I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number 20 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.
Pursuant to orders of reference of April 11 and May 26, 2020, the committee is resuming its study of the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today's meeting is taking place by video conference, and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. The webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee. Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, please click on the microphone icon to activate your mike. I would like to remind everyone, especially the witnesses, to please use the language channel of the language you are speaking. If you intend to switch between French and English, please be sure to switch the channel before you switch the language you are speaking.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses. We have Doug Pawson, executive director for End Homelessness St. John's, the city of my birth; and Jacques Beaudoin, general secretary for Réseau québécois des OSBL d'habitation.
Mr. Pawson, please proceed with your opening remarks.
Good afternoon, everybody.
I'd like to start by thanking the committee, and you, Mr. Chair, for inviting me to appear today.
I appreciate your time and commitment to better understanding the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our most vulnerable neighbours, specifically those who are experiencing homelessness.
At End Homelessness St. John's, we understand the dynamic interplay between the forces that create homelessness and housing instability for our most vulnerable neighbours. We recognize and accept that homelessness itself is not the issue; it's the culmination of social system breakdowns. These breakdowns, whether they be related to health, the economy, intergenerational poverty, colonization, exploitation, gender-based violence, trauma or something else, all serve as pathways into homelessness.
We also recognize that the opposite of homelessness is not just having a roof over one's head. It's having housing stability and having the resources, the skills and the confidence to maintain one's housing. More importantly, we believe that by working together and collaboratively across all levels of government, it is possible to end homelessness here in St. John's and across the country.
While many people across our community and indeed across the country continue to suffer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing we've borne witness to is the incredible ways in which governments across all levels have come together to support our most vulnerable neighbours. Watching institutions become more agile and collaborative gives me great hope that the pathway to housing and housing stability for those experiencing homelessness can happen.
The Government of Canada's emergency response, specifically the work within Employment and Social Development Canada, and Reaching Home, under the leadership of , and their teams should be applauded. The emergency funding that's been allocated under Reaching Home has allowed communities like ours in St. John's to not only respond to the pandemic but also begin thinking about how we can leverage investments to enact critical systems change that will lead to more communities across Canada reducing homelessness.
During the pandemic it has become clear that the investments required to end homelessness in our community, as in many others around Canada, are needed now more than ever. The pandemic has highlighted the significant gaps that exist for our vulnerable neighbours who live on the margins. In St. John's we've seen an increase in demand for emergency shelter, an increase in demand for mental health services and an increase in demand from women experiencing violence, among a host of other social ills. What has become painfully obvious for those we hear from who work in the homeless-serving sector here is that the gaps to securing safe and affordable housing continue to widen.
Ending homelessness isn't going to be done solely by building houses. For many people who experience homelessness, ending homelessness will require that additional supports be part of any and all housing and homelessness strategies and investments.
The research undertaken across several Canadian communities over the past 10 years has demonstrated to us that those experiencing homelessness are at increased risk of morbidity and mortality; acute illness, including traumatic brain injury and vascular disease; chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer and respiratory illnesses; severe mental illness and substance abuse issues; and infectious diseases, including hepatitis C, HIV and tuberculosis.
Taken together, what the research and the voices of those working on the front lines every day across Canada show is that people experiencing homelessness often have disabilities and medical conditions that place them at greater risk of COVID-19. What we have learned during the pandemic is the importance of finding ways to work across government departments that by their very design and nature operate in isolation. Finding new solutions to long-standing social and health inequities will require a commitment from all levels of government to innovation and collaboration within and between all levels of government.
This is why for us in St. John's and across Newfoundland and Labrador, we see an opportunity to lead, with our province, interdepartmental conversations and collaborations among our income assistance programs, justice department, health and regional health authorities and our provincial housing corporation. This is all with the intention to redesign our housing and homeless-serving systems to bring about real change for our most vulnerable neighbours.
The same approach can certainly be taken with the leadership and commitment from the federal government. Investing in the federal housing advocate and the national housing council is one way to demonstrate this commitment, as is investing in better understanding the unique needs associated with urban and rural indigenous housing and homelessness across the country.
Even with those much-needed investments that have come through as part of the Government of Canada's emergency response, there's still a lot of work in front of us if we're going to plan for a second surge in the fall and beyond. We know that the system costs of homelessness cut across multiple departments, as do the cost savings when investments are aligned.
With the support and leadership of the federal government, we see an opportunity for a concerted effort to ensure that community entities, like ours at End Homelessness St. John's, are working very collaboratively with our provincial governments and the federal government to maximize the investments and align the funding across and between the national housing strategy and Reaching Home.
I'd like to see all the departments within the federal government that have a housing, homelessness and health mandate, in fact, all departments with a social policy mandate, work collaboratively to ensure investments are aligned and contribute to housing stability and ending homelessness.
Of course, any continued investments into housing and homelessness prevention should be part of a post-pandemic relief package. The reasons for this are many, but three important ones would be that any investments in housing will accelerate an economic recovery through much-needed job creation; aligning investments will save money as we find ways to [Technical difficulty—Editor] homelessness and into housing; and more importantly, will save lives at the community level.
I'd like to thank you again for inviting me to appear today. I look forward to our discussion.
I thank all the members of the committee for having invited us today.
The events of the past few months, you will agree, have certainly been a tremendous challenge for all Canadians. This was particularly the case for the sector we represent, the non-profit housing sector organizations, or NPOs, in Quebec. There are 1,250 organizations in Quebec that own and administer 2,600 housing projects, or nearly 55,000 affordable housing units, all of which are intended for a variety of vulnerable clienteles.
Of these households, nearly half are composed of seniors, who are known to be among those most at risk in the current pandemic. The others are families, including one or two-parent families, women and children victims of violence, troubled youth, people at risk of homelessness, and others living with physical or mental health problems.
The variety of clienteles found in our housing NPOs represents just about the entire spectrum of the most vulnerable people in Quebec society, as is also the case in non-profit housing in other provinces. COVID-19 has added an additional layer of hardship for these people.
Having said that, we are pleased, if I may use that term, that less than 5% of non-profit housing projects in Quebec have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks. Among those, there have been no significant outbreaks. I would like to believe that having access to affordable, safe and well-maintained housing, where there is community support and where people take care of each other, has contributed to the overall positive results in terms of protecting individuals.
Almost a year ago to the day, on June 20, the Parliament of Canada took a historic step by recognizing housing as a fundamental human right. The importance of everyone having a roof over their heads and a place to live in safety has never been more evident than in the context of the current pandemic. The commitment enshrined in the National Housing Strategy Act to advance the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing must inform the government's response to the pandemic and the recovery plan in the coming weeks or months.
The organizations we represent, their managers and the thousands of volunteers who work for them have spared no effort over the past three months to put in place the protective measures recommended by the various public health authorities, despite the limited means at their disposal. I might mention the control of comings and goings in the buildings, the intensification of sanitation measures, the provision of personal protective equipment, as well as the preparation and delivery of meals to seniors in seniors' residences, directly to their rental units. All of this has had a major impact on the operating expenses of our member organizations.
A survey we conducted among them in the last few days allowed us to estimate the additional costs caused by the pandemic in all housing NPOs in Quebec over the last three months at approximately $30 million. These are mainly costs associated with the additional human and material resources that had to be mobilized. This is in addition to the loss of certain revenues. Although this loss was less significant than could have been expected, it still adds pressure on the budgetary balance of our organizations. There was a loss of rental income, mainly because of the difficulty in renting units that became vacant that we could not show potential tenants. These revenue losses totalled about $10 million.
It should be noted that the vast majority of our organizations do not receive any financial support for their operations. Any increase in expenses must necessarily be offset by an increase in their own-source revenues. Since these revenues come from rents, this poses a challenge for maintaining the affordability of our housing units. The assistance programs that have been put in place, such as the emergency wage subsidy, have been designed primarily to help businesses that have suffered significant revenue losses, not necessarily those that, rather than suffering a significant loss of revenue, have experienced a significant increase in expenses. As a result, our members have not been able to benefit from this particular program. A number of them did, however, benefit from the Canadian emergency business account. They have taken advantage of it and we are very pleased about that. It's been very helpful to them.
We hope that in the coming days, the $350-million emergency community support fund announced for community organizations will support our non-profit housing organizations, which greatly need that support.
In my presentation, I argued that the right to housing should inform the government's response to the pandemic. In our view, this should translate into a revitalization and acceleration of the National Housing Strategy. We need a more ambitious and stronger strategy. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has set the goal of ensuring that by 2030, all Canadians will have affordable housing. To achieve this goal, the National Housing Strategy needs to provide better delivery and even greater program flexibility.
Given the situation we are experiencing now and will experience in the coming weeks due to the health crisis, we invite the government to consider the possibility of creating an emergency fund to support the acquisition by non-profit organizations, and eventually, by municipalities, of affordable housing that may become available on the private market. A slowdown, or even a collapse, in the real estate market is expected, announced or projected. In this context, some owners will want to dispose of their assets.
There is currently affordable housing in the private market that we wish to retain. We do not want the situation to become like the one we experienced in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, a kind of "financialization" of the housing market. This led to a massive loss of affordable housing. Between 2011 and 2016, Canada lost 322,000 affordable housing units for households earning less than $30,000 a year. The current programs of the National Housing Strategy, as valid as they are, do not provide the flexibility needed to encourage such acquisitions. Such acquisitions would preserve the affordable housing stock and ensure its sustainability by removing it from the speculative market.
In conclusion, I would like to convey a message from all representatives of the Quebec social and community housing sector. They fervently hope that the agreement between Ottawa and the province on the transfer of funds provided for in the National Housing Strategy will finally be concluded, and quickly. Quebec is the only province that does not have access to these funds. In our view, these funds are absolutely necessary so that we can continue to meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of Quebec households whose housing needs are imperative.
The pandemic has shown us that when they have the will to do so and the situation requires it, governments are capable of acting quickly and decisively in crisis situations. What we have managed to do collectively, in the context of the health crisis, we should also be able to do in the context of the housing crisis.
Thank you for your attention.
In fact, since the announcement of the National Housing Strategy in 2017, we have applauded this commitment and the will that has guided the development of this strategy. However, in practice, there is still a lot of work to be done to make this a concrete reality on the ground, to tie together the different interventions and programs.
In Quebec, the situation is relatively unique. Indeed, over the past 20 years, especially following the withdrawal of social housing investments by previous federal governments, Quebec has developed infrastructure, an ecosystem and programs that have made it possible to put in place social and community housing.
There has to be an alignment and follow-through so that the will expressed by the federal government is conveyed to the people on the ground and development continues.
I also thank Mr. Pawson and Mr. Beaudoin.
First, I would just like to respond to my government colleague who was wondering if the government has done the right thing in the last two or three years with respect to housing.
I'm going to mention a few facts about the housing situation in Quebec at the moment. Housing needs are compelling: 500,000 households spend more than 30% of their income on housing; 300,000 households spend more than 50% of their income on housing; and 82,000 households spend 80% of their income on housing. These are concrete facts, and they are happening in Quebec right now. The situation is not rosy, especially since some of the money spent on social housing, in particular, is sleeping in Ottawa—this money has not been paid to the provinces.
Mr. Beaudoin, I want to set the record straight. When it comes to housing, language is important, especially when governments around the world are telling people to stay at home.
Could you explain the difference between affordable and social housing?
I'd be happy to talk about it, Mr. Trudel.
I'm not saying that Quebec is better than the other provinces, because each province has its own policies, constraints, directions and ways of doing things.
By necessity, we have developed a model over the last 20 years or so that is largely based on community initiative. The projects that are designed and receive support from authorities and government funding come from the communities. This is what has allowed us to set up dozens and dozens of seniors' residences in rural areas, in small communities.
In a hundred or so municipalities in Quebec, without these housing NPOs to provide housing with services for seniors, the latter would have to leave their communities and move to large centres when they retire or at the end of their lives, because there would be no housing with services for seniors.
In each of these communities, people of good will came together, and government support, private sector funding and shared initiatives ensured that these projects were successfully developed.
As you mentioned, this doesn't mean that everything is fine and everything is settled. There are still huge problems related to housing accessibility, access to a roof over one's head. There is still a lot to be done. We need to have funding available under the National Housing Strategy. An agreement must be signed as soon as possible.
However, the foundation has been laid. There are programs and a way of doing things that will allow us to use this money for further development.
I also want to thank our witnesses for their testimony.
To effectively deliver stable support and assistance to those experiencing chronic homelessness, it is necessary that we understand the needs and the impact that this health crisis, COVID-19, is having on those needs. Your insight today is very valuable and also very much appreciated.
My first question is for Doug Pawson. In reviewing the work that End Homelessness St. John's does, I noted that housing first was a guiding principle. I am sure you know that the housing first approach was implemented into the federal homelessness partnering strategy in 2014, and changes to the federal homelessness partnering strategy in 2018 removed the 65% housing first investment target, allowing funds to be diverted elsewhere.
In my view, moving beyond short-term emergency and crisis-based responses is necessary to effectively reduce chronic homelessness in Canada. I'm wondering if you can share with the committee why your organization uses housing first as a guiding principle and any insight on the successes it has had.
For us, housing first is a philosophy that, first and foremost, recognizes that in order to participate fully in social and economic life, you need to have a home, and it needs to be safe and secure.
In terms of your question or your comments related to the transition between HPS and Reaching Home, and the connotation for housing first to be taken out of it, I think the intention of that, which is based on consultations that I've participated in and heard from other community entities around the country, is that it gave communities greater flexibility to make investments that were more strategic for their community.
I'll give you an example. Here, in St. John's, we see a gap existing. Housing first initiatives are often centred around rapid rehousing programs and intensive case management programs. These are often the jurisdiction of provincial governments. In our case, the federal government's investment through Reaching Home into St. John's is simply not sufficient to invest those funds strategically across the community and actually make an impact on the homeless serving sector. We abide by the housing first philosophy, and we want individuals to have agency in their entry and exit out of homelessness, but we also recognize that we need to work very closely with our provincial government where these types of health interventions need to be further embedded into housing and homelessness strategies.
That's a bit of a challenge that we face, unique to us, but I don't think that's unique across the country, where provincial governments operate their housing and homelessness strategies in isolation from their community entities.
In the context of the health crisis, it's really a matter of ensuring access to a roof and safe places for everyone to comply with recommended health measures.
Over the past few weeks, we have had some interesting experiences in collaboration with teams from the health and social services sector, as well as municipalities. In Montreal, for example, fantastic work has been done to ensure that as few people as possible were forced to live on the street and that people had a place where they could get follow-up and guidance. As soon as someone had symptoms of COVID-19, they were taken care of. It is therefore necessary to establish a link between community support, access to housing and workers who can ensure follow-up with people in difficulty.
Homelessness is always linked to a housing problem, but it is not just about that. It is always accompanied by a range of problems. So community support and access to resources are fundamental if people are to make a successful transition to housing in the future.
We have had some interesting experiences, in a crisis context where we had to act quickly to help people. That gives us an idea of what we could do in the future to help people who may find themselves experiencing homelessness.
I want to apologize in advance. The audio and video of what's happening around me aren't really good right now, but I think if you can hear me I'm going to move forward.
I want to thank our presenters for doing a great job in their presentations. I have some questions.
As Mr. Beaudoin rightly pointed out in his opening remarks, our federal government entrenched our commitment to undertaking a human rights-based approach to housing policy in Canadian law, so the National Housing Strategy Act was introduced and passed in the last Parliament.
I'll start with you, Mr. Pawson, and then I'll go to Mr. Beaudoin. In your view, how has the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for a human rights-based federal housing strategy?
Good afternoon, everyone.
Mr. Chairman and honourable committee members, I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you today.
In response to COVID-19, the C.D. Howe Institute has put together four crisis working groups to rapidly distill expert policy advice, and it has published a high volume of articles on a daily basis to address issues related to this crisis. One of these groups is the household income and credit support group, which has dealt with the immediate labour market and income impacts of the crisis and the transition to go back to work and reopen the economy.
Today I'd like to summarize an overall evaluation of the Canada emergency response benefit program, or CERB, highlight its current issues and provide some policy options to address them, based on our work and the output of our working group.
The Canada emergency response benefit was an early and critical element in the federal government's response to the crisis. In support of a stay-at-home strategy to flatten the curve, the CERB was particularly necessary to ensure that households stay afloat while the restrictions are in place. The introduction of the program was also in part an attempt to fill coverage gaps in employment insurance, the EI program. For example, workers in precarious employment, such as part-timers, are less likely to meet the minimum required insurable hours to qualify for EI. Labour market statistics show that the crisis has affected hourly-paid low-wage workers the most, highlighting the importance of this program.
With attention increasingly turning to reopening the economy, the CERB, however, is becoming a problem. The program has been very popular. There were more than 8.4 million unique applications as of June 4, which was about 44% of the employed labour force in Canada in February 2020. Although the heavy use of the CERB could be related, to some extent, to the slow rollout of the Canada emergency wage subsidy program and lack of a strong message and clarification on CERB eligibility in the beginning to prevent program misuse, the sheer number of applicants can be indicative of problems with the CERB itself that need to be addressed.
First, its eligibility criteria are very broad, and, unlike the EI program, there is no requirement to remain available to work and be actively looking for a job. Second, the amount of the benefit is relatively generous for low-income earners, and it is not linked to pre-pandemic income. Third, the clawback rate is too harsh with this program, since the benefit goes to zero for the first dollar of income earned above $1,000. All these factors create significant disincentives to return to work, particularly among low-income earners, slowing the recovery.
What is the best way forward?
With reopening strategies differing across the country's industries, the government needs to shift away from a national one-size-fits-all income support plan and create better-tailored income supports.
In general, two options are available for providing continued income support to CERB recipients who, after exhausting their maximum eligibility period, may remain unemployed without access to EI benefits.
The first option is to extend the CERB but introduce new phase-out modifications based on some features of the EI program that can help tackle work incentive issues and support transition to work. The EI features to consider for modifying the CERB are the following: the requirement to remain available to work and be actively looking for a job; the working-while-on-claim provision of the EI program through setting appropriate income-tested clawbacks, learned from international experiences; the linkage between the amount of benefit and pre-pandemic income; and the EI parental sharing benefit, to allow parents to share child care responsibilities when no child care option is available.
To provide income support, there is a second option, other than reforming the CERB. It's to expand the EI program by reforming eligibility criteria to take on the role of the CERB.
The decision on which program to reform largely rests on the length of the crisis and recovery period, and the number of CERB recipients in need of post-CERB financial support. Therefore, more and better data is needed to make informed decisions about an income support transition model.
When planning out the next phase in the short term, the government should aim to preserve fairness among those who would continue to receive the CERB and others who would continue to work without receiving the benefit. One proposal for balancing concerns of work incentives and fairness would be to combine a modified CERB with a temporary working bonus program that offers an earned income tax credit for low-wage workers.
To address the coverage gap for those who are not able to return to work, the working bonus and the modified CERB can be complemented by targeted supplemental measures, such as a refundable child care tax credit for parents returning to work, and a boost to the Canada child benefit.
Longer-term policy options to support Canadians during the pandemic crisis and recovery should also include investments in retraining, re-skilling, and upskilling to address long-term displacements and structural unemployment, because the labour market is changing.
The above-mentioned policies can provide policy-makers with options to support Canadians during the crisis while easing the transition to go back to work. These were my main points to highlight. Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to your questions.
First, I would like to thank you for inviting me to join committee members to discuss the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I come to this question from a variety of perspectives. I spent eight years on Parliament Hill as a political staffer, including five in the office of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. I spent 11 years at Queen's Park as an MPP, seven in cabinet, including four years as Ontario's Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities.
I retired from politics to academia. I am currently the director of the Centre for Public Ethics at Martin Luther University College, the founding institution of Wilfrid Laurier University. I also serve as the practitioner-in-residence in Laurier's political science department, and I teach in the University of Waterloo's master of public service program.
From all these different perspectives, let me briefly make four observations related to the question before you.
The first involves jobs. As Canada begins to emerge from COVID-19, there is little question that we will face a jobs crisis of unprecedented magnitude. Many jobs lost during the pandemic are simply going to disappear. Youth have been particularly hard hit. The most recent job numbers out of Statistics Canada have been bleak for both non-student and student youth. [Technical difficulty—Editor] parents' basements on a temporary basis to ride out the pandemic are now asking themselves whether this is a permanent situation. So what do we do? Creating the right economic environment is crucial, but we also need to make sure that job seekers have the necessary skills.
During the 2008 recession, I was the minister who brought in Ontario's second career program, which still exists. It was fairly successful in supporting certain categories of laid-off workers in upgrading their skills. We're going to have to go much further than second career and adopt an “all hands on deck” approach, where all of our post-secondary institutions work much more closely with potential employers to ensure their programs correspond to the needs of a changing economy. Continuous intake, micro-credentialing, year-round learning and mandatory experiential learning should all be part of the post-pandemic dialogue.
We can do it. COVID-19 has taught us that, if pushed, our somewhat sluggish post-secondary and training sector can become nimble and creative in altering the way we do business. Just ask all those who had to quickly transform their in-class courses into distance learning due to COVID-19. This doesn't mean the end of literature and theology programs, but there's plenty of room to teach subjects like these in a way that builds needed competencies and gives students practical hands-on experience.
Although the Government of Canada has a key role to play in this transformation, it needs to recognize the leadership of the provinces and territories in this area, which is my second point: Respect jurisdictions. Many Canadians, particularly those in Ontario, often look to Ottawa for leadership in a time of crisis, even in areas that fall under provincial or territorial jurisdiction, and there's a temptation within the federal government to respond by encroaching upon that jurisdiction.
As a former provincial minister, my plea is for the federal government to recognize the leadership of our provinces and territories in areas like post-secondary education and training. Support them, but don't try to create capacity and programming federally that is duplicative. Provinces and territories know their needs. They know their educational institutions and training providers. Yes, by all means, act as a convenor and reshape EI programming, federal support for students and federal tax policies, but do it in direct partnership with our provinces and territories. There is remarkable energy out there, and governments at all levels need to harness it, which leads to my third point.
As the director of a centre at a faith-based institution concerned with public ethics, my advice is not to forget Canada's faith communities as you develop and implement policies and look for partners. Religious voices have something to offer our current public debate. Collectively and individually, they are anxious to see our world transformed into one that focuses on those on the margins and challenges the consumerism and indifference of our society. Canada's faith communities have a long history of involvement in progressive issues and have been active during the current crisis in supporting the lonely, the poor and the vulnerable. They have also turned their attention to what happens next.
I think of the work of Joe Gunn, the executive director of “Centre Oblat – A Voice For Justice” at Ottawa's Saint Paul University, and Sister Sue Wilson, director of the Office for Systemic Justice for the Federation of Sisters of St. Joseph in London, Ontario. Their thoughtful commentary on the need for an ethical framework for the post-COVID-19 world is but one example of many voices of faith calling for real change when it comes to issues like income inequality, the environment and indigenous reconciliation, voices that include 43 Lutheran and Anglican bishops who have collectively voiced their support for a guaranteed annual income. Engage and involve these voices.
I am going to change my focus a bit for my final point and address the role of committees like yours.
I was the government house leader during Ontario's last minority government. I recognize the important role committees play in listening to Canadians, advising Parliament, and reviewing legislation and programs. I also understand the power of committees to send for persons, papers and records, virtually unchecked in a minority government situation. Yes, this power can be used to hold the government to account. Unfortunately, it can also be used to go on wild fishing trips and exploit gotcha moments by demanding an endless supply of documents and witnesses from government simply in an effort to make them look bad.
I have witnessed committees paralyze governments as scores of public servants drop everything to hastily respond to a complicated committee request dreamt up on a whim by opposition research, neglecting the needs of citizens and being forced to remove flexibility and nimbleness from programs in order to escape committee scrutiny.
Yes, hold the government to account, but recognize that decisions over the last few months were made quickly in uncharted waters. Lots of mistakes were undoubtedly made by people working in good faith. Resist the temptation to make them the focus of your work.
This is not partisan advice. I would offer the same advice to the Liberals if they were in opposition.
That brings to a close my presentation today, with four admittedly different points: focus on education and training, respect jurisdictions, engage faith communities, and resist the temptation to use the power of committees in a minority parliament to undermine the work of government.
I look forward to any questions.
Yes, most of the farmers I represent use foreign labour, but many of them also rely on a stable base of seasonal labour from Abbotsford, Mission and the surrounding areas close to the fields.
I'm going to switch direction to both of the witnesses, and I'll have Mr. Malloy respond to this one, please.
Something that neither of you covered but is very timely today relates to infrastructure spending, the delays we're seeing and the impact this might have on COVID-19. Many of the projects funded under this government actually went out under the 2014 new building Canada fund, which were the final dollars remaining from the Conservative program before the 2015 election.
The current investing in Canada plan was announced under the Liberals in 2016. My province of B.C. was one of the first to sign an integrated bilateral agreement with the federal government, and the deadline for community infrastructure projects in Mission was January 23, 2019. That was a year and a half ago, but we have yet to see any announcements. The website states that the final decisions are expected in spring 2020, a timeline they continuously bump back, so unless everything is announced tomorrow, we're into summer 2020. I'm not sure if this is just straight incompetence, but many municipalities are getting very frustrated with this.
In my community especially, we're waiting on a pump station at Miami River, the indoor pool at Kent, and the ice rink in Lillooet, in particular.
What assurance is there for Canadians that the COVID-19 infrastructure program stream under , which the Liberal government has been foreshadowing, will be able to deliver projects in a timely manner?
In moments like this, I'm glad I retired from politics.
I can't speak to the specifics of what's happening federally, but certainly I can talk about the importance of infrastructure. I hope we see those partnerships, and that the partnerships take into account the views of municipalities and provinces.
The other thing is making sure we have people who can undertake the work. That goes back to my remarks. When I was speaking about post-secondary education, it wasn't simply the university or college sector. I also think about apprenticeships and their importance in making sure we have individuals who go into the trades. We have young people who, right now, are feeling a lot of pain and saying, “What is the future for me?” Certainly the trades are real opportunities.
I apologize; obviously I can't comment on the specifics of what's happening with the federal government, but infrastructure is obviously going to be a huge injection into the economy in two ways: in immediate jobs and in creating that framework. I said, all hands on deck. If we have infrastructure projects, I'm hoping we're also tying in educators, trainers and the unemployed, to make sure that we can take advantage of local labour and that people want to get involved.
I can only comment as an observer, and a former politician, too, who sat around the table. I was never minister of health.
Obviously, I think this has given us an opportunity to look at a lot of systems, including the long-term care system. There's been a big rethink. Long-term care was something that every government has grappled with. I don't know if it's necessarily a partisan issue, but I don't think any government has done particularly well in ensuring that you have both community supports, enabling seniors to live within their communities with supports so they can age at home, and a good and effective long-term care system.
I think there's been a lot of exposure of some of the problems, including with inspections and the ability to find out what's been going on. Oftentimes, seniors don't have a voice and their families can become frustrated. As an MPP I remember meeting with families and then following up with the homes and the ministry, but you often wish that you had come in front of it.
Obviously, it's a concern, but, again, I am only a keen and concerned observer as to what's happening.
I'm going to go back a bit to what I said. I hope for two things. First of all, I hope that we have a real rethink in our society about essential and precarious workers and issues like sick leave, and even issues around benefits, and obviously with issues around pay. I'm in front of a federal committee and the temptation is to say, “You have to get to the front of the parade”, but that is really a provincial matter.
Obviously, you have a role in voicing your concern, but ultimately the provinces are in charge of this piece of the puzzle as far as provincial workers are concerned. I realize there is a federal piece. I do hope that Ontarians, the opposition in Ontario, and the provinces more generally, will be part of this rethink moving forward.
Where the federal government can play a very valuable role is as a convenor and as a source of support. As I said in my remarks, on everything from EI to tax, those sorts of things, I look to the folks at Queen's Park. I'm hoping that we're looking forward on this. There were mistakes made, but how can we rethink this? How can we rethink the role of precarious workers, because we've seen what an amazing job they do, such as the personal support workers who are being paid a pittance? I was happy to be part of a government that increased their wages. It was one of the first wage increases, but they're being paid a pittance. How do we rethink this? I hope this committee and the federal government encourages it and plays a convening role, but, ultimately, we have to look to Queen's Park and other provincial capitals.
I also thank our two witnesses.
Ms. Mahboubi, thank you for sharing your thoughts on the emergency benefits that have been put in place by the government, and the transition periods. That's what my question is about.
As you know, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit has just been extended for eight weeks. This seemed to us to be an unavoidable decision, since the crisis is still having a major impact on the economy, and its effects are far from being resolved. The repercussions of this crisis have had a particular, even disproportionate, effect on women and low-income workers.
However, many of us in the Bloc Québécois agree with you that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Emergency Student Benefit should have been adapted in order to become employment incentives and not disincentives. The Bloc Québécois has proposed that we follow the employment insurance model exactly. In this way, a person earning more than $1,000—let us say $1,500—could keep half of it. However, the government is telling us that this is not technically possible and that we do not have the necessary tools.
Shouldn't we make what is politically desirable possible? We should take advantage of the recovery to do so.
Is the measure you were explaining to us going in that direction?
Yes, thank goodness that in British Columbia we have a B.C. government that's more than ready and willing, and if we can have substantive investment from the federal government in creating a national child care initiative, we'd be more than interested in complying, because that is what we need to support the economy. By the way, the chambers of commerce have been calling for this for years and years now.
I'm going to now turn to Mr. Milloy.
Mr. Milloy, I was very intrigued by the fact that you wrote an article in the newspaper entitled, “Basic income makes sense, but that doesn't mean it will happen.” In that article you indicated that, even though it makes sense to proceed with this, the political environment might not be ready for it.
In the province of Ontario, in fact, there was a pilot program, the UBI pilot program, that was brought in, I think, by your government and that is being cancelled prematurely by the Doug Ford administration. Can you comment on that? What are your thoughts on the pilot program that was introduced by your government?
Just for the record, I had retired at that point, but I was certainly supportive and intrigued when then Premier Wynne brought it forward.
Basic income is huge. It has a lot of political challenges to it. That was what I said in my article. I also think that we don't know what that kind.... First of all, we don't even know what basic income is. There are different definitions out there, but even with one of the more modest programs where those under a certain income level are receiving a minimum stipend, how is that going to work? For some people, intuitively you know, it's going to be a good thing. For others, perhaps intuitively, you don't know. Maybe it's not going to be a good thing, which is why I love the fact that Premier Wynne suggested that we have a substantive pilot—I believe that it was about 3,000 families and individuals who were on it—and then have a look at the data to tell the stories of these individuals.
I have to tell you, both from a political point of view and from a pure policy point of view, I think the outcome of that would have been wonderful in terms of a public policy debate. It would have really set the table, so it was just such a shame it was cancelled. It was a shame for the individuals who were part of that pilot program, but also a shame for all of us to not know how it would have worked. Perhaps there would have been kinks in the system that we would have been able to address, but I was quite disappointed with it because I was also minister of community and social services, and it makes sense. I see the challenges, and I think people have a right to say they want to know the facts and figures and how it would work, and as I say, even hear the stories.
You know, when I expressed those opinions, they weren't so much based on the individual actions of the federal government as much as the mood out there, particularly in Ontario, where people were saying that the federal government needed to take leadership in long-term care.
We've seen the discussions that have been going on about having 10 guaranteed sick days, which is a great idea for provincial workers. Again, there's this momentum that's coming up that says that the federal government should be taking over all of this, and I've got to tell you, as a provincial minister, this isn't so much my being a constitutional purist.
I used to deal with the federal government on post-secondary education initiatives, and I can go on and on at length about them. We had the capacity and the knowledge. We knew exactly how to do it. We knew how to do it in a fair way. We knew the players, yet the federal government would often tell us that they were going to come up with their own federal program, which would duplicate a lot of what we'd done and would be slow and cumbersome.
When I look at some of the things like job training, which is primarily a provincial and territorial matter, I tell the federal government to just work with the provinces and let the provinces and territories take the lead.
I see this momentum that's out there, this political momentum that the federal government should sort of be redrawing society, and I say, “Amen, let's do it, let's have that debate”, but it's important to remember that the provinces and territories are in charge of so much of social policy—education, training and those key areas that are such a hot topic these days.
In the longer-term picture, it's always about working with very young people, elementary school and up, on the value of trades and telling them that these are good jobs. Oftentimes, many of these trades are very technological. They are skilled jobs, where you're making good pay, and you're making a difference.
In the shorter term, what we need.... I spoke about the second career program; I was proud of it. There were all sorts of hiccups and warts and all of that, but one of the things we learned is that you really need to have the employer, the training institution, and the laid-off worker really working closely together. In the second career program, we asked people to come forward and say, “Look, I want to be skilled in area X, and here is some evidence that some hiring is going on”. That evidence, as I recall, was a few job ads and things like that in the paper.
One of your colleagues asked about infrastructure programs and major construction programs. We need those employers saying, “We need the following trades. We need them now. The jobs are available.” When people get a better sense of what a trade involves, get a sense that there's a good paying job at the end, and there is a way in.... We have a post-secondary system that is so out of date that sometimes if you show up in October and say, “I want to be a plumber or a carpenter”, you may be told, depending on the institution, “Well, you have to come back in January”, or “You have to wait a year”, even though you came six weeks earlier. That's the sort of thing where it's nimble, everyone's working together, and I, as a laid-off individual can say, “Hey, you know what, here is a direct route. I don't have to bang my head against the wall and wait six months or go here or go there”, and it moves through.
It's a lot of work, but it's going to be a huge payoff. Certainly, the trades is one area where we can see great growth.
Dr. Mahboubi, I want to thank you as well for your presentation.
I take it that you both agree that the CERB has been a very valuable program, that its rollout was quick and effective, in the sense that it reached a lot of people very quickly, but that as it gets extended more and more, we need to make changes to the program, and I took note of the suggestions you made.
I want to explore one issue with you that you didn't raise, the issue of immigration. I read a paper you wrote a couple of years ago saying that in order to compensate for retirements in Canada and the aging population, we would need to bring in approximately 1.4 million immigrants per year.
Can you talk about immigration, because we're about to have the back to this committee? What role do you see immigration playing in helping us get out of the recession or the job crisis that we're now in?
The crisis impacts the border specifically, and the impact on immigration has been huge. Canada is not able to meet its target levels for 2020, and we are not even sure about next year.
At the same time, immigration is necessary to address the challenges related to an aging population, and these are not going to stop. Just because we are facing a crisis, we shouldn't forget about the need to bring more people into the country. At the same time, regarding the need to address labour shortages, either through temporary foreign workers or permanent immigration, yes, we are facing a crisis, and the unemployment rate is high, but not all sectors are affected equally. There are still some sectors facing shortages of seasonal labour, which need to be addressed through immigration.
At the same time, generally crises affect immigrants more than non-immigrants in terms of job losses. Recent immigrants have had challenges in learning the languages because immigration support programs that provide language training to immigrants have stopped working time since the beginning of the crisis.
All of these things need to be considered. We still need immigrants to come to Canada to address the issues related to the aging population and labour shortages, but there will be some unemployed immigrants and some unemployed Canadians. We need to reallocate labour into different sectors and industries to be able to provide them with jobs. Also, there's a shift that has happened in the labour market because, right now, many employees may not want to go back to traditional workplace operations, so working from home may become more attractive in the near future, especially as you can work from any place. You can then support the economy from your home.
All of these matters are really important, not only immigration.
As for international students, they were such as valuable source of revenue for universities. Not only that, but for future immigration, we need international students because studies show that they have better labour market outcomes.
Right now, we've paused everything, so it's really important, as borders are starting to reopen, that we think about what type of immigrants we need. We need to look at our labour market, the issues we are facing, the types of labour and skills we need. Then make a link between the type of immigrants we need and the number. We need to bring more immigrants here. Definitely, this is something that we need.