Mr. Speaker, I move that the 14th report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities presented on Thursday, February 7, 2019, be concurred in.
As I rise today to seek concurrence in the 14th report of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, entitled “Supporting Families After the Loss of a Child”, I have one message: The time for action is now. It is not time for further debate, for foot-dragging or for fancy political spin. We need action.
We have been presented with a clear solution, a clear path forward. Anything less than action on the part of the government does a disservice to the parents who need our immediate help, our compassion and our assistance.
The journey of Motion No. 110 began about four years ago, when a family in my constituency of Banff—Airdrie reached out to me to share their story and ask for help. It was a story of heartbreak. It is one that has remained firmly imprinted on me. It is one that no parent, no person, should ever have to experience.
Sarah and Lee Cormier welcomed Quinn, a beautiful baby girl, into the world in 2014. Four short months later, heartbreak and grief struck the family when she passed away suddenly in her sleep. While they were experiencing any parent's worst nightmare, the grief, the shock, the pain that comes with that, they were were also being forced to deal immediately with cold, heartless, bureaucratic federal government processes.
They would be required to immediately return to work. The parental benefit was cut off on the day that Quinn had passed. If they did not immediately inform the federal government of the loss and subsequently received payments, they would have been required to repay them. We can well imagine that in that period, this is not the first thing on a person's mind. Repayment would have to be done in person as well, as there is no other way to do it. It cannot be done online or any other way. Notifying the government could not even be done over the phone.
After making many calls to Service Canada, waiting on hold and then explaining their painful story over and over again, they were informed that they were required, in the height of their grief, to drive down to a Service Canada office, stand in line and present their daughter's death certificate.
Lee Cormier testified the following at committee:
Quinn died on December 28. On January 3 we had her funeral and on January 5 we stood in line at Service Canada. The employee told us we were lucky that we didn't have to pay back the next week's benefit. The words she used were 'Your child ceases to exist, so therefore the benefits will cease to exist.'
Let us think about those words and what it would mean to hear them when grieving the loss of a child: “Your child ceases to exist, so therefore the benefits will cease to exist.” This is what they were told by a federal government employee. No grieving parent should ever have to experience what the Cormiers did.
Unfortunately, the Cormiers are not alone in their experience of this cold, heartless bureaucratic process. I have heard hundreds of parents with similar stories, who have bravely reached out to me over the last few years to tell me their stories.
An example of that is the heart-wrenching story of an advocate from Nova Scotia named Paula Harmon, who lost her daughter Grace. She was forced to tell her story over and over again to a number of Service Canada officials, and was ultimately sent to a doctor to get a note to be able to qualify for sickness leave. One of the arguments the government has made is that people can qualify for sickness leave.
The reason that the doctor put on the note was “bereavement of daughter”. When she presented that note to a federal official, she was told she would be ineligible for benefits. She was told, in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge way, that if she could get her doctor to put some other reason, she might be able to qualify.
We should also think about the story of Rachel and Rob Samulack from here in Ottawa. Their son, Aaron Isaiah Robert Peters Samulack, was born on June 19, 2016, and spent 100 precious minutes with his family after his birth. He passed away surrounded by love in the arms of his parents.
Rachel and Rob were also forced to tell their heartbreaking story many, many times, to numerous Service Canada agents, in fighting for the benefits to be able to have an opportunity to grieve. Rachel was ultimately forced to return to work well before she was ready to do so.
There is also the story of Gillian Hato from Alberta. She was told by federal officials that she had to go in person to the bank to repay the benefits; she was not able to do that online. There was no other option than to go there in person while she was in the deepest throes of grief. She testified to the committee that she could not bear to go out in public. She was not near ready to do that yet. She was physically ill in the bank parking lot, thinking about the idea of having to go inside to repay those benefits. She was in a small town, and she knew that when she went inside, she would be asked where her newborn baby was.
There is the story of Jens and Kerstin Locher, who lost their son Tobias. Jens testified at committee about this excruciating experience. They went into Service Canada; there was no way they could control the times and the terms of where they had to tell their story. I will quote from his testimony. He stated:
After Tobias died, we had to make arrangements with Service Canada to organize my wife's maternity leave. During this difficult time, we had to leave our safe home where we could hide and venture out into the world to file some paperwork. We had to stand in the open-plan office and explain our situation. Not only that, but several years later...we received a letter from Service Canada stating that we had claimed too much money. It took multiple phone calls and letters over several months to clear up with staff that we had not committed any type of fraud for this overpayment. We had simply requested the time to start immediately after Tobias' death, which was on a weekend, and my wife did not go back to work on Monday.
Due to some system settings, the EI system automatically adjusted the start date from the Monday that we had requested to the Monday of the following week. We didn't pick up on it, and my wife's employer started the week we had requested, so there was this one-week gap. We then had to explain over several months that we were entitled to the 15 weeks but that there was this discrepancy.
Those are just a few of the hundreds of stories that I have heard from grieving parents.
Sometimes, each of us in this place needs to step back from our partisanship and look at things from a purely human lens. This is clearly one of those times. This is not an issue that is partisan; it is an issue of human compassion. It needs to be fixed. Action needs to be taken now. This committee report gives us the solution through its seven recommendations. It gives us the path forward, but the government needs to implement them.
What I have been most surprised with, through the journey of Motion No. 110, is to have been met with all of these hurdles and roadblocks every single step of the way from the Liberal government.
I must give credit to many members of Parliament from all parties who have recognized the importance of taking action on this non-partisan issue: the Liberal members for Lac-Saint-Louis and Central Nova, who both gave impassioned speeches on this topic; the Liberal member for Edmonton Centre, who bravely shared his own personal experience with infant loss in his family at committee; and, the NDP member for Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, who has also been very supportive throughout debate and the committee process.
I also want to thank my Conservative colleagues, the members for Elgin—Middlesex—London, Flamborough—Glanbrook, Yorkton—Melville and Calgary Shepard, who have all been extremely supportive every step of the way through this parliamentary process.
Despite the non-partisan nature of this topic, the first Liberal roadblock came during the very first debate. During that first hour of debate on April 27, 2018, the member for Kanata—Carleton got up and coldly read an obviously cut-and-paste, talking-point speech, which spoke of existing supports, rather than recognizing that there are in fact issues within the system. It appeared at the time that the Liberals were not going to support this motion, and I believe that was the case.
However, there were affected parents watching that day in the gallery who were clearly very disappointed. They were there to hear the Liberal government, which so often preaches about helping parents, yet the Liberals got up and glibly claimed that there was no actual issue here. Instead, they pointed to things they had previously done that had absolutely no impact at all on the issue at hand. There were many parents all across the country who watched that speech, and it was their determination, the thousands of signatures on petitions and hundreds of emails and phone calls to Liberal MPs all across this country urging them to support this motion, that forced the government to have a change of heart.
When it came time for the second reading, the Liberals would only agree to support the motion if I amended the wording of the motion from having the human resources committee be “instructed” to undertake a study to having it say “requested” to undertake a study. Now, this is despite the fact that motions that instruct committees are passed all the time in the House of Commons, but the Liberals were trying to claim that somehow this was improper. I was certainly concerned about that, because I was worried this would be something they would use as a way for the government to get out of having any committee meetings on this motion. However, of course, I was also happy that the Liberals were seeming to have an about-face on this. This issue needed to be studied, and I realize that sometimes one has to put a little water in the wine to be able to get to the finish line. Therefore, on June 8, 2018, Motion No. 110 was passed unanimously in this House, as amended.
Then the “instructed” versus “requested” roadblocks started to come. Because the motion said only “requested”, the Liberal majority members on the committee decided they needed to have only four meetings with witnesses, instead of the six that the motion asked for. Because the motion said only “requested”, the Liberal majority on the committee decided that the report did not need to be tabled by December 8, 2018, the deadline that was asked for in the motion. If this was questioned by anyone at the committee, any debate was immediately shut down, usually by a motion by the Liberal member for Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge, which was then forced through by the Liberal majority. One of these disgraceful Liberal displays even happened in front of the witnesses who were there to testify. Eventually, the committee report was tabled on February 7, 2019, two full months after it was supposed to have been tabled.
However, there have been further roadblocks in trying to get the Liberal government to actually take action on the recommendations contained in the report. All Liberal MPs voted against the Conservative amendment to the budget implementation act, which would have given grieving parents the 12 weeks of bereavement leave after the loss of a child. That recommendation was actually contained in the committee report. Every other party in the House of Commons supported this amendment.
When Conservative members recently asked for an update on the status of the implementation of the recommendations at the HUMA committee, once again, the Liberal member for Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge shut down the debate. What is worse is that the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, the one who is responsible for ensuring that these recommendations are implemented, sat there in that committee silently. He could have easily committed to ensuring that all those recommendations were enacted, or even offered an update on what the government was doing, but he sat there silently. Instead, the only response we have from the Liberals and from that minister is a flowery-worded letter in response to the report, three months later, that is not taking any concrete action that the grieving parents need. Instead of saying that we will implement the recommendations, the letter points to past actions and half measures that simply do not address the issue at hand.
This report cannot sit on a shelf and just gather dust. This is a blueprint to ensure that grieving parents do not have to endure hardship or suffer any undue financial or emotional distress as a result of the design of government programming. Grieving parents deserve so much better than what they are getting from the current government. It is becoming increasingly clear that if action is actually going to be taken on this issue, it is not going to be through the Liberal government.
The Liberals have had many opportunities to act. They have been given so many opportunities to do the right thing, and, frankly, they have expended considerable effort in ensuring that nothing actually gets done. While they are trying to appear compassionate, they have actually actively worked to undermine these efforts.
I would like to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of so many parent advocates all across this country, without whose efforts we would never have been able to force the Liberals to even support this motion or to agree to the necessary recommendations in the committee report: people like Sarah and Lee Cormier of Quinn's Legacy Run in my home town; Cheryl Salter-Roberts and Baby Steps Walk to Remember in Edmonton-Sherwood Park; Nancy and Peter Slinn and Nicole Chadwick-Dunning from Empty Cradle BC; Annick Robinson and Cradles for Cuddles; Paula Harmon and Gardens for Grace in Nova Scotia; Jens Locher and October15.ca; Rob and Rachel Samulack, organizers of the Butterfly Run in Ottawa-Gatineau, as well as the organizers of the Butterfly Run in Brockville; Rachael Behie of Nova Scotia and Bria's Band; Jenita Naylor and Hope Box Canada; Michelle Lafontaine and the PAIL Network.
I want to thank all of these courageous advocates and many more like them from across the country. It is their determination that has gotten us this far, and it is their determination that will get this job done.
Now I must ask these advocates to once again demand action. This is a non-partisan issue, and asking for action is not a partisan request. Taking action is the only way forward. Do not fall for lip service. Do not fall for excuses. Only action is acceptable.
We need to get solid commitments from candidates. They need to ask the tough questions. They need to ask Liberal MPs why no real action has been taken when there has been every opportunity to do so. They need to ask for and get solid commitments for the enactment of the recommendations from this report.
Rest assured, when a Conservative government is elected come October, we will take action for grieving parents where the Liberals have failed.