Third reading of Bill C-4, An Act relating to certain measures in response to COVID-19

By: The Hon. Pierre Dalphond

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Hon. Pierre J. Dalphond: Honourable senators, I would like to begin by extending my deepest condolences to the family of Joyce Echaquan, especially to this young mother’s seven children, and to the Atikamekw of Manawan community.

I was born and raised in Joliette, and I worked for many years at the hospital where Ms. Echaquan died. I am shocked at what happened, and it fills me with sadness.

Ms. Echaquan was a seriously ill woman in need of medical care and compassion, but she was treated with contempt and disdain because she was an Indigenous woman. Racism like that is unacceptable. Sadly, it is an expression of deeper systemic racism. The whole truth about this incident must come out. Let us hope it will result in changed attitudes and genuine reconciliation.

Now I would like to comment briefly on the context surrounding the passage of Bill C-4.

Since June 2019, the Senate has seen its activities substantially reduced. The summer recess was followed by a general election, a slow recall of Parliament and the pandemic. As a result, this chamber has sat for only 128 hours over 32 days since June 2019. During the same period, the House of Commons has sat for 344 hours over 50 days. At the committee level, the differences are even more striking.

COVID-19, the dynamics of the minority government in the other place and our inability to reach consensus on ways to carry out our functions in the previous session have transformed — momentarily, I hope — our institution into what the leader of the Canadian Senators Group, Senator Tannas, has rightly described as a rubber-stamp body. We need hybrid sittings as a step to resume our regular functions with the full participation of all senators.

Unfortunately, we are once again being asked to ratify this bill speedily without holding long debates or undertaking a thorough parliamentary committee analysis. This is a major bill for expenditures in excess of $51 billion.

I guess I am close to agreeing with Senators Martin and Plett on this. Maybe it’s because I come from Joliette, the home riding of Roch La Salle, a family friend.

During the first wave of the pandemic, the government had to support Canadians by rapidly implementing temporary benefits such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB, and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit, or CESB. Unfortunately, CERB was not coordinated with EI, which caused glitches in the system. This meant that workers who were eligible for EI were applying for CERB instead, since it provided $500 a week for up to 26 weeks, whereas payments from EI would have been lower and also taxed at the source.

CESB also contained a startling clause. A student who earned $1,001 in a one-month period would lose the entire $1,500 benefit, whereas a student who earned $999 would keep the whole thing. Furthermore, in practice, these two benefits had an adverse impact on employment. In Quebec, staff at long-term care homes quit their jobs so they could claim CERB.

Employers in the restaurant sector could not recruit enough student workers this summer, so they had to reduce their business hours. Business groups across the country complained of similar unintended consequences, and Senator Martin also talked about them.

In this regard, we can learn some lessons from what happened south of the border. There, the U.S. Department of Labor provides unemployment benefits to eligible workers who become unemployed through a joint state-federal program. Each state administers a separate unemployment insurance program, but all states must follow the federal guidelines.

In response to the pandemic, Congress adopted various measures, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Pursuant to this legislation and the billions of dollars attached to it, states are providing pandemic unemployment assistance up to the end of this year to individuals who are self-employed, seeking part-time employment or who otherwise would not qualify for regular unemployment compensation. Like regular unemployment benefits, individuals receiving assistance must act upon any referrals for suitable employment. In other words, it is intended to provide coverage during a temporary lack of work, as an integral part of the tools available to manage the labour market during the pandemic.

On the other hand, in Canada, CERB and CESB were launched without much coordination with the provinces and lack a requirement to accept suitable employment, or a strong incentive to work or improve skills. The programs were not conceived as part of a larger framework designed to provide access to skills, training and unemployment supports to help the beneficiaries to get back to work.

As our unemployment rate went up from 5.5% in January to 13.7% in May, close to 9 million Canadians applied for CERB, and about 8.6 million received it at one point from the Canada Revenue Agency, helping them to pay their bills during a challenging time and reducing stress on millions of families.

Because of the features that I just described, some have seen in CERB nothing but a fiscal measure to support income. Many, including members of this chamber, have been advocating the replacement of the CERB, which is soon coming to an end, with either a universal basic income for all Canadians regardless of income level, or, at least, a guaranteed minimum income for Canadians below a certain income level.

In July, the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimated the cost of a guaranteed basic income for a six-month period starting this October at between $46 billion and $96 billion, depending on the applicable reduction rate. These costs could be offset by approximately $15 billion by repealing all existing federal and provincial refundable and non-refundable tax credits, such as the caregiver tax credit, the disability tax credit and the GST credit.

The response of the premiers to the Speech from the Throne has clearly indicated that provincial governments would oppose any federal initiative designed to replace or alter the social programs they currently run. As Senator Harder said last night, Canada is a federation, and one of our functions is to represent our provinces and regions in this federal Parliament.

In my view, putting in place a guaranteed income is not a realistic option without provincial participation, except maybe for Aboriginal peoples. However, a major reform of the Employment Insurance system is within the sole bailiwick of the federal government.

In the Speech from the Throne, the government recognized that this pandemic has shown that Canada needs an EI system for the 21st century, including for the self-employed and those in the gig economy.

As pointed out by many experts and economists, including our colleague, Senator Bellemare, it must be acknowledged that the EI system has become overly restrictive and is incapable of responding to emergencies that significantly affect employment in Canada.

In the Speech from the Throne, the government also announced that, over the coming months, the Employment Insurance system will become the sole delivery mechanism for employment benefits, including for workers who would not have qualified for EI before the pandemic. This is a very important announcement for the Canadian gig economy.

Honourable senators, we should be proactive in this area through studies and committee hearings with experts in order to suggest an appropriate process and to consider options.

In my opinion, such a reform should not be left to the executive, subject only to negotiations between a minority government and one or two dancing partners in the House of Commons.

Incidentally, through recent changes in regulations, the government has already amended the Employment Insurance system in order to transition no fewer than 2.8 million Canadians from CERB to EI benefits.

The so-called simplified EI program provides for the following temporary measures: to help claimants reach the minimum threshold for EI, they are given a one-time credit of 300 insurable hours for claims for regular benefits — job loss — and 480 insurable hours for claims for special benefits such as sickness, maternity and/or parental leave, compassionate care — in other words, only 120 hours of work are now required to qualify; the minimum EI benefit is increased to $500 per week to align with the expiring CERB and the new Canada recovery benefit; workers are entitled to at least 26 weeks of regular benefits; the use of a minimum employment rate of 13.1% for all economic regions in order to lower the hours required to qualify, a measure effective for one year, starting on August 9, 2020; and a freeze of employees’ and employers’ premium rates at the 2020 level.

Overall, these measures represent an additional charge to the EI system of over $10 billion.

In addition, the government will add $1.5 billion to the $3.4 billion already provided to provinces and territories under the Labour Market Development Agreements and the Workforce Development Agreements in 2020-21 to retain workers. The government will also significantly scale up the Youth Employment and Skills Strategy to provide more paid experience next year for young Canadians.

Finally, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy paid to employers is also extended right through next summer.

Clearly, the whole government strategy is now focused on labour market recovery and the creation of new jobs. Unfortunately, a second wave of COVID-19 is striking Canadians while the reform of Employment Insurance is just beginning.

Hence, Bill C-4, which, as stated by Senator Dean yesterday, provides for the three temporary benefits of $500 per week: a Canada recovery benefit to workers who are self-employed or not eligible for EI and who cannot work due to COVID, or those whose income has dropped by at least 50%; a Canada recovery sickness benefit for workers who are sick and must self-isolate; and a Canada recovery caregiving benefit for Canadians unable to work because of the need to attend to a child or a relative.

The cost of these three new temporary benefits are significant: $24 billion for the CRB only.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Senator Dalphond, your time is up. Are you asking for five more minutes?

Senator Dalphond: One minute will be enough.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Dalphond: Thank you. Contrary to the previous temporary benefits, the new ones are clearly linked to the labour market. For example, Canadians receiving the new CRB must be available and looking for work and must accept work where it is reasonable to do so.

I am also glad to see that Bill C-4 provides for a gradual reduction of the CRB beyond a certain level of earned salary instead of a complete loss of benefits. This should be an incentive for self-employed individuals and other workers to focus on resuming work, including part-time, as soon as possible.

On a final point, I am wondering whether single self-employed individuals whose incomes have fallen by $40,000 or $50,000 over the past few months will still be able to collect benefits. I’m not convinced that this expense is absolutely necessary, and a committee study could have explored that further.

To sum up, honourable senators, just like all the parties in the House of Commons, I do support the passage of this bill, but not without lamenting the fact that the government did not give us an opportunity to examine it carefully. In that respect, I support the arguments made by many of my Conservative caucus colleagues, with whom it has not taken me seven years to agree.

I urge you to pass Bill C-4, which will give Canadians the legislation they need, and I hope we can move quickly and decisively toward a comprehensive reform of Canada’s employment insurance system to bring it in line with the new economy.

Let’s make sure the Senate and its deliberations create added value. The government needs this. As we have seen, some programs appear to have been put together on the fly. The government needs the Senate’s sober second thought.

Thank you, meegwetch.

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