Mr. Pierre Poilievre (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, earlier today I was talking about the fairness for military families act, or Bill C-13 as it is also called. I am going to refresh the House's memory on the background that I shared with it earlier today.
Just over a year ago, I was knocking on doors in the southwest Ottawa community of Osgoode, a village about 40 minutes from where I stand today. I ended up on the doorstep of a soldier. He related to me his story of service in the Golan Heights. He was called to go on a mission four or five days after the birth of his son, Jacob. He stayed on duty in that mission for an entire year, meaning that he missed basically the first year of his child's life while he was sacrificing for all of us. His wife would later say that one of the things that got them through that long period of separation was that he would be able to return and collect his employment insurance parental leave and use that leave as an opportunity to make up for lost time with his family, and in particular, with his small child. And why would he not apply for that parental leave; after all, Major Duquette pays employment insurance premiums, as do all soldiers. As such, they should expect to receive employment insurance benefits.
In this case, the time period during which those benefits were available to him had expired while he was serving all of us overseas. When he returned and applied, he was saddened to learn that he would not have the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits for which he had been paying as a Canadian who pays employment insurance premiums. He felt that this was an injustice. What bothered him additionally and what exacerbated the situation was when he opened the statutes he learned that there is an exemption in place for criminals to defer their benefits until after they complete their prison terms. The system provides a special advantage for criminals, but not for the law-abiding, patriotic, sacrificing Canadian soldiers who do such important work on our behalf and at such great emotional and personal cost to their families.
We have in the House a number of veterans who have served in the armed forces for whom this issue is especially important as well. One of them is my seatmate, the member for Edmonton Centre. The member for Edmonton Centre is also the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence. Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with him. As a former air force pilot, I know that he will have a very special perspective to share with us. I think we should take a moment to recognize him.
When I was standing on Major Duquette's doorstep, I said to him that I would bring his concern to the Prime Minister and that after we were able to study the matter, we would act quickly to fix this injustice with the introduction in the House of Commons of the fairness for military families act. That is precisely what we have done. I congratulate the Minister of Human Resources for drafting this legislation.
This legislation allows soldiers to defer their benefits until after their mission is complete so that soldiers who find themselves in a similar situation to that which befell our friend, Major Duquette, will be able to have their benefits waiting for them when they get back from duty abroad. That means that children will get extra time with their mother or father who is a member of the forces. I want members to consider the human benefit that should be associated with this legislation.
When people make the sacrifice to be away from their families and away from their children in that crucial first year, they make a big sacrifice and so do the families. When they return, should we not allow them to have access to the benefits that they pay for? Should they not have the chance to rekindle that bond, to solidify that relationship and to become more acquainted with the newborn or child from whom they have been separated during their service to our country?
I ask that question to all members of this chamber. I think members of all parties would agree that mothers and fathers, like Major Duquette, who perform this valuable service for our country often at great risk to themselves should be able to have the opportunity to spend subsequent time with their children, especially considering that they paid for that benefit. Let this be one of those occasions when members of all parties come together in support of families, of our troops and of fairness.
Mr. Laurie Hawn (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak in the House today on such an important matter as support to our men and women in uniform. The topic, which was reiterated in last month's throne speech, is a priority for this government. The legislation before us will ensure that Canadian Forces personnel and their families continue to receive the benefits and support they need and deserve.
I know that all members of this House want what is best for Canadian Forces members because our troops are an exceptional group of men and women. They are among the best this country has to offer, and I can tell you that they are dedicated and courageous, and they work tirelessly to defend Canada and Canadians. They risk their lives every day, whether winching down from a Cormorant rescue helicopter into the stormy Atlantic or assisting with counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean Sea or protecting the residents of Kandahar City. They are respected around the world and here at home they are admired as heroes.
Their job can be very dangerous and stressful. They face many challenges related to deployments, not the least of which is time spent away from their loved ones.
I have had the honour to join the Minister of National Defence in welcoming our troops home from Afghanistan. Standing at the airport, we cannot help but get a lump in our throats, watching husbands and wives with tears in their eyes, children clutching hand-made welcome home signs, and babies meeting their fathers for the first time.
The personal sacrifices our troops and their families endure are tremendous. The least this country can do in return is to ensure that Canadian Forces personnel and their families have the best possible support.
That is the intent of this legislation. Canadians want to support our military personnel. Canadians believe that hard work and sacrifice should be recognized. They are proud of the forces and they show that pride by wearing red on Fridays and at red rallies, participating in fundraising events for Boomers Legacy, sticking a “support our troops“ magnet on their cars, or standing for hours in all kinds of weather on an overpass above the Highway of Heroes to welcome home our fallen.
Pretty much as we speak, that is taking place again today as we welcome home Petty Officer Craig Blake. Our condolences go out to his family and comrades, and our sincere gratitude on behalf of the country.
This government is also proud to stand behind our brave men and women. We are doing what we can to ensure they have the tools and resources they need and deserve. Our government has stood behind our pledge to rebuild the Canadian Forces and stand up for what they need, the people who defend our country day in and day out. We take this responsibility very seriously.
Two years ago, we introduced the Canada first defence strategy. We announced our intention to invest in personnel, equipment, readiness, and infrastructure to produce a first-class, modern military. We have already made good progress.
Investing in people is an important pillar of that strategy. Just over 50% of National Defence's budget is spent on people. That is, again, our most important resource.
We do our utmost to care for that resource, especially our forces members and their families. It is an area where we are constantly working to improve.
Over the past year we have been pleased to support the successful creation of the joint personnel support unit. This unit coordinates personal and administrative support for all injured and ill Canadian Forces members and former members, their families and the families of the deceased. This is a collaborative venture with Veterans Affairs Canada, and encompasses a network of 19 integrated personnel support centres across this country. It helps our ill and injured recover and offers the support they need to heal, to adjust, and to prepare for the next phase of their lives.
We are always trying to find ways to do more for those who sacrifice so much. This legislation represents another step forward in this regard. It takes care of our brave men and women in uniform. It introduces measures to improve the quality of life enjoyed by our troops, quality of life that rests largely on the health of families.
Force members and reservists face unique challenges. They can be asked to deploy immediately cutting short their time with new children.
The proposed legislation will improve access to employment insurance parental benefits by extending the period in which they can take leave to up to 104 weeks. That means that our troops do not have to choose between families and work. It will provide more opportunity for parent-child bonding in those critical early stages of life. These relationships are so important and already so fragile for our troops to maintain when deployments can take them away for months at a time.
I am sure that many of my fellow members of the House can relate to the importance of families spending time together especially in those fleeting early months.
This legislation demonstrates this government's resolve to take care of our troops and to stand up for their families. It shows respect for our serving members and it will allow the Canadian Forces to continue to attract the very best young individuals to the service.
This government has done a lot for members of the Canadian Forces and 2010 will be another good year for the forces.
Bill C-13 is just one part of this government's continuing commitment to care for those who wear the maple leaf for us at home and abroad.
I would have loved to have had this benefit during my air force career. I know many of my friends would have benefited from this greatly.
Taking care of the needs of military families, all of their needs, is a priority for this government. I am extremely proud of our government's record. Those who wear the uniform consistently put country before self.
In return, we must do everything to support their well-being and I am very grateful for the opportunity to add my voice to this important debate.
Mr. Jack Harris (St. John's East, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I appreciated the speech by my friend from Edmonton Centre on Bill C-13. He had, as we all know, a 30-year career in the Canadian Forces and speaks with obvious passion on the issue of our troops and soldiers who are doing their duty for Canada in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The NDP fully supports this bill. The fact that a bill can come to the House of Commons through the offices of an individual member of Parliament, whether someone on this side or that side of the House, and can be made into law is really what being parliamentarians is all about. Obviously, this is a government measure, but how does it get here? How does it become an issue for parliamentarians?
It happens because someone raises it and feels strongly about it. It is an idea whose time has come and needs to be recognized. We in the NDP fully support this piece of legislation. In fact, we have been critical of the government in other areas when it talks of supporting our soldiers and troops, particularly veterans, which I will get to a little later, but to focus on the particular issue of this bill is extremely important.
We have all seen and know from family, friends and constituents the hardships, worries and concern we have when soldiers have gone off for long rotations to Afghanistan in the past seven or eight years or elsewhere. They are going to be away from their families, children and spouses or, in the case of parental leave, which is what we are talking about now, fathers are not being present at the birth of a child and being away many months before seeing their newborn. It tugs on the heart strings of all of us to know that Canadians do that for their country because that is the job they have taken on, the commitment they have made, and the sacrifice they have undertaken on behalf of their fellow citizens.
We are all proud that we have young men and women who are prepared to do that. We owe them not only a debt of gratitude but full support for doing what Canada is asking of them. We also, of course, owe it to them to ensure that our own government's actions and activities are in keeping with the high standards that we have as Canadians.
It is a pleasure to support this piece of legislation. On a going-forward basis, it will give soldiers and young families some comfort to know that they will be guaranteed of having family time after a deployment when it is interrupted by service or when a birth takes place while a soldier is deployed.
My colleague from Acadie—Bathurst has spoken on this bill already. The NDP has some proposals that would expand this to include others who serve overseas on Canada's behalf, some of them in fact in Afghanistan. One of whom, as we know, in the diplomatic corps lost his life in the same theatre of war as soldiers are fighting now, Glyn Berry. He lost his life while serving in Afghanistan as part of the diplomatic corps.
We have other diplomats stationed abroad in such places like Afghanistan and elsewhere, who make the sacrifice of being away from their families for long periods of time. We believe this change in the EI Act should be expanded to include them as well. It should be noted also that not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere, places like Haiti and others, there are a considerable number of members of police forces, whether the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, provincial or municipal police forces, who volunteer and are part of military and international engagements that Canada has undertaken.
I know members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in my province have served in Bosnia as part of a mission. They are serving in Haiti and elsewhere in training missions away from their families.
Similarly we have a large contingent of RCMP and others in Afghanistan, assisting and training the Afghan police force. We recognize this is directed at military personnel only, but the concept is a good one and in fairness should apply to others in the diplomatic corps and to police officers who serve abroad under the same kind of circumstances, away from their country.
I will not go into the details of the amendments. I know one of the previous speakers said that he had not had an opportunity to read them yet. As indicated, this will be a matter raised in the committee. This being second reading, we are talking about the principle of the bill. When it receives second reading, and I have every expectation that it will receive the support of all parties in the House, and goes to committee, there may be an opportunity for witnesses to be heard, to talk about the provisions and to talk about their experiences with EI.
I know other members in the military and some veterans have issues with EI. In many cases, they are unable to collect EI, although they pay into it for many years. We may hear some more information about problems with respect to the employment insurance system and military or other foreign service. There may be opportunities to improve the legislation, to make it more fair to other Canadians in similar circumstances.
I know the impetus came from, and we should focus on, the consequences to military families when members serve abroad and have an addition to their family, whether it be by birth or adoption. I am not sure, to be honest, that this covers the adoption situation, and I hope it does. If it does not, then we would be very careful in looking at the committee stage. Parental leave applies whether we are talking about a birth or an adoption.
To be fair to military families on that score, we want to ensure, and certainly the NDP wants to ensure, that the same provisions with respect to parental leave available to ordinary citizens are available in these circumstances to the military as well.
There is no reason why that form of parental leave ought to be cut short by military deployment or being called into service, or have to be deferred until after the deployment is over so they can actually spend that time bonding with the new addition to the family and providing the kind of support that is always needed when there is a new member to a family, particularly a newborn or in an adoption situation. There is a whole change in circumstances that have to be adjusted to. That is the whole purpose of parental leave in the first place.
We can fully support the legislation. I will not use this as an opportunity to talk for any great length about what our troops do in Afghanistan. We do know they are there for long periods of time, up to six months and for some it is more than one rotation. We have had evidence before the defence committee that some individuals have done as many as four rotations in Afghanistan over the very lengthy period of time we have been engaged in that combat.
I do not think a lot of Canadians realize that the military engagement in Afghanistan has gone on longer than any other military engagement in which our country has ever, in its history, been involved. It has been longer than the second world war, which lasted from 1939-45. It is obviously longer than the Korean War or the first world war. It has been going on since 2002 until now, eight years, where Canadians have been engaged in combat in Afghanistan. Soldiers have been deploying there on an ongoing basis, as many as the 3,000 soldiers, diplomats and police officers are involved today. I suppose that long period of time has given rise to the kinds of issues that we see now, the ongoing needs of military families in these circumstances.
I know the military family support groups are very active across the country. I think all parliamentarians support those groups in their ridings and recognize the good work they do. One of the things they do is provide support for the families who are left behind.
In my province of Newfoundland and Labrador it is a little more difficult in some respects. Most of the people who are deployed overseas are from the reserve units and they are spread around. The support provided by the military family support organization has been extremely valuable where people do not live on base and where there is less of a connect between them. Their neighbours are not necessarily in the same boat and do not understand the same way other military families do, whether they be spouses, or parents, or siblings, that are concentrated in other places where there are have significant bases.
It is important on military bases as well. There are military bases where large numbers of military personnel are deployed and military family support groups are active. Even though there is a social network among military families, the kind of services and counselling that might be needed, in some cases specialized counselling, not only has to be supplied, but an attempt has to be made to understand the need for that. In many circumstances, where people are going through hardship, particularly psychological hardship, it often takes someone else to recognize they may need the kind of assistance and help that can be provided through counselling.
We support all those initiatives through the military family support groups. This is another piece that we, as parliamentarians, can do to mitigate, to some extent, the sacrifices of being away from their family.
I know that even as a parliamentarians, and we do not make the kind of sacrifices that soldiers do. Being away from our family for even four or five days at a time, sometimes a week or two at a time, our young children in particular are affected. We realize how that must affect, on a long-term basis, people who are away for a long time, particularly in the case of people deployed to Afghanistan. Imagine what is on the minds of family members throughout their deployment, how are their loved ones are faring, are they safe. They cannot wait to see them arrive at the airport. I have seen those reunions of families as well. I do not think anybody can be but moved to see a couple being rejoined after a long period of time, particularly where the dangers of war exist and the possibility for injury, or even worse, is present.
We all have to understand, appreciate and be proud that we have young men and young women who are prepared to make that kind of commitment on our behalf.
We would like to see that also extended to diplomats and police force members who also make the same kind of commitment for overseas deployment.
Also, at committee, we will be interested in hearing about other aspects of the employment insurance with respect to military personnel and veterans. I know there is a concern among many veterans and RCMP officers, in particular, about getting access to the EI benefits they may have paid for all of their career. Yet when they leave the forces, they have great difficulty getting access to the employment insurance to which they feel they are entitled and should be entitled. As members of the workforce, they have paid into the EI fund. We commonly hear them say that.
We do not know how many people are affected by this, but I understand we will be hearing from them at the committee phase of the hearings. Hopefully, if there is a need for other improvements to the EI system with respect to military personnel and veterans, then there will be opportunities to discuss those in committee and possibly make the kind of amendments that might be needed.
The bill is contained in only five sections of the act and will come into force very soon, on the first Sunday after the day it receives royal assent. I do not know how soon that would come. It has to go to committee, but I hope it comes back from committee before we rise this spring so it will be available to anyone who qualifies very shortly.
I note, unfortunately, it does not apply to anyone whose benefit period for parental leave began before the day in which the bill comes into force. I do not know why that is. If people are undertaking parental leave now and they get called up at some point during their parental leave, I do not know why the act would not apply to them. Maybe this question can be answered in committee.
The bill is very clear, however, that there will be an extension of the benefit period for someone who is in the Canadian Forces and is required either to defer parental leave because he or she is in service or is called away when this happens.
I commend the government. We do criticize the government for being vocal on supporting our troops in name. This is a case where it is actually doing something concrete, which will improve the lot of individual soldiers by changing legislation that applies to all, to ensure the special circumstances of people in uniform, particularly those serving overseas and making those kinds of sacrifices, are not left out of the benefits of paternal leave and parental leave because of their deployment.
It is a positive change in the law. Our party has been on record many times calling for improvements in general to the EI regime. My friend from Acadie—Bathurst participated in the committee that came up with 28 separate recommendations to make EI better in Canada. We want the government to listen to that as well.
It is a bit ironic in a way. I do not know the record totally, but I know that parental leave has not been a part of the EI system for all that long. I am not sure if the Conservative Party supported it when it was brought in. However, I am glad, given the fact it is here and available to Canadians, we will make the special provision to ensure military personnel get access to it.
We support the bill, I support the bill, wholeheartedly.
Mr. Scott Andrews (Avalon, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to speak to Bill C-13. It is hard to expand on the points that have been made here today by various members from all sides, so I will keep my comments rather short and speak to a few of the points in the bill.
It is really good when we can do something for military families. They give so much to our country and they sacrifice so much. If we have an opportunity to give back to them, we should look at doing it.
This bill identifies a unique issue with our EI legislation. When our soldiers are called back to active duty to serve our country, they lose their benefits.
This bill would be good for military families. Over 450 military personnel serving across Canada come from my riding. I try to communicate with them as best I can and as often as I can. I do hear back from them occasionally on different issues that have an impact on them. I will be consulting with them on this bill to get their opinions and to find out what else we could do to improve the EI system for them.
This bill would be good for younger families. In Newfoundland and Labrador I often meet with people. We used to see large families with 13 or 14 siblings but nowadays families are smaller. People are only having one or two children. It is very important that we give our military personnel every opportunity possible to spend time with their children in the early years. In most families, both parents work.
Quite often two members of the military will marry and raise a family in the military environment. It is important that these benefits be made available to them. There might be circumstances when both are in the military at the same time. They could benefit from this particular piece of legislation.
It is a pleasure to speak to this bill and support it. The only problem I see with this legislation is that it probably does not go as far as it should. Maybe we should be looking at making more EI changes to help military families.
HRSDC says that this bill would only apply to 60 Canadian Forces members at a cost of about $600,000. It is very tiny. It would not impact a lot but it would have an impact in the future as military personnel consider raising a family. This would play into their decision to raise a family.
We could be looking at some of the other issues with EI that may impact military families, and in fact, all residents, who at one point in their lives may have to avail themselves of the EI system.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about the two week waiting period for EI. Currently, there is a two week waiting period before anybody can receive EI benefits. People ask me time and time again why there is a two week waiting period and what it accomplishes. From my analysis of the situation it accomplishes absolutely nothing. It may give the bureaucrats some time to implement a claim, but we are not asking for two more weeks of benefits. We are just asking to start the benefits a little sooner. People still have to go on with their lives. They still have bills to pay. The two week waiting period does not extend EI benefits by two weeks. We are just asking for the period to go back two weeks. This would not add two weeks on to the end.
This is something that our party has been asking for. The New Democratic Party has been very outspoken on this issue as well. This is another way in which people could benefit from the EI system.
I have spoken to some military families. They want to benefit from the EI system when they leave the Canadian Forces. Some Canadian Forces members spend 25 years in the military. How can the EI system benefit them when they want to move on to another job?
This is another important issue that we should look at seriously. If people decide they want to move on to another job and decide to quit, well they are on their own and they are not eligible for any EI benefits. Being in the military is a different occupation altogether.
If people decide to move on to other occupations, we should look into the EI system's being able to assist them in that, for their betterment as individuals. That is another change to the EI system I would like us to look at.
Finally, on another point, diplomats who are serving overseas have asked the government that they too be included in this particular EI measure. It is definitely worth some consideration that we look at diplomats and other people who serve our country, be it in a military or a non-military role. If they are overseas and are called back, we should look at extending their benefits for parental leave as well.
It is a pleasure to speak in the House today. I do not want to repeat comments by any of the other members, but it is a good bill and it is good that we can have some good debate on it. I hope when it goes to committee we will have an opportunity to bring up some issues on how we could expand it and benefit more Canadian Forces members who serve us so well.
Ms. Meili Faille (Vaudreuil-Soulanges, BQ):
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.
Mr. Peter Stoffer (Sackville—Eastern Shore, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise on behalf of the New Democratic Party to discuss Bill C-13, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act. I will read the recommendations out so that those who just tuned in or showed up will understand:
|| Her Excellency the Governor General recommends to the House of Commons the appropriation of public revenue under the circumstances, in the manner and for the purposes set out in a measure entitled “An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act”.
It is actually a good initiative, because what happens sometimes when military personnel are on maternity or paternity leave, they can get called back in the middle of that leave in order to serve their country. What happens is they then lose out on their benefits, so when they come back from their tour or operation, or come back from whatever they have been asked to do, they can then continue on to achieve and receive that parental leave. That is a good thing, but my colleague from Acadie—Bathurst has asked very clearly that it also include any police officers or other folks who have also been in that same situation.
I could not help but notice that this bill comes from the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development. So, it is actually a government bill, not a backbench bill like the gun legislation.
So few people in the country would actually benefit from this bill. There are not thousands and thousands of people who would fall under this. This would assist very few people but it is a good thing that they will be helped.
However, I then ask myself that if the Minister of Human Resources goes to all this trouble to introduce legislation to help the military and military families, why did she not go all the way?
For example, in the last week from the media pages alone, British Colombia has a shelter for homeless military veterans. At the same time, on Easter Saturday our Prime Minister, the face of Canada, was at a Calgary food bank set up specifically for veterans. What kind of government actually takes a photo op at a Calgary food bank designed specifically for veterans? It is not just food they are receiving. They are also receiving medical and dental aid. When we speak to the directors of the Calgary Poppy Fund and Veteran's Food Bank, they say very quickly that these are veterans and their family members who have fallen through the cracks.
These are people who have served our country with dignity and honour and there should be no cracks for them to fall through. We know of 60 families in Calgary that go to the Calgary Veteran's Food Bank every month. What does our Prime Minister do? With the legislative powers at his hand and the millions of dollars at his disposal, he could correct this situation, but no, he gets a photo op. It is unbelievable.
I am not sure who is around saying that it would be a good idea to go out on Easter Saturday and take a picture at a food bank for veterans. That is a classic one. I do not think I have ever heard of that in my life, but that is just one thing.
Another thing the Prime Minister could have done, if he really wanted to help out veterans and their families, was to end the marriage-after-60 provision, that discriminatory practice in the Canadian Forces Superannuation Act. It talks about what would happen if the spouse of a retired 55-year-old military person dies and the person decides to remarry at 59 and lives for 20 years. His second spouse would be entitled to his pension, However, if he had the audacity to fall in love again and remarry at age 60 and then live for 20 years, his second spouse would get nothing.
Why did the government not introduce legislation to fix that problem? That would have been most helpful as well to make an omnibus bill for veterans and their families. That would have been a creative thing for the Government of Canada to do.
Another example is that when military or RCMP personnel die, they are allowed to only leave 50% of their pensions to their spouses. Why not two-thirds, as the Royal Canadian Legion indicated? In convention after convention, they have made this recommendation unanimously so that they can leave two-thirds of their pensions to their spouses. That would have assisted a tremendous number of people, mostly women, especially elderly women in this country, but, no, there was none of that.
I remember the letter of 2005 from the Prime Minister himself, when he was in opposition, to Joyce Carter of St. Peter's, Cape Breton, in which he said, “Mrs. Carter, we can assure you that if the Conservatives form government, we would extend, immediately--”, and the word “immediately” was highlighted in the letter, “--to all widows and widowers of World War II and Korean Veterans, the VIP Program.
I would remind the House that he said “immediately” and “all”.
The fact is in 2008, two years after the Conservatives took government, they had then initiated into the budget additional funding for VIP. However, not all of them got it. In fact, many of them still do not qualify because in order to get it they had to have had a disability tax credit or be of a certain income.
That is not what the letter from the Prime Minister said to Joyce Carter. He said that all widows and widowers would receive the VIP immediately upon forming government. There were no caveats to that letter, no attachments or amendments. The Prime Minister, when he was the leader of the opposition, said “immediate” and “all”. It did not happen.
With respect to agent orange, I remember very well the former minister of veteran affairs saying in 2005 that if his party formed government it would have a public inquiry into agent orange and defoliant spraying at Gagetown. Did we get it? No. The Conservatives also said that every person between the ages 58 to 84 would be covered. What happened? I think less than 3,000 people actually got an ex gratia payment of $20,000 or a bit more for that. At least the government did give some people a $20,000 compensation.
However, the Conservatives promised so much more and delivered so much less. They had the chance when a minister of the Crown introduced legislation in order to assist that.
There is another thing they could have done if they wished. The Prime Minister said that when the majority of the House of Commons votes on a bill or a motion and it passes democraticall, the government is duty bound to honour that bill or that motion.
On four separate occasions, November 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010, we in this House had the benefit deduction at age 65 for Canada pension disability for military and RCMP veterans. The majority of House voted in favour of those four different times and we did that because the current Prime Minister said that the government had to be duty bound to honour the majority of the House.
What happened? The Conservatives were consistent and said no. At least they were honest about that and said no every time. That is another example where if a minister of the Crown really wanted to introduce legislation to help many more people, this was the opportunity to do that. However, again they did not.
There is another thing they could have done. We know very well that by the time some of us to go to bed tonight we could lose anywhere from 90 to 100 World War II or Korean veterans because of the aging process and these brave heroes will have crossed the bar. We know that hospitals like Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, the Perley, the Colonel Belcher and the Camp Hill in Halifax do a tremendous job in looking after those veterans who have the opportunity to get a hospital bed and be cared for in the later stages of their life.
However, what will happen when the last Korean War or World War II veteran passes away? Those beds will not be available. In fact, Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue Hospital right now is being looked at between the federal government and the provincial Government of Quebec to have it transferred over to the Province of Quebec.
We have thousands upon thousands of modern day veterans who are now in their seventies. They served during the Cuban missile crisis, in the cold war efforts, in the Suez, in Cyprus, in Bosnia and now in Afghanistan. They served in Haiti and East Timor. They have served around the world. Many of these individuals will soon require hospitalization because of the effects of what happened to them in their various conflicts. Even if they were not seriously injured or affected by their service, they served our country. We should be serving them all the way to and including their headstone, which means that there should be a hospital bed paid for by the federal government all the way until they pass away. The care of veterans and their families is a federal responsibility, not a provincial responsibility.
The other thing is that no veteran or his or her family should ever need to go to a food bank but we see that happening in Calgary. Those people at the Calgary food bank are decent, hard-working people and thank God there are people in Calgary willing to do that type of work. God love them for doing it.
What does it say when we tell veterans that they cannot have a hospital bed? What does it say when they cannot get their proper pension benefits and we will deduct it from here? What does it say to these people once they take that uniform off?
I could not help but notice that DVA is about to do a survey. It will be sending it out to about 1,200 of its clients. The front-line people at the Department of Veterans Affairs are some of the best public servants in the entire country. They do a fantastic job but time and time again we hear that their hands are tied by legislation and they tell us what the government and we in this House have to change in order to make their jobs even easier. This is not a criticism against them.
However, the department will be doing a survey of approximately 217,000 clients and 1,200 will be asked: “What do you think of the service of DVA?”. If people are getting a pension benefit or a VIP benefit from DVA and being well looked after, the response will be very positive. However, what about the thousands upon thousands of veterans and RCMP officers who get turned down for a benefit, who do not get VIP, a pension benefit or anything of that nature? What will their reaction be to a survey by a government department asking their opinion on it?
If the government wants a true reflection on how the department is handling Veterans Affairs, it should expand the discussions to include all those people who are veterans but not necessarily clients of DVA. That would give a true reflection on the department. We know the department does great work with what it has and the resources it has, but we believe that it should be much more for many more people. The men and women who serve our country are our greatest Canadians and we should not be putting them through the cycle of appeal this and appeal that. It is quite mind-boggling the work they have to do to fight and argue for a pensionable benefit.
I will now get back to Bill C-13. We thank the minister for bringing this issue forward. We know it will help a few people but why would the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development not take the opportunity to do more, especially after the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the country that I was born in, the Netherlands, the 60th anniversary of the start-up of the Korean conflict and the 100th anniversary of the navy? It is continuous. We will be having commemorations throughout the country. We commemorated the passing of the last World War I veteran, Mr. John Babcock. The government did a very good job in honouring the unanimous motion in the House of having a significant day in the recognition of all those who served in World War I. I congratulate the government on that. On Vimy Ridge day there was a tremendous ceremony here in Ottawa and across the country. It was truly the right thing to do.
All of us are very good at expressing our views of how we love the veterans and how we can never do enough for them, et cetera, but when the rubber hits the road, in some cases we fall off the road and we end up in the ditch. The fact is that many veterans contact their MPs on a regular basis with their frustration of how they are being dealt with, not just by the department but by the military itself.
We know the military can be a tremendous career for young men and women, or for anyone for that matter, but the problem is that when they take that uniform off, what happens to them? All of a sudden they go through the bureaucratic cycle and it can be intimidating.
I know many World War II and Korean veterans who applied for a benefit at DVA were turned down and they gave up. They did not realize they could appeal or get all this other assistance. They are in their 80s. The government said no, that is it. It is from the old school. It sits there and says that it cannot do anything more, so we try to assist veterans in that regard.
Many people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They have been diagnosed from an incident that happened maybe 20 or 30 years ago. It is very difficult for them to go to DVA and indicate that their current problems are related to their service some 30 years ago. If nothing is on their medical file, they have problems trying to prove it.
The government has a clause in the Veterans Charter called benefit of the doubt. I have worked on a lot of cases. I have 10 of them on my desk right now from people across the country. In all the cases I have seen, it is rare to see the benefit of the doubt clause applied. I have yet to see it on my own personal files. I am not saying that it has not happened, but it may have.
If the government truly wanted to help military families and the personnel of the RCMP as well, it would have had our support in an omnibus veterans bill to be more inclusive. If it had done that, it would have had the support and I would have praised the parliamentary secretary from West Nova from the top of Canning and the beautiful view of the Annapolis Valley. I would do that if he had a bill of that nature. He can read this in Hansard. If he ever did that, I would be at the top of Canning Look-off Mountain, praising his name right through the entire valley. Trust me, I have the lungs to do it.
We will support the legislation to the committee stage. At the committee stage, we hope to advance it, change it, move it around a bit and everything else, but it does leave one question. If military members go on maternity leave, they get so much EI payment and the military tops up the balance of it. Why are there two different forms of payment for maternity leave? There should only be one.
Members of Parliament do not pay into employment insurance because we do not get to collect it. However, if military members serve 20 or 25 years and retire, they do not get to collect EI. Once they receive their annuity, they do not have any access to collect it. We need to look at that.
However, I thank the government for this small initiative. We will support it to the committee stage and see where it goes from there.
If the Conservative Government of Canada really wanted to do something for military veterans and their families, all it needs to do is come over and talk to us or talk to veterans themselves and it will get all the ideas it needs.
We salute all the veterans and military personnel in our country.
Mr. Mario Laframboise (Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, BQ):
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to Bill C-13, An Act to amend the Employment Insurance Act. I would like to take a moment to read the bill's summary, which states: “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.”
First of all, it is important that the Quebeckers and Canadians who are watching us right now understand that Canadian Forces members pay into employment insurance. They are entitled to parental leave. Inevitably, they are always in dangerous situations when taking part in overseas missions. Here is what this bill will do: when they were on parental leave and they come back from a mission, they can continue their parental leave, or if they were entitled to parental leave and did not take it, they will be entitled to that leave when they return from their mission.
This is an important bill and the Bloc Québécois supports it in principle. My colleague from Vaudreuil-Soulanges mentioned this earlier. We want to ensure that no one is left out. This bill is not retroactive. There will be a debate in committee. The Bloc Québécois will most likely propose an amendment and we hope that the Conservatives, the Liberals and the New Democrats will agree to make the bill retroactive in order to cover the young fathers or mothers who were recently entitled, but were not covered because of the delays in passing this bill.
We can set policies, that is what we are here for. We can have discussions. We can talk about the missions. The Bloc Québécois was in favour of the military pulling out of Afghanistan in 2009. Other parties decided otherwise. We can discuss this, but the fact remains that soldiers are young men and young women. They are our sons and daughters, Quebeckers and Canadians.
I have personally gone through an experience that other colleagues may have had. I attended the funeral of a fallen soldier in my riding. I will not name the municipality or the soldier out of respect for the family. He had just started his tour. He had just completed his training for this mission. It was his choice. People lined the funeral route. I had to walk to the church and it struck me how young our troops are. They are young men, young women, young fathers and mothers, and they are the face of today's Canadian Forces. Our society is evolving. The military is having difficulty finding recruits. It is a matter of how we treat people and if we want our young men and our young women to offer their services, then we have to be able to offer them adequate conditions. Parental leave is one way to provide them with such conditions. We must never forget that they are human beings.
Gone are the days when people went into the army to defend the queen. Today, people who choose to go into the army need to feel that they are supported and that the work they do when they put their lives on the line to defend societal principles is valued. This bill is a prime example of something that happens too often. How long have we been in Afghanistan? Yet this bill is just being introduced now, in 2010, for all sorts of reasons.
The Conservative Party can make a big deal about this and say what it wants, but it should have introduced this bill a long time ago, when it came to power, even though it had a minority government. Once again, politically, the Conservatives are interested in missions, visibility, international relations. But too often they forget that the army is made up of young men and women who chose to work in the military and who have a taste for adventure. A military career is a choice, and that is how the Canadian Forces sell themselves, by targeting people with a taste for adventure. That is how they try to attract young Quebeckers and Canadians into the army.
To attract people and ensure that the army does not have any trouble recruiting, as it does currently, the government has to offer good working conditions. The bill that is before us is one way to do this. The Bloc Québécois supports the bill in principle, because it has a great deal of respect for soldiers.
Soldiers deserve the right to parental leave, because they pay into employment insurance. If they lose that privilege because they are on mission—and risking their lives—they deserve to be compensated.
Young soldiers with families who are currently on mission deserve the right to parental leave, especially since they are getting younger and younger. Few of the soldiers I met that day were over 35. Most were between 20 and 30. Some were young fathers, and others were potential young fathers or mothers.
We must ensure that they have good working conditions. Being part of the Canadian Forces is a job. We must ensure that they have adequate working conditions, just like every other worker in our society. This way, individuals who were not able to take parental leave or whose parental leave was cut short would be able to take their parental leave once they return from their mission. It is only fair to them.
As the member for Vaudreuil-Soulanges said, we must make parental leave retroactive for the young men who have recently been sent on missions, but who were not able to take their parental leave.
I will perhaps have the chance to explain to my colleagues everything the government should do to provide good working conditions for our armed forces.
Some members in this House spoke about the support we need to provide, which we forget all too often. The Conservatives see international relations as a way to show their power. They increase investments in equipment and armament. That is important, but we must also invest in our young men and women. They are the hard core. It is all well and good to have all the equipment we need, but if there is no one there to drive it or use it, it is useless.
We must focus on measures that make the job easier for our soldiers and that provide them with working conditions similar to those of other workers in society. This way, we might attract more of them and let them feel they are part of society. They are not just risking their lives in combat for a taste of adventure, but also because it is their job, for which they are paid and have access to the same benefits as other workers.
We must also look after all their physical and psychological needs. It is important to compare. The comparison shows that they should be entitled to parental leave. If they are on a mission, they are not entitled to it. This bill would restore that right. We agree with this provided that the measures are retroactive and cover those who were unable to benefit recently. They too are workers who can suffer physical and psychological wounds because of the nature of their work.
Every time there are concerns or problems in the construction industry, a series of safety measures is adopted.
We have legislation, workplace safety, laws and all those things.
However, when members of the military put their lives in danger to defend our society's principles and our values, and return home needing physical and psychological help, the government is not always around. The military does not have a health and safety board. It may be because there are not many employees in that sector. However, we have to start thinking of them as workers and give them what they deserve. The government should think about helping and supporting these workers who sometimes suffer from psychological or physical trauma because of their jobs. That is the direction we should be headed in.