moved that Bill C-253, An Act to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (pension plans and group insurance plans), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise today in the House to speak to my bill, Bill C-253. I want to start by thanking my colleague from Thérèse-De Blainville for her invaluable support, both practical and symbolic, in the development and drafting of this bill.
I must admit I am experiencing some déjà vu. In 2017, during the previous Parliament, I introduced Bill C-372, which was very similar to the one we are debating today. The House was unfortunately dissolved before Bill C-372 could be put to a vote, but I hope to see this new version get passed.
For a bit of background, I will have to go back in time to talk about how Bill C-253 came to be. Cliffs Natural Resources, a wealthy U.S. multinational mining corporation, once had affiliates in my riding, in Sept-Îles and at Bloom Lake near Fermont. The company employed many of my constituents and people from Labrador, and it was part of the lives of many North Shore workers for many years.
In 2015, the company filed for creditor protection for its Sept-Îles and Bloom Lake affiliates under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act. After declaring bankruptcy for these affiliates, the company announced it was ending group insurance for its pensioners and slashing their retirement fund. By discontinuing contributions to the pension fund, Cliffs Natural Resources ran up a $30-million solvency deficit, which was taken from the workers.
Some 700 pensioners, people from my region and from my riding, lost their group insurance and nearly 25% of their pension fund in the Cliffs Natural Resources disaster, but that is not all. These people were forced into an extremely tenuous situation. They expected a peaceful, secure retirement but suddenly found themselves on the brink of ruin. They had no inkling that financial worries and trouble would come back to haunt them.
Fortunately, the Cliffs Natural Resources pensioners, or their widows or spouses, as the case may be, did receive compensation. It was thanks not to the House's legislative efforts but to the tenacity of the Cliffs pensioners' association and the support of United Steelworkers that they were partially compensated for the money that was stolen from them.
The purpose of Bill C-253 is to make sure we never see another tragedy like the ones that have happened in our community, or with other companies, such as White Birch, Mabe Canada and Sears Canada, or even like the ones that the COVID-19 crisis is causing right now.
Canadian law does not adequately protect workers' rights, so it is our duty to end this injustice as soon as possible before history repeats itself and the rights of workers and pensioners are once again trampled upon.
The Bloc Québécois has always been a voice for workers and defended their rights in the House. Bill C-253 reflects our commitments and our actions. Driven by a relentless sense of justice, the Bloc Québécois will never stop stepping up to protect the rights of workers and to prevent them from being cheated, particularly through such unfortunate bankruptcies.
The solution to the problem is perfectly simple. I would like to draw the attention of the House to two points that are the very pillars of my bill.
First, it is vitally important to recognize pensions for what they are: deferred wages, negotiated between the employer and employees through the union and recognized by both parties. Accordingly, pension plans must be considered preferred claims, and paying them out must be considered a priority. To stop the looting, companies must be forced to live up to their commitments to workers.
Second, pensioners must be compensated for the loss of their group insurance, which has obvious negative repercussions for them and their families. Going back to the example of Cliffs Natural Resources, the workers and pensioners were unfairly penalized for a bankruptcy for which they were in no way responsible. They were deprived of money they had worked for. It was their due.
The Liberal Party of Canada just held their convention. I was pleasantly surprised when the Liberals adopted a resolution recognizing that pensions are deferred wages. I hope they will also be pleased when they remember that this was in both Bill C-253 and its previous version, Bill C-372. Logically, the Liberals cannot deny that slashing pension plans during a company bankruptcy constitutes theft, so they will surely vote for Bill C-253.
Of course, Bill C-253 was drafted with the Cliffs pensioners and their spouses in mind. The bill reflects their life stories and the misfortunes they had to contend with.
I want to sincerely thank the Cliffs pensioners' association, which demonstrated ingenuity, empathy and tenacity in the face of the colossal problems that their former employer's bankruptcy caused for them. I want to give a huge thank you to Gordon, Cécile, Daniel, Rodrigue, the other Rodrigue, Serge, and also Nico, as well as all of the others I cannot name in the House, for their invaluable contributions. They know who they are. Their hard work served as the inspiration for this bill. They are proof that the voice and will of the people can be heard loud and clear in Parliament. This is their space, and I sincerely hope that their fight will inspire others, so that no one else has to go through what they did.
Before I conclude, I want to comment on another rather surprising action that the Liberal government has taken to amend the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act.
At the beginning of the week, a private member's bill to amend the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act in connection with the situation at Laurentian University was introduced by the member for Sudbury. That bill excludes post-secondary teaching institutions from the definition of company. I am confused. The government had an opportunity to significantly improve the legislation — I say an opportunity, but it has had several — but all it did was add a simple exception to make itself look good and restore its image after what happened at Laurentian University.
Bill C-253 goes much further and truly protects those who need protection for the long term, not the creditors, not businesses and even less so the government, but the workers and what they are planning to live on, the money to fund the retirement they have looked forward to their entire lives.
Bill C-253 proposes real change by amending the order of priority of companies' creditors. Bill C-253 ensures that workers will not be penalized if their former employer declares bankruptcy. It reassures those workers by promising that they will not lose their deferred wages, meaning their pension plans and group insurance.
We have seen hundreds of tragedies where workers have lost their money. Sears, Capital Media Group and Cliffs are just a few of the many examples, and I want to reiterate that the current pandemic is only going to result in more cases like these.
Urgent action must be taken to end these injustices once and for all and to protect our workers' nest eggs. I am asking my colleagues to pass this bill quickly so that other pensioners, who dream of a secure retirement, do not have their modest dream shattered. They worked hard for a comfortable retirement.
On behalf of the workers, pensioners and seniors for whom I am speaking today, I urge my colleagues to share my concerns about laws that do not provide proper long-term protection for our workers. We have a duty to act and make real, much-needed changes to bankruptcy laws in order to protect pension plans and group insurance.
Let us vote for our fellow citizens. Let us vote in favour of Bill C-253.