, and we are still not there. They promised child welfare legislation by the end of January. Where is it? It would be difficult for any of the Liberals' indigenous-related legislation priorities to receive royal assent before the next election.

They have botched consultation. There are legislative flaws in Bill S-3, and they have botched consultation on the Trans Mountain expansion project. They cancelled the Enbridge northern gateway project without consulting the bands who had equity agreements. They brought in the tanker ban without consulting the pro-energy first nations groups on the west coast.

The missing and murdered indigenous women and girls inquiry is stuck in bureaucratic red tape. They extended its time, commissioners resigned, and nearly 30 staffers left or quit. There have been three non-compliance orders regarding Human Rights Tribunal rulings on first nations child welfare since the Liberals have been in government. One of the most important issues is studying the First Nations Financial Transparency Act.

That is as far as I am going with my partisan attack against the government. Right now, I want to focus on the tradition and heritage of the aboriginal people.

I was fortunate through my working career to spend my service in aboriginal policing. I got to understand and appreciate the differences in the different groups, such as the Shuswap nations, the Dakelh nations, the Nuu-chah-nulth first nations, the Dene, the Cree and the Slavey. I made many friends over the years and spent a lot of my off time, when I was not working as a police officer, socializing with my aboriginal friends and associates.

My wife Nancy and I loved going to aboriginal gatherings such as at Taylor on the Peace River, the Petitot River gathering in the Northwest Territories and the Paul First Nation in my riding of Yellowhead. In these surroundings, we really get to know and understand the importance of the heritage of our aboriginal people.

I remember when I used to travel Highway 77 from north of Fort Nelson, B.C. into the Northwest Territories, back in the 1980s. It was part of my patrol area. I was the commander of the Fort Nelson detachment at the time. I used to go over there quite often.

I used to stop at what we called traditional native camps along the highway, where the Dene people of the Liard River band would move from their homes on the reserve and move their families onto the land. They would set up temporary shelters and live in their old traditional ways. It was their way of teaching the young ones how it was and how important their heritage was.

Probably the only time they would speak English while they stayed there for the full summer was when I arrived. I have a grasp of the languages but not enough to have a good conversation. They would tell me why they were there. It was so good to see those young children learning about their history, learning how to live off the land and keeping their heritage alive. They focused on speaking their native tongues. It was so good to hear these kids speaking that way. They would not speak English when I was there, unless they were talking to me directly.

I am of Ukrainian descent. Both my grandfathers came over from Ukraine in the late 1800s. They settled as farmers in northeastern Alberta. Both raised large families, who in turn raised families of their own. I am a third-generation descendant. When they came here, one of my grandfathers could speak English, and the other could only speak Ukrainian. Both of my grandmothers could only speak Ukrainian.

Over the years they learned how to speak English. My parents' generation, the second generation, grew up speaking more and more English in school. In fact, like in the residential schools, they were forbidden to speak Ukrainian while in school. They were punished. They would get the yardstick or maybe the strap. They were encouraged to learn the English language. Sadly, our language slowly got lost as people began to speak more English. This is what we are talking about today in Bill C-91, the loss of indigenous languages.

We have 11 major dialogues in 70-some different forms. That is why this legislation is so important. It is important that we work together to get it passed. We do not have much time. We need to protect those languages, because the people who know how to speak them are getting older. As someone said earlier, the live dictionaries are getting older.

I wish I could speak my native tongue, because like so many people I want to go back and research my heritage. I want to go back to the Ukraine to see where my grandfathers came from, in order to get a better understanding of why I am here today.

I mentioned I spent a lot of time during my working life meeting some very special aboriginal people. We have become friends and acquaintances.

We only have 60 days left, and that is not enough time for me to sit here and tell members about the great aboriginal people I have met over the years, the interesting stories I have about them, and the things they have done that I would like to tell the House about. We just do not have enough time, and 60 days would not be enough. However, I am going to talk about two of them, one of whom I have known for many years, and the other who I just met yesterday.

The first one is a constituent of mine. He was a friend of mine for many years before he was ever a constituent. His name is Harry Rusk. I first met him in the Fort Nelson area of British Columbia during the late 1980s.

Harry was born in 1937 in a little hamlet called Kahntah, a Slavey first nations community located in the northeast corner of British Columbia. Many of us have spoken about having remote Indian communities in our ridings, and this one is remote. Even to this day, there are no roads or railroad tracks into this community. One can fly in or take a canoe or boat and go up the Kahntah River. It is about an hour by air from the community of Fort Nelson. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, as our country progressed, an oil company doing exploration put in an airstrip about two miles from the Kahntah reserve. Therefore, we can be flown in now.

Unlike a lot of people we have talked about many times in this chamber who went to residential schools, Harry was not that unlucky, but he was not lucky either. He contracted tuberculosis in this remote little community that lay in the northeast corner of British Columbia. As a young man, he was sent to the Camsell Hospital in Edmonton for treatment. He probably thought that he would never return, because in those days tuberculosis was a very deadly disease, especially for our aboriginal people.

Harry stayed there from 1949 to 1953, and miraculously recovered. However, he watched his brother, mother and father succumb to the disease. The whole family was wiped out, except for Harry.

While at the Camsell Hospital in 1952, something happened to Harry. Harry met Hank Snow, a country and western singer. Hank had come to Edmonton to perform, and someone asked if he would come over and talk to some of the kids and people at the Camsell Hospital. Hank agreed. There were a lot of kids there, about 300, I understand, but Harry was one of the lucky ones and Hank came over and talked to him. They took a liking to each other. As Harry says today, Hank inspired him with some simple words. He said, “Always look up,” referring to God and getting religion.

This changed Harry's life. He began to play guitar while in the hospital, and after leaving, as a young man, he joined the Canadian Armed Forces. As he was in the armed forces, he was eventually transferred to Vancouver. While there, he formed several bands and continued to play and learn his music. He had a love for gospel music and the old songs, and eventually went on to play for many years in the Grand Ole Opry. He is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. He received many awards over the years and became an ordained minister, which he is today.

Why am I talking about Harry? In the late 1980s, when I met Harry, I used to do a little moonlighting and flew for a small bush pilot operation. Harry asked me to fly him into Kahntah, which I did. He wanted to visit his roots.

As we went to the Kahntah village, which is very small, with only two or three buildings, Harry spoke to me about how important his heritage was to him. He spoke of the importance of his father, Edward, and his mother, Mary. He wanted to know where he came from and what it was all about. He spoke of the importance of the language he was losing and how he wanted to keep it alive.

That is what is so important about this bill: keeping the aboriginal language alive in Canada.

Yesterday I met Bill Adsit, an original member of the Tahltan Nation, who came from the northwest corner of B.C., the opposite side from where Harry came from. He was moved into a residential school at approximately the age of six, and never really had contact with his family after that. Bill spoke to a group of us yesterday about his harrowing experiences in the residential schools and his rebellious nature as a young man.

He turned his life around. I should say that before he changed his life around, he was put in jail on an outstanding warrant. While he was there, he did some soul-searching. He changed his life around. He joined the Canadian military and then went on to spend over 30 years working for the federal Government of Canada in many different government roles. He went on to get a university degree, and today Bill is part of the reconciliation team working on the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Bill's speech yesterday at the Château was very heartwarming, and he left us with a powerful message of determination to do well. He also spoke so deeply about his heritage.

The message I want to pass on to everyone here today is the determination to do well. We need to get this bill passed to save the aboriginal languages, and we need to pass it as soon as possible. This brings me back to the study.

We need to protect the languages of Canada's aboriginal people. As I travelled throughout most of British Columbia in my working career as a police officer, I visited first nations communities from one end of the province to the other. First nations reconciliation is not new, and respecting their traditions and retaining their language is not a new idea. They have been promoting, recognizing, respecting, revitalizing, and retaining their culture for years. They have been working. In the 70s, I remember different groups working to promote their culture in the neighbouring white communities, but in such a way as to make sure their youth understood the history of these great people.

Many years ago I was stationed in Gold River. The Malahat First Nation was in Gold River. I remember the first time I walked into the band office. There was a group of native ladies working there. They asked if I wanted to share in a birthday cake. I blurted out, without even thinking, “What colour is it? I only eat white cake.” I realized what I had said and I turned red. They looked at me with a little shock, and then they all started laughing. Over the years I was stationed there, I spent more and more time in that band office, getting to know those ladies and learning about the Malahat culture.

When I left that community some four years later, they invited me there for a party. During the party, they had a cake. The cake was covered in red icing, the inside was white, and on the top of it was a garlic sausage. We mixed our cultures. We learned cultures together over the years that I was stationed there.

In many communities across Canada, we have places called friendship centres, where the aboriginal people living in urban centres gather and encourage the community to come to visit with them and learn their ways and culture. It is so very important that we recognize that. If members have a friendship centre in their area, they should visit it. The work they do in the urban centres of Canada is amazing.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

Gary Anandasangaree Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism (Multiculturalism), Lib.

Mr. Speaker, my friend opposite expressed a great deal of concern about the timeline. It seemed almost as though he was giving up on the process already. We still have 13 weeks to go in this Parliament, and I believe that if we all work together, we can get this legislation through, along with many other pieces of legislation.

I would ask the member if he would commit to making sure this legislation gets through both the House and the Senate and if he would assist us in making sure his Senate colleagues also work with us on this.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.


Jim Eglinski Conservative Yellowhead, AB

Mr. Speaker, I asked the parliamentary secretary earlier if she was willing to co-operate and work with the opposition parties. After listening to the conversations of my colleagues in the NDP and members across the aisle, I think we are all ready to get going on this. Let us throw partisanship aside and get something done that is very important to aboriginal communities in this country. We have 60 days. We can do it, but let us do it together.

Indigenous Languages ActGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.


The Deputy Speaker Conservative Bruce Stanton

The hon. member for Yellowhead will have eight and a half minutes remaining in the time for questions and comments when the House next debates the motion.

It being 5:30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of Private Members' Business as listed on today's Order Paper.

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

February 7th, 2019 / 5:30 p.m.


Mark Eyking Liberal Sydney—Victoria, NS


That, in the opinion of the House, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities should examine the possibility and practicality of extending the maximum number of weeks of Employment Insurance sick benefits for those with long term illnesses; and that the Committee report its findings and recommendations to the House no later than six months from the adoption of this motion.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the chamber tonight to speak on my private member's motion, Motion No. 201, to extend employment insurance benefits, as extending employment insurance benefits is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do.

I will start by expressing my appreciation to all of my colleagues in the House who have already expressed to me their support for the extension of these benefits. We all know someone who has experienced financial hardship when recovering from a debilitating disease. Anyone who knows me knows that I have always been an advocate for this extension. I put it forward in the House many years ago and I am putting it forward again today. I see all too often at home in Cape Breton how diseases can cripple people financially when their EI benefits run out.

Sickness benefits were provided in the Employment Insurance Act in the 1970s by government as a compassionate option for Canadians who have to leave their jobs temporarily due to illness. The financial support is intended to allow individuals to focus on their treatment. Current legislation allows recipients up to a maximum of only 15 weeks. The length of recipients' terms of sick benefits is decided by health care professionals. Many aspects of the El Act have changed since it was passed. However, the duration period has gone unchanged.

Many of us in the chamber have constituents, friends and family members who have experienced financial hardship as they recovered from serious diseases such as cancer, heart problems or respiratory issues. Like other members, my constituency office in Cape Breton sees this happen all too often. People apply for El sick benefits and receive the full 15 weeks, but find themselves incapable of going back to work after those 15 weeks.

Think about it. It could be a nurse, teacher, bus driver, fish plant worker, factory worker or construction worker. It does not matter. Let us say a 40-year-old has paid into the system for 20 years and gets prostate or breast cancer or whatever, and it is curable. Most cancers are curable now, but it takes a year. There are no payments after 15 weeks. The person may have to sell the car or remortgage the house. That individual paid into the EI system for 20 years while being a productive citizen and will be going back into the workforce.

These Canadians, through no fault of their own, as I said, have to remortgage their homes to get by financially. They use up all of their savings, if they have any, and continue paying for everything else. We are hearing more and more from medical professionals and the studies they conduct that stress has a serious negative effect on our bodies. It would certainly have a negative impact on a person's effort to recover from a prolonged or serious ailment.

In my hometown of Cape Breton, a local doctor, Dr. Ron MacCormick, an oncologist, attests that it can take at least one year after cancer treatment before a patient starts to regain energy. In fact, most oncologists will say that treatment, surgery, chemotherapy or radiation takes one year. The harsh reality is that cancer and other serious illnesses do not discriminate. Canadians of all ages are attacked by disease. The unfortunate part is that these people still have lots of productive work years left ahead of them, but if we are not giving people proper time to recover, they may even relapse upon returning to work.

Canada is known as one of the most progressive countries in the world. However, it is less known that our country also has one of the shortest periods of sickness protection in the modern world. Many European countries see the benefit in bridging. They find that bridging workers when they suffer from illness is a net benefit to their society. It is an investment. These people do not get lost in the welfare system or the pension system. When we bridge them financially through tough periods of sickness to health, they come back to work and contribute to society.

Increasing the amount of weeks that sick Canadians could receive does not mean they will use all those weeks. It simply gives them the option to use them if they are needed in recovery. We owe this to Canadians.

In fact, The Globe and Mail reported last year that almost four out of every 10 applicants are maxing out these sick benefits and the demand for El sick benefits hit a 10-year high in 2015.

I would put to the House that the spirit and intent back when the Employment Insurance Act sickness benefits provisions were first enacted were to help people through such hard times. Times have changed. There seems to be more people with cancer. The reality is that more people are getting cured. Therefore, we have to change the act accordingly and ensure that these people have the proper transition back to their normal lives.

Our government has made some positive changes to the El act since 2015, including changing the rules for regular benefits, extending parental leave to 18 months, introducing an option for five weeks of leave for parents adopting children and making compassionate care leave more accessible. However, we need to focus on sick benefits.

Just this past December, at the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, Mr. Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at the University of Victoria, stated that an extension of the 15 weeks to 26 weeks is a sound investment in Canadians. He said this would be “an investment in early interventions and job retention, so that these people would not be opting [to totally leave the workforce]. They would be continuing to work and making some premium contributions.”

I also appreciate the positive comments from all sides of the House during that committee.

For example, there were positive comments made by the member for Battlefords—Lloydminster. She said, “When people are denied by Service Canada, how is that spoken to them? Is there compassion...?”

The member for North Okanagan—Shuswap, at the human resources committee on the same day, asked about the type of assistance we can look at providing for employers who are making those accommodations to try to keep employees who are suffering from disorders.

The member for Fort McMurray—Cold Lake, at that same committee, said that when it comes to applying for a job, “we have to ensure that people with...disabilities in general, are not turned away.”

It is great to see that we have cross-support for this, because out of the 333 members of Parliament we have, I do not think there is one member's constituency office that does not see people coming in with this happening. Therefore, we all know it is a problem and we should fix it.

There remains a misconception that people who have maximized their El sick benefits can simply apply for Canada pension plan disability benefits. As many members know, the criteria for this program are very strict and most patients are denied because they are not considered 100% disabled. The small numbers of those who meet the criteria are faced with a three-month long application process. Then there is a long waiting period before they actually receive payment. On top of this harsh criteria for the Canada pension plan disability benefits, not all employers offer a long-term disability program. We have to help these people within that one year. Therefore, on top of the harsh criteria for the Canada pension disability, we have to have something else.

For nearly a decade, one-third of Canadians who claim sick benefits are maxing out their 15 weeks. That averages out to roughly 135,000 people in 2016-17. I believe the consistency in these numbers shows that this program is failing Canadians.

Too many are facing unnecessary financial stress at a time when they should be directing 100% of their energies toward battling their ailments and recovering. We just have to think about the worry and concern a person who finds out they have an ailment like this has. They should not be concerned that they cannot buy groceries, pay the phone bill or drive their kids around. No Canadian should be left trying to figure out where they are going to get the money to pay for all these things. We should be helping them.

There is a need for this legislation. The job of health professionals, associations and organizations is to make people better. Our health system is there to make people better. Our job is to help people financially when they are being treated. Employees and employers are paying into this system. Employees want to get back to work and employers need them back to work. We have to help them get through that.

I would like to finish off with a few points. Like I said, the employment insurance fund is funded by employees and employers. It is their money. A healthy nation is a working, contributing nation. These Canadians have paid into this program their whole working lives. It is our turn to take care of them when they need it most.

Increasing the number of weeks sick Canadians can receive does not mean they will use them all. It simply gives them the option to use them if they need them for their recovery. Who knows? After 20 weeks, they might be good to go back to work part time. Things might be okay, but they should not have to worry when they get to 15 weeks. A lot of times, treatment does not start right when they are diagnosed and not feeling well. It could take five weeks to start treatment.

This motion is not a partisan issue. It is about dignity for sick Canadians. It is about changing this system from a one-size-fits-all approach. It is not only the right thing to do, but it is the smart thing to do. I hope my colleagues in the House will support my motion when it comes before the House.

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

5:40 p.m.


Niki Ashton NDP Churchill—Keewatinook Aski, MB

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for the spirit of the motion he put forward and the heartfelt speech he gave to the House today.

For a long time, the NDP has advocated for improvements to EI, deep EI reform, including the extension of sick benefits. In fact, we have stood with numerous advocates from coast to coast to coast, calling for an extension of up to 50 weeks for those who are dealing with terminal illnesses and those who need the support.

My question is to my colleague across and his government. If they care so deeply about the need to extend these benefits, why not just skip the study, because we already know this is critical, and just move to making the difference for Canadians?

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Mark Eyking Liberal Sydney—Victoria, NS

Mr. Speaker, it is not my first time in the House trying to get this through, and I appreciate the support from the NDP. My first private member's bill came through the House and failed. The Harper government cancelled it because it was a money bill, I guess, and needed a royal recommendation.

If we are going to have unanimous consent, we have to get it to committee. There are new facts around this coming forward now, new numbers, and we need to get more professionals coming to committee. We really need to get a bulletproof case on this, which is why I want to see it at committee. The findings of that committee will come back to the House and we will take it from there.

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Kent Hehr Liberal Calgary Centre, AB

Mr. Speaker, the time has come when we should study the full parameters of this idea. Many people in my area of Calgary Centre, as well as some of the organizations there such as Spinal Cord Injury Alberta and the MS Society, have long advocated for a more flexible, more fair and more responsive employment insurance program that looks at sickness, not as how long one takes his or her benefits but how long one takes to recover, and puts that compassionate lens to the intersection of disability and work. With 14% of Canadians having some form of disability, this is something that is imperative.

The member mentioned a study that he was looking at regarding people with disabilities. Does he believe that through a study the motion would be able to look more deeply into that?

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Mark Eyking Liberal Sydney—Victoria, NS

Mr. Speaker, that is a good question.

EI has different rules across the country. It depends on the unemployment in various areas. However, sickness benefits are the same across the country. The member mentioned the study, and it shows that this is helping people get through that moment when they need help.

That is also why I want to bring it to committee. There are so many new findings out there about how people recover when they are not under stress. That is part of it. That study shows it. There are also European studies. There has been a lot of stuff done in Europe showing how people get back into the workforce, almost seamlessly. People say, “Oh, were you gone?”, and the answer is, yes, they were gone but came right back in.

The numbers have come out, and I think it is 135,000 right now, maximizing the number. Just because it goes for 50 weeks, it does not mean people are going to use those 50 weeks. They might only have to have 35 weeks. The study speaks for itself, and an in-depth study at committee would bring out the numbers.

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.

Sean Fraser Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Lib.

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague, the hon. member for Sydney—Victoria who I know has been extraordinarily committed to this cause for some time. I have a constituent, who the House will hear more about later during my remarks, who has been personally affected by this issue. I had the opportunity to introduce her to my colleague in Halifax last April.

This has become a personal issue for me, because I learned about it from one of my constituents. I am curious. So many years ago, when the member first took up the torch, what was it, or who was it, that caused him to take on this cause and champion it so strongly here in Ottawa?

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

5:45 p.m.


Mark Eyking Liberal Sydney—Victoria, NS

Mr. Speaker, it all started when I became a member of Parliament. I did not even know what private members' bills were. I got up here and found out what they were, that it is when an MP wants to move something forward.

At that time, there was a lady in my office who worked for me for many years, Darlene Morrison. I talked to her about private members' bills. I asked her what was the thing that really struck her the most, the thing that we should be doing more about as a country, as a government. She mentioned the cases that we were getting about people who were sick and falling through the cracks. That is where it started. It started right in my office.

Then, of course, I was meeting these people and having them coming into the office. These were people we see every day, people in the grocery stores, people who are functioning in society, vibrant people, with families, who have everything happening for them. Then, all of a sudden, they are in my office, in tears, because their life is falling apart because they cannot make their payments.

I appreciate the member, and I appreciate his bringing one of his constituents to me. That is where it started. That is why I am going to keep pushing this. I am not going to give up.

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

5:50 p.m.

Richard Martel Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, CPC

Mr. Speaker, I arrived on Parliament Hill just six months ago. I have met many wonderful people here, including two I did not get to work with very often and who were taken from us by a horrible disease. I want to take this opportunity to offer my condolences to the families and friends of Michael Ferguson and Paul Dewar, two great Canadians we lost this week.

In the few interactions I had with Mr. Ferguson, I developed a great deal of respect for his thoroughness and values of justice. His exemplary reports were critical of both the Conservative and the Liberal governments and forced us to keep the course and to remember that we serve each and every Canadian.

I must admit that I did not know Paul Dewar before the photo shoot for the Parliamentarian of the Year awards, for which I was asked to prepare a few words in recognition of this big-hearted man. I will, however, always remember his speech. That evening, Mr. Dewar spoke about collaboration and working together. He asked everyone there to remember when they first got interested in politics and in serving the public.

I wanted to be the voice in Ottawa of the proud people living in the riding of Chicoutimi—Le Fjord and also in the beautiful region of Saguenay—Lac-Saint-Jean. It is satisfying when every person I meet shares a part of their life with me. When I went door-to-door, many people talked to me about EI sickness benefits. I am pleased today to address their concerns and support their efforts, by debating in the House Motion No. 201, moved by my colleague from Sydney—Victoria, which reads:

That, in the opinion of the House, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities should examine the possibility and practicality of extending the maximum number of weeks of Employment Insurance sick benefits for those with long term illnesses; and that the Committee report its findings and recommendations to the House no later than six months from the adoption of this motion.

I also think the subject reflects the wishes of Mr. Dewar, who said that we are stronger together. To borrow his words, is it not time to take off the armour of our political party and work together as people representing citizens to build a better country for everyone?

The reason I am speaking in the House today is that, as the Quebec Conservatives said, 15 weeks of EI benefits for people with chronic illnesses is not enough.

I would like to echo the sentiments of Marie-Hélène Dubé, the founder of the “15 weeks to heal is not enough” movement, who said that partisanship has no place in matters as important as illness. She made that statement during the general council for Quebec Conservatives that was held in Saint-Hyacinthe in May 2018.

On that same weekend, our dynamic Quebec members also expressed their support for Ms. Dubé's movement. As I learned on the campaign trail, and as everyone has probably realized at some point, it is all too easy to fall into a financial abyss after a serious illness. The financial burden only adds to the anxiety and fear. That does not help the healing process.

It is vital that we do our job as MPs and support our fellow Canadians who are already dealing with the stress of a serious illness. They should not have to worry about whether they will have enough money to make ends meet. I had already approached my Conservative caucus colleagues about this on my own initiative. I am very proud to debate it today in the House, where we seem to be coming to a consensus.

I support the motion because that will give us the opportunity to discuss it in detail in committee. Committee is the appropriate forum in which to closely examine all of the potential impacts of increasing the maximum number of weeks of sickness benefits and to work together to lay the groundwork for a joint proposal in the interests of all Canadians. It is important to look at the costs and benefits of such a proposal. It is also critical to determine what impact it would have on Canadian taxpayers.

Here are a few examples of the details that need to be worked out in committee. First, can we look into the possibility of shortening processing times and doing away with the deductible that is the one-week waiting period? Second, can we ensure that the system pays for itself without increasing employer and employee premiums? Finally, can we analyze regional differences as we do for regular EI benefits?

According to the “Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report”, in 2016-17, the average duration of employment insurance sickness benefits was 9.8 weeks, and 35.7% of claimants exhausted the maximum entitlement of 15 weeks.

What is more, the average duration of EI sickness benefits increased with the age of claimants. As many people have told me, when cancer hits, it is not hard to imagine how more than 15 weeks of benefits may be needed.

First, the awful news comes as a shock to the person and those close to them. Then the person has to wait for surgery when surgery is possible. That may be followed by rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. If the disease is inoperable, treatment may make it operable. Before getting any good news, however, the person may have been unable to work for several months or even a year. I wonder if there is some way to target illnesses or injuries that require more than 15 weeks of benefits.

According to the “Employment Insurance Monitoring and Assessment Report”, age is a factor in the number of weeks needed for full recovery. I imagine the type of illness or injury is too. If we want to control costs and act responsibly, might we consider scaling the maximum number of benefit weeks based on categories of injury or illness?

In conclusion, I am sure that, by working together, we can find a solution to help those who need help by increasing the maximum number of weeks of sickness benefits for people with serious illnesses without having a significant impact on the federal budget or hard-working Canadians like the people of Chicoutimi—Le Fjord.

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

5:55 p.m.


Niki Ashton NDP Churchill—Keewatinook Aski, MB

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Motion No. 201, which states, in part:

That, in the opinion of the House, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities should examine the possibility and practicality of extending the maximum number of weeks of Employment Insurance sick benefits for those with long term illnesses....

While my colleagues in the NDP and I will ultimately be supporting this motion, I cannot begin to express my disappointment in a Liberal government that is more focused on looking like it is doing things rather than actually doing them. The Liberal Party knows what is needed. The Liberals have had almost four years of a majority government to do this, but instead, have chosen to make Canadians wait longer.

That being said, the idea of extending El sick benefits is one that is long overdue and one that we as New Democrats support and have advocated for fervently. Since 1971, there has been no change to the amount of El sick benefits. People across our country are struggling. Inflation has risen 520% since then; the middle class has shrunk since then; wages have deflated since that time, and yet we are still stuck at 15 weeks.

Fifteen weeks is the current maximum number of weeks that Canadians with a long-term illness or an injury are allowed to take to help them cope with their incapacity to work. It is not enough.

When folks are struggling, we should be lifting them up. When people are sick, we should be able to comfort them. The toll that a long-term sickness or injury takes is large enough and we should not be making it harder on Canadians.

I am proud that we in the NDP have taken a strong position on extending these benefits. This is no surprise, because remember: It is our party that has a history for fighting for the well-being of people. We are the ones that brought in health care under Tommy Douglas. We have been committed to improving access and care, a fight we continue today.

Issue after issue, the Liberal government is almost where it needs to be in rhetoric but is not there in action. With pharmacare, the Liberals announced a tepid version preferred by industry rather than true universal pharmacare. On dental care, they are nowhere to be found. On child care, it is the same.

A proper health care system that truly caters to people's needs would include these things, plus increased access to mental health care, greater work protections for the sick, and the list goes on.

Clearly, there is a lot of work left to be done to fulfill Tommy Douglas's dream. Extending EI sick benefits would also be part of that vision.

New Democrats have been at the forefront of this fight. I want to acknowledge the work of my colleague from Port Moody—Coquitlam, who throughout his career has fought to improve the quality of EI sick benefits, proposing multiple pieces of legislation that would have made a real difference in people's lives.

He was inspired by Natalie Thomas, a cancer survivor from his riding, whose story highlighted the changes needed to the EI act. Natalie was recovering from breast cancer surgery and was forced to return to work because her EI sick benefits ran out. Canadians like her should not be forced to go back to work so quickly. They should be focused on getting better, and that is what we need.

My colleague from Hamilton Mountain recently told me a story about a constituent of his, Elaine, who donated a kidney to save someone's life. I think we can all agree that what Elaine did was incredible and we should be supporting her. The problem is we did not.

She wrote to my colleague that she would get an EI rate of 55% of her pay. She was the sole breadwinner in the household. Her husband had some severe health issues and was unable to have a full-time job. She also had to take care of her 93-year-old father. This was a severe hardship on her family but the person desperately needed a kidney transplant, and yet, because of the rules, she was forced to go back to work far too early. The recipient was off work for four to six months and only received EI for 15 weeks. She did not have a short-term benefit and she too was forced to go back to work early as she could not afford to stay off work to recover 100%.

A system that forces organ donors and recipients to go back to work while they recover is not a system that is working. We need fundamental change.

We already heard the story of Marie-Hélène Dubé. Marie-Hélène is a cancer survivor who presented a petition calling on the federal government to increase the number of weeks of EI sickness benefits from 15 to 50.

More than 600,000 Canadians signed that petition, the most of any petition in Canada. Clearly, Canadians want change.

Why are so many Canadians responding to Marie-Hélène Dubé's call for 50 weeks? Currently, almost 40% of Canadians using El sick benefits are maxing them out. For many Canadians, they have a choice at that point, return to work still injured, or receive an income or leave their jobs to focus on getting better. Neither are acceptable options. The reality is that Canadians tend to need 50 weeks to recover from illness and injury. We are not even covering a third of the needed time, and Canadians deserve better.

Following the 2015 election, many Canadians had hope for sunnier days ahead from the government and the early results were encouraging for some. In 2016, the Minister of Social Development publicly committed to expanding El sick benefits. It has been two years and there has been nothing.

Instead of working to improve people's lives, the Liberals are proposing another study, another study that in all likelihood will not have time to finish its work before the next election. I know the government likes to talk a good progressive game while accomplishing very little, but even for them this is a little rich. Canadians like Natalie and Marie-Hélène deserve more than another study. They deserve more than 15 weeks.

Let us not forget everyone who does not even qualify for these benefits, who the government consistently ignores. I am thinking of young people, the precariously unemployed and underemployed, people in my riding and all across the country who need a bit of help, but the government is not there to give it to them.

When rich American billionaires want pipelines built, the government goes the extra mile. When SNC-Lavalin breaks the law, the government looks like it is there for it. However, when regular Canadians are being forced to return to work either sick or injured or quit their jobs because they are too sick to perform, the government does not even budge an inch. It will propose a study, but it certainly will not do anything to actually improve someone's life.

The hypocrisy and cynicism of this type of politics that privileges style over substance is typical of the government. We see it in the government's attitude toward reconciliation and indigenous peoples. We see it in its attitude toward the environment. We see it in its attitude toward the sick and injured.

The worst part is that the government acknowledges that it will not have time to make any changes to EI. Not even six months ago, the Minister of Social Development admitted that there was not time to make changes to the El sickness system, given the federal election. The government is open about the fact that it cannot make the changes it needs to make and that this, all of this, is just window dressing.

The motion will pass and the Liberals will pretend it is a win, but it is not. The motion represents four years of the Liberals refusing to fix the problem. It represents almost half a decade of successive Liberal and Conservative governments ignoring the issue.

My colleagues and I will vote in support of the motion, but we do it understanding that this is not the change that Canadians deserve. We do it because we support the principle of extending El sick benefits. It is a pity that the government's actions show that it does not.

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Sean Fraser Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Lib.

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure and a privilege to rise to discuss this important private member's motion, brought forward by my colleague, the member for Sydney—Victoria.

The moral measure of any government is how its society treats its most vulnerable people, its children, its elderly, its poor and its sick. In Nova Scotia, we hear constantly about the challenges that face our health care system. As a federal representative, so many of the day-to-day decisions when it comes to health care are driven by the provincial government. It is frustrating to hear people raise everyday concerns. It could be someone just like us, our sister, father or mother. Oftentimes we feel frustration because there is not as much we can do at the federal level to help deliver those day-to-day services we hear so much about in our constituency office.

There are a number of ways the government can support the vulnerable and the sick. One of them is staring us in the face with the motion before us. The motion is very simple. At its core, it recognizes there is a problem that sickness benefits do not extend for a long enough period to provide people with the coverage they need. By supporting the motion, we will get the information we need to execute on a policy that will provide that coverage and ensure that people have the financial support they need to get through times of extraordinary difficulty.

As the member said during his remarks, this is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.

We can all appreciate the importance of employment insurance. It exists for a number of reasons, to help people when they need it most and to help people who need it most. In Atlantic Canada, the predominance of our seasonal industries require that EI is there at certain times of the year for people who find themselves out of work but do not want to leave home. My family benefited significantly from the EI program for parents of critically ill children when our daughter was born with certain health concerns.

Our government made certain changes to expand parental leave, extending it to five weeks and giving more flexibility over 18 months for new parents as well. We extended the compassionate care benefit for up to six months for people who were taking care of loved ones. We reduced waiting periods and made a series of other changes to the important EI program.

However, there remains a critical gap for those people who find they cannot go to work because they have fallen ill. At its core, the problem is this. If one becomes sick, one can claim EI benefits for a period of 15 weeks. Conversely, if one gets fired or laid off, one can claim for a much longer period of time, up to 50 weeks. There is a dissonance between these two periods of time that just does not make sense to me. It is unfathomable to me that in 2019, in Canada of all places, one is better off to get fired than to get cancer.

This is a file I care very deeply about, because one of my constituents came into my office early on in our mandate. Her name is Kathy MacNaughton. She is a sweet person. She is everything we could hope for in a community member. She cares deeply about her family and her community. Kathy and her family were dealt one heck of a blow a few years back when her husband David was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at the young age of 50. David passed away not too long thereafter, and it put her family in an extraordinarily difficult position.

There are so many other families like Kathy's that are living this reality every day, and there is something we can do to help them. Kathy made a final promise to her partner before he passed that she would continue to fight until she effected the kind of change that would have helped a family like hers going forward. She met with my predecessor before the last federal election. She has met with me. She has met with local MLAs. She has even engaged in the political policy development process with parties to help us arrive at a policy we can agree on to make this change happen. If every citizen was as engaged as Kathy was, I cannot imagine what a wonderful country this would be.

We know the current policy is insufficient, because 35% of the people who claim EI sickness benefits max them out. I think the number is somewhere in the range of 135,000 people who max out these benefits every year. This is a serious problem. There are 135,000 Canadians who are not receiving the benefits they need because they have become sick.

I note that this year one of the only three recommendations the Canadian Cancer Society has put forward in advance of the next federal budget is to extend EI sickness benefits to 26 weeks. I have met with its representatives in my office. This is something we can and must do.

It is a fabulous opportunity to make a real difference in people's lives. If we invest in people when they fall ill, they will be better able to return to the workforce.

In Kathy's example, her husband was earning about $6,000 a month before he was diagnosed. That was reduced to a small fraction, less than $2,000 a month when he qualified for the EI sickness benefits. When he finally did qualify for CPP near the end of his life, they were taking in $852 a month. Kathy describes herself and her family as one of the lucky ones. She was working and had some sort of insurance, as so many other families do. Imagine families trying to cover the bills for food or for a mortgage on $852 a month when they were previously taking in $6,000.

The fact is that we are setting off a spiral for so many families that may lose their homes, maybe choosing between keeping the lights on or having food for their kids. These are very real, practical choices that make a difference in the lives of people like Kathy. I made a commitment to her to work with my colleagues, including the member for Sydney—Victoria, who she had the chance to meet, to ensure that this happened. I will not give up on it until we see this change implemented in the law.

People who fall ill with something like cancer, serious heart disease or other terminal illnesses have better things to worry about. They should worry about spending time with their families and recovering rather than where their next cheque is going to come from. Show me a cancer survivor who is fully recuperated and goes back to work after 15 weeks. It is not realistic. Everyone in the House knows someone, probably loves someone, who has been impacted by cancer. To think that we assume in less than four months people are going to be fully recovered, the system is not fair the way it is today and we need to work to change it together.

The benefits of moving forward with the study the member has proposed are numerous. We should understand the cost of this step before we implement it. We should understand how many people are specifically affected. If there are certain people who are suffering from certain kinds of illnesses that are currently not getting coverage, that is helpful information that would come out in the course of the study.

One of the members of the Conservative Party pointed out that there may be regional difference in terms of what illnesses would impact people and who would qualify for this benefit. It would helpful to be made aware of that. As I mentioned, there are a number of frustrations that I have as a federal representative when I know how important health is to my constituents. There are policy items that we are removing the chains on, like moving toward implementing a pharmacare system in Canada.

In the last few years, we saw a transfer to the provinces that was the largest in Canada's history, with a specific carve out for mental health and in-home care for seniors. For provinces like mine, that is $130 million extra for mental health and $157 million for in-home care for seniors. However, it is so important that we are not just sending money to provinces and telling them to do what they want. It is important to realize we can provide the wraparound supports for families to ensure they do not fall victim to a vicious cycle when they are forced into poverty to cover the costs of their illness.

Every cancer survivor who I have spoken to has told me that it has taken an incredible economic toll on his or her family for little things like gas to the city. I am from northern Nova Scotia and most folks who are diagnosed with cancer are regularly making trips to and from Halifax. Those gas bills add up. For those who are able to afford a hotel room, it is still an issue, because hotel bills add up very quickly. We are thankful to have incredible institutions like The Lodge That Gives in our province. However, it is unreasonable in a community like mine, where the median income is just a shade over $20,000 a year, to expect people of those means, people who are going to be living on a pittance after their benefits, to afford the cost of travelling to and from the city, to stay in a hotel or wherever they can find a place. Frankly, they are usually not an environment that is best for their recovery.

By supporting the motion, we will have the information we need to confirm the right path forward is to extend EI sickness benefits so people can actually draw on the benefits of the fund they have paid into. In 2019, in Canada, it is not right to be better off to be fired than to get cancer. I will not give up on this until this change is implemented in law.

Employment InsurancePrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.


Ted Falk Conservative Provencher, MB

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to rise and speak to this motion this evening. I appreciate the opportunity to comment on Motion No. 201, which seeks to extend the EI benefits for those experiencing sickness and disability caused by sickness.

The motion proposes a valuable examination of a program that many Canadians rely on during very challenging times. As members of the House will know, the employment insurance program was initiated to offer temporary financial assistance to unemployed workers. It helps workers to bridge the financial gap between jobs and ensures that people are able to stand on their own two feet during seasons of transition or change.

One of the special benefits that the EI program provided was the sickness benefit, and it does still provide it. Those who are unable to work due to sickness or injury can turn to EI when their circumstances keep them from working. As it stands now, individuals unable to work because of sickness or injury who would otherwise be available to work could be eligible to receive a maximum of 15 weeks of EI sickness benefits. The purpose of this is to give people time to get better, making sure that they are able to restore their health so that they can go back to work healthy.

It makes sense to have a safety net in place for Canadians who are sick and injured. Even when we have not experienced long-term illness or injury ourselves, chances are we know someone, whether a family member, friend or co-worker, who has. Missing work as a result of situations like this can be taxing and take a personal toll. Beyond that, it can leave individuals in a financial lurch too. I have experienced sickness both in my family and in my circle of friendship.

I was recently reading a Global News report which said that half of all Canadians are $200 away from not being able to pay their bills. Part of what the motion proposes is to also eliminate the two-week waiting period for those experiencing sickness or injury. I think that is a tremendous measure. When I think of the statistic that half of Canadians are $200 away from not being able to pay their hydro bill or buy groceries or prescription drugs, that is a very sobering thought.

Illness and injury do not respect anyone. They can happen at any time. When something like that happens, I think we have to have measures in place that people can depend on to get them through that difficult time. We know that if people have to worry about their finances when they are sick, it adds to the sickness and injury. It actually decreases their chance for a speedier recovery. It adds that extra stress, which sometimes the body just cannot handle. This is precisely why EI programs exist: to help lessen the toll on our fellow citizens who are facing tough times.

As policy-makers, it is up to us to make sure that this system serves Canadians the way it was intended to and that it is sustainable for future generations of workers. This means finding exactly the right balance between the needs of employees and employers. It means ensuring responsible government management of the program today and also down the road.

In 2006, the member for Sydney—Victoria introduced Bill C-288, an act to amend the employment insurance act regarding benefits for illness, injury or quarantine. His legislation proposed to extend the maximum period for benefits from 15 weeks to 50 weeks. In 2011, a former member of the House introduced Bill C-291, an act to amend the Employment Insurance Act regarding the waiting period and maximum special benefits. This legislation also proposed to extend the maximum duration of employment insurance for sickness to 50 weeks from 15 weeks, as well as to eliminate the requirement of the two-week waiting period prior to receiving sickness benefits.

It was during the more recent iteration, known as Bill C-291, that the Parliamentary Budget Officer took a look at what this new maximum would mean in terms of dollars. The PBO determined that the estimated cost would have been up to $1.1 billion for the year 2009-10. Broken down, there was about $200 million for the elimination of the two-week waiting period and around $900 million for the extension of benefits from 15 weeks to 50 weeks. This figure was a static cost estimate, and so potential behavioural responses to these changes were not factored in.

The PBO's report further noted that if the bill had been implemented in 2009-10, total sickness benefit payments would have been approximately 100% higher than they were at the time. As stated in the report, given the fact that the “Employment Insurance program is financed by the collection of EI premiums from employers and employees...any increase in EI expenditures would require an equivalent increase in EI premium insurance revenues.” This would be in order for the program to remain self-funding.

This is, of course, an important consideration for the long-term sustainability of the EI program that we must keep in mind as we proceed with this study.

In the June 2016 report of HUMA entitled “Exploring the Impact of Recent Changes to Employment Insurance and Ways to Improve Access to the Program”, recommendation number 7 states:

The Committee recommends that the federal government explore increasing the maximum number of weeks of employment insurance sickness benefits.

While the official opposition wrote a dissenting report to address some important concerns with the contents of the main report, the fact of the matter is that the key idea behind Motion No. 201 has been laid out previously. Several times parliamentarians have seen the need to address this issue in the EI program.

Sickness benefits cost the EI system $1.6 billion in 2017. We have also seen a trend since 2015 of a greater demand for sickness benefits.

The government noted in its response to the HUMA June 2016 report:

The EI sickness benefit is designed to provide temporary income support for short-term absences from the labour force due to illness, injury or quarantine. While the 15 weeks of benefits appear adequate for the majority of workers, some claimants do exhaust their sickness benefits and stakeholders often request an extension in the case of more serious illnesses. In 2014/2015, on average, claimants of the EI sickness benefit collected 10 weeks of benefits and 34.8% used all of the 15 weeks available to them. The EI sickness benefit complements a range of other supports that are available for workers with longer-term illnesses, including benefits offered through employer-sponsored group insurance plans, private coverage held by individuals and long-term disability benefits available under the Canada Pension Plan and provincial and territorial programs. Improvements to the sickness benefit including potential extension of the maximum duration would require careful consideration of the interactions with other supports, impacts on employers, and would be expected to have a significant cost implication, with resulting premium rate increases.

With these realities before us, there is ample reason to take stock of the situation and lay out recommendations for the best path forward. There are many moving parts when it comes to EI sickness benefits that we ought to take note of throughout our work.

I appreciate the work of the member for Sydney—Victoria for facilitating this conversation with this motion. We have certainly seen this issue considered in various forms over the past years, but when we are talking about a program that supports Canadians, it is important for all of us to be engaged in these discussions. I will be supporting this motion because this is a conversation worth having, recognizing that we must be responsible stewards of the EI program to make sure it continues to serve Canadians well now and into the future. Conservatives understand that when individuals are facing challenges like longer-term illness or injury, they need support.

On this side of the House, I know members are always open to exploring ways that government programming puts people first. That is why members of our Conservative caucus have been championing initiatives that focus on government being more compassionate and responsive to the needs of Canadians.

In our 2015 economic action plan, our previous Conservative government extended compassionate care for the care of terminally ill loved ones from six weeks to six months. These benefits, provided through the EI program, help support individuals temporarily away from work to care for a sick family member with a significant risk of death. Our party has always been committed to helping families receive the support they need as they care for loved ones, especially at end of life, and we backed that up with meaningful action.

Now in opposition, Conservatives continue to champion initiatives such as the opportunity for workers with disabilities act, introduced by the member for Carleton, to ensure that disabled Canadians never lose more in benefits and taxation than they gain as a result of work. Unfortunately, a majority of Liberal MPs voted against this bill before it was even studied.

The member for Calgary Shepard has brought forward Bill C-399 to improve access to the disability tax credit to help ensure that all Canadians living with a disability receive the benefits they deserve and are entitled to. I hope all members of this House will support that common-sense initiative as well.

The member for Banff—Airdrie brought forward Motion No. 110 to determine ways for government to be more sensitive to parents who have suffered the loss of an infant child and to improve the level of support for grieving parents. I was pleased to see this motion considered in-depth by the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities and I look forward to the committee's report.

These are examples that reflect the passion of our official opposition benches for putting people before government. It is why we are open to studying how we can better a key government program in a way that meets Canadians' needs. I hope all members here will agree that the conversation that Motion No. 201 proposes is one worth having.

I know that as opposition members we are always very sensitive about cost implications and further taxation. This could incur another payroll tax, but it could be one that is worth incurring.