Third reading of Bill S-244, An Act to amend the Department of Employment and Social Development Act and the Employment Insurance Act (Employment Insurance Council), as amended

By: The Hon. Diane Bellemare

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Hon. Diane Bellemare: Honourable senators, I would like to begin by acknowledging that I am delivering this speech on the unceded traditional territories of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

It is my pleasure today to introduce third reading of Bill S-244, An Act to amend the Department of Employment and Social Development Act and the Employment Insurance Act (Employment Insurance Council). The bill aims to create an Employment Insurance council to strengthen social dialogue within the EI Commission.

In my previous speech, I spoke at length about the foundation of social dialogue and its merits. I also talked about the International Labour Organization’s international conventions on social dialogue practices in employment insurance programs that Canada follows.

At the risk of repeating myself, I want to remind you of the following facts: Employment insurance came late to Canada relative to England, in 1911, and to other European countries. According to the Constitution of 1867, employment insurance was considered a provincial responsibility. The Constitution had to be amended in 1940 to give the federal government the exclusive responsibility of this jurisdiction.

Unemployment insurance was originally managed by a tripartite agency representing business, labour and government. This agency was independent of ministerial powers until the mid-1970s, when the Unemployment Insurance Commission became part of the then Department of Employment and Social Development. It was not the same name, but it was the same department.

Until 1998, the commission relied on the advice of joint advisory councils made up of an equal number of business and labour representatives — the main four being the National Employment Committee, until 1965; the UI Advisory Committee, until 1976; Canada Employment and Immigration Advisory Committee, until 1992; and the Canadian Labour Force Development Board, until 1998.

From then on, unemployment insurance, which was renamed employment insurance in 1994, has been managed by the department. The Employment Insurance Commission includes a commissioner for unions and a commissioner for employers, so the influence of social partners, while recognized in principle, differs from the social dialogue best practices recommended by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Labour Organization’s international conventions.

This bill seeks to create, within the Employment Insurance Act, an advisory council for the Employment Insurance Commission, which would be co-chaired by the two commissioners representing the labour market, the commissioner for workers and the commissioner for employers. This bill has the support of representatives of the major employer and worker associations in Canada.

Why this bill? In a nutshell, it’s to improve the commission’s effectiveness in its role as an adviser to the government by informing it of the needs and approaches favoured by labour market players, proposing mutually beneficial public strategies and facilitating the implementation of public strategies and policies in the Employment Insurance sector.

The current Employment Insurance Commission is made up of four people, namely, the Deputy Minister and the Associate Deputy Minister of Employment and Social Development Canada plus two commissioners, who are appointed after consultations with labour organizations or business associations. It is chaired by the deputy minister or, in his absence, by the associate deputy minister.

This commission plays an advisory role. Typically, the commission chairperson, the deputy minister, speaks on behalf of the commission. The deputy minister is appointed by the Governor in Council and reports to the minister. The commissioners consult the communities they represent, but they cannot arbitrate between differing opinions to present common advice.

The purpose of this bill is to create a permanent round table that will bring clarity to the various consultations undertaken by the government by making the necessary arbitrations to produce clear and common advice. Bill S-244 aims to create an advisory council to the Canada Employment Insurance Commission so as to facilitate the commission’s task of providing consensus advice based on experience in the field, as well as the experiences of businesses and the workforce.

National, provincial, sectoral and local unions and business associations are anchored in the real world, gathering qualitative information that is essential for policy development and that complements and gives meaning to statistical data.

I would like to share a quote from the late Professor Donna Wood, who spoke at a round table organized by the Atkinson Foundation. I spoke about a lot of her work during second reading. She said:

All governments need a high-quality knowledge infrastructure to support evidence-based policy design and implementation. This includes advisory bodies — permanent and ad hoc — that provide governments with information, facts, and evidence-based analysis and advice along all phases of the policy cycle.

Permanent advisory bodies tend to have broad and long-term expertise, while ad hoc bodies often serve as a ‘fast-track’ option for governments seeking more specialized advice on short notice. . . .

Of note, EI also has an impact on companies’ human resources management and influences workers’ human capital investment decisions. Any change to the EI program will have positive or negative consequences for business and workforce decisions. That is why it is so important to take into account the needs of companies and the workforce. After all, their contributions are financing the entire program, which costs about $30 billion, according to 2021 statistics.

What are the needs of the workforce and businesses?

The economic context has changed since the program was created in 1940 and since the last major reform in 1994. Factors such as the aging population and associated labour shortages, the climate crisis and the technological challenges related to the use of artificial intelligence, to name but a few, require major investments in skills development, which falls largely under provincial jurisdiction. In addition to the need to support workers’ incomes during involuntary job interruptions, the reason why unemployment insurance was created in the first place, Canadians also need to improve their skills.

The issue of skills development is often underestimated in public debates and election campaigns. In my experience, politicians often think that Canadians don’t want to train and so they do not include that issue in their election platforms, since they do not think it will win them votes.

How do Canadians perceive training needs? Ultimately, Canadians themselves are the ones who have to deal with the challenges they face. They are the ones who have to get training. How do they perceive their training needs?

In an attempt to answer that question, I conducted a survey with Nanos in December 2019. In 2023, I asked the same firm to update the survey results to see if the pandemic and the subsequent economic slowdown had changed Canadians’ perceptions of their training needs and how technological change and climate change threatened their jobs and occupations. The results of the two surveys are similar and may surprise Canada’s politicians. Here are some of them.

The first question was about the impact of technological change and climate change on employment.

We asked the following question:

According to experts, technological changes such as automation, artificial intelligence, online shopping and the sharing economy . . . could have significant impacts on the job market.

We asked participants to what extent these changes threatened their job.

Twenty per cent of employed persons think these changes threaten their jobs. That represents four million Canadians. More young people between the ages of 18 and 34 believe that their jobs are threatened, and people from British Columbia worry the most about their jobs.

We then asked the respondents how these changes might affect their work tasks and need for training.

Thirty-seven per cent of employed respondents think that their work tasks will be affected and that they will require training. That amounts to eight million Canadians. Again, more young people, 42%, responded in the affirmative. These results are consistent with the 2019 survey.

We then asked all Canadians about their perception of their skills deficit and their specific training needs. We asked them to say which of the following statements best described their situation.

(1) I have all the training I need.

(2) I would be interested in taking training.

(3) I would be interested in taking training, but I do not have time for it.

(4) I would be interested in taking training, but I cannot afford it.

(5) I do not want training.

(6) I don’t know.

The answer may surprise sceptics. Nearly half of Canadians, 49%, are interested in training. That’s roughly 16 million Canadians. Among those in full-time employment, more than three out of five people want to take training. Young people aged 18 to 34 are even more interested in training, at 66%, than Canadians aged 55 and over, who account for three quarters of those who are not interested in training. Interest in training is high in the Prairies, where 51% of respondents say they are interested in it.

We also asked Canadians about their preferred training content. We asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statements: I should take training to improve

1) my reading ability;

2) my math skills;

3) my computer skills, such as using Internet tools;

(4) my occupational skills.

The training courses that arouse the most interest are computer-related, where 45% of Canadians expressed interest, and professional skills where 40% of Canadians expressed interest. This means that about 15 million Canadians want to improve their computer skills and 13 million want to improve their occupational skills.

These data indicate that the need for skills development is immense and that Canadians are aware of the challenges and want to learn. Canada must capitalize on the willingness of Canadians to train and on the willingness of labour market players to commit to skills development.

The EI program is already being used to strengthen workers’ skills. It provides income support and covers workforce adjustment training expenses. However, the employers and workers who fund EI and are its only contributors want EI to do more and do better in light of the major challenges ahead.

In the context of EI Part II, where over $2.5 billion is invested annually through labour agreements, EI is actually the cornerstone of funding for workforce training in Canada. It is becoming increasingly clear that skills development is a strategic lever for Canada’s economic future. That is the issue that this bill, which has the support of the main unions and business associations, seeks to address.

Now let’s take a closer look at Bill S-244.

Clause 1 of the bill creates an employment insurance council under the Department of Employment and Social Development Act.

Clause 2 amends that same act to set out, in a single section, the existing powers, duties and functions of the EI Commission, which are currently described here and there in various sections of the act. The wording of this provision is taken from the department’s website.

I’ll briefly summarize the details of the commission’s powers, duties and functions. They are as follows:

(a) monitoring and assessing the assistance provided under the Employment Insurance Act and reporting annually on its assessment to the Minister, who must table it in Parliament;

(b) reviewing and approving policies related to the administration of employment benefits or support measures under the Employment Insurance Act;

(c) making regulations under this Act and the Employment Insurance Act, subject to the approval of the Governor in Council;

(d) engaging the services of an actuary, as described in subsection 28(4) of this Act, to perform actuarial forecasts and estimates under section 66.‍3 of the Employment Insurance Act;

(e) setting the employment insurance premium rate for each year, in accordance with section 66 of the Employment Insurance Act; and

(f) working in concert with the government of each province in designing and implementing benefits and measures related to employment insurance.

The commission could benefit from the support of an advisory council to carry out its functions, including monitoring, assessment, review and approval of policies and regulations, and liaison with the provinces. This is very important.

Clause 4 constitutes the body of this bill. It amends the Department of Employment and Social Development Act by creating Part 3.1 in the act, concerning the employment insurance council. This proposed subsection reads as follows:

. . . the Employment Insurance Council, is established to provide advice and make recommendations to the Commission, on its own initiative or at the Commission’s request, on any matter related to the powers, duties and functions of the Commission, subject to any limits that the Commission may establish . . . .

Indeed, clause 3 of the bill provides that the commission may limit the matters on which the council may give advice. In this way, the advisory council has the power of initiative within the remit of the commission. In other words, the bill strikes a balance between ministerial power and power of the labour market partners sitting on the council.

As for the composition of the council, the bill sets a minimum of 12 members while ensuring equal representation between labour and management organizations. It is co-chaired by commissioners representing the business community and labour organizations. The co-chairs may invite representatives of the provinces and territories designated by the Forum of Labour Market Ministers as well as Indigenous representatives to better fulfill their mandate.

This bill will undoubtedly improve the employment insurance program.

This measure will make it possible to get reliable information and take into account the realities that businesses and workers face. That will make it easier to implement new skill development strategies.

In Canada, we practise social dialogue at the provincial and sectoral levels around health, security and training, but it is woefully inadequate when it comes to employment insurance. In Quebec, for example, the Commission des partenaires du marché du travail, which I discussed at length at second reading, is involved in managing those public funds, including money for training, which is mainly funded by employment insurance. Canadian mining and tourism industry committees, largely funded by employment insurance, are also successful examples of social dialogue across Canada.

By passing Bill S-244, Canada will honour its prior commitments, including Co88, the Employment Service Convention, as well as its commitment to support the implementation of the sustainable development goals and the global deal. Most importantly, Canada would have one more tool, social dialogue, that may help us deal with major economic trends, such as the aging population, the labour shortage, the climate crisis and AI-related technological challenges. These major trends call for rapid workforce adaptation and the ongoing acquisition of new skills.

I’m not the only one who’s convinced that we need a permanent round table for social dialogue about these issues so business and labour can develop a common vision.

Indeed, the Second Job Skills Round Table, initiated by my office in 2019 with the participation of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Labour Congress and Canada College, came into being precisely because many economic players wanted to be able to develop a common vision of skills development and lifelong learning, while respecting federal and provincial jurisdictions. It was thanks to this round table that Bill S-244 came into being.

The round table held several meetings. The first was in January 2020. Others were held virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic and were organized by the commissioners representing employers and employees. The last meeting, which I organized with the commissioners and in which Senator Cardozo and Senator Yussuff participated, was held on February 12.

The February 12 round table was held in the Senate. The following organizations took part in the discussion, which aimed to provide an update on Bill S-244. For the business community, participants included the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Conseil du patronat du Québec, the Business Council of Canada, the Canadian Home Builders’ Association and Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. For the labour associations, there was the Canadian Labour Congress, Unifor, Canada’s Building Trades Unions and Confédération des syndicats nationaux. Tourism HR Canada and the Mining Industry Human Resources Council have also participated in this event.

Senators Hassan Yussuff, Andrew Cardozo and Krista Ross also participated in the round table.

Participants representing the labour market, businesses and workers reaffirmed the need to create a permanent round table as part of the Canada Employment Insurance Commission, or CEIC, and they expressed a desire for the Senate to quickly pass this bill so that it can be sent to the other place.

In closing, I would like to thank everyone who contributed to this bill. In addition to those mentioned earlier, I would particularly like to thank the Honourable Perrin Beatty, Diana Palmerin-Velasco and Leah Nord of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce; Bea Bruske of the Canadian Labour Congress, as well as its former chairman Senator Hassan Yussuff and Chris Roberts. I would also like to thank Jasmin Guénette of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and Erin Harrison of Unifor.

I thank my team who worked on this project from near and far: Ermioni Tomaras, Julie Labelle-Morissette, Anne Allard, Jérémie Soucy and Alexandre Mattard-Michaud. Also, I thank long-time teammate Michel Cournoyer, economist and former founding director of the Commission des partenaires du marché du travail au Québec. Last but not least, a special thank you to the two EI commissioners, Pierre Laliberté for the labour organizations and Nancy Healey for the employer organizations wishing to pursue the social dialogue undertaken.

In closing, I hope I have convinced you that the practice of social dialogue is a powerful tool for better understanding the needs of the labour market and for implementing the best possible solutions in a context where stakeholder buy-in is essential to achieving shared prosperity.

I also hope I have convinced you that the creation of an advisory council to the EI Commission is a step in the right direction.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

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