May 6, 2004

BQ

Suzanne Tremblay

Bloc Québécois

Mrs. Suzanne Tremblay

Mr. Speaker, the first thing to point out is that the transfer of responsibilities from the federal government to Quebec—Emploi-Québec—occurred five years ago, not eight years ago. Second, this system is working tremendously well. This week, we heard testimony at the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development. These people are frontline witnesses. They agreed to testify and to tell us simply and spontaneously that this system was working very well.

There is another important thing that my colleague from Chicoutimi—Le Fjord must consider. First, it is true that it bodes well for the campaign, because I am convinced that we will win the riding back and the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord will sit with us in the next session. Unfortunately, I am even willing to give him my seat. He can sit here so the member opposite can see him well on television. Perhaps he will be sitting in the first row.

In any case, my colleague should realize that employment insurance is currently a hidden employment tax, which targets mainly the neediest and the least fortunate in our society, since EI premiums do not increase for people whose income exceeds $39,000.

It is a tax on the poor and the less fortunate that creates surpluses in the billions of dollars, which the government uses to pay off its debt even though it has never discussed this with anyone, that is, how long it might take to reimburse it, how quickly it should be done, to whom it should be reimbursed and so on. This is another thing that it does surreptitiously by hiding its surplus when it tables its budgets.

The government is bragging as though it were a good manager. It is saying, “Surprise, surprise, the surplus is not $3 billion as we said it would be, but $10 billion. Since it is too late to use it on something other than the debt, we will use $7 billion to pay down the debt”. This was planned from the beginning. The government thinks we are stupid. We have been seeing the same scenario for 11 years. The Liberals have not changed and, until they do, from year to year, Canadians will continue to lose confidence in them and they will clearly show it in the next election.

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BQ

Paul Crête

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Paul Crête (Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, first of all, I would like to thank the member for Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis for all the work she did as a member of this House. She has decided not to run for the next election. I would have liked her to continue because she brings to the debates in this House a breath of fresh air which is very useful and very important. I thank the member for Rimouski--Neigette-et-la Mitis for her contribution.

I would also like to remind the House that, today, we are looking at a unanimous report. This is not a Bloc Quebecois position, not a Conservative position, not a NDP position and not even a position exclusive to the Liberals. This report reflects the position of all members of the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities; therefore, it reflects the opinion of representatives from all those parties.

The purpose of the motion we are putting forward today is to have the House adopt a unanimous report tabled by parliamentarians three years ago so that the government can act upon it.

I ask my colleague if the problem we are facing today would not in fact be that in the last three years, the government has accumulated a $11.3 billion surplus in the employment insurance fund but has made the political decision to allocate the whole amount to debt repayment or to other government expenses, rather than keeping part of it to make these legitimate improvements to the system, since the contributions to the employment insurance program are all made by the employers and the employees.

Are the employers as well as the employees not right to feel ripped off today, since after three years there has been no improvement to the system while this very concrete report—and I will close on this—recommends the adoption of an action plan to prevent possible EI abuses and frauds. It also asks the investigators to do their work in a respectful and ethical manner.

The report is not just about what the government can do. It also looks at the obligations of workers and public servants. Would the government not have been in a position to produce an employment insurance reform that was much more humane and respectful toward workers, particularly seasonal workers, if it had not allocated all of the EI surplus toward debt reduction?

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BQ

Suzanne Tremblay

Bloc Québécois

Mrs. Suzanne Tremblay

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question and for his kind, comforting words.

I think the government would be in a much better position had it kept its word. You will surely remember, Mr. Speaker, since you were a candidate in the 1993 election campaign, that Mr. Jean Chrétien had made a promise in the first red book. “We will stop the reform proposed by the Conservatives, it is an aberration, that reform makes no sense at all. Elect us and you will see that we will never go ahead with that reform, which goes too far and makes no sense”. Canadians believed Mr. Chrétien and his representatives and gave them a Liberal majority government.

In 1997, he sang the same tune again. “Re-elect us and we will reform the employment insurance plan”. There had been a lot of criticism with regard to the reform that had been undertaken. The Liberals, who had condemned the EI reform proposed by the Conservative government when they were in opposition, went a lot further than the Conservatives intended to go in their reform when they were in office.

So, in 1997, Mr. Chrétien said, “Trust us and we will carry out the EI reform”. But it did not happen in 1997, there was no reform. They waited on the eve of the election to send an army of ministers across the country to say, “Stop the protests, we have not done the reform but I promise you that we will do it after the 2000 election”.

We are on the eve of the 2004, or perhaps 2005, election, and we are still waiting for the reform. But this time, the workers and the unemployed no longer believe in the Liberal Party and, the next time, they will send them to the opposition benches.

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LIB

Yolande Thibeault

Liberal

Ms. Yolande Thibeault (Saint-Lambert, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to take part in the debate on the member's motion and further examine proposals to reform the EI plan. I would like to start by saying that this government's commitment to making sure that EI helps Canadians cannot be doubted. Neither can our determination to change the EI plan when there is a clearly proven need to do so.

Since the new EI plan was put in place in 1996, the government has shown that it was willing to listen to Canadians. We made adjustments to the plan, in the light of established facts, to make sure it meets the needs of our fellow citizens and keeps on adjusting to the changing circumstances of the labour market.

A quick look at our record will clearly illustrate what I am saying. You will see that we are working hard to make sure the plan meets the needs of all Canadians, including those who live in Quebec. When the government introduced a new EI plan in 1996, it was with a view to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the EI plan in Canada.

Also, we committed to tracking and assessing the performance of the plan to see how people and communities would react to it. When the need for adjustments is obvious, the necessary changes are made. Those goals guided our approach to reforming the EI plan in the past, and they continue to guide us today.

Most people agree that this approach to EI meets the needs of Canadians. Today the plan is financially stable. Premiums went from an historical high of $3.07 in 1994 to a much lower rate of $.98 this year. Currently it is estimated that 88% of Canadian workers would be eligible to EI were they to lose their job. I will add that the plan evolves to meet changing needs.

The government recognizes that certain regions and certain groups of workers, including those in some seasonal industries, may have to meet specific challenges to try to adapt to the changing realities of the labour market and the new economy. The EI plan adequately accounts for these exceptional situations.

Our track record is clear: since 1996, the government has already made changes to accommodate the changing needs of Canadians, including seasonal workers. Bill C-2, enacted by the House of Commons in 2001, is a good example of that.

It included a number of significant changes with regard to today's debate. We eliminated the intensity rule to avoid penalizing frequent users. We targeted the clawback clause so that it would not apply to first time claimants, those who receive special benefits and low and middle-income claimants. We made adjustment to ensure that parents re-entering the labour market enjoy the same eligibility to benefits as other workers.

Since Bill C-2 was passed, the government has enhanced the EI plan by amending the small weeks regulations. First implemented as a pilot project in 1998, the small weeks regulations were aimed at helping seasonal and part-time workers retain their connections with the job market and hence their eligibility for EI benefits, by encouraging them to work for less and ensuring that those small weeks have no impact on their eventual EI benefits.

Thanks to the small weeks provision, which is now an integral part of the employment insurance plan, over 185,000 people were able to earn more money and enjoy a $12 increase in their weekly EI benefits.

Let me give you another striking example. In 2000, EI economic regions came into effect in order to take into account the high unemployment rates in some regions of the country. As we know, some workers in some regions, especially seasonal workers, need more time to adjust to the changes made in 2000, and we showed some flexibility in addressing their concerns.

For instance, the government has set up a special transition period for the Lower St. Lawrence/North Shore region as well as the Madawaska-Charlotte region in western New-Brunswick. The claimants in these regions need fewer work hours to become eligible for EI benefits and they receive benefits for a longer period of time than they would have without a transition period.

We have also changed the way undeclared earnings are calculated to make life easier for the employers and treat workers more fairly. The apprenticeship trainees are now subject to only one two-week waiting period during their training program. Quality service continues to be one of our main goals and we have taken steps to prevent and fight abuses.

In cooperation with local committees, the government will continue to monitor the situation in these economic regions and elsewhere, and is also willing to make additional changes if need be.

In a nutshell, if we take a close look at this government's record on employment insurance, we can see that it understands the need to listen and to make changes in the best interests of Canadians and of the long-term sustainability of the employment insurance system. Flexibility is one of the strengths of our system. This means that we can adapt to changes in the needs of Canadian workers and in the labour market situation. Still, not all changes are acceptable.

The government is clearly committed to ensure that the employment insurance system remains financially sustainable in the long term, and has also promised to make sure that it meets legitimate needs that might arise. All appropriate measures were taken in the past, and I know that we will do the same in the future.

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BQ

Mario Laframboise

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Mario Laframboise (Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, the Liberal member alluded to the stability of the system. I hope she will agree with me that the only thing that has remained stable is the revenue generated by the system for the federal government since 1996.

In 1996, the federal government stopped contributing to the EI account. All it has done since 1996 is rake in surpluses. As of 2003-04, the surplus totalled $42.5 billion. That is stability.

Meanwhile, the men and women who should have benefited from the EI system have seen their benefits decrease, and the percentage of unemployed who qualify has dropped from 42% to 39% between 1996 and 2002. In addition, benefit payments were 17% lower in 2001 than they were in 1994.

I just think that my Liberal colleague should remain within the bounds of what is fair and honest in her remarks. The only stability was in the EI account being tapped by the government for uses other than helping workers who have lost their jobs, including seasonal workers.

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LIB

Yolande Thibeault

Liberal

Ms. Yolande Thibeault

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member claims that only 32% of workers are entitled to benefits. I can tell you that it is 88% and there are studies to prove it. Furthermore, I am on the Standing Committee on Human Resources and last week we asked the department to justify the 88% figure, just as we asked those who claim that it is 32% to justify that figure as well. Something does not add up. I think it is a question of methodology. It is a matter of comparing the two reports, not comparing apples and oranges.

I would like the hon. member to know that, in any event, I am prepared to accept these figures.

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BQ

Mario Laframboise

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Mario Laframboise

Mr. Speaker, the figures I used did not come from the Bloc Quebecois, but a Canadian Labour Congress report entitled “Falling Unemployment Insurance Protection for Canada's Unemployed, March 2003”. These figures did not just fall out the sky. This is a study that was done by the Canadian Labour Congress, which mentioned that under the Liberal government since 1993, the percentage of claimants has gone from 57% to 39%, a 22% decrease in the number of people entitled to receive benefits. That is the harsh reality of the Liberal governance. I would like it if the hon. member, who talks about the good things, would also talk about what I have been telling her since the very beginning; the only stable thing, the only good thing the federal government has done in the employment insurance program is to collect money from the unemployed and from workers. Since 1996, it has plumped up its coffers by raking in $42.5 billion.

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LIB

Yolande Thibeault

Liberal

Ms. Yolande Thibeault

Mr. Speaker, let us go back to the Canadian Labour Congress study. In that study, they use the following categories to obtain their figure of 38% or 32%, depending on whom we speak to.

The study includes those who have never worked, those who have never paid premiums, the previously independent worker and even students. On the other hand, the 88% figure quoted by government includes only those who are now working and paying premiums. If they lost their job tomorrow, 88% of them would be eligible for employment insurance benefits. That is the truth.

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CA

Charlie Penson

Canadian Alliance

Mr. Charlie Penson (Peace River, CPC)

Mr. Speaker, I have been listening to the debate and surely the Liberal member who just spoke is not denying that workers and employers have made contributions to the EI fund that are far in excess of what is needed to survive any economic cycle of downturn.

It is clearly documented that the overcharges have contributed about $3 billion a year to the fund, and sometimes it has been even more. In the 10 years since the Liberal government took office, the so-called surplus in the EI fund is in excess of $40 billion. Numerous studies have suggested that those contributions should be dovetailed more closely to the economic reality of what it takes to survive an economic downturn. That means that the EI premium rates for workers and employers need to be decreased and they needed to be decreased several years ago. The fact remains that the Liberal government has taken over $40 billion more than it needed from the employers and employees, which has contributed to this huge overpayment.

As we know, the EI premiums go into general revenue, so there is no fund because the government has spent it on other things.

I would ask the member to admit that there has been overpayments from these two groups in excess of $40 billion in the last 10 years.

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LIB

Yolande Thibeault

Liberal

Ms. Yolande Thibeault

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his question.

Some people seem to think that excessive amounts were paid into the employment insurance fund. However, as I said during my speech, premiums have been decreasing since 1994; they have gone from $3.07 to $1.98 this year. That represents a considerable drop. In fact, they have fallen by a third.

Also, we should not forget all the programs that have been developed for the employment insurance recipients. For example, there is parental leave, which went from six months to a year. A new measure has recently been implemented for palliative care. A person who has to care for a parent, a child or a spouse suffering from a terminal illness can now apply for employment insurance benefits.

I think these provisions are all to the credit of our government.

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BQ

Paul Crête

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Paul Crête (Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, allow me to revisit a statistic my colleague has quoted to make sure it is well understood.

The 88% figure represents the number of people who have put in the hours needed to qualify and who are getting a cheque. That is like saying that out of 100% of Toyota owners, 88% took their car this morning and 12% did not. It is totally wrong to use this figure to demonstrate the effectiveness of employment insurance.

The way to do so is by determining what proportion of those without work, they are the people with no income, actually receive EI.

Earlier, my colleague mentioned those who do not pay into the plan. That in fact was part of the committee's recommendations, which Liberal members supported. The recommendation we are discussing today does not come from Bloc members or the Conservative members. All committee members agreed that the self-employed should be covered by the plan since they are not at present.

Having accumulated a surplus of $11 billion over the last three years, could the federal government not have made a political decision to put half of this amount toward improving EI, rather than use the entire amount to pay down the debt? What we would like to know is why the Liberals stubbornly refuse to introduce a reform? Is it because they have already spent all the money elsewhere?

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?

The Deputy Speaker

Since we have very little time left, I will ask the hon. member for Saint-Lambert to make her remarks quite short.

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LIB

Yolande Thibeault

Liberal

Ms. Yolande Thibeault

Mr. Speaker, I will try to make my remarks as short as possible. I would like to point out to my hon. colleague opposite that most independent workers are not interested in contributing. If they did contribute, they would have to pay a double premium. To be eligible, they would have to pay both the employer's and the employee's contribution.

This is a very complex issue.

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BQ

Francine Lalonde

Bloc Québécois

Ms. Francine Lalonde (Mercier, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, it is with a great deal of anger that I rise today to participate in this debate. In order to prepare my remarks, I went over several speeches I made in the House in 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997.

The motion introduced by the Bloc this morning is quite moderate, compared to the drastic cuts the Liberal government made to the unemployment insurance plan. That is what the plan was called, and should still be called, until the government, under the then finance minister and now Prime Minister, decided to make cuts that were and still are drastic, and that had a devastating impact.

These cuts have an impact on those who have no employment security, those who do not have the means to buy stocks and generate a high income the way others can.

The unemployment insurance plan was there for more people and it was the only support workers could get while they tried to land another job or waited for their plant or business to reopen. That is the real raison d'être of the unemployment insurance. It is meant to be a bridge between jobs.

The current Prime Minister is trying to make us cry by referring to the fact that, since he is his father's son, he cares for social programs. However, he is the one who, as the finance minister, presided over their demise. Indeed, polls were taken at the time the famous project was agreed upon in 1996 and implemented in 1997, when the decision was made. The polls showed that Canadians and Quebeckers were satisfied and wanted these programs.

However, it was quite ironic to see that, at the time, the human resources development minister was saying that he wanted the reform to make Canadians—he did not add Quebeckers—proud to be Canadians—and he could not add Quebeckers either. However, the opposite happened. This is extraordinary, because, at this time, far from being proud, people know that this insurance program, now called “employment”—even though we had tried at the time to keep the word “unemployment”, because it is true, it does not guarantee employment to anyone, it is the opposite—would not help ordinary people, but make their life more difficult.

We are getting close to the election and, suddenly, the government shows a little bit of sensitivity, just a little bit. Who will benefit from this sensitivity? Seasonal workers. I am not saying that sensitivity is inappropriate; I am saying that it must be real. It must fill the gap, but this is not the only issue.

Some may ask if this gap appeared in 2004. At the time, we experienced the gap, we had seen it the first time with the first reform by the government.

Of course, the government talked about this in 2000, once again, just before the election. Indeed, just before the election in 2000, there was a small reform that removed a few irritants. However, seasonal workers need much more—we do not know what is in store for them and how we could write it—than covering the gap. It must be filled, but much more than this is needed, because they are not the only ones who feel insecure. This is the truth.

I would say that, even with EI, there are not many who have enough money available to be able to buy groceries for five or six weeks, pay rent and so on. The same must hold true for people who earn high salaries.

It is already difficult, the way employment insurance is set up at the moment. So think about how difficult it is without EI. What do people do when they are not getting any benefits? Some say, I know, that they go out and get another job. We know there are limits to that possibility. People go on welfare when they have no EI. They have no choice, but by doing so their status changes. They end up getting discouraged.

I am not going to address the Bloc proposals per se. I support them two hundred percent. I will say, for the benefit of those watching that these are minimal proposals. Quebeckers and those in the rest of Canada need to hear that.

The history of this reform, like the rest of history, tends to get forgotten. People must not forget, however, that if we have ended up with a deficit—the one referred to across the way, against which we must take steps—it is because the Conservative government got the unemployment insurance fund to pay three years in a row for $2 billion worth of “employability” measures, we can call them, at a time of high unemployment. So that makes a total of $6 billion, three years of $2 billion each.

Then, even during a time of high unemployment, when it was found that the jobless rate had gone down somewhat, they were stuck with a deficit to be dealt with. When the cuts were brought in 1997, there was already a $4 billion surplus in the fund. In other words that action was taken not in order to compensate for a so-called deficit, but for fiscal reasons. They wanted the workers, the jobless and small and medium business in particular to pay for the deficit. That was a conscious decision.

On the eve of an election, the Prime Minister is adopting bare bones measures regarding seasonal workers because they are taking to the streets. And so they should. Does the Prime Minister think he will make us forget all this? No. I know one thing: during this election, if it ever comes, I will keep talking about it. The reform has changed and upset the lives of many young men, women, and immigrants who are entitled to work. It has transformed their daily lives because it has put them in a state of insecurity.

It has also had other negative effects such as encouraging people to work under the table. Why? Because people who work odd jobs for a short term, who think they could never be entitled to benefits, are better off not paying the premiums. Employers do this despite the heavy penalties.

One of the worst things about this reform is that it has forced all workers to pay premiums starting from hour one. Therefore, many do not qualify to receive employment insurance and are also not entitled to a tax credit because they have not paid the premium. I am not sure of the exact number, but there must be a way to find out. Statistics Canada could find out.

The deficit was paid by low-income workers in a country that wants to come across as progressive. Furthermore, what is the ceiling for the premiums? It is $39,000. I thought it had gone up, but it is still $39,000. Beyond this amount, for overtime and big salaries, no EI premiums are paid.

By hiring people at low wages and, often, by hiring people who are not in the high tech sector but in labour intensive industries, small and medium size businesses are those which, proportionally, make the largest contribution to employment insurance.

In this country, the government made those members of the labour force—because the unemployed are still looking for work—who earn up to $39,000 pay to eliminate the deficit. It is incredible. This has resulted in economic consequences that I cannot measure. An employment insurance program is meant to support employment. This means that when a worker is laid off, he knows that he will get money to bridge the gap between jobs.

I feel the same anger that I had when I was the critic on this issue, but we should feel such anger all the time, because our fellow citizens in each and every one of our ridings, whether in Montreal or elsewhere, whether in cities or regions, have been adversely affected in their daily lives by this legislation.

I already said that this reform should be a counter-reform because, usually, a reform improves the situation. Be that as it may, since this reform was made, the Bloc Quebecois has worked tirelessly to protect workers, the unemployed and small and medium size businesses. The latter are the ones that paid a heavy price in the fight against the deficit.

The government made some minor reforms in 2000, just before the election. I was looking at the speeches, and we debated this issue in September and in October. We could even talk about mini “reformettes” by putting two words together. Now, the government is once again trying to sugar coat things with another “reformette”, which is not even worthy of the name. True reform is nevertheless essential for those who are facing the gap. It does not make sense that these people have had to face the gap all these years.

I hope we have an election as soon as possible, because we will then be able to discuss with our fellow citizens this so-called employment insurance program, which is not even an unemployment insurance program anymore.

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LIB

André Harvey

Liberal

Hon. André Harvey (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, fortunately, exaggeration does not make one sick, because my colleague would have trouble staying healthy.

We never hear a word about all the progressive measures that have been taken within the employment insurance program and with all the government revenues. Let us think, among other things, about the whole issue of manpower training, which has allowed Quebec, for the past six, seven or eight years, to receive $600 million a year.

I would like to ask my colleague whether it is important to deal with these issues, for example, the reduction in premiums for the 14 million contributors. Is it important for employees and employers to contribute to a program where rates have been reduced by almost a third in the last few years? I would like to know, because this goes into the general fund.

I would like to ask my colleague this simple question. Is she aware that, for the past 20 years, Quebec has contributed approximately $73 billion to the unemployment insurance fund, now the employment insurance fund, and that we have provided a total of approximately $86 billion in benefits? Where would the money have been found to pay off the debt had there been a surplus in Quebec in the EI fund? Can my colleague confirm that, in the last 10 or 12 years, the contribution level has been about the same as the collection level?

In short, this is a Bloc strategy. When there is an issue, they take it and exaggerate it to the limit.

We made improvements to the EI program and we will continue to do so during the next weeks and the next months. Next year, after five years, there will be a complete review of the program.

Unfortunately, Bloc interventions always tend to worsen an issue rather than seek constructive solutions.

I would like to ask my colleague a question. If, over the past 20 years, Quebec has had a surplus of $13 billion with respect to all of its premiums, why does she say that the premiums paid by Quebeckers have been used to repay the total debt or pay down the deficit? If she wants to talk about imbalances in taxation one day, we will talk about this question, but using the actual numbers.

I encourage them to listen less to the Canadian Labour Congress. In their employment insurance calculations, I think even the furniture was included.

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BQ

Francine Lalonde

Bloc Québécois

Ms. Francine Lalonde

Mr. Speaker, we know that they have not been listening to the CLC and the unions know it too.

When the member opposite talks about my exaggeration, I think he shows the extent of his own ignorance. People's lives have been transformed by these so-called reforms, which were counter-reforms. I am not saying that an employment insurance system is not necessary. All of my words and actions deny that. Still, it must be a real system, not copied from the least progressive states in the United States, and not so far, far behind western Europe.

Listening to such comments is rather good for the digestion after lunch.

With respect to Quebec, there are two points. First, a sovereign Quebec would have been far better at managing its own employment insurance system, rather than being in the situation in which it has been. There too, we can talk about it, case by case.

There is a Canadian research centre in Ottawa. How many are there in Hull? None. Let us talk about that.

As far as the Bloc strategy is concerned, I will say one thing. It is mighty lucky that the Bloc has been here to tell people what has been going on and to speak on behalf of them. The parliamentary secretary will soon find out, if he does not already know, that people are on our side, not on his. They know that what this government did made no sense whatsoever.

I do not have the letter with me, but I would like to remind the House of one thing. Once again an election is looming. On the eve of the 1993 election, the former prime minister Jean Chrétien wrote a letter to all those who were protesting a reform carried out by the Progressive Conservative Party. It was a small reform compared to what the Liberals called their reform. Nevertheless, 25,000 people had assembled in Montreal in the winter to protest this measure. In his letter, Jean Chrétien said he was sharing the pain and the fears of all those who were protesting. He told them to vote for the Liberals, and they would see how his party would take care of workers.

They did indeed see how, under the direction of the Minister of Finance bent on reducing the deficit.

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BQ

Paul Crête

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Paul Crête (Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, I would like to put a question to my colleague. Should we not in fact use the Quebec statistics for the past 10 years?

The member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord is talking about the past 20 years, but those statistics include the years under the Conservatives. For the past five years, Quebec has been putting a lot more into the EI plan than it has been taking out of it. Is it in fact because the government decided to squeeze the needed surpluses out of those who can afford it the least in order to eliminate the deficit and pay down the debt? He has squeezed the needed surplus out of people in the seasonal industry not only in Quebec, but also in the Maritimes. Is it not for all those reasons that today we are asking for the adoption of a unanimous report? Does my colleague not find it odd that the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord, who comes from an area where the seasonal industry needs help, would go against the recommendations of his own political party, in spite of the fact that, three years ago, Liberal members were in favour of this scheme?

Would my colleague agree that this government is walking all over the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord? Is it acceptable that the Liberals now refuse to adopt a report signed by their own committee members three years ago? Should this Liberal government not be expected to commit to a comprehensive reform of the employment insurance plan, as requested by the central labour bodies? That is what the workers want. They want the government to give them back the money it has stolen from them. We are talking about $45 billion over the past 10 years.

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BQ

Francine Lalonde

Bloc Québécois

Ms. Francine Lalonde

Mr. Speaker, I commend the work done on this extremely important issue by my hon. colleague as well as colleagues from other parties, such as the hon. member for Acadie—Bathurst. We had started working together on this even before he became a member of this House.

The hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques just touched on something that must pain the members opposite. During the past five years in particular, Quebec has been paying more than it has been receiving. This had started earlier.

That is also related to development. Under the PQ government, Quebec has developed, particularly in the high tech sector. It was therefore better equipped to face the new economy and the competition that comes with it. Quebec has paid the price for that.

I think that the hon. member opposite is finding himself in a pickle. He knows that we are right. Despite the so-called free vote guidelines in the government party, he is nonetheless expected not to support a unanimous proposal passed during this Parliament.

The hon. member should listen to what his constituents have to say. They would tell him that with the contributions from the employees, the employers and especially the small and medium businesses, the plan should have been enhanced. Changes are needed, but people should not be forced to live in insecurity.

The unemployment insurance plan, which has been misnamed the employment insurance plan, should give a chance to workers who have no job security. It should give them some security between jobs. It should support workers who never had the opportunity to pile up money the way rich people do.

This is not a social program, but an economic one. Countries who understand that have maintained over the years a high quality plan, even when they had to bring in reforms.

The hon. member should learn more about unemployment insurance. Reading about the purpose of such a plan would prevent him from making remarks he could live to regret. I think a real unemployment insurance plan should be just that, an insurance plan, an essential part of any economic policy that provides opportunities to everybody, not just the privileged.

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NDP

Yvon Godin

New Democratic Party

Mr. Yvon Godin (Acadie—Bathurst, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to this motion brought forward by my colleague from the Bloc Quebecois. It reads:

That, in the opinion of thisHouse, the government should propose, before the dissolutionof the House, an employment insurance reform along the linesof the 17 recommendations contained in the unanimous reportof the Standing Committee on Human Resources Developmentand the Status of Persons with Disabilities entitled “Beyond BillC-2: A Review of Other Proposals to Reform EmploymentInsurance”.

However, I find the comments made by the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord a bit odd, particularly when he said that according to the CLC, if we are going to do something, we might as well include the furniture. I take that as an insult to the CLC. Let us not forget that the Canadian Labour Congress represents the workers. It is there for them. It is unacceptable for the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord to make such a statement in the House, especially as he was representing the Progressive Conservative Party before the last election.

If we look at Hansard , if we read the speeches he gave then, we see that he disagreed with the changes made by the Liberals in 1996. As a matter of fact, the member for Chicoutimi—Le Fjord supported the then member for Beauséjour—Petitcodiac, Ms. Angela Vautour. They were going hand in hand, denouncing the changes to employment insurance. Now he is fighting the Liberal fight in the House of Commons.

It is regrettable, and you can check it in Hansard . Hopefully, TV viewers in Chicoutimi—Le Fjord will also remember what happened then and how much this member has changed over the past few years to the point that he is now defending the Liberals for taking some $43 billion from workers and employers who contributed to the UI plan that was used to help workers who lost their job, or workers in the new economy.

Forty years ago, in the 1960s, when the UI plan was introduced, only 5% of women were working. Nowadays, we have reached the point where we probably could say it is nearly half and half. Therefore, the plan must adapt to that reality.

A pregnant woman is not a sick woman. A pregnant woman is a woman who contributes to life. I want to thank the woman who brought me into this world. If that woman had had the opportunity to be part of the work force, I would have liked her to be treated fairly, like any other worker. We must thank the women who gave us life, instead of claiming they should not receive benefits when they leave their job for a while to take care of their child. Some of the arguments we hear sometimes are unacceptable and shameful.

This morning, at the Standing Committee on Human Resources Development, the employers agreed with us that the federal government has used the EI fund for one reason only, to pay down the debt and reach a zero deficit. However, on whose back has it done so? On the backs of workers who lost their job. Nevertheless, it wants Canadians to believe that the only reason why it changed the EI program was to force people to go back to work.

Again, I completely disagree. A seasonal worker does not lose his job of his own doing. He does not wake up on a Monday morning and say, “I am not going to work”. He ends up jobless because of the nature of the work he does. There are no seasonal workers in Canada, only seasonal jobs. If people find themselves unemployed, it is because of the nature of the work in their area.

Let me provide a brief historical overview. I think it would be worth it even if a lot of people remember what happened.

In 1986, the Auditor General of Canada recommended that the unemployment insurance funds be added to the consolidated revenue fund. It probably never crossed his mind at the time that his recommendation would open the door for the federal government to use the surplus to eliminate the deficit and balance the budget. I do not think that is what the Auditor General had in mind.

At the time, the employees and the employers were contributing 80% of the money in the UI plan, compared to 20% by the government. Nowadays, they are responsible for 100% of the funding of the EI program. Some people wonder why I keep talking about unemployment insurance. Why should we not call something by its true name? Unemployment insurance is for people who have lost their jobs; employment insurance gives the federal government the opportunity to get its hands on the money and spend it as it pleases.

In 1986, the money went into the consolidated revenue fund. Following this, you may have noticed that changes to unemployment insurance started to be made. Indeed, right away, the then Conservative government thought that this was a place where it could get money. It could dip into the fund. This is where it all began. We must not forget the historical facts.

As I said often in this House, on July 31, 1989, my predecessor, Doug Young, told Canadians, New Brunswickers in particular, “I ask people in New Brunswick to fight vigorously against any change to unemployment insurance, because it will be a disaster for New Brunswick”. As a member of Parliament, Doug Young recognized at the time that we had seasonal workers, fishermen, forestry workers and so on. He was trying to impress people to be re-elected to the House of Commons.

I remember being in Inkerman, where there was a debate between the Conservatives and the Liberals; the Conservatives were in power. Doug Young said that he wanted people to vote for him, because if he was elected to go to Ottawa, he would ensure that changes to unemployment insurance would be made, because people deserved it. I was there during the debate. It seems that, come election time, candidates from parties that want to form the government think that it is time to reform the unemployment insurance plan, whether there are candidates from the opposition or not. Meanwhile, we have people who have suffered. Men, women and children have suffered from with all the changes.

I will move forward quickly. I will go to February 1993. Jean Chrétien, who was the prime minister of Canada in the last years, was the leader of the opposition. He sent a letter to a group of women from Rivière-du-Loup. He said that the changes that the Conservatives were making to unemployment insurance, and the way they were making them, were shameful. Indeed, instead of attacking the problem—which was economic development—they were attacking the most vulnerable, people who had lost their job.

In the fall of 1993, many were surprised to see the Liberals elected. Given all that was said during the campaign, all the statements made by Jean Chrétien and Doug Young, we really thought that workers could breathe a sigh of relief, that they would get what they were entitled to. It did not happen. The changes kept coming and then the really big changes came.

These changes were so tremendous that the government was raking in surpluses in the EI account to the tune of $7 billion and $8 billion a year. And this was coming out of the pockets of workers who had lost their jobs, of people who were in need. The way the Liberals went after the Canadian workers is a shame.

Since then, small changes have been made. Today's motion from the Bloc Québécois asks the government to consider implementing the parliamentary committee's 17 recommendations.

Let us look back at how this came about. Before the 2000 election, in May of that year, I tabled a motion in the House asking parliamentarians and the government to carry out a review of EI.

In May, Parliament unanimously agreed to reform EI. It was a proud moment for me since Parliament, all political parties and members of this House, had unanimously recognized the need to bring about changes to the employment insurance plan.

Why did the Liberal members support my motion in 2000 after saying during all those years that the employment insurance plan was adequate? They finally realized something was wrong with the employment insurance plan.

Just before the election in 2000, the Liberals introduced Bill C-44 in the House of Commons. They tried to slip one past us in the House of Commons. They wanted Parliament to pass changes unanimously before the election. One of the changes was the increase from 50% to 55% of the benefit rate, and another one was the abolition of the clawback clause, which meant that, after five years people were no longer entitled to employment insurance. It was limited to 30% and the amount was raised from $39,000 to $48,000. Those were the two changes.

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One hon. member

And they controlled the rate.

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May 6, 2004