The latest Conservative proposal for EI reform is an imperfect step in the right direction. The NDP supports the bill, not the government.
Last Tuesday, after speaking to students at Queen’s University, a young woman approached me with a question. She told me her father was a forestry worker who had been laid off after more than 20 years with the same company in Thunder Bay. Her family was devastated by the news and it looked like she would not be able to continue her education. They eventually scraped enough money together for her fall semester, but her further studies are in doubt. Her question to me was: what I could do – what New Democrats could do – to help her dad and others like him?
I’ve heard many such stories, some with tragic ends. People lose hope.
My party began calling for significant Employment Insurance reform well before this year’s budget. In the spring session, we presented a carefully considered motion to reform EI that earned the support of a majority of the House of Commons. It suggested the elimination of the two-week period that forces workers to wait for benefits to kick in, uniform national qualifying hours, allowing self-employed workers to participate, raising the wage replacement rate from 55 to 60 per cent, and making it easier for workers to get training.
The Harper Conservatives refused to make any of these changes. To win the support of Liberals, Mr. Harper offered a blue-ribbon panel on EI which decided nothing and fell apart when Mr. Ignatieff said he was ready for an election.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate has continued to climb. The OECD forecasts that Canada’s unemployment rate will soon hit 10 per cent. The Canadian Payroll Association’s recent survey showed that more than half of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque.
For many, a long, hard winter now beckons. Job losses are expected to continue until next spring. Our party represents many who will suffer most. In forestry, mining and manufacturing communities, hard-working Canadians are asking for our help.
Voters elect New Democrats because they know that we will represent them with conviction. Given the opportunity to make Parliament work, we have always used our votes to secure help for hard-working Canadians when they need it most.
This week, Mr. Harper put a $1-billion proposal on the table to extend benefits for long-tenured workers. Workers who have claimed less than 36 weeks of benefits in the last five years will be eligible for an extension of benefits of between five and 20 weeks.
The Conservatives claim this reform will help 190,000 Canadians. There is some debate about the numbers, but what is clear is that this winter, without extended benefits, tens of thousands of Canadians will slide off EI and onto welfare.
The choice before New Democrats is simple: We can send Canada into an unwanted election and tens of thousands onto welfare, or we can provide assistance to some of those who need it most. We can direct nearly $1 billion to families in desperate need, or waste $300 million on an election.
This new reform falls far short in many ways. It doesn’t cut waiting periods, increase benefits, or create uniform access across the country. We are under no illusions that this bill fixes the major problems in the EI system. We will continue to work for further changes to EI. In fact, we have a dozen proposed laws before the House that would improve other elements of the existing system.
Despite the shortcomings of Mr. Harper’s offer, my party cannot, in good conscience, vote down legislation that is a step in the right direction. How would I be able to look that young woman from Queen’s in the eye? What would our MP Claude Gravelle say to the thousands of laid-off miners in his riding of Nickel Belt? What would our MPs in Thunder Bay, rural B.C., and Southern Ontario say?
Reluctant as we might be to extend the life of the Harper minority, ensuring that this money gets to the people who are in desperate straits is the right thing to do.
But make no mistake about where New Democrats stand: We are supporting this EI proposal, not this government.