Mr. Speaker, I just want to take a moment to thank, once again, the constituents of Elmwood—Transcona for having placed their trust in me to represent them in this place. I want to thank my wife, Janelle, and our children, Robert and Noah, who support me in my parliamentary service, as well as all of our family, friends and the many volunteers who contributed to my being here today.
I find this bill and the topic of pandemic supports interesting. I think it speaks to the crossroads that Canada finds itself at, in the face of two great challenges. On the one hand there is the challenge of pandemic recovery, and on the other there is the challenge of the climate crisis; they both raise similar questions.
They raise questions of how to support workers who suddenly see their industry dramatically hurt by forces beyond their control. They both raise the question of how to support vulnerable people who are not able to work through times of crisis and the economic effects of those crises, like inflation, as an example.
They both raise the question of how to direct investment in infrastructure and services in a way that makes us more resilient to the challenges we face. They both raise the question of how we decide who should pay the costs of these investments and what the mechanisms are by which those payments ought to be made. These are just some of the important questions that the pandemic and the climate crisis both raise.
Getting the pandemic recovery right is important, certainly in its own right, but I want to begin with a reminder that these are not questions that are going to be over with the pandemic. These are questions that we are going to face in the years to come as the climate crisis worsens.
The Liberals have been very clear in introducing this bill that, as far as they are concerned, we are turning the page on the pandemic. If we look around, it is quite clear that we are not past the pandemic. In fact, I heard many Liberal members yesterday in the debate about a hybrid Parliament make arguments about how we are not past the pandemic and how the effects of the pandemic and the imperatives of the pandemic still very much rule our lives.
Certainly, if we look around at different parts of the country, we can see that, in fact, we are in a fourth wave. Even when the public health crisis has passed, I think it is quite reasonable to expect that the economic consequences of the pandemic will extend past the end of the public health crisis and take longer to resolve.
Earlier this week, the Deputy Prime Minister said that Canada has recovered all the jobs lost during the pandemic, and that statistic may true in terms of the number of available jobs out there. However, it is also true that the unemployment rate is almost 7%. It is also true that the inflation rate is over 4% and that employers are complaining about a labour shortage.
What do all those numbers mean? We often throw figures and statistics out in this place without getting to the core of what those numbers mean for people across the country. They mean that there are many Canadians looking for work, but they are not the Canadians with the skills, the education and the experience that employers are looking for right now for their business. Otherwise, they would find it a lot easier to get that job, and more employers would be satisfied that they can find workers.
It means that even as this mismatch in the labour market is frustrating employers and keeping Canadians who want a job unemployed, both people and businesses are facing rising costs after depleting all of their reserves trying to cope with the economic disruptions of the pandemic. These numbers mean that it is absolutely not the time for the federal government to turn its back on the people who need help the most, yet this is the direction that Bill C-2 takes us.
New Democrats have been very clear that we believe the Canada recovery benefit should have been maintained for the time being and restored to its original level of $500 per week. We opposed the cut this summer to $300 per week. We were critical of the government not only for simply ending the CERB and doing it with only two days' notice, but also by choosing not to use the option they had of extending the CRB until November 20 just by regulation.
By a wave of their hand, they could have allowed for another month of support for the almost 900,000 people who were still availing themselves of the financial help under the Canada recovery benefit. They chose not to do that. That still would have meant that the benefits only lasted until a couple of days before we assembled here to talk about next steps.
We know that the cost of living never went down. In fact, it was quite the contrary, which is why it did not make sense to reduce the benefit. It was at $2,000 a month. The costs that people were facing for housing, food, home heating and other things went up and the Liberals thought it was time to bring the benefit down, leaving people to wonder how they were supposed to pay more for the essentials with less money in their pockets.
One has to assume it was a simple attempt to starve people back to work: to make sure that they did not have enough from the benefit and maybe they would rejoin the job market. When reducing the benefit to $300 a week did not work, the government decided to cancel it altogether. The problem is, as I mentioned before, the people who need jobs are not the people employers are looking for. If so, they would be employed. It has already been a month since there has been no CRB support. No one has received CRB support for the last month, yet we have not heard from employers that suddenly they are able to hire the people they need and want to hire in their businesses. That is because other factors are driving the labour shortage.
Consider that many people work in industries that have yet to bounce back. Jobs are not necessarily available in the sectors they had experience and training in, which can make it hard to find work. Consider that many people who were already close to retirement got to see what retirement life would be like, either by working a bit from home, or because they were laid off for a while during the pandemic. To protect their personal health, or just because they found that they could actually get by and they liked retirement life and it was their time to do that, they chose not to go back to work. They had worked hard all their lives and now it was time to take their retirement. There may be more early retirements as more workers are called back to the workplace and employers begin to end work-from-home mandates.
If the Liberals were serious about having the backs of workers until the end of the pandemic, they would be working with employers to identify the jobs they need to fill and the inventory of skills needed for those positions, and then train people off of the pandemic benefit into the jobs that are available instead of simply cutting the benefit. Instead, they chose to reduce and terminate that benefit and financial support that could have made it easier for people to pursue the education and training they needed to get those jobs.
This mean-spirited and ill-conceived approach to wrapping up pandemic benefits does not bode well for the promised reforms to the employment insurance system, because those reforms have to be about financially supporting people while they get the education and training they need to fill the positions that are available in the labour market. The Liberals had an opportunity to do that. With pandemic benefits, they failed to do that and now we have to worry that the same failure will plague the reform of the employment insurance system. I have to say, they are sure taking their sweet time on this. We have known for a long time that there are structural problems with the employment insurance system and we have not seen the Liberals act quickly in order to rectify those.
We talked about the costs of these pandemic programs. It is worth noting that what fails to be mentioned is that at the peak of the CERB and CRB, about nine million Canadians were availing themselves of those programs. When the program was cut there were fewer than 900,000 people on those programs, which means over a 90% reduction in demand for the program. That means a 90% or more cut in the cost of the program, and that is before we consider that the Liberals cut the amount of the benefit by 40%. The ongoing cost of maintaining CRB for another six or 12 months is significantly less than what we have already paid out in CRB spending.
Even if we accept for the sake of argument that it is time to pivot, as the Deputy Prime Minister has said, the targeted approach that the Liberals are taking fails by its own lights. I take the example of the tourism and hospitality sector. The government's targeted program is based on the wage subsidy program. It is a program that is only going to work for workers who are employed by somebody else, when many people such as independent travel agents are actually self-employed. There is no small number of people in that industry. About half of the independent travel agents fall into the category of being self-employed. About 80,000 or 90,000 are represented by the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors. We are talking about 40,000 to 45,000 people. Those are some of the 800-and-some thousand who were still on the CRB.
That is an industry that is composed of about 85% women. A government that likes to pride itself on gender analysis of its policies clearly has not done its homework here, and there is a gendered impact of the failure to extend a benefit like the CRB, because these women are going to have no income support under this.
We spoke earlier about the arts and culture sector where many self-employed workers have no financial support. These people no longer receive financial support such as the CERB because these programs no longer exist. Without an employer, they have no way to receive financial assistance.
Bill C-2 would also ignore the opportunity to address problems with the Canada emergency business account. We have heard from many small businesses, which clearly needed the support the most, that the one-year repayment deadline in order to enjoy the forgivable loan portion of that program is simply unrealistic, because they continue to be in serious economic trouble.
Let us talk about the Canada worker lockdown benefit. When I asked the Associate Minister of Finance earlier today, we heard that it is going to be retroactive to October 23, so it is okay that they cut the CRB with only two days' notice for the people who were still on it. However, the Associate Minister of Finance confirmed earlier today that no region in Canada meets the criteria for the Canada worker lockdown benefit so far, so the fact that it is retroactive to October 23 is completely meaningless. It will not help anyone, because there is no region that meets the criteria in the legislation to date. Maybe there will be down the road, up to May 7. That is the cut-off for the Canada worker lockdown benefit. That is interesting, because the other provisions allow the government, by order in council, to extend those provisions to the end of June or the beginning of July. There is no such provision for the Canada worker lockdown benefit. That will end in May, short of another legislative intervention.
When it came to the CRB, the government decided not to extend the benefits through October and November. They extended the other programs they could, but they chose not to do that for the CRB. When it comes to the CRB's replacement program, the government has created a program that does not cover the time between October 23 and now. The Liberals have also chosen not to give themselves the option to extend that program past May 7. We have to wonder what workers have done to the government to make it feel such a strong sense of retribution.
This is just part of why this bill would really fail to take us in the direction that we have to go, and I think it is going to fail to address some of the immediate economic problems that we have, such as the labour shortage that employers are so keen to solve. It would actually take the government showing leadership and working with employers and employees or workers who are out of jobs to figure out how to match their skills to the jobs that are available.
These are just some of the problems with the bill as written. In fact, the omissions from the bill are worse. The Liberals have failed to take the opportunity to implement a low-income CERB repayment amnesty. We know a lot of people who are already poor took the government at its word when it said that if they needed help they should go ahead and apply for help, and if they had doubts about whether they were eligible for the help that the government had created, they should apply. The government would figure it out later and they would not be punished or persecuted.
I think of the kids who aged out of foster care in Manitoba during the pandemic. They went to the provincial government, because there were no jobs available in the summer of 2020. Let us not kid ourselves. It was not like there were a bunch of jobs on the market that they could have walked in to, and the provincial government said they could not apply for help from the province until they had applied for every other avenue of help. The government showed them the website for CERB and directed them to apply there. That was a no-fail application process, so of course those kids were going to succeed and they were going to receive CERB money. They did, and now the federal government is asking that they pay that back. The province sure as hell is not going to give them retroactive social assistance payments to cover the period that they missed because they applied for this federal program. Instead of showing some compassion, the federal government is chasing them down for money they do not have. What that will do is make it harder for them to get a proper start in life because they are already starting from behind. That is why we need to see a low-income CERB repayment amnesty in Canada now.
I think of George from my riding, who is on the GIS. He applied for the CERB because he lost some employment income. It turns he just did not meet the $5,000 qualifying income threshold. He just missed it. Therefore, he has been asked to give that money back.
George filed properly. He paid his taxes on that money, and because he was paid the net amount, he never got the gross amount. The government wants the gross amount back. On top of that, the government has included that income from CERB in what it is demanding back in the eligibility calculation for his guaranteed income supplement. He has had his guaranteed income supplement cut by $750 a month, while the government asks for the gross amount that it paid him in CERB when all he got was the net amount. His normal income has been shredded by the government's uncompassionate approach to the GIS and its failure so far to fix this problem, which is affecting up to 88,000 seniors across the country.
I want to talk about these clawbacks a bit too. People were told that if they need help to take the help. We were told: “We are here for you. We have your back. We have your back until the end of the pandemic.” Seniors who were working to top up their GIS took the government at its word. What they found out this July was that they were not getting a pandemic benefit, they were getting an advance on their guaranteed income supplement for the next year, except they were not told so they did not bank the money.
We know of some people who finally got dental work done. They had problems in their mouth that had been causing them pain and plaguing them for years. They could not afford to fix it before because we do not have any kind of national dental strategy, which is an issue for another day that I am happy to talk about, and it is something that the federal government should get moving on. Therefore, they used some of that money to fix their teeth.
Sometimes people used some of that money to fix their car, which is how they get to work. They used it to pay off bills that they had not been able to pay off and on which the interest was piling up on. These people did not misuse the funds, but it turns out they were spending tomorrow's paycheque without knowing it because the government did not bother to tell them.
There have been recent media reports that show the government knew about this problem at least as early of May of this year. The GIS reassessment happened in July. Why the government could not be bothered to at least issue a letter to let people know so that they could begin to develop a strategy, I do not know. It is shameful and the government has a real obligation to let them know.
I have to say I was a little shocked this week. I heard the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, in response to a media question on this very point at a press conference, say, “It's a more complicated issue than one would think because there's serious kind of fairness and equity issue for people who may have earned similar amounts in employment income. If a senior worked last year and made an equivalent amount, they too would have lost their GIS or had their GIS potentially reduced, and so we're working on a path forward that recognizes this.”
It is interesting because the Liberals have no concept of equity and fairness when it comes to the largest corporations. Only when it comes to the poor, are they willing to nickel and dime.
Let us talk about the Canada wage subsidy program and quote from the good work of The Globe and Mail on this issue. This is from May 10, 2021:
Beyond a handful of hedge funds, some of the largest wealth managers in the country - household names such as Franklin Templeton, CI Financial, Gluskin Sheff & Associates - collected [the wage subsidy]. Collectively, these three companies manage close to $110 billion of assets in Canada. The Scotiabank Hedge Fund Index, which measures the monthly performance of Canadian-domiciled hedge funds with assets under management of at least $15 million, shows an average return of 11% in 2020, the best year for the industry in a decade.
Another wage subsidy recipient was the hedge fund JM Fund Management appears in the same article:
It's JM Catalyst Fund had such a good 2020, with outsized returns not seen by the fund since 2016, that it was ranked as the third-best performing hedge fund at the 2020 Canadian Heritage Fund Awards.
Where is the concern for equity and fairness there? Companies who had competitors who did not take the wage subsidy are not being asked to pay any of that back, and they walked off with tens of millions of dollars, but God forbid that somebody who is poor got an extra couple of thousand dollars to fix their car, fix their teeth or pay off a late bill.
That is why I think this bill gets us off on the exact wrong foot for the pandemic recovery, because that should be about making sure that the people at the top are paying for the recovery and the people at the bottom are getting the help they need, and this is not what we would be doing with this bill.