Madam Speaker, I would like to begin by thanking my esteemed colleague, the member for Sarnia—Lambton, for introducing Bill C‑228 and for working across party lines throughout the process, working with all the opposition parties on a bill that matters very much to the Bloc Québécois.
I would also like to express my appreciation to my colleague from Manicouagan, who began working hard on Bill C‑228's precursor in 2015. She has really done some outstanding work.
We are here to talk about Bill C‑228, which amends the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act. The amendments would:
...ensure that claims in respect of unfunded liabilities or solvency deficiencies of pension plans and claims relating to the cessation of an employer’s participation in group insurance plans are paid in priority in the event of bankruptcy proceedings.
It also amends the Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985 to provide that an employer may provide financial security in the form of insurance for any portion of the contributions that they are required to pay under subsections 9(1.1) and (1.2) of the Act....
Basically, this means that the enactment:
...to authorize the administrator of [a potentially] underfunded pension plan, in certain situations [including bankruptcy], to transfer or permit the transfer of any part of the assets or liabilities of the pension plan to another pension plan. The amendments also provide for the tabling of an annual report respecting the solvency of pension plans.
I would like to begin by providing a bit of context. My hon. colleague from Joliette touched on this.
One important factor in the history of all the bills on this issue is of course the bankruptcy of the American company Cliffs Natural Resources. The two Canadian subsidiaries operating its facilities, at Bloom Lake in Pointe-Noire and in Wabush, were placed under the protection of the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act in 2015.
As a result, Cliffs Natural Resources announced plans to reorganize its operations with a view to closing down its operations in eastern Canada. This restructuring had serious repercussions for Cliffs' employees, as well as for its retired workers who lost much of their pension and group insurance.
During the 42th Parliament, that is from 2015 to 2019, my esteemed colleague, the member for Manicouagan, introduced Bill C‑372, a bill to protect workers' pension funds. Debated for just one hour, the bill, which was intended to prevent injustices like the injustice done to Cliffs workers, sought to ensure that this would not happen again and that other retirees would not lose the pensions they worked for all their lives. Unfortunately, the bill was never acted upon because the Liberal majority government at the time did not implement it.
Throughout the last Parliament, the Bloc Québécois worked very hard, particularly with the other opposition parties, to protect pension funds, but unfortunately that work did not bear fruit. To buy time, the government appointed the former minister of seniors to hold a consultation and, again, that led to absolutely nothing. Since then, we have also seen the bankruptcies of Sears and Groupe Capitales Médias.
With the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic, there is every reason to believe that there will be more bankruptcies and that workers must be protected to ensure that, in the event of a bankruptcy, they have access to a pension fund.
I would like to take this opportunity to quote a very important part of the press conference my esteemed colleague from Manicouagan gave, in collaboration with the esteemed member for Sarnia—Lambton: “A pension fund is deferred wages resulting from an agreement between workers and a company. When a company decides to breach that contract and pay off its debt by using that money, that is theft, plain and simple.”
While all the opposition parties have introduced a bill to protect workers' pensions, we have the opportunity, as parliamentarians, to move quickly through each stage of the legislative process to ensure that pension plans are protected as soon as possible. We have this opportunity because we are in a minority government. For once, the opposition parties can join forces, set partisanship aside, and get this bill passed to help these workers.
No one will be surprised to learn that the Bloc Québécois supports the principle of Bill C‑228. Currently, when an employer declares bankruptcy, what they owe the pension fund is considered an unsecured claim. Also, once secured creditors and preferred claims are paid, there is practically nothing left to replenish the undercapitalized pension funds. The result is that pensioners end up with reduced pensions, sometimes drastically so.
The overall objective of Bill C‑228 is quite similar, in that it is designed to better protect pension funds in the event of bankruptcy. When a company is being restructured in accordance with the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act or when it is being liquidated in accordance with the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act, Bill C‑228 would designate pension plans as preferred creditors, as was proposed in the Bloc Québécois bill that died on the Order Paper when the election was called before it reached report stage.
Bill C‑228 is, however, missing one of the provisions in the Bloc Québécois's bill, a provision that would have also designated group insurance plans as preferred creditors. We are prepared to accept this omission to ensure that this bill is passed. It does not provide the same level of protection for workers, although it is an improvement over what we have now.
Bill C-228 also contains amendments to the Pension Benefits Standards Act of 1985 that were not included in the Bloc Québécois bill. These changes only affect federally regulated businesses, such as telecommunications companies, banks and interprovincial or international transportation companies, or about 3% of Quebec's workforce. These changes provide some flexibility to the administrator of a pension fund. The bill allows an employer to purchase insurance to cover all or part of the pension fund's deficit. This provision harmonizes the federal legislation with the Ontario legislation, where there is an insurance fund for pensions. This is a good measure. Quebec should use it as an example.
When Capital Media went bankrupt, the retired workers from various local daily newspapers lost part of their pension, while those from Le Droit, based in Ottawa, managed to hang on to nearly all of theirs. Under this legislation, instead of emptying the pension fund upon bankruptcy, the administrator of the fund would be allowed to transfer it to another one. This measure does raise some questions. Does it salvage anything, or does it prevent the fund from being bailed out by the employer's assets? This would have to be examined.
Generally speaking, the bill is a step forward in protecting seniors. After all, a retired worker's pension is deferred wages, as my colleague fromManicouagan said. There is no reason why salary should be considered a priority claim, but not retirement.
Once and for all, we must put an end to this measure that is burdening Quebec workers and retirees. We must guarantee them the financial security they deserve. Once again, this bill draws heavily on former Bill C-253, which was introduced in the House.
We must lead by example. Workers' interests must come before partisanship. That is what we are doing today.