Third reading of Bill C-50, An Act respecting accountability, transparency and engagement to support the creation of sustainable jobs for workers and economic growth in a net-zero economy

By: The Hon. Diane Bellemare

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Ceremonial Guard on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Hon. Diane Bellemare: Honourable senators, before I deliver my speech, I want to say that we are on the unceded ancestral lands of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

The transition to a net-zero economy is urgent for the planet, but it is also urgent if we wish to protect the standard of living in our country and reverse the downward trend in our per capita standard of living. Making the shift to net-zero is the path to prosperity.

The purpose of this bill, however, is very comprehensive and commendable. Let me quote clause 3 of the bill, which comes after a long preamble:

The purpose of this Act is to facilitate and promote economic growth, the creation of sustainable jobs and support for workers and communities in Canada in the shift to a net-zero economy through a framework to ensure transparency, accountability, engagement and action by relevant federal entities, including those focused – at the national and regional level – on matters such as skills development, the labour market, rights at work, economic development and emissions reduction.

When I read the first version of this bill in 2022, I thought it was a big sectorial committee, the purpose of which was upskilling and reskilling of oil and gas employees in the Western provinces. Now I have changed my view. I think of it as a more comprehensive, ambitious and multi-sectorial federal initiative to reshape many aspects of the Canadian economy.

I feel that Senator Yussuff rightly pointed out that this is much more than a sectoral committee; it is an initiative to reshape Canada’s economy.

Looking beyond the principles and generous objectives described in the preamble to this bill, here is how I would describe, in concrete terms, the issue or issues that Bill C-50 addresses.

The issue is first and foremost to help all Canadians — whether they are Indigenous, racialized, living with a disability or are part of the 2SLGBTQI+ community — who will have to move to a different job that is consistent with the net-zero objectives that Canada has agreed to internationally, and to do so while upholding a set of principles.

This bill is mainly about helping Canadians transition from a high-carbon-emitting job to a sustainable one. This bill is about upskilling, reskilling and creating sustainable jobs. It is not only about training; it is also about creating jobs. It is much more comprehensive than the main purpose of Employment Insurance, which is to sustain income and reintegrate unemployed participants back into gainful employment.

The Bill C-50 issue goes beyond the professional integration of vulnerable groups and the unemployed. Moreover, while this bill focuses on job transitions linked to climate change, it won’t be able to ignore job transitions caused by technological change, demographic change and international political crises. In my opinion, the federal and provincial governments cannot work on these issues in silos.

Indeed, let me briefly describe the tasks to be undertaken. First, to achieve the purpose of Bill C-50, Canadians must be willing and available for training. Employers must encourage their employees to train, then training providers must be ready to offer proper training on the job, in institutions or elsewhere, and to certify these new skills. Suitable replacement income while training also needs to be offered to maintain the standard of living of those who get the training. Enterprises need to invest in green sectors and create new jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, mining or elsewhere in the service economy. They must get the financing and all the permits and authorizations needed to start greener projects. All of these are done at the local, municipal or provincial level.

On June 5, at a meeting of the Social Affairs Committee, Rick Smith from Leduc County in Alberta, which Senator Yussuff just spoke about, explained how his community proceeded to transition its local economy from coal to agriculture and manufacturing. He explained how this success story relied on collective actions at the local level with the participation of the province, which had to adapt regulations to deliver permits within the proper timing to create new jobs.

In short, the transition to net-zero jobs requires the participation of many local and regional stakeholders, who will have to work together by promoting social dialogue. The witnesses who appeared before the committee made that quite clear.

I will be voting in favour of this bill because it is fundamental and must be done, but we can also raise concerns. Can we really believe that the objectives that the government is trying to achieve will be met in the context of shared federal-provincial responsibilities? What challenges will the sustainable jobs partnership council and the sustainable jobs secretariat have to face? That’s what I’m going to talk about.

In my opinion, there are many challenges associated with Bill C-50. In the next few minutes, I will focus on two major challenges. First, the federal government doesn’t currently have control over the institutional mechanism needed for the effective implementation of a transition plan. Second, the current sources of funding for implementing the plan are insufficient.

Implementing a transition plan is clearly dependent on local and provincial institutions. It is dependent on partnerships that must first be built between the company and its workforce, then with local training institutions and with provincial and federal economic development agencies. The federal government doesn’t have the appropriate local institutional arrangements to achieve its objectives unless it has solid partnerships with the provinces. This is often the challenge with federations.

The transition’s success can’t be based on an action plan developed with granular data produced by federal civil servants — no matter how competent they may be. The action plan can’t come from the top. It must be drawn up by the stakeholders or partners concerned, and they must also be the ones to implement it. This principle is especially important in free and democratic societies.

In a past life, when I was the CEO of the Société québécoise de développement de la main-d’œuvre, or SQDM, the Quebec workforce development corporation, we developed regional action plans to get unemployed persons back into the workforce. Quebec’s unemployment rates were very high at the time. These plans targeted the local and regional levels. Employees of local and regional offices and partners on regional tables knew the workforce, the companies in the region and their future plans. Making plans was helpful. Think global, act local, that was our motto and it worked. We had no choice, everything was happening on the ground.

The Quebec Commission des partenaires du marché du travail, or labour market partners commission, set out the broad parameters, but interventions were negotiated locally with companies and service providers. Partnerships were also established with local and regional economic development agencies.

In my opinion, the federal government can’t monitor the transition of people who work in companies in the regions and in the municipalities based on statistical information that is outdated as soon as it is published and can’t take into account the companies’ future intentions and plans. In fact, the Governor of the Bank of Canada made a similar observation, stating that he couldn’t conduct his monetary policy using model-based statistics, as they reflect the past, whereas the future is increasingly uncertain and ever-changing.

It is through labour market agreements with the provinces that the federal government can promote transitions in the labour market regardless of whether they are technology-, climate- or demographics-based. We can hope that the system put in place in the bill is used in establishing renewed labour market agreements. I think that is key and that the partnership council and the secretariat won’t be able to overlook labour market agreements.

That’s why I suggested at second reading stage that the EI commissioners be invited to participate at the very least as observers, because they are the ones who control the labour market agreements. It is truly a responsibility to follow the funding of local agreements with each of the provinces.

I’d now like to talk about the financial challenges. Transitioning the Canadian economy poses a major financial challenge. It is no small thing. One has to wonder, where will the money to fund Bill C-50 come from? A small amount of about $99 million was provided for in the finance minister’s budget, but that certainly won’t cover the cost of the transition. We need to make sure that we have a proper budget for this.

What the government is telling those who ask how it plans to fund the transition is that Bill C-50 will be funded under Part II of the Employment Insurance Act and under the general revenue targeted for vulnerable groups. All of that will be used to make a major transition. The problem, and I will come back to this, is that EI recipients, regardless of whether they are receiving benefits under Part I or Part II of the act, are generally people who paid into the system and who lost their job. They aren’t people who work in sectors with high greenhouse gas emissions and who are at risk of losing their job. Employment insurance helps employed people only in exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, the maximum replacement income of $668 per week in 2024 — the average is generally half of that — is far less than the wages paid in greenhouse gas-emitting industries. These industries need to transition. There are a lot of issues to address and employment insurance reform is going to become urgent, if we want to transition to a greener economy.

A number of participants at the fifth jobs and skills round table convened by the EI commissioners on June 3, argued for the need to reform employment insurance so that this important program better reflects the challenges of the day associated with professional transitions, be they climatic, technological or demographic crises.

Right now, the training and workforce integration measures used to do all the work is funded under Part II of the Employment Insurance Act, implemented in 1994. The Employment Insurance Act, colleagues, provides that job transition funding can amount to a maximum 0.8% of payroll in the GDP, but this has never been reached. EI funds have increased very little since 1994. They rose slightly in 2017, when the federal government added $625 million under a six-year agreement, again through EI, that it no longer wants to renew. Funding provided for EI currently amounts to $2.3 billion, minus the $625 million that will be pulled out. Other amounts, roughly $600 million, are also available from general revenues. All of that pales in comparison to the challenges we face, as outlined by the OECD.

For example, in 2019 and 2020, my office conducted a survey, carried out by Nanos, in order to see how Canadians perceive their training needs and their future. This survey obtained similar results before and after the pandemic, and these results, which intersect with the OECD results, were published prior to the pandemic for all industrialized countries and for Canada.

In the survey we sent to Canadians in December 2023, 20% of employed respondents thought it was likely or somewhat likely that technological advances and climate change would threaten their jobs. A total of 20% of Canadians thought that climate change, technological advances or other changes pose a threat to their jobs. That represents four million Canadians, and these figures are comparable to the slightly lower OECD figures, which are closer to 17%. Thirty-seven per cent of employed Canadians who responded to the survey think it is likely or somewhat likely that technological and climate change will affect their work tasks and that they will require training. That amounts to eight million Canadians. An even higher percentage of young people gave that same answer, and they’re fresh out of school.

The need for training in Canada is fundamental, and this is especially true for industries that emit a lot of greenhouse gases to help with their transition. A major training effort is needed.

These programs are funded by the labour agreements currently signed between the federal government and the provinces. They are for a fixed term and differ from province to province, but generally involve labour market partners.

In short, EI needs to be reformed to better fund labour market transitions and training for those at risk of losing their jobs. This practice must become the norm, not the exception, as is currently the case.

We need to pass Bill C-50. It is a major target and a big task to achieve, but we need to be cognizant of the fact that this bill doesn’t answer all the questions and that the agreements with the provinces will be essential to getting this right.

Before concluding, I’d like to add a few comments about First Nations. The Social Affairs Committee heard from First Nations chiefs who don’t want their communities to be considered as one of the target groups and vulnerable groups. On that, Chief Freddie Huppé Campbell couldn’t have been any clearer.

Colleagues, let’s not forget that First Nations people have been living on the land since time immemorial and we owe them our respect. The climate crisis is having an impact on the economic and social development created for First Nations, by First Nations. Their presence at the sustainable jobs partnership council is certainly invaluable. However, the federal government should consider concluding friendly agreements with them for the delegation of authority with results-based objectives and targets developed with them in bilateral agreements.

In conclusion, the bill’s intentions are both laudable and necessary if we want the planet and Canada to survive. I believe in those objectives and will be voting in favour of the bill. However, implementing Bill C-50 could cause friction with certain provinces, even if the government plans to act in its own areas of jurisdiction and respect provincial jurisdictions. The problem is that it cannot take a silo approach. If it really wants to make economic prosperity and the well-being of all Canadians a priority, the federal government must, in my opinion, focus on cooperation and social dialogue with the economic players, as proposed in Bill C-50, and it mustn’t forget the provinces. This is in Canada’s best interest.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

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