Third reading of Bill C-15, An Act respecting Canada emergency student benefits (coronavirus disease 2019) – Sen. Munson

By: The Hon. Jim Munson

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Inside the National Gallery of Canada

Hon. Jim Munson: 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.

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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.

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