House of Commons Hansard #18 of the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was wet'suwet'en.

Topics

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

Noon

Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Madam Speaker, it is always an honour to join the debate here in this House. It has been a great privilege to represent my constituents, first in 2011 as the member of Parliament for Okanagan-Coquihalla and since 2015, when the riding was redistributed, as the member of Parliament for Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola.

I mention that because in the first Parliament of which I was a member, we spent the better part of our time in a majority government opposing opposition day motions. Such is the norm of majority governments. In the last Parliament, I experienced an opposition day motion on the other side of that scenario; in fact, I was privileged to submit my own opposition day motion.

If I may take a moment, it was an eminently reasonable motion, calling on the Liberal government to expedite the Comeau case in the Supreme Court. Members may recall that Mr. Comeau was ticketed by his home province of New Brunswick for purchasing alcohol in nearby Quebec. His efforts to economize by shopping for the best prices is a situation that I am sure more and more Canadians can relate to, and they would question why the state was cracking down on someone who had purchased products lawfully, as Mr. Comeau had done.

As many have overlooked, the Liberal government had actually joined in the fight against the Comeau case in the eventual Supreme Court proceedings. It did not truly support internal free trade among all Canadians.

However, that is not the point of my sharing this memory. The point is that my motion, an eminently reasonable one, to expedite the Comeau case ended up in a vote, as opposition motions do, and that vote was one of the rare times, at least in the previous Parliament, when the NDP, the Greens and, as I recall, the Bloc Québécois all voted in support of my motion.

The Liberal majority government, to my surprise and of course disappointment, voted against it. Privately, after that vote, I had several Liberal MPs confide in me that they were whipped to vote that way and had no idea why the all-powerful inner circle and PMO had whipped them to vote against it.

I share this story today because we all know that in this minority Parliament, we collectively have the power to vote in favour of an opposition day motion an see it pass. To date, opposition parties have a pretty solid record of seeing opposition day motions getting passed.

To go on to this motion, once again I feel the need to share some personal comments. It does not happen often in this place, but there is the odd time when I very much want to support a motion but at the same time have strongly considered voting the motion down.

Why the dilemma? It is because I believe we are all here to help build a better Canada. However, at times we may have some disagreement on the best ways to do that. At times we may even agree on an idea or a program but have disagreement on the details of how that idea, project or program should be written into legislation. This is one of those times.

I have to say I will be splitting my time with the member of Parliament for Calgary Midnapore. I did not want to forget him in this important debate.

I absolutely agree that employment insurance sickness benefits are an important program. I also agree that extending the term in which these benefits are available is something that should be seriously looked at. The term has not changed since 1971, so as the minister said earlier, I believe this should go to the HUMA committee. I believe this should be looked at, because I have some issues concerning the motion and how the magic number of 50 weeks was literally drawn out of a hat.

Why 50 weeks? Why not 52? Why not 43? Why not 54? Why not 26? Some adherents of Douglas Adams, not to be confused with Tommy Douglas, would say the answer is obviously 42.

Can anyone explain the logic and science of 50 weeks? Every week of added eligibility adds costs that both current and future workers and their employers have to carry. The member who spoke before me was the Minister of Employment, and she actually talked about more benefits that the government is looking to pass. We need to recognize that ultimately those costs would mean employers will pay more, which makes them less competitive, and employees would net less take-home pay in an era of ever-rising costs and taxes, which could create hardship and fiscal pressures.

What if very few people accessed this program? What type of serious illness would qualify or not qualify for this extension? These are all unanswered questions, but they are important ones.

When most of us in our personal lives sign a cheque, we want to know exactly how much it is for and what that cheque will actually buy. In many respects, I feel like this motion asks us all collectively to sign a blank cheque for a worthy and well-intended cause, but with a random number of 50 weeks just because someone liked the sound of 50 weeks, or roughly 11 and a half months. Again, when I asked the leader of the Bloc Québécois, he said that it was to match with what the program currently offers. Depending on one's local situation, how the labour markets are, it could be anywhere between 15 and 45 weeks. The number 50 seems to be in defiance of that. The minister had said that the Canadian Cancer Society had made a different recommendation, and that is where they are landing on this. We do need to investigate this further.

What could be done instead of 11 and a half months or 50 weeks? In the last Parliament, HUMA, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, studied the issue and recommended an extended time period. Unfortunately, the extended time period was not defined by the committee. Perhaps further study with relevant experts could help guide us all to having more information with more data and more evidence so we can collectively make a more informed decision.

Again, the minister said there is a potpourri of different additions she is planning to the EI system. Those need to be studied. I believe the more collectively we can study those, the better we can get a sense of what the costs are going to be. One impact added on may be incremental costs, but when one starts adding multiple different impacts, those complicated formulae do take more time to assess and do take more costs to deal with. It also must be pointed out that the Parliamentary Budget Office estimated this EI sickness benefit extension of 50 weeks would cost over $1 billion immediately and would continue to rise every year.

I know there are those who would dismiss an extra $1 billion annually in payroll costs, but in British Columbia today, we now have B.C.-based forestry companies shutting down their lumber mills in order to invest and open new mills in the United States. While there are many reasons why this occurs, one of the reasons is that the cost of doing business in Canada is no longer competitive for their business models. It makes more sense for them to operate outside of Canada.

When that happens we lose thousands of well-paying jobs like we have seen in British Columbia. It also means we have thousands of workers now unemployed, collecting EI and no longer contributing to it. That is why competitiveness should never be overlooked in a motion such as this one that ultimately proposes to create new costs that decrease our competitiveness. For those small businesses that cannot afford to expand into jurisdictions outside of Canada, let us not forget they are competing against other small businesses in jurisdictions outside of Canada that do not have to swallow these costs and pass them along.

We also need to bear in mind that such a change to medical employment insurance does not cover the employers themselves. I was recently contacted by an entrepreneur in my riding who complained that the government restricted her use of what is called a health savings account because her business was too small. I am sure there are many people in this place who have seen how agencies like CRA continue to assess and audit and audit and assess small businesses and make all sorts of demands, regardless of the health of the business or the entrepreneur.

In my home province of British Columbia, small businesses account for 98% of our total business. Oftentimes these are sole proprietors, partnerships and small corporations that often have to stop work when the entrepreneur does. We should be mindful that while there are some able to self-fund or purchase short-term disability, more often than not it is not practical for their enterprise. Entrepreneurs might welcome this change, some who want to see their employees supported when they receive a serious diagnosis, but when time after time these entrepreneurs and their family members are frequently told to give up more time, energy and cash, they might wonder where they factor in.

Ultimately, these are some of the serious concerns I have heard with this motion. EI premiums are paid for by workers and their employers. We should always be mindful that this is money that they have paid. When it comes to a time when people are facing potentially their greatest life challenge, the EI fund that they have paid into, working for their entire lives, should be there for them in their time of need. We are not talking about government money. We are talking about money that has been put aside by employers and their employees for them. That is money off the backs of workers and employers.

A serious medical illness is stressful enough. One does not need the added pressure of trying to pay the bills at the end of the month and coming up short.

One final point I am saddened to share is that in some cases these serious illnesses may well become fatal. We all saw how quickly Canadians lost beloved journalist Christie Blatchford recently. If we can help individuals facing a fatal disease die with more dignity, we should not lose sight of the importance of that.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Bloc

Luc Desilets Bloc Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am completely against this disastrous approach.

I would like to remind the House that Canada devotes merely 0.65% of its gross domestic product to the employment insurance fund. By comparison, the percentage is 3.6% in Belgium, 2.7% in Spain and 3.5% in Portugal. I would like us to be aware of that. In addition, a number of those countries provide employment insurance benefits to their sick workers for periods that can go from one to three years.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am glad that we are able to talk about these issues. When I spoke to the CEO of the largest private employer in the area of west Kelowna, I asked him about competitiveness and he told me it was not Belgium or Spain that he was worried about competing with. It was the former eastern Soviet bloc countries where the labour is very adequate, costs and regulations are extremely low and there is a high availability of fibre supply. They have seen investment shift from some of those northern countries in Europe over to the eastern bloc countries. They have brand new state-of-the-art lasers and robotics which enable them to compete anywhere.

This is what we need to be mindful of and not just Belgium and Spain on certain things. I talked about the U.S., but we should also be worried about some of the competition arising from the eastern side of Europe.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Winnipeg North Manitoba

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada and to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, it is important that we look at the need for change and ways in which we can improve upon the system. We can work with stakeholders, like the Canadian Cancer Society as an organization, and at ways in which we can look at making some changes that would be of a progressive nature.

There is a lot of concern in regards to the 50 weeks, and I am not suggesting in any fashion 50 weeks. I think we need to look at what our stakeholders and interested parties are saying and recognize that the current level is not good enough. We have heard that for a number of years now.

Would the member agree there is a need for change? Would he agree there has been very little in that specific area and the time for us take some action would be now?

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Mr. Speaker, the simple argument in response is that the Liberals have been proposing a whole bunch of different changes and have not made this change to an existing program. That is part of the problem I think we have as a society, but more importantly, it shows up in the Liberal government time and time again. Rather than try to consolidate and examine the current benefits that exist for supporting Canadians in their time of need, the Liberals tried to move into other areas that were never designed for the EI system.

I am not saying that those things are not important, but let us get back to the basics. Let us focus on whether or not a program delivers what it says it will do to make sure that it is supporting Canadians because, quite honestly, money is getting tight. The government may pretend that money is not getting tight, but Canadians know.

As I said, there is a competitiveness cost. We are also talking about our constituents. We should be trying to look at how we can get the greatest value for money, but we have to start by looking at what we are doing now before we start adding on all sorts of new benefits.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

NDP

Scott Duvall NDP Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, there has to be a need for change. We have been saying this for years and years. One of the things we must recognize is that many employers have given up giving people group insurance for when they are off sick. My constituents in Hamilton Mountain have been asking me for a very long time about the 15 weeks and to make sure that it is extended.

Where did the year come from? That is what it used to be when people used to file for unemployment insurance, but we played so many games with this system we forgot about the people who are off sick. It is not just for cancer. It could be be kidneys, transplants, the whole works. After 15 weeks some people are not well enough to go to work, but all of their income is lost. We have to extend it.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Dan Albas Conservative Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is important for us to always be mindful that ultimately governments serve the people, and if the people are not being served, then we need to come here and deliberate that. I take the criticism that this should have been done a long time ago. Absolutely, it should have been, but ultimately, we have an opportunity here to examine and debate it.

I am personally open to listening to all sides of the debate. As I said in my speech, I think there are some competing interests here and perhaps this should be studied by the human resources committee, as a first step, but mindful that some members want to go farther and faster. I just believe that whatever we do, Parliament should deliberate, educate itself and then proceed with the right course and a good recommendation to government.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the Bloc Québécois for introducing this motion today.

I would like to start by saying that I am really torn over this motion. We have an expression that explains why.

The phrase is to put one's money where one's mouth is. I think this is something that is very important to do. It means that we put our money in places that matter. In regard to this motion, as a nation and as a government, let us put our money where our people are. It is very important to put our money where our people are.

Sadly, like many people in the House, I am no stranger to cancer. My father had cancer. It is a very difficult thing to see any loved one go through. It is never a short process. Recovery takes a long time after an operation. Some people, after having gone through radiation, have to turn the heat up at night because they are cold. This stuff is very devastating and touches the lives of Canadians and everyone in this House personally.

I understand why the Bloc Québécois felt that it was a good idea to introduce this motion.

It really truly touches the lives of Canadians and has the potential to make life much better for Canadians.

I receive many cases in my office about people who face the things my family went through. I have a note here about a constituent who was dealing with cancer and whose doctor told him he needed to be off work for a specific number of weeks before he would be given a letter that he was in the clear. The gap between his sick benefits running out and his date for going back to work was significant. He said that he did not know how, other than remortgaging his home or borrowing from friends and family, he was going to be able to survive. He would have to either try to return to work before he was cleared to do so or remain at home with no money coming in. His wife was also dealing with health issues and had not been working for some time.

This motion has the potential to help people. As the previous speaker mentioned, it would allow for a lot less stress in people's lives as they could focus on their recovery and getting better, which is all that they want to do. It would allow them to focus on returning to work and becoming a productive member of society. Every Canadian wants to contribute to this amazing nation of ours. From a fiscally conservative perspective, I believe this would relieve billions from our health care system over time. Individuals would be given the time needed to fully recover before returning to work rather than being forced back to work before being ready or able to do so, as we have seen in these cases.

In the short three months I have been shadow minister for families, children and social development, I have learned that the system is broken. It is absolutely broken. This is why I have a difficult time supporting this motion. While it is a small change to go from 15 weeks to 50 weeks, it has life-changing potential, but so much more has to be done.

We are a nation that needs a national anti-poverty strategy. We are a nation that needs a housing strategy of $40 billion over 10 years. We are a nation with seniors who are not able to make ends meet. OAS and CPP need a major re-evaluation. We are a nation where so many families rely on the Canada child benefit. To me, all of this really speaks to the fact that our nation is broken. Our system is broken. Will this motion be enough? Sadly, I am really not sure.

However, I do know that there is a lot of waste. Until this point, 2020, there has been a cost of $1.1 billion for this implementation. There will be $1.3 billion by 2025. Those are not small amounts at all, especially with a 2019 budget projection of $355.6 billion. That is just so much money that I am very torn about this as well.

As I said, I am torn because I see the benefit of this for Canadians in terms of their quality of life and time for recovery, but I also worry about the entire system and the costs of it as well.

We have seen no shortage of waste from the government, unfortunately, with $20 million going to the food waste reduction challenge. That is a lot of money for such a challenge. The last time we sat here, we saw the government give $50 million to Mastercard. That is a significant amount of money. We have to ask if this large budget is being spent effectively.

In the last Parliament, we talked about the $12 million that went to Loblaws to retrofit fridges. These are not insignificant amounts at all. It goes back again to what I said about putting our money where our people are, rather than wasting it. As I also mentioned, the system is broken. I wish I could say the waste stops there, but it does not: $950 million was allocated for a innovation supercluster initiative to create 50,000 jobs. We do not know if that is actually happening.

It is very hard to consider investing so much more money in our government on the backs of taxpayers when we have this incredible amount of waste, this incredible debt and this incredible deficit. These are definitely things that we have to consider.

As my colleague and the previous speaker alluded to as well, the government does things halfway. I saw in its 2019 platform that it was considering going to 26 weeks, not quite halfway but somewhere between the 1971 precedent, which I agree is outdated, and the amount of time proposed by the Bloc in this motion.

Again, it is a government that does things halfway, such as letting Trans Mountain go on and on with no approval, then finally purchasing the pipeline for $4.4 billion, but to what end? We are seeing the government waffle and waver again here with Teck Frontier.

There is the government's inability to take a stand or make a decision on something. It just tries to find a sloppy compromise without being principled, really making a difference or changing anything. It is incredibly frustrating.

I thank the Bloc for bringing forward this motion today, although I was very disturbed to see that one of their final three proposed motions was to vote down Teck Frontier. It was a complete rejection of that. I feel that we as Conservatives have been very kind toward the Bloc and Quebec initiatives, especially in regard to NAFTA, steel, aluminum and those sorts of things. It was very disappointing to see that motion made it to potentially be one of the final three.

I often hear that the systems in Quebec are really superior, especially in terms of day cares.

I hear all the time about these incredible systems that they have there. Maybe this is a place where we can give the Bloc the opportunity to show leadership and lead the way for us together as one House of Commons and one chamber. Perhaps they are doing that for us in this moment.

However, I will finish by saying that I am very torn. I believe that the system is broken, but I also believe that we need to put our money where our people are. I look forward to further debate on this motion.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Bloc

Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe Bloc Lac-Saint-Jean, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to mention that there has also been cancer in my family. My mother had it and campaigned by my father's side while wearing a wig.

I want to thank my hon. colleague. She understands the situation because her own family experienced it. I can tell she is very touched, but, from what I heard, I also think she feels torn.

I agree with what she said about putting our money where our people are, particularly because there is currently a surplus in the employment insurance account. That is not the government's money. It belongs to those who paid into it, namely employees and employers, which means that the money is available.

Some would say that this is a time for fiscal restraint or that there are deficits everywhere. However, the measure that we are proposing would not affect any of those deficits, because the money would come from a surplus in this independent fund.

That brings me to my question. If our measure does not affect the deficit, does my esteemed colleague think that she could vote in favour of our motion?

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question.

As I said, I imagine that all members have had cancer in their family. However, it is clear that we have a debt and a deficit, and there is a lot of waste. As I said in my speech, that bothers me.

When we think about where to spend money, there are good ways and bad ways to spend it. I would rather spend it on this than on some other things, but I think we need to stay vigilant.

The proposed measure is one possibility. I think that the idea deserves to be examined more closely before a decision is made. I am always open to initiatives that further the Canadian cause, but I think that, in this case, we need to examine the proposal more closely.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

February 18th, 2020 / 12:30 p.m.

Liberal

Lloyd Longfield Liberal Guelph, ON

Mr. Speaker, the critic for families, children and social development mentioned that we need a poverty strategy. We do have a poverty reduction strategy that targets a 20% reduction by 2020 and a 50% poverty reduction, relative to 2015 numbers, by 2030. We also have a housing strategy. We invested $40 billion initially and are now up to $55 billion to help Canadians find a place to call home.

The member mentioned the Canada child benefit that has helped 300,000 children get out of poverty and 900,000 Canadians get out of poverty. Programs like this are progressive and are helping Canadians.

In our campaign platform, we discussed having EI changed from 15 weeks to 26 weeks. Does the hon. member think that we are heading in the right direction in terms of supporting families, children and social development, and that this would be a very important part of that?

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Stephanie Kusie Conservative Calgary Midnapore, AB

Mr. Speaker, I recognized all of these programs to indicate just how broken our society is. In fact, I thank the speaker because I cannot think of a single better example. In the last four weeks, I had visits from the Minister of Transport and the Parliamentary Secretary for housing. They handed out 296 units to people in Calgary, in a province where they have lost over 100,000 jobs. This is exactly the problem that I am talking about. It is putting band-aids on the destruction of our economy as a result of the legislation of our entire livelihood and natural resources sector.

I am saying we cannot do this any more. We cannot put on band-aids and say to people we gave them a house or so many dollars a month. These problems go beyond that. Canadian families want to be independent, to take care of themselves and their children. They do not want to rely on programs like this, and the government is perpetuating that. This is not an example of a resolution. This is an example of the symptoms and the bigger problems.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:35 p.m.

NDP

Heather McPherson NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to take a moment to thank my colleagues for bringing forward this important motion, allowing us to debate this important priority for the NDP. As many people will know, this was an NDP campaign promise in the most recent election. It put this idea forward in a bill in the past two Parliaments and is delighted to do so in the 43rd Parliament as well. However, this has not been the case with the Liberal government.

When they were not in government, the Liberals voted for increases in special employment insurance sickness benefits, but as soon as they were elected, that support vanished. Instead, we were told that they would “revisit” the issue. The flip-flopping at the expense of sick Canadians is unconscionable and I urge my government colleagues to support this important motion.

While I am so proud to be a member of the New Democratic Party and am delighted to stand in support of this motion, I would like to take this opportunity to share a deeply personal story, which I hope will illustrate the need for the House to pass this bill.

On November 26, 2016, my doctor told me that I had a very aggressive form of cancer and would require emergency surgery and the removal of a significant portion of my large intestine. I was the mother of a nine-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter and I have never been more afraid than I was at that point.

My life very quickly changed. I went from being a very busy mother, driving kids to swim practices, hockey games and music lessons, and being the executive director of a non-profit organization, to a cancer patient who had non-stop medical appointments and tests. It took me months to recover from my surgery and cancer treatment. I could not do anything. I could not get groceries. I could not do the laundry. I could not drive or even get out of bed without assistance.

It was a terrible time in my life, but I still recognize how lucky I was. I had access to incredible medical care. I had an incredibly supportive husband and family, and my husband had a good job with benefits. We were able to continue to pay our bills, buy the expensive pain medication and medical supplies and make ends meet. I did not have the added stress of worrying about supporting myself and my family while undergoing medical treatment.

In a country with as much wealth and prosperity as Canada, I hope that no Canadian would have to bear the additional burden of being unable to pay their bills, buy the nourishing food they need to heal or access the medication they need.

The Parliamentary Budget Officer published a report entitled “Cost Estimate of an Increase in the Duration of Employment Insurance (EI) Sickness Benefits” and found that to increase the number of weeks of sickness benefits to 50 would require the employee premium rate to rise by a total of six cents from the baseline rate of $1.62 per $100 of insurable earnings.

The PBO found that 77% of recipients who used this benefit survived following illness, but were not ready to return to work once they had exhausted their 15 weeks. We are letting more than three out of four Canadians with major illnesses like this simply run out of options over an increase of six cents.

Almost one in two people in Canada will develop cancer at some point in their lives, an illness with an average treatment length of 52 weeks. Fifteen weeks of benefits are simply not enough to allow people to heal before returning to work.

With breast cancer, 25 to 36 weeks is the average time for treatment and recovery. For colon cancer, it is 37 weeks. With the benefit currently at 15 weeks, we know that it is not meeting the needs of patients experiencing these cancers. When will the government finally commit to making this change to increase these special benefits to 50 weeks?

We know that 50 weeks is what we give mothers after they give birth. Why would people who have life-threatening diseases not be given the same benefits? The Liberal government has just given $50 million to Mastercard and over $10 million to Loblaws, yet it cannot uphold its own promise to increase El benefits to the sick and injured.

Why is the government rushing to pay $50 million to a big company like Mastercard, but dragging its feet when it comes to helping ill and injured workers?

More than 600,000 people have signed the petition, calling on the government to increase EI sickness benefits from 15 to 50 weeks for workers who are sick. The NDP wants to fix the employment insurance system that many Canadians need to rely on when they are dealing with an illness so it no longer falls short by not providing the flexibility to support those who want to work when they can.

I will be splitting my time, Mr. Speaker.

In addition to an increase in special benefits, the New Democrats would like to see expanded access to retraining and the creation of a pilot project that would allow workers with episodic disabilities to access EI sickness benefits.

We want to prevent the situation that occurred in 2010, when the federal government transferred $57 billion from the employment insurance account into the government's general revenue.

Employment insurance is an important part of the Canadian social safety net. It is intended to assist Canadians who are facing financially challenging events like unemployment, injury and new parenthood. It is also intended to support Canadians who are afflicted with a serious illness like cancer and require lengthy periods of recuperation. They require the support the most.

Consecutive Liberal and Conservative governments have neglected our EI system, allowing it to become decimated and broken, unable to meet the needs of Canadians. It has not been revised since before I was born in 1971. It is time for an upgrade.

I urge all members to support the motion.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:40 p.m.

Bloc

Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe Bloc Lac-Saint-Jean, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to congratulate my colleague on her excellent speech.

It is no secret that the NDP fought for this bill. Former NDP member Claude Patry said that a vote for the bill was, and I quote, “a vote for workers and their families, for the most vulnerable in our society. Please, vote for common sense.”

Denis Coderre introduced that bill. At the time, he was a Liberal.

Why does my colleague think that common-sense legislation was rejected by the government?

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Heather McPherson NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would also like to know why the government could possibly refuse me.

When the Liberals were not in government, they supported 50 weeks for people to recover from serious illnesses. Therefore, I have this question. What has changed in the time they were not sitting on that side of the House? Is the view from one side of the House so different from the other side? As soon as the Liberals get to the other side they are no longer interested in supporting Canadians who are suffering?

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:40 p.m.

Winnipeg North Manitoba

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux LiberalParliamentary Secretary to the President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada and to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons

Mr. Speaker, the government has responded in many different ways and has made changes to the EI program.

With respect to the sick benefits, we made a commitment to increase the number of weeks. If we look at the Canadian Cancer Society, it is one of the health care organizations that came up with a well-founded 26-week recommendation. We have committed to working toward that. If we compare the past to what we do today, that is a significant improvement.

Would the member agree that moving it forward is a positive thing for Canada's working class?

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Heather McPherson NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, if we can all agree that there needs to be significantly longer than 26 weeks for people to recover from cancer, it really does not matter if that is the recommendation from the government. We are saying, as one of my colleagues said earlier, we want to support Canadians when they need it so they can go back to work, so they can be healthy, can contribute and get back into the system. Regardless, 26 weeks does not meet the needs of those people who require longer to heal.

I understand that the government has talked to the Canadian Cancer Society and that it recommended the 26 weeks, However, it has not not talked to the Canadian Labour Congress or labour movements about what they would like to see. We think they would be pushing for the 50 weeks.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

Eric Melillo Conservative Kenora, ON

Mr. Speaker, the matter we are debating today is a very important. We must ensure we have a robust debate and ensure we get it right. I think all members of the House would agree with that.

Does the member agree that this should be sent to a committee as well, that a study should be undertaken to ensure there is a comprehensive review of the EI sickness benefits so we get it right for all Canadians?

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Heather McPherson NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, it is a very important issue and we need to fix it. We have clearly seen that this system is incredibly broken. The fact that 1971 was a long time ago means that we do need to a fulsome review of this to come up with a solution that will work. I would welcome having this looked at in more depth at the committee level.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

Bloc

Louise Chabot Bloc Thérèse-De Blainville, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from the NDP for her speech. I have a question for her.

I remind members that the NDP moved a motion on this topic and the Bloc Québécois moved three. The Conservative Party introduced some, as well, in previous parliaments. In 2012, Denis Coderre, who was then in the Liberal opposition, moved a motion calling for 50 weeks of benefits. At the time, the current Prime Minister voted in favour of the motion.

Does my colleague agree that with just 26 weeks of benefits, some people will fall through the cracks? It is more than a question of math. People are sick. They have cancers and serious illnesses. Forty years ago, 15 weeks was not enough. Now, 40 years later, the government is talking about offering 26 weeks.

Does the member agree that some people will fall through the cracks?

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Heather McPherson NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, absolutely people will fall through the cracks. I thank the good member for bringing up the fact that while we stand in the House and talk about numbers, such as numbers of weeks, and the vital role we have, we do not forget these are people. These are people who are suffering from serious illnesses, They possibly are at the worst moments in their life. To say that we as a country cannot afford to support them as they heal so they can rejoin the workforce is really quite an abysmal thing for our country.

People will slip through the cracks and that is a problem. A mother who has a new child is entitled to the 50 weeks. Therefore, people who need that time to heal should also be entitled to 50 weeks. It makes so much sense.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:50 p.m.

NDP

Daniel Blaikie NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise to speak today to the importance of extending the EI benefit to 50 weeks for people who are suffering illness.

Those who have followed the House for some time will know that in the last Parliament, the NDP had a private member's bill to accomplish exactly this. In the Parliament before that, the NDP had a private member's bill to accomplish exactly this. We are happy to continue pushing and arguing for this change, because we know it matters to a lot of Canadians.

I think everyone in the House and across the country who might be listening will have had the experience, either themselves or that of a loved one, a good friend or a work colleague, where they cannot perform their regular work duties due to an illness. We know what a difficult time that is in their lives, and that of their families and friends.

However, that difficulty is compounded, seriously, when they cannot pay their bills at the end of the month because there is no wage replacement in place. That is exactly why people might want to insure their wages, which is what Canadian workers do in conjunction with employers under the employment insurance program.

It is incumbent on us to allow that vehicle for Canadians to insure themselves. This is not a charity case. This is not a government handout. This is a program that employer and employees pay into to insure the wages of employees when they need it. Certainly, when people get cancer or some other form of serious illness that inhibits them from being able to go to work and do their jobs, that is exactly the kind of case in which they need that wage replacement. It is one of the reason why we do, and ought to, have employment insurance in the country.

Earlier in the debate today, a number of members asked “Why 50 weeks? What is special about 50 weeks?” The Bloc leader mentioned one reason why 50 weeks was important. If employees have been working for the amount of time required to qualify for employment insurance and they get laid off, those employees would get up to 50 weeks of coverage. It makes sense that if through no fault of their own, not because they were laid off but because they have become seriously ill, they would qualify for the same treatment as those who were laid off. That is certainly one very good reason why 50 weeks matters.

Another reason why 50 weeks matters is that one in two Canadians, in his or her lifetime, will have some kind of serious illness, with an average treatment length in the neighbourhood of 50 or 52 weeks. At some time, in all likelihood, half the people in this room will face a serious health challenge that will take almost a year to treat. It makes sense that if we are insuring ourselves against lost wages in the event of sickness, we do it in a way that is commensurate with the likely absence from work resulting from that.

A third reason why it makes sense to extend sickness benefits under EI to 50 weeks is because a lot of long-term disability plans kick in at the one-year mark. Right now, to get from the end of the 15-week coverage to when long-term disability would kick in takes somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 weeks. If we had a 50-week sickness benefit, that would make that transition period a matter of only a couple of weeks, effectively giving every Canadian, no matter what workplace they work in, whether they are unionized or non-unionized, whether their collective agreement has a short-term disability plan or not, a short-term disability plan to help bridge them to when a longer term disability plan might kick in.

Those are three very good reasons to set the goal at 50 weeks. The only reason not to would be if there was a significant financial cost that Canadians could not bear. However, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has done a study on this very issue and has said that the difference in premiums would be approximately 6¢ on every $100 of insurable wages. Folks can correct me later if I am wrong. This sounds quite affordable to me. I think a lot of Canadians would not mind paying for this. That is purpose of having this debate.

We have had this debate many times in the House and we have heard a lot of compelling testimony as to why we ought to do this. It is frustrating for us on this side of the House that we have not been able to get there yet, because the reasons for getting there are quite compelling.

If we think about what that means for the plan, we are not talking about raising taxes. We are talking about somewhere in the neighbourhood of $1 billion a year to provide this important insurance to Canadians who are sick and not able to perform their duties at work.

I recall when the Liberal government in the mid-nineties made significant changes to the EI program. That government made it harder to access EI and it raised the premiums. Over 15 or 20 years, a relatively short period of time for the amount of money we are talking about, that government accumulated a $57-billion surplus in the EI account. The Conservative government then transferred it under the auspices of the PMO to do we know not what. We do not know where it went.

The idea that the employment insurance fund, which is funded apart from tax revenues through premiums paid by employees and employers, cannot afford to do an extra $1 billion a year, when that represents only 6¢ on $100 of insurable earnings, and when the government had such a massive surplus that was squirrelled away, is just a farce.

The fact is that $57-billion surplus could have paid for the extension of this benefit, which will do a lot for many Canadians right across the country, for over 50 years. We had the money. Where did it go? That is the question.

Even without getting that money back, the go-forward cost of making this change is a reasonable one for a very concrete benefit to Canadians who are living out some of the worst times of their lives. The sickness and the health challenges are enough. They ought not to be compounded by further financial difficulty.

Let us not kid ourselves either. Getting a 55% wage replacement is not exactly a financial paradise. It is not a panacea. Figuring out how to get by on that level of wage replacement is challenging enough for people who are facing serious illness. The least we could do is extend a hand to Canadians and ensure that the employment insurance program they already self-finance, along with their employers, covers them in times of great need.

That is why we are very proud to support the motion today. It is why we have been proud to bring this proposal forward many times in many other Parliaments. It is why, notwithstanding whatever might happen on this particular motion, the NDP is going to be there every step of the way fighting for this change until we get it done.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Garnett Genuis Conservative Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Mr. Speaker, we on this side are supportive of taking steps to try to improve the lives of people in the situation my colleague described.

I would like to hear his thoughts on the use of the EI fund versus general revenue for these kinds of things. Generally speaking, in terms of the efficiency of taxation, having employment deductions, that is, taxing work, is a less desirable and less efficient form of taxation. To be formally correct, we would not say it is taxation exactly, but deductions at that point have more of a negative impact on the economy than revenue raised in other ways.

Does the member think there is an argument for providing this kind of support for people in this situation through other mechanisms not involving the EI fund? I am curious to hear his thoughts.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Daniel Blaikie NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I am inclined to say that the problem with employment insurance to date is that there has already been far too much political interference in what ought to be a straightforward insurance plan.

When I hear the idea of governments providing this benefit directly, having seen what governments have done, even when they should have been arm's length, I prefer the idea that we do this in a way that is arm's length and managed in a transparent way. Canadians will then know they are paying a fair premium dollar for the insurance they are receiving, and employers will know they are paying a fair premium dollar for that.

We need to get government out of this one. We need to set up the fund in a way that is open, transparent and meets the needs of Canadians. We then need to leave well enough alone instead of having governments needlessly running up surpluses within EI while restricting access and then spending the money on something else.

I am all about less political interference on this one and more fairness.

Opposition Motion—Special Employment Insurance Sickness BenefitsBusiness of SupplyGovernment Orders

1 p.m.

Liberal

Kenneth McDonald Liberal Avalon, NL

Mr. Speaker, I have heard different speeches discussing 15 weeks to 26 weeks to 50 weeks. Does the member agree that perhaps there is no one answer to fit everybody? I had a family member who had cancer and lost her battle with it. She could not work for two and a half years. I know we have done things with maternity leave like spread out the unemployment to a year and a half versus a year.

Would it not be the best path for something like this to go to committee? Members could examine it and come back with some good, firm recommendations. It is not just about looking after people for one year because, as I said, it was two and a half years that somebody could not work. She did qualify for other benefits, but still, there was no EI or anything like that.

Could the member comment on that?