Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to a bill about employment insurance benefits. Of course, I would have liked us to be focusing on a comprehensive reform of the Employment Insurance Act instead of piecemeal measures.
This enactment amends the Employment Insurance Act to extend the benefit period and the period during which parental benefits may be paid for Canadian Forces members whose period of parental leave is deferred or who are directed to return to duty from parental leave.
I know that the minister intends to correct an injustice that Canadian Forces members suffer, and I thank him for that. But choices like this one inevitably make other people feel as though they are being ignored again.
The government must be aware of the real needs of thousands of workers in Quebec and Canada. I would like to remind the members that there are other injustices, and the people suffering those injustices are still waiting.
For example, I would like to mention Marie-Hélène Dubé, a determined woman who to date has managed to rally more than 60,000 Quebeckers to her cause, which is individuals with a serious illness who receive only 15 weeks of benefits. I want to thank the Canadian Cancer Society, which is calling on everyone to help Ms. Dubé in her quest to have people with a serious illness treated more equitably with regard to employment insurance.
When will EI be made more flexible for people with a serious illness?
What about the other measures the Bloc Québécois has proposed to make EI more flexible? I will come back to them later if I have time to talk about them all.
What I want to illustrate here is that we cannot wait indefinitely. There has to be a clear commitment by the government to reviewing the Employment Insurance Act. The flaws in that act are ruining lives, destroying families and hurting communities. No one should have to wait. The fact is that five years ago, in 2005, a consensus was achieved in the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development. The Conservative government has the key points on which greater flexibility is expected and has been proposed in its hands. This is the list:
Introduce an eligibility threshold of 360 hours for all regions and all insured persons. This eligibility threshold would entitle claimants to a varying number of weeks of benefits, based on the unemployment rate in their region.
Permanently increase the benefit rate from 55% to 60%.
Amend the Employment Insurance Act so that employment of a related person is not deemed to be uninsurable.
Eliminate the two-week waiting period during which claimants have no income.
Increase the present $2,000 income cut-off for entitlement to a refund of employment insurance premiums to $3,000.
Make self-employed workers eligible for the scheme on a voluntary basis.
The Bloc Québécois has introduced several bills to improve the employment insurance scheme and expand access to it. Like my colleagues from Saint-Lambert and Chambly—Borduas, I stress that the other segments of the population are entitled to expect that the Minister will come back to us with concrete measures as soon as possible. It is high time.
Before continuing, I wanted to express the enormous indignation I felt when I learned of the number of veterans and former soldiers who are eating at community kitchens and food banks. It is surprising that this government, which boasts of how it listens to its troops, is abandoning those who have given loyal service so that we can enjoy some peace and quiet.
I will take this opportunity to urge the government to proceed with the same speed on issues affecting seniors, like the guaranteed income supplement, and to take its cue from the Bloc Québécois bill that will be debated shortly. I urge it to consider the good it could do for these old soldiers if it also made the benefits they are entitled to fully retroactive. It is inconceivable to see seniors living in poverty. It is unacceptable to see veterans lining up at food banks.
The Bloc Québécois supports Bill C-13, to extend the benefit period and the period during which parental benefits may be paid for Canadian Forces members whose period of parental leave is deferred or who are directed to return to duty from parental leave, in principle. The Bloc Québécois has the greatest respect for the troops who perform extremely dangerous missions where they risk their lives.
It is precisely that great respect that means that because their lives are in danger, we have a responsibility not to expose them to more risks, to provide for the best possible accommodation between their career and their family life, and to make sure that their return to the country is facilitated by measures that help with their integration into civil society.
Bill C-13 allows members of the Canadian Forces to take parental leave they would have been unable to take because they were out of the country. Although this measure is necessary, the Conservatives are still continuing their bad habit of making piecemeal changes rather than undertaking genuine reform. First, there has to be social and psychological assistance for members of the military when they experience traumatic events or when they come home and have to deal with tough challenges. There are also challenges in dealing with the employment insurance scheme that make a thorough overhaul necessary.
The Conservative government is pursuing its short-term vision of sprinkling programs here and there for reasons of visibility rather than effectiveness. In so doing, it keeps its ideological blinkers firmly in place so it can avoid seeing the other aspects of employment insurance and assistance to members of the military that are in obvious need of improvement.
Bill C-13 includes a number of clauses that will provide better coverage under the Employment Insurance Act to a new segment of the population: soldiers. If passed, the government's bill will allow military personnel to defer and collect parental benefits if they are directed to return to duty from parental leave. We know that soldiers contribute to employment insurance just like other workers. Section 5(1)(c) clearly states that service in the Canadian Forces is insurable employment.
The department's press release says that “This new measure would extend the EI parental benefit window for Canadian Forces members who are ordered to return to duty while on parental leave or whose parental leave is deferred as a result of a military requirement. The measure would extend the period in which they are eligible by another 52 weeks”.
Clauses in Bill C-13 allow military personnel to defer and benefit from parental leave.
I would like to take this opportunity to focus on certain elements of the bill.
Clause 2 stipulates that section 10 of the Employment Insurance Act will be amended by adding the following after subsection (12):
(12.1) If, during the period referred to in subsection 23(2), the start date of a claimant’s period of parental leave is deferred or a claimant is directed to return to duty from parental leave, in accordance with regulations made under the National Defence Act, the benefit period is extended by the number of weeks during which the claimant’s parental leave is deferred or the claimant is directed to return to duty, as the case may be.
Clause 3 deals with subsection 23(3.1) of the same Act, the Employment Insurance Act, which will be replaced by the following:
(3.01) If, during the period referred to in subsection (2), the start date of a claimant’s period of parental leave is deferred or a claimant is directed to return to duty from parental leave, in accordance with regulations made under the National Defence Act, the period is extended by the number of weeks during which the claimant’s parental leave is deferred or the claimant is directed to return to duty, as the case may be.
I would like to draw your attention to clause 4, which stipulates that:
Sections 2 and 3 do not apply to a claimant for a benefit period that began before the day on which this Act comes into force.
Clause 4 of the bill would not allow soldiers whose benefit period began before the day on which the act comes into force to benefit from this measure.
I have a question for the government. Would soldiers currently on parental leave, who are ordered to return to duty after implementation of this bill, be entitled to defer their leave considering that they had already started receiving benefits?
I am asking the government this question and I hope that we will not pass a law without providing for transitional measures for people in this situation. Retroactivity is important and military personnel should be included.
According to the government's backgrounder:
Parental benefits provide income replacement for up to 35 weeks to biological or adoptive parents while they are caring for a newborn or newly adopted child. Benefits may be taken by either parent or shared between them. If parents opt to share these benefits, only one two-week waiting period must be served.
We can see that, even with this bill, the government must make clarifications. I believe they should be addressed by the committee which, I am certain, will study this matter very carefully.
Because the bill deals with fair treatment for military families, I would like to share with members measures that could help our armed forces members.
The Bloc Québécois has the utmost respect for our troops, as I mentioned at the very beginning of my speech.
This deep respect goes hand in hand with the responsibility to not increase their risks and to help them when they return from theatres of operations.
The Conservative government, rather than giving priority to and protecting members of the military, is currently making ad hoc decisions without an in-depth analysis of the consequences.
In terms of the members' physical and psychological needs, the Conservative government makes much of the contribution of Canadian armed forces to various military interventions. But what about its responsibilities when some members return damaged by their experiences, suffering from physical injuries and trauma?
They are less prompt to talk about the increased suicide rate among armed forces members who return to civilian life and the incredible lack of the psychological and financial support they need.
The armed forces should provide adequate follow-up of its members who return from a mission such as that in Afghanistan, especially since we know that 4% of soldiers returning from Kandahar develop suicidal tendencies, 4.6% have symptoms of major depression, and more than 15% experience mental health problems. I have taken these statistics from an article published in Le Devoir.
In the course of its parliamentary work, the Bloc Québécois has always been concerned with support for veterans—all those who proudly donned the uniform.
For example, we have always insisted that the government should allocate all possible resources to help our armed forces members and veterans meet their health needs, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the Standing Committee on National Defence, the Bloc Québécois supported most of the 34 recommendations in a report asking the government to provide more resources to military personnel to meet their health needs. This report was adopted on June 8, 2009, and tabled in the House on June 17 of that year.
In the Standing Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the Bloc Québécois also backed recommendations from a report asking for more support for the services provided to veterans. This report was adopted and tabled in the House on June 17, 2009.
We fought for the creation of a position of veterans ombudsman and it was established in April 2007.
I would also like to draw a parallel with another issue, the transfer of Ste. Anne's Hospital. The future of Ste. Anne's raises questions that make us wonder about the quality of the necessary services and the amount of assistance that our veterans need. In the course of the negotiations, we need to take into account the specific nature of the care that veterans require.
I hope the government will listen to the voice of the veterans who have been returning from various theatres of operations over the years and who want the government to focus on their real needs and provide them with the services they really require.
I hope the government will face the facts and focus as well on establishing a separate entity. The government should change the negotiator’s mandate for the transfer to include specific provisions responding to the requests of the people involved. I am talking about the veterans themselves, the people who treat veterans, and the military personnel who return from various theatres to be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
I would also like to draw the attention of the House to a petition signed by thousands of Quebeckers who want to change the compensation system for wounded soldiers in the Canada's Veterans' Charter.
In 2005, the House of Commons passed a Canadian Forces Members and Veterans Re-establishment and Compensation Act, commonly called the Veterans' Charter, which took force on April 6, 2006.
Since then, National Defence no longer provides lifetime monthly pensions for its damaged soldiers. Instead, it introduced a lump sum payment in 2006. For every injury, there is a corresponding indemnity, up to a maximum of $276,000 in the worst of cases. The amount is paid once, and the armed forces member is left to figure out on his own how to handle the money.
In January 2010, the veterans ombudsman was very critical of this new system for compensating armed forces personnel for the injuries they suffered. Since stopping lifetime annuities, the forces have been providing veterans with a lot less money and failing to meet their needs.
He said that he was not a proponent of the lump sum payment because someone with psychological issues could spend it unwisely, waste money and not have a single cent to put towards their financial security.
The ombudsman, a veteran of Bosnia and Afghanistan himself, added that
—veterans can quite easily become homeless. Many of them lose their way because of mental health problems. The only way to “force” them to maintain a residence would often be to send their compensation in monthly installments by mail, as used to be the case.
He also said that this issue is important and that he is very worried about the fact that veterans can become homeless and end up waiting in line at food banks.
According to some veterans, the compensation being offered is not the only flaw in the federal department. They say that the whole claim process is burdensome, complex and ill-suited and the burden of proof rests on the injured soldier, who has a hard time understanding the procedure.
We know that there is much to be done for military personnel who are coming back and their families. Expectations are high.
Thousand of people have signed a petition demanding changes to the Veterans Charter.
The Bloc Québécois member for Québec stated:
We cannot remain indifferent to the injustices that our injured veterans are facing. The people of the greater Quebec City area, the rest of Quebec and in fact all of Canada must rally behind this cause. Together we must make the federal government understand that the current situation is completely unacceptable and that corrective measures are needed immediately.
The Vaudreuil-Soulanges region is sensitive to this issue and is entirely supportive. The petition is currently circulating in my riding.
As for employment insurance, the Bloc Québécois has been relentless in its efforts to bring attention to the need to get the EI system working again for our workers.
The Bloc Québécois has introduced several bills aimed at improving the employment insurance system and access to it. It is very unfortunate that the Conservative government will not take any concrete action to help workers who lose their jobs and who cannot access EI. So many workers pay into the EI system, but only 40% of them have access to it.
The government's actions clearly show its complete indifference towards workers. The measures proposed by the Bloc Québécois have two objectives: to reassure workers who lose their jobs by providing them with a more accessible and generous employment insurance program, and to stimulate household spending by enabling workers who have lost their jobs to get the benefits they need to keep the economy going.
In that sense, the proposed EI changes are important. The Bloc Québécois has proposed a new approach that assumes claimants are acting in good faith, which will speed up delivery of the first cheque.
It is inconceivable that at this time, when claimants win their employment insurance appeal, they receive a letter 30 days later telling them that the government is appealing the appeal, and they have to continue fighting for as long as 90 days. And that is what happens when the ruling is in the worker's favour.
In addition to the initiatives I just mentioned, there is the assumption that claimants are acting in good faith, which the government could easily amend. There is also the expansion and adaptation of the work sharing program and the extension of a claimant's right to receive benefits while pursuing training.