Moved third reading of Bill C-4, An Act relating to certain measures in response to COVID-19.
He said: Honourable senators, it is a privilege to speak briefly at third reading of Bill C-4, An Act relating to certain measures in response to COVID-19.
I want to start by thanking Minister Qualtrough and Minister Freeland for being with us yesterday at Committee of the Whole. They answered some pertinent and often tough questions on the proposed legislation, and I’m sure you will agree that their presence here helped us considerably.
Next, I want to report on some important questions raised by my colleague Senator Martin yesterday. It’s important that we clearly understand what we are approving here, especially as we are moving quickly. Of course, this is the primary responsibility of sponsors and critics.
First, Senator Martin sought clarity on the total cost impact of Bill C-4. Senator Martin and I can confirm that the amounts mentioned in my statement yesterday have been verified independently by both of us. The cost of the proposed new CRB, CRSB and CRCB benefits total $24 billion.
In addition, proposed payments to be made under the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act by December 31, 2020, total $17.14 billion. This would result in the two amounts being voted on in Bill C-4 totalling just over $41 billion.
An additional $10.2 billion in EI costs mentioned by the Minister of Finance yesterday are not being voted on today, as they were already approved by an interim order.
Senator Martin also asked about the intent of clause 41 in Bill C-4, which would approve CRA spending on enforcement and administration through to March 31, 2024. We can confirm that this spending authority is congruent with clause 36(b) of Bill C-4, which gives the CRA three years to pursue offences outlined in the act, and therefore, the funding mentioned in clause 41 would support that.
I thank you, Senator Martin, for raising these questions and for working together with me to get them answered.
Consequential tax amendments are often complicated and they confuse us. So briefly, for our collective understanding, I want to tell you that after clause 41, clause 42 deals with repayments not being taxable, clause 43 deals with information sharing between departments, including the CRA and the HRDC, and clause 44 deals with the flat rate of withholding taxes on CRB payments, which is expected to be 10%.
Colleagues, we are all being challenged in myriad ways as we grapple with how we can make the most effective contribution to Parliament in these very challenging times. Today’s notice of motion on hybrid sittings is welcome news to all of us.
As we work through this, I listened yesterday to a broad sweep of views that senators from across the country, from varying backgrounds and with different affiliations, brought into this chamber. These were mightily impressive, and one more time made me proud to have the opportunity to sit in this place. It made me think about how much weight we could bring to important issues and opportunities confronting Canadians if we set out to address them together. We heard plenty of virtuous proposals raised in this chamber for our consideration.
Senator Harder raised the question of wealth creation, how we can accelerate the growth of our economy and how to better align roles and responsibilities in our federation. Of course, those two things very much go hand in hand.
Senator Bellemare highlighted the importance of labour market development, particularly in relation to young people. We thank her for that.
Senator Pate raised serious and important issues about poverty and racism, and their intersection. That prompted, I think, a relatively positive response from Minister Qualtrough, which I think we were all pleased to hear.
As we continue to wrestle with the restrictions placed on us by COVID-19, I thank all colleagues who are in the chamber with us today and yesterday, as well as those who engaged from afar in various ways, and the many people inside this chamber and outside of it who support us doing our work in this place.
Honourable colleagues, this may be the worst health and economic crisis of our generation, but it’s not going to last forever. Canadians are going to overcome these challenging times, and we’ll do that by working together. None of us in this place want any of our fellow Canadians to suffer through illness or worse, or put themselves at risk, thereby prolonging any prospect of economic recovery.
These are not normal times, to say the least. Governments at all levels are being forced to make decisions quickly in order to protect their towns, their cities, their provinces and the country as this virus ebbs and flows. The Senate is not exempt from the need to act swiftly and certainly not the responsibility to act diligently. I think we’re finding the very best balance here as we work on this this week.
The passage of Bill C-4 is necessary for the health and safety of all Canadians, for their income security and livelihoods, and for the businesses that are the engines of our economy.
Let’s join our colleagues in the other place in supporting this crucial bill. Thank you. Meegwetch.
Hon. Yonah Martin (Deputy Leader of the Opposition)
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Honourable senators, my thanks to Senator Dean for his responses to my questions and the opportunity to work with him to provide clarity for the chamber. As he said, we are at third reading and it is so important to our nation, and our work as senators, to be responsible and clear in what we are approving.
My statement today is a bit longer than yesterday’s, but I hope you will indulge me, as the critic, to do a further analysis.
I rise today, colleagues, to speak to Bill C-4, An Act relating to certain measures in response to COVID-19, formally tabled as an act relating to economic recovery in response to COVID-19.
As our sponsor has already expressed, I want to thank members of this chamber for the efforts that you have made in participating in our Committee of the Whole, as well as yesterday’s debate and today’s. I know each of us takes a lot of time to deliberate on what we are doing. I wish this could have gone to committee. We had Committee of the Whole, but time was limited. Two, two and a half or even three or four hours may seem like a long time , but there are a lot of us and there are specific regional questions that were not answered. And here we are at third reading.
This is the sixth bill we are considering with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this is the first bill that suggests we are now focused on recovery, as Part 1 enacts the Canada recovery benefits act. The word “recovery” is in all of the titles. I’m certain we would all be pleased if we had in fact moved beyond emergency benefits to recovery benefits, but I find the suggestion to be a bit of a stretch when there are still 1.1 million people unemployed in Canada due to the pandemic, and many businesses have either not reopened or are on the brink of closing.
Just a few weeks ago, Restaurants Canada, a lobby group representing 30,000 firms, warned the federal government that more than half of all Canadian eateries could go out of business in the next three months due to the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic. They estimate that 10% of food service establishments have already permanently closed due to the impacts of COVID-19.
A survey of its members by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business indicated that 3% of businesses still operating expect to close permanently due to COVID-19 and another 9% expect to never fully recover.
In July, Statistics Canada reported that 19.3% of businesses said they would be able to continue operating at their current level of revenue and expenditures for fewer than six months before considering staffing actions, closing their doors or filing for bankruptcy.
The failed Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program, CECRA, has now ended, with no plan from the government to help small business owners and their employees survive the second wave. This program should have sent assistance to small business owners to help pay their rent, but a majority of business owners were unable to participate in the program because landlords needed to agree that they will cover 25% of the rent in order for businesses to qualify. And I empathize with the landlords as well, because they have bills to pay. This very difficult situation was just not resolved.
Honourable senators, I appreciate the government’s optimism in referring to these measures as “recovery” benefits, but I beg to differ. There are many businesses and families across the country, including tens of thousands of Canadians in the hunting and fishing outfitting industry, as we heard in Senator Mockler’s question, and artists — the list goes on — who do not share the Prime Minister’s optimism. These are most certainly emergency benefits, not recovery benefits — emergency benefits that continue to be critically necessary because of the terrible impact the pandemic has had on our country, which was made worse by the government’s mismanagement.
Canada’s strong road to recovery is tied to the success of our small businesses, which are the backbone of our economy. Small businesses in Canada make up over 97% of all employer businesses, whether it’s a family-run business or a business with up to 99 employees. Their survival is essential for economic recovery, but the statistics we’ve heard, that I’ve shared with you, indicate otherwise. In Metro Vancouver, where I live, I have seen so many boarded-up businesses. I personally know of businesses that are on the brink of closing their doors.
As you know, honourable senators, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit has come to an end. The government has told us that 2.8 million CERB recipients are being transitioned to the Employment Insurance system. Bill C-4 will create three additional benefits to complement the support provided by the EI program.
Conservatives have no quarrel with the intent of any of these emergency benefits. They are critically necessary measures in the midst of these turbulent times — and the CERB program was a blunt instrument that was not properly designed in the first place — so we need these additional measures. If you recall, after CERB was announced, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated that one third of unemployed Canadians were going to be left with nothing from either Employment Insurance or the Canada Emergency Response Benefit: part-time workers, seasonal workers and the self-employed were all passed over in the first draft. Then there were numerous accounts of people receiving duplicate payments, incidents of fraudulent claims and other concerning stories related to the CERB program.
The core issue with the program was that the government did not build in incentives for people to get back to work once the lockdown was lifted. Therefore, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business reported in July that 20% of their members were having difficulty finding people to return to work. More than half of them said that the CERB program was a major reason for the labour shortage because their employees did not want to lose their benefits. The Province of Manitoba even had to implement a Job Restart Program, which paid people up to $2,000 to leave CERB behind and return to the workforce. This may be the first time in history that we needed a government program to get people off a government program.
One of the many things this Liberal government is not good at doing is listening. All of the opposition parties in the House of Commons repeatedly expressed their frustration, but the government was just charging ahead unilaterally, refusing to work in a collegial and co-operative way in order to ensure that Canadians received the best possible support throughout the pandemic. I raised some of those concerns to our government leader or to ministers who appeared in our chamber, especially regarding small businesses and the micro-businesses — mom-and-pop businesses.
The result was an ever-growing suite of programs from the government that were poorly targeted, more expensive and less effective than they should have been. There were constant policy rewrites, clarifications, updates and, as we just experienced again, legislation that never made it past first reading.
These three new programs are a welcome upgrade to what has been the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, and it is regrettable that it has taken six months to get here. These programs are essential, but it concerns me that this government seems to think we are already in a recovery, when we are being warned that the second wave is upon us.
In his address to the nation that followed the Speech from the Throne, the Prime Minister said it himself:
. . . the second wave isn’t just starting – it’s already underway.
The numbers are clear. Back on March 13 when we went into lockdown, there were 47 new cases of COVID-19. Yesterday alone, we had well over 1,000.
We’re on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring.
If the Prime Minister was trying to confuse Canadians, this was a good way to do it. On the one hand, the government wants Canadians to think that things are getting better and, on the other hand, the Prime Minister is telling us the worst is yet to come. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise us because it illustrates the fact that the government doesn’t know what it is doing. We don’t see a sustainable plan to get us through the pandemic, and we don’t see a fiscal plan to ensure the health of our nation’s finances after the pandemic.
Instead, we seem to have a government that confuses government spending with recovery. We have a Prime Minister who makes glib statements like, “We took on debt so Canadians don’t have to.” What does that even mean? Does the Prime Minister not understand that public debt must be repaid by public money, which comes from the taxes on the money Canadians work so hard to earn?
The fact is that taxpayers are on the hook for every single dollar this government has borrowed. It is taxpayers who will be paying the interest charges and repaying the principal when it comes due. The government has no money of its own. It only has money it takes from the taxpayers. Justin Trudeau is doing nobody a favour by suggesting otherwise, and deficit spending today is tomorrow’s debt burden on our children, their children and their grandchildren.
Canadians who have lost jobs or income because of the government’s mishandling of the pandemic need the benefits that are being introduced in the bill before us, but what Canadians need even more is better management of this pandemic and a responsible route to recovery, two things that this government has not provided.
The second benefit that this bill creates is the Canada recovery sickness benefit. When the government finds it necessary to compel people to stay home from work for public health reasons, then it makes perfect sense that the government should provide support so people can do that. But the government messaging around this benefit has been more than a bit confusing at times. Let’s be clear about what this benefit provides and what it doesn’t provide.
First of all, this benefit is sick leave for COVID-related reasons only. It does not cover sick leave for any other reasons. Second, the benefit will cover you for only two weeks. If you’re required to self-isolate more than once this year, then you’re on your own after the first time. Likewise, if you’re unfortunate enough to come down with COVID and it takes you longer than two weeks to recover, you’re paying your own way after two weeks.
Third, this benefit is for one year; it is not permanent. The bill was held up in the other place because the government had to deal with the NDP in order to get their support for the Speech from the Throne. They wanted the benefit to cover any sickness, but it does not. It only covers COVID. The NDP wanted the benefit to be permanent, but it is not. It is only one year. This benefit will be helpful to many Canadians, but what is not helpful is how this government manages to create confusion around almost every COVID-related announcement they make.
The third benefit that this bill creates is the Canada recovery caregiving benefit. This is one of the great challenges of the pandemic. Some people are just getting back to work only to have to take time off again because their child came down with a stomach ache or a minor cough or runny nose and needs to get tested for COVID-19 before they can go back to school. Others have adult family members who require supervised care but then their program gets closed because of a COVID outbreak. They have no choice but to take time off work to care for their family member. These things are extremely frustrating for parents and caregivers and are hard on everyone. It is appropriate that the government provide some assistance to people facing these challenges.
Once again, we need to be very clear. The Prime Minister makes these announcements as if the government is there to take care of all your problems. But, in fact, these benefits are half-measures which help to mitigate the financial impacts of the pandemic but do not remove them. While $500 a week for 26 weeks might be a gold mine for a 15-year-old who only made $5,000 the previous year, the same is not true for most working Canadians.
Canadians who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own during the pandemic are looking for the certainty of employment, not a handout. Businesses want to reopen and welcome back staff and customers. This is what real recovery looks like. But instead of showing leadership and presenting Canadians with a clear path forward through the pandemic, the government prorogued Parliament, causing great worry about program deadlines and forcing parliamentarians, including this chamber, to rush on the examination of such important legislation.
Honourable senators, the Conservative caucus supports emergency programs contained in the bill because these measures are necessary and urgently needed by Canadians, but what we do not support is a government that is fiscally irresponsible and economically illiterate. Even in the midst of a pandemic, Canadians have a right to know how these programs are going to be paid for. There is no excuse for not having a budget and a financial plan. These are the fundamentals of government, not shiny accessories to be discarded when they are inconvenient.
The welfare of the generations that follow us is constantly on my mind, as I’m sure it is on yours. How much government debt will they be burdened with? What will it mean for future tax rates? How will the decisions we make today affect our children and grandchildren and their children? We have been warned repeatedly that the population is aging and the workforce is not keeping pace, but I’m not convinced that the current government is paying attention to such warnings.
Allow me to quote from a report by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute:
Canada’s fiscal challenges extend far beyond just the short-term impact of COVID-19. An aging population will continue to place upward pressure on federal finances and a new structural imbalance between revenues and spending means deficits and debt are likely to continue growing for decades to come.
A lower population growth rate coupled with increasing life expectancy means that the share of the population over 65 is projected to increase to 25.6 percent by 2068. This will require greater spending on income transfer programs to seniors like Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS).
Declining population growth combined with an aging population also means that Canada will likely face a declining labour force participation rate, a slower growing labour force, and slower tax revenue growth.
Spending on elderly transfer benefits is expected to peak at about 3.2 percent of GDP by 2031, an increase of almost 0.5 percentage points from the expected spending level in 2021.
The long-term projections demonstrate that based on current trends, the federal government is not on track to balance its budget at any point during the next three decades.
Now, I should also add that I had a really great conversation with Senator Omidvar yesterday about the need for immigration reform and looking at solutions to break down barriers, because we know that the future of Canada is, in part, in the hands of immigrants and new immigrants who will be coming to our country. So I shared this quote from the Fraser Institute with the hope that we will work together on the solutions. It’s really critical. There was a question from Senator Ngo about when the budget will be balanced. Well, according to the Fraser Institute, not any time soon. It will take decades because we have this growing debt and the deficit spending, which I know we must do at this time to help Canadians, but we need a plan to get back to fiscal responsibility.
Honourable senators, the report from the Fraser Institute is not only concerning, it is alarming. Before you dismiss these comments as coming from a right-wing think tank, I would remind you that the Parliamentary Budget Officer has been repeatedly issuing the same warnings over the past number of years.
The challenges that lie before us are real, and they don’t end when the pandemic ends. It is imperative that we as parliamentarians take the time to look down the horizon a bit further and see what is coming. It is imperative that the decisions we make today protect not only those who we are journeying with today, but those who will follow us when our journey is finished. Thank you.
Hon. Pierrette Ringuette (The Hon. the Acting Speaker)
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Senator Harder, do you have a question? Senator Martin, will you accept a question?
Senator Martin, thank you for your speech. I have a question. You indicated that you and your caucus support this bill and the measures in it, although your speech articulated concerns with the broad handling. Yesterday, in the second reading vote, it was called on division, which means that you opposed it. Am I to assume, on the basis of your support for this bill, that when we have our third reading vote, you will support it?
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain why we adopted it on division. As my speech indicates, and based on conversations that I have had with my colleagues, we support emergency benefits to Canadians at this time of need, and there are measures in this bill that do that. But we are concerned about some of the language, as I had indicated to Senator Dean, and about how CRA will retrieve some of the moneys that may be part of overpayments or other errors that we can’t fully anticipate but we can think about based on what happened with the CERB program.
We feel this was rushed. We have not had time to fully and thoroughly examine and do the kind of work the Senate is used to doing and that we should be doing. We support the measures, but there are concerns still remaining in this bill and the fiscal irresponsibility of the government.
In terms of the plan, they have not given us all of the details. We don’t have a fiscal update. We had a fiscal snapshot in the summer. The Parliamentary Budget Officer gave us his report based on numbers from September 1. It didn’t include the analysis of what’s in this budget. There are those concerns.
I will not answer for my colleagues at this time, except that is why we did it on division. We shall see with third reading that the support is there for the emergency measures, but we have great concerns as well.
In the other place, which was done in a hybrid setting, it was my understanding that the government did not do a voice vote as we would in the chamber. There were some discussions that took place, and I was not privy to them. What I will say is what happened there, happened there, and what happens in this chamber is up to us.
Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition)
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Colleagues, just last week, the day after we were here in this chamber, the government tabled Bill C-2, An Act relating to economic recovery in response to COVID-19.
It was the first bill tabled in this new session after pro forma Bill C-1 and Bill S-1. This was the bill the government spent the last five weeks working on while Parliament was prorogued. It was touted as the “plan to help support Canadians through the next phase of the recovery,” which, no doubt, was combed over by armies of government lawyers and bureaucrats in order to ensure it was ready for tabling on September 24. Yet, today, we find ourselves here not considering Bill C-2, but Bill C-4. Only one week after it was tabled, Bill C-2 is now destined to die a slow and silent death on the Order Paper, stuck forever at first reading.
Imagine explaining this to a young political science student. How does this happen? The government’s flagship legislation for the new session of Parliament is dead after only five days. It was not defeated by the opposition; rather, it was abandoned by the government itself.
Was there something irreparably wrong with it? Apparently not. The only difference between Bill C-2 and Bill C-4 is that the title was changed and an additional subsection consisting of 37 words — out of 12,150 — was added to it in two different places. Changes of this magnitude hardly require starting over.
Colleagues, the only reason the bill needed to be abandoned and a new one introduced was because the Prime Minister wanted to circumvent the parliamentary process.
After boasting that he was ready to go to an election over his bold, new and phony agenda, the Prime Minister scurried away to hammer out a deal with the NDP in a series of backroom meetings and secret negotiations instead of on the floor of the House of Commons.
The leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, told the country last week that in order for the Prime Minister to win his party’s support for the Throne Speech, the Prime Minister was going to have to “extend CERB and put in paid sick leave for all Canadians.” That meant permanent sick leave for all Canadians for any sickness, not just COVID.
The only problem was that the Prime Minister was not about to do any such thing. However, there were two things he did need. One, he needed a way to stall the bill so that he could ink a deal with the NDP while making it look like the Conservatives were the ones holding things up; and, two, he desperately needed the NDP’s support on the Throne Speech, because he certainly didn’t have it from the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, which put him in a bit of a pickle.
So, after hammering it out for hours, with periodic media updates to heighten the dramatic tension, in the end they came to an agreement. The headlines all basically read the same: “Liberals strike deal with NDP to avert federal election.”
It sounds quite successful. But what did the NDP actually walk away with? The short answer is absolutely nothing.
Bill C-2 had already provided one year of coverage for up to two weeks’ paid sick leave for every employee across the country for reasons related to COVID-19. Bill C-4 does exactly the same thing. The amendments wrestled from the Prime Minister by Jagmeet Singh himself did not make the sick leave permanent, and it did not extend the coverage due to sicknesses that are unrelated to COVID-19. The NDP got nothing. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can read it in the legislation.
Bill C-2, subsection 10(1)(f) says a person is eligible for the Canada recovery sickness benefit if:
. . . they contracted or might have contracted COVID-19 or because they isolated themselves on the advice of their employer, a medical practitioner, nurse practitioner, person in authority, government or public health authority for reasons related to COVID-19.
Bill C-4 kept this, but added subsection 10(1)(f)(ii), which tells us that a person is eligible for a Canada recovery sickness benefit if:
. . . they have underlying conditions, are undergoing treatments or have contracted other sicknesses that, in the opinion of a medical practitioner, nurse practitioner, person in authority, government or public health authority, would make them more susceptible to COVID-19 . . . .
That additional subsection provided some clarification, but it did nothing to expand the parameters of the original coverage that already existed in Bill C-2.
You might say Bill C-4 added issues of underlying conditions, undergoing treatments or contracting other sicknesses to the list. This is certainly an extension of the coverage provided in Bill C-2.
There is only one problem with that. These were already included without being itemized, because Bill C-2 provided coverage for anyone who needed to isolate for any reason related to COVID-19 on the advice of a doctor, employer, et cetera. That obviously would have included issues of underlying conditions, undergoing treatments or contracting other sicknesses.
You might say Bill C-2 restricted the sick leave coverage only to situations where the person either had COVID or needed to isolate due to COVID. The NDP amendment removed this limitation.
This is incorrect. The amendment changed nothing. As I said before, if someone has underlying conditions, is undergoing treatments or has contracted other sicknesses that would make them more susceptible to COVID-19, then they would have already qualified for the coverage in Bill C-2, because it included anyone needing to self-isolate for reasons related to COVID-19.
The NDP amendment changed nothing but the title of the bill. The whole exercise was little more than political smoke and mirrors with the Prime Minister and Jagmeet Singh both pretending that the NDP won something.
In reality, Justin Trudeau managed to buy the support of the NDP for a bargain-basement price, since he obtained it without actually giving them anything beyond phony bragging rights.
In return, the Prime Minister dodged an election and came up with a narrative that made it sound like the Conservatives would have stalled the bill so he was forced to do a side deal with the NDP and then ram it through Parliament.
In reality, it was the Conservatives — and the Conservatives alone — that were pressing to work through the weekend and get this legislation done so there would be no hiccups, but the government refused.
The Prime Minister likes to say he wants to help Canadians but then he doesn’t want to put in the work needed to get the job done on time. He knew full well that CERB was winding down in a few days and that Canadians were rightfully anxious about it, but he was happy to shut down Parliament for the weekend, go home and start the legislative process all over again on Monday with a new bill.
Colleagues, the only reason this bill was not passed weeks ago was because of this government’s incompetence. Everything in this legislation could have been completed long before the end of August without all the drama.
Consider what happened. On August 18, Justin Trudeau announced he was proroguing Parliament. He claimed that he needed to launch a new legislative session that focused on the next phase of Canada’s response to COVID-19.
Here’s what he said:
We need a mandate from this Parliament to move forward on implementing these ambitious ideals. And it’s important that we have an opportunity to debate it.
What ambitious ideals? There was nothing new in his Throne Speech. It was all regurgitated from previous announcements. The Prime Minister did not need a new mandate. He already has one and it’s exactly the same as the old one. Get to work.
Quit hiding out in your cottage or your bungalow. Quit stalling and quit playing political games. Quit obstructing the investigations into your multiple scandals. Quit shutting down Parliament. Maybe even work over the weekend if that’s what is required to get the job done. But instead, the PM shutters Parliament on August 18.
Then two days later on August 20, the government suddenly announces a suite of new COVID recovery benefits to replace CERB, which was coming to an end on September 26. There was only one problem. Parliament is already prorogued until September 23. As you all know, but the Prime Minister apparently forgot, a prorogued Parliament cannot pass legislation necessary to implement those new benefits.
This meant that Parliament would stand idle for five long weeks while the clock was ticking down. And when it finally resumed, the Liberal government introduced new legislation in a panic, insisting that the opposition must pass it immediately.
However, when the Conservatives agreed to work with the government and offered to sit through the weekend to get the job done, the government refused. Instead, they took the weekend off, did a little side deal with the NDP, introduced new legislation after the weekend and then invoked time allocation to ram it through.
When the Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland was in this chamber yesterday, she left the clear impression that Bill C-4 sailed through the House of Commons and passed with everyone holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” She said:
It was actually a remarkably collegial, even friendly and convivial atmosphere. We joked across the aisle, and ultimately there was unanimous support for the bill.
Senator Harder has alluded to that two or three times in this chamber.
I’m not sure where the minister was during the debates but they were hardly convivial.
When the bill finally got to the floor of the House of Commons, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez said, “It is time for action. It is a time of urgency,” and invoked closure with the help of the NDP. Is that what the Minister of Finance calls “collegial.”
Every party except the NDP was outraged. After shutting down Parliament for five weeks, the Liberals have the gall to up and inform the house that they are ramming a $41-billion piece of legislation through with four and a half hours of debate because “it’s urgent.”
This is unbelievable, colleagues. And even some Liberals are waking up to the fact that this is not the proper way to conduct the business of the nation.
In response to The Globe and Mail story entitled “Federal Liberals move to shut down debate on billions in pandemic-related spending”, former Liberal MP Andrew Leslie tweeted:
I wonder what the great Prime Ministers . . . of the past might think. During the entirety of the Second World War, neither the British . . . nor the Canadian . . . PMs ever sought to limit debate, especially on matters involving financial appropriations.
For once, I fully agree with a Liberal. And it took only 70 years for me to do that so I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the next time.
Colleagues, I’m not sure if the Liberal government understands how things function. There is a better way. If the Liberals wanted to get the legislation passed, all they needed to do was show up for work. And if they wanted to consider an NDP amendment to the legislation, there is an existing venue for that as well. It’s called Parliament.
Why does this government insist on doing backroom deals instead of having a fulsome public debate? Why does this government constantly skirt around any accountability by limiting how often Parliament sits, shutting down committees, proroguing Parliament and moving the debate on important bills into backrooms. Why is everything a rush and nobody seems to know what is going on from one day to the next?
We were here just last week and the Government Representative in the Senate decided that we did not have any government business to attend to. He insisted there was no reason to sit until October 5 and a motion to adjourn was passed accordingly. Two days later, colleagues, the Speaker of the Senate was forced to reverse that decision and call the Senate back for September 30.
Yesterday, we saw this play out again. Senator Gold struggled to answer a simple question from Senator Tannas about how confident he was that this chamber will not be called back before October 27 to pass some emergency measure. Senator Gold was unable to provide us any such reassurance.
You might ask, “How can the government leader in the Senate not know what the government is doing? How could he not know last week that there was some urgency to Bill C-2 and that the expectation of the government was to pass it this week?”
Colleagues, I’m glad you asked, because I can answer. It’s because this government is incompetent and despite his very best efforts, Senator Gold cannot change that. I suspect that the reason we are told one thing on Thursday and another thing on Friday is because Senator Gold is being told one thing on Thursday and another thing on Friday. It’s not because Senator Gold changed his mind; it’s because the Prime Minister cannot make up his mind.
This government reminds me of a news story I read recently about a driver in Alberta who blew through a police radar at 150 kilometres per hour in a 110 kilometre per hour zone.
What was even more alarming was that the police officer could not see anyone driving the vehicle as it sped past. Apparently, the driver had put his Tesla on autopilot, reclined his seat and decided to have a snooze. It wasn’t until the police officer pulled up behind him and turned on his siren that the driver woke up and realized what was going on.
This is frightening, colleagues.
It’s bad enough when someone falls asleep behind the wheel, but when a person actually makes the decision to check out for a while and have a little nap while he is rocketing down the highway in a 2,100-kilogram vehicle, that person should not be driving at all.
That is how I feel about this government. It’s like they are hurtling down the highway and the prime minister is fast asleep behind the wheel, completely unaware that he’s about the hit gravel at 150 kilometres per hour. The only problem is we’re all along for the ride. We look out the window and see the asphalt is coming to an end up ahead and wonder, “Is anyone paying attention?”
Colleagues, it’s not just that CERB was coming to an end while the government was asleep at the wheel. The clock was winding down on other measures as well. For example, the spending authority for COVID measures was due to expire on September 30. The spout where the money comes from was about to be shut off because the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act was about to be automatically repealed.
You may recall Bill C-13, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act, included section 10, which said the following:
The Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act is repealed.
Section 11 then said:
Section 10 comes into force on September 30, 2020.
Section 10 repealed the Act, but section 11 determined that section 10 would not come into force until the end of September.
This was the sunsetting portion of the bill that was written into the legislation after the Liberals got caught trying to give themselves unilateral power to tax and spend without parliamentary approval until the end of 2021.
I have no idea when the government realized that they were missing an important deadline, but at some point someone must have flipped the siren on and the government woke up.
You see, the problem was that despite their enthusiasm about spending taxpayers’ money, the government was not going to get it all out of the door before the deadline. There was still $17.14 billion that needed to be dispersed. Now, even I am shocked that, when given six months to spend $325 billion, the big-spending Liberals could not pull it off and needed more time to write the cheques. Be that as it may, section 11 of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act posed a problem for the Liberals. On September 30, it was going to activate the coming-into-force of section 10, which would repeal the entire act, leaving the remaining $17 billion unspent because the government would now be without parliamentary spending authority.
The legislative summary for Bill C-4 provided by the government says:
A failure to extend the legislation would disrupt these payments, with harmful consequences for people’s lives, families and businesses. Specifically:
• Payments for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit would no longer reach Canadians;
• Payments for critical orders of personal protective equipment (PPE) would be put at risk; and
• Safe Restart Agreement funding for provinces and territories to support testing, contact tracing, and PPE would be delayed.
Obviously, this little oversight had to be addressed, so Part 3 of Bill C-2 — now Bill C-4 — was drafted to include clause 12, which reads as follows:
Section 11 of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act is replaced by the following:
11 Section 10 comes into force on December 31, 2020.
This clause would postpone the existing repeal date and give the government what it needed to keep spending the money allocated, provided Bill C-4 received Royal Assent prior to September 30.
Now, the problem was that because the government had dithered so long with a completely unnecessary prorogation, they didn’t know if they could get the bill passed to postpone the repeal before the clock ran out.
They needed a plan B just in case they needed the September 30 deadline because, if they did miss the deadline, then by the time Bill C-4 was being passed the Payments Act would have already been repealed.
In the event that happened, they needed to figure out how to un-repeal the repeal without endangering the postponement of their original repeal, just in case the bill actually did not pass before September 30 and the repeal was already postponed.
Does your head hurt yet? That’s not COVID. That’s what happens when this government is asleep at the wheel.
I’m not sure if I should send kudos or sympathies to the government lawyers who worked on Part 3 of this bill, but the government’s inability to do something right the first time, and their inability to do it on time the second time, meant their lawyers had to perform legislative acrobatics to get the job done and cover off the various possibilities.
In case they missed the September deadline, they added subclause 13(2) which reads as follows:
If this Act receives Royal Assent after September 30, 2020, then
(a) the headings before section 10 of this Act and sections 10 to 12 of this Act are replaced by the following:
Colleagues, I’m not going to take time to wade through everything that follows that subclause because, first of all, it will make your head explode, and, secondly, you have the bill in front of you. But what happens next is that the act goes on to provide new text that will replace the old text on the previous page of the same act in the event that the date of the repeal has come and gone before this bill is passed.
In other words, because of this government’s incompetence they had to introduce legislation to amend legislation that included an amendment to amend the proposed amendment, even before it is amended.
This is what happens when you don’t show up for work. Things get complicated.
Colleagues, it was not just the payment authority provided by the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act that was repealed on September 30. There is a long list of amendments that were made by Bill C-13 that was automatically repealed at the end of September. They’ve already happened.
For example, Bill C-13, the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act, amended the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation Act to allow the Minister of Finance to increase the deposit insurance coverage limit. This amendment was repealed on September 30.
Bill C-13 also amended the Export Development Act to permit the Minister of Finance to determine the amount of EDC’s authorized capital, as well as certain limits applicable to EDC. This amendment was repealed on September 30.
The amendment to the Financial Administration Act, which authorized the Minister of Finance to borrow money for certain payments without the authorization of the Governor-in-Council, was repealed.
The commissioner’s ability under the Patent Act to:
. . . authorize the Government of Canada and any person specified in a patent application to make, construct, use and sell a patented invention to the extent necessary to respond to the public health emergency . . .
— was also repealed.
The amendments to the Canada Student Loans Act and the Canada Student Financial Assistance Act and the Apprentice Loans Act, which provided that no interest was payable on student loans and no amounts on the principal or interest was to be required by the borrower, were also repealed, and the temporary ability of the minister to make interim orders was repealed.
Colleagues, I have no idea if the government intended to allow all of these amendments to be repealed or not. Because when you keep seeing the speeding car go by with no one at the wheel, you begin to lose confidence that there is actually someone paying attention.
We will know soon enough what the government missed, however, by what “emergency” legislation they rush into Parliament next in order to paper over their latest lack of oversight and planning. Based on this government’s track record of incompetence and disdain for Parliament, I would not be surprised if that legislation arrives sooner rather than later.
Colleagues, the incompetence of this government concerns me greatly. When you factor in that it is doing deals with the NDP in order to stay in power, my concern is amplified.
We already have a government that has no regard for deficits, debt or budgets. It has no understanding that every penny it spends must come from taxpayers sooner or later, that government debt is everyone’s debt, and that jobs are created by businesses not government. It doesn’t understand the difference between an investment and an expenditure. It is economically illiterate, and it thinks that it can spend with impunity.
This government appears willing to let Jagmeet Singh be the prime minister any time it is necessary to keep the government in office for a little while longer.
Colleagues, the Liberal governments were bad enough when they were governing from the centre. This government has moved so far to the left that they are now driving on the wrong side of the road. The only thing worse than a driver who is asleep behind the wheel is one that is asleep and driving on the wrong side of the road.
Today we will be voting on a bill that will add more than $41 billion to our national debt, and yet the government has not provided us with either a budget or a fiscal plan. The only snapshot we received was released 87 days ago by the Finance Minister, who has since been fired. Today we will be voting on a bill that will release $17 billion in assistance for Canadians who need this money; spending that was previously approved by Parliament but left stranded because of this government’s disdain for Parliament. These things concern many of us.
In spite of them, today the Conservatives will be allowing — in answer to Senator Harder’s comments — this bill to pass because it contains benefits that are vital to Canadians, but we have concerns, colleagues. As Senator Martin pointed out, passing something on division does not mean we are opposed to the principle of what we have to do. Canadians need this money. However, I will answer Senator Harder’s questions, and yes, we will be passing this on division, clearly.
The government ran out the clock before this bill even arrived in this chamber. In the last two days, not a single penny of COVID-19 emergency spending authorized under the Public Health Events of National Concern Payments Act has moved due to the mismanagement of this government. Not a single penny can flow under the new benefits until this bill receives Royal Assent. We, the Conservatives, will not stand in the way of this. We will help get this out the door.
Honourable senators, one thing is clear: This pandemic is bad enough in itself, but its impact on Canadians has been multiplied by the incompetence and disdain for Parliament demonstrated by this Liberal government. That, colleagues, is truly regrettable. Thank you.
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-4 at third reading. First, I want to thank our colleague Senator Dean for taking on the task of sponsoring this piece of legislation.
Colleagues, here we are considering another piece of legislation — the seventh piece, according to Senator Harder — introduced to address the COVID-19 pandemic. I think back to the first pieces of legislation that built on existing program structures, then the next pieces of legislation that created new programs and income supports for individuals and businesses, then again to another round of legislation fixing the gaps and extending these new programs. Now we have another bill to fix, further extend and create new support programs in an effort that will hopefully take us to the end of the pandemic.
The legislation before us provides details of a support plan first announced by the government in August. The termination of the CERB on September 26 would have left many Canadians without support, and this bill will fill the gap for many who would not otherwise have been covered by Employment Insurance. Bill C-4 is an omnibus bill that implements a variety of benefits programs meant to carry Canadians through the foreseeable future of the pandemic. Included are the Canadian recovery benefit, which provides 26 weeks of support at $500 a week for those experiencing unemployment or underemployment; the Canada recovery sickness benefit, which ensures all Canadians have access to sick leave; and the Canada recovery caregiving benefit, amounting to $500 per household to support those caring for family members with COVID or children who cannot attend school or daycare due to the virus.
In addition to benefits programs, the legislation includes amendments to the Canada Labour Code that facilitate sick leave in the case that an individual or someone in their family contracts COVID-19. With the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and the uneven economic recovery, it is inevitable that this legislation will not provide support for everyone in need, nor indeed for everyone affected by the pandemic. Still, it is very much needed and it is worthy of our support.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis and an economic crisis. All Canadians have had their lives changed. People have given up seeing family and friends, given up life in the public space, given up going to movies, restaurants, cultural events and travel. Canadians have had to work from home, practice physical distancing, wear masks and more. But while we all have been affected in some way, the most vulnerable among us have suffered the most, both from the health crisis and the economic crisis. Young people have lost opportunities that they have worked so hard for. Those in the service sector — especially retail and hospitality — many in low-wage jobs, including many women, have lost their jobs. Seniors in long-term care have suffered disproportionate loss of life. Where data are available, we have learned that racial minorities have experienced higher levels of virus infection; so too have those in low-income households and those living in crowded spaces, as well as essential workers, many in low-wage situations. COVID-19 has not been the great equalizer, it has rather made existing inequalities worse.
Now we are trying to build back and build back better, as the government so often says, even as we battle the second wave of infections. The Speech from the Throne last week outlined a great many measures. The government promised to invest in health care, create 1 million jobs, direct funding toward housing and infrastructure, and inject capital into many other areas of the economy. Two commitments there caught my attention, specifically the promises related to long-term care and the promises related to child care. On long-term care, the Governor General stated that:
. . . one of the greatest tragedies of this pandemic is the lives lost in long-term care homes. Elders deserve to be safe, respected, and live in dignity.
In our study into the government’s response to the pandemic at the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, we heard calls for improved training, better salaries, more staff, and better monitoring and oversight in senior care facilities across Canada. We also heard from experts that the federal government should create change by making funding to the provinces contingent upon improved regulations, standards and information sharing. I was pleased to hear in the speech that the federal government intends to work with the provinces and territories to set new national standards for long-term care and also do more to ensure that Canada’s elderly stay in their homes longer.
With regard to child care, I was also pleased to hear the Governor General announce that:
. . . the Government will make a significant, long-term, sustained investment to create a Canada-wide early learning and childcare system.
Honourable senators, it has been 50 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada made it clear that access to affordable child care is one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of women’s economic equality. When the numbers have come out in recent months, the reality of that inequality was laid out very plainly. Women represented 70% of the job losses in Canada among workers aged 25 to 54 this past March. As recently as June, mothers of school-aged children were less likely to be employed when compared to fathers of school-aged children. While a national child care strategy is not a silver bullet, it is a terrific start, as are programs like the Canada recovery caregiving benefit, which acknowledge that women disproportionately play the role of family caregivers.
Meaningful change will require federal leadership. It is incumbent upon the federal government to ensure that any agreements they reach with the provinces, in return for federal dollars, set standards for these programs, including better information collection and sharing across jurisdictions, monitoring and even sanctions.
The recent arrangements made with the provinces in the Safe Restart Agreement in return for $19 billion in federal funds do not inspire me with confidence. As mentioned earlier in my question to Senator Gold, I have looked at these agreements. For example, when it comes to long-term care, I see some mention of increased staffing levels in some of the agreements, but I do not see mention of the standards that are so needed and that have been called for by experts to ensure health and safety in seniors and long-term-care facilities. So that is one tremendous concern that I have when I look at those agreements.
Here is another concern: When it comes to data management in long-term care, across the health domains that are of interest to the federal government and in the domains to which they have directed federal dollars, I see some mentions of data-sharing across the provinces but no mention of sharing with the federal government, with the exception of the case of one province, British Columbia.
The federal government is funding data-sharing but seems not to be getting any data for its important purposes. That is what I see when I look at these agreements. Furthermore, I do not see in these agreements the ability to monitor results. I also see no sanctions or penalties if a province fails to act in respect of these agreements.
Maybe there is fine print. I would be very happy to be proven wrong, because I want to see change, believe me.
Without these provisions, how can we be confident we will indeed improve these programs, help those people in need and build back better? Senators, I support the legislation before us today, but let us not lose sight of how to achieve the significant and long-term change that we seek. Thank you very much.
Honourable senators, I would like to begin by extending my deepest condolences to the family of Joyce Echaquan, especially to this young mother’s seven children, and to the Atikamekw of Manawan community.
I was born and raised in Joliette, and I worked for many years at the hospital where Ms. Echaquan died. I am shocked at what happened, and it fills me with sadness.
Ms. Echaquan was a seriously ill woman in need of medical care and compassion, but she was treated with contempt and disdain because she was an Indigenous woman. Racism like that is unacceptable. Sadly, it is an expression of deeper systemic racism. The whole truth about this incident must come out. Let us hope it will result in changed attitudes and genuine reconciliation.
Now I would like to comment briefly on the context surrounding the passage of Bill C-4.
Since June 2019, the Senate has seen its activities substantially reduced. The summer recess was followed by a general election, a slow recall of Parliament and the pandemic. As a result, this chamber has sat for only 128 hours over 32 days since June 2019. During the same period, the House of Commons has sat for 344 hours over 50 days. At the committee level, the differences are even more striking.
COVID-19, the dynamics of the minority government in the other place and our inability to reach consensus on ways to carry out our functions in the previous session have transformed — momentarily, I hope — our institution into what the leader of the Canadian Senators Group, Senator Tannas, has rightly described as a rubber-stamp body. We need hybrid sittings as a step to resume our regular functions with the full participation of all senators.
Unfortunately, we are once again being asked to ratify this bill speedily without holding long debates or undertaking a thorough parliamentary committee analysis. This is a major bill for expenditures in excess of $51 billion.
I guess I am close to agreeing with Senators Martin and Plett on this. Maybe it’s because I come from Joliette, the home riding of Roch La Salle, a family friend.
During the first wave of the pandemic, the government had to support Canadians by rapidly implementing temporary benefits such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB, and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, or CESB. Unfortunately, CERB was not coordinated with EI, which caused glitches in the system. This meant that workers who were eligible for EI were applying for CERB instead, since it provided $500 a week for up to 26 weeks, whereas payments from EI would have been lower and also taxed at the source.
CESB also contained a startling clause. A student who earned $1,001 in a one-month period would lose the entire $1,500 benefit, whereas a student who earned $999 would keep the whole thing. Furthermore, in practice, these two benefits had an adverse impact on employment. In Quebec, staff at long-term care homes quit their jobs so they could claim CERB.
Employers in the restaurant sector could not recruit enough student workers this summer, so they had to reduce their business hours. Business groups across the country complained of similar unintended consequences, and Senator Martin also talked about them.
In this regard, we can learn some lessons from what happened south of the border. There, the U.S. Department of Labor provides unemployment benefits to eligible workers who become unemployed through a joint state-federal program. Each state administers a separate unemployment insurance program, but all states must follow the federal guidelines.
In response to the pandemic, Congress adopted various measures, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Pursuant to this legislation and the billions of dollars attached to it, states are providing pandemic unemployment assistance up to the end of this year to individuals who are self-employed, seeking part-time employment or who otherwise would not qualify for regular unemployment compensation. Like regular unemployment benefits, individuals receiving assistance must act upon any referrals for suitable employment. In other words, it is intended to provide coverage during a temporary lack of work, as an integral part of the tools available to manage the labour market during the pandemic.
On the other hand, in Canada, CERB and CESB were launched without much coordination with the provinces and lack a requirement to accept suitable employment, or a strong incentive to work or improve skills. The programs were not conceived as part of a larger framework designed to provide access to skills, training and unemployment supports to help the beneficiaries to get back to work.
As our unemployment rate went up from 5.5% in January to 13.7% in May, close to 9 million Canadians applied for CERB, and about 8.6 million received it at one point from the Canada Revenue Agency, helping them to pay their bills during a challenging time and reducing stress on millions of families.
Because of the features that I just described, some have seen in CERB nothing but a fiscal measure to support income. Many, including members of this chamber, have been advocating the replacement of the CERB, which is soon coming to an end, with either a universal basic income for all Canadians regardless of income level, or, at least, a guaranteed minimum income for Canadians below a certain income level.
In July, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated the cost of a guaranteed basic income for a six-month period starting this October at between $46 billion and $96 billion, depending on the applicable reduction rate. These costs could be offset by approximately $15 billion by repealing all existing federal and provincial refundable and non-refundable tax credits, such as the caregiver tax credit, the disability tax credit and the GST credit.
The response of the premiers to the Speech from the Throne has clearly indicated that provincial governments would oppose any federal initiative designed to replace or alter the social programs they currently run. As Senator Harder said last night, Canada is a federation, and one of our functions is to represent our provinces and regions in this federal Parliament.
In my view, putting in place a guaranteed income is not a realistic option without provincial participation, except maybe for Aboriginal peoples. However, a major reform of the Employment Insurance system is within the sole bailiwick of the federal government.
In the Speech from the Throne, the government recognized that this pandemic has shown that Canada needs an EI system for the 21st century, including for the self-employed and those in the gig economy.
As pointed out by many experts and economists, including our colleague, Senator Bellemare, it must be acknowledged that the EI system has become overly restrictive and is incapable of responding to emergencies that significantly affect employment in Canada.
In the Speech from the Throne, the government also announced that, over the coming months, the Employment Insurance system will become the sole delivery mechanism for employment benefits, including for workers who would not have qualified for EI before the pandemic. This is a very important announcement for the Canadian gig economy.
Honourable senators, we should be proactive in this area through studies and committee hearings with experts in order to suggest an appropriate process and to consider options.
In my opinion, such a reform should not be left to the executive, subject only to negotiations between a minority government and one or two dancing partners in the House of Commons.
Incidentally, through recent changes in regulations, the government has already amended the Employment Insurance system in order to transition no fewer than 2.8 million Canadians from CERB to EI benefits.
The so-called simplified EI program provides for the following temporary measures: to help claimants reach the minimum threshold for EI, they are given a one-time credit of 300 insurable hours for claims for regular benefits — job loss — and 480 insurable hours for claims for special benefits such as sickness, maternity and/or parental leave, compassionate care — in other words, only 120 hours of work are now required to qualify; the minimum EI benefit is increased to $500 per week to align with the expiring CERB and the new Canada recovery benefit; workers are entitled to at least 26 weeks of regular benefits; the use of a minimum employment rate of 13.1% for all economic regions in order to lower the hours required to qualify, a measure effective for one year, starting on August 9, 2020; and a freeze of employees’ and employers’ premium rates at the 2020 level.
Overall, these measures represent an additional charge to the EI system of over $10 billion.
In addition, the government will add $1.5 billion to the $3.4 billion already provided to provinces and territories under the Labour Market Development Agreements and the Workforce Development Agreements in 2020-21 to retain workers. The government will also significantly scale up the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy to provide more paid experience next year for young Canadians.
Finally, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy paid to employers is also extended right through next summer.
Clearly, the whole government strategy is now focused on labour market recovery and the creation of new jobs. Unfortunately, a second wave of COVID-19 is striking Canadians while the reform of Employment Insurance is just beginning.
Hence, Bill C-4, which, as stated by Senator Dean yesterday, provides for the three temporary benefits of $500 per week: a Canada recovery benefit to workers who are self-employed or not eligible for EI and who cannot work due to COVID, or those whose income has dropped by at least 50%; a Canada recovery sickness benefit for workers who are sick and must self-isolate; and a Canada recovery caregiving benefit for Canadians unable to work because of the need to attend to a child or a relative.
The cost of these three new temporary benefits are significant: $24 billion for the CRB only.
Thank you. Contrary to the previous temporary benefits, the new ones are clearly linked to the labour market. For example, Canadians receiving the new CRB must be available and looking for work and must accept work where it is reasonable to do so.
I am also glad to see that Bill C-4 provides for a gradual reduction of the CRB beyond a certain level of earned salary instead of a complete loss of benefits. This should be an incentive for self-employed individuals and other workers to focus on resuming work, including part-time, as soon as possible.
On a final point, I am wondering whether single self-employed individuals whose incomes have fallen by $40,000 or $50,000 over the past few months will still be able to collect benefits. I’m not convinced that this expense is absolutely necessary, and a committee study could have explored that further.
To sum up, honourable senators, just like all the parties in the House of Commons, I do support the passage of this bill, but not without lamenting the fact that the government did not give us an opportunity to examine it carefully. In that respect, I support the arguments made by many of my Conservative caucus colleagues, with whom it has not taken me seven years to agree.
I urge you to pass Bill C-4, which will give Canadians the legislation they need, and I hope we can move quickly and decisively toward a comprehensive reform of Canada’s employment insurance system to bring it in line with the new economy.
Let’s make sure the Senate and its deliberations create added value. The government needs this. As we have seen, some programs appear to have been put together on the fly. The government needs the Senate’s sober second thought.
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-4. While I agree that Canadians need support and do not want to stand in the way of millions of Canadians getting the help they need to survive this pandemic, I must join colleagues in this chamber and the other place in lamenting the speed at which we have been made to consider this bill. Yesterday’s cursory discussion of the bill in Committee of the Whole left many questions unasked or unanswered. Like others, I would have preferred not to have had Parliament prorogued for six weeks this summer so we could have given close consideration to the programs and policy changes that are required to truly support Canadians.
This help goes far beyond the $500 per week stopgap and the 10 days of sick leave that are being proposed. The COVID measures we need to be talking about, the ones that I wish were a part of this bill, are the ones that look at restarting our economy. I would have liked to see measures that address the needs of business owners and employers in this country, and in Nunavut in particular, who need federal support to stay afloat or keep their people employed.
I know that many Canadians would prefer to make their full salary rather than try to survive off of $2,000 per month, which does not go far when you have to factor in rent, groceries and utilities. Goods are getting more expensive due to interruptions in the supply chain, while the prices of services are rising due to the increased costs of doing business in a pandemic. The bills add up, and people need to have the ability to make a livable wage.
Some work has been done to fill the gap. The Government of Nunavut and local hamlets have worked hard with Nunavut employers to help ensure that Nunavummiut are supported during these difficult and uncertain times.
But seeing as the territory is made up of 25 fly-in-only communities, Nunavut has mandated that only Nunavut residents and essential service workers may enter the territory. It is mandatory to isolate for 14 days in an approved designated facility before flying North, with very few exceptions for essential workers. We understand that. With our desperate housing situation, lack of resources and infrastructure and a disproportionately high percentage of underlying health conditions among the population, the spread of COVID-19 in our communities could be devastating. That is why mining companies have had to require Nunavut residents working at their sites to stay home.
Most of these companies have continued to generously pay a percentage of the wages for Nunavummiut, understanding the importance for them to continue to provide for their families. They have even worked out wage-sharing programs and new community work programs with hamlets to enable employees to make their full salaries, and many Nunavut mine workers have even had to move south to keep their jobs on a fly-in basis.
While inventive and laudable, it shouldn’t be necessary for companies to bear this burden alone. Different sectors and different regions need different types of supports. We must do the work required to ensure that the decisions we make in Ottawa meet the needs of various businesses around the country.
This is why I launched a survey last week for Nunavut businesses. I am doing the work to ensure that the government hears directly from businesses across the territories. We need to know what is working, what’s not working and what else is needed.
I am already gaining valuable insight, like the fact that the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund and CanNor support for businesses in the territories are the most accessed federal supports. However, I am also learning that there is an average decline of 60% in revenue among respondents, and while some were able to access these programs, many were not due to not meeting requirements, being considered too high risk for loan programs or a cumbersome and unduly bureaucratic application process.
This type of quantitative data is crucial to smart policy decisions, and I would like to thank Senators Anderson and Bovey for offering to launch similar surveys in their regions. I think that it will help immensely in giving a snapshot of the types of barriers to survival being faced by northern businesses.
One sector that I already know is facing extreme hardship, which I mentioned in Question Period today, is the hotel industry. It cannot be overlooked that these entities are either Indigenous-owned or provide much-needed jobs and security to the Indigenous people of the North.
In the case of Arctic Co-operatives Limited, for instance, their hotels are spread out over 20 communities in Nunavut and N.W.T. In 2017, the co-op paid $32.5 million in wages and benefits, and co-op businesses paid $8 million in patronage dividends to more than 65,000 local co-op members. In Nunavut, this is directly supporting and benefitting Inuit.
Yet despite their importance to the Nunavut economy, hotels are facing the need to permanently shut down. The strict travel restrictions that I mentioned earlier and the lack of inter-territorial travel — which is generally prohibitively expensive anyway — have led to unsustainable vacancy rates. Appeals for help to the federal government have not resulted in any meaningful action.
The fact is, colleagues, that while some sectors have received support, such as the airline industry — and I am grateful for federal and territorial support for vital northern air carriers — there are still many sectors of our economy that are hurting. In addition to the struggling hotels, there are non-revenue-generating companies that have been unable to access any federal support. There are small businesses that have had to close. There are small outfitters and tourist businesses in Nunavut that are unsure if they will ever return to pre-COVID revenues.
These are the Canadians that I wish we were able to help today. These are the types of measures that I wish we could debate as part of this bill. But sadly, we only have Band-Aid solutions.
When the Senate last met to consider these COVID-related programs, I spoke of the expressed need I had often heard from Nunavut employers who were having difficulties finding workers. They told me that there must be incentives to work built into the program. Finally, the government has listened, and those concerns are reflected in this bill, namely the requirement that recipients be ready to accept reasonable employment when it is offered.
I also lamented that despite there being many deserving applicants in Nunavut, loose eligibility criteria and a lack of vigilance for fraudulent applications have actually had documented negative social impacts, especially for persons vulnerable to addictions. This has finally been addressed up front in the bill, as Senator Dean outlined yesterday.
Support in the amount of $2000 a month may be an immediate help, but it is not a long-term solution. Canadians need to know that they can go back to work and enjoy the same financial security that they did before the pandemic. What are we doing to give them back that comfort? How will we save their businesses and get their employees earning their full wages again?
Honourable senators, I wish that these were the questions we were answering with this bill, but sadly, they are not. I will vote in support of this bill, but I protest that these other measures are not a part of it.
Colleagues, as we gather to hastily adopt Bill C-4 in a brand-new legislative session, we cannot forget the dire point in time in which we find ourselves. The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading like forest fires throughout Canada, something that has been a certitude since last March. We should have been better prepared for the next waves, and we could have avoided more infections and deaths.
Long-term care facilities bore the brunt of the first wave of the pandemic in Canada, with more than 70 per cent of deaths occurring in those over the age of 80, about twice the average rate of other developed countries. Letting our elderly people continue to die may one day be considered criminal negligence or willful ignorance, and they are not the only victims of our inability to truly plan long-term care. We are also failing at taking long-term care of the natural living systems that keep us all alive and healthy.
Bill C-4 will provide new, welcomed sick leave and a recovery benefit for independent workers as well as extend emergency support measures. As we adopt the eighth emergency legislation to date to address the pandemic, I note the change in key words used in each piece of legislation. Back in March, we were in emergency-response mode, whereas Bill C-4 concerns itself, at last, with recovery, starting with the creation of the Canada recovery benefit to support the employment system.
I am heartened that Bill C-4 extends specific funds for some of the most vulnerable among us, like the homeless, temporary foreign workers, Indigenous communities and food banks, to name a few. But those earning less than $5,000 per year, the poorest among us — whom we can see very close by on Rideau Street — will still fall through the cracks. Hopefully, the government will finally conclude and seize the opportunity to establish a permanent, guaranteed livable income as an efficient way to integrate financial assistance that covers everybody, as more than 50 senators under the leadership of Senators Pate and Lankin have been advocating for since the beginning of the crisis. That call was then echoed by the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance in its interim report on the COVID-19 economic response, which recommended that the government study the concept.
Undeniably, COVID-19 is providing time and context for in-depth reflections about fundamental questions: how did we get to this point, how do we prevent future pandemics, how do we reset our economy to be resilient and how do we infuse future generations with hope?
Prime Minister Trudeau said in April that just because we are dealing with a health crisis it does not mean we can neglect the environmental crisis. In the spring, we found out that a new group of ministers had been created to deliberate on the economic recovery. The Economic and Fiscal Snapshot of July 8 states the following:
This is an opportunity for Canada to build back better through investments in a strong, inclusive and green recovery . . . .
In the Speech from the Throne, the government mostly repeated its old commitments, promising that there would be a plan in a few months. Indeed, we must have a detailed plan with clear deadlines and objectives along with a budget organizational chart. How can they claim to want to build infrastructure without a plan or resources? How will they convince skeptics without showing them the positive economic, social and environmental benefits or even how any of this will be paid for? By doing things this way, the government is giving skeptics, polluters and corporate profiteers an opportunity to obstruct the transition to a low-carbon economy and the development of a 21st century industry and workforce, delaying and jeopardizing the progress, competitiveness and prosperity of Canadians relative to the advances being made in other developed countries.
We can understand certain necessary measures to protect the environment, public health and human rights being put on hold during a global pandemic, but how do they explain that the actions making matters worse are still going ahead?
As a reaction to the Throne Speech, students and workers across the country took to the streets last Friday to protest the federal government’s slow action on their earlier green promises.
A group of more than 100 economists and energy experts from across Canada, including Canada Research Chairs, a former National Energy Board economist and the former chair of BC Hydro, have recently sent letters to the federal government outlining their concerns about the economic viability of the now $12.6 billion Trans Mountain expansion project in light of COVID-19.
According to The Globe and Mail, the government has never provided a public cost-benefit analysis to justify one of the largest public investments it has made to date, at a time when international actors have already realized how risky those investments are.
Colleagues, we must do more to address the social injustices revealed and aggravated by COVID-19.
When we come back, we need to study, and hopefully adopt, specific policies to address the growing wealth inequality in this country, which has only worsened during the crisis. Since the March 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, the total wealth of the 20 richest Canadians has increased by $37 billion. The latest polling indicates 82% of Canadians believe that the wealth of Canada’s richest is better off or has not been impacted by the pandemic, while most think the economic and social well-being of youth, racialized Canadians and women have been negatively impacted, and that it is at least important to create or increase taxes for the richest Canadians to recover from the COVID-19 crisis cost.
We can build on the political will of the last few years to increase taxes on the 1% to finally address tax loopholes and tax havens through which we lose billions in tax revenues every year, billions which could help pay for a fair recovery.
From calculations based on a recent report of the Parliamentary Budget Officer on wealth distribution, a 10% tax on the 13,800 households with wealth above $20 million would yield $56.1 billion in revenue in its first year, and could repay the entire COVID-19 direct emergency funding to date in less than five years. This crisis is an opportunity to robustly implement tax justice and pay for the recovery without resorting to harmful austerity measures.
Bill C-4 addresses immediate needs for unemployed workers falling through the cracks of our regular social safety net, but does not offer a permanent solution and vision to support all workers on an ongoing basis and through the future waves that are very likely coming.
I challenge our government to propose revolutionary social programs that will be able to address workers’ needs in good times and in bad, without having to resort to emergency measures during the next pandemic.
I support the passage of Bill C-4. However, like many members, I am asking that you work together to seize the opportunity for change thrust upon us by this unfortunate COVID-19 crisis. Canadians’ expectations for future budgets and bills could not be any higher. Thank you, meegwetch.
Honourable senators, I didn’t intend to speak to Bill C-4, but as I listened to the debate I felt there was one group left out and thought it was my duty to stand up and speak about this group: those who come to Canada as refugees and those who are new Canadians but don’t have all the health benefits. They have fallen through the cracks. If you look at the data where mapping has been done, some of these vulnerable groups have been most impacted by COVID. It’s our duty as Canadians to keep in mind those who come looking for a better life and safety.
I realize that most often they fall through the cracks because we’re not a world bank and nobody thinks about them. But we senators look at things differently; we have a broader view and we have more, dare I say, compassion. We need to keep these groups in mind, so I thought I would bring that to your attention because I have spoken on this internationally, and people have reached out and said, yes, these groups have fallen through the cracks, unfortunately. But they are here, and what happens to them, ultimately, if they don’t have good health or if COVID is spreading among these communities, will impact all of us, so we need to keep them in mind. Thank you very much.