Hon. Diane Finley (Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, CPC)
moved that Bill C-44, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Income Tax Regulations, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
She said: Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise in this House today in support of Bill C-44, Helping Families in Need Act.
The government is delivering on our commitment to support Canadian families by introducing new income supports for them in times of sickness and tragedy.
Our government listens to Canadian families. We know that raising a child is one of the most important responsibilities that someone will ever have, so when a parent has to struggle with illness while balancing other responsibilities, whether at work, home or both, the whole family is affected.
We have heard from families all across this great country about situations where a parent becomes ill soon after a child is born and while the parents are still receiving parental benefits. In those cases, parents have been unable to access EI sickness benefits during or after their receipt of parental benefits because of the way the Employment Insurance Act is written.
Our government is taking action and changing the rules for ill parents.
Bill C-44 will enable parents to receive employment insurance sickness benefits if they become ill while they are receiving parental benefits.
This new measure will benefit approximately 6,000 Canadians per year and will come into effect in early 2013. Additionally, as part of the bill, we are including changes for other income supports for families when they need these the most.
As the Prime Minister announced in April of this year, we will provide financial support to parents who are struggling with the disappearance or death of their child as a result of a crime. This measure will come into force in January 2013.
I would like to point out that Senator Boisvenu has worked tirelessly on moving forward with this issue.
I must pause here before proceeding. Everyone I have spoken with and heard from has applauded the introduction of these changes, acknowledging that our government will be providing families in the most tragic and difficult situations with up to 35 weeks of income support.
However, I was absolutely stunned last week when the NDP actually voted against helping these Canadian families. In the ways and means motion that was required to introduce these changes, NDP members turned their backs on parents who need our help. Our strong, stable, national, Conservative, majority government stood up for parents of murdered or missing children last week.
NDP members, as we know, never say no to spending. It seems that that is all they know how to do sometimes, along with providing massive tax increases. However, last week, without any sound rationale, they said no to parents who really need our support.
I am hoping that they have changed their minds since then. Perhaps they heard Bruno Serre's story. It is a tragic story about when he lost his daughter to crime. Perhaps they heard the story as he related it at the launch of the bill last week.
Bruno Serre is the vice-president of the Association of Families of Persons Assassinated or Disappeared and the father of Brigitte, who was murdered in January 2006, at the age of 17, while working a shift at a Shell gas station in Montreal. This is what he said:
|| I would like to thank...the Conservative government for keeping its promise, a promise that gives families like mine renewed confidence in our government's willingness to help them.
The third component of this legislation was also previously announced by our Prime Minister this summer, that we will offer employment insurance benefits to parents of critically ill or injured children.
Every year about 19,000 children get sick enough to require prolonged treatment in intensive care units.
To heal, seriously ill children not only need doctors day and night, but they also need the comfort that their parents can provide. This new benefit will help alleviate some of the financial hardships experienced by parents who have to miss work to spend time with their families.
They need the comfort of their parents. This benefit will help reduce some of the financial pressure that parents experience as they take time away from work to look after their family. Working parents in this situation have to use up their vacation and any other leave and allowances they may have. Then they will likely have to take unpaid leave from work, often with no clear idea of when or if they will be able to get back to work.
Our government has committed to helping and we are doing so with this legislation. Conservatives have been working hard for families for years and some of the work on this new EI benefit was actually started in 2008 by my colleague, the MP for Leeds—Grenville, who introduced a private member's bill on this topic. That bill and the subsequent discussions helped create the policy for parents of critically ill or injured children, and I thank my colleague from Leeds—Grenville for his efforts.
When announcing the tabling of this legislation last week, I was particularly touched by the story of Sharon Ruth, an advocate for parents of critically ill children. Sharon's daughter, Colleen, was six years old when she was suddenly diagnosed with cancer. Sharon's world was suddenly and completely changed. At the podium Sharon said:
|| [I]t wasn't until our country finally got a majority government that I'm standing here today with all of you on the brink of what I hope will be revolutionary change to help those families that are in need and most vulnerable.
The most important news is that Colleen is now cancer free and is enjoying life as a healthy and very active young woman. Sharon's worlds were clear on behalf of all of the parents who continue to struggle:
|| My hope is that this legislation passes quickly and without incident. I know all too well what it's like to suffer the emotional and financial devastation of a child with a cancer diagnosis. The sooner our government can bring relief to those thousands of families across Canada currently navigating this life-altering journey, juggling jobs, bills, treatment and hope the better.
To Sharon I say, I hope for that too.
Family, as well as the importance we attach to it, is one of the fundamental values that unite us as Canadians.
When times are tough, sometimes beyond what we could ever have imagined, that is when we support each other. That is what we do as Canadians and that is what we are doing as government. After all, the last thing that a parent should have to worry about at such a time is how to make a mortgage payment or how not to lose their job.
On that note, changes will also be made to the Canada Labour Code as part of Bill C-44 to provide job protection for parents under federal jurisdiction who take a leave of absence while coping with having a critically ill or injured child, or a murdered or missing child.
All of these measures will be providing assistance during some of the most trying or tragic times that a family could ever endure. They also represent our government's steadfast commitment to fulfilling our promises, listening to Canadians and making life better for hard-working families in this country.
As Dan Demers of the Canadian Cancer Society stated:
|| [I] think it's critically important that we acknowledge that in the last election, this government made a commitment to parents and families who are caring for children in the most difficult situations we can imagine and today, we're not only seeing the Government take action to fulfill this commitment, but they're moving in this town at lightening speed and...they're exceeding our expectations.
He also said:
|| These programs will strengthen Canadian families and provide them the flexibility and the security they need to help keep their lives as normal as possible through a very very difficult time.
I could not agree with him more, and I can only hope for all the parents who could benefit from these changes that the NDP will realize that this is not time for partisan games and needless dissent.
It is time to work together and help families in this country when they need it most.
Ms. Chris Charlton (Hamilton Mountain, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-44, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Income Tax Regulations.
Bill C-44 would provide a series of improvements, most of them through the employment insurance program, to Canadian families who desperately need the support of their government. For that reason, we are pleased to support this bill.
In fact, some of the provisions of the bill were lifted straight out of my private member's Bill C-362, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I will consider myself flattered. Let me review which parts of Bill C-44 were lifted from my bill.
First, one of the proposals included in the government's bill would amend the EI Act to allow mothers and fathers currently on parental leave to access EI sickness benefits if they fall ill during their parental leave. This is a welcome and long overdue amendment. There are few Canadians who would disagree that new parents, who very often are already stretched both physically and financially, should not be penalized if they become ill while on parental leave.
I am a little puzzled though as to why the minister would have stopped short of extending this benefit further. If she appreciates the injustice of denying sickness benefits to those whose circumstances change while on parental leave, then why did she fail to apply the same consideration and logic to workers who are laid off while on parental leave? Why would she solve one injustice and at the same time wilfully ignore the other?
My bill does take that extra step. It would fix that wrong. It points out that those on parental leave, the very same physically and emotionally drained new parents who sometimes become ill while on parental leave, can through no fault of their own find that they have been downsized or laid off while on parental leave. As it currently stands, parents in that situation are denied benefits and, inexplicably, the government is content to leave them twisting in the wind, unsupported by even the meagre support provided by EI.
On the upside, my private member's bill also includes provisions to cover the self-employed in this benefits arrangement, and I am pleased to see that the government has at least adopted that.
Let me move on to special benefits that Bill C-44 would provide for parents caring for a child with a critical illness or injury.
While support for these parents is important and, frankly, long overdue, I am concerned that parents are only eligible if they have worked a minimum of 600 insurable hours over the past year. More than anything, this raises the question for me of whether the EI program is the best vehicle for delivering this parental support.
I would point out that at one time the government agreed with me. As recently as 2011 the Conservative Party platform read, “Funding for this measure will come from general revenue, not EI premiums”. The Conservatives were right to adopt that approach.
Whether one is a waged worker, a senior manager, a professional, or a stay-at-home parent, the devastation of a critically ill child is the same. All Canadians who find themselves caring for their seriously ill child are incurring a myriad of expenses that go beyond lost wages, and they all deserve our support.
What happened to make the government change its mind? The grant for parents of murdered and missing children will be paid from general revenues and not through EI, but with respect to critically ill children, the Conservatives have ignored their election promise and are paying for their commitment through EI.
I do not need to remind anyone in the House that the EI fund is not the government's money. It is a fund to which only workers and employers contribute, so for the government to draw on that pool of money to create a photo op on a policy announcement no matter how positive is surely beyond the pale.
As tempting as it is for me to go on about that theme at greater length, let me leave the Conservatives' partisan antics aside and return to the policy itself.
Mercifully, I have never experienced the anguish of parents whose child is diagnosed with a serious illness. I can scarcely imagine how difficult and frightening it must be. It is precisely at life-altering moments like those that we all need not just our friends and families, but our communities and our government as well. At the very least, government must ensure that their burden is not increased by adding financial worries to the heap. Surely that is one of the principal ways in which government directly serves the needs of the community, of people, of taxpayers.
I am pleased that the government has finally moved to provide a basic level of financial assistance for those Canadians. It is not enough of course. Families going through serious illness incur enormous expenses, and EI benefits are a maximum of 55% of income, but it is a start.
Having said that though, a few other questions must also be addressed.
The government says that it intends to make these benefits available to the parents of children who are “critically ill or injured”. I am deeply concerned about how the government intends to define “critically ill or injured”.
As it stands now, compassionate care benefits have been available to parents of a child who faced “a significant risk of death within 26 weeks”. That incredibly cold and narrow definition of serious illness will certainly keep program costs down, but it fails a huge number of the very same Canadian families the government says it wants to help.
Serious illness just does not work that way. Health care does not work that way. Families do not work that way. The Canadian Cancer Society points out that parents of critically ill children have been reluctant to submit claims for financial support because they did not wish to acknowledge that their child had a significant risk of dying.
Of course, through the advance of research, survival rates are, thankfully, increasing. For example, over the last 30 years, childhood cancer survival rates have improved substantially. They have gone up from 71% in the late 1980s to 82% in the early 2000s, and the five-year survival rates have increased for several types of childhood cancers.
Obviously, I am not a health care professional, but I cannot imagine that the government's insistence on a formal declaration of near imminent death is medically wise, never mind emotionally tolerable. Rarely are parents or doctors comfortable being so categorical about a child's prognosis, and to put parents in the position of requesting such a declaration so they can access desperately needed financial assistance is, to me, unconscionable.
In reality, many childhood illnesses that were considered terminal even five years ago are no longer so. Childhood cancers are notorious for peaks and valleys, remissions and recurrence, and increasingly, cure. The current black and white definition of critical illness means the parents of the child that faces a difficult and uncertain course of chemo or an organ transplant, but whose child has a reasonable chance of survival cannot currently access this benefit. Surely the minister appreciates that those parents need support too.
It is a situation that the minister must ensure is remedied in the regulations attending this bill. The definition of “critically ill or injured” must not be conflated with “significant risk of death within 26 weeks”.
Let us move on to some of the other provisions in the legislation before us.
Bill C-44 provides for changes to the Income Tax Act that will facilitate a direct grant to the parents of missing or murdered children in Canada. Importantly, there is a caveat. The missing child must be missing on account of a suspected breach of the Criminal Code.
A couple of concerns come to mind immediately. First, while this grant is unique in the legislation insofar as it is not part of the employment insurance system, it is nonetheless tied to the income of the parent. In order to apply for the benefit, a parent must have earned a minimum of $6,500 in the last calendar year. I wonder what the government has in mind with respect to stay-at-home parents, for example, whose child is missing as a result of a suspected breach of the Criminal Code. That parent, who may have other children to care for, who may be a caregiver for an elderly parent, who undoubtedly has responsibilities in his or her own home and community, has no access to this benefit.
Why has the government tied this grant to income? Surely all parents of children missing in a suspected criminal case need and deserve the financial support that permits them to focus on the crisis in their family.
Second, and I spoke to this in response to the minister's speech just a few minutes ago, I am still not sure I understand the rationale behind providing support only for parents whose children are missing “as a result of a suspected breach of the Criminal Code”. If I am understanding this right, if a family were to go wilderness camping, say, and their toddler wandered away from the campsite and ended up missing, the parents would not be eligible for any support during their time of frantically searching for their child. Why is that? Why is that awful situation any less worthy of support? Did the government's need to feed the rhetoric of its law and order agenda take precedence over good public policy here? I am simply not understanding why the Criminal Code caveat was deemed necessary to add in this bill.
That takes me to the larger context of the bill. I have acknowledged that the legislation before us today provides a small but important improvement for new parents who get sick while on parental leave. I welcome the additional support for parents of critically ill or injured children and those whose children are missing or murdered. Those are indeed positive changes, and I am pleased to see that the government is taking steps, tentative though they are, toward developing an understanding of working Canadian families and the struggles that they face.
What the legislation does not do speaks volumes about the government's view of the appropriate use of the EI fund. At a time when at least 1.4 million Canadians are out of work, the government crafts EI legislation that provides a benefit only for people who are not, in fact, unemployed. How ironic is that?
While the official number says unemployment sits at about 7.3%, we all know that the number is much closer to 14%. The government knows that as a result of its policies, hundreds of thousands of Canadians are not included in that number. Those no longer looking for work or who are employed in part-time, temporary or casual employment are not counted in the official figures.
The real unemployment rate is a frightening indictment of the government's failed economic policies. The fact is that 300,000 more Canadians are unemployed today than during the recession. This is a government with no industrial strategy and a government that is overseeing the decimation of the manufacturing sector.
The fact is that Statistics Canada pointed out last spring that there were almost six unemployed workers for every reported job vacancy in Canada. The fact is that the government's failed economic policies have devastated workers and families across the country. Its economic action plan is comprised of little action and lots of advertising.
To add insult to injury, while Canadians continue to suffer the consequences of the Conservatives' discredited and ineffective trickle-down policies, the government has moved to restrict and undermine the very social safety net that was designed to help families weather such economic downturns.
Less than half of unemployed Canadians now qualify for EI benefits. Fully 60% of unemployed men and 68% of unemployed women get no support whatsoever from EI and 870,000 Canadians have no access to EI benefits, despite the fact, again, that employment insurance is a program entirely paid for by workers and employers, a program funded without a nickel from the government's treasury. That is an historic low.
No doubt the government is proud of successfully shutting more than half of unemployed Canadians out of the insurance system for which their own hard-earned wages have paid. It hurts workers, small businesses and communities, but it helps build that EI surplus, which successive Liberal and Conservative governments have raided to the tune of $54 billion to pay down their debts and to finance more corporate tax cuts.
The government has no understanding of the devastation that job loss can bring to a family. There are 1.4 million Canadians officially out of work. Those families are on the knife-edge of poverty. They are losing their homes and savings. Their kids cannot join sports teams or travel with the school band or, far too often, start the school day with a decent breakfast.
However, the Prime Minister betrayed his lack of compassion and understanding for unemployed Canadians when he told the American Council for National Policy, in 1997:
|| In terms of the unemployed, of which we have over a million-and-a-half, don't feel particularly bad for many of these people. They don't feel bad about it themselves, as long as they're receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance.
Who knew that when Mitt Romney accused 47% of Americans of being work-shy layabouts, that he stole the line from the Prime Minister? Not to be outdone, the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development said, “We do not want to make it lucrative for them to stay home and get paid for it”.
With that kind of cabinet leadership, it is no wonder that the prevailing attitude of Conservative backbenchers toward the unemployed is, in the now infamous words of the member for South Shore—St. Margaret's, they are “no-good bastards'”. What a way to blame the victims for the government's failed economic policies.
The Conservatives say that they are focused like a laser on jobs, but clearly their focus is on job cuts not job creation.
The stark reality is that unemployment in Canada is unacceptably high and access to employment insurance benefits is at a record low. When one of the 40% does manage to jump through the myriad of hoops designed to disqualify people from benefits, they can only get benefits that max out at $485 per week and are available to them for shorter and shorter periods.
I will remind members again that all of that must be seen in the context of one overriding truth, and that is the employment insurance system is 100% funded by employees and employers. Indeed, the Conservative fondness for Tea Party politics is evident again.
EI begins to look more and more like U.S.-style private health care coverage. Sure, companies offer insurance, provided people are young, healthy, have no pre-existing condition and are statistically unlikely to ever claim a nickel from them. So it goes with Canada's EI.
Sure, we have employment insurance. Individuals and their employers will have to fully finance it with significant premiums, of course. However, goodness, if they ever actually want to use the safety net they paid for, the government will throw up as many roadblocks as it possibly can. They have to wait two weeks without any money, even after filing their claim, and they cannot get benefits if they have not worked immediately prior to their claim, even if they have paid into the fund for many years. If they somehow manage to clear those hurdles and they do get benefits, it is only 55% of their wages. Retraining for a transitional economy, new skills? Oh dear, no, the government does not do that.
Where is the comprehensive study of the employment insurance program? Where is the strategic analysis and the comprehensive reform the system so clearly needs? Where is the jobs strategy, the skills training, the second career program, the forward-looking, aggressive and progressive programs to get Canadians' skill sets renewed and retooled and to get Canadians back to work? Where is the vision? Where is the leadership? In fact, there is none in the bill, not from the government.
We have before us a bill that provides important support to, by the government's own admission, perhaps 6,000 Canadians. However, we are puzzled. None of those 6,000 Canadians are actually unemployed. Do they need and deserve government support? Absolutely. Can I remind the minister of the very first line of the Service Canada website, which stipulates, “Employment insurance provides temporary financial assistance to unemployed Canadians who have lost their job through no fault of their own while they look for work or upgrade their skills”.
The bill before us today would do absolutely nothing to support that mission statement. It would provide financial assistance to not a single, unemployed Canadian. It fails completely to address the urgent needs of the at least 1.4 million Canadians without work, without a paycheque and, increasingly, without hope.
On this file, the only leadership is coming from this side of the House of Commons under the leadership of the member for Outremont, the leader of the official opposition. We are the only party that offers policies to extend access to EI benefits, not to limit it further.
When will the government listen to Canadians, as we have done, and undertake a strategic review of the entire program, with a view to: extending EI stimulus measures until unemployment falls to pre-recession levels; eliminating the two week waiting period; returning the qualifying period to a minimum of 360 hours of work, regardless of the regional rate of unemployment; raising the rate of benefits to 60%; and improving the quality and monitoring of training and retraining?
That is the kind of support unemployed Canadians, and the Canadian economy, needs from the government.
Mr. Rodger Cuzner (Cape Breton—Canso, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I look forward to joining and contributing to this debate. As I indicated earlier in my question to the minister, the Liberal Party will be supporting this bill. We see it as a positive gesture in that it will have a positive impact on Canadians who are in a very traumatic position, who are battling and going through some great personal challenges. For Canadians who are facing such hardship and facing such emotional, physical, mental and spiritual pain, the anguish they go through in these types of situations should never be compounded by a further financial burden.
This bill would certainly go toward that. I know my friend and fellow member of the Standing Committee on Human Resources and Skills Development, the member for Brant, is going to speak on this issue. I know he can speak first-hand and I look forward to his intervention and comments today on this piece of legislation.
As I tried to impart to the minister at the time, it is a bit strange that we are debating this today and then we are invited to the technical briefing on the bill later this evening. We are debating what we think the bill is going to include and how it will impact Canadians and how it plays out, but we have seen that the track record of the government is not great on actually saying and implying it is going to improve on a particular issue in a particular situation. The old adage is that the devil is in the details, and when those details finally unfold, we see that there are unintended consequences or that the consequences have such a negative impact on a group that it makes no sense whatsoever for the government to have proceeded in this manner.
My colleague from Hamilton Mountain made note of the working while on claim provisions. I would like to welcome the New Democratic Party to that discussion, because we started that when the House opened. We have been pounding that one, so it was nice to see NDP members getting engaged today and giving it the old college try. We appreciate the support, but we have been hammering all last week on it. It was probably the article in The Globe and Mail that finally sparked them to see that there might be something going on there that they might want to pay attention to.
What we have seen from the minister and her handling of the working while on claim file would make the NFL replacement officials blush with competency. Whatever took place through the genesis of that bill, whatever is going on there, there are people being hurt, and that is the part about the devil being in the details. That is why we look forward to the technical briefing. That is why we support sending the bill to the committee.
This bill impacts 6,000 people. This is an important piece of legislation, an important piece of assistance. An estimated 6,000 people will benefit from this change. We will go through this at committee.
The same cannot be said about the other changes, because they impact 850,000 Canadians. When we look at the unemployed, we see they number 1.4 million, but 850,000 Canadians received some type of support through the EI program last year, and they would be impacted by the changes made by the government.
Again, I do not know if there is a great deal of trust between Canadians and the Conservative government. The minister is now saying that the best way to support this program is through the EI system. However, she is clearly on the record in response to an announcement made prior to the last election about a family benefits package, much of which is in the bill here, when she said that there are other options for people trying to care for loved ones, including the fact that “most employees do have vacation leave that they can use.”
She felt that people could take vacation to accommodate some of the time needed to care for those loved ones in a tough situation. This shift in her position might cause some concern, and members can understand why we look forward to the technical briefing.
Again, it is great to come in and read a speech, but it is about understanding the files. When there are a couple of variables within the files, all Canadians want to know is the truth about how it will impact them.
The minister went out on a nationwide public relations initiative this year to sell the working while on claim program. However, even today in the House, she responded to a question posed by the member for Bourassa by saying that under the old system, workers were only allowed to earn $75. However, that was the minimum; members know that it is 40% of their EI earnings, so if a person was earning maximum dollars, they would be able to earn $194 before dollar one was clawed back.
I think that is about the minister not understanding the files. She can read her eloquent speech here, but I look forward to sitting down with the bureaucrats to see how this would impact Canadians. I will put my trust in the bureaucrats.
The minister gave two examples today in answer to questions and cited examples in relation to someone working for three days. However, when the EI benefit variables are changed and the maximum EI benefit is used, in both of her examples they would have lost under the new program as well. She is being a little cute with some of her answers, and totally disingenuous.
We look forward to going to the technical briefing this evening and quizzing the officials on how they see this rolling out and the impact it would have on Canadians. Whenever we work with and make changes in the EI program, it does have an impact.
I think the comment that was made by the member for Hamilton Mountain was worthwhile. If somebody utilized this program within the EI system, used 35 weeks of leave, but was then unfortunate enough to lose their job, what happens then? Certainly a stand-alone program may make more sense in this particular situation.
My friend and colleague for Sydney—Victoria came forward with a private member's bill in the last Parliament. It was supported by the NDP and the Bloc, but it was not supported by the Conservatives. The bill was for the extension of EI benefits for those facing additional hardship.
Right now, the benefit runs for 15 weeks. However, there are a number of different statistics. The representatives from the Canadian Breast Cancer Society had talked about the normal period, especially if somebody is going through chemotherapy, running about 35 weeks. To have one's benefits run out after 15 weeks poses an incredible hardship on somebody who is battling a disease like cancer. Representations were also made by the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation.
When the bureaucrats, the people who work at Service Canada and the employment insurance offices, have to phone somebody who is fighting a catastrophic illness and tell them that his or her benefits are running out and can no longer continue, they know the hardship and the stress that they are placing on that person. They advocated for the changes that were being advocated by the private member's bill put forward by colleague from Sydney—Victoria.
It comes down to those types of choices. It comes down to who we are going to be able to provide for. I think it would have been a worthwhile initiative to support that bill.
There are some concerns, even with the EI, about the information we are using when we make these decisions. It has been said that the Conservatives are not that interested in facts or science. They never want to let the facts interfere with sound ideology. My colleague from Malpeque says the only science they believe in is political science.
In 2010, the EI tracking survey conducted by Human Resources and Skills Development shed some light on the inadequacy of the current 15 weeks off. In that survey, 16% of respondents who took time off work due to illness required 13 to 25 weeks off, while 20% required over 25 weeks off from their workplace. There is evidence from medical stakeholders that reaffirms that these timelines are pretty standard.
That tells us that the current EI system takes us part way, but not all the way.
This bill is a good first step, I think, and it is a nice gesture. However, I think there is so much more that can be done.
Other nations recognize that. European Union countries, Lithuania, Japan, all look at 22 weeks for sick benefits, while we are still at 15. Again, 22 weeks is not enough but it is closer to the standards that are being advocated by stakeholders that know these issues.
There are some other changes that could be made. There are worthwhile changes being put forward in Bill C-44, but there are other changes that could be made.
I am sure all members of the House have had an opportunity to work with and to listen to people who suffer from multiple sclerosis. My office manager is an MS patient. She is a tremendous lady, but there are peaks and valleys. There are times where she is able to work full out but then there are times where she needs rest. It is the disease that dictates how much energy one has on a particular day. It is a terrible affliction.
If there were some flexibility within the EI system then we could accommodate a worker who is skilled and trained and wants to work, and who works in a job that has some flexibility within it.
The government talks at great lengths about skills shortages and the need for skilled labour. Someone could be dealing with MS for many years and still be a valuable contributing member of the workforce. If there is a bit of accommodation through the EI program, then that is a good fit for everyone. It is a good fit for the person, it is a good fit for the employer and it is a good fit for the economy.
Bill C-44 is a good step. It is an important gesture and a good gesture, but much can still be done within the system without costing a lot to the system, especially trying to accommodate those who suffer from MS. It just makes so much more sense to try to make sure that the person is a productive and contributing member of the community.
We on this side of the House have stated before that we understand the impact on these families. It is an intense expectation on these families. It is one that no family wants to go through. When people are dealing with an illness, when parents are dealing with a son or daughter's affliction, we as Canadians are compassionate enough to do what we can to help them through that situation. I think Bill C-44 would at least go some ways toward that.
My party and I look forward to supporting the bill.
Mr. Phil McColeman (Brant, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand today in support of Bill C-44, the helping families in need act.
Before I make my formal remarks, I would like to extend my appreciation to both the NDP and Liberal Parties for their support of this bill, even though at this point it sounds like there may be some conditions around that. I think this is a great example of what some parents and groups across the nation consider a revolutionary change and, certainly, a compassionate new way to recognize those most in need.
The bill contains three measures that will help Canadian families at a time when they most need it. These include EI benefits for parents of critically ill children, enhanced access to sickness benefits for parents receiving EI parental benefits, and federal income support for parents of murdered or missing children.
Thankfully, we have a Prime Minister and government that understand that families are the building blocks of our society and recognize that parents should have the option of being with their children at a time of crisis, without fear of losing their job or financial security.
I would also highlight the work of the member for Leeds—Grenville in his private member's bill on this matter in the last two parliaments, which acted as a catalyst for these changes to be made in this very compassionate bill. As well I would recognize the member for Selkirk—Interlake who moved a motion in 2006 on this topic and has been a determined advocate for parents of critically ill children.
Today presents a rare opportunity for me as a member of Parliament to connect with an issue so personal and so close and to tell a story that I have never told in public before. I stand today to speak for the many families whose lives will suddenly be turned upside down and irreversibly changed when told that their child has a life-threatening critical illness, or has been murdered or is missing and cannot be found.
The Canadian Cancer Society reports that today and every day in Canada four families will receive the news that their child has life-threatening cancer diagnosis. That is four today, four tomorrow and four every day.
Twenty-four years ago my family and I received the news that our two-year old son was critically ill with a very high-risk, life-threatening leukemia. The odds of his survival were slim.
The news was delivered on a Saturday afternoon, and our son was transferred immediately from our local hospital to the McMaster oncology unit in Hamilton where toxic chemicals were injected into his body to arrest the blood cells gone wild. Remission happened two weeks later, and an aggressive two-year chemotherapy and radiation protocol was put into place after the McMaster team of doctors determined that is what would be necessary to cure our son.
We spent over 270 days in hospital over those two years. Our son went through cranial radiation, spinal cord injections, and toxic chemicals were regularly put into his body. However, there was always one parent by his side. We quickly realized that we were not unique: there were 8 to 12 other families at the McMaster oncology unit at any point in time, at different points in the process.
It is true that cancer does not discriminate. It does not discriminate by social situation, economic situation or, for that matter, any situation that people find themselves in.
I was self-employed and, frankly, I had never had the opportunity to participate in EI. It was never available up until the time our government changed it to enable self-employed people to become part of the EI program. Now our government has set the platform for self-employed people to become part of the EI program. Even then, some 24 years ago, that was not possible. Our government corrected that.
We also learned at the time that for those with life-threatening conditions, much more is needed for them to get better than just round the clock medical care. Our children need the comfort of their parents and their family beside them.
Our son Jordan is a miracle child. Now 26, he is here with us today in Ottawa, a cancer survivor after having beaten the odds. He is a unique young man because, like many who received the same treatment protocol, he suffered brain damage as a result of the combination of cranial radiation and a very aggressive chemotherapy used in his treatment protocol. There are many families who face such circumstances and no parent should have to choose between a job and supporting a loved one.
I can tell many stories of the families we met at the McMaster oncology unit. However, I will tell one that has stuck with our family ever since we spent two years at that unit. It is the story of a 16-year-old girl who was in the room next to our son's. There were times we could go home and then back. As I said, we spent over 270 days in hospital. However, every time we went back, she would be on the ward, experiencing yet another trial of a bone marrow transplant or some other experimental drug to try to save her from this dreaded disease. The one time we were there, her entire family had gathered around her because all of the treatment options had been exhausted for her. There she was, a beautiful young girl aged 16, with her family around her saying goodbye to her because the end was near. This is not an unusual story, as there are children of many ages who are being treated today at many hospitals across this country.
As we have said here today, this would immediately help 6,000 families. It will help everyone as it goes forward. When we are told by the opposition that their support is conditional, we say that it should not be conditional. This should have happened a long time ago under previous governments, for all the people who are currently experiencing this.
What Sharon Ruth said at the announcement last week about her daughter and her situation absolutely parallels our experience and that of many other families. She has been such a strong advocate through the years, via the member for Leeds—Grenville, to bring it to where it is today. Therefore, criticism from the opposition saying that this is conditional is absolutely unacceptable to my mind.
As was also mentioned, the helping families in need act will also provide federal income support for parents of murdered or missing children. I would be remiss if I did not highlight the work of my caucus colleague, Senator Boisvenu, for his tireless advocacy on behalf of victims of crime. It is based on his personal experience from the tragic loss of his daughter, who was murdered. He took up this matter and his advocacy work has led to this part of this proposal. For far too long, families who are touched by a traumatic circumstance of a criminal act committed against a family member have not received the support they need and deserve. As Senator Boisvenu would say, the unique situations families face when seeking justice within the criminal justice system require a unique measure to support them during such a trying time. These measures expand on and complement other government supports for parents, many of which have been strengthened by our economic action plan.
Our government recognizes that it is difficult for working Canadians to balance their job and their desire to care for family members with a serious illness or disability, or cope with the trauma of a missing or murdered child. I personally cannot imagine what receiving that news would be like.
I am hopeful that the opposition will be supporting this legislation as they said they would, because this legislation needs to be passed quickly to meet our government's ambitious timelines for implementation.
I cannot put it better than Sharon Ruth, the mother of a cancer survivor. She spoke last week when we announced this new bill. She said the following:
|| My hope is that this legislation passes quickly and without incident. I know all too well what it's like to suffer the emotional and financial devastation of a child with a cancer diagnosis. The sooner our government can bring relief to those thousands of families across Canada currently navigating this life-altering journey, juggling jobs, bills, treatment and hope, the better.
It is pretty hard to argue with that. I call on all members of the House to support the speedy passage of Bill C-44, so we can deliver this much needed help to families in incredibly difficult circumstances.
Ms. Marie-Claude Morin (Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise here today to speak to this bill. Before I begin, I would like to inform you that I will be sharing my time.
My parents know what it is like to have a sick child at home. It was very difficult for my family at the time, and not only in terms of finances. It is especially worthwhile that the bill provides something for parents in this situation.
We in the NDP support Bill C-44 to amend the Canada Labour Code, the Employment Insurance Act, the Income Tax Act and the Income Tax Regulations. These new measures will allow workers to take leave and receive employment insurance benefits if their child were to become critically ill or die, or disappear as the probable result of a crime.
Bill C-44 makes a number of amendments to the Canada Labour Code in order to increase the amount of leave parents can take, which I think is a very good thing. We do not always disagree with the members opposite. The bill allows parents to extend their maternity and parental leave by the number of weeks that their child was hospitalized, and to extend their parental leave by the number of sick days taken during the parental leave, and the same goes for time spent serving in the Canadian Forces reserve.
It grants unpaid leave of up to 37 weeks for parents of gravely ill children. It also grants 104 weeks of unpaid leave to parents of children who are killed as a result of a crime and 52 weeks of unpaid leave to parents of children who disappear as a result of a crime. It also extends the period of unpaid leave that can be taken as a result of illness or injury without the fear of being laid off after 17 weeks, which is also worthwhile.
I must point out that the Canadian Caregiver Coalition congratulated the federal government on the new, extraordinary employment insurance benefit that it proposed for parents who take a leave of absence to care for a child who is critically ill or injured. We are talking here about parents but, in all cases, caregivers are the invisible backbone of our health care system. We must not ignore that fact, and we must help these people. They take on various key roles in caring for children, parents or other family members who need assistance as a result of an injury, a long-term illness or a disability. The coalition estimates that approximately 5 million Canadians provide unpaid care to their loved ones, many of whom are their children or other family members.
We support this initiative, which is designed to help families of murdered or missing children so that they do not have to worry about money. When parents have a sick child at home, they do not need the added burden of worrying about how they will make ends meet, how they will pay for food, their rent and their child's medication, which is extremely expensive. This is a worthwhile measure for parents and for sick children who need their parents.
I would like to speak a little bit about my own experience. I had a little sister who was sick when I was young. My mother was able to stay with her, but how many times have I seen parents who are heartbroken at having to leave their child alone at the hospital because they have to go to work? It is an indescribable feeling. I am not a mother; I can only imagine what I would be like.
We support this initiative to extend parental leave and to provide financial benefits to parents of sick children, whose priority is to be full-time parents.
We also support the new right to combine special employment insurance benefits. Thus, a parent who becomes ill or is injured while on parental leave will not have to give up time with their child. Parents with sick children often suffer from burnout.
Support for this bill has nothing to do with ideology or partisan politics. It is a matter of helping the families who need help, both parents and children, since we know that when we help parents, we automatically help their children.
However, I find it deplorable that these measures do not address the more challenging issues with employment insurance, such as Canadians' lack of access to employment insurance benefits. We have been working on this for a long time. We want a comprehensive reform of the employment insurance system.
These are worthwhile measures, but we could do even more. We want employment insurance to be accessible to and effective for all Canadians.
As for the provisions that will enable parents to apply for sickness benefits while receiving parental benefits, the minister estimated that this could help about 6,000 Canadians a year. Although I think this is a good measure—I have said that from the beginning—about 870,000 unemployed Canadians are unable to receive regular employment insurance benefits. Moreover, this bill does not address some important issues, such as the fact that about 500,000 Canadians received regular employment insurance benefits in July 2012, while there were over one million unemployed Canadians that same month. This means that more than 800,000 unemployed Canadians were not entitled to employment insurance. In fact, fewer than 4 out of 10 unemployed workers receive employment insurance, which is the lowest rate ever.
For example, in Saint-Hyacinthe, in my riding, the current unemployment rate is 6.7%, and in Acton Vale, also in my riding, the rate is 7.9%.
In the past year, there has been no real change in Saint-Hyacinthe's unemployment rate . On the same day last year, the unemployment rate was practically the same. This year in the winter period, when there is usually an increase in the unemployment rate due to seasonal workers, there was an unusual spike in the unemployment rate. The same phenomenon was also noted in the Acton Vale region. These are rather eloquent examples of the problems related to employment insurance.
It seems that unemployment rates are not declining, which means that more and more people must resort to employment insurance. In its current form, the employment insurance program is not accessible or effective.
The measures in Bill C-44 are good and might be effective, but I do not believe that they benefit enough people. In fact, parents could find themselves in this situation and not be entitled to employment insurance.
It goes without saying that we support these measures because we believe that they could help alleviate the suffering of some parents in need. Unfortunately, these measures will not help enough people.
In conclusion, we will support these measures, but there must be adequate funding for them. We need to completely reform employment insurance and include such measures.