Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at third reading of Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits as regards coronavirus disease 2019. I’m pleased to be sponsoring this needed legislation. It will go a long way toward helping our young people pursue their educations and protecting their futures by ensuring that they can meet their day-to-day needs during this unprecedented crisis.
Before becoming a senator, I worked in education for over 35 years. I have to say that, deep down, I am still a teacher. Throughout my career, I worked with committed, conscientious students who were driven to succeed so they could pursue their post-secondary studies.
I was also aware of their living conditions and the difficulty they had making ends meet. Being in school or a post-secondary institution confers no protection whatsoever from any number of difficulties. I can easily imagine how stressed these young people are about their future in the context of this pandemic.
Colleagues, chances are that, at some point in our collective past, many of us were in the very same position as these tens of thousands of young people. These are university and college students, or recent high school graduates, who are trying to figure out how to juggle their studies and meet their financial obligations. Maybe some of us were fortunate enough to receive support from family, but we also relied on our summer employment and/or part-time employment during the school year to cover some, if not all, of the fees associated with education and the costs that come with day-to-day living.
Today, many thousands of young people see little or no immediate way forward. Jobs that were lined up no longer exist. Promised employment contracts have been rescinded. This is not their fault. COVID-19 has interrupted and threatened the lives and livelihoods of millions.
The bill before us today, Bill C-15, will authorize the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion to provide payment of a Canada Emergency Student Benefit to students who lost existing employment, are seeking work but are unable to find the work they’re looking for, are working but are paid less than the amount determined under the regulation, or have little or no prospect of employment opportunities because of the pandemic.
To meet eligibility for the CESB, Bill C-15 requires that a student be a Canadian citizen, a person registered as an Indian under the Indian Act, a permanent resident as defined in subsection 2(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, or a protected person within the meaning of subsection 95(2) of that act. He or she must be or have been enrolled at any time between December 1, 2019, and October 31, 2020, in a post-secondary educational program that leads to a degree, diploma or certificate.
Those who have graduated from secondary school in 2020, applied for enrollment in a post-secondary program scheduled to begin before February 1, 2021, and will attend if their application is accepted, are also eligible. The CESB is also available to recent graduates who completed a college or university program in December 2019 or the spring, and are unable to find work due to COVID-19.
Post-secondary students, whether employed or unemployed prior to the pandemic, are eligible for the CESB, if conditions are met. Canadian students studying abroad are also eligible if they meet one of the above criteria.
The benefit will begin now and last until August of this year.
Like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, the CERB, a student may apply for the CESB for any four-week period falling within the timeframe prescribed by regulation. However, the financial benefits of the CESB will apply only to those students and recent graduates who are not eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit or Employment Insurance.
During the four-week period for which students submit an application, they must confirm that they’re not receiving income from employment or self-employment; they’re not receiving employment insurance; and they’re not receiving allowances, money or other benefits that are paid under a provincial plan or the CERB.
Students must also demonstrate that they’re actively seeking employment. To assist with this process, the government will make available a government-managed job posting system about employment opportunities through the Canada Job Bank website. Financial incentives and support measures will be implemented in order to connect Canadians, particularly students, to the various jobs available, especially in the agriculture and agri-food sector. This will also help ensure regional economic stability and food production during this crisis.
Students who qualify for the CESB could receive $1,250 per month from May to August. Also, those eligible students with permanent disabilities, or who are responsible for dependents, could receive an additional $750 a month beyond the $1,250, equalling $2,000; the same amount as the CERB. Students will not be able to apply for the CESB after September 30, 2020, and will not receive the benefit if they apply after this date.
Once enacted, this legislation will be in effect for a limited time. In most cases, the authority to make regulations would require the Minister of Finance’s approval. Like the CERB, the Canada emergency student benefit will be administered by the Canada Revenue Agency, which will be responsible for post-audit integrity measures, such as recovering overpayments and payments made in error.
This legislation must be subjected to a thorough review of its provisions and its application. The review will be conducted by the House of Commons, by the Senate, by both Houses of Parliament, or by a committee established for that purpose. The review must be completed by September 30, 2021.
Honourable colleagues, Bill C-15 was crafted with the advice and input of all parties. It was a cooperative effort, and excellent suggestions were made by all involved. This bill is an example of what can be accomplished when working together and when the benefit of those in need is the priority.
We are talking about the sons and daughters of Canada, who are eager and anxious to accomplish their goals. Honourable senators, we can all relate to the situation in which these students find themselves. Maybe it wasn’t you personally. Maybe it was your son or daughter or a grandchild or the child of a friend. These young people must succeed educationally in order to get admittance into a college or university program, but that is only a small part of the battle. They also have the burden of fees, books, rent, groceries, everything required of them to live and learn. But now, in the midst of this pandemic, they are worried for their futures.
Many of them had found jobs, some of them right here on Parliament Hill, but we do not need parliamentary guides at the moment. There’s no work for the enthusiastic students who work near here selling tickets for guided tours of the Rideau Canal or the city of Ottawa. Hotels don’t need doormen, and restaurants aren’t looking for extra wait staff for peak season.
I am asking all of my honourable colleagues to pass Bill C-15 quickly, for all the students you know personally and for the tens of thousands of others who very much want to get back to their studies as soon as possible. After all, they are the ones who will be making an impact going forward.
Honourable colleagues, I am pleased to be with you today for this special sitting, and to see that you all seem to be healthy and doing well.
I think we can all agree that we’re in the middle of an extraordinary crisis that is devastating Canadians. The year 2020 will go down in history. The coronavirus, the invisible enemy, has infiltrated every society in the world, and Canada has not been immune to this pandemic. The virus has caused thousands of deaths in this country to date. The number of people infected continues to rise, and every sector in our society has been hit hard.
Canadians have been forced into isolation like never before. I am confident that this is the right approach. The provinces are saying that restrictions will be lifted gradually, but we must acknowledge that we’ll have to move forward by trial and error. We have never experienced this type of situation before, and as many like to say, it’s like building an airplane in mid-flight.
The primary concern of governments, naturally, is public health. Decisions have to be made based on scientific evidence, even though very little is known about this new virus. Canada has already dealt with viral outbreaks, but never to the extent we are seeing right now. There was the Spanish flu that hit several countries in 1918-19, including Canada, but never in living memory have we experienced a phenomenon like COVID-19.
People are worried and rightly so. They are worried for the seniors in their lives who are particularly affected by COVID-19, worried also about not being able to help them and reassure them in this difficult time. People are also worried about their personal finances — I will come back to that — and increasingly worried about the government’s finances.
This week, the Parliamentary Budget Officer indicated that Canada’s projected deficit for 2020-21 will be as high as $252 billion. That is unheard of. The government, together with the opposition parties, urgently adopted several aid programs for individuals and businesses. The government opened its coffers and allocated tens of billions of dollars to help Canadians get through this crisis relatively unscathed.
However, when you act too quickly and hastily, some decisions, though made in good faith, can cause problems that will affect our economy or undermine our social structures.
Take, for example, the program that offers up to $40,000 in loans to businesses. This loan, if repaid on time, will become a $30,000 loan with a $10,000 subsidy. Are we sure that all of the businesses using this program truly need it? I personally know of companies that have taken advantage of this program and that truly needed it, but I also know there are some businesses that received the loan but didn’t really need it.
Furthermore, the government has created the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, through which it is providing $2,000 a month for individuals who lose their jobs as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Several billion dollars are being injected into this exceptional measure. Are there enough safeguards to ensure that people with bad intentions do not take advantage of this new program to unfairly take money they are not entitled to?
I am certain that there will be fraudulent claims under these new programs, and I am very concerned about the government’s ability to detect them, fix the flaws and, ultimately, recover the money lost. Moreover, I anticipate that this will be such a colossal task that the government will instead resign itself to absorbing the losses, because it will be too costly to recover any misappropriated amounts.
I’m clearly among those who believe that the government must take action to support Canadians and our economy during this crisis. However, I am deeply concerned about what will happen afterwards. I believe that the challenges we are now facing are immense, but I also believe that we will face even greater challenges post-crisis.
At some point in the coming months, researchers will come up with a vaccine and medicine to treat this devastating virus. The public health crisis created by the coronavirus will then disappear.
Dear colleagues, what medicine will help us treat the looming economic crisis, which I fear will be just as devastating as COVID-19? I am more than convinced that we must begin now to think seriously about the post-crisis period.
I mentioned that people are worried about their personal finances. Everyone has personal and family obligations and it goes without saying that when we suddenly find ourselves without any income the pressure becomes unbearable. Students aren’t exempt from that reality and that’s why the government introduced Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits.
On Wednesday, the House of Commons passed the bill with amendments proposed by the opposition parties. However, before going straight into the content of this bill, I lament the fact that once again the government acted without really consulting the provinces.
For instance, the week before this bill was introduced, the Government of Quebec issued an appeal to all the students in Quebec who were unemployed because of COVID-19, calling on them to help farmers who are having a hard time filling labour shortages, because fewer temporary foreign workers are coming to work on farms in this country. To support this appeal to young people, the Government of Quebec announced additional financial compensation worth up to $100 per week for future seasonal farm workers.
The federal government’s announcement clearly doesn’t align with the provinces’ objectives, which is really unfortunate. I think the two programs could have been better aligned, in order to better incentivize more students to choose the path of helping out in our farmlands.
Canada’s fishing industry is facing the same problem, from coast to coast, as is the tourism industry. Here is some relevant information concerning Bill C-15 that helps to identify the bill’s limitations. This benefit will provide $1,250 a month for eligible students or $2,000 a month for eligible students with dependants or disabilities from May to August 2020. Students can therefore obtain up to $5,000 in benefits over the next four months without having to work.
However, in the regulations, the government is looking at how students can earn a maximum amount without penalty, but nothing is official yet. The government is working on the regulations. We have here a bill that authorizes the minister to give an amount that has yet to be determined to an undefined group of people for a duration that is still uncertain but that will not go beyond September 30, based on conditions that have yet to be determined. The unintended, negative effects of these measures are fairly predictable.
To illustrate them, let’s assume that some students would prefer to collect the Canada Emergency Response Benefit without having to work. Human nature being what it is, this is a likely scenario.
Say there’s a student who lost their job in March because of COVID-19. They qualify for the regular CERB, which provides $2,000 a month. Obviously, this student wouldn’t be eligible to receive the CESB, too. The student is offered a 40-hour-a-week minimum-wage job. Effective today, May 1, the minimum wage in Quebec goes up to $13.10 an hour. If we multiply 40 hours by the minimum wage and then multiply that by four weeks, we get a total of $2,096 per month. For this person, it’s a choice between working 40 hours a week to earn $2,096 a month, and just staying home, or presumably at their parents’ home, to hang out by the pool while collecting the $2,000 CERB.
Now let’s run the numbers for a student who qualifies for the CESB, which provides $1,250 a month. Over a four-month period, the student will collect a total of $5,000. If that student works 40 hours a week for minimum wage from mid-May to the end of August, a period of three months, they will earn a total of $6,288. That person will have to choose between working 40 hours a week for three months to earn $6,288, and hanging out by the pool, most likely at their parents’ house, while collecting a total of $5,000 over four months.
Here’s one last example of the unintended consequences of these measures, consequences that I feel the government did not adequately take into account. As I said earlier, the government is considering allowing students to earn a certain amount of money without having their CESB clawed back. Rumour has it that the magic number could be about $1,000 a month. If that’s the case, a student earning minimum wage could work 19 hours per week and collect the $1,250 Canada emergency student benefit. Let’s do the math: 19 hours per week at $13.10 an hour is $995.60 per month on top of the monthly $1,250 benefit. That means a student working just 19 hours a week would pocket $2,245.60 per month, which is $149.60 more than a student working 40 hours a week and not collecting the CESB.
These three examples are precisely why I am concerned that we’ll see a very serious labour shortage this summer when the economy picks up again. Frankly, I would like the government to tell us if it ran the numbers like I did and, if so, what measures it plans to implement to avoid such a labour shortage.
The Conservatives’ priority is to help Canadians during this crisis. That is why, when we received the government’s bill, we rolled up our sleeves, studied it and made constructive suggestions to improve it for Canadians. The House of Commons caucus in particular negotiated many changes to the bill, such as:
Requiring that the government connect all applicants to the Canada Job Bank and provide them with job availability information before applying;
Requiring parliamentary review of the legislation and benefit; and
Instituting a sunset clause so the benefit could not be extended through regulation.
No government program should be a disincentive to work for Canadians. However, we recognize that in many parts of our country the unemployment rate is extremely high because of the pandemic and a large number of jobs are just not available. Canadians, as well as students, need real help right now.
We need to be clear: The government must, to the extent possible, provide students with job opportunities and not just government assistance.
That is why we suggested that the government create a new program to match students and young workers with jobs in the agriculture and agri-food sector, as well as in the fish and seafood sectors. Much like the Canada Summer Jobs program, this program would cover minimum wage for a new student or young worker. This wage could then be topped up by the employer. Businesses that want to hire more workers this year would be able to apply for this program immediately. Employers would also be required to enforce proper workplace safety measures in order to protect all workers.
A number of businesses in the agriculture, fishing and seafood sectors rely on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, these essential sectors are facing a significant shortage of workers this year, as I mentioned earlier. If local workers can fill some of these shortages without support, Canadian producers and processors across the country will have a hard time maintaining our food supply, which is essential.
Businesses and charities are also having a hard time finding workers. The government’s programs should match Canadians with available jobs and should not simply be offering billions of dollars in assistance. Our proposal gives students the opportunity to earn money and contribute to COVID-19 response efforts.
We also took steps to ensure that Parliament conducts a thorough review of the program and included a strict deadline. We think it’s crucial that Parliament retain its role as watchdog. We need innovative ways to help our students find work and to support our food supply chain and essential services.
I’m disappointed that the government didn’t consider other ways to support our students. It would have been easy to temporarily increase funding for the Canada Summer Jobs program. This would have allowed more businesses and community organizations to benefit. More students could have earned income during the crisis while also gaining valuable work experience. We heard from organizations across the country that are saying they would like to hire students but cannot access the program.
This could have been done through loans and grants programs. With support from the provinces, the amounts available to students could have been increased for the 2020-21 school year. That would have prevented the government from giving money to the children of millionaires. Unfortunately, the government made the easiest decision it knew how, which was to throw money at the problem without considering other avenues or the consequences of the program. It could have invested in training young people, in their skills, while promoting an enriching experience that would have helped them advance in their career.
That being said, Bill C-15 is before us and the official opposition in the Senate will duly play its role and facilitate its timely passing.
Honourable senators, this bill is ostensibly about the present plight of students, but it is really about the future of our country.
It is a cliché to talk about young people as the future, but as far as clichés go, this one is hard to refute. The fact is that the cohort affected by this bill will be among the people who will rise to leadership positions across Canada in the next few decades. That is why it is so important that the current generation of future leaders emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with a renewed belief in the institutions and shared values of our country, with optimism and confidence in the future, and with the skills, experiences and aptitudes that will be needed to navigate the challenges of their lifetimes.
As our young people get ready to enter adulthood, leave school and join the workforce, Bill C-15 and all the measures taken in response to COVID-19 will shape the way they perceive their country.
They will, I hope, remember the lockdown of 2020 as a time when the country decided that science trumps politics; when collective interest supersedes self-interest; when we were aligned in our effort to not leave anyone behind; when essential workers were truly recognized as essential; and when the potential of young people was not sacrificed because of short-term economic calculation.
It is probably fitting that the young people who are experiencing their formative and pre-adult years, during COVID-19 and its aftermath, are referred to as post-Generation Z. They are also, by the way, seen as the children of Generation X or the grandchildren of Boomers, to use terminology that might resonate better with the demographic in this chamber.
If there is a term for post-Generation Z, I suppose it would be “Generation A,” which is quite appropriate if you believe that the world after COVID-19 will involve starting again from the beginning of the alphabet. Indeed, many of that generation have been calling for a reset of societal priorities even before the health crisis. But the reset that many are expecting to take place in our understanding of health and welfare, of politics, economics, the environment and international relations, may be less profound than we presume, and could be more malignant than we are hoping for. All of that will depend on how we respond to COVID-19 in the present and in the months and years ahead, and especially on how well our young people come out of this crisis.
Eschewing the normative connotations of alphabetical order, let me instead call the cohort targeted by Bill C-15 “Generation COVID,” or “GenCo,” if you like. By providing them with the means to enrol in a post-secondary educational program or to simply stay in one, we are saying to GenCo that investing in your future is an investment in Canada’s future.
It is useful that the bill requires an attestation on the part of students to declare that they are unable to find work, and that they are in fact seeking work. In this regard, the provision in the bill, whereby the minister must make available to students information about employment opportunities is helpful, as is the motion adopted in the other place, calling on the government to implement new incentives to connect students and youth to jobs in the agriculture and agri-food sector. Likewise, the yet-to-be-announced program to support volunteer activities related to COVID-19 could be an important outlet for students who receive the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, or CESB.
While not part of Bill C-15 as such, the new Canada Student Service Grant will help students gain valuable work experience and skills while they assist their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. For students who choose to do national service in their communities, the new Canada Student Service Grant will provide up to $5,000 for their education in the fall.
I am intrigued by the reference to “national service.” This is a term that has gone out of fashion in these more individualistic and cynical times. But why not? Will 2020 be the year when the idea of service to the nation regains favour? And if it took a wretched virus to bring that about, so what? We’ll take it.
It will, of course, be up to our young people to decide if they want to perform national service. And it will be up to them to rise to the challenge of imposed lockdown and shortage of employment opportunities by finding creative ways to stay busy, through paid or unpaid work and self-improvement activities.
Let me open a parenthesis to say that as I was listening to the Committee of the Whole and other comments made in this chamber, it struck me that there is a lot of concern across this chamber about the potential disincentive effects of the grant on students, and almost a presumption or insinuation that students will do their best to take advantage of it and not seek work, perhaps out of some kind of desire to be by the swimming pool or through sheer slothfulness.
I can tell you that as the Committee of the Whole was proceeding, I received feedback from one person in this demographic, who sent me the following email in response to what she heard in many of the questions: “Wow! Really? I feel that that’s a bit insulting to students. Is the argument that students are inherently lazy and would rather sit at home and play video games than contribute to society? They are bored and lonely and scared and looking for meaning in their lives. Surely the bigger issue is that there isn’t going to be enough work for them. Young people are dismayed that their normal summer jobs are not happening, not just because of the lack of income but because they really enjoy those jobs.”
I hope the coming summer will be one that defines Generation COVID-19 as the savvy, determined, resilient and innovative young adults who lead the longer-term recovery of Canada. How I Spent the Summer of 2020 will not be a blockbuster movie, but it could be the basis on which there is a renewed national spirit of youth-led optimism and hope for the future of this country.
I must say, however, that it is hard to be optimistic at the present time. While most of us on the Hill have been focusing on this important piece of legislation, perhaps the more illuminating parliamentary document that came out in the last 48 hours is the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s updated scenario analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic and oil price shocks. The report significantly revises downwards the PBO’s assumption regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and oil price shocks on the Canadian economy. To wit:
In our updated economic scenario, real GDP is assumed to decline by 2.5 per cent in the first quarter and then again by 20.0 per cent in the second quarter (both rates not annualized).
Let that sink in for a minute.
Real GDP is then assumed to rebound modestly in the third and fourth quarters as epidemic control measures begin to be gradually relaxed.
The PBO’S real GDP forecast for 2020 as a whole is a decline of -12%, which would be by far the weakest on record since the current GDP series started in 1961. To put this in historical perspective, the weakest growth in real GDP on record, that is to say -3.2%, was observed in 1982, and that was roughly just one quarter of the PBO’s projected decline.
Colleagues, it is important to recognize that the decline in economic output is created by the coronavirus, and not because of prior weakness in the Canadian economy, except in the case of the oil and gas sector, which was already facing pressure from a glut of global oil. The economic downturn would be much worse if Parliament did not respond with such aggressive measures as were contained in Bill C-13, Bill C-14 and now in Bill C-15.
But if the PBO is correct, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The reason is that even after the economy begins to rebound, the lagged effects of an economic downturn on business activity — especially large-scale insolvencies — will continue to be felt. Colleagues, we are nowhere near the end of the kind of government intervention that will be needed for the Canadian economy to stabilize, let alone to begin a sustainable recovery.
Many of us in this chamber have been focused on affected groups that have been neglected in the current suite of COVID-19 relief programs, and there is yet more work that needs to be done and perhaps more program fixes in the offing, but the next big thing will be industry and corporate bailouts. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of programs such as the orphan oil well cleanup, which is of modest help to our fossil fuel energy sector, but not nearly enough to combat the twin crises of virus and virulent price wars in that sector.
It is only a matter of time before we have to turn our attention to proposed bailouts for the transportation, entertainment and hospitality, commercial real estate and agri-food sectors, among others. In this regard, the role of parliamentarians, especially senators, in thinking about the principles and objectives of corporate rescue packages will be crucial. While we need to consider first and foremost the livelihoods affected by major corporate failures, we also need to reflect on the distribution of losses among shareholders, bondholders, executives, and not least workers. We also need to think about the kind of economy we want to have in the decades ahead, and not create moral hazards for ourselves as so many industrialized economies have done in times of financial crisis.
Alas, it is not only corporate bailouts that will occupy our attention in the months ahead. Based on the PBO’s latest scenario outlook, we can expect a moderate recovery in the third and fourth quarters of 2020, based on the assumption of a gradual relaxation of social distancing measures. The PBO declined to offer an economic outlook beyond December 2020 because of the extreme uncertainty we are currently facing, but it is my best guess that 2021 will not see the economy roaring back to pre-crisis levels. I hope I am wrong, but even if I am half right, it is highly likely we will need income support for Canadians well into next year. The problem, of course, is that the legal authorities for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which is the primary mechanism for income support currently, will expire on October 2. Other COVID-19 relief programs also have best before dates in the fall, including the CESB, which is part of the bill we are considering today.
The point, colleagues, is that the Government of Canada is almost certainly going to have to come up with income support programs that extend beyond October 2020, possibly through all of 2021 and maybe even spilling into 2022. In looking at how we might address income support on the expiry of current programs, my strong belief is that the government should design a program that commits to a minimum 12 months of support rather than, say, to extend CERB for another three or six months, subject to repeated reviews. The benefit of a 12-month time frame for income support is that it provides certainty to households and businesses in terms of their personal and corporate planning, and would therefore aid the recovery process. I would, however, redesign and indeed simplify income support so that the rebooted programs capture all of the vulnerable groups that need to be captured, rather than making ad hoc patches to a disparate set of programs as and when new groups are identified. Let’s call this new mechanism the “12-month COVID recovery income support plan.”
I believe some version of a guaranteed livable income should be at the heart of a “12-month COVID income support plan.” The reason is not because I am fully persuaded of the merits of a guaranteed livable income vis-à-vis pre-COVID social assistance, but it is because I believe GLI is a more efficient way of distributing income support in the very context of the massive transfers that I believe will, one way or another, have to be provided to Canadians in the year ahead.
We have before us, colleagues, an opportunity to provide income support through a temporary guaranteed livable income and to test its efficacy through rigorous measurement and evaluation of the impacts on a range of health, economic, fiscal, education and social indicators. I am not so naive to think that a national GLI can be instituted by the fall of 2020, but even if one or two provinces opt for GLI as a preferred approach to income support, that will provide a basis for comparing and contrasting results in those provinces with the more so-called bespoke income support approaches taken in the rest of the country.
Which brings me back to Bill C-15 and the plight of students in the current health crisis. The CESB will come to an end in the middle of September, and we, of course, hope that the crisis will also have come to an end and classes can resume in the normal fashion. If that is not the case, however, we will surely need some form of further support for this cohort of Canadians. In that scenario, the CESB will essentially blend into a form of CERB, which again invites the possibility of a merger of the two programs by way of a GLI of some sort.
Colleagues, we have now been called back for three emergency sittings, each time to deal with bills which offer bespoke relief to individual Canadians and businesses on a temporary basis. I fully appreciate the reasons why the programs have been developed in this way, and do not fault the government for its focus on immediate solutions that are premised on short-term outlooks.
It is looking increasingly clear, however, that the fallout from COVID-19 is not going to go away quickly and that we need programs not only to help us get through the so-called flattening of the coronavirus curve, but that can also help us to bend economic recovery upwards. I hope the next round of COVID-19 legislation is about flattening as well as bending. Thank you.
Hon. Donald Neil Plett (Leader of the Opposition)
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Honourable senators, before I begin my speech on the bill, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the unspeakable tragedy that unfolded earlier this month in Nova Scotia.
The nation was horrified as the extent of the killer’s violent rampage across the province became apparent. Twenty-two victims over 16 crime scenes. It was an utterly senseless act of violence. These people were mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbours. They were loved and they will be missed.
On behalf of the Senate Conservative caucus, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the families and friends who are grieving. Our words will never restore what has been stolen, but in them, we hope you will feel our embrace and know that you are not alone. We hold you in our hearts and in our prayers during this unspeakable loss.
I would also like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the RCMP and other first responders who did their jobs in the most dire of circumstances. I cannot imagine the horror that these brave men and women faced as they trailed this killer, looking for somebody that looked just like they did and finding more victims left in his path of destruction across this beautiful province. Your courage in the face of danger and your compassion in the midst of heartless destruction give us strength to believe that the good in this world is greater than the evil. Thank you for your selfless service.
I would also like to take a moment to offer our condolences to the family and friends of the six members of the Canadian Armed Forces who were lost in Wednesday’s helicopter crash off the coast of Greece. We just found out a few minutes ago that this is now a recovery project. This is an unbelievable tragedy and our thoughts and prayers are with all who were impacted.
Today, colleagues, I’m also thinking of all those Canadians who have lost their lives due to this pandemic and want to ensure all victims’ families that our thoughts and prayers are with you as well. We know how devastating it is to lose a loved one, but not to be with them in their final moments is so much worse.
Last, colleagues, I would like to take a moment to wish my premier, Brian Pallister, well as he mourns the loss of his beloved sister, even while he is in the very throes of dealing with this pandemic.
Colleagues, it is always an honour to stand here and one that I never take lightly. But in these extremely challenging times, I find myself asking God to give us wisdom now more than ever. However, it is the mandate of the official opposition in the House of Commons and the Senate to make sure that we keep the government’s feet to the fire at all times and point out any discrepancies and any flaws that we find in legislation.
As former Liberal prime minister, the Honourable Jean Chrétien, always said, the word “opposition” means “to oppose.” This pandemic itself is a great challenge, but the truth of the matter is how the pandemic is being handled by Parliament. This can either soften the blow or sharper its edge. Today I stand here with a great deal of concern about how the government is handling this crisis, that this has sharpened its edge for many.
We have been called back to this chamber to consider Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits (coronavirus disease 2019). This is the government’s third piece of legislation, as Senator Woo just pointed out, in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I must say that I find this to be an unusual way of dealing with what the government itself has called an “emergency.” We are six weeks into the virtual shutdown of our economy and the government is still meandering along, taking a piecemeal approach to the crisis by dribbling out patchwork measures that leave gaping holes.
They call it an emergency, but they don’t act like it is one. The Prime Minister himself has been snugly holed up in his cottage for weeks, while front-line workers put their health, lives and families at risk in order to protect our most vulnerable.
Every morning, colleagues, people across the country leave the safety of their homes to ensure that Canadians can continue to be supplied with essential tools and services. They include supermarkets, grocery stores, gas stations, laundromats, postal services, funeral services, financial services, telecommunications, transportation, agriculture, health care, social services, the list goes on and on. But for weeks, while Canadians were courageously showing up for work every day, our Prime Minister took a pass and stayed home.
Political leaders around the world have been working from their offices. Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to his office after being in a hospital for a week. Why was Canada’s Prime Minister at home for so long? He says we are in an emergency but he doesn’t act like it. Colleagues, this pandemic is an emergency, but it is an emergency handled so badly by this government that the human cost and the economic costs are already much higher than necessary.
You might think I’m being unfair or maybe I’m just trying to score political points, but I assure you that I am doing neither. This government may not be responsible for the global pandemic — and indeed they are not responsible for the global pandemic — but they are absolutely responsible for the fact that they could see it coming down the road and did nothing to steer us out of its path.
We don’t have time to go through the entire timeline. That would be a good job for national inquiry at a later date. But let me point out a couple of things. First, this government badly mishandled its preparation prior to the pandemic.
In 2014, the Public Health Agency of Canada established guidelines for dealing with the Ebola virus. This included designating 28 Ebola hospitals across the country, pre-positioning the necessary supplies, establishing procedures for transporting Ebola patients to those hospitals and proactively assessing the needs of the provinces and territories in order to either provide support from the public, from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Emergency Strategic Stockpile or facilitate bulk purchasing.
Five Ebola virus disease Rapid Response Teams were established, each consisted of seven subject matter experts, including a team lead, a field epidemiologist, an infection control expert, a biosafety expert, a laboratory expert, a communicator and a logistics expert. These teams were ready to be deployed upon request, to work with provincial, territorial and local health authorities. They would assist with providing public health surge capacity, additional resources and complementary expertise to prevent any further spread of the disease.
All of this was put in place before a single case of Ebola had been detected in Canada. How could we have been so well prepared in 2014 and so ill-prepared now? But it didn’t stop there. The Public Health Agency also had the foresight to establish Ebola quarantine measures for international arrivals. They said:
All travellers coming into Canada with a travel history from the outbreak regions will need to be monitored for up to 21 days. Quarantine Officers will require these travellers to report to a local public health authority in Canada and will provide travellers with instructions on how to report and an information kit. The kit includes a thermometer to check their temperature twice daily for up to 21 days.
These, colleagues, were not suggestions for self-isolation. This was not a mere pamphlet. Travellers were required to take action and monitored to ensure that they did so. If travellers showed up at the border with symptoms, the guidance went even further:
Travellers. . . who are presenting symptoms will be immediately isolated, and sent to a hospital for a medical examination. The Quarantine Officer will coordinate patient transfers with provincial and local public health authorities.
The hospital would then determine what further measures are required.
If travellers did not have symptoms but may have come in contact with someone who did, they were given an information package, ordered to report to a public health authority immediately and required to self-isolate for 21 days.
If travellers were considered low risk and had no known exposure to the Ebola virus, they were also given an information package, ordered to report to a public health authority within 24 hours and monitored every day for 21 days. They were required to check their temperature twice daily and report any symptoms they developed.
Remember, colleagues, this was in 2014. Without wanting to get on to my political stand, does anyone recall who was in government in 2014?
Six years later, we had a new prime minister. On January 25, as the coronavirus was spreading like wildfire around the world, our Health Minister, Patty Hajdu, assured Canadians that the government was taking all necessary precautions with international travellers by putting messages on arrival screens in the airports, placing an additional health screening questionnaire on electronic kiosks used by international travellers and handing out a brochure.
I wish I was joking, colleagues.
There was no effective screening, no quarantining of international travellers, even if they were flying from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak. Instead, we were told that the virus does not respect borders.
This is strange, because as far as back as 2003, the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health was warning that:
Human migration has been a key means for infectious disease transmission throughout recorded history. However, the volume, speed, and reach of travel today have accelerated the spread of infectious diseases.
The report continued:
SARS has illustrated that we are constantly a short flight away from serious epidemics.
This, colleagues, is from a public document. It was not some briefing note buried under 17 years of dust and government inaction only to be unearthed through an access-to-information request. It was in plain sight, and I have no doubt that the Prime Minister and Health Minister were aware of its contents.
Yet, on February 17, almost a month after COVID-19 had arrived in Canada via an international flight, our Health Minister stood up and insisted that the closing of the borders was “not effective at all.”
A few weeks later, on March 5, when asked if Canada would take steps similar to Australia and require international arrivals to self-isolate for two weeks, the Prime Minister repeated that our open borders were the right approach. He said the following:
We recognize there are countries that make different decisions. The decisions we make are based on the best recommendations of the World Health Organization and the tremendous health experts who work within Canada and around the world. . . . We know that keeping Canadians safe needs to be done in the right way and we’re going to keep doing things that actually keep Canadians safe.
“Doing things that actually keep Canadians safe.” I have some difficulty with that comment. I suspect the families of the more than 3,000 Canadians who have passed away due to this pandemic might feel the same.
But what is most troubling about all of this is that the government not only ignored the advice given to previous governments but it ignored the advice given to its own. In August 2018, the Public Health Agency of Canada released a publication entitled Canadian Pandemic Influenza Preparedness: Planning Guidance for the Health Sector.
It contained the following observation:
The federal government is responsible for:
. . . exercising powers under the Quarantine Act to protect public health by taking comprehensive measures to help prevent the introduction and spread of communicable diseases in Canada. Such measures may include, but are not limited to, the screening, examining and detaining of arriving and departing international travellers, conveyances. . . and their goods and cargo.
So, on the one hand, this government was told in 2018 that it was responsible to do whatever was necessary to slam the door on a potential pandemic, and yet, as late as March 11, Minister Hajdu was still scolding Canadians that a virus does not know borders.
If this inconsistency doesn’t bother you, you should know that it does bother a great deal of Canadians.
It’s interesting that this line didn’t originate with Minister Hajdu, though. It was first voiced by the director of the World Health Organization on February 27, 2020. It didn’t take Canadians long to notice that this parroting of WHO lines wasn’t an isolated incident. Much of what was coming from the government was an echo of the WHO.
In fact, when asked about this at the Parliamentary Health Committee on January 29, Dr. Theresa Tam said:
Right now, let’s say, WHO does not recommend travel bans, and any measures that a country is to take must not be out of proportion to the risk and must not inappropriately impact travel and trade. We are a signatory to the international health regulations and we’ll be called to account if we do anything different.
This suggested that, in no uncertain terms, Canada should follow the directions of the World Health Organization, even at the expense of the lives and the well-being of Canadians. Incredible, colleagues.
And yet, this policy was in direct conflict with the government’s own guidance in its 2018 Canadian Pandemic Influenza Preparedness publication, which stated the following:
As pandemic viruses emerge, countries face different risks at different times and should therefore rely on their own risk assessments, informed by the global phases, to guide their actions. The uncoupling of national actions from global phases is necessary since the global risk assessment, by definition, will not represent the situation in each country.
In other words, colleagues, Canada should have been paying attention to what was happening around the world and then made its own decisions according to what was best for Canada, not the WHO.
The suggestion that we had to be in lockstep with the WHO was directly contradictory to Canada’s own health policy and has led to significant harm to Canadians. It is one of the many failures of this government in its management of the coronavirus pandemic.
If you are going to steer your country straight into the face of an oncoming crisis, the least you could do is prepare for it. But the Liberal government could not be bothered.
Instead, they not only ignored two decades of advice regarding international travel, quarantines and mandatory screening, they also cut funding for pandemic preparedness, destroyed millions of masks and other medical equipment and did not bother to replace them.
As the pandemic was breaking out globally in February, they added insult to injury by shipping 16,000 kilograms of personal protective equipment to China that had been set aside to protect the lives of Canadians.
Global News reported yesterday that this shipment was sent even though senior Canadian bureaucrats had been alerted in January that China was hoarding personal protective equipment and ended up importing more than 2 billion safety masks. This created a critical shortage of PPE around the world and right here at home.
When hospitals and care homes had to later scramble to find supplies, our government told us everything was fine. China was going to send us a fresh supply. Sure enough, true to their word, China sent us two empty plane loads and then a shipment of a million defective masks.
You can’t help but wonder how long it will take this Prime Minister to realize that the communist government of China is not Canada’s friend.
Colleagues, for a government that claims to be led by science, the Liberals couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. They could see the pandemic coming down the road toward us and they did nothing to adjust our course. I have said it before and I will say it again: While the virus walked, flew and drove across our borders, this government was asleep at the wheel.
Regrettably, the government’s incompetence did not end there. Not only did they mishandle the preparation prior to the pandemic, but they are now leaving a swath of unnecessary damage as they bungle their response to it.
Instead of taking clear, consistent and transparent decisions, the Prime Minister has established a troubling pattern of announcing programs before he knows how they are going to work, followed by furious backtracking. He then consistently changes the eligibility criteria, causing additional anxiety for Canadians who are trying their best to cope with a situation that is already extremely stressful.
Almost every day the government has a new announcement. But when you get on the daily technical briefing call at 4:30 in the afternoon, departmental officials struggle to answer questions about how the program will be delivered.
Many of us have been on the calls, and you know this to be a fact. After CERB was announced, public service employees were thrown out front to address questions they had no answers to. They had to keep saying “the policy is under development and we’ll get back to you on that.”
This, colleagues, is not the fault of the public service employees. They are doing an incredible job under the circumstances. It’s like they’ve been tasked with building a plane that the government has already launched into flight. I think any successes that can be pointed to are undoubtedly due to our incredible public sector employees who have responded to this crisis admirably. I cannot say the same about this government.
Pick any one of the programs they have launched and you’ll find the same thing. Either they are hastily cobbled together and full of holes or they are riddled with variables that are intentionally left to be determined by regulation at some later date.
You don’t have to go far to see this. Just take a look at the bill before us today. It is full of wild cards which can be determined by regulation, including who can receive the benefit — Senator Carignan already alluded to this — how much they can earn and still be eligible for the benefit, what income makes them ineligible for the benefit, how long can they receive the benefit and even the amount of the benefit.
I understand the need for some flexibility, but this seems excessive. There is no doubt that our students need help. That is not the question. We will, as Senator Carignan has said, later today pass this bill. We will not stand in the way of this bill being passed.
The question is this: Why does this government insist on drafting legislation that gives itself sweeping powers without adequate oversight by Parliament?
I must admit, as bad as the draft of this bill was, it came nowhere near the draft version of Bill C-13. Before being amended, the bill proposed to give the government extensive power to tax and spend without parliamentary approval until December 31, 2021.
If they had succeeded in ramming that through, they may as well have prorogued Parliament for a year and a half after that because we wouldn’t be needed. Only a government that has a level of admiration for China’s basic dictatorship would think of a thing like that.
Colleagues, without fail, you hear the same concern every day on the technical briefing calls: The programs are not working. Too many people are falling through the cracks. This, colleagues, is true.
Take the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy. The economy has now been shut down for six weeks, and it was only four days ago that businesses were able to apply for this program. The government has been warned over and over that it is taking too long to get assistance out to businesses, but it seems to fall on deaf ears.
After they announced the shutdown without having a plan in place, businesses didn’t know what to do. Many concerned employers felt they had no option but to lay off their employees so that they would at least be eligible to claim EI benefits.
Then the government suddenly did an about-face and announced that they were going to implement a 10% wage subsidy. Two weeks later, after we told them repeatedly that was not going to be sufficient, they announced the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which would cover 75% of wages.
Colleagues, you will recall me asking the Minister of Finance, Minister Morneau, during our Committee of the Whole about that and he said, no, they were not going to do that.
Obviously that was better, but what about the people already laid off? What about the one million people who already applied for EI? What about employers’ salaries? What happens if they are paid by dividends instead of a salary? What about front-line health workers who work multiple part-time jobs? What about, what about, what about?
Some of these questions still aren’t answered.
Then there is the Canada Emergency Business Account. That’s where the government will loan up to $40,000 to businesses. The problem is it’s only available to some businesses, those with at least $20,000 in payroll.
This is a problem. Newer family-run businesses typically have no payroll because family members do all the work without a salary so they can pay off debt and build up the business instead.
What about the sole proprietorships? Sorry, you don’t qualify.
What about business owners who pay themselves by dividends? Sorry, you don’t qualify.
What if you’re a sole proprietor with one employee that earned less than $20,000 last year? Sorry, they don’t qualify.
What if you launched your business late last year and although you have a number of employees, the total payroll didn’t reach $20,000? Sorry, we can’t help you.
The program is supposed to be a safety net, but it has holes so big that you could fly a government plane loaded with PPE headed to China right through it.
But that’s not the only hole. Under the government’s criteria, small businesses must have a pre-existing business account to qualify for CEBA. This is problematic because sole proprietors typically use personal chequing accounts rather than a business account. Governments should not be punishing business owners because they have the wrong type of bank account or because they put their revenues into the company instead of paying themselves or because they have fought through the COVID-19 lockdown to keep serving customers and employing workers.
No matter which program you look at, it’s the same thing, hastily cobbled together and full of holes. Consider the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program. It was rolled out with great fanfare after business owners had been pleading for help from the government for over a month. But it didn’t take long to realize that it was also full of holes, and that for many business owners, it was going to be too little, too late.
For starters, a business has to be able to show that they have had a 70% decline in revenue. Any business that has not lost that amount gets nothing, including those whose revenues have fallen by 50% or 60% while they struggled to stay open during COVID-19.
This means that to get rental assistance, some businesses will need to shut down completely in order to drop their revenue by 70%. How does that help anyone? It’s a design flaw that will force some businesses that have remained open to close or grind their operations to a halt in order to qualify.
But even if you have had a 70% drop in income, business owners still cannot apply for the assistance. It’s entirely dependent on whether their landlord wants to make use of the program or not. For many businesses, their second rent payment since the beginning of the shutdown is due today, and they have no idea whether they will be able to access the rent assistance or not.
But it’s not just the business owners that are trying to figure out this program; the landlords are as well. The program requires landlords to reduce their rent by 25% for April, May and June. And in Ontario, they have to agree to forego any profit during that period. Furthermore, if your commercial property is not mortgaged, it’s unclear if you even qualify for the program. Those landlords are being asked to contact CMHC to discuss the possibility of other options.
In a word, it’s a mess. Of course, you won’t hear that from the government. All we get from them is fanfare and hoopla. But whenever you scratch the surface, you find a different story.
Take agriculture, for example. Agriculture is taking a huge hit right now. What has the government done? Well, two things: First of all, they reneged on a promise to put off the implementation of Bill C-4, the act to implement the agreement between Canada, the United States of America and the United Mexican States.
If you recall, this legislation was fast-tracked in this Senate because the government felt the legislation had to receive Royal Assent prior to the adjournment of the House of Commons and the Senate due to COVID-19 global pandemic.
Conservatives agreed — we all agreed — to move forward on this legislation based on one important condition: that the new deal come into force only after August 1, 2020. This date marks the beginning of the dairy calendar year. Had this date been respected, it would have allowed the dairy industry to save about $100 million.
Seven weeks ago, this government looked us straight in the eye and said they would not ratify this deal early. Then, on April 3, Minister Freeland went back on her promise, and the treaty will now come into force on July 1; $100 million that would have remained in the Canadian economy and strengthened the economic resilience of our dairy farmers, flushed down the drain. Don’t forget; this is in addition to $330 million in perpetual annual losses to the industry as a result of the CUSMA agreement.
At a time when the nation is reeling under the impact of the economic shutdown, the Trudeau government decided that they wouldn’t keep their promise and wouldn’t stand up to protect Canada’s dairy industry.
You don’t have to take my word for it, colleagues. Let me quote to you from the Dairy Farmers of Canada press release:
The Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Dairy Processors Association of Canada confirm today that, not only were parliamentarians misled by the Trudeau Government, but they too were misled on the date of implementation of Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA). As such, they echo the concerns expressed by the Honourable Don Plett, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, who indicated he had a commitment from the government on the date.
The dairy sector had secured the support of parliamentarians to have the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement . . . come into force in conjunction with the beginning of the dairy year (August 1, 2020). This would have allowed the sector a full 12-months of exports per the negotiated concession for year-one threshold limit on key dairy products, before being constrained by the significant reduction conceded in year two of the agreement. As part of CUSMA, Canada not only transferred to the US part of our domestic dairy production, but it also agreed to self imposed limits on exports of key dairy products.
“Our government was first out of the gate to give notice to the other parties that it was ready to implement CUSMA. The dairy sector was informed at the last minute and judging by the reaction from the opposition parties, we weren’t alone in this being a complete surprise,” said Jacques Lefebvre, CEO of Dairy Farmers of Canada.
Colleagues, this is a serious breach trust that I find outrageous and we should all find outrageous.
The Prime Minister has been preaching, from Rideau Cottage hideaway, that all of us need to take a Team Canada approach, and then he stabs the dairy industry in the back. It’s unbelievable.
It is regrettable that although the Prime Minister likes to talk about a Team Canada approach, he doesn’t actually walk the walk. At a time like this, all parties should be at the table offering their ideas and input, rather than wrestling with the Prime Minister just to get him to show up at Parliament and show up for Question Period.
If he needs some ideas on how this works, I suggest he reach out to Premier Legault in Quebec or to Premier Higgs in New Brunswick. Premier Legault is meeting twice a week to consult with the leaders of the three opposition parties. Premier Higgs struck a special cabinet committee on COVID-19 and included all three leaders of the opposition parties in its membership.
Our Prime Minister, when he meets with the opposition leaders, he clearly leaves out the Leader of the Official Opposition.
Why is that such a difficult thing for the Prime Minister? Canadians are all pulling together to defeat this virus, and it is beyond me why the Prime Minister insists on being partisan and exclusionary during this critical time.
I must say I find this government’s attitude quite disturbing.
The second thing this government has done to help agriculture with the impact of the coronavirus might surprise you. Last month, they made a big show of announcing that they were increasing the lending capacity of the Farm Credit Corporation by an additional $5 billion.
What they did not say was that this program wasn’t going to cost the government a nickel. In fact, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the government will extract an additional $96 million out of the agriculture industry through it. In other words, the government’s assistance to agriculture so far has cost the industry close to $200 million.
That’s the kind of help our farmers could do without. For producers who are being choked by supply chain issues, declining revenue and uncertain markets, the government is just tightening the rope a little further.
They don’t seem to understand what farmers need. They don’t seem to understand what businesses need. They don’t seem to understand what Canadians need.
Just look at the track record: Every piece of legislation they introduce to address the coronavirus crisis disincentivizes people from working, even if there is a critical need for essential services.
The rent assistance encourages business owners to cut their business back to hit the 70% loss-of-income target. The CERB program makes it more attractive for people to stay home and collect a cheque, rather than take a paying job that is as an essential service. The legislation before us today did nothing to encourage students to work when work is available, until the Conservatives insisted on it.
Colleagues, I am not criticizing our students. We have thousands of students who want to work, without question. We have students who are afraid to go back to work, without question. But programs that encourage people to stay home rather than work does not help our economy.
There are businesses across the country that would jump at the chance to hire a student, yet instead of figuring out how to connect students with jobs and get valuable job experience along with a paycheque, the government comes up with a program focused only on putting cheques in the mail. Is that valuable? Yes, but it is also short-sighted.
So Conservatives insisted on several changes to the legislation, including requiring the government to connect all applicants to the Canada Job Bank and provide them with job availability information before applying. Measures like this should be automatic, not something the opposition has to push for. Jobs are valuable, not just because they provide an income but because they keep the economy running, provide untold spinoff benefits and provide students with invaluable work experience. We recognize that, in much of the country, unemployment rates are extremely high due to the pandemic and a great many jobs are simply not available.
Canadians, including students, need real help right now. But no government program should be a government program that encourages Canadians not to go to work. We need to be clear that, wherever possible, the government needs to provide students with employment opportunities and not just government aid. That is why the Conservatives proposed that the government create a program to match students and youth employment with jobs in the agriculture and agri-food sector, including fish and seafood.
Like the Canada Summer Jobs program, this program would cover the minimum wage of a new student or youth employee. This wage could then be supplemented by an additional stipend paid by the employer. Businesses looking to augment their existing workforce this year would have an opportunity to apply immediately. Employers would be required to ensure that proper workplace safety measures are in place to protect all employees.
Many agriculture, fish and seafood businesses rely on the Temporary Foreign Worker or Seasonal Agriculture Worker Programs. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year, these vital sectors are facing significant labour shortages. While local labour can fill some of the gaps without support, Canadian producers and processors from coast to coast will struggle to maintain essential food supply chains.
The question I have is: Why isn’t this just instinctive for the Liberals? Why are they happier to leave people idle even when work is available and needed? Do they not understand how the economy works? Do they not realize that there are employers and businesses who desperately need workers, even in the midst of the pandemic? Why are we subsidizing temporary foreign workers while at the same time encouraging our own students to stay home so that they can get a cheque from the government? This makes no sense.
Colleagues, the government’s mismanagement during this crisis is concerning. They have done what few people could have imagined; they have taken an extremely difficult situation and made it even worse. Rather than softening the blow, they have sharpened its edge through inadequate preparation and a patchwork of poorly planned responses. Not only has this raised the level of anxiety and stress for Canadians, but it leaves us wondering where things go next.
After steering us straight into the path of the pandemic and fumbling their way through it, how are Canadians supposed to have any confidence in this government or, indeed, parliamentarians, that they can now steer us out of it?
Colleagues, the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be added to the history books, along with other very difficult times, such as the Great Depression. There is no question that historians will review the government’s handling of this crisis with a very thorough and critical eye. At this point, it does not look like the judgment will be very rosy, but for the sake of all Canadians, I hope this changes soon.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer is now telling us that the deficit is going to be $252 billion. I think that bears repeating. The Parliamentary Budget Officer is telling us that the deficit this year is going to be $252 billion. And we are not finished yet. We are hearing that the government is going to come forward with another package to help large businesses and industry, which will probably be the biggest package we have seen yet during this pandemic. As we have always feared, colleagues, the cure seems to be far worse than the disease.
Thank you very much, colleague. Well, listen, as I said at the start, the government was asked over and over, “Are we doing this right? Should we close the borders?” Our Prime Minister said, “No, we don’t need to close the borders. We don’t need to stop Asian and European flights. We don’t need to stop any of these flights from coming into Canada.”
We see that when other countries took those decisions — the countries that came through this the best — the first thing they did was close their borders, and we were told that the borders do not stop this virus from coming across. The fact of the matter is, if people are not coming across, they are not bringing the virus across.
My personal opinion, Senator Carignan, is that should have been number one: That our Prime Minister should have, first of all, been in his office engaging with his cabinet and making the right decisions. To me, that would have been the first decision that I would have thought was very realistic and certainly the right one to take.
Of course, Senator Carignan, far be it from me to be partisan on a comment like that, but let me tell you, I had somebody from the Canadian Press ask me a similar question earlier today — and it might be in the newspaper tomorrow, I’m not sure — but no, my answer is that our Prime Minister was not qualified to do this. He was not interested in doing this. That is my opinion. And I think he has shown his lack of interest in the fact that he has not been in the office doing the job.
Honourable colleagues, it’s an honour for me to rise to speak on Bill C-15. First of all, I want to congratulate Senator Gagné on her sponsorship for the first time, I believe, of a government bill. I wish her all the best on this bill and going forward.
Second, I want to thank Minister Qualtrough and her excellent deputy minister, Graham Flack, for their impressive testimony this afternoon, and more importantly, the diligent work that she, her officials and their department are doing in the face of this circumstance.
Before I begin my brief remarks — and they will be brief, Senator Plett — I want to be very clear that I do not view the students of Canada as being lazy cheats sitting on their butts waiting for a government handout. That image is one that doesn’t correspond to my understanding and experience with students.
Let me say at the start of my remarks that I support this bill and urge all senators to do likewise. It is important that our students, who are our collective future, remain focused on their studies and continue to pursue higher education to better equip them in the innovative economy of the future, which is their future.
I would like to focus my remarks on what I believe is a significant and unaddressed gap in our post-secondary support measures. The absence of a comprehensive approach to foreign students is, I believe, a major shortfall, and I would like to speak about this and propose a solution for the government to consider.
I understand the political reasons the House of Commons might not think it prudent to include all foreign students, but I do not understand a public policy reason. The test that we should have before us as we look at the various measures the government is undertaking is the following: Are we investing to make Canada a stronger player in the global economy after COVID-19?
Warren Buffett had a great line. He said, “A receding tide exposes those who have been swimming naked.” Now, without taking that image too literally, I would suggest that our post-secondary funding model is unsustainable, and COVID-19 is the receding tide that is exposing major sustainability challenges to our colleges and universities across Canada. Canada has one of the most diverse international student populations, with 146 nations represented in 2017. While this diversity has declined somewhat in recent years, 65% of all students originate from the following five countries: China, India, South Korea, France and Vietnam. The majority of international students — 84% — are enrolled in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, and these three provinces have consistently hosted the largest number of inbound students.
In 2017, 75% of international students in Canada were pursuing post-secondary studies, of which 57% were studying university programs, 41% were studying at the college level and 2% at CEGEP. Students at the primary and secondary levels made up 15% of all international students in Canada, while 10% were pursuing other studies.
In 2017, the Government of Canada’s International Education Strategy goal of receiving 450,000 international students by 2022 was surpassed five years earlier than anticipated. This is an achievement that brings with it great opportunities but also great challenges. In 2018, more than 721,000 international students studied in Canada.
Canada is a destination of choice for international students. Strong schools and programs of study in English and French; a welcoming and diverse community to host students; an enviable quality of life; a reputation as a safe country; opportunities to work and start careers; and pursue permanent residency, which is an option for international students. In 2018, 54,000 former students became permanent residents.
International education makes a large and growing contribution to Canada’s prosperity. In 2018, the last year for which there are figures, international students in Canada contributed an estimated $21.6 billion to Canada’s GDP and, in 2016, supported almost 170,000 jobs. Educational expenditures by international students have a greater impact on Canada’s economy than exports of auto parts, lumber or aircraft.
This is a significant business sector.
Between 2014 and 2018, the number of international students in Canada increased by 68%. In 2018, as I said, a total 721,000 international students studied in Canada.
In addition to sparking new ideas and increasing Canada’s innovation capacity, international education fuels the people-to-people ties crucial to international trade in an increasingly connected global economy. As I stated earlier, international students contribute significantly to the Canadian economy.
A good chunk of that goes directly to the educational institution in terms of fees. While it is true that a truly great or even good institution in Canada cannot exist without international students, researchers or faculties, we have used this virtue almost as a narcotic in our post-secondary funding model. At my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, 21% of the undergraduates are international students. Their higher fees contribute an oversized proportion of university revenue. The same is true across the university and college landscape. At UBC, for example, international student tuition ranges from $39,000 to $50,000, depending on the program, compared to around $5,000 to $8,000 for domestic students.
My point is that without stable and significant international enrolment, our institutions will be facing huge funding gaps, with the most perilous situations in a few of our colleges and universities.
Here is a proposal: I’m informed that at the end of March, there were about 565,000 international students in Canada. Given the imposition of travel restrictions, it is believed that about 80% of this number remains in Canada. Experts tell me that about half or 50% will be experiencing some financial shortfall and not be eligible for CERB measures already announced. Let’s say that’s roughly 300,000. It is estimated that about 50% of this group are attending universities, 40% are at colleges and 10% at other post-secondary institutions. If we use the figure of $5,000 per student, which this bill provides a Canadian or landed immigrant, and multiply it by the 300,000 uncovered international student population already in Canada, that’s roughly $1.5 billion.
I would urge the government to consider taking this amount and, working with national post-secondary associations, provide funding to financial aid offices of our educational institutions, which in turn will provide support to those identified as requiring some degree of financial assistance to continue their studies in Canada. These offices are best able to determine the need. They are trained, experienced, and have the credibility and integrity to administer such assistance.
Of course, no individual international student ought to receive more than the $5,000 available to a Canadian student, and some may not need all of the $5,000. This program, if implemented, would ensure some degree of stability to our colleges and universities, but more important, it would frankly differentiate Canada from those countries with which we have competed for world-class students; namely, the United States, Australia and the U.K.
Calling young people “vermin” is not a recruitment strategy, and Prime Minister Morrison of Australia, who issued a statement to the international students to “make your way home,” will long be remembered for that short-sighted and rather xenophobic comment. In the longer term, we need to begin to reform our university and college funding, but in the short term, let’s act to save the benefits we have achieved thus far with this proposal.
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at third reading of Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits (coronavirus disease 2019).
I have agreed with many of the points made today, and I will briefly add my voice to the debate.
Let me be clear: I’m very glad support is coming for post-secondary students who are mostly left out of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Unfortunately, student education has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the closing of college and university campuses. Additionally, many students have lost part-time jobs due to the crisis, and many will have difficulty finding work this summer.
This legislation will allocate $1,250 a month to each student and $2,000 for those with dependents or with disabilities, over a period of four months. This funding will be very helpful for many students, and it is a step in the right direction.
This program will be especially beneficial for students in rural communities, where there will be fewer grocery stores and essential businesses that will be hiring and where distance makes it harder to travel.
Nonetheless, I do have some concerns. I know that it will be very difficult for students to find jobs this year, given the situation. However, many sectors will still be hiring. In fact, some are crying for help; for instance, the agricultural industry needs workers. No word can describe what I’ve been hearing from the industry and from stakeholders more than “desperation.”
Even though the government has allowed temporary foreign workers to enter the country and is providing them with accommodations during their 14-day quarantine period upon their arrival in Canada, there will still be fewer now than in other years.
Producers are in need of employees now for help with harvesting crops, planting crops and other work. The processing sector needs people as well. We’ve all heard that meat-processing plants have had to close or reduce capacity because of a decrease in staff.
Food security is a major concern throughout this pandemic. The agricultural sector needs to remain strong in order to maintain the security of the supply chain. Therefore, we need to keep agricultural jobs filled so that the work necessary to keep our industry afloat can get done.
The Government of Quebec has offered students an incentive of $100 per week to help farmers, but will the Canada emergency student benefit prevent them from doing so? Will this benefit remove their motivation to find summer employment?
This is a question that concerns many of my colleagues from Quebec, including the Honourable Senators Verner and Dagenais. I hope that the availability of this emergency student benefit will not discourage students from applying for jobs that are available and that the labour shortages in many sectors were considered when drafting this legislation.
The bill, as drafted, outlines that students are eligible only if they are unable to work due to the coronavirus, are looking for work but can’t find it, or are working but making less money than the benefit would provide. I am certain that most Canadian students will honour these eligibility requirements and will still work if they are able to, but we must expect that there will be some who will not search for jobs, knowing they have this benefit coming.
In fact, my colleague the Honourable Jean-Guy Dagenais shared with Minister Qualtrough earlier today that employers who had received summer employment applications and subsequently offered jobs then heard back from these individuals, saying they were withdrawing their applications. This leaves these potential employers now scrambling to find new applicants.
The government is also expanding federal job opportunities for students. I hope this will encourage more students to apply for summer jobs, which, apart from allowing them to earn income, also provides students with experience in their fields and better prepares them for life after graduation.
I’m also slightly confused as to why the benefit for students is less than that for other Canadians who have lost work. Students still have to pay rent and utility bills, cover groceries and other costs, yet this benefit only provides students with $1,250 per month, compared to $2,000 per month for persons receiving support under the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.
The initial legislation also allocated $1,750 for students with dependants and students with disabilities. That was increased to $2,000 each with an amendment in the other place earlier this week. I’m glad the amendment was passed, but I still wonder whether $1,250 will be enough for students who are unable to find work.
Another concern raised by my colleagues today is the impingement on provincial jurisdiction. However, following Senator Verner’s question earlier today, we did hear that the federal government will keep consulting with provinces and territories.
Overall, I’m happy that this legislation will address the needs of Canada’s post-secondary students. They should not be punished for their choice to pursue higher education and for this crisis that none of us could have predicted or prevented.
I will vote in favour of the passage of this bill, and I hope it will do what needs to be done to help our students. I do, however, think more needs to be done for other Canadians, including the agricultural sector, which is struggling. I hope we will be back here soon debating a bill for emergency relief for farmers. That is my true hope. I know that others in this chamber — my CSG colleagues have discussed it and I’m sure we’re not the only group to do so — are supporting funding for agricultural workers as well.
Honourable senators, the important issues I have raised about the measures proposed in Bill C-15 will need to be carefully reviewed in the long term in order to assess their impacts resulting from the implementation of the bill. In this regard, I want to remind you that this chamber approved, on April 11, 2020, the establishment of a special committee on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. This committee was proposed by the Canadian Senators Group and agreed to unanimously. I remind you that its mandate includes an assessment of the various impacts caused by the pandemic, Canada’s level of preparedness, as well as initiatives that have been undertaken to address this crisis. The committee will also carry out a broad consultation of Canadians to determine the challenges and specific needs of various regions and communities.
The Canadian Senators Group is looking forward to this review to be carried out by a special committee, which is expected to commence in the fall of 2020. Like I said, I hope we’re back here in very short order to do something for agriculture going forward.
Honourable senators, the bill we have before us today is of great importance for students across the country, for whom the COVID-19 pandemic has also brought its share of constraints. It is part of a series of extraordinary measures and complements those that have been more urgently needed for other citizens and businesses due to the loss of income caused by this pandemic.
From the outset, I would like to highlight the great collaboration, since the beginning of this extraordinary crisis, between the federal government and the various levels of government of the country, as well as with the four opposition parties in the House of Commons. In a federation like ours, with multiple orders of government, it is often complex to work in harmony. Yet, we stand in solidarity during this crisis and we are uniting our efforts to counter this pandemic. I therefore wish to congratulate all the different governmental actors for their sustained work.
This collaboration is not only that of the federal, provincial and territorial governments, but it is also that of the provinces among themselves. I’m thinking in particular of Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick, which share common borders and have been able, from the first moments of this crisis, to coordinate and properly anchor the application of their preventive measures in order to better protect their respective populations. Beyond the immediate neighbours, I also think of Alberta, which has shown altruism and generosity by donating a large amount of medical equipment to other provinces, including Quebec.
I am very aware of the great complexity of these coordination efforts, as well as the anchoring of all these measures. It is important for me to underline the need to stay the course on consultation with the provinces and territories.
Reading this bill, I noticed several harmonization issues. In particular, I noticed an inconsistency between the measures it proposes and Quebec’s initiative regarding temporary work, and I wholeheartedly agree with what Senator Robert Black and the Canadian Senators Group have said about the lack of harmonization with Quebec’s proposed measures.
On April 17, the Quebec government announced that it would be implementing an incentive program for temporary workers who are willing to help farmers. This program offers a $100 weekly top-up to workers who take jobs in the agriculture sector for the planting and harvesting seasons. The goal is to recruit students who need to work over the summer to support themselves and, among other things, pay for the next year’s tuition.
It is important to implement financial measures to support students, because many of them are in a tough spot right now.
I share the Premier of Quebec’s concern that the measures proposed in this bill could inadvertently have a negative impact on recruitment in the agriculture sector, a sector that, I would remind you, is an essential service and is being severely tested by the labour shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It therefore seems obvious to me that, for this particular aspect, the federal and provincial measures have not been harmonized as well as they could be. I think it would have been a good idea to base this bill on incentives to access the labour market rather than on financial compensation alone.
Let me be perfectly clear. In saying that, I am not implying that this bill fails to meet its objective or that it wrongly assumes that students will act in good faith. On the contrary, I echo the sentiments of the Prime Minister of Canada by recognizing the hard work, good will and honesty of students.
However, I think that the bill could have been improved by including work incentives, which would have also helped vulnerable economic sectors such as agriculture as well as the service economy, in particular health care services. We all recognize that these sectors have been particularly affected during this time of economic uncertainty. I do want to acknowledge that the bill contains significant measures to protect these programs from fraud and abuse. These measures must absolutely be monitored throughout their implementation. That is very important. We don’t want to end up seeing fraudsters who were not eligible for the program being later required to refund the money they took.
We cannot study this bill without considering its impact on vulnerable groups, such as students with a disability, as Senator Munson mentioned earlier, students with dependents, First Nations students, and some international students. Students with a disability and students with dependents are offered an additional $500, yet some international students are left out of the bill.
Although I understand the need to impose limits on such compensation and that not all international students can be eligible for this type of program, the fact remains that many are in a precarious situation because it is difficult to continue earning an income during this crisis. In this regard, I commend the government for removing the restriction that allows international students to work a maximum of 20 hours a week during the school term in essential sectors, as part of its economic action plan to respond to COVID-19. However, this does not offset the negative impact of excluding international students, which is underestimated. I will shorten my speech because I wholeheartedly support the comments Senator Harder made in his speech a few minutes ago.
I would like to remind senators of the considerable and positive contributions of international students to universities and Canadian society. They make very positive contributions across the country.
Furthermore, once they complete their studies, many of these students choose to start the process of becoming permanent residents. They will therefore continue to enrich our country as full members of our society.
Dear colleagues, some who came to our country as students now serve Canada in our Parliament, in the House of Commons and in this chamber. They came from other countries and found a home here.
They came from elsewhere. Canada is now their home.
Creating the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for those who have a right to work and who pay taxes, both federally and in their province or territory, could have been and should have been a wise investment.
To conclude, I would argue that, when it comes time to draft the regulations to implement this bill, more consultation and better harmonization with the provinces and territories are needed in order to take all of their specific circumstances into account.
That said, overall, this bill does include some positive measures for both students and the Canadian economy.
In these uncertain times, the positive impact of these measures largely outweighs the counterproductive effects of their flaws, which is why I will be supporting Bill C-15. Thank you.
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits, for students who have lost and will lose income for reasons related to the pandemic.
First I want to pay tribute to the Canadian Forces members of NATO who recently lost their lives in Nova Scotia. As a member of the Canadian NATO Parliamentary Association, I am very saddened by this incident.
I also want to pay tribute to all the victims who sadly were not spared by this COVID-19 crisis and to offer by sincerest thoughts to all the families who are grieving the untimely death of one or more of their loved ones.
I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank all those who continue to work courageously, often under difficult and sometimes inhumane conditions, to ensure that Canadians get the essential services they need, and to acknowledge the arrival of our soldiers who are now working in seniors’ residences in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada.
Honourable colleagues, as I mentioned in my previous speech in this chamber, I am once again very concerned about the government’s ability to manage our economy and our safety in these times of crisis. The choices the Liberal government has made with respect to safety, health and the economy raise many questions that remain unanswered.
Esteemed colleagues, I too have been wondering about the government’s response to what were very clear signals and intel about a pandemic emerging in China. As early as mid-January, the Government of Canada was alerted to the potential threat of a looming public health crisis by its own intelligence agencies and the WHO. Why did the government choose to send part of our stockpile of PPE to China? A few years ago, a Senate committee produced a report in which it expressed serious concerns about the significant level of risk this kind of pandemic could pose to Canada.
By choosing to send our medical equipment to China, the government undermined our ability to protect our health care workers and jeopardized the safety of all Canadians because of a medical equipment shortage. Was that the government’s only option? We have a minority government; why wasn’t the opposition consulted about this?
In mid-March, when we began imposing comprehensive social distancing measures across the country, the government announced a 10% wage subsidy for businesses. Those businesses immediately criticized the measure, which they felt was a totally inadequate response given the magnitude of the crisis.
As a result, Parliament had to be recalled a few weeks later to approve the creation of a wage subsidy that was five times bigger. The new version boosted the subsidy to 75% and required companies to hire back their staff. This exercise provided a swift and blatant demonstration of the government’s failure to consult with businesses.
Another topical issue that all of my colleagues who are here today should be worried about is the haphazard management of our borders. In early March, when the crisis was already raging around the world and many countries were closing their borders, the government stubbornly insisted on keeping our borders open, despite sustained calls from the official opposition.
Under public pressure, the government finally decided to shut down our borders, but far too much time had already passed. Here was another questionable decision that came under heavy criticism, given that the first cases of COVID-19 were known to have come from abroad.
Again, Canada could have been a leader under the circumstances. Instead, once again, this government’s bad decisions will cost us dearly, both in terms of money and, sadly, of lives lost.
I brought up these facts in this chamber because, one week ago, the government issued an order-in-council allowing more asylum seekers to cross into Canada. This means that a number of asylum seekers have already come to the Canada-U.S. border and we are therefore at risk of welcoming people infected with COVID-19 to Canada. One example is the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing, not far from Roxham Road, on the border of New York State, a state that has been hit very hard by the virus.
Jean-Pierre Fortin, the national president of the Customs and Immigration Union said, and I quote:
Our officers have a lot of questions about their health and safety. These people have travelled through several countries before arriving at the border, and they are at greater risk of being infected.
Why is the government in such a rush to reopen our borders? Why would it willingly take the chance of putting its own population at risk when we’re still having trouble containing the pandemic here, when our health care workers are exhausted and when too many lives already hang in the balance?
Colleagues, we should question the government on the choices it makes that may compromise the health and safety of Canadians, including members of your own families, your spouses, children and grandchildren. Protecting our population’s health and safety is not only our shared duty and desire, but it is also part of the honour and privilege of having a seat in the upper chamber.
Again with regard to public safety, I want to come back to a subject that I’ve already spoken about. I’ve yet to receive any answers to my questions about how the Parole Board is freeing inmates and the supervisory role it plays in our communities.
In my last speech, I talked about a victim who felt they had been wronged by our justice system when they learned that observers were no longer allowed to participate in Parole Board hearings. Victims and their loved ones have a fundamental right to participate in parole hearings, and that right is being denied because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few days ago, Lisa Freeman, an Oshawa resident whose father was murdered, contacted me to tell me about the injustice that she’d suffered. Despite her insistence and in violation of her rights, she was denied the opportunity to attend her father’s murderer’s parole hearing on the grounds that the board no longer allows observers because of the pandemic. Oddly enough, the recording that the Parole Board supplied to her shows that two observers were present. One of them was the murderer’s parole officer.
The Canadian Victims Bill of Rights gives victims a number of basic rights, including the right of participation. The Parole Board is not honouring the principles in the bill of rights, which, I should note, supersedes the board’s rules because it is a supra-constitutional statute. Paradoxically, the Minister of Public Safety is invoking the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to justify releasing incarcerated criminals early because of the very same public health crisis.
However, what concerns me the most, honourable senators, is the response given by Minister Blair to the MP representing Ms. Freeman’s riding, Colin Carrie, who was telling the minister about the Parole Board infringing on the rights of victims. The minister said he had issued a directive for victims to be able to attend hearings remotely online. Just yesterday morning, the Ombudsman for Victims of Crime confirmed that no minister’s directives were received by her office. However, for several weeks now, victims have been complaining that they’re being excluded from Parole Board hearings. Someone lied to Ms. Freeman: either Minister Blair or his officials. One thing is certain: Under this minister, ignoring victims’ rights has become the norm.
Another troubling issue, which I read about recently in La Presse, is that some penitentiaries in Canada are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. At this time, we have no information on the number of people or the kind of offenders who have been released. We have no information on the measures the government has brought in to supervise any offenders who might present an immediate danger to the safety of Canadians.
As of April 25, Correctional Service Canada reported 244 COVID-19 cases in correctional institutions across Canada and, fortunately, only one death out of nearly 14,000 incarcerated offenders.
Correctional Service Canada personnel are front-line workers and, like other front-line workers, they also deserve our recognition and our respect for their tireless work and dedication in a dangerous field.
However, the question of why the minister was so quick to opt for a solution based on releasing offenders that he identifies as non-violent offenders remains unanswered, while three quarters of infected Canadian inmates are in Quebec and almost every single Canadian penitentiary has had no pandemic-related issues.
Colleagues, let’s not forget that when we talk about federal offenders, we’re not talking about petty offenders. A quarter of them are serving a life sentence or an indeterminate sentence. For the most part, the rest are serving sentences for crimes involving firearms, sexual assault, serious drug trafficking crimes, including crimes such as theft and breaking and entering.
How can a minister of public safety be so sure that offenders incarcerated for having seriously violated the rules of society would suddenly be compelled to follow them, if only to respect the rules of social distancing, once they are released into the community?
How can a minister of public safety believe that inmates who are released early without job prospects will safely reintegrate into communities? Is it a question of being illogical or incompetent?
Consequently, it is important that we caution this minister and the government.
The Parole Board of Canada is an independent administrative tribunal that is legally authorized to exercise its mandate without political interference. These powers are granted under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and the minister does not have the authority to give orders to the board or the board chairperson. If he did or were to do so, these conditional releases would become political.
Dear colleagues, the Liberal government promised that it would be transparent from the start of this pandemic. It is concerning to note the great lack of information and transparency on issues as important as public safety. The evasive answers to the questions I put to the Minister of Public Safety during our previous exchange were not convincing and, above all, far from reassuring.
In a crisis such as this, there is nothing worse than a lack of transparency. I doubt that Minister Blair can take up this challenge.
Why didn’t the government listen to the opposition’s recommendations, like its suggestion of giving our correctional system adequate resources and means to keep the penitentiaries safe and limit the release of inmates?
In an article I read this week, I was dismayed, but not surprised, to learn that several inmates had managed to fraudulently obtain the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. Correctional officers at the detention centre in Trois-Rivières intercepted CERB cheques addressed to inmates. That is quite troubling when we know that law-abiding workers are still waiting for their CERB cheques. This too goes to show how unprepared our leaders are.
As parliamentarians, we need to stay vigilant. The authority and powers we are entrusting to the government must have time limits. I am satisfied with the sunset clause that was included in Bill C-15, at the urging of the official opposition in the other place.
As parliamentarians, we certainly should not be encouraging the government to prematurely embark on inappropriate ventures.
As the crisis evolves, the government has less and less reason to cite an urgent need to act. Canadians have a right to get answers to their questions, to require their government to be responsible, thorough, and as transparent as it is accountable. I know that all senators will be vigilant and diligent about making that happen.
Honourable senators, May 1, and here we are approaching almost day 50 of this lockdown — May 1.
The COVID-19 crisis is now in its second season in this country. For most of us, this started when snow was in the air. Many Canadians were planning late winter getaways, and some were still wearing toques. There is still snow on the ground in some parts of this country, but the changes of spring are happening all around us. Like nature, we have adapted and changed to stay healthy.
As the seasons change, so does Canada’s labour force. With summer just around the corner, today’s legislation addresses the youngest of our workers — students.
The progressive senate group supports Bill C-15, an Act dealing with the emergency student benefits. I want to see our students secure the funds they need to live, eat and continue their education next year. Students needed help and the government has responded.
Even with this financial aid, students will still need opportunities for work experience to help them plan their futures. Student jobs are essential, not just because they pay for student books and cheap beer nights, but because they provide young people with an opportunity to better understand their strengths and abilities.
A number of senators aren’t here, but they have been listening to our debates. I do want to quote Senator Lillian Dyck from Saskatchewan, a former university professor emeritus. She wants to make sure this is on the record. She says: Some senators are worried that students will misuse the CESB to stay at home and turn down jobs if they can earn a bit more than through the CESB. However, this assumes that students aren’t smart enough to recognize accepting a job provides work experience and potential letters of reference for future employment. If they do get a job this summer, it would be a great accomplishment that future employers would recognize and they could very well rate those students higher.
Those are the words from Senator Lillian Dyck, listening in Saskatchewan. I have to echo those sentiments. I’m sure that students would absolutely rather work.
I hope, senators, we will not lose sight of the fact that this is not just about replacing income. We will need to seek creative solutions to help students get the work experience they want and need once these social-distancing restrictions are lifted.
In the meantime, I really appreciate the comments of Senator Cotter and Senator Harder. If you go back and listen to what the two senators had to say, they have ideas in real time worth pursuing. I do hope the government is paying attention to these innovative ideas from the two senators.
Unfortunately, it is not only students who are missing out on opportunities during this time. Many of the one in five Canadians who live with a disability are also suffering from isolation, lack of resources and mental health issues.
I am encouraged by the amendments accepted to Bill C-15 in the other place, which gives students with a disability additional monetary support, to the full $2,000 monthly. It also commits to future support and solutions for persons with a disability, and seniors, for extraordinary expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 crisis. However, monetary relief is just one part of the puzzle.
Before the pandemic, we knew that 45% of people with an intellectual disability felt lonely, compared to 10.5% of Canadians generally.
For Canadians living with disabilities, social distancing means less specialized services and care. High-needs individuals are worried as health care resources are rationed and stretched throughout our system. Their social outings and work opportunities are gone because drop-in centres, family respite and day programs are closed. They are feeling desperate for something to look forward to, and their families are feeling the stress of more responsibility and 24-hour care.
People with disabilities who live in long-term care and group homes are equally feeling the strain of dwindling health care resources and loneliness, making do with minimal care, not able to leave their rooms, and scared of getting sick from COVID-19 because the risk of infection is so much higher in these facilities.
I visited many of these in the last many years. When you’re in some of these facilities — long-term care — in terms of people with autism, you could be in a suburban home in Orleans, in a suburb of Ottawa, you could be in Aurora, Ontario, and what you have inside that home is one-on-one help in that home; one-on-one. You’re dealing with somebody who is non-verbal, somebody who has anxiety, somebody who has depression. All of that is happening within a very small space. Can you imagine today living and working in that space and feeling protected?
Jonathan Marchand, a Quebec long-term care resident who has muscular dystrophy said, “Currently, we live in total isolation, extreme isolation.”
Jonathan fears that even as the government begins lifting restrictions, long-term care homes will be the last ones to go back to the way things were before the pandemic.
He says, “There’s no end in sight.”
I was just thinking in the words of Minister Qualtrough, who is a champion in dealing with those with disabilities, and the disability community will tell you that. The Accessibility Act, Bill C-81, which we passed here — it will be a beacon, I hope, and during this time it will serve as a template for the future in dealing with all of those with disabilities. But I was struck by her words when she talked about the massive gaps in this country in long-term care homes; the massive gaps that are taking place and the lack of regulation. To me, sometimes it’s deregulation and privatization. I heard her talk about the horrible stories that she’s heard. So this has to be, to me, a real rethink of how we’re going to deal with those with disabilities, from now and into the future.
This crisis has given us an opportunity to see where we have failed. Let’s use this awareness to do better. In my view, workers at long-term care facilities must be better trained and qualified, and deserving of full-time positions with higher pay. Full-time positions, working and caring in one home, not going from one home to the other. We know what has happened in nursing homes, with minimal pay and having people move from home to home, and thus infection occurs. This is the same thing happening in hundreds and hundreds of care homes across the country with persons with disabilities.
They need — now and forever — enough personal protective equipment to keep themselves safe. We have failed our workers and, therefore, the people who rely on them. This has been a tragedy waiting to happen.
I would also like to thank Senator Deacon and Senator St. Germain and Senator Seidman for their words and support today in talking about not losing sight of the fact of people with disabilities in our country. We really have to keep a focus on those with disabilities.
Long-term care workers do more than provide personal care, medical services and feeding. They also fill the roles of companions, family liaisons and community access for individuals with disabilities. They are the lifelines for the people they serve.
Today, in a very public forum, I thank every long-term care and personal care worker for their commitment and care for the people we love. Thank you.
But I know the best way for us to show our gratitude is to push for change.
In Ontario, about 3,000 people live in long-term care homes because of their disability needs. It is estimated that over half of them are under the age of 65. Many, like Jonathan in Quebec, would rather have assistance to live at home with their families, where they feel included and can fully participate in their communities. We should listen to their voices.
Honourable senators, in closing, I’m looking forward. We need to change how we care for Canadians with intellectual and physical disabilities. We have to have a total rethink. We have to look at Canada’s most vulnerable citizens, especially in these long-term care settings.
Canada needs a wake-up call, a wake-up call in caring for those with lifelong disabilities. This is not about the forgotten few but the forgotten many. Thank you.
Honourable senators, today I rise to speak to Bill C-15, an Act respecting Canada Emergency Student Benefits (coronavirus disease 2019).
While I’m grateful for this federal plan to help our young Canadians, this benefit also exposes and opens a must-have conversation about our students and their families.
What does the world like for our students these past two months? A pandemic. An unknown virus. Schools being closed. Routines being turned up on their heads.
This is a time of year when students are wrapping up. Our post-secondary students should be winding down their studies, celebrating the finish of the academic year and preparing for their summer jobs. For our high school students who are graduating, it’s a time of year when they are usually embracing traditions such as athletic and award banquets, graduations and end of high school celebrations. Instead, there is social, physical and emotional isolation away from friends and social supports. It might seem trivial in light of what is going on, but it is a rite of passage they won’t get back.
Graduating high school students are stressed. They are not completing their final courses with rigour, are unsure of what marks are being used, and many are waiting for university, college, apprentice and other program acceptances and trying to sort this out.
This will impact them in ways we cannot yet comprehend. Any young person who is contemplating or building for their entry into post-secondary life must have a profusion of uncertainties running through their mind. They are asking themselves, “How can I pay for tuition and living costs without going into debt, without being buried in student loans? How will this impact my future? Is it worth it? My planned summer job is gone. How do I possibly find some sort of income over the next four months? My parents have lost income. They are supporting my grandparents and siblings. How can I expect any help? Whom can I talk to? Where can I get face-to-face support in time of isolation?”
These questions, they are for those who find themselves in a favourable position in all of this. For other students, school is and was an escape from an unsafe household. It was a support system. It was a way for them to ask for help, for their educators to pick up on warning signs. With domestic abuse rates rising as society is forced to stay at home, I continually think about the lasting damage this will do to these young people.
I have had the opportunity to speak to advocates, parents, student and university administrators. I have learned that everybody is adapting to an unknown finish line. These conversations have taught me that the financial and emotional pressures are diverse and complex. They include single-income, single-parent families; recent migrants who are only starting to learn the ropes of Canada; families who are supporting children with intellectual, social or physical challenges, who have come to rely on schools as the bedrock of their daily lives. These are only some of the factors that limit full and equitable access and participation to secondary and post-secondary learning.
We also know that we need more youth engaged in training for careers in areas with anticipated labour shortages. This includes skilled trades, information and environmental technologies and artificial intelligence. It is critical that we see students continue their education if we want to avoid falling further behind. What we need are students who have confidence in their future, the ability to find and build a career, start a family and own a home. COVID-19 has caused so many of them to question these deep aspirations.
The legislation before us provides hope for our students. It’s estimated that 2.4 million young Canadians will benefit from this. The Canadian Federation of Students has thanked the government for listening to the dire needs of students, saying they have been patient and are glad the government is taking this step to provide some much-needed relief.
That being said, they are hopeful that international students will soon see support in some way. Many of these international students have not been able to return home. They have lost their jobs and have limited access to other financial supports, all while being so far away from their families. International students contribute to Canada’s economy, and they would like to be included in these emergency relief measures.
I was pleased to see that the negotiations in the other place resulted in an increase in monthly payments for students with a disability, as well as those with a dependent, to match that of CERB. I still worry, though, that many students who would qualify for this increased payment because of disability will not receive it. We have many Canadian students — it’s a reality — who don’t come forward and who don’t self-identify with a disability. I encourage them to take this opportunity for extra help. The money is here for them.
Hopefully, as I mentioned to the minister earlier, this process will also assist the government in getting more accurate information on exactly how many Canadian students have a physical or intellectual disability. We do need that information.
Beyond the immediate financial relief this legislation will bring, it’s important to note that the government has also committed to creating tens of thousands of jobs that will contribute to our recovery. It will extend existing scholarships and grants and is launching a new Canada Student Service Grant.
At the urging of the opposition parties, the government also committed to implementing incentives to connect students to available work. This is very important. I want to ensure we all understand that given the opportunity — you may have heard it once or twice here — most students want to work for their pay. They don’t want to lie around and simply collect a monthly cheque. They are motivated, they like to work and they want to build their work experience. Thirty-five years in elementary, secondary and post-secondary education tells me they are not lazy.
For an individual graduating from high school, the economic repercussions of COVID-19 will have brought about the second financial catastrophe in their young lives; our memories are long. I support the steps that we are taking to help Canadians — I don’t see any other choice — but the debt that will result will be placed squarely on the youth of today just as they are setting off on their careers.
From a health perspective, as I speak, labs all over the world are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19. This is not the only medical emergency our young people face. In recent years we have seen the rise of anti-vaccination movements as well as the emergence of antimicrobial resistance to common treatments, a result of decades of abuse of antibiotics in our food chain and in our medical system. A post-antibiotic world possibly means foregoing life-changing surgeries, like organ transplants, for fear of infection. It means a mother having to weigh her health against that of her baby for a routine caesarean section. It means a return to a time when a cut or scrape could be much worse.
And, of course, we all know there is climate change. We have seen a disruption of seven weeks can do to our economy. Millions of Canadians have lost their jobs; businesses have closed their doors, and some will never open again.
Let this crisis shake us out of our complacency and misplaced belief that we can simply work our way around the dramatic effects climate change will bring. We will find a vaccine for COVID-19 and we can get back to business in a newer normal, but there will be no such fix for the changes brought by a warming climate. Relative to a human lifetime, those changes will be permanent. What we do today will determine just how devastating those changes will be. This is an opportunity for us to do the right thing collectively. We must reset our country now; we must serve nationally.
I say this, colleagues, because these and other looming crises are still facing down our young Canadians. While we often pay lip service to them, we have been slow to act. For many of us, we will not see the full effects, but what COVID-19 has shown us is that our way of life is fragile and that the course of human history is not guaranteed to be one of ever-increasing health and prosperity. We are here today to help our students. Let’s not forget them when we return to our new normal, whatever that may look like. If we are serious about making a better future for our young people — every one of them — we need to step up and take on these challenges. If we do not, by the time they are able to take them on themselves, it just might be too late.
Honourable senators, I rise to speak on Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits. I would like to use my time today to comment somewhat less on the bill itself and more on some of the broader elements of the government’s response to the current crisis.
What concerns me is much of the government’s response has retreated toward what is most familiar: spending vast sums of money; providing officials and ministers with broad, even unparalleled, authority not only to spend that money but to decide exactly who gets it and in what amounts; and toward familiar mantras in relation to where we go in the future, seemingly toward even greater globalism, bigger government and, by implication, toward less democratic and parliamentary oversight as government grows ever larger.
These approaches are reflected, at least in part, in the bill before us today. For example, these measures will certainly involve considerable expenditures. We do not know exactly how much they will cost because the amount of the benefit and the number of recipients are not yet known. However, we can expect at least $9 billion in additional spending.
The bill also gives the minister considerable power in determining who the recipients will be. The amount of the benefit will be set by regulation. Recipient post-secondary institutions will be prescribed by regulation and the amount that an individual can earn while remaining eligible for the benefit will be prescribed by regulation. All of these issues will be the sole responsibility of the minister and his officials.
I am pleased that my Conservative colleagues in the other House were at least partially successful in placing some limited parameters around the government’s request for wide regulatory discretion.
Specifically, the legislation now at least incorporates a requirement that the government connect all applicants to the Canada Job Bank, it mandates a parliamentary review and institutes a sunset clause. These provisions provide at least some limitations on the government’s authority.
As I have stated before, I do not object to helping those who are in need during the current crisis. That is necessary and legitimate.
What worries me is the tendency to do as much as possible by regulation with a minimum amount of oversight and a rather cavalier attitude toward spending, which is typical of this government’s approach. That is why I suspect that the government believes it can get us out of this tight spot simply by increasing spending during the crisis. To date, I have not seen anything that would lead me to believe that the government is seriously trying to understand how we got here and how to prevent such a terrible crisis from happening again.
Over the past five years, the government increased the federal debt by over $100 billion. That means that we were in a more precarious situation at the beginning of the crisis than we were in 2015. What is more, the Parliamentary Budget Officer indicated that another quarter of a trillion dollars will be added to the federal debt in the coming years.
This is why I’m suspicious that the government believes it has to do little more than spend its way out of the current crisis. I see little sign so far that serious questions are being asked about how we got here and how we avoid such a terrible crisis in the future.
Instead, what I see is a government and its supporters retreating to what is familiar. For instance, what does the current crisis tell us about the failings of the globalist agenda of the current government? About how it has approached relations with regimes that have been less than forthcoming with necessary information during this crisis? Do we see any willingness on the part of the government and its supporters to even ask such questions? Because, make no mistake, Canadians will certainly be asking such questions very soon.
We do know that there were some serious failures on the part of the World Health Organization during this crisis. Certainly we know that many prominent figures, including immunologist Maria Van Kerkhove and, of course, Dr. Li Wenliang, who tragically died from the virus, tried to give clear warnings concerning the rapid spread of the virus. Yet in mid-January, the WHO put out a tweet, citing Chinese studies that there is “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission.” Boy, do we know that is wrong.
We also know that on January 22, the World Health Organization Emergency Committee, which included Canada, was divided on whether to declare a public health emergency of international concern. We know that this decision of the committee on January 22 was at least heavily influenced by China, which was firmly against declaring a public health emergency.
Professor Wesley Wark, a noted Canadian security and intelligence expert, who has testified before the Senate’s National Defence and Security Committee on several occasions, has commented that:
When we began to get information coming out of China about the outbreak in Wuhan, we were entirely dependent on one stream of open source reporting, basically, and that reporting was coming from the Chinese authorities, controlled by the state, through the World Health Organization (WHO).
I am not saying that this should lead us to stark solutions related to Canada’s relationship with the WHO, but it should at least require us to be open to the organization’s shortcomings and about the political realities that have governed how that organization has been operating.
However, I don’t see such honesty and frankness from the government. We saw that in a simple question I asked of the minister earlier today; all I got was basically pushing it to the side, there wasn’t need, I don’t know, so on and so forth. We simply don’t know why, despite its shortcomings, the WHO seems to have entirely framed the timing and nature of Canada’s response.
Some states — Taiwan, for example — adopted their own national approaches based on their own analysis that did not rely solely on the WHO pronouncements, as did a few other countries. These were subsequently proven to have been much more reliable.
Israel also took firm national measures early on, weeks before the first Israeli COVID-19 patient was diagnosed. These measures included strict border controls in place in late January, social distancing in February and measures to stock up on the required medical and protective supplies. A country like Greece, right next to the epicentre in Europe of Italy, took similar measures. All of these countries have been lightly hit compared to us and others.
Canada didn’t take any of these measures. We didn’t build in a bias toward multinational analysis through the WHO. I think it is a question that we need to ask, colleagues.
I recently read a comment by Senator Harder in an article on multilateralism in which he lamented, “We are suffering from a collective breakdown of multilateralism.”
I would submit that there is good reason for that. Multilateralism, in its current form and through current institutions, quite simply failed us in this current crisis. I would argue that the Senate should now be in the forefront of asking the hard questions that are becoming increasingly evident as a result of this crisis.
They include: How will we protect ourselves against a similar global health crisis in the future? What steps do we need to take to ensure that we have a higher level of emergency preparedness in Canada than we’ve seen over the last few months? What steps do we need to take to improve our border security and to ensure that we are able to respond with flexibility and rapidity in a future crisis that emanates from outside this country? What steps do we need to take to identify goods vital for our national security and ensure that we have secure national or regional supply chains to meet those requirements? What lessons must we take from the current crisis to reduce our vulnerability in the face of global security threats and challenges? And how will we accomplish all of these objectives and restore our economy, which is in miserable shape right now, given more restricted and finite national revenues?
Colleagues, these are important questions that we all need to reflect on and come up with solutions for Canadians.
Some people might find it hard to accept that incomes will be lower for the next few years, but I think we all need to start facing the reality of the tough financial times that lie ahead. I would add that we need to realize that we’re entering a new era in which decisions will be harder to make than they might have been in the past. As I said, I think the Senate should be at the forefront when it comes to studying these issues, and this study must be done in a realistic, prudent manner.
That examination must bring in a cross-section of Canadian opinion. That is the role of a national Parliament and certainly the role of this upper chamber.
In this respect, I would like to quote from a recent article by Carleton University professor Philippe Lagassé, who stated:
. . . the pandemic has made room for an elusive ideal of democracy, one where ideas, not factions, compete to shape government policy and evidence adjudicates between them. . . .
The emphasis is less on government by the people than by the knowledgeable. . . . a fair number of voices insist that this is not the time for Parliament to sit or for political parties to play their usual role. . . . this view . . . should make us a bit uncomfortable . . . The speed with which popular politics and Parliament can be silenced should give us pause. Partisan politics and representative institutions remain the bedrock of Canadian democracy.
Naturally, colleagues, you all know that I agree with that perspective. The Senate must take the lead in examining the issues arising from this crisis that now confronts us, and many of these challenges will only become more difficult as we go forward. But it must do so in a manner where Canadians of all political perspectives are fully participating in this national discourse and that we work diligently, like I said, to come to conclusions to some of these difficult questions.
First of all, I firmly believe that we need to help students during the COVID-19 crisis. However, I also believe that the government has a duty to prioritize support for students from more modest backgrounds and students who are living with a disability or who have family responsibilities.
Even now, far fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds pursue their studies compared to students from more affluent families. In Quebec, 179,000 students, or one third of all college and university students, received financial assistance in 2016-17. Clearly, they are the ones most in need of help. Doubling scholarship and grant funding is therefore an excellent idea.
What worries me about these new support measures is the fundamental difference between the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for workers who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, which is conditional and can be checked against T4s, and the Canada emergency student benefit, which is available to all students who claim they have looked for work, regardless of their previous income or eligibility for loans and scholarships.
In Quebec in 2016, the employment rate for students aged 15 to 24 during the school year was 45%, one of the highest in the country. The employment rate rose to 52% in the summer. This means that thousands of Quebec students who have never worked in the summer can expect to receive the benefit if they attest they looked for work.
I realize that in an emergency situation it is harder to target certain categories of students. How do we minimize the indisputable economic impact of the CESB, which disincentivizes students from working?
According to the disposable income calculations of two economists at the Université de Sherbrooke, Luc Godbout and Suzie St-Cerny, that were published yesterday, a Quebec student who works 21 hours a week this summer would earn $336 less a month than a student who receives the benefit. What is more, it is more advantageous for a student to get the benefit while earning less than $1,000 a month than to work full time at minimum wage, 35 hours a week.
That is certainly not to say that students would necessarily choose the easy route, but that is the risk. According to a Canada-wide survey commissioned in 2014 by Senator Diane Bellemare, 61% of respondents aged 18 to 34 said they would like to live without having to work. The results of this survey seem to indicate that the desire to work often develops with age.
I would like to briefly respond to my colleagues, Senator Harder and Senator Woo. Having concerns about the terms and conditions of the student benefit does not mean, at least in my case, that I have a superficial and negative view of the work ethic of all students. It depends on the student. They are not a monolithic group where everyone acts in the same way. Unfortunately, there are some troubling indicators, and we cannot delude ourselves.
In Quebec, the government and employers have sounded the alarm because they are already having problems hiring as a result of the announcement of the Canada emergency student benefit. Waterwell, a Montreal irrigation company, stated the following:
The recruitment of workers has always been difficult, we work in a sector that is very physical. But this year, the response rate, it is almost zero! It is said that there are more jobs, but this is not true.
Sylvain Terrault, president of the Quebec Produce Growers Association, is very concerned because, in his opinion, it makes no sense to train students throughout the summer when they will only work part time to keep their benefit.
Quebec’s health sector has a serious shortage of workers in seniors’ homes and hospitals. Students who want to work part time so that they do not lose their benefit won’t be hired, since these places are looking for full-time workers to avoid too much turnover and increased risk of contamination.
To send a clear message to students, the federal government made an addition to the second version of its bill, requiring that students attest to the fact that they are seeking work. I asked for clarification on the scope of this attestation from the federal Department of Employment, and I was told that the program works on the honour system and has no other requirements. I was told that students will not be asked to state in their application for benefits the specific employers to which they have applied for work.
I was encouraged by Minister Carla Qualtrough’s comments earlier, when she said she’d look into requiring that students indicate which jobs they’ve applied for on the form. I hope that the government can fix some shortcomings in the bill and tweak it through regulation to limit any negative impacts.
The situation is completely different for students who live in regions in which there are no available jobs. For them, the Canada emergency student benefit will be a lifeline and will also allow for money to be reinjected into the economy. For the others, I hope that my concerns will prove to be unwarranted and that students will heed the call of employers. Quebec has chosen to reopen part of the economy in May, labour needs are picking up and we need young people to participate in the recovery. It is not just a matter of finances, but of civic duty. Thank you.
Before I speak to Bill C-15, which we are studying today, I’d like to extend my deepest condolences to the Quebec families who are witnessing more and more long-term care home residents succumb to the pandemic every day. Yesterday alone, we lost 92 residents. To make matters worse, this trend will continue for several more days, or maybe weeks, because more than 4,000 care home residents have contracted COVID-19.
In January, I lost my own father, who lived in an excellent long-term care home. Despite his failing faculties, he was still a big part of the lives of his wife, children and grandchildren. Unlike all the families currently mourning the loss of a mother or father, we got to say goodbye to him one last time. Today, not only is the pandemic claiming parents’ lives, sometimes under appalling conditions, but it is also depriving families of the chance to say their last goodbyes and arrange a proper funeral.
To all those going through such a tragedy, I hope you don’t lose heart, but look ahead to better days. To all those taking care of residents in long-term care homes, you have my utmost admiration and my sincerest thanks.
I will now move on to the substance of Bill C-15.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic justifies the implementation of unprecedented health measures in order to protect not only our health system but also the most human lives possible. These measures have largely paralyzed the Canadian economy; are throwing us into a recession; have disrupted the normal functioning of society, cities and regions; and have thrown the daily lives of families, sick people and those living alone into upheaval.
Millions of jobs have been lost, millions of families are worried about their future, millions of people are understandably anxious, millions of students are unable to go to school and learn, and who knows how many women and children are being exposed to domestic violence that has been exacerbated by being confined to small spaces.
Many of the harmful effects of this pandemic will not be remedied quickly or easily. One of these will be felt this summer, when hundreds of thousands of students across the country will be unable to get summer jobs that will help them to earn money to pay for their education and meet their needs.
In the interest of social justice, it is therefore only natural that our country seek to compensate for the disadvantages these young people are experiencing as they’re temporarily deprived of work opportunities through no fault of their own. This is a short-term measure whose objective is not to replace our current social programs, nor is it meant to establish a minimum basic income. That is an extremely complex issue that should be addressed by the elected officials in the other place and in provincial legislatures.
Parenthetically, I would note that section 53 of the Constitution Act, 1867, clearly states that money bills must be introduced in the House of Commons, not the Senate. If there is to be any debate on a guaranteed minimum income, it must take place among elected officials. The potential financial consequences are far too serious and too huge. That said, I think the purpose of Bill C-15, which is a temporary measure, is entirely appropriate, and I wholeheartedly support it.
Even so, we have to make sure that this new support program, no matter how worthy its goal, has no unintended consequences. My colleague, Senator Miville-Dechêne, talked about this earlier. Any regulations the government makes regarding this program must ensure that claimants are encouraged to consider employment opportunities first, even employment opportunities they weren’t aware of. I’m therefore pleased that the government is planning to let people know about available positions and direct claimants to the list of available jobs in their area.
I would also encourage the government to ensure that this program complements provincial programs. This new student benefit program must not invalidate provincial incentive programs, such as the Government of Quebec’s push to support people in the agri-food industry, which my colleague, Senator Saint-Germain, mentioned earlier.
More specifically, as I did during question period with the minister, I urge the government to ensure that the $100 a week that the Quebec government is offering to anyone who agrees to become a temporary farm worker is considered not as a salary under the regulations, but as a separate provincial benefit that doesn’t count towards the $1,000 that a person can earn per month without being penalized.
I would also ask the minister to reconsider the “all or nothing” model proposed for the $1,000 income. Wouldn’t it be better to adopt a percentage-based system that would encourage people to earn more and that would allow for a total of $2,000, like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit? Then a student could earn $1,500 and also receive $500 through the student benefit.
Lastly, I think the government should reconsider the possibility of including international students, like those who worked in Canada perfectly legally last summer, are still living in Canada and are enrolled in a university program that starts in September 2020. These people live here, work here alongside us, and should be eligible for this program because they are still pursuing their studies in Canada.
In closing, I thank the minister and the government in advance for considering these elements when they finalize this temporary but very important program.
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of Bill C-15 and make comments in relation to the overall economic response measures launched by the government to attenuate the impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bill C-15 is another emergency financial aid package aiming to help Canadian students. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right or wrong, has defended his decision not to create a universal basic income for all Canadians. He said his government’s approach has been to try to target its emergency financial assistance in stages to those who need it the most, rather than to everyone at once. Indeed, workers, students and small- and medium-sized enterprises fall into this category. They are among those who need urgent help.
But because of the compartmental nature of the economic assistance, on the one hand, there are still Canadians affected by the COVID-19 crisis who have fallen through the cracks, and, on the other hand, it is important to make sure that the measures are applied in fairness and with transparency.
This week in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister flip-flopped on the issue of support for companies involved in tax avoidance and tax evasion. I urge the government to commit during this crisis to take practical measures to close the tax loopholes and, more broadly, to ensure tax fairness to fairly fund the economic recovery following COVID-19. That is all the more necessary given that the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated in the report he published yesterday that, even though the federal aid is necessary, it could cause Canada’s debt-to-GDP ratio to balloon to more than 48%. The generation of students that we have decided to help today are the ones who will be paying off that debt.
The governments of France, Denmark and Poland banned companies doing business in tax havens from receiving COVID-19 bailouts. France and Denmark are also preventing recipients of government aid from using those funds to pay dividends to shareholders or to buy back their own shares. These conditions are completely necessary to avoid the mistakes made in previous corporate bailouts.
We’re all aware of the debt we’re racking up to provide this aid, and we need to find solutions for recovering the lost revenue.
Canadians for Tax Fairness estimates that Canada loses at least $8 billion every year to corporate offshore tax evasion. Simply put, recovering that money could have almost fully funded the much-needed student support measures in the legislation being adopted today.
While we must support all Canadians through this crisis, the government must take steps to ensure that federal funding does not boost the profits of companies and CEOs that have avoided paying their fair share.
We can be reassured by Minister Lebouthillier’s statement that corporations with revenues over $5 million asking for wage subsidy support would have to go through additional checks from the Canada Revenue Agency. However, will the same happen with the corporations that will be supported by Export Development Canada, Business Development Bank of Canada and the Canada Account? Will the Canada Revenue Agency share information about the hundreds of individuals and corporations under investigation with those entities? What are the conditions attached to corporate support?
During the Forty-second Parliament, Senator Percy Downe proposed Bill S-243, An Act to amend the Canada Revenue Agency Act (reporting on unpaid income tax), a small yet highly efficient and prominent action that can assist with mapping, monitoring and assessing chronic fiscal imbalances, an initiative that I wholeheartedly supported.
The fact that such action has not been taken voluntarily by Minister Lebouthillier is more than disappointing to all Canadians.
Responsible financial experts’ advice is that there should also be prohibitions on corporate stock buybacks, executive bonuses, golden parachutes and shareholder dividend payouts for at least a couple of years.
Further, companies that receive support should limit total executive compensation for any manager or executive to $1 million.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives highlighted that Canada’s 100 highest-paid CEOs made 227 times more than the average worker in 2018, surpassing all previous records and contributing to growing wealth inequality in our country of Canada.
Honourable colleagues, the emergency response to this crisis must support people, not elitist privilege. We have seen this practice in the recent past; we must put mechanisms in place to avoid them.
The need for strict conditions and transparency, I am afraid to say, honourable colleagues, is not provided for in the current legislative framework. Well before this crisis, Export Development Canada, a major conduit for COVID corporate support, was heavily criticized, including by none other than the former minister of trade Jim Carr, who pointed out mistakes and urged the institution to “improve its human-rights, transparency and anti-corruption practices” in an interview with The Globe and Mail in September 2019.
Beyond EDC, Canada has among the weakest corporate transparency rules in the G20. We must change that. We have a very steep governance-transparency hill to climb, and I hope this crisis gives us the motivation to do so. I look forward to working with the government and my colleagues on the National Finance Committee on these very important issues.
I am also concerned that low-income and vulnerable people relying on the dozens of support programs will not get their support if they cannot file their taxes on time, a task which is made almost impossible with the closure of volunteer tax clinics due to the pandemic. I implore the government to waive the tax-filing conditions for those programs or to further delay the tax-filing deadline.
I would like to end this intervention by quoting an April 27 article by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, IPBES.
The article in its reflection on COVID-19 response measures states:
It may be politically expedient at this time to relax environmental standards and to prop up industries such as intensive [mechanized] agriculture, long-distance transportation such as the airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent energy sectors, but doing so without requiring urgent and fundamental change essentially subsidizes the emergence of future pandemics.
Dear colleagues, let’s support the reset of a more inclusive, equal, cleaner and sustainable society and economy.
Honourable senators, I’m pleased to rise today to speak in support of Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits (coronavirus disease 2019). And also it’s wonderful to see all of you. I’m really happy to see you all today.
The emergency benefit for students will allocate $5.2 billion from May through August, which according to an agreement between the parties in the other place, translates into $1,250 per month for eligible students and $2,000 for eligible students with dependents or disabilities.
The spending included in this legislation is accompanied by promises of another $3.8 billion in grants, research funding and interest-free loan deferrals that are not included here today.
I thank the minister for being here today. I thank her for her comments, and although it’s clear that the legislation has flaws and that there are aspects that are still not known, I think it’s a piece of legislation that we must support today.
The legislation is an important step toward providing young people with financial confidence in these challenging times.
Senators, I recall when my children graduated high school and university just a few years ago, and how memorable these events were. The transition from post-secondary to the workplace is particularly important and should be an exciting transition for young people. However, research has shown that if graduating students enter a labour market and an economy that is failing or in recession, the negative effects can last a lifetime. I have been thinking about that a lot when considering this legislation.
We have asked so much of young people these last few months as we have focused on the health crisis and the more vulnerable, older populations. We have asked young people to put their aspirations aside, to put their lives on hold and to stay at home. Imagine how hard it would be at the age of 18 to do all of those things. While we must financially support students at this time, we must also rebuild the Canadian economy to give our younger generations the opportunities that they have worked so hard for and that they deserve.
This support package today reminds us that the COVID-19 crisis has impacted almost every segment and every layer of Canadian society. The federal government has now allocated almost $150 billion for direct supports for individuals and businesses across many sectors. Also $85 billion is going to income and sales tax deferrals, and liquidity supports will be about $500 billion.
The costs are enormous. I am encouraged, however, by new projections from the Public Health Agency of Canada, and I’m encouraged not just because I love algorithms. The research shows that Canadians have, by and large, taken appropriate actions to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis, and there is certainly some cause for optimism.
Like other world crises, this one has produced its share of prognosticators. Some futurists look down the road to the next decade or even the next century and predict the end of globalization, the end of multilateralism, as nations circle the wagons and look inward as a result of the crisis. Others see the greater rise of authoritarianism as a result of the crisis. Other futurists predict the opposite, seeing the crisis as a catalyst for a new era of sustainable development and more equitable societies, where poverty and inequality are reduced.
While I find these predictions either disturbing or fascinating, when I look ahead I see neither a dystopia nor a utopia in our future. Rather, as a practical person, I see this as a chance for this country to make some real improvements in the way we work as we move forward. As we rebuild our economy and fill in the cracks of our health care system, let’s also deal with three areas where I think we can make positive change, areas which have been exposed during these months of the pandemic.
First, the pandemic has exposed, in the worst possible way, the disheartening conditions in Canada’s senior care sector. We’ve learned, for example, in the new report from the Public Health Agency, that 79% of all deaths from COVID-19 are connected to the long-term care sector. We’ve heard from experts that when it comes to senior living facilities, it’s the conditions of work that create the conditions of care. Poor conditions of work create poor care. Good conditions create good care. We need improved training, better salaries, more staff, and better monitoring and oversight in senior care facilities across Canada.
While the sector is under provincial jurisdiction, the federal government, if it wanted to be bold, could play a major role here by using its spending power — just like it does with the Canada Health Act — to create the conditions for improved regulations, better oversight, more information-sharing, and more and stable funding. That is something we should consider.
A second area which has been exposed in this crisis is the way we deal with health data. Yes, data. It’s as simple as that. We need to improve data collection, data sharing and data use.
Let’s start with some data gaps and missing data. For example, we do not collect race-based data on incidence or any other aspects of the health crisis. Research in other countries has revealed differences and inequities based on ethnic and racial background, but we can’t assess that here. As well, how about low-income workers or those in certain occupations? Are they at greater risk, or are some people more likely to recover? We are missing a great deal of information that we really do need.
Another issue coming from the data world is the difficulty in comparing data across provinces. According to Michael Wolfson, former assistant chief statistician for Canada, the lack of comparable data is hindering our ability to deal with the current crisis. If we had such data, we would have the ability to better inform decisions about when to open businesses, when to return to work and school, when we can get our economy going again, how and where we might move away from physical distancing and many other important decisions.
Mr. Wolfson attributes the problem to a fear of transparency on the part of all governments, as well as the fact that provincial governments especially guard their jurisdictions in health, holding on to their silos of data. Canadian federalism is a beautiful thing except when it’s not. Canada is blessed with talented, world-class researchers, research institutes, universities and epidemiologists who can do the research and provide sophisticated analysis and recommendations that we need, but they don’t have the right data.
Honourable senators, these data issues are not expensive to fix; and really, does it take a crisis to move us to fix them?
My third area for improvement as we go forward is that Canada should adopt a universal basic income, as Senator Woo so eloquently spoke of earlier. The federal government should join with the provinces to build upon the lessons learned from programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit to craft an efficient and accessible minimum basic income for all Canadians.
I have been looking at the public opinion research and I see there is actually a good deal of support for various aspects of this program, so I think it would gain public support.
Universal programs eliminate application processes and reduce administration costs. They can be easily distributed and taxed back. They will save us money. And a universal basic income will advance social equity and will help create a better quality of life.
I am impressed by the work that my colleagues Senators Kim Pate and Frances Lankin have devoted to this. I fully support these efforts, as do many of us in this chamber.
Senators, equity is at the heart of the legislation we are considering today; and given that we do not have a basic income program here in Canada, we must continue to fill the gaps left by the newly created CERB program and our other support programs.
To conclude, in my view, the Canada Emergency Student Benefit program deserves our support, but let’s not stop there. Thank you very much.