COVID-19 Emergency Response Bill: Consideration in Committee of the Whole

By: The Hon. Jim Munson

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Senator Munson: Thank you, minister, for being here today. It’s so important.

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I have three quick questions on behalf of my group, the progressive group in the Senate. The first question is submitted by Senator Lillian Dyck from Saskatchewan and it is about the Indigenous people.

A budget of $305 million is set aside. There is concern because in the H1N1 pandemic the numbers were so high in comparison to other Canadians. Can you explain how $305 million will be sufficient to provide protection and treatment for COVID-19 in Indigenous communities? I will go to my second and third questions as we have time.

Mr. Morneau: Thank you. We recognize that the COVID-19 crisis will affect literally all of us in terms of how we’re living our lives, and perhaps some of us in more dramatic ways based on our situation, for example, people living on reserve or people who don’t have the same access to health care. That is why we allocated special funding to Indigenous peoples. Of course, the funding we’ve put for the entire country is also funding for every Canadian, which is important for us to consider.

Our ability to continue to deal with this public health crisis, which is in the legislation you’re looking at, will allow us to respond appropriately to issues as they arise. This will include the ability for us to deal with challenges, as they emerge, facing Indigenous peoples.

I will tell you that we allocated $305 million for this right now because we think there are measures we need to take immediately. To the extent there are additional measures we need to take because of emerging situations that cannot be predicted at this time, we will move forward and take those measures.

Senator Munson: Thank you, minister. In terms of EI benefits, many Canadians don’t have access to a computer, and in many communities schools and libraries are closed. How do those Canadians apply if there is no way for them to apply online? Where do they go? What do they do? I think there is some desperation in trying to get these forms in quickly. There are many Canadians who don’t have this technology.

Mr. Morneau: First, there will be multiple challenges because there are many people who aren’t in the EI system, as you know. About 5.7 million of the 19 million Canadian workers aren’t in the EI system, so in most cases they have no familiarity with the system at all. That’s why we’re introducing a very simplified approach, which is critically important for people to be able to receive benefits.

In the case of those individuals being able to go online — and I acknowledge that not everyone will have that capacity, although most Canadians do — they will be able to go online and receive direct deposit. We are working with the banks to increase the number of people who have direct deposit capability. Currently about 70% of Canadians through the CRA system have direct deposit. We are looking now at how we can increase that 70%, and the banks are working on it.

For those who don’t have access to online facilities, we acknowledge that there is a bigger challenge. We are moving significant numbers of people from the work they’ve been doing into the work they will need to do in call centres. We set up a call centre at CRA rapidly. In the EI system, we’re moving about 1,300 people to this function. Of course, in the CRA system we have a significant number of people who can respond because we have deferred the tax administration, so there are another thousand people or so.

Those numbers are current as of yesterday. We will certainly have to be nimble and respond to this as we see calls come in that will likely be more significant in number than ever before.

Senator Munson: Thank you. In terms of credit card debt, will the government coordinate with major credit card companies and banks to offer relief to their customers via payment or interest rates during this unprecedented time?

Mr. Morneau: Credit card debt is actually debt from the banks. We have been working with the banks to look at how they can help people during this time. Importantly, we have obtained the banks’ agreement on ideas like the ability to skip a payment on credit card debt.

There are three kinds of debt that are in the unsecured category or similar to credit card debt: credit card debt, auto loans and unsecured loans. The banks have developed protocols so that people can skip debt payments. We’re working to ensure they communicate that to Canadians. We are also looking at other ways we can be supportive, but that’s an important start.

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