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

By: The Hon. Pierre Dalphond

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Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond: 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.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

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