Good afternoon, and thank you everyone for being here today.
I would like to take the opportunity to welcome our guests to the human resources committee today, as well as the people in the gallery joining us and those watching on television.
Welcome, Hon. Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. Also joining us today is the Hon. MaryAnn Mihychuk, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour. Today we are also joined by the Hon. Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities.
We are also welcoming some senior public servants today. Welcome to Ian Shugart, Deputy Minister of Employment and Social Development, who is joined by Lori Sterling, Deputy Minister of Labour, as well as Louise Levonian, Senior Associate Deputy Minister and chief operating officer for Service Canada. Finally, from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, we have Evan Siddall, president and CEO.
Thank you all for being here today. It is our pleasure to welcome you. I hope today's committee meeting provides everyone with an opportunity to ask in-depth questions of these ministers and to get a sense of their priorities, the scope of their work, and their personal insight into where they will be taking their ministries over the next few years.
Today, this committee has a unique and rare opportunity to speak with three ministers in the same meeting. I would personally like to thank them for finding the time and coordinating their schedules to ensure that we could see them all at the same time. It is a pleasure to be able to access your thoughts directly, and it is going to be important for our work to get as much insight from you as possible.
This committee has a mandate to interact with all three ministries to accomplish its goals, which is why I hope that all three of you will feel free to interact a bit when answering questions. If you see that one topic area touches something you are working on within your ministry, please feel free to chime in and provide details on where your ministries overlap in either programs or responsibilities. At the same time, we have a lot of content to get through today, so I would appreciate it if we could keep the questions and answers as short as possible so that we can give everyone as much time as possible.
I should also mention that if something comes up and you don't have the full time to address a specific point or concern, please feel free to write to the committee afterwards to clarify any points or provide follow-up information. The clerk will ensure that your comments are distributed to the entire committee.
Welcome, everyone. Let's begin. We will have an opening statement from each of the ministries, and then proceed to the questions.
Let's begin the opening statements with Minister Qualtrough.
Minister, please begin.
Mr. Chair and members of the committee, it is my pleasure today to be here with Minister Duclos and Minister Mihychuk, and to address my mandate as Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities. As this is my first opportunity to speak to this committee, allow me to say how much I appreciate the scope and impact of your work and efforts to improve transparency.
I want to thank you for the invitation to discuss my mandate letter, which is somewhat unique amongst my counterparts.
It is an honour for me to occupy the double function of and to be a part of this dynamic team of ministers.
In theory, my mandate consists in promoting the health of Canadians through sports and leisure, ensuring better accessibility to Canadians with disabilities, and increasing opportunities for them.
In practice, this means giving effect to an ambitious and optimistic vision, the vision of a country where every Canadian can succeed. However in order to succeed, we all need the necessary support.
For Canadians with disabilities, often removing barriers has proven to be most beneficial, whether that's an inaccessible office building or a narrow-minded attitude. I have lived with a visual impairment my entire life, and I have always worked hard to achieve my goals. I understand what a difference it makes in a person's life when they recognize on a deep personal level that they have the tools they need to succeed. I want every Canadian to experience that sense of triumph, no matter what their goals may be.
After my athletic career ended, I practised human rights law at both the provincial and federal levels, including as chair of the Minister's Council on Employment and Accessibility in British Columbia. These experiences only fuelled my passion for advocacy in the areas of equality and inclusion. I'm eager to put my personal and professional experience at the service of Canadians.
My main priority is to lead an engagement process on federal accessibility legislation. The first step is to inform the development of legislation that will support all Canadians. Its goal will be to eliminate systemic barriers and deliver equal opportunities for Canadians living with disabilities. To help reach this goal, budget 2016 included $2 million over two years to support the full participation of Canadians with disabilities in the process. This is an enormous undertaking, and it would be the first of its kind in the country.
There is a significant legislative gap in Canada around accessibility and inclusion. While we have very strong anti-discrimination laws, you have to wait until someone is discriminated against in order to help them. What we need to do is create a legislative tool that helps us avoid discrimination and exclusion from the beginning.
This kind of legislation is very exciting. It will be transformational if we do it right. I've already begun reaching out to my provincial and territorial colleagues and stakeholder groups to begin the discussion around the foundation of this act. I intend to ensure that our process is fair, inclusive, and thoughtful.
We have to initiate a real dialogue that will bring about concrete results. In cooperation with my colleague the , I will be consulting the provinces, territories, municipalities, stakeholders in the field, and Canadians of all abilities.
Canada is entering in a new era of access to leadership and cooperation. For instance, on March 11 we marked the anniversary of Canada's ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was adopted 10 years ago.
The defence of the rights of persons with disabilities has been growing continuously, and I am proud to be able to contribute to it in discharging my mandate. With this bill, we have the opportunity of writing a page of our history.
I will also continue to support and promote the initiatives that the Government of Canada already has in place to help people with disabilities participate fully in their communities and workplaces. One very good example of this is an additional $4 million over two years for the enabling accessibility fund community accessibility stream that was proposed in budget 2016. This increase will help fund construction and renovations to improve accessibility and safety for people with disabilities in Canadian communities.
When the offered me my current role as Canada's , he challenged me to take two of my life's true passions and go and change the world. This challenge has continued to resonate with me every day for the past six months. Accepting this role was both humbling and exciting. There is simply nothing like having this kind of chance to contribute to Canada and to Canadians. I'm extremely fortunate to be doing something that is so deeply personal, to work on policy that is both fulfilling and has such a broad impact on Canadians. I also find it extremely exciting that so much of my personal history and experiences can be of use.
Our government is working to improve the lives of Canadians with disabilities. I am committed to highlighting the importance of considering this segment of our population in every decision we make around the cabinet table. I am proud of the work we do to support Canadians with disabilities. A more active and inclusive Canada provides significant benefits to the economy. While much progress has been made, we can and should do so much more.
On behalf of the team here today and those back at the department, thank you very much for the invitation to be with you today. Along with my colleagues, I'm happy to answer any questions you might have.
It's a pleasure to be here once again to discuss my goals as set out in the mandate letter given to me by the and to discuss the main estimates. As members of the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, you provide an extremely important venue to complete our work and to provide value to the parliamentary process.
Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge that we're here on the traditional territory of the Algonquin people.
First, I'd like to tell you about my areas of responsibility. As you know, I'm the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour. Under my purview, the Department of Employment and Social Development manages a large number of important programs for all Canadians across the country. These include support for federally regulated workers, support during these challenging times for people who have unfortunately lost their jobs, and support for education and training to get Canadians back to work.
I will begin by discussing our plans and objectives for the employment insurance program, given that the global drop in commodity prices has resulted in job losses in our country, especially in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador, thereby increasing the number of workers who are seeking employment insurance.
The government believes it's absolutely critical that we have an EI system that can adapt to our changing labour market across the nation to make sure that Canadians get the help they need when they need it. To that end, our recent budget unveiled a series of new national measures. Let me repeat that: national measures, all across the country, for all people from coast to coast to coast.
Currently, many new workers find it difficult to access EI support when they lose their jobs because of higher EI requirements that restrict access for new entrants and re-entrants—who are known as “NERE”—to the labour market. Budget 2016 proposes to eliminate these provisions, these NERE restrictions, which impact so many young and new Canadians, so that they will meet the same requirements as other claimants in their regions. This improvement will mean that roughly 50,000 additional claimants will become eligible for EI benefits.
Effective January 1, 2017, we are also going to reduce the EI waiting period—or the deductible—from two weeks to one week, at the time when those who are unemployed often need it most. This will ease some of the pressures on individuals at the front end of their claim when they become unemployed or leave work temporarily due to health or family pressures.
We are extending and expanding the “working while on claim” project. This helps individuals by allowing them to earn some extra income without losing their benefits so that they always benefit from accepting work.
I am pleased to say that on a national basis we are extending the duration of EI work-sharing agreements from a maximum of 38 weeks to 76 weeks.
We will also be investing $92 million to hire more EI call centre agents to shorten wait times, shorten claim processing, and expand better service to every Canadian.
Finally, we are going to reverse some of the negative changes made in 2012 by the previous Conservative government. These measures pressured unemployed workers to accept work at lower rates of pay while having to commute for longer times, away from their communities and families.
Mr. Chair, let me turn for a few moments to the many unemployed Canadians who need help right now, particularly those who live in parts of the country hardest hit by the plunge in commodity prices.
As you know, we have economic regions that have begun experiencing a sudden, sharp, and sustained increase in unemployment. To cushion the shock, we're introducing some targeted changes such as extending EI regular benefits by five weeks, up to a maximum of 50 weeks. We are also proposing an additional 20 weeks of EI regular benefits for long-tenured workers in these regions to a maximum of 70 weeks.
While providing this temporary help, we are also helping to build a workforce that can shift towards a high-skilled jobs environment and create the workforce we need. We will enhance training employment supports by investing a total of $175 million in 2016-17 in the labour market development agreements with the provinces and territories. We will also create a framework to strengthen the role of union-based apprenticeship training with an investment of $85.4 million over five years.
These investments will ensure that Canadians get the skills to pursue opportunities for a better future.
Canada's youth minister, our Prime Minister, has given me the opportunity in my mandate to improve the future of Canada's young people, through education and job creation. I'm happy to say that our government is already creating more jobs for students. We recently increased the annual budget for the Canada summer jobs program by $113 million a year for each of the next three years, for a total of $339 million, which will double the number of jobs created to nearly 70,000. We are investing another $165 million this year for the youth employment strategy.
As our population ages, our country's prosperity will depend on young Canadians getting the education they need to prepare for jobs of today and tomorrow. To incentivize students to work while they study, we'll introduce a flat-rate student contribution to determine eligibility for loans that will allow students to work without worrying about jeopardizing their grant or loan. The rising costs have made getting a post-secondary education more of a burden to families.
To help change that, we will expand Canada summer grants. Low-income students, middle-income students, and part-time students will see grants increase by 50%. This measure will provide assistance of $1.5 billion over the next five years. After consultations with provinces and territories, we plan to expand eligibility for Canada student grants, so that even more students can receive non-repayable assistance.
We also want to ensure that students leaving post-secondary education will have a bit more flexibility on when they have to pay back those worrisome loans. To this end, we will be easing the rules on Canada student loan repayment by ensuring that no borrower will be required to make any repayment until they are earning at least $25,000 per year.
In my province, and in my hometown of Winnipeg, an effort to support skills and employment training for indigenous peoples is key. The budget proposes a new investment to train Métis, first nation, and Inuit peoples for jobs supporting their communities, including housing construction, water treatment, and local administration. Over the next year, the government will consult with stakeholders, including indigenous organizations and employers, to work towards renewing and expanding the aboriginal skills employment training strategy.
Finally, I'd like to turn to my responsibilities and mandate as Canada's labour minister. Our recently tabled Bill proposes to repeal two mean-spirited, unfair bills passed by the former Conservative government. Bill and Bill forced labour organizations to provide very detailed, wasteful, and unnecessary financial information to the Canada Revenue Agency and made it harder for unions to be certified as collective bargaining agents in the federal jurisdiction.
When it comes to a modern workplace, more and more Canadians are struggling to balance work and their personal and family responsibilities outside of work. This is why we committed to amending the Canada Labour Code to allow federally regulated workers to formally request flexible work arrangements, or flex leave.
Budget 2016 reiterates our commitment to explore ways to ensure that hard-working middle class Canadians are better able to manage their work and personal lives.
With that, Mr. Chair, I conclude my preliminary remarks.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and esteemed members of the committee.
I first want to thank the members of the committee for inviting me and my two colleagues to discuss my mandate as Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, and the main estimates for our department.
I commend all the members of the committee for their work and their cooperation.
I am very grateful to our officials for their hard work and inspiration in their everyday commitment to making our society better.
At Employment and Social Development Canada, improving economic and social security for all Canadians is our top priority. In our efforts to achieve this, I have the good fortune to work alongside the Honourable MaryAnn Mihychuk, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, and the Honourable Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities.
Our department is central to delivering services to Canadians. In fact, along with the Canada Revenue Agency, we are responsible for 95% of government services provided to citizens. A whole host of programs, services and initiatives fall under the authority of Employment and Social Development Canada.
We assist Canadians in literally every stage of their lives, from birth to death. This is a huge responsibility. With the 2016 budget, our government has already begun implementing measures that will improve economic and social security for Canadian families.
I want to tell you about three major initiatives.
First, I want to talk about the Canada Child Benefit.
Children are the essence of our society. Parents need to be able to raise them in the best possible conditions, for the current well-being of their family, but also for the future of our society.
Since taking office in November 2015, our Prime Minister has made it very clear that we need to work to help families. That is why we created the Canada Child Benefit, which was officially introduced in the 2016 budget.
The Canada Child Benefit represents the greatest innovation in social policy that this generation has seen. First, the benefit will be simpler. Families will receive one single payment every month. Second, it will be more transparent, because it will be tax-free. Families will not have to pay back a portion of their benefits in their tax return. Thirdly, it will be more specific, since it will benefit 9 families out of 10, the families that need it most, whereas higher-income families will receive reduced benefits. Fourthly, it will be much more generous, since eligible families' child benefits will increase by nearly $2,300 on average, tax-free, for the 2016-2017 benefit year.
For example, the benefits of a typical family of four with an annual income of $90,000 will increase from $3,145 to a $5,650 tax-free payment from the Canada Child Benefit. That is a $2,500 increase.
More important still, with this new benefit, about 300,000 children will be taken out of poverty in the space of a few months. With the implementation of this measure, the level of child poverty in Canada will be at its lowest in the history of our country.
My mandate also covers seniors' programs, such as the Old Age Security Program, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which brings me to my second point.
Canadians work hard all their lives, and we must enable them to enjoy a comfortable retirement in dignity. This requires new investments, and good ones, targeting seniors.
We plan to increase additional benefits for the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors living alone by nearly $1,000 every year. This measure represents a 10% increase in benefits for the most vulnerable seniors, and will help about 900,000 seniors living alone, Canada-wide.
We also propose to cancel the measure raising the eligibility age for Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement benefits so that it remains at 65, which will mean that 100,000 seniors a year will avoid living in poverty.
Another measure will provide higher benefits for senior couples who have higher living costs and an increased risk of poverty because their health forces them to live separately.
Finally, we are working on ways to establish a new price index for seniors so that Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement benefits reflect the rising costs they face.
Thirdly, I would like to talk about social infrastructure.
Experts worldwide agree that wise, targeted investments in infrastructure are essential to stimulate economic growth and strengthen the middle class.
The 2016 budget has allocated $3.4 billion in investments over two years. These investments will provide all Canadians with economic opportunities and allow them to participate fully in their communities, while fostering economic growth of communities across the country.
Investments in affordable housing, early childhood education and child care, as well as cultural and recreational infrastructure, will improve Canadians' quality of life and strengthen communities, including northern and aboriginal communities, making them better places to live.
The government is currently taking measures that will require immediate investment in social infrastructure over the next two years: firstly, to improve access to affordable housing for over 100,000 individuals and families with low incomes, including seniors; secondly, renovate and modernize existing social and affordable housing, including making homes more energy and water-efficient; thirdly, renovate and build housing in first nations and northern communities; fourthly, renovate and build shelters for women and children who are victims of violence, including aboriginal women and children; fifth, improve services that combat homelessness; sixth, renovate and modernize child care and health care facilities on reserve; and finally, in seventh place, fund over 100 community, cultural and recreational infrastructure projects throughout the country.
It is also my duty to help develop a strategy to re-establish the federal government's role in supporting affordable housing for our citizens throughout the country.
We will undertake nationwide consultations in the coming year to develop a national housing strategy. We will thus ensure that the future investments of our federal governments will have the greatest possible impact.
Moreover, homelessness is a reality for far too many Canadians and a major issue for far too many communities. That is why we plan to invest an additional $112 million over two years in the Homelessness Partnering Strategy. This is the first increase in the budget of that strategy since its creation in 1999.
Additionally, we are providing support for the establishment of a national framework on early learning and child care through a proposed initial investment of $500 million, recognizing the deep connection between child care and the economic security of all Canadian families. This includes an investment of $100 million in indigenous child care and early learning on reserves, and in the north.
Most importantly, because child care needs vary from family to family and because provinces and territories have responded clearly that those needs vary in different ways across our communities, engagement with all partners will play a very important role in shaping the development of the early learning and child care framework.
Lifting Canadians out of poverty is a very important aspect of my mandate because Canadian families need support. Reducing poverty and improving the economic well-being of all Canadians has already started in budget 2016.
I will have the opportunity to lead the development of the first Canadian poverty reduction strategy that will set targets to reduce poverty with clear measures that I will commit to track and report on. I will be most happy to share that progress with members of this committee as we move forward.
To deliver real and positive change, which we promised Canadians, we need to work in close collaboration with stakeholders. This is an extremely important part of our collective mandate. We need to work in close partnerships with provincial, territorial, and municipal governments to ensure that our poverty reduction strategy complements their existing efforts.
Our government has already started renewing our so important relationship with indigenous people. It is critical that their needs and challenges are also addressed in that strategy. These collaborations may take a little time to develop, but we know that it will take us further and, most importantly, in the right direction.
These collaborations are indeed crucial to finding solutions in addressing key social issues that matter to all Canadians.
To better ensure that Canadians get all the help they need and deserve, and when they need it, the Government of Canada is taking action to make the delivery of government services more responsive.
To ensure that Canadians get timely access to the benefits to which they are entitled, budget 2016 proposes to provide $19 million in the next year to enable Service Canada, a critical agency, to meet the increased demands for services in general, and specifically for EI, and to offer better support to Canadians as they search for new employment.
Budget 2016 proposes to further improve access to call centres by increasing the number of call centre agents, which will reduce waiting times and ensure that Canadians can access the information and support they need, when they need it.
I will do everything in my power to increase economic and social security for all Canadians.
Since taking office, Minister Mihychuk, Minister Qualtrough and I have already engaged in discussions with stakeholder groups, with our provincial, territorial and municipal counterparts, and with many Canadians.
I had the opportunity to meet with the provincial and territorial ministers responsible for social services, in Edmonton, in early February. It was the first time in 10 years that the forum of ministers responsible for social services met. We have resumed our constructive collaboration and dialogue.
More recently, I also met with various stakeholders throughout the country to find out about their priorities and listen to them. Together we will find the best possible approach to address the social issues that matter to Canadians. And I have every intention of helping our government raise the bar on openness and transparency.
In closing, may I add that I will work alongside my colleagues and with all of you to reflect the values all Canadians embrace: inclusion, honesty, hard work, and generosity of spirit. Together, we will chart a new course for Canada.
I have a bit of first-hand experience here. If you could see the font of my speaking notes, you would believe me.
For people with visual impairments, the challenge is often that the disability is hidden. It's not obvious sometimes that someone can't see you. It's not obvious sometimes that people can't read the material you're providing them.
So along with some more concrete accessibility measures, such as our recent introduction in the House of a law to eventually ratify and accede to the Marrakesh Treaty, for which I thank all of you for your support, we need to again challenge the assumptions made around people and their abilities.
There are feelings of severe social isolation that come with not being able to visually participate in the world in the same way as others. There is also a lack of comprehension of how people interact with the world.
In sport, for example, which is my other passion, we know it takes a child who is as legally blind as me—that is, someone who has less than 10% corrected vision—seven times longer than a sighted child to get the same benefit from an experience. It's not enough to teach someone how to run. You have to give them seven chances to do the same skill, and this creates some barriers to inclusion.
We know there are 800,000 Canadians who are visually impaired. Referring back to the Marrakesh Treaty, we know that not having access to printed material in alternate formats means there are barriers to education, employment, and to full participation in political and social life.
I can tell you personally that there were some times during the campaign when I couldn't participate in a debate because they handed out questions that were in a small font, or I had to ask for help, which made me feel very vulnerable. It's off-putting when you're nervous in a new situation.
I think it's important to take the opportunity provided by the consultation process to educate ourselves on the various forms of disability and impairment that our fellow Canadians experience, while being a little more open-minded about their potential and the way people contribute to our society. The more access we have, the more we can contribute. I would encourage everyone to be more open-minded.
Thank you to the ministers for spending some time with us today.
As the critic for seniors, they will be the focus of my questions, but I appreciate each of your being here. Just before I get into that, I think it's important that each of us be willing to work with one another and that our comments are respectful of one another. I think you can get a lot done if we're all rowing in the same direction, so to speak.
Regarding EI premiums, Minister Mihychuk, I think it was in your mandate to give a break in those premiums to employers to hire younger workers into permanent positions. I think that's one of your priorities. I agree with that but I don't see it in the budget. I would hope it is something you would consider. It's never too late to change the budget until it passes.
Also, compassionate care is a passion of mine. I think it's very important that we take care of people in the last days of their lives, showing them love, respect, and dignity. The EI compassionate care benefit is one of those ways. Minister Robillard was in a previous government, when it was very restrictive who would qualify for compassionate care. Working with departments we were able to change the very prescriptive criteria. For example, a sister could not take care of a sister, a sibling. We changed that, letting the dying person choose who was going to provide the care. Now it's been expanded even more as far as time is concerned.
When I go around and meet with and consult seniors, I'm hearing that a lot of seniors are being cared for. Somebody is taking care of them, and it's not from EI, but people are doing it out of their own goodwill. However, there's a cost associated with that. They are not able to work and support themselves, or they're working part-time. It's physical, emotional, and hard work. It saves taxpayers money. If they could get a tax benefit in some way, if the government could look at that...I'm hearing that from Canadians.
Minister Duclos, your mandate is a national housing strategy, a poverty reduction strategy, and to improve Service Canada's delivery of services. Just recently, I've heard of people calling at eight o'clock when Service Canada opens. They phone immediately and then within seconds they're getting a recorded message saying that due to the high call load, their phone number.... I was quite shocked too, Rodger.
I think Service Canada will need to look at that because people are being put immediately on a long waiting list to try to get through. These are people who need help.
Minister Duclos, I have a question for you with regard to the extra support for a senior who is alone. I think you mentioned that you planned to provide additional benefits under the guaranteed income supplement for seniors living alone, by nearly $1,000 a year.
A lot of seniors are not living alone and also need the guaranteed income supplement. They may be living with their partner or spouse and have just as much need. Why would we exclude somebody living with a spouse or partner who is a senior in poverty, who needs and qualifies for the guaranteed income supplement?