Madam Speaker, Bill C-13 before us today proposes a necessary change to the employment insurance system, and for that reason, we will support it.
It fixes one of the countless injustices in the employment insurance system, which stopped long ago providing real insurance in case of job loss. With this bill, military personnel will be able to get the parental leave to which they would otherwise have been entitled if they had not been summoned to leave on a mission.
The work our military personnel do takes great bravery and they should be congratulated on their spirit of sacrifice, their courage and all that they accomplish for their fellow citizens.
Their work requires them to constantly put their lives on the line. For this, they deserve our respect of course, but most of all, they deserve to be treated fairly and equitably. Justice cannot be blind. Different or exceptional cases cannot be treated in the same way as all the rest. Canadian Forces members inevitably find themselves in an exceptional situation when asked to leave on a mission.
The current Employment Insurance Act provides for a 52-week benefit period, that is, the time that someone who is entitled to benefits has to claim them. There are some exceptions to this rule, for example when a child is hospitalized or in the case of extended benefits for long-tenured workers. However, Canadian Forces members were not included.
We have excellent news for them, therefore, because once the bill passes, they will know that serving in the Canadian Forces will not, paradoxically, cause them undue harm and they will get the benefits to which they are entitled and for which they pay employment insurance premiums, like virtually all workers. They deserve these benefits.
In regard to all the various bills proposing improvements to employment insurance, we basically feel that we say the same thing over and over. We repeat the same old refrain because we are always confronted with the same old problem: the inability to access benefits.
The same problem is tackled, for example, in Bill C-395, introduced by my colleague from Berthier—Maskinongé, which proposes that the qualifying period, that is the period taken into account to determine the number of insurable hours, is considered to be the 52 weeks preceding the outbreak of a labour dispute. In other words, the period during which a labour dispute is underway and the workers are therefore not accumulating very many insurable hours would not be included. This means that if they lose their jobs at the end of the dispute—something that is not very frequent but does happen sometimes—they are not left without any resources.
The same logic prevails here as in the government bill. Benefits would be provided to workers who, through no individual fault of their own, find themselves cut off from employment insurance. There are always two parties to a labour dispute, the employers and the employees. Employees do not just decide to have a labour dispute. There is usually a period of negotiations during which they hope to arrive at a settlement and the dialogue with their employer is maintained. Most of all, though, they hope that the 25 years they spent working for the company and contributing to the employment insurance system will count for something and they will receive benefits, if and when needed.
In this case, if the business shuts down just before the labour dispute, the workers would be entitled to benefits. We want the weeks preceding a labour dispute to be taken into account. But according to the Employment Insurance Act, if a business shuts down after a labour dispute that lasts more than one year, these workers are left with nothing. They are financially destitute because they would have had to make do on meagre strike pay, which usually covers the bare minimum needed to survive.
That is another example of the injustices currently found within the system, and it is very similar to the cases of soldiers who did not have access to the parental benefits they should have been entitled to.
In both cases, the legislative solution is quite simple, and does not involve massive amounts of money from EI. On the contrary, the amounts required are quite insignificant. Of course, they are not insignificant to the claimants involved, for whom this represents a lot of money. For some, it means the difference between bankruptcy and financial survival, between the anxiety of losing everything and the hope of having a chance to start over.
That is why there has been so much criticism of the employment insurance system for several years now: this system no longer does what it was designed to do.
I would like to quote Michel Ducharme, the president of the Montreal branch of the FTQ, who recently testified before the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities regarding Bill C-395.
We are all paying into that system, both workers and employers, and these contributions are intended to protect us in cases of plant or company closures. That is part of what makes them legitimate. When a labour dispute arises when a collective agreement is to be renewed, the idea is to save jobs. Some unions provide strike pay, but the whole idea is not to be off the job, but rather to save that job, preserve working conditions and reach an agreement. If that turns out not to work, that is something the worker has no control over [which is what I was saying earlier]. The workers pay into the system for 25 or 30 years, and are working for a company that has always operated and has never had layoffs. Then, from one day to the next, the company shuts down. It is illogical for people not to be eligible for employment insurance benefits in those cases. That is precisely the whole purpose of these benefits.
Like the employment insurance system, the veterans charter seems to have also lost its original function, and today, it is also the subject of fierce criticism, notably from the veterans ombudsman. Passing the New Veterans Charter means that, from now on, veterans with psychological problems or physical disabilities resulting from their service in the armed forces will no longer receive an annuity, which guaranteed them some financial security. Instead, they will receive a single lump sum payment.
It was soon noticed that this amount was clearly inadequate and that, in the end, it was much less than the sum they would have received if the compensation had been paid out monthly. That is one more example of the Conservative government's lack of compassion for people in need and who, on the contrary, can use the help.
The numbers speak for themselves. Upon their return from Kandahar, 4% of soldiers have suicidal thoughts, 4.6% of them have symptoms of major depression and 15% suffer from mental health issues. Those numbers are huge.
That is why it does not make sense to give a single large sum of money to people who are, by definition, unstable and likely to squander the money in no time. Veterans with PTSD often have alcohol or drug problems.
I want to point out that the member for Québec very recently presented a petition urging the government to end this practice, which can cause major problems for some injured soldiers. All we can do now is hope that the government will heed the soldiers' call for more humane treatment. This government seems to have a tendency to take a clear-cut business approach to all services provided to the people.
For example, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development recently compared the employment insurance waiting period to the deductible associated with, say, car or home insurance. That kind of cynicism conflicts with the role of the state.
When the Veterans Ombudsman, Colonel Patrick Stogran, appeared before the Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs on April 22, he had this to say about the administrative culture that prevails in the Department of Veterans Affairs: “It's very much an insurance company approach to doing business.”
He went on to say that:
I feel very strongly that the culture has to change. I feel very strongly that to do that it has to go towards a needs-based approach. I also feel very strongly that in order to satisfy that needs-based approach, case managers on the front lines have to be empowered to offer veterans what they really need. I think that's the principle upon which this program is based.
He could have said the same thing about the employment insurance system as it is currently managed. His comments would have been just as relevant. In both cases, a major overhaul is critical to restoring and respecting the intent behind the creation of both programs: meeting people's needs so that they can maintain a sense of dignity in hard times. Right now, they are forced to fight to get anything over and above the often ridiculously low lump sum the army gives them.
In the January 9 edition of Le Soleil, Francine Matteau, the Quebec woman who started the petition presented by the member for Québec, said this about the compensation her son received, and I quote:
“The first offer the army made him was ridiculous, so he appealed and they offered him just over $100,000. He has to appeal again now, because that is not enough,” she complained, pointing out that her son, who has learned to walk again but struggles to get around, no longer meets the army's standards and cannot easily hold another job. “Medals and commendations are great, but they don't pay the mortgage or buy groceries!”...
The article goes on:
Mrs. Matteau says that the UK is much more generous to veterans and in December 2008 increased the maximum benefit for British soldiers wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan from $470,000 to $940,000.
“In addition to this benefit, wounded British soldiers receive a monthly pension that can increase the total lifetime benefits to more than $1.5 million,” states Mrs. Matteau, who now hopes to make the public aware of the fate of Canadian soldiers wounded in action.
Knowing that the maximum benefit in Canada is $276,000, we have a better understanding of why our soldiers are frustrated. To continue the comparison with employment insurance, the government runs these two programs with the same twisted logic, forcing potential benefit recipients to fight the government machine for their rights.
Is this how the Conservative government thinks we should thank workers and members of the military, who work extremely hard for their families, their fellow citizens and their society?
In another article that appeared in La Presse, the veterans ombudsman did not mince words:
“Soldiers should not have to worry about their standard of living. They should be confident that, regardless of their injuries, they will be able to support their families and themselves...They should not have to worry about the rest of their lives when they are trying to recover from physical and psychological injuries.”
I do not want to downplay the importance of the legislative amendment the Conservative government is proposing with Bill C-13, but I believe that we can safely say that there may be more important issues to deal with when it comes to the treatment of Canadian soldiers.
Reforming the Veterans Charter is something the government could do that would really prove that it supports our troops—as it claims to do. It is not enough to say it in the House. Once again, they need to follow through on their fine words and listen to the veterans who are speaking out by the thousands against a program that treats them like beggars, when on the contrary, that program should evince some sign of the gratitude we own them for the sacrifices they have made.
As legislators, we cannot be insensitive to the difficulties facing our veterans, who are often affected by their war injuries, whether physical or psychological, for the rest of their lives. These are people who face difficulties right away, from the very fact of joining the armed forces, because they are separated from their families and loved ones. Injured or not, they deserve recognition for the extraordinary work that they do.
In closing, I would like to reiterate the Bloc's support for the bill currently before the House, that is, Bill C-13. As I was saying, it will redress the injustices committed against CF members, and we should feel good about that. However, in that context, I cannot help but see and draw some parallels between the situation facing other workers who are also being deprived of the EI benefits they are entitled to, and the situation facing our wounded veterans.
Since justice requires that everyone get what they deserve, we cannot remain silent when the issue is before us. We must speak out against all injustices.