Appropriation Bill No. 5, 2020-21

Second Reading--Debate

December 9, 2020

Hon. Raymonde Gagné (Legislative Deputy to the Government Representative in the Senate) [ + ]

Moved second reading of Bill C-17, An Act for granting to Her Majesty certain sums of money for the federal public administration for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2021.

She said: Honourable senators, I am pleased to speak at second reading of Bill C‑17, An Act for granting to Her Majesty certain sums of money for the federal public administration for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2021, which we are now considering.

I will speak to this bill at greater length when it is at third reading stage, and I very much look forward to continuing debate on these two bills. Thank you.

Honourable senators, I want to start by thanking Senator Mockler and Senator Forest for their heartfelt comments about the forgotten poor.

The federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic so far, including the measures set out in the Supplementary Estimates (B), has repeatedly emphasized the importance of human, health and economic terms in addressing economic marginalization and inequality as part of a successful post-pandemic recovery. Over the past nine months, COVID-19 has hit hardest those who are most marginalized, those most systemically excluded and those with the least.

Indeed, the Fall Economic Statement stressed:

And, recent data from Toronto Public Health shows that people with lower income levels and racialized communities experience higher rates of both contracting and being hospitalized for COVID-19. . . . Black, Latin American, Arab, Middle Eastern or West Asian people are at least seven times more likely to contract COVID-19 than non-racialized people in the city. Across Canada, Statistics Canada data shows that communities with the highest numbers of racialized Canadians had the highest mortality rates during the first wave of the pandemic.

While COVID-19 is an unprecedented situation, the stark link between income and health highlighted by this pandemic, however devastating, is not new. Over the past nine months we have witnessed how providing direct income support to people benefits not merely those in need, but all of us. Income support measures like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit helped some Canadians to be able to afford to stay home from work, follow public health guidelines, get the supplies and treatment they needed and keep themselves, their families and all of us safe.

The CERB and other direct support to individuals during the pandemic have also helped the economy. They helped to stabilize demand for goods and services and sustain a rebound in commercial spending. This should come as no surprise. Canada is deriving economic benefit as a result of guaranteed-income type measures such as the Canada child benefit. Those economic contributions represent 2.1% of Canada’s total GDP and generate $1.97 in economic activity for every $1 disbursed to families, in addition to keeping 277,000 families out of poverty.

As the report just issued by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis emphasized, a national guaranteed liveable income, if adopted, would in five years contribute 1.6 to 2.4% of Canada’s total GDP, create more than 300,000 or 450,000 jobs and lift at least 3.2 million families out of poverty.

The Fall Economic Statement cautions that traditional economic measurements such as gross domestic product alone do not give a full picture of Canada’s quality of life, acknowledging that COVID-19 recovery requires:

. . . thinking holistically about factors like health and mental health, communities and culture, safety and human rights, job quality and opportunity. It also means thinking inclusively about the distribution of outcomes.

The report concludes that inequality makes our economy less resilient, which is why a robust and complete recovery must leave no one behind. All of us stand to benefit when we move forward together and refuse to leave others behind.

It is painfully clear that COVID-19 responses encapsulated in the supplementary estimates and summarized in the Fall Economic Statement do, in fact, leave people behind. Worse still, despite many promises, the government has yet to provide adequate supports to more than 3.5 million people in Canada — those living below the poverty line. Those with the least have been excluded from income support measures like the CERB and enhancements to EI. Only those who have earned at least $5,000 per year qualify for the CERB or its successors. Unintuitively, outrageously and incomprehensibly, this has created a system, where, in a time of need and crisis, emergency income support systems are actually turning people away on the grounds that they have too little. They do not have enough income to qualify for help.

Colleagues, this is wrong, and we should not once again turn away because the government continues to say, “Not yet.”

In most provinces and one territory, income supports like the CERB have been clawed back from those on social or disability assistance who do qualify for them. For those who do not qualify, the alternative is to try to weather a pandemic on social or disability assistance that, in every provincial and territorial jurisdiction, is not merely too meagre to meet basic needs, but is criminally low, and our passing these estimates makes us complicit.

Colleagues, among the more than 3.5 million who are still waiting are those who are disproportionately women and racialized people who lost a job and were not eligible for EI prior to the pandemic, or were working multiple inadequately waged gigs but were still not able to make $5,000.

It includes people who were in the process of starting new businesses or were self-employed or living contract-to-contract in fields like the arts.

It includes seniors in need who applied for the CERB, which will then result in decreasing the amounts they will receive from the Guaranteed Income Supplement in the future.

It includes people, especially women and racialized women, who, pre-COVID, were doing unpaid work caring for children and/or elderly loved ones with disabilities.

It includes people with undiagnosed disabilities themselves who were not working or were in hospital or in recovery.

It includes people who, before COVID-19, could not afford the transportation, childcare or clothing to look for work.

It includes people not working because they are unable to afford losing the pharmacare benefits provided through social assistance schemes.

Of the $407 billion COVID-19 response plan, those with the very least have, at most, perhaps received a one-time payment of $400, and only then if they were on the CRA rolls and registered for the GST tax credit.

Conversely, during the pandemic, the total wealth of Canada’s 20 richest people — who were already billionaires — has grown by at least $37 billion, while one in five households with children has become food insecure.

At the outset of the pandemic, those who were low-wage workers were more likely to have lost work: a 38% decline in employment compared to 13% for higher-waged workers, and a 41% decline for low-wage women workers in particular. For the most marginalized and those in precarious or service delivery or hospitality sectors, their low-paying jobs have been slower than other jobs to re-emerge, and less likely to be able to be accomplished through telework.

Colleagues, just because the stigma and lack of resources that render so many below the poverty line is of limited significance in the other place does not allow us to also render them voiceless. We have an obligation to represent minority interests, so let’s do our job. We need measures to ensure that all make it through this crisis and to counter increasing economic inequality and marginalization that amplifies vulnerability to the continuing crisis and future waves of this or the next health, environmental or economic crisis.

Last April, 50 of us joined together to call for the evolution of the CERB into a guaranteed liveable basic income, accessible to all in need. In July, the Senate National Finance Committee called for priority consideration of a guaranteed basic income program. Not only would such a measure allow people to definitively leave poverty behind, but the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the then governor of the Bank of Canada were just two among the chorus of experts emphasizing that such a measure could better position Canada to respond to the next emergency we face.

As we near the holidays, the winter and the end of 2020, the devastating impact of the pandemic continues with absolutely nothing — as in zero; none — in terms of support measures on the horizon for those who need it the most.

The federal government has been clear that Canada’s COVID-19 response cannot afford to leave anyone behind. For nine months, we have urged measures that would make that true, and instead, we have watched program after program roll out ignoring the 3.5 million people in most desperate need.

Some would say a pandemic is not the time to risk bold change for the better. Colleagues, if not now — when inequality and marginalization have disproportionately pushed poor people, many of whom are women, racialized and living with disabilities, to the brink of illness and even death — then when?

We have seen the government make bold changes quickly through measures like the CERB to assist in protecting middle-class folks from being plunged into poverty. We need equally bold measures to ensure that the working poor and others struggling to survive in poverty are provided with measures that will allow them to not only climb out but to emerge from and rebound from poverty.

To the credit of the government, Bill C-17 contains $20 billion to fund laudable measures to fight COVID-19 and to protect many of those living in Canada. However, because the COVID-19 response has continually and systemically left out those most in need, these measures come to us at the expense of and, therefore, on the backs of those most marginalized. We should not let this happen. For too long we have lamented and empathized with the plight of those living below the poverty line, while spending on programs that do not allow them to get out of poverty or, worse, entirely leaves them behind.

We have a chance to make a difference for them. What I am asking of us, colleagues, is a bold but vital step. As unelected senators, it is not within our power to legislate the kind of spending that we would like to see. As the chamber of sober second thought, however, it is our duty to keep a clear and unflinching eye on the long-term best interests of Canada, in particular, for the marginalized groups that we are mandated to represent. We cannot, in all good conscience, leave it too late to build guardrails for the more than 3.5 million Canadians plummeting off the cliff into the chasm of poverty.

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