Mr. Speaker, I was saying that the Bloc Québécois is again calling on the government to take action on employment insurance. This is not the first time we have made this call.
We have always been committed to a thorough reform of the program, whether by establishing an independent fund, improving access to current benefits, ending the classification of the unemployed based on their claims, or, of course, improving benefits, all benefits.
For almost 30 years now, we have been demanding that the EI program be designed for our world—not for the needs of the government, but for the needs of our people, those who have given us the privilege of representing them in the House.
Right now, we have a program that is a direct attack on those who are already in precarious situations, that hurts seasonal workers in our regions and that leaves out those who are ill, seriously ill. The reason is very simple, and that is a lack of political will. The EI program cannot adequately and properly support those truly in need.
This is precisely why the Bloc Québécois moved the motion we are debating today, which calls on the government to increase the special employment insurance sickness benefits from 15 weeks to 50 weeks in the upcoming budget in order to support people with serious illnesses, such as cancer.
The main motivation for this demand, if one is necessary, is that the period of special employment insurance sickness benefits was based on the use of barely one-quarter of recipients. When the special benefit program was created, the government knew that the number of weeks was insufficient for over three-quarters of recipients. According to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Department of Employment and Social Development chose the number of weeks based on survey data that indicated that just 23% of recipients returned to work after the 15 weeks of benefits.
In other words, the government at the time and successive governments since then have known that the EI benefits provided do not adequately meet demand. It is completely unfair that every government elected since has knowingly accepted this situation.
The EI sickness benefit is inequitable because of the number of hours required to qualify. No matter where they live, be it Vancouver or Blanc-Sablon, claimants need to accumulate 600 insured hours of work to be eligible for benefits. It is also more difficult to qualify for sickness benefits than for regular benefits if the regional unemployment rate is greater than 8.1%, which, according to various economic indicators, is the case for one in four economic regions, despite strong overall job numbers. I shudder to think what things would be like if the economy were doing poorly.
In my riding, people in Minganie and the lower north shore have to work 180 more hours to qualify for sickness benefits than for regular benefits. The same goes for people in the Gaspé and the Îles-de-la-Madeleine.
It seems that no government has wanted to admit that the purpose of employment insurance is not to have a petty cash fund alongside the budget, so that it can dip into it to cover up its deficits or make money off the sick. The purpose of employment insurance is to make life easier for people who are forced out of the labour market for reasons beyond their control. It is insurance, a social safety net to which workers contribute in return for the guarantee and assurance that they will be compensated following an unfortunate event, such as the loss of a job or a serious illness.
The worst part of it all is that no one chooses to get sick. There is no such thing as someone getting up in the morning and saying to themselves, “I think I am ready for a little serious illness. I am ready for a tragedy. I am ready for some misery”. Getting sick is a tragedy. It turns people's lives upside down. It is a daily struggle. It is stressful and demanding for people. We should be there to support them.
It is not right for a person to worry and fret about their financial health before their personal health. Situations like that of Marie-Hélène Dubé should not exist. Because she did not work 600 hours, she had to mortgage her house several times while she was fighting cancer.
In such a wealthy society, no one should ever be unable to pay their rent and end up on the street when they are in remission. It is not right for people to be left with nothing when they are going through one of the most difficult ordeals of their lives. It is not right, because we have the power to change things and to enable our people to have some measure of dignity during those trying times.
Also, the government might want to remember the last time it was in opposition when it responds to our motion. In 2012, the Liberal Party overwhelmingly supported a bill that would have extended EI benefits from 15 to 50 weeks and eliminated the wait times.
Today, we are reaching out to the Liberals. We are inviting them to follow our lead and to do what should have been done a long time ago, namely make life easier for people who are forced to take time off work because of illness.
During the vote on the motion, I would like each member of this House to remember that every second person living in Canada will get cancer during their lifetime. If we set aside every other serious or chronic disease that could affect our lives and think only of cancer, half of us will have to rely on EI benefits. We could have to cope with the disease and all the added expenses that go with it with only 15 weeks of benefits.
I think that it is time we did what we should have done a long time ago, namely help people who cannot work and give them time to heal. Providing 50 weeks of benefits is the only way of giving the sick time to heal with dignity.
In closing, I would like to point out that I am thinking about all the people in my riding, about all Canadians, and about one person in particular, who has long fought for the unemployed and who is now fighting an illness. I would like this person to have peace of mind, and I know that the only thing that will do that is to abolish all inequities for all EI claimants, in particular those who are sick.